In Paris for a couple of weeks recently, I decided to determine what the French national beverage was, and walked around interviewing Parisians of varying ages with my thick American accent. All were gracious, if a bit curious about this obvious hence silly subject, and wanted instead to talk about Dick Cheney. I did, however, in between political discussions, reassure myself that the French national drink was still…can you guess? Yup, that’s right, Coca Light (Diet Coke) with regular Coca a close second.
Okay, let’s clarify. I did see unsettling quantities of Coca Light being consumed during the day by the Parisian youth, but wine is, and always will be, the queen of France. Wine is drunk with the meal. The way it works is that if one wants a drink before dinner, it’s an apéro (aperitif), not wine. If you fancy something while pondering the menu, order a coupe de champagne or a kir (crème de cassis and dry white wine) or a kir royal (with champagne) and the waiter will be pleased and perhaps bring an amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule (appetizer, literally “amuse your mouth.”) Once you’ve decided what you’ll have for dinner, only then do you choose a wine to compliment your food. Parisians rarely go for the expensive best bottles, rather the simple regional wines. And, in a country that considers wine a natural right and basic necessity, it’s no surprise that restaurants offer an exemplary choice of good, well-priced wine. After the meal there can be a digestif, which could take many forms: cognac, armagnac or eau de vie, all said to help digest, hence the name. Then there is the wonderful, obligatory café. Black and strong, (don’t order café au lait which is only for morning and frowned upon after midmorning), a neat shot of espresso, the perfect end to a meal.
Where does the Coca Light fit in? Certainly, shudder, not at dinner, but it, together with Schweppes, Orangina, Lorina, Chocolat, and Infusian, the typical offerings on café menus, are ubiquitous before Parisians during the day in cafés. I feel sad that what we Americans have offered the French (apart from Normandy and Black Jack Pershing in a previous war) is Diet Coke and McDonald’s, also wildly popular in France as elsewhere in the world. Real Coca-Cola seems justified, but Diet Coke that insidious poison…. Never mind.
Other popular drinks during the day include beer on tap (pression), Leffe (from Belgium), Fischer and Kronebourg are especially good, particularly the Kronebourg 1664. Fruit juices made from real pressed fruits such as lemon, Citron Pressé. You will be given a bit of fresh lemon juice in a glass, a pitcher of water and a couple packets of sugar, and you make the drink according to your taste. And syrup based drinks. The French have an enormous collective sweet tooth. One sees young French students sitting out in cafés with glasses of green liquid before them. It looks like our crème de menthe, but hasn’t the alcohol. Grenadine is common too. Then of course there is always the café, or an infusion of herbal tea, also called a tisane/tilleul.
I wish I could report that there is come new, really cool trend on the rise, but no, the Parisians are still drinking pretty much the same thing they have been for decades. With good reason.