BITTERSWEET: THE ITALIAN LOVE AFFAIR WITH AMARO
Gastronomically speaking, Italians appreciate bitter (amaro) flavours. They love olives, eggplant, bitter chocolate (sometimes together), fennel, artichokes; they grow and eat rocket, endive, radicchio, nettles, rape, kale; they drink espresso, Chinotto, Campari.
Photo credit: new season's artichokes at Schinella's, Prospect.
This obsession with bitter flavours corresponds with another Italian fixation: digestion.
It is why there is universal disapproval of drinking milky coffees after 11.00 am; why there are rarely cakes with whipped cream served after a meal; why certain pastries, usually those with rich cream fillings, are only taken in the morning, while biscuits and unfilled pastries are eaten at night. It is why, were you to ask Italians to share a rhum baba’, a cannolo or a sfogliatella, they would first consult their wrist watch and then exclaim, “a quest’ora?”, at this hour?
Not by accident, then, Italians of each region, have developed ‘digestivi’ or ‘amari’ to ease the problem of ‘male digestione’, bad digestion. Two preoccupations collide gastronomically.
In the beginning......there are aperitivi.
The word’s orgins are from ‘aprire’, to open. In an epicurean sense, it literally means, ‘to open’, to stimulate, the appetite.
After “il riposo”, from around 5 or 6 pm, Italians begin to prepare themselves for dinner, la cena. They are rested from their mid afternoon break called variously, il riposo o la pausa (never ‘siesta’ which applies in Spain).
The Italians, like many of their Mediterranean cousins, listen to their body clock. Following the body’s natural rhythms, and matching the hottest time of the day, they retreat from the world for an hour or two. If they can, they go home for pranzo, lunch, then lie down for an hour, step into a cool garden or increasingly common, they rest at their desk. When they are restored, they freshen up and face this demanding world again with the expected Italian aplomb. It’s not easy maintaining enthusiasm with grace, 24/7, as they say.
Of course, Italians very rarely take a drink without the offer of food. So, ‘prendiamo un’ aperitvo’ is not merely an invitation to have a drink. It can mean a drink before dinner or a couple of drinks, but always with some crisps, olives, taralli or small pieces of pizza. These simple ‘stuzzichini’ or nibbles are included in the price of your drink. It is a cultural expectation of hospitality and looking after a guest. Accept with poise. Sometimes, if pranzo has been the main meal of the day, as it is traditionally, a simple spread of ‘snacks’ or aperitivi will become a light dinner.
In my opinion, the Milanese, followed very closely by the Venetians, have taken the practice of l’aperitvo to an art form. In bars everywhere in Milan, and in Venice along the canal, you can meet and socialise.
If you find yourself with nervous travellers, check discreetly if the bar’s more extensive stuzzichini are free or ‘a consumazione’, by consumption. In Venice, we had fabulous appetisers – baccala’ mantecato, white bait in batter, snails in sauce, scallops with breadcrumbs, as well as polenta with three cheeses, pizzette and marinated anchovies.
Photo credit: Julie Reece. Spritz and stuzzichini in Trastervere, Rome. October, 2017.
If you are a non drinker or if you want a reprieve from alcohol, substitutes abound. Have a chinotto (“key –notto”), a pompelmo (grapefruit), an arancia rossa, (red, blood orange) or a Sanbitter.
Blood Orange from Sicily: the flesh and juice is sweet, but the pith and zest quite bitter. It is ideal to help the digestion.
Sparkling wine has always been a popular apertivo. In Italy, specify a dry Spumante or Prosecco before dinner and/or at the end as a celebratory gesture. Recently in Italy, cocktails have emerged as chic aperativi, but the complexity, high alcohol count and ‘foreignness’ disturbs me. Why would I travel to Italy and order a Cosmopolitan, Mojito or Manhattan? No, Campari has served Italians well since 1860 and it will do for me.
I have always preferred a Campari Spritz to an Aperol one – it is spicier, less sweet and more bitter.
Campari was ‘invented’ by Gaspare Campari in Novara in the north of Italy. Relatively moderate in alcohol for a spirit drink, around 24%, it was originally dyed with carmine which is derived by crushed cochineal insects which gave it its dark red hue. Only in 2006 was the use of carmine stopped. Still used though are the herbs and fruit, particularly the citrus chinotto and cascarilla which
is the bitter, aromatic bark of a West Indian shrub, Croton eluteria. Then there are herbs and flowers in secret amounts. I have a drawer full of the distinctive Campari Soda bottles designed in 1932 by Fortunato Depero. Why am I keeping them?
Campari is an essential ingredient in the classic Negroni, the Negroni sbagliato and the Garibaldi. (see: www.cathkerry.net/blog for the definitive Negroni recipe.)
Personally, I like to keep my aperitivi simple – we always have a selection of different vermouths which was our family’s favourite tipple before dinner. Signors Martini and Rossi could do no wrong, though they were still in short pants, or no pants at all, when the Cinzano brothers began production of their products in 1757. The Cinzano brothers owned a medicinal herb shop in Turin and using aromatic and soothing herbs from the Italian Alps concocted both a red and white vermouth that included artemisia (the wormwood that gives Vermouth its name), cinnamon, cloves, citrus, gentian, marjoram and thyme. Over ice, there are few things better to stimulate the hunger or soothe a fiery digestive system.
But then I grew up. I discovered Punt e Mess, with its burnt toffee and orange strains. I found Sibilla, now one of my personal favourites. Extremely bitter with notes of honey and smoke, it is not for the faint hearted, but for consenting adults in private, it is just the ticket, both before and after dinner. Noilly Prat, Lillet and the American Dubonnet, also make it into my secret stash. The last two beverages contain quinine and they were made to render the medicine more palatable for the French Foreign Legion serving in North Africa. I don't have a bar, it's more like a medicine chest.
And then, at the end........un amaro.
For exactly the same gastronomic reason, an amaro o digestivo, is taken at the end of a meal. Just as the bitterness in an aperitivo, irritates the stomach and so initiates the work of the gastric juices, telling the brain that something is afoot (excuse the mixed metaphor), so too, a small, bittersweet drink at the meal’s end quickens the gastric juices and starts digestion.
By now, you know I am going to say that these drinks are regional in nature just as all food (cibo) is in Italy. Because the foods that Italians eat vary distinctly, north to south and regions in between, so the herbs, spices, flowers and barks are territorial too. What is grown in Valtellina in the Lombardian Alps to make Braulio is, of course, different from that grown in those mountains in Sicily where alchemists foraged for herbs to add to the local orange and lemon peels, sweetened with the unique mountain honey to make Averna.
And there’s another thing to think about: dining and drinking 'al territorio'. Imagine a late lunch in Brescia, one of my favourite subalpine towns. We have dined on lush mountain cheese, creamy smooth polenta, tiny birds cooked over a fire, mushrooms, sausages and meat. Only a Braulio, an Amaro Nonino or a smooth, smokey grappa is going to end well here.
On the other hand, if we were dining in Ragusa in eastern Sicily what do we require to soothe a tummy filled to overflowing?
We have eaten pasta al pesto trapanese followed with fish topped with lemony breadcrumbs anointed with chilli and olive oil. Yes, indeed, - a citrusy, slighty sweet Averna is the only thing that will ensure equilibrium is restored.
And this process is replicated throughout the regions, each amaro complimenting the food. Each amaro has been sourced from the same territory and shared the same history, as the ingredients that have made our meal so memorable.
Remember one thing: Italy as a political unity only came about after an horrendous, tragic, bloody civil war. A country torn apart to be pieced together again for political gains: the extreme north and south, the islands, yoked by violence together. This only happened in 1861. As a political entity, Italy is only 40 years older than Australia. And yet, we talk of Italian food, Italian wine, Italian architecture, the Italian psyche. There is no such thing.
When you choose an amaro, think briefly (don’t overwork it), about where you are, the geography, the history, the balance of your meal and be guided by your own taste buds, not the fickle finger of fashion.
The following is a run down, by no means conclusive, nor definitive. It is my personal discourse on amari.
When we study the labels of these elixirs we see ingredients listed that could not possibly have been indigenous to Italy. There are many components that are a result of the early spice traders moving around the world. Star anise, for instance, finds its way into Strega, and croton eluteria from the West Indies is found in Campari.
It was the alchemists, often monks and other herbalists, who worked with these exotic new ingredients, making balsams, tinctures, tonics and unctions. Some restored the external, physical body, but many others eased internal symptoms - digestion, cramps, and tension.
Amari begin with a neutral spirit – then herbs, spices, flowers, barks of the region or its trading history are added, then a sweetener to smooth it out. Originally, honey was used, now more often white cane sugar is added. Then comes the 'bittering' element which is unique to that product. The most common bittering agent is gentian root. Sometimes, cinchona bark from which quinine is extrated is used. Those of us partial to a G and T will recognise it in the flavour of tonic water. The subtle bitterness of a vermouth comes from Wormwood –which also gives it its name. In the famous Aperol from Padua, bitter orange, gentian and rhubarb all give some weight to the bitter qualities of the liqueur. The word, liqueur, itself comes from the Latin 'to liquify' or to dissolve all the aromatics in the base spirit.
Let’s start our amaro tour in the north.
My friends, Sandra and Marco, come from the valleys around Sondrino in the Italian/Swiss Alps. Meals at their house revolve around polenta, bresaolo, home made sausage, big flavoured cheeses. We finish with Braulio or licquorizia.
Licquorizia is universal throughout Italy as a 'bittering' agent but also as a beverage in its own right. This one is from Puglia.
Other northern amari are the refined and elegant Amaro Nonino and the very sophisticated Montenegro which dates from 1885. Either of these could be your Amaro entry point if you are unsure about taking the plunge into this rarified world of bittersweet. Another 'gateway' digestivo is Calabria's Amaro del Capo, a pleasant, balanced blend of 29 bitter, sweet and citrus elements, including orange blossom. These are all best drunk straight or with ice, rather than mixed.
Still in the North, in Milan to be exact, we encounter Fernet Branca, created in 1845. The name is a play on the Milanese dialect for iron, ferro. With all the flavours I love - anise, cardamom, myrrh, aloe, rhubarb and saffron - we should be a perfect match. And yet, I find the pungency reminds me too much of cough medicine. On ice, with a twist, with a dash - no, it just doesn't work for me. Perhaps, I should do as the Milanese do - use it to 'correct' my mid morning coffee.
As we travel down the peninsula, we step sideways to the island of Sardegna. Here, a few years ago, we were treated to an array of vegetal, herbaceous flavourings - myrtle, mirto in its beautiful cork covered bottle, bay and, always, liquorice.
A relative newcomer to the pantheon of amari which also work as an aperitivi is Cynar, developed only in 1952. It is blisteringly bitter, you will either love it, as I do, or shake your head in wonderment. It is made from artichokes and is herbal and earthy and reminiscent of medicines we were forcibly given as children. Handled with care it can be used in cocktails with sweeter liqueurs where it works to give a pleasant bitter base.
Photo credit: Wikipedia
Back in Milan is another favourite, Amaro Ramazzotti, developed in 1815. To my palate, it is the benchmark for a perfect balance of bitter and sweet: the liquorice and the vanilla soothing while the ginger lingers to clean the palate. In its day, it was sold only at a small cafe near a busy theatre. Here the owners offered no coffee, only Ramazzzotti. A masterpiece of early marketing.
Because many of the aperitivi, digestivi and amari date back to the mid 18th C, the labels are often gorgeous. Belle epoch, art nouveau, art deco - the labels set the bottles neatly into an historical context.
The Roman amaro, Amaro CioCiaro has a distinctive label of beautiful girls wearing the Roman ciocia, dialect for sandal.
Photo credit: wikipedia.
The famous Strega from Benevento, mother's milk in our household, also has a distinctive and famous label. Currently, we are enjoying the most sublime, aged riserva. We keep it for very special occasions but I may never be able to go back to the heady, perfumed drink of my girlhood. If you are ever driving through Benevento, make a stop - it is an ancient town with Roman ruins and well preserved Trajan Arch. Later, the Lombards built churches and administration buildings that are UNESCO listed and to this day, it remains a beautiful, gracious city with a long and fascinating history of popes, witches, plagues and intrigue. Along the railway line is the famous distillery of Strega. Book a tour and have a generous tasting. Soccer enthusiasts will know that Benevento has made it into Serie A - and this has required a special label for the liquore and a special Easter egg. You can order both from Mercato at Campbelltown.
Like the father-son team of Alberti who jealously guarded the recipe for Strega, Amaro Lucano from the Basilicata region shares the recipe only amongst descendants of the family of Pasquale Vena who created it in 1894. Because of its perfumed and light body, I like Lucano also as an aperitivo with just a splash of soda or tonic.
Though I have no proof, I want to assert that Pliny the Elder refers to Cent’erbe in his writings. The story was current in our family and surfaced every time we took the precious bottle in its straw basket from the cabinet. The label stated it was made by the fratelli Toro from a recipe of 1817, shattering our romance. Nowadays they still make it at various strengths - 30%, 45% and 70% with wild herbs picked from the Majella mountains in Abruzzo. It has the prettiest, palest of green colour.
Photo credit: Giovanni Lattanzi. www.andreapilotti.com
As a young girl, I was fascinated by the world of sophistication I perceived - all the pretty coloured liqueurs, the array of tiny glasses and the adults happy with their friends, dressed in their elegant afternoon frocks. I was enthralled by Millefiori, more a sweet, dessert drink than amaro, really. Within the bottle, mysteriously and magically, was a twisted twig to represent the 1000 flowers and herbs contained herein. We counted angelica, sage, rosemary, basil, parsley, mint, juniper, cloves, orange blossom, carnation but it easily defeated us every time. Feeling the pangs of homesickness, I sought it out in Italy recently after a bout of nostalgia. Oh, horror! The twig is now made of plastic. Heartbreak in a bottle.
No discussion of amari would be complete without a comment about Averna – a complex drink from Sicily with prominent notes of blood orange and lemon zests, liquorice, vanilla and chocolate. The Cupuchin Abbey of San Spirito gave the recipe for a bitter, herbal elixir to Salvatore Averna, their benefactor, in 1859. It is a refreshing, restorative bitter over ice, with a slice of orange or it works in a cocktail such as a Black Manhattan with rye or with tequila and fresh grapefruit juice.
Do they work?
Once when I was in a self induced food coma in Alba, my life was saved by a bar tender who offered me an Amaro Sibilla, straight up. When I regained composure, I offered to pay, but he brushed my money aside. He said he recognised it was a medical emergency. Lovely man.
Photo Credit: Kirsten Dunst. Publicity shots for Marie Antoinette.
Another story, for another time, is a discussion about the
digestive benefits and delights of grappa. Made properly, it is sublime, refined and utterly sophisticated. My favourites are made by Marolo in Barolo. Truly, your eyes will open to a whole new world. I am sorry that so much bad grappa is made by charlatans and cowboys.
Photo credit: Stephen English. One glass, so many bottles. Marolo distillery tour.
People may wonder why I have left out Limoncello, Frangelico and Amaretto amongst so many other beverages that people like to drink after a meal. I have talked about those where bitterness aids digestion. Some of the others are perfect dessert drinks, sweet without the bitterness.
Next up, I give you recipes for eggplant and chocolate, Chinotto, an amaro made with bay leaves and another with walnuts.