De Lijsterbes is a famous star restaurant in the little Belgian village of Berlare where master chef Geert Van Der Brugge composes culinary masterpieces in a cosy, laid-back atmosphere. Natural, healthy and approachable are the keywords of his concept. Fine dining is for everybody and so De Lijsterbes becomes an openminded food sharing community. Now, Geert knows that the best thing to accompany a beautiful dish is a wonderful drink, so the master chef decided to make one. His own home-made vermouth.
We like the rather atypical bottle design. It reminds us of the large medicine bottles in a pharmacy. The label is very minimal, at the back we can read some of the botanicals included in the vermouth. The label round the neck offers a serving suggestion, in this case: vermouth and tonic. Honestly not the first combination that sprang to my mind when I tasted it.
The nose is very herbal, medicinal almost, flowery and fresh. It reminds me of the smells you get when you’re running through the fields in spring time and especially at the forest edge where the meadows start or otherwise a very, very wild garden.
The taste has a distinct freshness, a pleasant and delicate tartness with the slightest hint of anise and a bit of ginger. It’s not sweet at all, well it has a certain sweetness, but far less than expected seeing the luscious golden, orange red colour of the drink. It has his own character and personality, which makes it difficult to categorise, it’s not sweet red vermouth, it’s not a ‘bianco’, it’s not exactly a ‘dry vermouth’ either.
Actually the first thing that sprang to mind when I took a sip was: “a refreshing, modern, dry Hippocras” with the slightest hint of wild honey and lavender even, but apparently there’s not a drop of honey in it. Also you’d expect the typical bitter tang of the wormwood, but it isn’t there. There is a bitter in it, but it’s different and we tried very hard to find out what it was, but after much ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’ we had to ask Geert and the master chef disclosed to us that it was ‘rue’ (‘wijnruit’ in Dutch).
Now rue is a very fascinating herb so it seems. I had never heard of it before and had to look it up, what I found was very intriguing. Apparently it is the origin of the word ‘ruefulness’, which if I’m not mistaken means nothing less than ‘bitter regret’. It was very popular in ancient near eastern and Roman cuisine. In Istria and Italy it is used to flavour grappa, which is called ‘grappa alla ruta’. Also, it is the only medicine that could protect you from the lethal gaze of a basilisk!
Apart from that the herb was extremely popular in witchcraft and spell making. Probably because of the peculiar characteristic that the leaves and stem can cause an irritation which results in blisters when the irritated spot is exposed to sunlight. Cats hate the plant and take a wide circle around it. The Romans believed that this was also the case with werewolves. Harry Potter would love this herb, hell he probably drinks Lijsterbes vermouth as breakfast.
It really is a magical drink, wonderful aperitif. We love it pure over ice with a wedge of orange. We did try it with tonic and it was surprisingly good, but we believe some of the delicate herbal notes of the vermouth disappear under the tonic. We have made a particularly yummy Negroni variation with it:
Last year in Ghent, Martini's Caffè Torino was a happy discovery for many visitors. The Italian style aperitivo bar focussed uniquely on Martini's recent re-interpretation of vermouth accompanied by succulent side dishes. In short, a place where you inevitably lost track of all time, aperitivo all night long! This year, 30th of March until the 24th of April, Torino lands in Antwerp transformed into a total Negroni bar with a dozen different style Negronis. Torino's opening night features none other than Naren Young from Dante NYC (voted one of the 50st best bars in the world) behind the bar.
Ever tried Martini’s Rubino and Ambrato vermouth? You should, they’re great. Ever tried a Negroni made with one of them? You should, they’re great! If Negroni is your thing you should definitely visit Caffè Torino – the first Belgian Negroni Bar – this April in Antwerp, here’s why:
Negroni around the world
‘Play with time’ is one of Torino’s mottos and they take this quite literally. They asked 6 famous bartenders to produce their signature Negroni for the menu of Torino. 6 Famous bartenders from 6 different countries…6 different time zones even. Get the gist?
Including Naren Young from New York, you will be able to choose a Negroni from Chili, Bologna, Indonesia, Dubai or Singapore. I can’t wait to try a Negroni Singapori! It sounds delicious. The Negroni, of course, is a very versatile cocktail. So much, actually that we’ve asked ourselves before what really does make a Negroni, a Negroni? At the very least we’re expecting a lot of diversity. Now, apart from these great international Negroni twisters, there’s also part of our Belgian pride, happy to conjure the Count’s favourite libation.
Belgian Negroni of The Future
Since Torino lands in Antwerp, they have asked 4 Belgian bartenders to come up with their interpretation of “the future Negroni”. So each week the menu will feature one Belgian special made by: Charly Lebrun (Bistro Des Anges), Didier Van den Broeck (Dogma), Jurgen Lijcops (Bar Burbure) or Manuel Wouters (SIPS). I’m always very curious about “future” interpretations considering how much so many classics have changed over time. Indeed, as far as my opinion is concerned the current recipe we use today for a Negroni is definitely not the recipe from the 1920’s. So trying to project today’s recipe into the future is definitely not easy. Then again it’s always fun to see the bartender’s creativity gone wild.
There’s food and it’s Italian!
Now this should be self explanatory. It’s food and it’s Italian. If you don’t like Italian food there must be something wrong with you, really, you fell down the stairs and can’t chew properly anymore or something. You took on a hobby of fire eating and torched your tongue or it was removed by terrorists during your annual holiday in Aleppo. Italian food is great and if it only resembles a tiny bit of last year’s food, it will be delicious! Pulpo for the win!! Food is provided for by Francesco & Julia, two well known ‘Italo-Antwerpians‘!
That’s basically the only thing you should remember. It’s the opening hour of the bar, 16:00hrs. The adres is 2 Sint-Antoniusstraat, Antwerp. We’ll be there at the opening night, if you want to meet me, I’ll be the guy with 7 different Negronis and a plate full of pulpo in front of him, tasting and tasting and tasting and tasting… 😉 Yummy!
On a sidenote and for those interested, we notice a possible upcoming Negroni War here. In the red corner you have Gruppo Campari, being the first brand claiming the Negroni as their own and in the blue corner you now have Bacardi-Martini deducing (somehow correctly) that if an amaro can claim a cocktail, so can the vermouth in it! Please people, let personal taste prevail, so do we and nobody stops you from being a diplomat and make your Negroni with Rubino and Campari!
If somebody offered us a vermouth and asked: "Italian or French?" We would probably answer: "A Savoyan". Because that's where they come from, the former Duchy of Savoy. Or was it Germany? And more importantly where are they now? Italy, France? Yes and Spain and a little bit everywhere actually, even Belgium has one. Vermouth is fantastic, but instead of the countless classic cocktails you can make with it or mix it with tonic, you can also drink it differently.
In most cases, years ago, when you asked somebody what vermouth is, you got the following common knowledge: ” Oh well, erm… let’s see. It’s an Italian fortified wine with lots of herbs and stuff, very nice. Oeh! And the French have a drier, white version of it. Excellent in fish sauces.” Fast forward a couple of years and the more savvy, suave and sartorial bartenders twisted their waxed moustaches and added passionately – with twinkling eyes – the following facts: it all started in the thriving city of Turin in the late 17OO’s with a gentleman called Antonio Benedetto Carpano who made it into the wonderful aperitif which we all know today. The name comes from the German word “wermut” which means ‘wormwood’ in English and is one of the defining ingredients of the drink. Etc, etc, …
This is all true and you’re somehow fine with it, until after a while you realise something is gnawing at you. Why would an Italian spirit vendor name his invention after the French pronunciation of the German word for one of the herbal ingredients in it. He could have called it “Assenzio”, no? Or “Vino Assenzio”. He didn’t, this later came to be the name for absinthe, you know the drink made of… yes, wormwood (officially called ‘artemisia absinthium’). Still with me?
So, why did he call it ‘vermut’? Well, we’ll never know, but the following is how we like to see it. Mister Carpano didn’t invent his drink, but rather made a personalised version of an old drink, which stopped being popular 100 years earlier: wormwood wine. More specific: German wormwood wine (from the Habsburgian Holy Roman Empire).
Now, we all know that people have been putting stuff in their wine ever since the first man accidentally squished a grape, but apparently wormwood is something particular. This goes as far as Ancient Egypt if you please (probably to try to revive erroneously mummified persons or something), then centuries later the Greeks almost made a sport out of it and left us with a couple of dozens of recipes. Then the Romans put a “made in the Roman Empire” stamp on it, mainly by conquering Greece. After that everything becomes a little hazy in the Dark Ages only for it to come back as a perfect medicine against the plague and all sorts of intestinal parasites (“worms”) and stomach aches in general. This vaguely reminds us of the origin of genever, which was also conceived as a cure against the plague in a similar fashion, only instead of wormwood you’d put in juniper berries.
Anyways, fast forward a couple of centuries and we arrive at the pinnacle of popularity of German wormwood wine (16th – 17th Century) and of course the Holy Roman Empire by then was stretched to its outmost borders. Guess what was part of it then? Yes, the Duchy of Savoy, including Turin and Chambéry (home of Dolin).
Wormwood wine spread widely in those days. Of course, we had our own version in Belgium and the Netherlands called “Alsem wine“. ‘Alsem‘ being the Dutch word for wormwood. Now alsem wine made his introduction into the British Isles thanks to… yes, William III, the Dutch-born king who gave the English people gin, because they couldn’t pronounce genever. Now, funny fact, they also seemed to have trouble with something as simple as the word ‘alsem’ and quickly dubbed it ‘wholesome wine‘ (which is almost the pronunciation of the Dutch word ‘alsem’). Mind you, the British already knew wormwood wine long before William III and produced it under the name of “eisel”, but they must have liked and imported alsem wine too.
In short we can conclude that practically everybody made his version of wine aromatised with wormwood and by the 16th-17th Century people started fortifying it. Until the hype died in 1700. Upon which Carpano decided to relaunch it in 1786. And with great success! By the 19th century vermouth was all over the place and the aperitif of choice. But how did they drink it?
Well apparently a lot like they drink their coffee, in small amounts and standing up. On the go, as it were. We don’t really know the measurements, I think it must have been something between 3 and 6 cl, a Piedmont glass maybe (4,5cl). Later in bigger glasses when they started to add soda water. Actually I still like it this way, it is delicious on a hot summer afternoon. Soon they added drops of bitters to their vermouth and the Milano Torino was created when using Campari. Later the Americano arrived. No one really knows why they called it like that, but there are of course several theories.
it has nothing to do with Americans, but refers to the Italian word for bitter “amaro”. Personally I don’t think that this one is correct, because they would have called it “amaricato” and not Americano.
They called it so, because it was very popular with American tourists of those days. We doubt this one too, otherwise a lot of things would have been called “americano”, like an americano with extra cheese and olives or an americano bolognese, etc…
It refers to the style of the drink, “American style“, drink. The theory goes that it being a ‘mixed drink’, a cocktail, they called it an American style drink. We like this idea better, although we don’t believe it refers to the “mixed drink” part.
So we want to add a fourth theory: it is called Americano, referring to American style drink, because it was probably served in larger than usual quantities, adding soda and -more importantly- had ice (cubes) in it. Suppose they drank the first Milano Torinos like they drank their vermouth, meaning in small quantities, the amaro added literally in drops and later they would prefer their Milano Torino made the American way and ordered: “Milano Torino, Americano.”Which could later have been abbreviated to just “Americano”.
It also makes more sense when you consider the origin of the Negroni as being told by the inventor himself: Fosco Scarselli, in an 1962 interview. Fosco tells us that Count Negroni liked to drink Americanos and preferred them a bit stronger, “so I added a few drops (!) of unsweetened gin to his drink.” Then he continues: “the Count’s habit of adding a few drops of bitter (amaro) to his cocktail started to spread among the other customers and soon they were ordering ‘Negronis’.” Considering the ingredients of a Negroni we must conclude that his Americano must have been vermouth over ice perhaps with a splash of soda.
Anyway, ordering your “Savoyan vermouth, American style” in this day and age will get you nowhere, but you can say: “vermouth on the rocks with a splash of soda, please and an orange wheel.” And that’s how we prefer to drink it, sometimes even omitting the soda. You know vermouth isn’t just there as a mixing ingredient, it can very well carry its own. Do try it!
If you want to learn more about vermouth, be sure to read the excellent ‘Mixellany Guide To Vermouth‘ by Jared Brown & Anistatia Miller. More about the Negroni in ‘Negroni Cocktail, An Italian Legend‘ by Luca Picchi.