Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Bitter and Sweet of It

The Bitter and Sweet of It

My story begins, here in the States, on a Friday.  Normally, Fridays are highlighted by a dinner of omelets, preceded of course by cocktails of the Margarita variety and a thrown together plate of appetizers, whatever might be handy.  Sometimes something like cheese would fill our free hand, though at times our nibbles were more thought-out, venturing instead to something like toasty nachos.  This routine is a leftover tradition from the days when we would arrive at our weekend retreat after a long week of work.  Now in retirement, it is our permanent home with no need for my quick omelets, or cheese, or nachos, though certainly the need for an aperitif or two remains. 

This particular Friday was overcast.  Seeing the weather was somewhat depressing, we collectively decided to go to a movie, direct from tinsel-town to our town, as a change from our ordinary routine.  Two votes was all it took to make it unanimous, so off we went to the matinee offerings.  This being Smalltown USA, our selection was from among three movies.  The first was a light, bubble-gum for the brain flick, Paul Blart - Mall Cop.  Neither of us could stomach that, which left the additional choice of a very noisy, almost concussive continuing saga of superheroes, Marvel's Avengers.  Also on offer was something we'd seen advertized. What had caught our interest was the BBC movie, Woman in Gold.  We opted for Woman in Gold thus skirting nonsense and fantasy for hard reality. 

This film centered on an art restitution case involving the Gustav Klimt masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.  This painting had been stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish family living in Vienna following the 1938 annexation of Austria.  Maria Altmann, played by actress Helen Mirren, left everything behind in her flight to freedom at the outbreak of WWII.  Following a nail-biting escape, she makes her way to the US as a refugee seeking peace.  Eventually, many years later, she seeks justice for the return of her family's property, the Klimt artwork, which since the war's conclusion had become an Austrian national treasure.  In a series of emotional flashbacks, we grow to understand Maria's and her family's plight.  The torment and injustice they endured brought back vivid memories of our visit to Israel's Holocaust Museum, approximately one year earlier. 
Re-experiencing their lives, with Helen as our guide, we are afforded glimpses of their family life, their traditions, and their exquisite home.  It was in just such an instance, in one of these interjected flashback scenes, that I was surprised at what only momentarily rushed by in the background.  I couldn't of course rewind to be sure, but just for an instant, I was amazed when I saw what I believed to be a bottle of Aperol. 
Aperol was originally produced as a restorative health and diet drink by the Barbieri Brothers of Padua.  The presence of a bottle of Aperol in the movie fits the timeline.  It was about 1939 or 1940 by this time.  Silvo and Luigi Barbieri debuted their creation shortly after World War I at the 1919 Padova International Exhibition, so about this time, shortly before World War II, it was beginning to make a name for itself.  It was Silvio Barbieri who named Aperol after the French apreo meaning aperitive.  What was revolutionary about it was that this healthful spirit had a kick from its 11% alcohol content.  Just what the doctor prescribed and more.
Aperol falls into the dichotomy of a love-it or hate-it situation.  Many naysayers claim it tastes medicinal.  For others, it takes time to acclimate to its herbal flavor—it grows on them, becoming an acquired taste.  There is some truth in this assessment for it is classified as a bitters, an alcoholic beverage that is flavored with tart herbs.  I confess, at first I sided with the "mediciny" crowd, but I found it nowhere near as bitter as its corporate stablemate, Campari.  Besides, who drinks Aperol full strength? 
 Purchased in the 1990s by Barbero 1891 S.p.A., Aperol later entered Gruppo Campari's portfolio of spirits approximately a decade later, which vowed to remain faithful to the original recipe.  There it began its climb, reaching new records of popularity in large part due to the push of aggressive advertising in addition to the ease with which it can blend with so many other drinks.  All the saints aside, Aperol is today the leading spirit in Italy and the inspiration behind an aperitif which has become its signature drink: the Aperol Spritz.  In the Italian Veneto region alone, it’s reported that the number of devoted customers who faithfully take their Aperol Spritz medicine is around 250,000 per day. 

Still made according to the Barbieri secret formula, it’s a complex fusion of over thirty herbs, fruits and spices with memories of orange, rhubarb and gentian root extract (also found in the carbonated drink, Moxie) giving it initially a citrusy sweetness, somewhat woody I must admit, perfectly balanced by swallows-end with a delectable herbal follow through.  In summary, the taste acquired, it's orangey sweet with a delectably herbal bitterness.  A Spritz, just what the doctor ordered. 

Spritz is a word barely used in the States.  Not since the antics of Clarabell the Clown and Harpo Marx with their seltzer bottles, do I recall anything coming close to being spritzed.  The spritz originated in Venice from the Austrian-Hungarian practice of spritzen (German for splashing), where water was added to dilute glasses of strong Italian wine—something on the order of how an ancient Roman paterfamilias cut the wine of his female family members. 

As this palette pleasing aperitivo spread from the Venito throughout Italy, variations in its formulation began to appear.  The original Aperol Spritz was made with white wine.  A splash, dash or glug-glug of this or that soon became the preferred manner to consume Aperol.  Later, the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, replacing the vino, became Prosecco. The most popular of its many variations retains the use of Prosecco.  Brewing an incredibly refreshing Aperol Spritz, at least the way we like them, is simple and goes as follows: Ice (use large cubes, never crushed ice, essential for the drink's slow dilution)

3 Parts Dry Prosecco (cold to impart acidity and effervescence) — more than a spritz nowadays
2 Parts Aperol
1 Splash of Soda (or Tonic Water)
 Slice of Orange

For the chemist in all of us the sequence is important.  To avoid the Aperol settling to the bottom, start by adding ice to the glass then pour in the Prosecco, next the Aperol and add the splash before topping it off with a slice of orange.  The size glass used is optional, as is the size of the container you choose to measure your parts. 
      I recall the first time I was introduced to the Aperol Spritz.  It was on a spring day in Rome, 2013.  It had been a long day of sightseeing, added to by the fact that it was a holiday and bus service
in Rome was non-existent—with numerous holidays or frequent strikes, the result is the same—a piede (on foot)!  We'd walked the entire day.  Along with us were my sister, Lorraine and her friend, Harriet.  Our touring had included the Campo Di Fiori (Field of Flowers) overseen by a statue of Friar Giordano Bruno in hooded regalia who, branded a heretic by the thought police of his day, was later burned at the stake in this very square for professing scientific heresy; the Roman Forum; San Giovanni Laterno, home to the graves of six popes; the archiological sub-basement of San Clemente, a place that inhabits the past, and site of a 3rd century temple dedicated to the sun god, Mithras; the Trevi Fountain; the Spanish Steps; Piazza Popalo and a brief stop at Santa Maria in Aracoeli (Altar of Heaven) to see paintings by Carvaggio before arriving at the Pantheon.  It ranked with a death march, though everything considered, a pleasurable one.  Plumb tuckered out by this time, we felt like Trireme galley slaves and needed a drink.  Afternoon had taken hold when we settled in welcomed relief at a table of an outdoor cafe to the side of Fontana del Pantheon, the fountain located in the center of Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon.
      Around us the chaotic scrum of certified tourists went on without us, many following the cadence of their pennant waving follow-me leaders. 
No longer participants in the melee, we'd transitioned into self-made observers.  At a table beside ours, so close that they touched in an almost intimate act, which considering the significance of the real estate we were squatting on made sense, a young couple was already enjoying their drinks.  The ice-bound, bright orange-tangerine, almost fluorescent color of their cocktails caught my attention.  As close as we were, no more demanding then talking to my sister, I inquired what they had there and thus proper  introductions were made to the Aperol Spritz.  That first swallow of its unique flavor was a invigorating awakening, reveille to thirsty taste buds.  Between cathartic sips of our own coolers, we learned that our neighbors were on a six week honeymoon all the way from distant Australia.  This, their first stop, would be followed by Paris and then London.  About then, Maria Elena reminded me how on our honeymoon drive to Cape Cod, we'd opened the wedding gift envelopes we'd received that day in the modest hope it would pay for our brief stay.  Boy, how times have changed.  Thinly stuffed envelope memories aside, a second round for the four of us only added to our relaxation there in the piazza under a shading umbrella.  It was transporting, for now, well past relaxed, we were without a care in the world.  Its prescriptive 11% alcohol by volume had kicked-in, so, so nicely.   

      Having by this time overwhelmingly secured its popularity with us, the delightfully frizzante (crisp) Aperol Spritz once again lent itself as a revitalizing summer drink when we visited Amalfi.  We'd arrived on the pier bordering traffic snarled Amalfi by way of a ferry from Salerno.  It had been a pleasant day for a pleasant boat ride—better to avoid driving the coastal road and use the ferry service.  Our only detractant was a noisy load of less than inconspicuous students out for an apparent cultural field trip.  Acting as though they were burgeoning pirates, they'd ruled the waves the entire crossing, one going so far as to moon a passing vessel awash with sightseers.  I tried to imagine the scene from their perspective, but thankfully failed.  Surly that untoward sight alone had to have been worth the cost of their passage.
      Back on solid ground once more, we first had to cross Piazza Flavo Gioia.  Something interesting about this fellow, Flavo—he was supposedly an Italian mariner from Amalfi credited with inventing the mariner's compass, when in actuality, he never existed!  Crossing this piazza on foot, we then cautiously, without compass, navigated the death-defying, coast-hugging road known worldwide for the excitement of its hairpin turns—the SS163 Amalfitana, to reach the town.  Maximum caution is recommended since everything seems to be in motion at once; coaches, vans, tour-buses, motorbikes, cars, trucks, and of course those pesky scurrying tourists.  There was no way around it since SS163 fronts the entrance to the town square from either Via Duca Mansone or Via Lorenzo D'Amalfi.
      Amalfi is small, not much more than a gash or cleaving in the coastal bluffs sufficient to host a square, cathedral, and innumerable cafes and restaurants—just enough to cater to the frequent cruise
ships that disgorge tender-loads of too-eager passengers.  From the fountain square, Piazza del Duomo, it meanders but a few hundred yards, if that far, along Via Lorenzo D’Amalfi, before it changes name to Via Pietro Capuano and dwindles into hillside paths when the ravine ends.  Essentially just as long Via Spaccanapoli splits Naples down its ancient center, so Via Lorenzo D’Amalfi and Via Pietro Capuano do to Amalfi.  
       The town is all about Saint Andrew, the brother of St. Peter.  Andrew's presence begins atop the town square fountain dedicated to the apostle and from there extends to innumerable mementos filling the souvenir gamut from refrigerator magnets to statues of the icon.  Here again legend plays a hand to report that he felt so unworthy to be crucified as Christ had, that instead he requested to be martyred on an X-shaped cross.  The fountain thus depicts him standing beside his cross, referred to as the Crux Decussata (X-shaped Cross) or simply, Saint Andrew's Cross.  
      Actual remains of St. Andrew were reportedly brought to Amalfi after the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1206.  They include a portion of his skull, located in the Crypt of St. Andrew in the lower reaches of the Duomo (Cathedral).  Our first stop, in fact, was a visit to the Duomo di Amalfi where we toured a beautiful garden and museum in addition to the saintly crypt.  It, however, followed our first exertion of the day, a trek up the interminably long staircase leading to the Duomo.  Although the cathedral itself has been rebuilt and remodeled many times since the late 800s when it first began to take shape, this climb up an exterior stairway of 62 steps remains.  We refer to stairs as flights, and just as in an aircraft, once airborne, we eventually land.  In the case of stairs, it's funny how we revert to air travel terminology and invoke the term, landing as our destination.  This seemingly endless flight of stairs later, we reached the landing!  
      Inside the cathedral walls, we paused to walk the covered courtyard perimeter of the spectacular Chiostro del Paradiso (Cloister del Paradise).  Here in a pronounced Moorish influence, slender double columns connected by pointed arches enclose a garden that in medieval times served as a graveyard for noble Amalfi families.  The open gallery above this former cemetery afforded these wealthy merchants a prime view of the Duomo's ornate green and yellow roofed bell tower from their tranquil retreat.

      Returned to sea level once more, following visits to the sanctified altar room of the crypt, which seemed distanced by centuries of decorum from the frenzied bustle in the town square outside, andtouring the evident wealth of the Duomo museum artifacts, we sought restorative relaxation at Bar Royal not far along the town's social hub, Via Lorenzo D'Amalif.  Of course we ordered Aperol Spritzers.  Following the lead of the Manchester United Premier League Football Team, where Aperol has become the club's 
official spirit—the Aperol brand advertized and served during home games—this signature drink had become the official drink of our little company as well.  Without the least hesitation, our waiter brewed a few and was even kind enough to top them off, table-side, with additional Prosecco after a few sips and the fizz had subsided.  We could have remained there indefinitely, one longish draw after another, but there was a boat to catch. 
      As in our arrival, it was a pleasant cruise home.  As Amalfi reached the vanishing point on the horizon we felt secure in the fact that Saint Andrew was firmly ensconced as the patron of this coastal town. Unlike their forefathers, who'd lived off the bounty of the sea, today's inhabitants survive on a different kind of bounty, still up from the sea, marketing mythical surmises of compasses and crosses, in addition to imported bones.  Sitting there in the cafe by the side of abbreviated main street Amaifi, the Aperol Spritzers had helped mere visitors like us put it all into perspective.  
      Still in the vicinity of the Bay of Naples, it was as though our boat from Amalfi, hearing the Siren's song, had made a wrong turn and somehow deposited us on the Island of Ischia for our next pleasurable Aperol adventure.  In all honesty, though also by ferry, it was much later when Maria Elena and I once again visited Ischia.  Before dinner one evening we walked along the wharf of Ischia Porto, the islands main port.  Interestingly, this oddly circular shaped port was once a volcanic crater, which filled with water to become a lake.  In 1853 it was opened to the sea to create the port. 
      We were looking for that special place for an aperitivo, and we found it that evening in an enoteca (wine shop) at the far end of the marina-like wharf.  The enoteca had a clever name, Un attimo Divino (A Divine Moment), when in actuality, if I have its subtlety interpreted correctly, its name is a play on A Wine Moment.  
      Here we discovered Valerio Sgarra entertaining at the piano.  In addition to being a talented singer/songwriter, he is a musician.  Maria Elena thought his presence favored a bohemian style—his hat was just too Parisian.  She was correct for later we learned he had spent years in Paris as an entertainer.  As if these talents were not enough, he is an actor of theatrical notoriety in Naples.  The flames of the candles practically matched the color of our Spritzers, (of course we also had divine vino), as we listened to his throaty sound to the accompaniment of his guitar, at times the piano, sometimes even multitasking in lighter moments with the addition of a kazoo.  But there was more.  Valerio was also a budding author and had recently been published.  He was kind enough to present us with an autographed copy.  He described it in what at first struck me as an oxymoronic fashion, it being he said, an "unauthorized autobiography".  With the catchy title, Serenate A Mano Armata (Serenades at Gunpoint), I felt obliged to read it, or else.  All in Italian of course, I occasionally piece my way through its secrets.  I can report that so far, no reader has been injured.   
       In the weaving semi-glow of the candlelight, seen through the Aperol tinted glass of my spritz, he struck me as a gypsy-like person, melancholy, at best of the unhappy sort.  Then again, we shared only a brief time together.  He was a student less of the scholastic kind, his hue more toward the romantic.  As a consequence, at an early age he'd drifted like a wandering musician from one venture to another, up and down the length of Italy—la vita di strada (life on the road), trained on the streets in his music and acting, his teachers the company of others.  But whatever made him and however it came about, the glass did not distort the enjoyment we experienced listening to him.  Today he acts, transcribes his thoughts and music, and entertains in clubs in Naples and Ischia.  What is success, how do we measure it?  If we allow it to be the achievement of self-set goals, than well done Valerio.
     Like the backdrop in the movie that triggered these recollections, Aperol can be found occupying a spot on our shelf, ready to cool a thirsty afternoon fever or herald an evening's dinner experience.  Of course it is best to sip your aperitivo in situ, be it in Rome, Amalfi, or Ischia, but when you can't enjoy one in these gasp locations, serve it up anyway and move from the reality we live and move in to the transporting moments of where you were and with whom from a past memory.  The movie, these three glimpses at memories and more, made for a special Friday that week's end, work or no work.  There was something about that day, for adding to its significance, this was also the day we finished watching the final episodes of the BBC Series, Rumpole of the Bailey.  Momentous as the occasion was, at least for us, no run-of-the-mill Margarita would due that Friday.  Instead, the uptown class of Aporal Spritzers were held high as we looked at the world once again through orange tinted glass to say adieu to the somber of Woman in Gold with its 'spritzible' backdrop prop, to Horace Rumpole and his wife, She Who Must be Obeyed, and move on from remembering our yesterdays to anticipating our Aperol Spritze tomorrows. 
     A mishmash of people, separated by mountains, lifestyles and cultural traditions, regional dialects, rivalries and something closely linked to ancestry, food...if one thing unites Italy, it is the Aperol Spritzer, a testament to the bitter and sweet to life itself.  Vita brevis  (life is short), so thanks to the Barbieri brothers, drink-up, for the world looks better through rose colored glass. 

From that Rogue Tourist