Does your favorite soda have a Belle Époque past? The colorful history of Italy's fizzy, bitter-sweet soda.
Italians have a taste for an often-missing component in food: bitterness. It can be found served straight-up in bitter greens, contrasted in the bittersweet tension of cocktails like Negroni, or in Italy’s nation-wide gamma of digestifs called amari (“bitters”). It is even in the Italian answer to Coca-Cola: a soda called Chinotto.
My own weakness for this carbonated drink led me to dig deeper into its history. I unearthed a fascinating collage of images from Italy’s past, from the exotic to the elegant, from pop to a modern re-emergence.
Where does it come from, where did it go?
If you ask for a Chinotto (kee-NO-toe) at a restaurant or bar, you will be served a fizzy, dark brown drink. It’s sweet with a side of bitterness and an aromatic aftertaste of something undefinable—that chinotto quality. Chinotto, in fact, is not the drink itself, but a fruit. It’s like asking for an orange and being served Fanta.
A chinotto (Citrus aurantium, var. myrtifolia) is a ping-pong ball-sized citrus fruit that grows on an attractive, white-flowering tree often used as an ornamental. Imported by a Ligurian sailor in the 1500s from China (hence its name), it once spread throughout the Mediterranean basin as far as Turkey and Syria. Now, chinotto is confined to Calabria, Sicily, Tuscany, sporadic patches along the French coast, and most notably Liguria. Here its colorful trees are planted from Varazze to Finale Ponente, sharing territory with vineyards cultivated with Vermentino for Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC wines.
I was clued into the fact that chinotto is a fruit, not just a drink, because of Ligurian chinotto: its green orbs (it may be harvested green, yellow, or orange) are pictured on bottles of Lurisia brand soda, which exclusively uses extract from Chinotto of Savona—a Slow Food Presidium. I understood the value of this nomination—it’s like a UNESCO for food that values, protects, and promotes food traditions in danger of dying out along with their culture and history. Seeing the Slow Food Presidium certification on the label led me through my own fascinating discovery of chinotto.
Chinotto alla moda during the Belle Époque
On a scale of bitter to very bitter, chinotto fruits are at the top: mouth-puckering and acidic. For this reason, they are made into compotes, candied, or preserved in liquor. The preparation harkens back to the early 1920s and the boom of the Belle Époque that diffused jazz and long, slinky gowns along the Ligurian and French Rivieras. Fitzgerald was describing the coast in France when he wrote of music filtering “through the ghostly moonshine” and waters like “agate…green as green milk, blue as laundry water, wine dark,” but his words in Tender is the Night are just as adept for the waters that lapped at grand hotels and caffés of Italy. In that bygone era, it was alla moda to be served syrupy chinotto in maraschino liquor, often topped with a Chinese paper umbrella.
Then a series of unfortunate events, as the saying goes, spelled the slow decline in chinotto’s production and consumption, beginning with poor economic policy choices in the 1920s and exacerbated by crippling cold spells. But chinotto was about to change styles and emerge again, adapting to the new scene of an Italy in the fruitful grips of economic regrowth after World War II.
Chinotto as soda and pop
Like Coca Cola, the vintage style of Chinotto the beverage (distinguished here from the fruit with a capital C) is associated with the 1950s era of black-and-white photography and pop-art advertising, when larger-than-life Chinotto bottles rode atop Cadillacs and Chryslers. Chinotto soda was actually invented in the 1930s. Various brands claim to be the first, notably San Pellegrino, but Chinotto had its moment in the sun when the Neri brand began innovative promotions in 1949. Chinotto was the answer, a patriotic alternative, perhaps, to Coca Cola across the watery divide.
But then American Coca Cola came along in the 1960s. It was a sweeter, hipper version of Chinotto—or maybe the behemoth just did its thing and swept over competition in a wave of sweet bubbles—and Chinotto soda fell out of fashion.
If there is one thing to learn from this fruit and beverage whose history started in the 16th century, it’s that its reign was not over.
A modern Chinotto cult
As I’ve gathered through blog posts, even five or ten years ago people were surprised to find a large selection of Chinotto on supermarket shelves. Up until the 1990s, asking for Chinotto at a bar might get you a funny look.
These bloggers seemed bewildered at Chinotto’s comeback. The Network of Chinotto says that they, in collaboration with other interested entities, “gave a boost not only to the diffusion of new products, but also to a “cult” phenomenon of rediscovery where the chinotto is the star of blogs and social network and fans.”
However it happened, Chinotto is no longer seen as uncool, untrendy, or a relic of the past, and it is not likely to be forgotten soon. Now I’m just waiting for the small, syrupy citrus fruits in liquor to be served in a bar (Besio, founded in 1860, still makes them). I have the feeling I’d still get a funny look if I order one at the bar, though.
Begnini, Andrea. “Sorpresa: il Chinotto è vivo e (ri)cresce insieme a noi.” (Il Venerdì di Repubblica)
“Il Chinotto di Savona – Consumato al bar.” (www.memoro.org)