Essays: “The Smell of an Orange” by Anu Pohani

The Smell of an Orange

I prefer to order a Negroni at the bar, to watch the theatre of a bartender making my cocktail. When the bartender peels a nice wide ribbon off an orange, the aroma is free; this is just the beginning. ‘Just sit up and pay attention,’ it shouts, ‘in a few minutes you are going to be transported.’ The anticipation kicks in. When the bartender peels the orange zest right then after the order comes in, I know that I am in for something transportive. The finished article has a just-peeled orange rind sitting on the edge of the glass, twirled into a spiral, resting there, waiting for the drinker to lift the glass to her lips.

The next sign of a good Negroni is a crystal tumbler. A vessel so heavy it could knock someone out. Then large, solid ice cubes and equal parts gin, Campari, and red vermouth. The expert bartender knows that right now, they must stir the cocktail for at least a minute. Some people may argue with me. They will insist that the stirring happens in a cocktail shaker and then the drink is poured over new ice in the aforementioned crystal tumbler. Worse yet, are those who would rattle this drink in a shaker before pouring it over fresh ice. I shudder at the thought of that, too much vigour, too much action for my elegant aperitif. 

A Negroni that has met with a cocktail shaker is not a drink worth drinking. Campari has a lineage that demands respectful treatment. After all, it contains over sixty-eight different ingredients. Only the current president of the Campari Group knows the exact recipe in its entirety. It is a seminal product of the European cocktail tradition, from early monks who mixed elixirs for medicinal purposes to maîtres liquoristes, master bartenders of 1840s European café culture who did the same for Europeans on an evening stroll, stopping to watch people go by on the sidewalk. La Passeggiata. 

The Negroni is a prince among cocktails, originating mostly likely in a café in Turin in the 1900s. As I watch today’s theatrics, the bartender’s form morphs into the form of a young apprentice back then, back there. The apprentice is on the path to become a maître liquoriste. Gaspare Campari likes to experiment with different tonics and herbs, exploring new flavour profiles. He creates novel combinations, light, refreshing aperitifs to enjoy on the terrace, or in the piazza. According to truth or legend, one day a tourist and his wife come to the bar. She has an uneasy stomach, or perhaps she has caught too much sun. They would like to try something that might perk up her spirits. Campari prepares his orange, spiced liqueur combined with soda water. From there, its popularity grows, while Gaspare continues to tinker. Once perfected, he departs Turin with his elixir to sell across Italy. 

A few decades later, Gaspare’s son Davide is in love. His cara has a summer season booked on the stage in Nice. To be closer to her, Davide decides to market his father’s product to the fashionable set on the French Riviera. Campari goes global after that.  It is unchanged from Gaspare’s original recipe, identical over one hundred and fifty years of drinking. 

While the maître liquoriste looking after me is stirring, we may have a chat, connecting over the cocktail. 

‘Thank you for taking the time to make the Negroni the way it should be done,’ I might say. ‘In other bars they brutalise it with their cocktail shakers and so much ice.’ 

‘It is because I am Italian. This is the only way to make them in Italy,’ he might reply. We then discuss which gin he favours for this cocktail. 

‘Thank you again for making it the way I love it,’ I say.  

When the ingredients are stirred in the tumbler, the glass gets cold. The right amount of ice melts, and nothing has gone to waste. The time has passed pleasantly for both of us, without the thunder of the ice hitting the sides of a shaker. 

The final flourish is the orange peel. The maître holds the peel over the glass and gives it a twist into shape so that when the glass is passed over the bar, it is enveloped in a cloud of orange and will taste all the more wonderful for it. 

I’ll take it to a table in the sunshine to people-watch, or to look over the lake, the sea, the piazza. Or maybe I am in a certain bar on Basinghall Street, conjuring the sun-warmed cobblestones, the glittering Adriatic against the cold grey rain.

About Anu Pohani

Anu lives in London with her family and Alfie, the Tibetan terrier, also known as the Fluffy Alarm Clock.  She graduated from Columbia College with a dual degree in Economics and English.  After decades spent deep in numbers, Anu gratefully pivoted back to right-brain pursuits.  Her food essays and short stories appear in Entropy, Off Menu Press, and Fudoki.  She is currently working on her first novel. She can be found on Twitter @AnuPohani.