When in my late teens I started wandering around Europe on my own, I regarded the aperitif-drinking Italians and French with a respect bordering on awe. How could they sip those aromatic, sometimes sharp, often bitter drinks with such frequency and enjoyment? It seemed the height of sophistication to my conservative Anglo-Saxon taste.
My taste has changed, and nowadays I like dry wines and savory foods. European tastes have changed too. The Italians and French are drinking more scotch and vodka before meals, but they still have a large place in their hearts for the traditional aperitifs. And, to watch the world go by with the help of a Campari, a Lillet, Dubonnet, vermouth or Punt e Mes, is still evidence to me of civilized behavior.
Listen to Europeans in a bar or caf,e. When they rattle off two or three words, strung together in one continuous phrase, what on earth have they ordered? Sometimes it turns out to be a colorful liquid and a flask of water or soda next to it. Or a short drink in a long glass, with a slice of lemon or orange.
An aperitif, from the Latin "aperire," to open, is a palate cleanser, an appetite whetter. Like those above, most are brands, proprietary labels, and the exact recipe of whatever is inside them is never for publication. Some are wine-based; others use distilled spirits as a base and are subdued with water or soda water. They are infused with a botanist's bounty of ingredients: the flowers of chamomile, roses, citrus; herbal hyssop, knapweed and tansy; the roots of rhubarb, gentian and lovage; barks and woods of sassafras, sandalwood; seeds, fruits and spices.
Many producers have claimed medicinal properties for their brands. Aperitifs were thought to have had wondrous effects on the digestion. True, some are so bitter that it is possible to believe that they must be doing some good.
Lillet was founded in 1872 by the brothers Paul and Raymond Lillet in Podensac, a small town in the Bordeaux' Graves region, and first crossed the Atlantic with the returning American Army in 1918. The various flavoring ingredients of Lillet, including citrus essence, are added to a base of dry white wines of Bordeaux. To highlight that citric flavor, try squeezing a piece of orange peel, which will release its oils, and then wave a lit match under the zest. Throw the singed peel into a glass of chilled Lillet and stir. Remove the peel before drinking.
Ratafias are a not-so-easy-to-find group of aperitifs. The name was originally given to any liqueur drunk at the ratification or signing of a treaty. California's Domaine Chandon launched its ratafia, Panache, some time ago, but has found it hard to coax easterners to try it. Panache, with a languid Millais mademoiselle on the label, is made by adding wine spirits to unfermented pinot noir juice. Try it over ice with a twist of lemon.
I would fail the true appreciator of aperitifs if I didn't add a footnote on notorious absinthe. Wormwood was the dangerous ingredient that caused absinthe to be banned just before World War I. The ersatz absinthes that followed -- Pernod, Pastis and others -- replaced wormwood with aniseed, thereby giving them a medicinal taste. Back to my point: One man's medicine . . .