I believe I learned the word preprandial from my mother. She is a staunch supporter of “cocktail hour,” a custom I also approve of whole heartedly. In these summer months, when darkness kindly waits to descend upon us, five or six o’clock is really too early for dinner and yet that’s exactly when one wants to begin socializing.
Sidling up to a table, preferably outdoors, and enjoying an apéritif with something salty to eat is an excellent way to begin an evening. A memorable cocktail hour for me was spent with my husband in the Piedmont village of Barolo, on the 2nd floor patio of Hotel Barolo. It was February, and I’m convinced there were no other guests there at the time. Yet one early evening as we wandered into the bar looking for a way to kill time, the family running the hotel sensed our presence and asked us what we would like. My husband communicated that we would like an aperitvo, preferably something sparkling and local, and all was understood. She suggested we sit on the patio (it was strangely warm for February) and moments later she brought us two beautiful glasses of sparkling wine and a jar of grissini — a long skinny breadstick invented in Torino, capital of Piedmont. There was something wonderful about sitting on the patio in our fancy dinner clothes, looking out at the hills and fog while sipping and noshing. I believe I announced outloud my love of the apéritif right then and there.
Some beverages are better suited to being an apéritif than others. They should be refreshing and cold. I don’t see much room for a red wine as an apéritif, except for a good lambrusco perhaps (which satisfies the cold and refreshing requirements while still being red). They really should be accompanied by something to eat. It is common to have nuts, olives, or charmingly, potato chips. It is my fondest wish that the United States would develop a stronger apéritif culture. Recently I attempted to have a preprandial drink with a friend, and we asked if we could have some nuts with our glasses of wine. I didn’t imagine that they would somehow be free like they are in Europe, but I also didn’t think it was too much to ask if they had them at all. The young waiter looked at me in amazement (possibly tempted to make a “deez nuts?” joke), and eventually (more than halfway through my glass of wine) provided me with a small bowl of unsalted chopped walnuts that I assume they had reserved for a salad topping. It was better than nothing, but it wasn’t right. In peoples’ homes there are often appetizers served before dinner and that custom provides something similar to what I desire out of a café or restaurant in the early evening hours. A little time to talk casually before digging in to dinner. I’ve come to the point where I must nosh while drinking wine. A simple bowl of salted peanuts will do! In fact I prefer it to an over-priced cheese plate which is what you’d be offered at a wine bar. At any rate, I’ve developed a short list of my favorite preprandial drinks for your reference and amusement:
Champagne or sparkling wine from just about anywhere else. If you are traveling, I recommend asking for a local sparkler — just mumble the words cremant (FR), spumante (IT), espumante (PT), espumoso (ES), or sekt (DE) depending what country you are in. The high acid in these wines make your mouth water, and prepare you for dinner. The effervescence is just festive and makes the evening seem full of possibility. This may be a cliché, but I find it to be true. I’m not a fan of adding anything to the bubbly wine, such as creme de cassis for a Kir Royale, or peach nectar for a Bellini. That may be a good idea if you are drinking really wretched sparkling wine, but I prefer good wine with nothing added.
Fino or Manzanilla Sherry are classic apéritifs! Spain has been pouring them with tapas for centuries. Very refreshing and tasty with salty nuts and seafood. These are about 15% alcohol, so you don’t want to knock back too much before dinner — a mistake I’ve made before. Their richer counterparts, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, and Oloroso are better suited to after dinner.
Txakoli, another white wine from Spain, provides an antidote to the above problem — this utterly refreshing, appley delight from the north of Spain is usually just about 9% alcohol, which will leave your head clear enough to choose from the menu.
Pastis is an excellent apéritif. This is extremely popular in France, though probably less so with the younger generations. It is a concoction based primarily on anis, but on other herbs as well, invented in the early 20th century as a wormwood-free alternative to absinthe. It is always served with a little pitcher of cool water and some nuts. When you pour the water into the pastis, it opalesces, dilutes the high alcohol, and becomes a cooling drink, perfect for the midday sun.
Generally speaking, a glass of light, refreshing white wine will do. In other words, an intense white wine that’s been aged or matured in barrel is probably better-suited to your main course. I do not advocate actual cocktails as apéritif, because the high alcohol content of stuff like vodka will kill your taste buds before you even sit down to dinner. Many people drink bitters before a meal, but to my mind those are ideal as a digestif — a topic covered in a forthcoming post.