It’s taken me nearly five years, but I’ve at last fully embraced that most Italian of traditions – the aperitivo and now eagerly await that early evening fix of looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses.
It’s true that while grasping at sophistication once upon a much earlier time back in the UK, I had a brief flirtation with a famous Italian pre-dinner drink called Punt e Mes, but that was soon submerged by a tide of G&Ts; VATs; Wild Turkey; wine; beer; or pretty much anything that wasn’t pink, wet and Italian.
I just didn’t get the point of a scant tablespoon of something marginally alcoholic fizzing away in a glass, usually alongside a slice of orange.
I think it was the unusually hot days of this June that triggered my aperitivo epiphany.
Before dinner, I found I didn’t actually feel like chugging back the usual beer; nor the standard bucket of gin or vodka with which our local bars supply with a splash of tonic; while a pre-dinner glass of wine as a prelude to yet more wine seemed a bit pointless.
So I’ll have…um…gosh…a Campari-soda please. Not the first I’ve ever tried, but the first for a long, long time and yes, just as vaguely medicinal as I remembered. But not unpleasantly so, and surprisingly refreshing, palate-cleansing and appetite enhancing.
Curiosity whetted, it was but a short step from Campari to the slightly less bitter and slightly sweeter Cinzano Rosso-soda, on which I now happily linger.
From there, it was but a short step over to the Martini pantheon. Martini Bianco, in common with the other white vermouths, is lighter in taste and alcohol than its red counterparts: herbal rather than bitter.
For some unaccountable reason, at some point in its taste palate, Martini Bianco gives me a quick but distinctive hit of banana. Haven’t come across this phenomenon in any reviews, so it’s probably just me…
Still waiting is Aperol. The only alcoholic drink I know that lists rhubarb amongst its ingredients. The Aperol Spritz – with a slug of Prosecco and topped up with fizzy mineral water – is popular in the Veneto. I’ll give it a try and let you know.
And then I must contemplate graduating to alarming-looking local Abruzzese aperitivi, or those most famous of Campari-based cocktails the Americano and Negroni – and so much else besides.
With familiarity comes the grasping of the whole point of the aperitivo. It’s a set-you-up-for-the-evening-ahead drink of which, like a coffee after a meal, you have only one.
Mixed 50-50 with soda, your aperitivo will register a mild 10˚ – or even less – on the alcoholic Richter Scale. Enough for a small tingle of appreciation rather than finishing off your evening before it’s even begun.
The first taste is a sweetness that’s swiftly balanced by a kick of bitterness. This stops you downing the entire glass in one swallow. Which is just as well as there isn’t much of it.
Instead you sip. And nibble away at the little plates of snacks that usually appear in front of you. Even the meanest bar will always run to peanuts and olives.
And when you’ve downed the last bitter-sweet drop, you’ll be properly set-up for the night ahead.
Sad to relate though, I’ve yet to re-establish my crush on Punt e Mes and discover whether it was merely a youthful indiscretion, or a true romance waiting to be rekindled.
Y’see Punt e Mes is an aperitivo from Piedmont in northern Italy. And as far as Abruzzo’s concerned, it may as well come from the dark side of the moon. Does anywhere round here stock it ? No.
Am I still looking ? Yes.
Not so much a booze cruise. More a booze crusade.