Thursday, January 20, 2011

ingredient: CAMPARI

This might rock your world, but the first drink that James Bond ever orders in an Ian Flemming novel is not his signature martini; it’s an Americano. I guess I can understand why the super spy switched over to gin, vodka and a splash of Lillet- it’s probably a lot easier to see if your drink's been poisoned- but for me there is nothing quite like a cocktail made from one of my favorite liquors: Campari.

This liquor was first made in 1860 in Novara, Italy by a man named Gaspare Campari. He made his eponymous drink by soaking a still-secret combination of herbs in water and alcohol. I was a little disturbed to discover that to give Campari its trademark ruby hue, Gaspare dyed the alcohol with carmine dye, which is derived from crushed cochineal insects.

Waiter, there is a beetle in my cocktail.

I suppose that a little bug juice is better than Coca-Cola’s infamous cocaine infusions, but honestly, were there no standards back in the day? Even more shocking is that it wasn't until 2006 that the Campari group replaced the bug dye with an artificial coloring agent (which is probably worse for you but a lot easier to swallow.)

As is apt for its bittersweet, citrusy taste, Campari belongs to the category of drinks known as bitters. I’ve found that bitters are the type of thing that you either love or you hate. Personally, I love these liquors with their slightly viscous texture and palate cleansing sharpness. But Campari is my all time favorite. I love the grapefruit flavor and how my mouth is constantly left wondering: Sweet? Bitter? Bitter? Sweet?

Italians believe that the herbs in Campari give it medicinal qualities and stimulate the appetite. Accordingly, it’s served as an aperitif, or a little palate perker before your meal. It's usually drunk on the rocks or with soda water. In fact Campari and soda is so popular that you can buy little premixed, glass soda sized bottles in stores! I’d take that over a Four Loko any day.

My favorite incarnation of Campari is the negroni cocktail. The negroni is made from equal parts Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth. I love the balanced flavors of the drink; it’s equal parts sweet, tart, and strong. Of course I also love what I think the negroni represents, namely sexy American expats hanging out in Italy in the 1920s.

And there is some truth to my fantasy. Imagine Florence. 1919. A group of well dressed men with too much money and too much time are sitting at Caffè Casoni, smoking cigarettes and discussing nothing important. Count Camillo Negroni asks the bartender to turn up the volume of his favorite cocktail, the Americano, which is traditionally composed of Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda water. I mean, why have soda water when you can have more booze, right? The bartender obliges by exchanging the soda water for gin. The Negroni was born.

A Classic Negroni

By the time cocktail hour rolls around, there’s nothing I’d rather do than sip on a negroni and picture myself in Italy. It’s incredibly easy to make and requires no exact measuring (just an eyeball of ‘equal parts’). In other words, it requires just as much brain power as you’re likely to have left after a long day of work.

If I’m mixing these for a cocktail party, I'll serve them with some candied grapefruit peel. It’s a sweet-tart garnish that perfectly matches the flavors of the drink itself. And it looks pretty. Today I went all out and made the garnish myself because it’s my birthday and, well, why not?

So as Orson Wells said, "The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other." Right. Well. That’s my kind of fiction. Chin chin!

serves 1


for the cocktail:
one ounce Campari
one ounce gin
one ounce sweet vermouth

for candied grapefruit:
1 grapefruit
1/3 cup sugar, plus more for rolling
3/4 cup water


In a mixing glass or a cocktail shaker, combine the Campari, gin, and vermouth. Fill with ice. Shake well and strain into an Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with candied grapefruit peel.

to make the garnish:

Use a peeler or small knife to cut off long (about 4-5 inches if possible) strips of grapefruit zest.

Put the zest in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and let cook for one minute. Drain and run the zest under cold water. Put the zest back in the saucepan, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil. Let it cook for one minute. Drain, cool, and repeat one more time. (The idea is that you blanch the zest three times to take out some of the bitterness.)

After you drain the peel the last time, set aside. In the empty saucepan, add 1/3 cup sugar and 3/4 cup water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved.

Put the peel back in the saucepan and let it simmer for 30 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and let the peel soak in the syrup for one hour. Take the peel out and roll it in sugar (I used demerara sugar because it has bigger flakes).

Let the peel dry for at least an hour.

BONUS: And guess what? That syrup that's left over in the saucepan? Well you've just made yourself some delicious grapefruit simple syrup! I save mine and use it in other cocktails or even to sweeten some ice tea. Yum!

1 comment:

  1. HI Carrie, I just found your blog by searching for information on morbier cheese. I had a quick look and liked your recipes a lot! You obviously like Italian food!

    You could be interested in the most recent blog entry on Orangette which talks about aperol. Similar to campari but more fragrant. try aperol, white wine, bubbly water orange segments and green olives....