To complete an Italian meal what's needed is un digestivo.
The culture of Italian dining is not reserved only for weekends or special occasions - in our house, wherever we are, a tablecloth is required, napkins, a carafe of water and bread if we're having pasta in order to fare scarpetta and mop up the sauce. While the Italian meal starts with an aperitivo, the drink to conclude 'in bellezza' is un digestivo.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Italian culture I discovered just after moving there in 2000. One Sunday, we were having lunch at Agriturismo La Dolza in the valley below Castel Brando, a place I loved in the summer because, apart from their divine food, they had a pool with white horses allowed to graze beside it which made a beautiful but surreal scene from under the portico. After a deliciously abbondante lunch, a young boy sitting with his family nearby, got up and said matter-of-factly to his parents, "Posso andare a giocare adesso che ho digerito." "I can go and play now that I have digested (my meal)."
There's a real focus on 'digestion' in Italy. Now, we all know this is foodie culture at its utmost and I guess digesting plays a big part? But for an 8 year old to mention it... well, I find that fascinating.
Un digestivo is traditionally served after coffee, the name hints at the purpose - to aid digestion. It's colloquially known as ammazzacaffè translated as 'coffee-killer' (rather dramatic) because it eliminates the taste of coffee and concludes the meal in one swift notion.
Il digestivo can also be served with il caffè and sometimes even in il caffè! Certain digestivi are particularly popular as coffee enhancers, let's look at some together:
A family of bittersweet liqueurs made from the distillation of grapes with herbs, fruits, aromatic spices, roots and bark. These have been concocted throughout the country for thousands of years, particularly popular in monasteries during the middle ages when the monks worked their medicinal magic in the form of a tasty, albeit bitter, drink. So many amari are made in Italy where regional specialities are known and loved in particular pockets and places. There are thousands of variants, here are a few of the most readily found:
Amaro Lucano from Basilicata in southern Italy,1894, this region was known as Lucania in ancient times. It's herby and dark with a distinctive bitter aftertaste and ad campaign every Italian can recite: ‘E cosa vuoi di piu’ dalla vita? Un Lucano’ - 'And what else could you want from life? A Lucano.'
Amaro Montenegro, made in Bologna according to an age old recipe by young alchemist Stanislao Cobianchi in 1885 who, after refusing his fathers wishes to become a priest, went travelling around the world sourcing all sorts of exotic ingredients for his elixir. Amaro Montenegro contains over 40 botanicals and is still made in its iconic bottle.
Cynar can be drunk as an aperitivo, mixed into a spritz as one of the bitter sisters but functions as a digestivo as well. This dark brown, aromatic liqueur is made from 13 different herbs with artichoke leaves as its key ingredient, named after the Latin for artichoke "Cynara Scolymus".
Amaretto meaning 'little bitter' is known world-wide as Amaretto di Saronno but officially should be called Disaronno. Read up in our blog post here how the little Amaretti biscuit fought a legal battle and how this classic, almondy liqueur had to change its name but will never change its flavour.
Limoncello takes you straight to the sun-drenched coast of Sorrento in one single sip. Made by soaking Amalfi lemon rinds in sugar and alcohol, Limoncello is always a good option as a post-dinner drink. Who cares if it aids digestion or not? This glorious zesty, refreshing liqueur falls under the group of perfect ways to finish off your Italian meal, we love it in our new tiramisù!
Fernet has become a multi-national drink with more sales in Argentina than in Italy where it originates from.
Fernet encompasses a range of digestivi including Branca Menta and Fernet-Branca which was first concocted in Milan in 1845 by self-taught herbalist Bernadino Branca. His brew was intended to cure fever, menstrual pain, cholera and worms - purely medicinal. But soon his customers loved it as a little pick-me-up and he jumped onto the digestivo band wagon with a swish 'eagle and globe' logo for the bottle by Leopoldo Metlicovitz. The recipe is a well-guarded secret but we do know it contains 27 herbs from all over the world - "Rhubarb from China, Gentian from France, Galanga from India or Sri Lanka, Chamomile from Argentina" as well as linden (Tiliae Flos), iris, saffron, zedoary, myrrh, aloe and cinchona! An impressive list but no where near as impressive as its popularity in the States.
Prohibition laws in 1919 saw Fernet available in pharmacies as 'medicine' which only boosted its fame forming something of a cult in Argentina and the US where it's mixed into a bunch of cocktails and adored to such an extent, it is known as 'The Barman's Handshake'.
Grappa is so much part of our lives in Veneto, it's almost like water! Made from grape pomace (the solid part of must - pips, sticks and skins left over from wine making), this clear, 75 to 120 proof digestivo is distilled all over Italy but prized in the northern region of Veneto where in Bassano del Grappa (a town named after it) two of the oldest distilleries produce the potent drink. Pure grappa is used as a base in households to make all kinds of delicious, flavoured variants - red currant, mint, pino mugo (mountain pine cone) and one of my faves - cumin. No meal at an agriturismo or mountain malga is complete without the host bringing out a couple of special bottles or inviting you to choose from their personalised collection. Or ask for 'un caffè corretto' - a 'corrected coffee' meaning the grappa (or sambuca) is poured into your espresso to 'make it right'.
Nocino (from walnut - noce) is a black, bitter digestivo using unripe walnuts and their husks. Originating in Emilia Romagna, the walnuts must be picked on the eve of the Festa di San Giovanni (John the Baptist's Saint Day) on the 24th of June, also known as 'The Evening of the Barefoot Virgins'. There's all kinds of myth and legend surrounding this bittersweet potion - stories of witches associated with the walnut tree and ancient rituals of barefoot, female virgins dressed in white climbing the tree after dusk to pick the odd numbered fruit with their bare hands and leaving it overnight to soak up the cosmic forces. Anyway, every family has their own preferred recipe (with or without virgins) but the classic Nocino contains cloves, cinnamon and lemon and is left to infuse for 40 days.
Mirto is Sardegna's beloved, berry-intense liqueur made from the Myrtle plant growing wild on the island. It's very much a Sardinian thing and one of their many prides and joys - served straight from the fridge as a tasty, sweeter digestivo compared to many of the rest.