Wine & spirits: Cin-cin!
We have the Romans to thank for our favourite tradition -- happy hour. Whatever you call your aperitivo -- a midday refresher, late-afternoon pick-me-up or pre-dinner cocktail -- the word stems from the Latin aperire, "to open the appetite." With that kind of head start, it's no wonder Rome's descendants have devised so many ways to kick-start our digestive juices.
Think Cin-Cin, cocktail culture's cheerful way of greeting friends for a quick sip after work before heading home for dinner. "Cin-Cin. Relax, it's time to play" is a catchy toast that was created by an advertising agency for the maker of Italy's best-known brand of vermouth, Cinzano ($12/1 L), which is the contemporary equivalent of what the ancients drank.
Roman wines were routinely so bad -- bitter, alcoholic, vinegary -- drinkers resorted to adding honey, herbs, spices, flowers, seeds, roots, bark, even seaweed and salt water to make them palatable. Although winemaking practices have since improved, the Latin taste for flavour-infused, bittersweet, fortified beverages has persisted. North Americans tend to think of red, sweet Italian-style vermouth as "the stuff you put in manhattans" and of white, extra-dry French types, like Noilly Prat ($13/1 L), as useful only for waving at martinis. In
European homes and bars, both versions are commonly sipped neat or over ice, with or without a spritz of soda or a twist of lemon.
Italy's fondness for bitterness in cocktails may seem a bit extreme for genteel imbibers. Campari Bitter Aperitivo ($25) has such a strong, cough-syrup smell and bittersweet quinine-like antiseptic taste that only the most adventuresome drinker can delight in its secrets. But combined with Cinzano and a bold splash of a dry sparkler like Prosecco, all those flavours evolve into a gentler, rounder gulp. Once you've mastered Campari, try Cynar Bitter Digestivo ($18), which pleasantly enhances our appreciation of the real wonders that can be fashioned from the humble artichoke.
Not to be outdone, French winemakers have wasted no time developing their own style of apéritif -- the cinq à sept, where the apéro becomes the raison d'être. Rightly so. At this crucial time of day, we need a moment to re-energize with the restorative qualities of food, drink and companionship.
One of the least known French delicacies is Pineau des Charentes. It was created in error centuries ago in the Cognac region, when fresh grape juice was accidentally poured into a barrel partly filled with brandy. The resulting mixture turned out to be a delicious concoction with an enthralling aroma and heady taste -- fruity, honeyed, nutty and baked, all at once. Marnier ($18) and Reynac ($17) are listed in some provinces. Pineau is served chilled in small wineglasses, or over ice with a twist of citrus peel.
There was certainly no mistake made in creating the popular Dubonnet ($11). This fortified wine-based drink is available in two styles: an oak-aged red with vibrant blackcurrant flavours, and an amber gold version with a bitter mandarin aroma and rich, dried apricot flavours.
Of all the classic aperitifs around, the prize for the most underappreciated fortified wine must go to Spain's famous ultra-dry fino sherry. The austere, nutty, barrel-aged taste of Tio Pepe Fino Sherry ($15) is a model of adaptability when washing down a wide variety of foods.
The perfect aperitivo quickly relaxes guests and encourages light snacking. Complementary morsels might include spiced olives or olive tapenade, roasted or flavoured nuts, cheese straws, prosciutto-wrapped figs, baby shrimp, gougère, sushi, seafood, onion tarts and savoury biscuits. Bites should be small -- nothing sloppy or hard to chew. Risotto, for example, might otherwise be considered out of the question, but presented in mini-portions, it often ends up the wine-pairing highlight of the evening.