The Art of Aperitivo
Gastronomy is one of Italy’s raisons d’être. For the curious bon vivant with an insatiable appetite, il bel paese is the promised land of culinary decadence. Despite Italy’s outward-facing sophistication, however, its cuisine finds value in simplicity and harbours a deep respect for human connection.
There is nothing better to showcase this idea than the Italian act of the aperitivo. Although originally a northern custom, apertivi now take place across all of the country’s 20 regions. For many non-Italians, aperitivo conjures up the idea of ‘Happy Hour’, yet it is really the warm-up act before sitting down to dinner, where both food and socialising are essential. The word itself is derived from the Latin aperire, meaning ‘to open’, denoting the preparation of the stomach for digestion. Today however, the cultural meaning of aperire significantly outweighs its literal translation. When Italian regions can sometimes feel as different as separate nations, the aperitivo acts as the unifying factor to bring them all together. Aperitvo is Italy’s way of embracing us with its culinary heritage; however incidental it may be, aperire, ‘to open’, is most importantly, to eat, to drink, and to share in life’s simple joys.
So What Do the Italians Drink?
Let’s talk technicalities of aperitivo drinks all’italiana. Aperitivi are typically sipped alongside antipasti in order to stimulate the appetite for the primo, or first course. The sweetness of liquori varies between meals: aperitivo drinks are traditionally more bitter than what one would have during dinner, which means that they pair well with salty nibbles.
Our Guide to Italian Liquori
It’s the late 1800s, and somewhere in the foothills of Piedmont, Gaspare Campari - liquor producer extraordinaire - has just invented the drink that has come to epitomise the Italian aperitivo today. Distinctively red and bitter, it is infused with various herbs, aromatics, and fruits. At the time, Campari named his new invention Bitter all’Uso d’Holanda as it was inspired by the liquors served at bars in the Netherlands. However, due to its growing fame, and after having moved to Milan in order to open the now historic Caffè Campari, Gaspare’s drink became known as “Campari” on behalf of his surname. With an alcohol content of 25%, it is perhaps best known for making Negroni cocktails, but it also mixes well with tonic and white wine. Until 2006, the drink was coloured with carmine dye, the deep red colour having been derived from crushed cochineal insects.
Originally created by the Luigi and Silvio Barbieri in the 7 year period between 1912 and 1919, Aperol’s uniquely refreshing taste is derived from an infusion of botanicals including orange, rhubarb, roots, and herbs. Although visually similar to Campari, Aperol contains around half of the alcohol content and is slightly less bitter. It is most commonly recognised in an Aperol spritz, which is made with Prosecco. Rights to Aperol have recently been bought by the Campari company, who now produce and distribute it.
Vermouth is a name given to a present-day family of fortified white, rosé, and red wines. Harking back to Ancient Rome, these drinks have a well established history within Italian cuisine, and are rumoured to have been drunk among Roman troops themselves. There are a wide variety of styles of vermouth: Dry white vermouths are generally considered to be French, while sweeter red vermouths derived from caramelised sugar are seen as Italian. Despite the red colour, Italy calls this sweet vermouth bianco, meaning white in English. Red varieties were first crafted in Turin at the dawn of the 19th century by Antonio B Carpano, and quickly became a chosen drink of the Savoy king and his court. This classic Italian aperitivo is always served chilled, neat, or with a splash of sparkling water and delicate squeeze of lemon.
To this day in Italy, most ancient recipes remain family secrets, and liquor is no exception to the rule. Among these is Cynar: of the 13 herbs and plants used in the mixture of this 16.5% alcohol, the only well-known ingredient is artichokes. Usually served over ice, Cynar is a bittersweet liquor and has a dark brown hue, with a strong coppery aftertaste.
Marsala wine is a fortified wine hailing from Sicily’s island vineyards. The wine was traditionally a local specialty until it became famous abroad through John Woodhouse, an English merchant, who stopped at Marsala Port and discovered the wine in the 18th century. It is broken down into categories of secco and semisecco, based on sugar content. Marsala can be a variety of colours such as ambra (amber), oro (gold), and rubino (ruby red), and like most wines, also has variations in aging. Fine Marsala is aged for less than one year; Superiore for two; Superiore Riserva for four; Vergine/Soleras for at least five years; and Vergine, Soleras Stravecchio and Vergine/Soleras Riserva for at least ten years.
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