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Handle The Proof: The Lost Art Of The Aperitif

Ah, the drink before dinner.

Yes, I'm guilty of slamming...I mean sipping...a martini or two while waiting for a table. But my behavior changes when I'm traveling through Europe. Instead of gin, I'll order sherry or vermouth, perhaps a Campari or Dubonnet.

Why I approach a meal differently has to do with the perception of time more than anything else. On vacation, you can embrace the setting with a drink that encourages you to anticipate dinner without rushing you toward it. Gentility, we used to call it.

Aperitifs are meant to awaken your palate without drowning it, to put you in a good mood without causing you to stumble on your way to the table. And I don't know why more of us here--including me--don't make them a pre-dinner ritual.

Alcohol does tend to spur one's appetite. Beer bellies provide evidence of that. In general, however, aperitifs are sipping drinks--dry, herbal, unique, sometimes bitter, but not overly alcoholic. Many brands, such as Campari, keep recipes secret, although you can pick out hints of different roots, herbs and zest. They give your palate something to think about.

This week I tried both approaches, my tried and true gulping martinis routine and my more occasional efforts at refinement. Aperitifs don't make the food that follows taste any better. But they do seem to slow you down--and put you in a mind to appreciate the meal.

Of course, some of the Italian liqueurs are rather intense. Pernod carries a pronounced anise flavor some people just don't like. Lillet can be a bit enigmatic.

In other words, it's not like you can waive at a waiter and say "get me an aperitif."

But the search can be fun. I generally keep an Italian liqueur and some vermouth at home. Sometimes a sherry, as well. It's not often, though, that I call for Dubonnet.

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The French aperitif has been in existence since the mid-1860s. I actually first encountered the name when flipping through a book on World War Two. In the background of a black and white photo of some futile French counterattack in 1940 there was a building with an advertisement painted on one wall: "Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet."

On the nose, this red fortified wine-based concoction presents spice and dried fruit, with some odd notes similar to mold--although that could be from anywhere, given all the rain--and ferns. The taste is more complex, starting with herbs, running through plum and raisin, spice, some must and a long finish that brings back the herbal-dried fruits. There's quinine, maybe even some pomace. Yet it is obviously, all the while, a fortified wine.

You don't want it to end. On the other hand, you can't drink too much--it has a weightiness that promises 'hangover' should you overindulge.

Maybe it's that aspect that makes us think of aperitifs as refined and sophisticated. Whatever, you can pound the martinis after dinner.

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