Aperitivo: bittersweet symphony
Author: John Irving
Photography: Rodney Macuja
12:00AM, Feb 28, 2014
John Irving raises a glass to the original aperitivo as we know it, the Italian concoction of herb-charged wine designed to enliven the spirits. Cin cin.
Apéritif means one thing; aperitivo has come to mean another.
The first ought to quicken the secretion of gastric juices to
induce hunger pangs before a meal. It ought to, but does it?
Not according to Kingsley Amis, who wrote that, "In practice, an apéritif is what a waiter calls a drink you drink before you eat. Theoretically it's supposed to stimulate your appetite, though in my experience all a drink stimulates your appetite for is another drink."
One evening at a café in Turin a colleague declared, "Che grande invenzione, l'aperitivo!" The invention she was referring to wasn't the drink in her glass but the panoply of good things on the table in front of us: roasted peppers topped with anchovies, cubes of cheese, discs of salami, saucers full of mixed pickles, grissini, small squares of focaccia.
In other places, in other cultures, similar titbits, part and parcel of the aperitivo package, would be called mezze or tapas, canapés or amuse-bouches. In Italy they are stuzzichini, or teasers. But nowadays they don't so much tease as feed. Sometimes they're so abundant and filling, they aren't appetisers at all; they're appetite-killers. A word has been invented to describe the new craze: apericena, aperitivo-cum-dinner.
Turin café culture is celebrated in Italy and Turin is the city where the aperitivo ritual first caught on. In the days when it was a preprandial enticement as opposed to a prandium proper, everything revolved around vermouth, another Turin invention, at least in its modern form.
It was in 1786 that Antonio Benedetto Carpano started selling his own bittersweet blend of white wine fortified with an infusion of 30 different herbs and spices in his bottle shop under the porticoes on the city's Piazza Castello. A plaque still commemorates the man and the place.
The word vermouth derives from the High German wermud, meaning wormwood, one of the ingredients, in turn a compound of the ancient veran, to raise, and muth, spirit.
The habit of fortifying wine with herbs goes back a long way and spirit raising, rather than appetite teasing, is the thread that sews the story together. Witness book four of The Odyssey, in which Homer has Helen of Troy cheering up her husband Menelaus, King of Sparta, by adding "a herb that banishes all care, sorrow, and ill humour" to his wine. "Whoever drinks wine thus drugged," wrote the poet, "cannot shed a single tear all the rest of the day."
The early Turin vermouth makers tended to keep their recipes secret. One exception was a certain Rovere, who produced liqueurs and cordials by royal appointment to King Carlo Alberto of Savoy. He left a list of vermouth ingredients among his papers: "Venill Siliz N.2, Hoegipt n. 20; Alcool 1 n° 10 extr. Amar.; Ob bianc. pente N. vj. viy.; Vin. Alb. Generos, pente N. 80." What it all means remains a mystery even for scholars.
In his 1854 Trattato di Cucina, or treatise on cookery, the royal chef Giovanni Vialardi provided a more comprehensible recipe calling for "quassia bark, gentian, quinine, common centaury, wormwood, citron bark, elderflowers, juniper, angelic root, carnation petals, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper". Many Turinese used to make their own vermouth at home but I would defy anyone to glean all those ingredients today.
Following Carpano's example, other Turin companies - Cinzano, Gancia, Martini & Rossi - began producing vermouth commercially and the drink enjoyed huge success straight or as a cocktail ingredient in Italy and worldwide through the 19th century into the 20th. In the meantime, Antonio Benedetto's heirs contrived to make a masterpiece out of a masterpiece when they came up with Punt e Mes, "a point and a half" - a darker, more bitter take on the original concoction. The trademark was registered in 1890 and the drink is still produced today.
Where does its name come from? Like tequila, much of the anecdotal evidence has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The most plausible theory is that, on a day when trading on the Turin stock exchange went up by a point and a half, the Carpano company created the drink to celebrate the news. Whatever, it used to be common in bars to order a glass of Punt e Mes by raising a thumb to indicate "one" and making a sweeping gesture with the right hand to indicate "a half".
In the late 18th century, brothers Carlo Stefano and Giovanni Giacomo Cinzano formed a company which subsequently produced vermouth. Fratelli Gancia & Co was founded in 1850 by Carlo Gancia, a commercial traveller for Turin's Fratelli Dettoni distillery, and his brother Edoardo. Their vermouth soon became the official apéritif for the Savoy royal family, who granted them permission to use the advertising slogan "Bianco Gancia, Vermouth of the Aristocracy and Royalty". By the end of the century, both Cinzano and Gancia were exporting to Latin America to meet the demand of the Piedmontese emigrants there. So was Martini & Rossi, the world's leading producer of vermouth, which began production in the mid-19th century. The company was an offshoot of a distillery in the village of Pessione near Turin, where a bijou museum still relates its history. I paid a visit recently and, on the drive home, memory crowded upon memory.
When I came to Turin as a student in the late 1970s, vermouth was everywhere. Plasticised aprons and tea towels and posters with the classic Martini and Cinzano labels - intricate Art Nouveau collages of coats-of-arms and medals and flags - were popular. Bottles of vermouths red, white, rosé and dry, some with what for me were exotic names - Rosso Antico, Cora Very Americano, Antica Formula, Cocchi, Stock - glistened in the cocktail cabinets of private houses and on shelves behind counters in bars. Through their advertising, the big names conjured up an image of fun, excitement and glamour.
Today the top vermouths come in new-look bottles with redesigned labels, even in mini ready-mixed soda versions, but young people seem to prefer wine, or even beer, at the aperitivo hour. "A bottle of vermouth can last for weeks," says Sergio, my neighbourhood barman, who remembers the old days. But I still treat myself to a glass at his place every Friday evening. The perfect pick-me-up at the end of the working week. Vermouth - che bella invenzione!