Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Getting the Gastric Juices Going

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Getting the Gastric Juices Going

Article excerpt

VICTORIA MOORE laments the passing of the taste for bitters as aperitifs


With March come the first, Barbie-sized stalks of palest pink rhubarb, newly forced into thin spring sunlight. As I am in Rome, it seems fitting to investigate an Italian liquor called Aperol, which boasts rhubarb as a key ingredient. Actually, this is slightly misleading. Though the drink has the resilient orangey-sunset pink of tougher, Triffid-sized late rhubarb, the fruit is only one of dozens of ingredients.

Aperol, like campari, is an amaro, or "bitter", the recipes of which are always closely guarded secrets. The only thing you can be certain of is that they contain an awful lot of strange things. Wormwood is often used to give the bitter, tingly taste, as is rhubarb root, or artichoke. One of the bottles of bitter I found stacked in a dusty shop in a narrow alley here has a picture of a globe artichoke splayed across its label, giving the impression that the drink might also taste of artichoke. It does not.

In the same way that few enjoy eating a peeled lemon segment, so bitters are an acquired taste. Even if you like them, it is hard not to pucker. In England they never quite caught on, perhaps because they weren't ever supposed to be enjoyed. Hippocrates was the first to take a bitter drink to aid his digestion. But it was the Italians who took to the idea of aperitifs to get the gastric juices going with all the vim of the newly converted, setting whole monasteries of monks to work growing the variety of herbs necessary to make amari.

It was a long time before the potions of roots, herbs, peel and bark brewed by monks and apothecaries entered the mainstream. Now, rosy-coloured aperitifs sit perfectly with our notion of la dolce vita: think pavement cafes, elegant blondes with unsmudged lipstick, large chunks of ancient masonry and admiring paparazzi. …

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