In my last post, I cavalierly dismissed the thought of needing an after-dinner drink to ease the pangs of overeating, as if I never did that. Well, as Sheldon Cooper would say, that’s a lie: Sometimes I do. Not often – but every once in a while something Diane makes is so extraordinarily good that I just can’t resist cleaning my plate and coming back for more, regardless of all my pious resolutions of moderation. Or sometimes – this happens far more often in restaurants than ever at home – something I ate just doesn’t sit right with me, and the assorted inward gurgles and burbles send me looking for relief. In either case, I’d much rather take my relief in the form of an interesting amaro than a Pepto Dismal.
There is a whole cadre of such drinks available, and the majority of them are very interesting indeed, both for their flavor and efficacy and for their often exotic origins. Our family standby is Branca Menta, which is Fernet Branca gentled with an infusion of mint. Many an Italian still swears by plain old Fernet, which is just as effective as Branca Menta but a tad too bitter for my taste. Back in my childhood, every Italian-American household kept two bottles of spirits: Strega (why I don’t know) and Fernet. Neither Fernet nor Branca Menta is actually very spiritous – a mere 30% alcohol, which is only 60 proof – but they both work quickly and gently to break up the logjam in the stomach and relieve the discomforts of palatal excess. That welcome comfort appears to be due to their combinations of herbs, which give flavor, color, and congeners to the basic colorless and almost flavorless spirit from which they’re made.
Those herbs are still a family secret, preserved by the Branca heirs since the first production of the drink in 1845. They claim to use 27 of them, from 5 continents; among them aloe from South Africa, rhubarb from China, gentian from France, galingale from India, chamomile from Italy or Argentina – plus flowers, more herbs, roots and plants, some as extracts and teas, some macerated whole in the base alcohol. These are what, to quote Fernet’s website, “produce the beneficial properties of the product.” As near as I have been able to find out, the only difference in the formula for Branca Menta is an addition of mint oil. Whatever: It works like magic for me – a pleasing gastric roto-rooter far more effective than any patent medicine.
Of course these two are hardly the only herbal liqueurs around. Italy sports a whole battery of amari – herbal bitters – and each region seems to have a favorite, usually of local production. Each is interesting, and each is different, so it can be fun to taste them one by one on your travels through Italy, or through your local wine shop. China (pronounced keena, with some quinine in it), Averna, Lucano, Ramazzotti, Cynar (made with artichoke), Rabarbaro (rhubarb), vermouths both white and red: All these belong in that same category, and all can succeed admirably as a comforting digestivo.
The origin of all such drinks lies probably in the monasteries and convents of late medieval Europe, where nuns and monks exploited the newly acquired (from the Arabs) art of distillation to produce cordials for use in their infirmaries.
The most famous of these is unquestionably Chartreuse, in some respects the grandfather of them all. There seems to exist an alchemical manuscript of 1605 which contains the still highly secret formula for the liqueur, which takes its name from the charterhouse of the Carthusian monks who still make it. Apparently it contains 130 herbs, plants, flowers and spices in a wine base, and the resultant liqueur is one of the most highly alcoholic of them all – around 110 proof for the green and 80 proof for the yellow version.
The best of all is Diane’s favorite, Chartreuse VEP, which shares the almost-electric color of the basic green Chartreuse but receives extra-long oak aging to become an absolutely exquisite liqueur, a digestif whose consumption doesn’t need discomfort to justify it.