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

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear