Art and the Olympics

Commissions for the Cultural Olympiad are unveiled

Today, the winning commissions for Artists Taking the Lead, one of the main schemes in London's Cultural Olympiad, were announced.

Each of the 12 commissions, worth £5.4m in total, was picked from more than 2,000 entries, and will represent the nine English regions and the nations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Until today, there had been relatively little to show from the Olympiad, which has been criticised for lacking leadership and direction. But since the Royal Opera House chief executive, Tony Hall, was appointed this summer as the Olympiad's new chair, it seems at last some progress is being made.

The artists presented their winning ideas at the Oxo Towern, about six miles away from the Olympic site at Stratford. Among the most impressive and ambitious projects were Craig Coulthard's Forest Pitch, for which the artist will be "hiding" a football pitch in a forest, and Alex Hartley's nowhereisland. Here, the artist brings Nymark, an island he discovered in the High Arctic region of Svalbard, to the south-west of England. Some of the other projects seemed less successful, but they were at least far-ranging in scope (giant lion sculptures, bus stops and Lady Godiva, to name a few).

Sebastian Coe told the New Statesman that although the Olympics is predominantly a sporting event, the Cultural Olympiad will be one of the "most serious legacies" of 2012. "One of the accusations was that it [the Olympiad] was going to be the metropolitan 'elite' talking to each other, and it would be very narrowly defined . . . But we could not have been much broader in our approach, from the London bus stops through to the Leeds Canvas where you are using film, dance and theatre all within the same framework."

There has, however, already been a prolific response to the London Olympics from artists in east London. For an "alternative cultural Olympiad", visit the Wick Curiosity Shop.

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times