Raising the spirits
Drinks writer Ian Wisniewski celebrates summer with a selection of his favourite apéritifs and digestifs from the Mediterranean.
When we're in a holiday mood, it's nice to stretch out a good meal with pre-and after-dinner drinks, apéritifs and digestifs serve different functions – drinks before the meal are fresher in style, to stimulate the appetite, while digestifs tend to be heavier and sweeter, to soothe full stomachs. One of my favourite drinks, sherry, falls into both categories – but that's another story.
The word apéritif – meaning a drink served before a meal – derives from the Latin aperire, 'to open', its task being to open the digestive system and get the gastric juices going. A wide range of Mediterranean apéritifs do this in great style.
The seeds of the anise plant contain an essential oil that stimulates the digestive system. Aniseed-flavoured spirits are popular across the Med from Spain to Turkey, and each country has its own version, traditions and serving styles.
In France, anise and pastis, two variations on the aniseed theme, are the most popular apéritifs. An anise such as Pernod focuses on aniseed, together with 14 other herbs including camomile and coriander, while a pastis such as Henri Bardouin uses nearly 50 ingredients, including herbs from Provence and imported spices such as cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon. The usual recipe is to mix one part Pernod with five parts water, while the intense flavour of Henri Bardouin needs six parts water. Adding water turns the clear spirit cloudy.
Crème de cassis is France's top-selling fruit liqueur and the key ingredient in the country's second-favourite apéritif, kir. This sweet, aromatic liqueur hails from Burgundy, and is made from blackcurrants that have been cultivated there since the 19th century.
Producing crème de cassis means balancing three elements: blackcurrants, sugar and alcohol. This yields two styles – crème de cassis and the superior super-cassis – differentiated by the quality and type of fruit used and the concentration of sugar. Vedrenne Super Cassis is a prime example of super-cassis.
To make a kir, pour 10ml crème de cassis into a wine glass and top up with dry white wine – try Muscadet. Adding sparkling white wine instead elevates a kir into a kir royal, which is best served in a champagne flute. Choose either a sparkling wine from Burgundy, or a champagne with a more acidic style to provide a greater contrast with the sweet liqueur.
Typical of Milan's flamboyance is the deep red liqueur Campari, created in 1862 by Gaspare Campari, in his legendary bar located in the Galleria, the city's chic shopping arcade. The distinctive bitter-sweet taste results from a combination of herbs, spices and dried fruits – the exact ingredients are a closely guarded secret. Serve it in the true Italian style: with soda, ice and a slice of orange.
And to finish…
After dessert there's another highlight to look forward to: a digestif to sip and savour.
Grand Marnier is a blend of cognac and wild oranges, matured in oak casks. Serve straight in a brandy balloon or over ice in a tumbler, and sip slowly to appreciate this sweet, rich, silky spirit.
The French brandies Cognac and armagnac are similar in taste, and have a range of flavours, including vanilla, crème caramel and dried fruit. The more sophisticated of the two, cognac, has younger (and cheaper) styles such as Martell VS, as well as more mature options like Hennessy XO*. Any VS cognac will be at least four and a half years old, VSOP is at least four and a half to six and a half years old, while Napoleon, XO and Hors d'Age on the label all mean the same thing – that the contents are at least six and a half years old.
Grappa*, from the north of Italy, is another style of brandy. Local winemakers traditionally distilled the pomace (leftover grape skins, pips and stalks) to make this robust spirit. Later improvements in the winemaking process meant that the pomace contained more grape juice, which yielded a smoother, more characterful drink. Grappa is usually sipped on its own, although it is also a popular partner to an espresso. And it can also be tipped into the coffee, to make a caffé corretto (this literally means that the coffee has been 'corrected' by the addition of alcohol).
Sambuca* originated in Sicily during the ninth century, after the Arabs had conquered the island. They showed the locals how to prepare an aniseed-flavoured drink called zammu. The Arabs also brought the technique of distillation with them – when the Sicilians applied this to zammu, adding ingredients such as lemon peel and elderflowers to the mix, it evolved into something stronger. In Italian restaurants, sambuca is often served after the meal with three coffee beans floating on the surface – these are for good luck.
My advice is: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Watch what the locals are eating and drinking, and take a leaf out of their book. Enjoy new aromas and flavours and bring some of them home. And if you're staying put this year, look out for my recommendations at Waitrose.
*Limited availability in Waitrose
Ian Wisniewski is a spirits expert and author.