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.