This week I’m reviewing Alan Furst’s latest spy novel “A Hero of France,” so I decided to play with some French-themed cocktails (for the second time). The classic French 75 was one of the first cocktails I can remember drinking – as a military history geek, I was drawn to any drink that takes a fine piece of artillery as its namesake, and that combination of lemon, gin, sugar, and bubbles is hard to top! The drink also has an intriguing history, having started in the New York Bar in Paris in 1915 with calvados, then transitioning to gin by 1930 when it was featured in the famous Savoy Cocktail Book. If you want to make one, my buddy Greg recently put out a video showing you how (give it a watch).
Instead of whipping up a 75, I thought I’d try some of its close cousins that have popped up over the years. I started with a “French 77” which is distinguished by using delicious elderflower in lieu of simple syrup. This was my favorite of the batch, really liked the herbal kick of the gin and elderflower team, lots of flowery goodness. I might cut down a bit on the lemon juice as it came across too sharp up front, but this was a very nice outdoor drink.
- 2 oz Gin
- 1/2 oz St. Germain
- 1 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
The higher caliber “French 125” changes it up by using brandy and sugar. This was pretty good, the brandy is sharp and powerful with the citrus current, but I thought the sugar made it a little overly tart – my lips pursed. Maybe 1 tsp next time, as I think it’d be a bit smoother.
- 1 oz lemon juice
- 2 tsp sugar
- 2 oz brandy
I found “Top ‘o tha Mornin’ to Ya” on the excellent but sadly dormant “Medicinal Mixology” blog. I was excited for this one but it came across dull and uninspired, with a hint of orange off the brandy and…that’s about it. Maybe my champagne was flat, but the taste of brandy and cointreau was nothing special. Perhaps it was my modifications that screwed with the base flavor, but I’d pass on this one.
Top ‘o tha Mornin’ to Ya
- 1 oz Combier Liqueur D’ Orange (I used Cointreau)
- 1 oz brandy
- .5 oz lemon juice
- .5 oz simple (my modification)
The day after I moved into DC, I decided to take advantage of my new cosmopolitan surroundings and headed to a bookstore to see novelist Alan Furst. Given the noir-ish, clandestine, and dimly lit nature of his works, I expected to encounter a slightly-hunched, eccentric European with a dark-hued felt hat and scarf, grimly giving a reading though puffs of his Gauloise. But, as I learned that day at the bookstore, he’s a nice man from Long Island.
But Mr. Furst doesn’t read like a Long Islander (no offensive, I love Montauk) – his intense narratives and settings are fueled by extensive research that separates him from the rest. The train system in pre-war Paris, the finest restaurants in 1938 Vienna, the richest pastries in Berlin – all described in somber observations by doomed characters, communicating a certain realism and tragedy that defines Furst’s novels. No exaggerated, action-packed thrillers here – just high-stakes life and death, rendered artfully.
“A Hero of France” is no different, and ranks as one Furst’s better novels. Set in 1941 Paris and northern France, the protagonist is the mysterious and weary Mathieu, the key cog in an underground network that escorts downed RAF pilots back to Britain. His world is one of constant tension and death as he carefully recruits new members, renews old loves and sparks new ones, and interacts with the lunatics, patriots, and communists that populated the early French resistance.
No one else writes tension and atmosphere like Furst, and the story here is notably sharp and tight. The supporting cast is especially strong (sometimes Furst’s protagonist or antagonist suck up all the oxygen) particularly the women, who are so engaging that they overshadow Mathieu. And that was probably my only complaint with the book – Mathieu is a bit too mysterious for his own good, and I never felt as engaged by him as I did by some of Furst’s previous heroes. So, in conclusion, I encourage you to buy the book, make a few 75s or their tasty cousins, and enjoy some outdoor drinking/reading.