BACK TO THE FUTURISM
For a truly unique, acutely Italian and unashamedly iconoclastic alternative to the traditional aperitivo, look no further than the Futurist movement.
Unleashed in 1909, Futurism was a vibrant, disruptive and troublesome movement underpinned by the deeply held belief that art, in varied forms, could transform Italian society.
Led by founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Futurism’s followers were young, passionately patriotic, modernist anarchic insurgents who despised Italy’s pre-occupation with its past, instead rejoicing in the new industrial age. “We want no part of it,” said Marinetti, “the past”.
Seduced by the concept of speed, machinery and humanity’s triumphs of technology – the car, the aeroplane, the industrial city (particularly New York). Futurists were anarchic advocates of disruption, violence, modernity and political and cultural change – but there was a light heartedness to their radical revolution.
Futurism banned the novel, published books made out of metal, altered the Italian language so that it was entirely onomatopoeic, laid the foundations for psychedelic cinema, wore steel ties accompanied by outlandish, multi-coloured waistcoats, and generally lit a fire under the rocking chair of staid Italian culture.
It began life as a literary movement, it quickly morphed into a broader cultural phenomenon that embraced theatre, dance, photography, film, fashion, ceramics, design and architecture – and food and drink.
Consumption, whether eating or drinking, was a core pillar of Futurism. But driven by a distaste for yesteryear, Marinetti declared war on spaghetti and the classic cocktails – especially those inspired by influences from abroad.
Italian cocktail culture has traditionally been synonymous with the standard classics – such as the Americano, the Negroni, the Spritz and the Bellini.
Lurking beneath the starch, white blazer of classic Italian cocktail culture is the you’ll discover an unashamedly iconoclastic and anarchic approach to the aperitivo. Currently capturing the imagination of modern mixologists more than a century after it first emerged as part of the Futurism movement.
Passionate proponents of Futurism would talk, drink and fight in Milanese bars such as the Caffe Del Centro and the Caffe Savini, which is still open today, and such elbow-bending anarchy led to the creation of an unusual array of Futurist cocktails,
The cocktail, called polibibites in Italian, felt the full force of Futurism.
Futurists drank a lot and saw it as a display of nationalistic power. Wine was seen as the “fuel of the Nation” and was drunk from petrol tanks, home-made absinthe was created in secret even though it was banned in Italy and Italian elixirs hitherto enjoyed neat would be used as mixers.
Despite being driven by a passionate patriotism, the Futurists didn’t ever openly denounce foreign cocktail ingredients, they simply ignored them. They placed products native to Italy – such as Vermouth, bitters and wine – at the forefront of the Futurism mixology.
The Futurists felt that the method of mixing and serving was ripe for revolution. The Italian cocktail scene was based on vermouth, bitters and classic decorations such as a lemon or orange zest.
The two classic Italian cocktails – the Americano and the Negroni – were regarded as diehardist drinks and whose domination could no longer go unchecked.
The traditional sweet-bitter premise on which the Italian aperitivo had been built was abandoned and eschewed in favour of sweet-savoury and sweet-spicy. Ice was integral too – as with each sip, it created sounds, changed the colour of the cocktail and produced a tactile sensation on the lips.
Futurists saw the cocktail, or the polibibite, as a multi-sensual experience, Visually, colours change as the cocktail is mixed and the ice melted, while the garnish was regarded as a work of art; hearing was to be aroused by the clinking of glasses and these would be made anything from metal to ice.
A fundamental Futurist manifesto that dealt directly with drink was “The Art of Noises”, published in 1913, which underlined the importance of accompanying the consumption of cocktails with either music or sounds.
Creating contrast formed the crux of the Futurist cocktails and it was the Futurists who were the first to make the garnishes and decorations on a drink edible, they were elaborate, eccentric and provocative. They must be “suggestive and determinant”.
There had to be an element of surprise in Futurist mixology. The drinks were designed to incite discussion, illicit delight, incite arguments and lend themselves to light-heartedness. Futurists felt the polibibite must be provocative and light a fire under the rocking chair of traditional discourse.
Futurism’s underlying anarchy often precluded those who designed each drink to write down the recipes and even when they did, there was no mention of exact measures or quantities – merely the array of ingredients to be used – nor the exact preparation method used.
Surprise was a central ingredient and details of ingredients and approach were intentionally removed to give the cocktail maker the utmost freedom of interpretation. In his book, “Futurist Mixology”, author Fulvio Piccinino writes: “It is interesting to note that in quickly reading the recipes for the polibibite, without quantities or descriptions, they almost all seem fairly bizarre in their combinations and, apparently, undrinkable.
“But the flavours of most of them are absolutely surprising, pleasing to the average palate and balanced without any kind of excess. The decoration plays the part of countering the sweetness of the drink, but in Futurist cuisine there are admirable examples of contrasting flavours: dates and anchovies; honey and meat; bananas with chicken or spicy chilli sauce and lemon ice cream.
“The Futurist mixed drink ought to be praise of the imperfect, which should not be confused with mixtures that are incorrect or completely unbalanced but are every time imperceptibly different, at least intentionally.”
On the lack of instruction, Marinetti explained: “The vague quantities given in many of these formulas, far from constituting a matter of concern, should on the contrary stimulate the imagination of Futurist cooks, for fortuitous mistakes often lead to new dishes”
The focus on cocktail drinking was not the drink itself but rather what action was to follow. It was to inspire the creativity of artists. As far as Futurists are concerned, the art of mixology doesn’t have to replicate the exact recipe because art is always different.
The quantities of alcohol used depended on what actions the drinker was due to undertake afterwards:
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