It's been said wine can be a vicarious form of travel, beaming the imbiber to distant lands by virtue of its site-specific flavour.
When I get the yearning to jet off to Italy in the Airbus of my mind, I reach not for Chianti or Barolo. I reach for Campari.
Electric red and full of Santa Claus promise, Campari belongs to a class of European liqueurs known as bitters. It's a love-it-or-leave-it proposition. Most of us choose to leave it. Chances are, if you were born in sugar-saturated North America, you will recoil at bitters.
Not me. One sip of Campari and I'm kickin' it Old World, lounging beneath a café umbrella on the Amalfi coast. Yes, that's me, wearing the white linen suit and loafers over bare feet.
Few things epitomize Euro chic better than Campari. I was reminded of this a week ago while perusing a profile in The New York Times Style Magazine about design-world's new It girl, Ambra Medda. More cosmo than the entire cast of Sex and the City, including their pink drinks, the twentysomething Ms. Medda was born in Greece and raised in Milan and London. She studied in Beijing and worked in New York and Miami, most currently as co-founder and director of the chi-chi annual Design Miami fair. Her drink of choice: Campari.
All bitters are an acquired taste, actually. Typically syrupy in texture and flavoured with herbs and plants, bitters are fortified to an alcoholic strength that falls between wine and hard spirits. Besides Campari, which is 25-per-cent alcohol, my two other favourite brands are Cynar (chee-NAR), flavoured with artichokes (cynara scolymus) and weighing in at 16.5-per-cent alcohol, and Averna. The latter hails from Sicily and is more powerful, at 32 per cent alcohol. It doesn't so much taste of bitter herbs as give you the impression of being roughed up by them in an alleyway. Like I said, acquired taste.
Other examples include Fernet-Branca and, though completely discredited in recent years by shooter-gulping American spring-breakers, Jägermeister.
But Campari, both for its colour and Milanese style, remains iconic - the Mother of all Bitters, in a yummy mummy, Prada-wearin' sort of way.
Developed by a Milano caffe owner named Gaspare Campari in the 1860s, it boasts an ingredients list more closely guarded than the formula for getting caramel into Caramilk. All that's listed on the label, in addition to sugar, alcohol and colouring, is "aromatic herbs." There is much speculation it includes rhubarb, ginseng, tree bark, ginger and orange peel among others. The colouring? Traditionally, it's been carmine, a dye derived from a beetle called dactylopius coccus, though it appears the company has been or is moving away from it in favour of an artificial dye.
Signore Campari initially touted his concoction as a medicinal potion, and it was believed to aid digestion. One disorder I have seen it cure is homesickness, specifically as manifested by Italian relatives looking for a drink to exorcise the gastrointestinal ghosts of Timbits and other North American delicacies.
I make no claims about its other possible medical indications, but I do know that Campari and its bitter kin, with the possible exception of Jägermeister, are a great way to imbue cocktails with European flair. The bitter note also helps quench summer thirst - like hops in beer - and stimulates the palate for food.
Most can be enjoyed straight, but always on the rocks. In summer they're better as long drinks, namely mixed with soda and served with a twist of orange or lemon. I'm told that in France people spike beer with Cynar, which - though I've not tried it - could only improve the flavour of most French beer.
Ironically, one of the two classic Campari cocktails has a decidedly un-European sounding name, the Americano. Equal shots Campari and red vermouth, topped with club soda, it reputedly was the main vehicle of Campari's surge in popularity during U.S. Prohibition (essentially considered a pharmaceutical, it was therefore legal).
The other Campari-based biggie is the Negroni, likely named after somebody with that surname but whose identity remains, like most cocktail stories, sketchy. The geographical source of this glorious potation, though, appears to be Florence. It's essentially an Italian riff on the prototypical martini. Mix 1-½ ounces gin with one ounce each of Campari and red vermouth and serve with ice.
Speaking of Florence, it could be time for bitters to stage their own Renaissance, even if it means riding the Trojan vodka horse. I've been busy mixing a few cocktail candidates for The Globe's Mediterranean Odyssey cruise this summer. I'm still fine tuning, but here, for what they're worth, are some early results.
The Amalfitano is my re-engineered cosmopolitan, the modern pink classic based on cranberry juice. If you can make a cosmo, you can make an Amalfitano. Just replace the Ocean Spray with Campari. My further preference is to omit the dash of sweet Cointreau or Triple Sec as well. Just go with one part vodka, a half part Campari and the juice of half a lime. Shake with ice and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a sliver of lime rind.
Artichokes are revered in Rome, so I'm calling my next concoction the Roman Ruin. Mix vodka with Cynar and the juice of a quarter lemon. Shake with ice or serve on the rocks. You can add a sprig of mint to symbolize the Pines of Rome.
Heard of Slow Food, the Italian culinary movement aimed at preserving and enhancing regional cuisines against the tide of fast food? It now has a signature cocktail, the Sloe Aperitivo, courtesy of yours truly. The name plays off the main ingredient, sloe gin, which is a liqueur based on gin and sloe berries. Simply substitute sloe gin for regular gin in the Negroni. It's killer.
Next is the Italian variant of a Kir, the French aperitif of white wine spiked with an ounce or so of sweet crème de cassis liqueur. My Italian version, which I call Campari Bianco, is far more compelling. Make it with Cynar and it's called a Cyr, pronounced "cheer."
And, just as with Kir, there's a Royale version, which should of course be called Campari Royale. Add half an ounce Campari to a ¾ -filled flute of dry sparkling wine.
I can't promise all of you will love it. But I can promise it will make you feel more Italian.
1-1/2 ounces vodka
3/4 ounces Campari
Juice of half a lime
3/4 ounces Triple Sec or Cointreau (optional)
Shake with ice and strain into martini glass
1½ ounces Campari
1½ ounces red vermouth
Club soda to taste
Serve in highball glass
Lemon peel for garnish
Dry sparkling wine such as
prosecco or Cava
½ ounce Campari
Fill a champagne flute with the bubbly, then gently pour in
1½ ounces vodka
½ ounce Cynar
Juice of a quarter lemon
Shake with ice or serve on the rocks
Garnish with sprig of mint
1½ ounces sloe gin
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce red vermouth
Shake with ice or serve on the rocks
Garnish with orange slice or orange twist