Argala: in praise of bitterness
September 28, 2018
Childhood friends Enrico and Piero started making pastis in 2005, in Piero’s grandmother’s kitchen. Pastis is a drink associated with the south of France, so when they entered it in a competition, it was a bit of a joke; they live in Piemonte, on the wrong side of the Maritime Alps. It wasn’t their intention to create a business.
They followed their tastes, blending bitter and sweet ingredients to create drinks that express the personality of the place where they are made, and where the plants and botanicals grow, between the Mediterranean and the Italian Alps.
They are good at what they do. Over time they developed new products, and Argalà became a business in 2011, when it became clear that they couldn’t run it in their spare time. Enrico was an agronomist, Piero is the creative one (the dog in their logo was his attempt to draw star anise).
ArGaLà means “satisfied” in their Occitan dialect; satisfied by a well set table, enjoyed in the company of friends. It is not an ordinary satisfaction, though, but almost a peace of mind.
I first came across them at Salone del Gusto in Turin, in 2016, and was impressed by the quality of the range. Since then they have added new products, and this year their importers, Tutto Wines, brought them to London to introduce them to the U.K. trade, at the Soho restaurant Ducksoup.
Their best seller is the Bitter. It has something in common with Campari, but they are not setting out to make copies of commercial brands. It’s a well balanced drink, using orange peel and wild blue gentian flowers for bitterness, red hibiscus for colour and sourness. It’s 25% alcohol, the same as Campari.
To make their Gin al Genepy, they extract flavour from Genepy flowers for 6 months, before infusing with alpine juniper and other botanicals (including elderberries, mountain pine needles, vanilla, caraway and coriander seeds).
“We wanted to make this extravagant gin, to bottle the mountains”, says Enrico.
Tonic brings out its floral character, and a hint of grapefruit. It can be drunk neat, as a digestif. It’s also recommended as a “bees’ knees” cocktail, with lemon and honey. 45% alcohol.
Pastis is made with less anise and sugar than is usual, more herbs and plants. The Anise gives the amber colour, and the cloudiness when it’s diluted or iced. Chefs use it in cooking, for shrimps, seafood and desserts. 45% again.
Amaro – I tasted an advance sample of their new Alpine Amaro; it’s soft, warm and bittersweet, “you can add sweetness, but you can’t take it away”, says Enrico. The flavour has top notes of galangal, rhubarb, artichoke and orange peel, and base notes from pine needles and lavender. Aged for two months, it will be filtered and bottled in time for Christmas 2018.
Argalà are involved in a new project to make Vermouth with a group of friends and customers, which will be called “Bonhomie” after the group’s restaurant in Paris. (Bonhomie expresses the same feeling as Argalà).
Enrico and Piero work with local farms, and as an experiment they have recently planted a field on an organic farm, where they are growing absinthe, sage, oregano, fennel seed and dill. Rye is grown in the Valle Gesso nearby, so perhaps we should look out for an Italian whiskey!
As the business has grown and they needed more space, they stayed close to their roots in the countryside; they built a new facility in Piero’s grandmother’s stable.
Amaro – a bitter footnote:
Italians prize bitterness in their food and drink: artichokes, chicory, digestifs all share the desirable taste they call “Amaro”.
In a 2015 edition of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme, Dan Saladino explored the flavour we call ‘bitter’, and asked if bitterness is disappearing from our food and drink – and why this matters.
“Bitter tastes are found all over the planet; wild leaves, fruits, vegetables and more. Bitterness is also charged with cultural and culinary meaning. It can be revered, sought after – but it is also a sign of toxicity, and is, it seems, increasingly being shunned”.
To listen to the programme, click here:
U.K. Importers Tutto Wines’ list of stockists: http://tuttowines.com/stockists