Can the French embrace cuisine sans booze?

It remains an uncomfortably foreign idea for some, but even the wine-loving French are experimenting with non-alcoholic drinks these days.

Can the French embrace cuisine sans booze?
Bottles containing a champagne-like and alcohol free drink are displayed in France. (Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP)

Being pregnant or the designated-driver in France — or attempting a “Dry January” after a booze-soaked festive season — has tended to leave few exciting drinks options when dining out.

“When I was pregnant, it was annoying to go to a restaurant and be stuck with water for the whole night,” said Argentinian sommelier Paz Levinson.

She works with Anne-Sophie Pic, the chef with the most Michelin stars in the world, and they have pioneered new approaches to drinks-pairing, such as a Brazilian coffee infusion served with the venison at their triple-starred Valence restaurant.

“It’s starting to catch on,” said Pic. “Everyone is trying it.”

Paris-based mixologist Yann Daniel admits he was “fairly dubious” about the idea at first, but quickly realised how many people were thirsty for low- and non-alcoholic concoctions.

“It’s a trend that is growing in France, following the Anglo-Saxons who are always a bit ahead of us in these things,” he told AFP.

He was commissioned to put together a menu of light cocktails based around spices, herbs, roots and teas for a hotel chain this autumn, while his colleague Matthias Giroud published a book of cocktail recipes called “No Low” (no alcohol and low alcohol).

Not everyone is convinced.

Guy Savoy, the best chef in the world according to The List, says the trend is better reserved for countries without a world-beating wine industry.

“In the number one country for great wine — I’m not judging, but it doesn’t fit,” he told AFP. 

But the data seems clear: French alcohol consumption has fallen steeply, with the average intake per adult down from 17.7 litres a year in 1960 to 9.2 litres in 2014, according to Our World in Data.

And many restaurateurs are also excited about the opportunities for new inventions.

At his eponymous restaurant near the Eiffel Tower, two-Michelin-star chef David Toutain pairs his lobster with an infusion of fir tree buds, the eel with an apple juice mixed with fennel vinegar and the pigeon with a beet-carrot nectar.

These options now sit alongside wine selections on the menu.

“It’s taken me years to put all this in place,” Toutain told AFP.

He prefers it to pairing with wines, which are never made specifically with the dish in mind.

“It takes you deeper into the experience,” he said.

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Bat hat, wooden leg, coffin bed: Sarah Bernhardt’s wild life offstage

French 19th-century stage legend Sarah Bernhardt, who died 100 years ago, was an institution in her country, who achieved superstardom playing tragic heroines in productions that toured the world.

Bat hat, wooden leg, coffin bed: Sarah Bernhardt's wild life offstage

As the centenary of her death on March 26, 1923, approaches, AFP recalls some of the most astonishing details of the life of an extravagant and talented performer and style icon, who was also known for her eccentric life offstage.

First global superstar

“She was the first global star…To match her today, you would have to combine Madonna, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyonce and Michael Jackson,” historian and private collector Pierre-Andre Helene told AFP.

As the face of France overseas, she became a living myth, captivating audiences from Europe, North and South America, Russia and Australia as Cleopatra, Cordelia or a cross-dressing Hamlet.

Men in New York would throw their coats to the ground in the hope she would walk on them, while in Australia, “there were scenes of hysteria with tens of thousands of women who wanted to see her, to touch  her,” Helene said. 

READ MORE: Out of the shadows: Women in the French Resistance

A coffin for a bed

Bernhardt, famous as an actress for her death scenes, sometimes slept in a coffin in her bedroom, which she also took on tour.

A widely circulated photograph shows her lying in the satin coffin looking peaceful, eyes closed, draped with flowers.

A zoo for a home

She wore a stuffed bat on her hat, kept cheetahs, a tiger, lion cubs, a monkey and an alligator called Ali-Gaga that died of a milk and champagne overdose. She also owned a boa constrictor, which choked on a cushion.

Bubbly balloon ride

She got into trouble in 1878 for taking a hot-air balloon ride over Paris
during the Exposition Universelle, sipping champagne as she sailed over the
fairgrounds, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.

Muse and lover to many

Bernhardt was the muse of several authors and playwrights, including Victor Hugo and Edmond de Rostand, who wrote “Cyrano de Bergerac”.

Her many reported dalliances included Napoleon III, Edward Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VIII, and the Czech artist Alfons Mucha, behind the famous Art Nouveau poster for Bernhardt’s production of “Gismonda”.

Turned theatre into hospital

During the siege of Paris in 1870 duing the Franco-German war, the deeply patriotic Bernhardt turned the Left Bank theatre, the Odeon, into a military hospital and personally tended to the wounded.

Incurable fabulist

Whether it was about her date or place of birth, the identity of her father, or the man who was the father of her son, Bernhardt was known for “obfuscations, avoidances, lapses of memory, disingenuous revelations, and just plain lies”, according to biographer Robert Gottlieb.

“Dull accuracy wasn’t Bernhardt’s strong point: She was a complete realist when dealing with her life but a relentless fabulist when recounting it. Why settle for anything else than the best story? ” he wrote in “Sarah” (2010).

One leg 

In 1915, aged 71, Bernhardt had her right leg amputated above the knee, following a fall onstage after jumping off a parapet while playing Tosca.

After surgery she was carried about by two porters in a Louis XV-style sedan chair. Undaunted, she insisted on performing for French soldiers on the frontlines during World War I and in 1916 toured the United States for the last time, performing with a wooden leg.