What the Stuarts did for us

Bonus culture in the time of King James.

Just over 400 years ago this week, Ben Jonson, John Marston and George Chapman presented their play Eastward Ho, a scandalous satire about two London apprentices, to King James I. The protagonists were hard-working and sensible Golding and the recklessly ambitious Quicksilver.

Golding marries the equally temperate Mildred, while her vain sister, Gertrude, is won over by the false promises of the penniless Sir Petronel Flash. He and Quicksilver attempt to steal Gertrude's dowry, but after being shipwrecked on the Isle of Dogs they are sent to prison by Golding, whose financial steadiness has made him an alderman. Flash and Quicksilver are released when they have repented of their dishonesty.

Because of its mercurial capacity to transform people's characters and circumstances, money holds a special fascination for art. The subject is usually approached in satire, partly because it is a way to dig beneath the dazzling superficiality of wealth to find the conflict beneath. And a simple parable can make the complex subject of finance intelligible to a wide audience.

So, Aristophanes depicts the god of wealth as a blind beggar; Jesus declares it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and Chaucer's Pardoner spins a suspenseful tale of how greed is the root of all evil. Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, Caryl Churchill's Serious Money and Lucy Prebble's ENRON all treat money and the people who worship it with a mocking, sharp and scathing tongue.

Eastward Ho speaks to our contradictory feelings about stories of money. Our moral sense requires greedy schemes to miscarry, but the real thrill comes from seeing the audacity of those who try to pull them off, as in the film Ocean's 11.

The cast-iron puritan virtues that make the moral world of the play run like clockwork are topsy-turvy today, where failure is rewarded with bailouts and bonuses. A more satirical scenario would give bonuses to the millions of taxpayers who have propped up the banks. Non-payment of these bonuses would lead every UK taxpayer to board the next plane to Switzerland, where they would live until the banks stumped up.

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