These days I always get the urge to herbal

I can’t remember the first time I enjoyed Campari but I’ve a clear recollection of the second. . .

I never liked Campari, until I fell in love with it. The bitterness curled around my tongue like a warning: isn’t that precisely what bitterness is for, to alert us to danger? And what could be more dangerous than a peculiar herby drink the colour of a stop sign?

Look up bitter in the thesaurus. Unpleasant will be offered and so will disagreeable. Oddly, though, contradictory doesn’t show up anywhere – yet bitterness is the most contradictory of emotions and, it turns out, drinks. Love sours, friendship turns, success fades, and we become bitter – yet it is only remembered sweetness that makes us so. And Campari, as Victoria Moore’s book How To Drink points out, becomes sharper the more you dilute it, an attribute so perfect that I wondered whether she’d made it up. (I researched. She hadn’t. Something to do with our finetuned sensitivity to bitterness. Sweetness can be chased away but sourness stays with us – even in beverages.)

I can’t remember the first time I enjoyed Campari but I’ve a clear recollection of the second. I’d arrived for lunch at Pitt Cue Co in Soho, slightly hungover. I needed greasy meat of excellent quality, which I duly got; I’m still puzzled as to how I ended up with something called a Camp America, containing Campari, Bourbon and marmalade. I may not recall ordering it but I was happy to pay for it. Citrus and sugar found oak-aged corn liquor and the herbs that infuse Campari. Love blossomed. My hangover evaporated. I wasn’t stupid enough to try more than one.

Ever since, I get cravings for Campari. The tastebuds down the side of my tongue start to tremble. I salivate. A glowing red mist obscures my vision. I may need a simple drink with ice and soda, or a Baby Joe, that splendid combination with Prosecco and blood orange juice named by Victoria for her godson. I may require a Negroni, or to commit sacrilege and dilute a Negroni with soda water. (Don’t judge me. Sometimes the sour smack of Campari, gin and red vermouth needs a little cushioning.)

Occasionally, I lose the gin, and raise my Americano in admiration of Gaspare Campari, the 19th-century Lombardian who transformed his childhood trauma (pure speculation, this, but surely with that name, he was bullied at school?) into a booze business that exists to this day, invented a drink as Italian as passata and about the same colour, that’s known all over the world – and got away with naming a cocktail made with a liquor from Turin and another from Milan after the Yanks without causing a revolution. To be fair, there already was a revolution going on in the 1860s, and while I’d like to believe that Garibaldi was galvanised to unify Italy by the outrageous misrepresentation of one of its finest beverages, even with my slack grasp of history I have to admit that’s a little unlikely.

At least the Italian Risorgimento never invented anything as horrid as prohibition. Across the Atlantic, while Gaspare was selling aromatic vermilion liquor to his newfound countrymen, poor John Pemberton was being forced to come up with an alcohol-free version of his Wine Coca: a drink that would eventually unite the entire world in sugar-worship beneath a Campari-red banner.

Both companies still jealously guard their recipes but both certainly contain sugar syrup. What they do with that cloying substance tells you as much about the differences between Italy and the US as does a study of the differing ways they went about unification in the 1860s. I don’t think you can draw too many conclusions from the fact that one beverage is overpoweringly sweet, the other lastingly bitter, but if far more Italians drink Coca-Cola than Americans consume Campari, the former do at least have the comfort of knowing that their Americano will always be, to my mind at least, even better than the real thing.

 

A glass of Campari. Photograph: Getty Images

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 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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