Hamburg - There are people who regard a meal simply as an appetiser for the real highpoint - the drink which follows. The digestif's actual function though is a modest one: it should round off a meal nicely, enliven the spirit and help the digestion.
Whether it is grappa, cognac or schnapps, it really makes no difference since nobody quite knows exactly which high-percentage spirits can truly be counted among the digestifs.
A shot of whisky, for example, would not be out of place, neither would a glass of ouzo.
Even the experts at the Federal Association of the German Spirits Industry in Bonn are not too eager to be pinned down: "A digestif, as far as we understand it, is any spirit enjoyed after a meal," explains business manager Angelika Wiesgen-Pick.
And as if that definition were not broad enough, according to this expert, almost any form of alcoholic beverage encourages the digestive system when consumed "in quantity".
The best thing at this juncture would be to take a look across at Italy where two undisputed classics of the "digestivi" scene are on offer: as well as grappa, the slightly bitter amaro is usually sure of a place on tables from Palermo to Milan.
Ulrich Hoeschen, in his book "Big Book of Fine Spirits", explains that grappa's roots go back to the 15th century. Originally, it was simply a way of making use of leftovers, using up what the wine- making process left behind.
There is now an almost incredible number of quality and taste variations in grappa as it it produced in almost every wine-making region of Italy.
German grappa fans are also becoming more discerning. Anyone who cares to try something new - instead of simply sticking rigidly to the tried and tested tipple - can choose from a wide range of flavoured varieties, with spices, herbs or fruit extracts. In any case, whichever grappa is finally chosen should be consumed at a temperature of between 10 and 12 degrees Celsius.
Another typically Italian tot is the semi-bitter amaro. The slightly sharp taste it offers is usually enough to convince most people that it must have some kind of positive effect on the digestion.
The man behind what has turned out to be one of the best-known Italian brands was actually a doctor. According to Ulrich Hoeschen, a Dr. Fernet originally came up with this reportedly healthy and stimulating brew in the middle of the 19th century then it was developed further by the Branca brothers in Milan.
Very little is actually known about the secrets of the Fernet Branca recipe other than that it contains over 40 medicinal herbs, roots and blossoms including camomile, peppermint, gentian, saffron and angelica.
The particular combination of ingredients is responsible for the remarkable ability of the liquid to enliven and settle at the same time, or so says the literature made available by Branca Products in New York.
Ramazzotti and averna - produced by Sicilian monks - are yet another couple of the more popular bitters which have secured a regular place on the shelves of German drinks cabinets thanks to memories of pleasant trips to the Mediterranean or the local pizza parlour. Both can be served with ice or straight - or even sometimes with lemon.
There is no reason for local spirits manufacturers to lower their heads in the face of competition from Italy however - a wide range of herb liqueurs and schnapps' are produced in Germany. Underberg, for example, has become one of the most popular brands, thanks in part to to the unusual way it is marketed - for 50 years, each bottle has been sold in a small paper bag.
The soul of this traditional German drink is, however, throughly international. As Underberg explains, "herbs from 43 countries" are combined according to a recipe called "semper idem" (meaning always the same) which has been handed down through five generations. The rest of the magic is done by an alcohol content of 44 per cent and a month spent in barrels made from Slovenian oak.
Jaegermeister, on the other hand, is produced in Wolfenbuettel in Lower Saxony and appeals to an altogether younger clientele who often use it, according to Ulrich Hoeschen, as the basis for mixing or for cocktails. Digestifs tend, however, to be the reserve of a more mature audience.
A study of spirits consumers carried out in September 2000 for the Axel Springer publishing house in Hamburg showed that herb liqueurs, cognac, whisky and ouzo really only came into their own with people aged over 30 years old.
On the other hand, ouzo is not really a digestif. In Greece, this clear spirit tasting of aniseed is generally consumed before a meal with plenty of water, or while eating, no matter what kind of food is served.