One of the most interesting things about living in the Mediterranean is the culture of the aperitif and digestif.
Every country seems to have its own version. And exploring them is part of the fun of the region’s “slow food” culture.
The traveler side of me loves the stories behind these drinks, and their unique pedigree. The fitness enthusiast side is curious about one simple question: do they work? Is there any scientific truth to the tradition?
Do aperitifs and digestifs really work?
First, let’s take a look at how they stack up…
An aperitif is served before a meal to stimulate the appetite. This category includes drinks like vermouth from France, fino from Spain, and an entire range of “bitters” such as Aperol, Averna and Campari from Italy, to name just a few.
A digestif is served after a meal to aid digestion. In the digestif category, France rules the “prestige” market with cognac and armagnac. Other categories include pomace brandies (like Italian grappa and French vieux marc), fruit brandies, bitter herbal digestifs, fortified wines (port and madeira), and sweet liqueurs (such as Grand Marnier, Drambuie, and various irish creams).
Every Mediterranean country also has it’s own anise-based drink. The main difference being whether you sip it before a meal—pastis in France, arak in the Middle East, raki in Turkey—or after: sambuca in Italy and ouzo in Greece.
So what’s the scoop?
When it comes to firing up those taste buds, the bitter category of aperitifs wins hands-down. Bitter spirits were originally created for medicinal purposes, and were produced by doctors, apothecaries and monks to ease stomach complaints. Like any great medicine, the “cure” soon became a “preventative”, and that’s when they entered the wider beverage arena.
The low alcohol content of these concoctions is meant to relax the diner and stimulate the senses rather than deliver an unwanted knockout punch. And the bitter medicinal herbs they contain encourage the release of digestive juices.
The goal, after all, is to elevate the meal rather than blunt your senses to the range of wonderful foods you’re about to consume. It’s all about taking your time.
Contrary to popular belief, cocktails and other strong mixed drinks are not especially suited to stimulating the appetite, and hence do not make the best aperitifs. Their typically high alcohol content and strong flavours tend to overpower and dominate rather than prepare your palate for the delicacies to come. Better save those for the occasional press reception or after work wind down.
And what of that other bookend to a Mediterranean meal, the noble digestif?
Taking a liqueur after a meal is thought to aid digestion due to it’s alcohol content, and there’s some truth to the tradition. Alcohol stimulates the stomach’s production of the enzyme pepsin and increases secretions of the pancreas and gall bladder. Herb based digestifs work best at this, and ingredients like caraway, fennel and savory are thought to be especially beneficial for the digestive system. So congratulations Jaegermeister, Chartreuse and Fernet Branca—you win.
And what of other categories of digestif? Much to my surprise, drinks like brandy and whiskey have an adverse effect on digestion. […cue the sad trombone…wah wah waaaahhhhh…] I guess I’ll have to reserve those glasses of armagnac for nightcaps with a book…
So there you have it. It seems there really is some factual basis behind this wonderful Mediterranean tradition.
I encourage you to get out there and give them a try. Even better—taste them “on location” while admiring the landscapes that brought us these excellent drinks.