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Monday, March 10, 2008

BYRRH

When I was a small Maalie I was watching on TV some black-and-white World War II archive footage of the D-Day landings in Normandy. My father who, as a merchant seaman, participated in the transport aspects of the landings, was watching with me.

I recall distinctly a shot taken in a landing craft pointing towards the shore, where there were some bomb-damaged buildings. “I saw that!” my father exclaimed! What he saw was a building that had a whole side painted with an advertisement for a French beverage called Byrrh, much like in the photograph below.

Buildings painted with advertisements for Byrrh were common if France after the war

I became fascinated by this beverage and on my very first trip to France (a camping trip with three friends from school) immediately after the A-level exams in July 1962, a high priority was to try it.

So what is Byrrh? It is a French aperitif, not unlike Dubonnet, with an alcoholic strength like port. The base is red wine, but in addition to the range of herbs, it contains quinine (the stuff that gives the taste to tonic water) and has a very characteristic, slightly bitter taste. Because quinine is the active ingredient in malaria prevention, Byrrh was considered to have medicinal properties and was even sold in chemists’ shops. I loved it from the start, and always brought my “duty-free” allowance of it back with me from trips to France. Any girlfriend who went on holiday to France and brought me back a bottle was sure of my undivided attentions for a while, at least.

Back in 1962, there were still many advertisements for Byrrh to be seen in France, including painted walls like the one above. Sadly, in my opinion, it was already declining in popularity. After some 30 years absence from France I was disheartened to find it extremely hard to find, even in Paris, and waiters in restaurants had never heard of it. However, after much detective work, I discovered that the Gourmet section of Les Galeries Lafayette stocked it and I have been back a few times in recent years. I also found a shop in Ghent, Belgium, that stocks it.

You can imagine my delight when walking up to the French/Spanish border high in the Pyrenees during my recent trip to Spain we found a supermarket right up there on the border (no doubt strategically placed for tax purposes) which stocks this rare delicacy. The bottle now takes pride of place in my little bar and is is sampled only on occasions of high ceremony. It is especially good when fortified with a slug of gin.
The prized bottle of Byrrh takes pride of place in my little "bar". Even now a sip of the stuff will transport me back to those heady youthful summer days birdwatching in Provence.

20 Comments:

Blogger lorenzothellama said...

Oh well done!! I have looked and looked for Byrrh but haven't found any for years.

I think you should add a p.s. on your blog to tell about how our father used to try to order beer in French bars and was given the Byrrh instead, because he didn't say 'be-air' or have you forgotton that part of the story?

9:09 pm  
Blogger simon said...

does it affect your taste but....? ahaahahahaha!! is it true I have been banned form a blog?

9:48 pm  
Blogger TCA said...

Santé

W

9:50 pm  
Blogger lorenzothellama said...

The point of writing a blog is to get people chatting! And arguing!

2:40 pm  
Blogger Maalie said...

Indeed, I welcome all to chat and argue as much as you like about the subject of this post which is BYRRH!!!

3:05 pm  
Blogger Maalie said...

Lorenzo, yes, you have to go to the very best shops in Paris to fond it, it seems. The equivalent of Harrod's in London.

Yes the pronunciation of Byrrh is very like how we pronounce "beer". The first time I asked for Byrrh in a French bar, the barman started pouring a beer, probably thinking the stupid foreigner was asking for bière rather than Byrrh. LOL! So then I used to ask for Byrrh apéritif. As I said, the younger waiters in French restaurants these days have never heard of the stuff. It appears to be an old man's drink.

4:00 pm  
Blogger Ellee Seymour said...

I'll have to ask my neighbour about this drink. She used to regularly travel to France with her job and knows everything about Fremch culture.

Did you see my post about Darwin last week, btw, I mentioned you in it.

9:42 pm  
Blogger simon said...

We have Burs here.. they get stuck in your socks and cause all sorts of irritations

9:50 pm  
Blogger Maalie said...

Simon, actually the stuff is pronounced more like "beer" which is why English people get confused! I'll save you a dram for when you are next here :-)

Ellee, I had missed your post on Darwin (I have been busy handling tits) but have scrolled down and found it. I shall certainly ear-mark the Darwin Festival. Actually I paid my personal tribute to that great biologist on a boat in Beagle Channel (Tierra del Fuego) last September!

9:58 pm  
Blogger Thesaurus Rex said...

Hi Maalie. Les Francais certainly do have a few odd back shelf boozes. I found a Jamaican liquor once which tasted like cough medicine. I have never had a cough since, it must've worked.
I have a bird question for you. What is the best online site to identify birds by call only. There's been one in Devon I've never heard before and it's rather elusive, only calling at dawn. Any help would be appreciated and may save my sanity.

10:51 pm  
Blogger Metamatician said...

And here I thought this post was going to be about how cold Maalie was.

10:06 am  
Blogger Metamatician said...

"Save" your sanity, Rex? Exhume it maybe.

Sounds like a quite curious aperitif though, this Byrrh. Didn't the wise men give loads of it to Jesus when he was born or am I thinking of something else?

10:09 am  
Blogger Raelha said...

I´ll have the Byrrh on it´s own please - on a heady night in Valencia, I once fortified some Sangría with a slug or two or three of gin (we´re talking each glass here, not just the bowl). I haven´t been able to touch the stuff since.

10:11 am  
Blogger simon said...

maalie- please save me a dram-

10:24 am  
Blogger lorenzothellama said...

Perhaps you should ask Estelle to bring back a supply next time she goes to Gallerie Lafayette.

10:59 am  
Blogger Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

If you have to search the best shops in Paris to find this maalie... I am highly unlikely to find it in the rural backblocks I will be walking!!! Besides... I am pretty much a water drinker!

5:54 pm  
Blogger Magdalene said...

Byrrh sounds most peculiar and it's probably a good thing that we can't buy it in England because I would probably get to like it just a bit too much.

And to echo Rex's request Maalie, you can't be the resident bird expert and not expect to get pestered for info once in a while. The bird in question visits my garden every morning at around 7.3o am and it's driving me nuts because I haven't a clue what it is. Birdsong id site info would be most welcome.

Word verif. is ghruu how appropriate :-)

6:17 pm  
Blogger Ellee Seymour said...

I think I could fancy a glass of Byrrh now, a weekend treat.

7:56 pm  
Blogger Martin Stickland said...

Bottoms Up Maalie!

I must try this 'A pair of teeth' one day!

12:54 am  
Blogger Shrinky said...

Fortified with gin? Hmmmn.

It's true how the taste of something, like a scent, can transport you back in time.

Benadictine served with a block of ice always unlocks a rich seam of memories for me. It's been a while, I think I might treat myself to a bottle..

11:27 am  

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