There are many things about a European’s life that I envy (being within walking distance to ripe cheese, flaky pastry, pudding-thick hot chocolate and sandwiches spread with butter, for example); however, one European custom that we can and ought to import is that of the apéritif. In Europe, where eating is the evening’s main event, a drink served before dinner is de rigueur and the perfect way to prime your palate (and bloodstream) to the gustatory pleasures that lie ahead.
The French word apéritif (or aperitivo in Italian) comes from the Latin verb aperire, meaning, “to open.” Usually modest in alcohol (we’re talking 16-24 percent), refreshing and on the dry (and often bitter) side, apéritifs are meant to stimulate your appetite without inundating your empty stomach or sending you three sheets to the wind before dinner’s served.
An apéritif may be as simple as a glass of dry white or sparking wine, but a true apéritif is commonly concocted from some secret herbal recipe and offers a bit more in the way of flavor, color and, most importantly, glamour. These are the apéritifs—like Lillet and Campari—that are ordered by women wearing scarves and men named Barnaby.
Italy’s Campari—cherry red and bracingly bitter—has been a guarded recipe ever since its creation in 1860. Rumored to contain rhubarb, ginseng, orange rind, wood bark and up to 60 different herbs, Campari is the definition of an acquired taste. (I, for better or for worse, acquired the taste when living in Florence and now get irrationally irritated when a bar doesn’t stock it.) Best with just a splash of soda and a twist of orange, a nip of Campari transports you to the trattoria tables of its legendary ad posters from the 1920s. Other Italian aperitivi include Cynar (it’s made from artichokes, but tastes like citrus) and Cinzano (a vermouth made in a dry, white style or a sweet, red style).
France’s apéritifs range from Dubonnet (a vermouth that also comes in a dry, white version and a sweet, red version) to Pernod (an anise-flavored liquor which replaced absinthe after it was banned in 1915 for its alleged pernicious effects), but its tipple of choice seems to be the wine-based Lillet that’s been around since 1887. Served très froid, as its label boldly declares it should be, Lillet is full-bodied yet delicate, fragrant (think orange blossom and honeysuckle) and seductively bitter. A sweeter red version came along in 1962, but it’s the white that was good enough for James Bond to mix into his shaken not stirred martinis.
While Italy and France are certainly tit-for-tat with their liquor shelf of pre-prandial offerings, Greece’s anise-flavored ouzo and Spain’s briny and complex sherry are good at sparking an appetite as well. And, to be fair, we do have something comparable here in America, but downing two Jack & Cokes with a plate of half-priced buffalo wings during happy hour seems less likely to awaken the appetite than it does to ruin it.
Why are we always in such a hurry to eat anyway? Nibble a few olives, nuts, or cornichons while you sip and you’ll be converted to the apéritif way of life. And, in these interminable months of winter, there’s little more delightful than passing the time working up an appetite.