Behind the bar in all French cafés lurks a selection of bottles with evocative names such as Byrrh or Suze. They are usually made from aromatic plants to closely-guarded recipes. You still see ancient advertisements for them stencilled onto barn walls – an early form of advertising hoarding. But does anyone actually drink these concoctions? During our recent trip to the Auvergne we set out to find the answer.
Une petite dégustation
Le Bar des Amis, opposite the church in Thiézac, is run by an amiable lady. The local farmers hang out there for apéritifs before roaring off in their 4x4s for dinner. We had heard of a local apéritif made from gentian roots and decided we had to try it. I made the mistake of mentioning Suze. La patronne shook her head.
“You don’t want to try that,” she said. “It’s more chemical and less authentic than the other brands – made for a national market.”
What could she offer us?
“Well, there’s Avèze. That’s the only gentian liquor actually made in Cantal these days, at Riom-ès-Montagnes. There’s also Salers but that’s made in Corrèze. They’re both made in the same way.”
We ordered a glass of each. Viscous yellow liquids were served neat with an ice cube in special glasses. My Avèze smelt like soap. It also tasted like soap. The SF’s Salers smelt like musty old roots and – yes, it tasted like them too. I had a feeling this was a taste I was unlikely to acquire and suggested that we tip the contents down a handily-placed drain.
“There’s not going to be any alcohol wasted,” the SF declared and manfully took charge of both glasses. Instead, I ordered a glass of kir à la châtaigne – chestnut liqueur; also a local product. La patronne then admitted that she didn’t like gentiane, either.
Cashing in on a long tradition
My researches didn’t stop there. I discovered that Salers is the older brand. A Corrèze distiller, Alfred Labounoux, heard about a local peasant drink made by infusing gentian roots in white wine. He developed the recipe using gentian roots harvested near the Cantal town of Salers, from which the drink took its name, and started selling it in the 1880s. The drink soon became popular nationally and even inspired a song. I have tried to track down the song but without success so far.
Avèze was a later invention. Emile Refouvelet owned a liquor and grocery store in Riom-ès-Montagnes. He started to experiment with making a gentian apéritif in the 1920s and by 1938 he was selling 20,000 litres per year.
Getting to the root of it
Both brands are produced in the same way but certain aspects of the recipes are secret. The basic ingredient is the root of the yellow gentian, which grows only at certain altitudes. The roots are up to 1.5 metres long and weigh between three and five kilos. I learned that the plant can live to 60 years old while the roots used are an average of 45 years old. No wonder Salers tastes like musty old roots.
After a long process of conditioning, maceration in alcohol, the addition of aromatic plants and filtration the drink is ready. It’s made in two strengths: 15-16%, intended for national sale, and 20% which better suits the robust tastes of the local montagnards.
The only people we actually saw drinking gentiane were two other tourists. The farmers stuck to pastis or beer. Someone must drink these beverages, though. Suze was selling up to 13 million bottles in the 1930s but World War II and the Vichy régime’s antipathy to alcohol greatly dented sales. Consumption picked up again after the war and the manufacturers reduced the alcohol content to make it more acceptable as an apéritif.
The most recent figures I can find are for 2003, when Suze had c. 72% of the market and sold seven million bottles. Avèze was next with 9.2% and Salers trailed at 2.6%. The total market must therefore be getting on for 10 million bottles. I can’t find out how much is exported but I would guess it’s a small proportion.
If you want to find out more about the history and production methods, some of the producers have websites:
As for me, I’m sticking to kir.
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