Beginning, Italy

Anise and the Adriatic

I don’t drink.

Now, that’s a strange statement to launch a blog about sipping anise-flavored liquors around the Mediterranean, but it’s true. Except for one raucous evening in the south of Spain when I was 19, I’ve mostly consumed one glass of wine with dinner a couple of times a week. So why am I on a quest to sip sip anise-flavored liquors around the Mediterranean?

I grew up a 3rd generation Italian-American in the mid-50s in a rural town of 6,000 (where Mr. Ferguson plowed our driveway with a horse drawn plow!). Differences of national origin weren’t highlighted in ways that I noticed. I did have hints of my family’s uniqueness though – Donna’s family didn’t have lasagna at Christmas. Marilyn’s family didn’t have ravioli with their Thanksgiving turkey. And no one had a Nana who fried squid. Squid! Now, it’s all the rage.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the flavor of Easter was anise. Easter – a holiday marked by many courses beginning with a breakfast of the anise flavored Easter tortes of my Nana and ending with the anise flavored ciamelles and pizelles of my Gramma. In between were courses of antipasti – including anise-flavored fennel – home made ravioli, lamb with mint jelly, salad and a centerpiece of Easter candies – including black licorice jelly beans.

Fast forward to my current curiosity about why there are anise flavored liquors all around the Mediterranean – from Spain to Israel, from pastis to arak – and my realization during a trip to Istanbul that cheaper raki tastes a whole lot worse than the more expensive.

So I am off to the Varnelli distillery in earthquake ravaged Muccia, Italy. Here I’ll learn about the distilling of anisette at a distillery run by women!