A Negroni or Campari on the terrace might be the Italian way to enjoy a drink before dinner, but in work-hard play-hard London, we’re much more likely to team our early evening drink with, well, a few more drinks. But with summer upon us, and the relaxed drinking laws pushing us towards a more civilised style of enjoying alcohol, perhaps it’s time we adopted the continental tradition of an appetite-stimulating aperitif to start our evening, followed by dinner.
The term ‘aperitif’, meaning to ‘open up’, comes from the Latin and is most associated with the early evening drinking culture of Milan in Italy. Here the aperitivo crowd snack on small bites while sipping a Campari or Negroni, before heading out for dinner. Unsurprisingly for a nation in love with food, it’s all about preparation for dinner rather than lubrication for a night on the tiles.
But it’s not just the Italians who enjoy this style of drinking. The Spaniards team tapas with a dry sherry to waken the taste buds and temper the salty snacks, while the Greeks quaff a small ouzo in preparation for a full meal, and the French enjoy that most famous of aperitifs – Champagne.
‘No one has been able to give a definitive origin for aperitifs as we know them; there is evidence to suggest they go as far back as ancient Greece, ancient Egypt or even to biblical Jerusalem,’ says bartender and drinks expert Andy Pearson, the man behind new Shoreditch bar The Hoxton Pony. ‘It is known that in the 16th century monastic communities were producing elixirs and spirits flavoured with herbs and spices, which were served to the poor and the sick as a tonic. But it wasn’t until Pernod was mass produced in France in the early 19th century that aperitif drinking became fashionable.’
While the aperitif comes in many guises, the herbal drinks favoured by the Italians are arguably the classics. These bitter-sweet concoctions have been perfected by well-known brands such as Campari and Aperol, and the recipes are often closely guarded secrets.
Time to Relax
‘The aperitif defines a moment rather than a drink,’ says Patrick O’Reilly, marketing manager at Campari. ‘It’s that time after work when you relax on the terrace with a drink. The use of herbs and roots in aperitif drinks is about creating a dry drink that is not too bitter and not too sweet – it’s something that refreshes the palate and doesn’t blunt the taste buds or fill you up.’
The tradition of drinking a dry or slightly bitter tipple before dinner is widespread on the continent, and there is now scientific evidence to support the practice. Sherry producer Tio Pepe has carried out research which shows that the dry, savoury qualities of a good sherry slough away food debris from the tongue, preparing the mouth for the flavours of dinner.
‘During the day the channels on the tongue get blocked with things such as coffee or cigarette smoke,’ explains Jeremy Rockett, marketing director for Tio Pepe. ‘What you need is a good dose of saliva to wash it away. A dry sherry stimulates the production of saliva, and it also adds a savoury flavour to the mouth and suppresses the taste of salty snacks that might typically accompany it.’
In London’s bars and restaurants, bartenders have been using their skills and the nation’s love of cocktails to create light, bitter-sweet blends that are right for the aperitif moment. One such establishment is The East Room in Shoreditch, which offers its clients dedicated aperitif and digestif menus. ‘Part of what we want to promote is for people to enjoy sipping a drink before their meal,’ says bar manager Paul Hammond. ‘Binge drinking is a real problem in the UK, and I think that slower drinking styles like that associated with the aperitif can help combat this.’
For many, aperitifs are associated with that summer feeling, and light fruity drinks can be ideal for ‘opening up’ the stomach. To this end we Brits have our own late afternoon favourite, the fruit cup – now almost universally sold under the Pimm’s brand. In Italy, the fruity favourite is Limoncello.
If you’re going for fruit, one of the best ways to enjoy it is with plenty of ice. ‘British pubs and restaurants are getting used to putting more than one ice cube in a drink these days and Limoncello on a summer’s day will benefit from the American style of “loads of ice”,’ says Chris Lake, director of sales for Limoncello drink Limonce, which has just been released in the UK.
Dry or Sweet?
For the French, and those with more sophisticated tastes, a good Champagne is the way to savour a pre-dinner drink. And although the received wisdom is that aperitifs should be dry, when you’re drinking wine, the opposite can be true. ‘I think a perfect aperitif wine should be soft, very fruity and not too dry,’ says Jonathan Rogers, sales development manager at Harrods’s wine and spirits department. ‘You want a wine that’s light and is not going to overrun your taste buds. In my opinion a sweet wine is perfect.’
But whatever aperitif you choose, the key is in the style of drinking. It’s all about sipping, savouring and – crucially – teaming a light drink with snacks, before dinner. So this summer, if you head straight to a bar after work, try the continental style. With a more civilised approach to drinking, and the relaxed licensing laws, you might well find yourself adopting the Mediterranean style of bar-hopping until the small hours. Just remember to leave the moped at home.