Over the past decade Italian food, wine and life style have permeated our lives. Have you ever wondered about all those beautiful Italian bottles lined up behind the bar, or picked up a wine list to see the headings “Aperitif”, “Grappa”, or “Amaro”?
These are consumed in a ritual fashion either before or after the meal to prepare for or aid the digestive process. Italians have always had an obsession with digestion and firmly believe that the liver holds a most sanctified place in governing their bodily harmony. An old Italian proverb states that people are not what they eat, as some philosophers proclaim, but how well they digest.
Imagine yourself in the late afternoon, perhaps overlooking the canals of Venice, the Duomo in Florence or your back porch, roof deck, or kitchen, getting ready to prepare dinner or deciding where to go for dinner – enjoying an aperitivo. Although Italy has many unusual aperitifs, the most common are the sweet vermouths, both red (rosso) and white (bianco) made from fortified wine flavored with botanicals. Some other popular aromatized wines include Punt e Mes and Rosso Antico. The spirit-based aperitivi include the famous bright red Campari, which has a bitter astringent flavor, and the slightly less bitter Aperol. These can be served neat over ice, or mixed with soda or tonic water, garnished with a fresh lemon or orange slice. Campari can also be mixed with fruit juice or made into some classic mixed drinks. Both the Americano and the Negroni begin with equal amounts of Campari and red sweet vermouth; the Americano is topped off with club soda, while the stylish Negroni takes an equal measure of gin and is often served in a martini glass. Aperol has a distinctive orange color and bitter orange flavor, and less than half the alcohol content of Campari. Spritz, a delightful low alcohol Venetian cocktail, is made with equal parts Prosecco, Aperol and sparkling water. All of the aperitivi are laced with herbs, roots, botanicals or bitters, which are believed to stimulate the salivary glands and prepare the digestive tract for the upcoming meal.
Many Italians, in fact, believe that digestion greatly influences a person’s mood and that people are at their worst while digesting. It is no wonder then that there are over 300 different kinds of after dinner digestive drinks to relieve the overworked taste buds and the heaviness that often follows their meals of at least 4 courses – antipasto, pasta, meat with vegetables, salad and dessert. Digestives can be sugar-based in the style of a liquor or cordial, or the sophisticated spirit called Grappa and the more medicinal Amaro.
The liquori are most popular in America due to the national fondness for sugar. These sweet alcoholic beverages are made from an infusion of flavoring ingredients and an alcohol base. The most popular examples are Amaretto (almonds), Frangelico (hazelnut), Galliano (herbs and spices), Strega (herbs and spices) and Tuaca (sweetened brandy, citrus, vanilla). Another favorite, Sambuca, made from star anise, fennel seeds, and elderberries is traditionally served with 3 coffee beans floating on top, “con la mosca”. The coffee beans are meant to be crunched, as the Sambuca is sipped, so that its bitterness can counteract the intense sweetness of the liquor. Since the middle ages, anise was regarded as a panacea for numerous ailments and the plant was believed to have magical properties.
In recent years no drink has gained more popularity in Italy as an after dinner drink than limoncello. It has now taken the American market by storm. Still made along the Southern coast of Italy from Naples to Sicily, by steeping lemon rinds in alcohol and adding a sugar syrup, it captures all the freshness and sunshine of those regions in a glass. Typically stored in the freezer and served ice cold in a cordial glass, it is also wonderfully adaptable. Enjoy it as a spritzer, in iced tea, lemonade, or as a palate cleanser between courses over lemon sorbet. For creative cookery, use it to flavor chicken, risotto, grilled fish or vegetables.
The sophisticated spirit called grappa is now fascinating the world. What used to be a very plebeian drink produced by Italian farmers who, refusing to throw anything away, after pressing grapes for wine consumption would distill left over skins and pits to produce a pungent colorless brandy. Today grappa has become a chic, upscale spirit, made from high-quality single variety grapes, packaged in elegant, hand blown glass bottles, commanding very high prices. The revolution was probably led by the Nonino family in Friuli whose theory was that the skins from better wine grapes would make better grappa. They then pioneered the production of grappa monovitigno, using the fresh skins from only one type of grape, allowing the nuances of that particular grape to shine. Other fine makers following the lead are Alexander, and Jacopo Poli. The Noninos also make “Ùe”, a distilled grape must more delicate than grappa and le frutte (acquavita), distilled from local fruits and berries.
Traditional grappa is usually bottled after minimum aging in steel tanks. Most of these are not for the tame at heart and you would be wise to stick to the more notable producers such as Alexander, Antinori, Badia Coltibuono, Capezzana, Carpazo, Ceretto, Michele Chiarlo, Inga, Lungarotti, Marolo, Mastroberardino, Nonino, Nardini, Jacopo Poli, and Ruffino.
Several producers age their grappa in oak allowing them to develop an amber color and an unusual richness with a soft and smooth finish. Antinori, Bocchino and Nardini have fine examples of this style. Grappa is also produced with digestive herbs such as camomile and rue, offering softer, sweeter flavors. The infused grappas are usually served chilled.
Traditional grappas, other than those infused, should be consumed at room temperature, sipped slowly from a small glass. The fragrance and flavor should leave a lingering pleasant sensation in your mouth.
Derived from the Latin word amarus, bitter, amaro is an alcohol infused with aromatic herbs, spices, roots, quinine, aloe, anise, rhubarb and many other secret botanical ingredients believed to aid and stimulate digestion. The first attempts to aid digestion using herbs and seeds steeped in liquid were made by the Greeks and Romans. According to Apicius, the Romans added cloves and other spices to their wine and created “vino hippocraticum,” a kind of spiced wine drunk after orgies. Around 1300, medieval monasteries began to produce medicinal brews and elixirs according to secret recipes. Until the end of World War II, amari persisted as products of the monasteries or as home made preparations passed down from generation to generation.
Today, every region in Italy has its own typical amaro depending on the herbs, trees, spices and plants found locally, and production has passed from the monasteries to the homes to the industries. With the renewed popularity of anything health-conscious, the amari have now become standard drinks at most international bars and restaurants. Backed by medical studies, and endorsements from physicians, they are alleged to stimulate the secretion of gastric juices and to assist the liver in its function as a body filter. Therefore, by aiding digestion, they help soothe the effect of overeating or over drinking! Popular brands are Averna, Barolo Chinotto, Centerbe, China Martini, Cynar, Ferro China, Amaro Lucano, Montenegro, Ramazotti, Vecchio Amaro del Capo and Unicum. The most famous and the most bitter is Fernet Branca, an acquired taste.
Amari are almost always served straight at room temperature in a heavy, tall clear glass and meant to be sipped as the alcohol content can be 40 to 90 proof. Novices sometimes add seltzer or mineral water with ice and a lemon wedge or add a bit of an amaro to their after dinner coffee. The purist would always drink an amaro before the coffee. In winter, amari are often served steamed with a twist of orange rind.
Enjoy “La Dolce Vita” and sip an aperitivo before your meal and afterwords follow with a choice of either one of these classics – a liquoro, grappa or an amaro, but just one, as moderation is also the key to proper digestion and a long life. Salute!