For the lucky and unhurried, there might be a prelude to dinner. In Italy it is the aperitivo hour, in France the apéro. A moment when light, low-alcohol drinks are taken, with a bite or two to eat before moving on to a full-blown meal.
In London, traditional Italian bitters Campari and Aperol are popping up on cocktail menus everywhere from Quo Vadis in Soho (The QV aperitivo of Campari, fresh orange juice and cava) to Oskar’s Bar at Dabbous in Fitzrovia (try the Beverly Hills 2090210 with gin, Aperol, grapefruit and lemon juice topped with cream soda). At the new Apero restaurant in South Kensington, there is the L’Oiseau de Feu, an elegant mix of Ketel One Citroen vodka, orange curaçao, fresh basil, pink grapefruit, Campari and Peychaud’s bitters, served over ice.
But where some dabble with these luridly coloured, tangy alcohols – their bitterness designed to stimulate the appetite – others have gone much further. Both Campari and Aperol had a starring role in Peckham over the summer at Frank Boxer’s annual pop-up, Frank’s Campari Bar, held on top of a car park. Restaurateur Russell Norman’s new Polpo site in Smithfield has a dedicated Negroni bar, and he has championed the bitters from the beginning of his Little Italy empire with the first Polpo in Beak Street three years ago. Norman says: “Polpo was my tribute to the Venetian bàcaro, little, out-of-the-way places that serve local wines, cicheti (snacks) and the favourite cocktail is the spritz – prosecco, with Campari or Aperol, topped up with soda. Everybody drinks it there. It was always going to be essential.” When he first opened, he says, customers expressed curiosity: “People were used to seeing [Campari] as a component of cocktails, but the vast majority of Londoners hadn’t come across it before.” Now, Norman says that Gruppo Campari “tell us consistently that Beak Street Polpo consumes more Campari and Aperol than any other unit in the UK”. Norman also sells an imported bitter, Cynar, made from artichokes, in his Cynar gin fizz.
Could we be catching up the Italians? Gruppo Campari, which owns both brands, does not divulge its sales figures for the UK, but Italy remains the stronghold for the brand, outperforming other regions with net sales of €212.6m in the first half of 2012. Andrea Neri, global head of aperitifs, wines and cordials at Gruppo Campari, says, somewhat opaquely: “Thanks to the growing interest in [the UK] in the aperitif culture, more consumers are experimenting with bitters, and we do see in this natural trend a positive signal for the growth of the brands in the market.”
Theo Randall, who introduced a permanent aperitivi menu at his restaurant at the InterContinental this summer, remembers when the drinks were decidedly unfashionable. “Ordering a Campari soda, people would say, ‘Why do you want that, it’s so bitter?’ But with sweet olives or crostini with tomatoes it works really well. Something bitter gets your saliva going.”
The recipes for Campari and Aperol, created in 1860 and 1919 respectively, remain trade secrets, referencing only “herbs and roots”, though it is apparently crushed beetle shells that produce the drinks’ colour. Randall says: “It’s funny how Italians love their bitter drinks … You start with bitter and you end with bitter, as at the end of the meal you have amaro, a fortified wine with herbal notes – incredibly strong and incredibly dry.”
One of the punchiest cocktails on the list is the Montalbano, named after the Sicilian police inspector of Andrea Camilleri’s novels. A mix of Bombay Sapphire gin, Martini Bianco, Campari and Galliano, Thandall christened it for the detective’s bravado: “The drink was big and bold, and we serve it in a big glass, it had so many flavours.”
Restaurateur Nick Grossi, whose father Erasmo moved from Italy to the UK when he was 20 and opened the first Italian restaurant in Southport, says: “In those days, my father had all of those aperitif drinks, but whenever we went to Italy we’d bring back as much as we could as some of it wasn’t imported.” Grossi researched his Spitalfields Italian wine bar, Super Tuscan, in Florence. “People will go in [to a bar or coffee shop] after work and you’d typically have an Americano, a Negroni, an Aperol spritz or glass of prosecco. And you’d get free little snacks along the bar.”
Grossi tried the same thing but “some people were a little bit shy, and wondered if it was really free”. Now the little snacks (chicken liver crostini, Sicilian chickpea crisps) are made to order when his customers have an aperitivo. “I’ve certainly seen a huge bump in sales.”
Make your own…
(from Theo Randall at the InterContinental)
40ml Bombay Sapphire Gin
30ml Martini Bianco
5ml Galiano Authentico
40ml Moscato D’Asti desert wine
● Lightly muddle an orange slice in the glass. Shake Bombay, Campari, Bianco and Galiano in a cocktail shaker and carefully strain over the orange slice. Add Moscato to top up, garnish with a cherry.