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Food & Drink | The Bellini - Cocktail Hour - Apéritif Time

Food & Drink | The Bellini - Cocktail Hour - Apéritif Time

And where to get a good one in Nice:  

Le Bar of the Hôtel NEGRESCO on the Promenade des Anglais.

See review at the foot of the page. 

Now that summer is finally with us (and how!) we can look forward to lazy lunches under the trees with an abundance of ripe fresh fruit and a glass of chilled fizz… That equation equals Bellini, one of the world’s great pre-lunch cocktails. And there is no cooler place in summer - in every sense except temperature - than Venice. And is not Venice home to Harry’s Bar, birthplace of the Bellini, right there on the majestic Grand Canal? The planets align: we need to take a closer look at the Bellini in a spirit of conscientious summer prep.

Ingredients & method

  • 1½ pts White peach purée

  • ½ pt Peach liqueur. I'm happy with Giffard's. This is to make up for the lack of alcoholic punch in the peach purée.

  • 5 pts Prosecco, well chilled. Or just top up the glass.

  1. Pit, chop and blitz a fresh white peach; that is to say, not the bright yellow variety of tinned peaches, but a white peach whose flesh is off-white in colour and whose skin is pink. Push it through a sieve with the back of a spoon so you are left with a thick purée - there will be minute pieces of the skin in the purée that will give it the pink blush we want.

  2. Put the peach purée and the peach liqueur in a champagne flute or a highball glass, and top up with the Prosecco. 

  3. Garnish with a slice of peach.

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Prosecco  

The original, traditional sparkling white wine used for a Bellini is Prosecco. This relatively low alcohol fizz (around 11%) is made mostly from Glera grapes in the hills just to the north of Venice: in the wine-producing areas of Veneto and its neighbouring province of Friuli-Venezia Giulia to the east, on the Slovenian border. The name Prosecco, incidentally, is derived from the village of Prosecco near Trieste, where the grape and the sparkling wine may have originated - nothing to do with “secco” meaning dry in an Italian wine context.

Unlike Champagne, France’s haughty big brother of sparkling white wines, Prosecco’s secondary fermentation takes place in large stainless steel tanks rather than in each individual bottle, which makes the wine less expensive to produce and, with the minimum production time being only 30 days, it's quicker to get to market too. Its lower price is one of the main reasons Prosecco has sucked up a large slurp of Champagne’s market share over recent years: in 2008 about 150 million bottles of Prosecco were produced, but huge growth in demand since then has seen this figure rise to 600 million bottles in 2018 ! A significant slice of this goes to the USA of course, but consumption has ballooned in the UK which became, by the mid-2010s, the biggest export market for Prosecco, with imports overtaking those of Champagne in 2015 and accounting for fully one quarter of all Italian Prosecco production.

There's absolutely no reason Champagne can't be used to provide the fizz in a Bellini: conventional wisdom has it that the slightly more complex flavours of a champagne may enhance a Bellini but equally they may struggle to compete with the strong peach flavour. For this reason I don't think it's worth paying the higher price of a champagne for a Bellini, and certainly not that of a prestige brand like Moët & Chandon or Lanson. Plus I prefer to stick with the simple local sparkler from where the Bellini originated: Prosecco. It ain't broke so why fix it?

A typical Prosecco vineyard

The story

A young man named Giuseppe Cipriani was working behind the bar of the grand Hotel Europa in Venice in the late 1920s and struck up a friendship with a regular American customer called Harry Pickering, a Bostonian student who was traveling through Europe with his wealthy aunt. After she unaccountably abandoned Pickering with no money - some say because of the size of his bar bills at the Hotel Europa, ahem - Cipriani offered to lend his new friend, whom he called “such a fine young man”, 10,000 lira (about $8000 today). Two years later, after he had given up all hope of seeing the money again, Pickering suddenly walked in, ordered a drink and placed 50,000 lira on the counter: repaying the loan “...and to show you my appreciation, here's 40,000 more, enough to open a bar. Let's call it Harry's Bar." It is tempting to think that Pickering’s travels may well have previously taken him to the famous Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, run by Harry MacElhone, and that's why he suggested they open a bar in Venice with that - and his own - name…

Cipriani duly rented a nearby rope warehouse on Calle Vallaresso between St Mark’s Square and the Grand Canal, and transformed it into one of the chicest bars in town: Harry's Bar opened on May 13, 1931. 

And it was here, at Harry’s Pickering-funded Bar that Giuseppe Cipriani invented the Bellini in the summer of 1948. Arrigo Cipriani, son and heir of Giuseppe, explained:

Peaches are in abundance in Italy from June to September, and my father loved the white ones. So much so that he kept wondering whether there was a way to transform this magic fragrance into a drink he could offer at Harry’s Bar.
— Arrigo Cipriani

He experimented by puréeing small white peaches and adding some of the sparkling white wine from his native northwest Italy: Prosecco. Those who tasted it gave it rave reviews ... He named it the Bellini because the pale pink colour reminded Cipriani of the pink glow of a saint’s toga in a painting by 15th century Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini - and the name stuck. According to Jamie Oliver, the English chef who counts the Ciprianis among his friends, when Giuseppe first made the cocktail the sun was setting behind the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute - just across the Grand Canal from Harry’s Bar - and the colours of the drink matched the sky. Quite possibly both stories are true.

The Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, seen from Harry’s Bar, with a Bellini coloured sky.

From that day onwards this sparkling pink cocktail became the signature drink of Harry's Bar - and it's signature dish was the carpaccio as Giuseppe Cipriani is also credited with having invented this dish of thin slices of raw meat - nowadays also fish. It was originally conceived as a starter prepared for the Countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo when he heard that she had been told by her doctors to eat raw meat.

Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516)

Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516)

At first, the Bellini could only be served during the four-month peach season. The kitchen included staff whose only job was to squeeze and pit the fruit by hand to make the purée. However, an entrepreneurial Frenchman later solved the peach labour challenge - and made a fortune doing it - by creating a method to fresh-freeze the white peach purée.

The first and only guest book of Harry's Bar bore the illustrious signatures of playwright and actor Noël Coward, author Truman Capote, playwright W Somerset Maugham; Hollywood stars Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart; Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, inventor Guglielmo Marconi, Baron Philippe de Rothschild... Old friend of this column, the titanic one-man-cocktail-promotion-machine Ernest Hemingway had his own table at Harry’s (‘course he did) during his time as a regular from 1949 onwards, and he set several scenes in his novel Across The River And Into The Trees in the bar. 

Ernest Hemingway, right, pictured with the bar's founder Giuseppe Cipriani

These glamorous guests flocked to Harry’s Bar for Cipriani's entertaining  conversation, for the relaxed atmosphere, and for the unfussy menu drawn from seasonal produce found in the Venetian countryside - perhaps also Venice’s slight isolation from the mainland and its canals in place of roads meant the celebrity customers were less disturbed there by paparazzi. Thanks to these international opinion-forming regulars, word of the refreshing Bellini quickly spread to New York, London, Paris, and beyond. Later, beau monde figures like Aristotle Onassis, Princess Aspasia of Greece, Peggy Guggenheim, Woody Allen and George Clooney graced it's tables. 

In 2001 Harry's Bar was declared a national landmark by the Italian Ministry for Cultural Affairs - and, as they don't have to look hard for national cultural landmarks in Italy, that is a serious honour!

Despite its name, Harry’s Bar became mainly a restaurant and - under the Cipriani name - spawned an international business empire including several eponymous bars and restaurants in cities including London, Dubai, Mexico City, Hong Kong, Istanbul… In New York City alone the Ciprianis ran the restaurants Harry Cipriani, Cipriani 42nd Street and a downtown catering business as well as a travel agency; and Buenos Aires with its sizeable expatriate Italian community was home to three more outlets. Plus they set up an online retail store offering food products like pasta & sauces, panettone, and this rather glamourous ready-bottled Bellini :

Sadly though, after 81 years and surviving lean years in the 1920s & 30s, years of fascist rule and then the Second World War, in 2013 - having racked up debts of over €6 million - the legendary Cipriani family had to hand the Harry's Bar empire over to new management after they were bought out by the Luxembourg-based investment group Blue Skye. 

Arrigo Cipriani lost control of Harry's Bar, 81 years after it was set up by his father Giuseppe

Arrigo Cipriani, son of Giuseppe, then in his 70’s and who had started working at the bar when just 19, told the Corriere Della Sera newspaper in 2018 that in the previous five years custom has declined by as much as 30 per cent. He added:

These days many day-trippers come to Venice, but not the same quality of tourists as in the middle of the last century. We cannot deny that we miss the Americans who were a guaranteed clientele for the whole year; we are feeling that. And it is not compensated by the new wave of rich Russians and Chinese.
— Arrigo Cipriani

I'm not sure what he means by not the same quality of tourists (they're more savvy possibly?) but when you're charging €22 for a Bellini, €24 for a bowl of bean soup, €42 for a plate of pasta and €65-72 for some seafood in a dining room that is some way short of luxurious I'm not surprised he struggled to attract enough diners. Late lamented American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain summed it up with typical pith:

You get a pretty good plate of food and the Bellinis are fine. They just cost a fuck of a lot.
— Anthony Bourdain

Variations

The Bellini Amaro : A bitter brunchtime treat combining the wonders of the Aperol Spritz and the Bellini. Mix 1½ pts peach liqueur and a ½ pt Aperol; top up with dry, crisp prosecco. A star-studded holiday in Venice in a glass.

A Mimosa is Prosecco (or other sparkling wine) and orange juice instead of the peach purée, with an optional dash of Cointreau... With strawberry purée, you get a Rossini; with pomegranate juice you get a Tintoretto.

Where to get a good Bellini in Nice

Le Bar of the Hôtel NEGRESCO on The Promenade des Anglais

The place in Nice which best matches the refined yet understated old-world class of Harry’s Bar in Venice has to be Le Bar in the iconic Hôtel Negresco. Ever since it opened in January 1913 the Negresco has been a luxurious watering hole for the rich and famous in the heart of the Riviera. It's classic clubby bar naturally specialises in the classic cocktails and they mix a mean Bellini.

Le Bar of the Negresco

The fizz in their Bellinis is provided by a very respectable Taittinger champagne - well, they've got to justify the hefty €25 price tag somehow!

Hôtel Negresco

37, Promenade des Anglais
Nice

France

Tel. +33 (0) 4 93 16 64 00

email : lebar@lenegresco.com
Web : https://www.hotel-negresco-nice.com/en

Next week : We sample another pink drink: unlike the old-world Bellini, the brash new-world Cosmopolitan from Florida. Join us for another drink.

Chin chin!

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The Cosmopolitan

Next Week on Chrystal

Read More by David Prince

Please drink responsibly. Consommez avec modération.

Disclaimer: This article is not for commercial ends and no gratuities were asked for or received from any products or companies mentioned herein. Chrystal 2019 

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