Aperitivo: a modern ritual with an ancient flavour

So widespread that it’s the subject of arguments and the set-up of jokes, so universal that it ignores borders, and so enticing that it brings people flocking in their masses: the ritual of the aperitivo is a rite of the modern world. Propelled largely by fashion designers and ad men, it has even spawned an “expanded” version of itself. The apericena may have the linguists chafing and the respectable wrinkling their noses, but its history is rather older than they think.

The origins of the name are clear. The Latin root aperitivus refers to the action of opening (the stomach) and therefore whetting the appetite, something that the Romans did as much and as consciously as we do. They absolutely loved their appetisers, which they washed down with honey-sweetened wine, often diluted.

But if we go even further back, to the shadowlands between history and legend, we find the myth of Vinum Hippocraticum, named after none other than the Greek doctor Hippocrates, the father of medicine who gave his name to the oath that doctors still swear today. To patients with no appetite he would prescribe a wine, sweetened with honey and spiced with absinthe and herbs. The herbs lent a bitter aftertaste, which characterises the drinks we drink with aperitivi even today.

That spiced bitterness was fundamental to the birth of the modern aperitivo, when the late eighteenth century saw the birth of a new alcoholic drink. Based on fortified wine and spices, Vermouth was an instant global success, being seized upon as something that could be mixed with so much else.

The alcohol-based aperitivo spread rapidly in the big cities: first it became a recognised habit, and before long it was almost a way of life: clock off, kick back, chat and socialise with drink in hand. The great power of the aperitivo to bring people together evolved into a true secular ritual, into which we all throw ourselves with glee, from happy hour to the aforementioned apericena.

And “happy hour” is another term with an interesting history. In the age of prohibition in the USA, drinkers at the table would always be looking over their shoulder: thus, it became standard practice to have a tipple at speakeasies - secret bars where alcoholic drinks were served illegally - before sitting down to dinner.

The Latin root aperitivus refers to the action of opening (the stomach) and therefore whetting the appetite, something that the ancient Romans did as much and as consciously as we do. They absolutely loved their appetisers, which they washed down with honey-sweetened wine, often diluted.