We were in the French countryside a few summers ago for a birthday. An important birthday. One of us was flipping a first digit. To celebrate, we wanted the full cliché for dinner: fussy appetizers, deep braises, rustic tarts. As we rounded a particularly sharp curve in the Dordogne—that region in southwest France responsible for duck confit, foie gras, black truffles, and wines to sigh over—we sighted a small restaurant seemingly carved out of the cliff. Checkered curtains framed casement windows. So far, so good.
We ventured inside. The small dining room was glistening wood and chintz. Madame la Matron spotted us from across the room and lurched toward us on rickety hips. She was amiable but curt. Busy, it seemed. She nodded her approval at our making a reservation in person rather than on the phone, jotting us down in her book and spelling our American names without pause. Then she shooed us out, advising us not to be late.
The perfect cliché.
When we returned that evening, Madame was less rustic—and less amiable. Clad in a white linen suit stretched over a black T-shirt with “Yves Saint Laurent” spelled in glitter across her ample bosom, she bore down on the business of dinner, hurriedly pushing the apéritif de la maison on us. When we asked what it was, she launched into a gauntlet of words, none familiar. As former travel correspondents in France for Wine Spectator, we like to think we know our way around wine lingo. But maybe she was singlehandedly reinvigorating a lost dialect.
No matter. We’d heard “magnifique.”
“Oui, oui, oui,” we muttered. In for a penny, in for an apéritif.
Madame rushed as much as she could to the bar, clicking away on her tottering heels across the resonant dining room, then almost immediately reappeared, click-click-clicking as she whisked our cocktails to the table. The drink, whatever it was, was gorgeous. We took a sip. It was flowery, summery, thirst-quenching, served up in a wine glass. And it was cold. Very cold. A wine cocktail of sorts, it was pleasantly herbal, a little sweet from the wine, balanced by a small lemony spike on the finish.
We took another sip. Ah, the clichéd life.
This was costing Madame time. She tapped her order pad.
As our relationship evolved over the course of the evening, our language difficulties thickened. Each time one of us tried to get a sentence out in our admittedly too-textbooky French, she winced. By the time we got to the wine list, we’d become nonverbal in the face of her exasperation. We simply pointed to a name.
Madame jabbed at the list with a red fingernail. “Épuisé, épuisé!”
“The wine is exhausted?” we asked.
She lost all patience and a dumpy English matron stepped out from behind the faux French façade. “We’re all out,” she hollered in her most Fawlty Towers–ish voice. “I’ve sold the last bottle.” Her gentility, it seems, was a veneer.
The Brits. They’re buying up Eleanor of Aquitaine‘s dowry one building at a time.
Her façade laid bare, she no longer seemed to feel any compunction. From that moment on she descended into complete stereotype. She chased off people who walked in without a reservation. She stomped around the dining room swinging a bread basket shaped like a goose from her arm, making it quack “Jingle Bells” by squeezing its bill. There were vulgarities uttered loud enough for the entire restaurant to hear when one couple, of ethnic origin other than her own, requested their table. Suffice it to say, the prospect of a simple evening with a deep braise and a rustic tart was lost. The night’s saving grace was that cocktail.
When Madame la Matron brought our check, we asked what exactly was in the aperitif.
She pursed her lips. “I could tell you didn’t understand,” she said. “You shouldn’t pretend to speak French.”
We simply stared. Her audacity knew no bounds.
“It was an aperitif of white wine, bitter lemon, and St-Germain,” she added.
Ah, St-Germain. Floral, delicate, light. We should have known. An old-fashioned libation, the liqueur artisanale has long been distilled from the highly perishable elderflowers gathered by hand from the foothills of the Alps. They’re macerated for weeks in alcohol, then the distillate is mingled with a little eau-de-vie to lend it even more character. The bottles, as has long been the tradition, are numbered to indicate the flower’s vintage.
St-Germain has become quite the trendy thing across North America, a hit among the hip set. You’ll find it everywhere. Odd, given how far removed this scene is from Madame’s dining room and the local elderflowers.
On our way out, Madame asked what we did for a living. We told her we were food writers.
“So you travel around stealing other people’s recipes.”
Not exactly. But we hate to disappoint her.
We’ve recreated this drink that we first sipped at that restaurant in La Roque-Gageac countless times. St-Germain brings a delicate splash of summer to it any time of year. In deference to said delicacy, the liqueur ought to be consumed within a few months, if not days, of opening the bottle.–Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough
LC Careful How You Pour It Note
Should you choose to stir this lovely wine cocktail rather than shake it, reach for the wine bottle first. According to the wise folks at St-Germain, this will assist in your cocktail-making endeavor, because the liqueur is denser and will sink and meld with the wine, making your job quite an easy one. Their online cocktail-making tutorial continues to explain that “If you pour the St-Germain first, it will tend to sit under the wine rather than mix, which the wine may find rather rude, especially if it’s a good vintage.” For more savvy and sassy insights into concocting this and other libations calling for St-Germain, check out their site.
Madame la Matron’s Apéritif de la Maison
- 3 ounces moderately fruity white wine like a Riesling or a Viognier
- 1/2 ounce St-Germain
- Bitter lemon carbonated soda such as Fever-Tree or Schweppes
- Shake the wine and St-Germain with ice, then strain it into a highball or wine glass. Top with a spare splash of lemon soda.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
What is this glorious spirit called St. Germain and how does it mysteriously bring out all of the best qualities of a wine without taking over? I prepared this cocktail recipe with a very inexpensive but good bottle of Chardonnay Viognier. I tasted the wine, and it was nice. Then I made the cocktail and took a sip. The drink presented the wine’s profile to me, but this was BETTER! Needless to say I immediately called my downstairs neighbor and invited her up to “test” the recipe with me. In this cocktail recipe you’ll find well-conceived ratios producing a well balanced drink. Perfect for a party with great friends.
This is an elegant drink option. Perfect for a feminine cocktail choice at a dinner or cocktail hour, but simple enough to appeal to gentlemen, too. The elderflower liqueur adds a floral note without overpowering the wine. The Fever-Tree tonic is a more restrained tonic that doesn’t come across as overly sweet. Well-balanced all around. Note: I do agree with pouring the wine before the liquor.
This is a sweet little cocktail, both literally and figuratively. I made it with Riesling; the St-Germain liqueur gave it a mellow and sublime depth, and the bitter lemon took the edge off the sweetness. It had a nice balance, and would indeed be a good aperitif or dessert wine.
A fun, easy, and festive year-round cocktail. The only problem is that I had a hard time finding the Bitter Lemon or Lemon Schweppes soda. I eventually found the Fever-Tree Bitter Lemon at a liquor store in the mixers section. I improvised a little and used soda with a squeeze of lemon. I enjoyed that result just as much because of the fresh taste it gave the cocktail.