How Americans contributed to the storming of the Bastille and better drinks in France
July is a revolting month.
That’s not meant to be a derogatory comment so much as an observation.
It’s the month Fidel Castro started his revolution in Cuba. It’s also the month the Italians revolted against Benito Mussolini and deposed him. Belarus, Venezuela, Argentina, Belgium, the Bahamas and the Maldives all broke from mother countries and became independent in July, some peacefully and some not so much. The month is named for Julius Caesar, and everyone knows what happened to him.
The most famous revolutions of July, of course, were in France, in what became quite a heady affair before it was over, and the earlier one that created the United States.
Ironically, the attempt by the American colonists to rid themselves of a king in 1776 probably would have failed if not for a king — Louis XVI of France — who, seeing an opportunity to stick one to the British, provided aid and armies to the colonists. That assistance turned the tide of the war and led to the British surrender. The document that ended the war and granted the sought-after independence was signed in France and is known as the Treaty of Paris.
Sadly, at least for royals in France, this little foray across the ocean added a staggering deficit to France’s coffers and 13 years later helped fuel the revolution there, which the Americans, showing not much gratitude to the French king, strongly supported. C’est la vie.
The beginning of that revolution, similar to July 4, is celebrated every July 14 and is known as Bastille Day.
So, maybe it should be this July, while saluting the red, white and blue, that Americans also raise a toast to the blue, white and red for the contributions that country made.
While we can thank the French for the Statue of Liberty, learning to eat snails and making Julia Child famous, we should not overlook that one of the greatest cultural exchanges in the history of these two countries is most certainly the cocktail.
Cocktails as we know them came late to France. During the 1890s and the high-kicking zenith of places like the Moulin Rouge, patrons were being introduced to various mixtures of beverages made with brandies, wines and particularly absinthe. One famous cocktail from the period is French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Tremblement de Terre, a violent combination of cognac and absinthe, which at the time was about 72 percent alcohol. Tremblement de Terre translates to “The Earthquake.”
The original recipe was three parts cognac mixed with three parts absinthe, which had become a base alcohol for many drinks. Later, as chilled drinks came into vogue, the mixture was shaken with ice and strained into a glass.
The heyday of French cocktails, however, began with the arrival of American troops in World War I and then went full flower during the years of Prohibition in the United States. There’s the famed Sidecar, for one. The creator, a bartender at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, made it at the request of a U.S. Army captain in Paris during World War I. This drink of brandy, orange-flavored Cointreau and fresh lemon juice was named after a motorcycle sidecar in which the officer arrived and departed the bar.
One of the most famous and most delicious cocktails to come from this period is called the French 75.
The drink is named after the 75 mm M1897 artillery gun used by the French military because of the punch both the gun and drink could deliver. Its origin, however, came to be simply because American GIs wanted to drink a favorite cocktail from home made with gin, lemon juice and soda water and known as the Tom Collins. What they were missing, however, was soda, so they grabbed the next closest thing they could find, and the French 75 was born. The soda substitute was Champagne.
For almost every mixologist, there’s a different recipe for the French 75. Gin is replaced with other alcohols or with several. Simple syrup is replaced by powdered or granulated sugar. Different citrus slices are used.
“I don’t like to do the same thing and just recreate drinks,” said Michael Norfolk, bar manager at Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood in Galveston. “I like to try something different, or it all becomes vanilla, no excitement.”
In the Number 13 version, Norfolk tossed the Champagne and replaced it with prosecco. He also upped the lemon ante by using limoncello, fresh lemon juice and a dash of house-made lemon grass simple syrup.
“I also chose Citadelle Gin, because unlike some other gins, Citadelle can be hidden well,” he said. “It doesn’t overpower the other ingredients.”
The 1920s saw the City of Light filled with expatriates escaping Prohibition laws. Those years, called the “Années Folles,” or crazy years, transformed the cocktail scene in France and brought the United States some of its most classic drinks. For example, the next time brunch includes a bottomless glass of Champagne and orange juice, thank the Hôtel Ritz in Paris. Have a hangover? That Bloody Mary ordered to stave it off has a French twist. It was invented in Paris under the name Bucket of Blood in an attempt to give taste to vodka, which Russians, fleeing their own revolution, were bringing in by the gallons.
This was the time of the Lost Generation, a term for some of the great writers, artists, poets and other cocktail-swilling bohemians that included people like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Henry Miller, Max Ernst and Gertrude Stein. Their favorite watering holes created classic cocktails still served and savored today. The Jack Rose, a refined mixture of applejack, gin, orange juice and both sweet and dry vermouth, is mentioned in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”
Of this whole period of French libation, one appreciative European described the cocktail as “America’s chief contribution to the pleasures of civilization.”
Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood French 75
This is a new take on the classic French 75, which would have only gin, simple syrup, lemon juice and Champagne. The recipe is from Michael Norfolk, bar manager.
2 ounces prosecco
1 ounce Citadelle Gin
¾ ounce limoncello
¼ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
Dash of lemon grass simple syrup (recipe follows)
Mix the gin, limoncello and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously, then pour into stemmed glass. Top with 2 ounces of prosecco. Garnish with lemon twist.
Lemon grass Simple Syrup
1 cup white sugar
1 cup water
2 stalks fresh lemon grass
Remove the outer layer of lemon grass stalks and discard. Cut the remaining lemon grass into pieces. Combine water, sugar and lemon grass in a small saucepan.
Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Simmer for 1 minute. Remove from heat and let syrup steep, about 30 minutes.
Strain into a sterilized glass jar through a mesh strainer to remove grass; let cool. Store in the refrigerator.