The cordial art of French aperitifs

Food and garden writer Georgeanne Brennan explores a French tradition

CHRISTINE WEBER HALE
As Georgeanne Brennan speaks of tender young lettuce with morning dew still clinging to its leaves, and freshly picked pencil-thin asparagus destined for a savory bread pudding, her eyes begin to sparkle. She seems for a moment to have slipped away to another place, and it's a good bet it's the French countryside.

That's where she acquired her passionate appreciation of food and gardening, and of a varied selection of fresh, high-quality meats, seafood, and, above all, produce. Her admiration for the potager - the traditional French kitchen garden that yields seasonal vegetables, fruits, herbs, and cutting flowers - inspired a desire to see potager-style cooking catch on in this country.

In 1982 Brennan founded Le Marché Seeds with partner Charlotte Glenn Kimball. The company imported seeds of European and Asian vegetables then considered rarities. Thanks to Le Marché and similar companies, a wide range of greens - among them radicchio, heirloom lettuces, frisée, and mizuna - is available in the U.S. today.

Brennan played a major role in the development of the farmers' market and organic gardening movements in this country, and in 1984 began writing newspaper columns about food and gardening. Cookbooks soon followed, among them Potager: Fresh Garden Cooking in the French Style; The Vegetarian Table: France; and Down to Earth: Great Recipes for Root Vegetables.

Her book, Aperitif: Recipes for Simple Pleasures in the French Style (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1997; $24.95), focused on a tradition little known in this country. The aperitif "is both a beverage and a social activity ... firmly embedded in the French way of life," according to Brennan.

"At home, sitting around the kitchen table or gathered in the living room, outside beneath the shade of spreading trees, on terraces or balconies, family and friends come together to share an aperitif and conversation before the lunch or dinner hour," she writes.

In another chapter, "The Classics," she focuses on traditional aperitifs: sherry, pastis, Dubonnet, vermouth, Lillet, and Campari; another concentrates on nonalcoholic fruit drinks suitable for children and designated drivers. The final chapter is devoted entirely to food to serve with aperitifs. The dishes range from Toasted Almonds to the more complex Spicy Black Bean Wontons, Rosemary-Walnut Biscotti, and Wild Mushroom and Goat Cheese Galettes. The following recipes provide a hint of those flavors.