Mark Hayward's City Matters: Negroni family lays claim to namesake cocktail
WHEN IT COMES to legend, two of the more specious varieties are bar tales and family lore.
One grows in exaggeration and improbability as spirits flow and the night drags on. The other twists along as generations retell the story, embellishing each version with family pride.
So keep that in mind as I report a dispute raging in blogs, Wikipedia pages and the mixology world. It pits the lore of the Negroni family — a Corsican family of nobility whose descendants include a resident of our city — against a story that originated in a Florentine cafe. (That means a bar in Florence, Italy.)
Both lay claim to the Negroni, a ruby-colored cocktail with enough European mystique that it conjures notions of a Ferrari hugging a serpentine Mediterranean coastline, or a suave James Bond-like character negotiating a different set of curves.
The drink is equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and the Italian liqueur Campari, garnished with an orange peel and served on ice. Its origin has at least two tales:
• The bar story: The Negroni was invented by Count Camillo Negroni, a supposed one-time American cowboy and gambler who settled in Florence. In 1919, Count Camillo had the bartender at his favorite watering hole mix the drink to his specifications.
The story is spelled out in a 2002 book, “Sulle Tracce del Conte: La Vera Storia del Cocktail Negroni” (“On the Trail of the Count: The True Story of the Negroni Cocktail”). And you can find the story recounted on Wikipedia, the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, to name just a few publications.
• Family lore: Manchester resident Noel Negroni assures us that an ancestor, the French Gen. Pascal Olivier de Negroni, invented the drink in 1857 in the West African country of Senegal. He invented the drink to help his new wife’s digestion. Family lore has the general lifting a Negroni to toast to her health on their wedding day.
Noel Negroni is a former U.S. Air Force captain. He and his wife run an insurance premium recovery firm — Adams and Morse — in Manchester. The former Digital executive moved here in 1992.
His Corsican blood boils when it comes to the Count Camillo story.
“This is a worldwide attack on the Negroni family, and they will not stop,” he said at his Prospect Street home earlier this month. “The British and the Italians are ganging up on the Negronis.”
In the interest of full disclosure, Noel lives a few blocks from me. On occasion, we get into lengthy conversations, especially when I’m out walking my dog and he’s on his morning walk. I’d call us acquaintances; we’ve never socialized.
Noel says the Count Camillo Negroni story is a ruse, created by a bartender in Florence as a marketing ploy. Negroni family members have gone through records in Florence, Genoa and Rome and found no Count Camillo, he said.
No doubt, there are some red flags in the Count Camillo story. There are no photos of this supposed count and one-time American rodeo star. (Wikipedia uses a photo of Noel’s ancestor on its Negroni page.) And the New York author of an English-language book on the Negroni cocktail stopped emailing me when I asked about photos and his research.
But Noel’s story has its problems, too. He can provide no family letters or hand-written recipes that mention the drink. Ask about proof, and he points to a 1980 article in Corse Matin, a newspaper in Corsica. It seems, the article reads, that Gen. Pascal Negroni invented the drink.
But that one-paragraph article said that the general invented the drink in Paris on “the eve of the Great War,” which would be 1914, at a military officers club. Noel said the family is now doing research in Senegal.
The Campari company is sticking with the Count Camillo story, said Dave Karraker, director of public relations for Campari America.
“As with almost every popular cocktail with some history behind it, there are always numerous tales around how it was started,” Karraker wrote in an email.
A third book on the Negroni cocktail and its culture is in the works. (Note to self: Lots of money to be made writing about obscure cocktails.) That book will mention Noel’s version, author Nargess Shahmanesh Banks said in an email.
“I don’t feel we’re in a position to comment on which version we feel is authentic,” Banks wrote.
So it’s best to close with the drink itself.
“How to Booze,” a 2010 book published by Harper, calls the Negroni “seductive, sensual and complex.” In 2002, New York Times writer Toby Cecchini wrote: “The gin gives it a racy, astringent structure, while the Campari imparts the play of sweet and bitter. The vermouth grounds these elements with a dense, smoky winyness that triangulates with precision.” (I love food writing.)
I visited two bars on Elm Street before I could find one — Republic — that could make a Negroni. I’ll refrain from trying to mimic Cecchini’s verbose description. More simply, I’ll say its taste conjures up our venerable New England drink — Moxie. With a shot of gin added.
Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.