20 April 2011

Fizzy Lifting Drinks

Some readers may be under the impression that I have spent all my time in France sipping Champagne from ladies’ slippers. This is not entirely true, and I hasten to admit that I do drink other beverages — including some with bubbles. For the French, not content to discover Champagne, have also discovered other truly uplifting fizzy drinks.

Whereas good Dom Pérignon believed, upon his first sip of Champagne, that he was drinking stars, my brother had another reaction entirely when he first drank Ricqlès: “It tastes like fizzy toothpaste!” For my part, I find the stuff absolutely brilliant: a lightly carbonated, almost entirely natural soda flavored with mint, and quite a lot subtler than any toothpaste. The very idea!

The Ricqlès brand is terribly old and respected, dating back to 1838, when Henri de Ricqlès distilled a sort of mint alcohol. (You can still buy this product, which is useful in flavorings and is said to have some medicinal properties, as well.) Because of the use of natural ingredients, the soft drink is sometimes difficult to find even in France, and it’s my belief that the name Ricqlès is one of those words which no American can pronounce intelligibly to a Frenchman’s satisfaction. (Because of course so many other things sound exactly like “Ricqlès.”)

The cans are virtually impossible to find, anywhere,
except in certain bars.

But on a hot day, when you’ve been driving across the French countryside in an un-air-conditioned automobile, for example, there is almost nothing more refreshing than a well-chilled glass of Ricqlès.

The most famous fizzy beverage in France, after Champagne, is surely Perrier water. I regret to inform you that it’s far from the best of the mineral waters in the country. My personal favorite, Badoit, from a natural spring in Saint Galmier, is distinguished by bubbles so tiny and elegant that one realizes instantly just how vulgar and aggressive Perrier truly is, and one will shun it evermore.

The mineral content of Badoit is much more flavorful, as well, and presumably the water also possesses all those important health benefits that are so important to Europeans. For a long time I used to call it “salt soda,” and it’s an absolute essential for me on any kind of road trip, whether by train or by car. Fortunately, then, it’s relatively easy to find almost anywhere in shops and cafés throughout France (and even in some groceries in Manhattan, if you’re willing to pay for it).

Such is Perrier’s dominance of the market for eau gazeuse that, a few years ago, Badoit began selling “Badoit Rouge,” with big popping bubbles like those of its better-known rival. Of course I refuse even to taste the stuff. As usual, I stick to the classics, merci beaucoup.

For me, both Badoit and Ricqlès are among the most evocative flavors in all of France. I can’t count the number of Proust moments they’ve evoked: one sip, and memories of summers past come rushing to the fore.

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