Alcohol is without a doubt one of the main food groups in Provence. That said, the Provencal diet has quite a lot of food groups...
One of the most sociable times of the day in Provence, however, begins by some unspoken unanimous gut feeling amongst the locals at around 6pm. The heure de l'apéro (short for apéritif) is much, much more than just a simple pre-dinner glass of wine whilst something boils away on the stove. It's a time to sit with family, friends and children, share quelques verres and an array of tapas-style nibbles to get the appetite going, and most importantly to talk. It's a time for sharing the stress of your day, or bemoaning the latest of the Olympique de Marseille's losses on the football pitch, and then for letting those worries melt away in the company of loved ones (and a glass or five of something strong).
Drinks consumed at apéro time include (obviously, predictably?) pastis, but also whisky, beer, and panaché (a lemonade and beer mixture much like shandy) for men, and sweet muscat wine or chilled glasses of rosé served with ice cubes for ladies... The pregnant and teetotal are spoiled with interesting and different fruit juices, often from local producers, and those on a diet are treated to a simple Perrier citron.
It is unthinkable to invite friends over for an apéro without preparing nibbles. And apéro nibbles are almost a meal in their own right. Olives, nuts, toasts with tapenade (an olive and anchovy paste), crudités to dip into anchoiade (a strong, salty anchovy dip), cubes of cheese, small savory pastries, saucisson, radishes with curls of butter, whole pizzas cut into thin slices, tiny goats cheese dripping with olive oil, toasted brioche with slices of foie gras and sea salt, cherry tomatoes fresh from the vegetable patch... The list is endless, but so seems your appetite when bowls of these delicious bite-sized treats are laid out before you. Bars throughout the region produce little plastic bowls or terracotta dishes of these wonders - at no extra cost - to amuse the bouche whilst tables are cleared and laid for dinner.
L'heure de l'apéro is a great time for storytelling, or simply listening. It is the perfect forum for the Provencal expert - that guy in the village bar who seems to know everything about everything, and is even surer of his opinion when pastis glasses are being thrust into his hands by avid listeners. Want to know the best restaurant in town? He's eaten at them all, and will tell you where to get the best daube provencale. Need a new pair of shoes? He knows where you can get a deal, and where you'll be ripped off. Want to go truffle hunting? He knows a man selling a blind pig with a fabulous nose. Not sure who to vote for in the next mayoral election? His cousin's girlfriend's brother is running, but he'll convince you not to vote for him.
Every bar has one, and the opinions really get flowing an hour or so into apéro time. Take everything he says with several pinches of salt, or simply get sozzled enough not to remember what he said the next day. But you will laugh and laugh, perhaps get into an argument with him, and finish the evening by settling down to that great daube together, sharing a bottle of red to wash all those pastis down.