Simply put, an aperitif is something lovely to drink before we eat. It may be a G&T at a bar after work, Champagne before a glitzy lunch, a killer pre-dinner Martini, or just a humble glass of wine with a packet of salted nuts at home. Aperitifs take many forms but all provide a very pleasing moment in a drinker’s day.
As with so many things, we have the ancient Romans to thank for the concept of the aperitif. Before embarking on their epic feasts, they’d drink wine mixed with wormwood, a bitter herb thought to aid digestion and cure all manner of gastric ills.
Indeed, the word aperitif derives from the Latin verb aperire, meaning ‘to open’, and has been in use since at least the 5th century. An aperitif is something to open the appetite, stimulate digestion and get us in the mood for a meal that’s to come.
Alcohol itself clears the palate by effectively rinsing pore-clogging molecules from the surface of our tongues, and encourages digestion-aiding salivation. Bubbles in the form of sparkling wine or a fizzy mixer can have the same effect, while the bitterness found in so many aperitifs is known to release hormones that sharpen our hunger.
But an aperitif is more than just a drink; it’s an occasion in itself, and one that’s particularly European. In 18th-century Turin, the court of King Victor Amadeus III eschewed rosolio (a traditional rose-scented liqueur) and embraced the first commercially produced vermouth (whose defining ingredient is the Artemisia wormwood family of plants) as their daily aperitivo. This modish custom of socialising with pre-dinner drinks was widely adopted across the continent and endures to this day.
The Gin & Tonic is perhaps the world’s favourite aperitif, with good reason as it deliciously combines alcohol, bubbles, bitterness and a refreshing zest. But when it comes to the choice of aperitifs in Europe, strong regional identities remain.
In northern Italy, vermouth is still the aperitivo of choice in Turin, Piedmont’s capital; while the fashionistas of Milan, in Lombardy, prefer their native Campari. Pastis is the ‘apéro’ of Marseille, Provence; the Burgundians drink Kir (the local white wine Aligoté mixed with a little crème de cassis); and in southwest France a Pineau des Charentes is more usually proffered at a bar. Dry Sherry is widespread in southern Spain, but ask for a manzanilla in Barcelona, where they drink local vermouth (called ‘vermut’), and you’re more likely to be served a camomile tea – camomile being the plant from which manzanilla gets its name. Aquavit in Scandinavia, pálinka in Transylvania – the list goes on and on.
These days we have aperitifs at our fingertips from all over the world. You might be at a swanky restaurant or on your sofa; wherever you are, and whatever you’re drinking, the aperitif is a most civilised and civilising habit and deserves due celebration.
A DECADENT LUNCH: Champagne cocktails
Who doesn’t love a long and hedonistic lunch? While good Champagne sets a suitable tone as a sybaritic aperitif, Champagne cocktails feel even more racy, and have the advantage of papering over the cracks of more mediocre fizz.
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