Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Oct 4, 2009
12:36 PM
Small Dishes

Bittersweet Disposition

Bittersweet Disposition

I love aperitifs. Punt E Mes, Lillet, Byrrh, Campari—the list is a long one. Oddly for me, it all began with vermouth, something most of identify as a minor ingredient in a martini or Manhattan.  As with so many things I discover that I like, it was by accident.

As a college student, I drank a lot of beer while in Belgium.  It is a small place, but it claims to drink more of the stuff per person than any other country in the world. For the most part, laws that regulate the consumption of alcoholic beverages tend to be more lax in Europe. Contrarily, when I was Belgium, only beer and wine could be consumed at a public restaurant or bar. This practice dated from a previous king who was a stanch teetotaler.   One night, out carousing with my friends in Brussels, the suds lost their sizzle. Chalked on the bar’s blackboard was the offer of a “Martini Rosso” at a most reasonable price. How could I pass that up? When a small glass of red wine was set before me, of course I sent it back. There was some difficulty since my French is limited, but the waiter was quite vehement and animated that a Martini I had ordered and Martini I had got. Finally, he brought out a large bottle: “Martini & Rossi.” Embarrassed, I drank the sweet vermouth and was amazed that I liked it. It was sweet, but at the same time, bitter.   
Vermouth is fortified wine flavored with herbs and spices, usually from Italy or France. Sweet vermouth originated in Italy and was made from red wine. Today a sweet, white version, bianco, is also available. Dry vermouth is always made from white wine and most popular in France.  The name is derived from wormwood, a bitter herb used in the distilling of absinthe. The argument can be made that the herbs and spices were added to mask the taste of bad wine, but many believed that these ingredients stimulated the appetite. By the 19th century, vermouth  and other aperitifs were fashionable and widely consumed throughout Europe.  
Many proprietary brands followed, made from exotic and secret formulas, often touting medicinal benefits. What most of them have in common is this combination of bitter and sweet. One of the best known is Campari, formulated by Gaspare Campari between 1862 and 1867. Campari has an enticing soda-pop red color and shockingly bitter taste. It’s a preference you have to acquire and ultimately borders on addiction. Most often, especially in Italy, Campari is drunk simply with soda. In fact it is sold in small bottles there, premixed.
One of my obsessions is the Negroni, a cocktail made from equal parts of Campari, sweet vermouth and gin. It was supposedly invented by General Pascal Olivier, Count de Negroni. Others believe it was a Florentine aristocrat, Count Camillo Negroni, who asked a bartender to add some gin to his preferred cocktail, the Americano. Whatever its origins, it began as an on-the-rocks drink but today is usually shaken over ice and strained into a cocktail glass. An orange twist is an essential garnish—the oils from the rind enhance its complexity.
When it comes to imbibing, no one knows my tastes better than Mary Ward, a bartender at the Capitol Chophouse. I’ve written about her before as have many others—she is truly one of Madison’s most loved mixologists.
Last time I was at the Chophouse, she waived an unfamiliar bottle in my face: “Aperol”. The label also said “Apertivo … original recipe since 1919.” It had a intriguing orange color and I knew I had to try it. I kept wondering, ‘Why I had never heard of Aperol before?’
It resembled Campari but is less alcoholic, a bit sweeter and hints of orange. Doing a little research I learned that it was an old competitor of Campari, but now owned and distributed by them. Its ingredients include bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb and cinchona. Most interestingly, I discovered  the recipe for a Contessa—a Negroni made with Aperol instead of Campari. I found a bottle at Steve’s on University Avenue and of course had to try it. Fantastico!  Everything old is new again.
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About This Blog

Dan CurdI found my interest in writing by accident. My training and first job was as a graphic designer. Unemployed, the only employment I could find in advertising at that time was as a copywriter. Somehow, I convinced Richard Newman & Associates to hire me. Later I learned they were desperate. Madison has been my home off and on since 1957 (nonstop for the past 31 years). I write about food, which I love. – Dan Curd

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