In Madrid a couple of years ago, wondering what to do for Sunday lunch, I stumbled into Casa Revuelta, a splendid little tapas bar near the Plaza Mayor. Everybody was drinking vermouth drawn from a barrel, so I joined them — spicy and bittersweet, it is one of Spain’s most traditional palate-liveners. My appetite thus provoked, it was impossible not to order the bacalao: chunks of salt cod, bones painstakingly extricated, coated in batter crunchy enough to rub salt in the wound of a hangover. I had another glass of vermouth, a plate of comforting albondigas (meatballs) and the dilemma of Sunday lunch ceased to trouble me.
Not that vermouth is unique to Spain. France and Italy boast hundreds of variations on the theme: a more or less sweet, more or less bitter tipple based on wine fortified with spirit and scented with herbs and spices. Vermouth has been making a bit of a splash in London too, as I discovered at Mele e Pere (second picture) –Italian for “apples and pears”, an Italo-Cockney drollery – a Brewer Street bar and restaurant that takes its vermouth very seriously indeed. There are a couple of dozen on the list, from places as far-flung as California, Germany, Australia… and Archway, home to Sacred Spiced English Vermouth, made with Kentish wine, Somerset wormwood and thyme from the New Forest. There are homemade versions, too, slightly cloudy and pleasantly perfumed — try the red version in a classic negroni. Mele e Pere’s vermouth masterclasses allow you to try a few, then blend your own.
Bar snacks are perfectly pitched: very moreish, breaded, deep-fried green olives, or a plate of fragrant San Daniele ham with crisp, greaseless gnocchi fritti and rich, nutty Parmigiano Reggiano. Bigger appetites should adjourn to the restaurant: I recommend the grilled veal chop.
On Old Compton Street, Tony Conigliaro, proprietor of 69 Colebrooke Row in Islington and an innovative drinks boffin, has opened Bar Termini, a tiny bar modelled on the sort of joint you might find in an Italian railway station. Stand at the bar for a slurp of espresso — Illy’s finest, and a mere £1 — or sit at a table and slip into a negroni. There are three to choose from: Superiore, made with pink peppercorns; Rosato (first picture), flavoured with rose petals; and Classico, which does what it says on the tin. I’d happily drink them all; come to think of it, I did.
Drop in by day, or book a table in the evening, when cheese and charcuterie are available. Bar Termini, with its white-jacketed barmen and retro fittings, made me feel like an extra in a Fellini movie. For full effect, hold a negroni in one hand and gesticulate wildly with the other.