Milan, 20 January 2022
Dedicated to my son, who has a predilection for chinotto
My wife and I have just returned home from visiting our daughter and her fiancé in Los Angeles over the Christmas-New Year break. One of the things we did while we were there was to visit the Huntington Gardens. For any of my readers who like gardens and who happen to be in LA, I highly recommend a visit to these gardens. We’ve been to them several times now, and we never tire of going back. There is always something new to see – as was indeed the case this time, when we stumbled across this tree.
This is a Citrus myrtifolia, or the myrtle-leaved orange tree in English. Or – more importantly for this post – the chinotto in Italian. And indeed that was the name given on the plaque below the tree, which is why I took a photo of it (why I did do this will become clear in a minute). As sharp-eyed readers will notice, the fruits do indeed look quite orange-like, and in fact the chinotto came about from a spontaneous mutation at some point in the past of the bitter, or sour, orange (the one used to make orange marmalade, and which is itself probably a cross between the pomelo and the mandarin orange; as I’ve mentioned in a previous post on the citron, citrus family members absolutely love hybridising among themselves). Where precisely this mutation event took place is unclear. There is a romantic version, much repeated throughout the Internet, that it took place in China and a plant or two was brought to Italy in the late 1500s-early 1600s by an Italian sailor hailing either from Livorno in Tuscany or from Savona in Liguria. Since it is a Chinese plant, the story continues, that explains the name. More sober-headed people have pointed out that there is no trace of this tree in China – or in South-East Asia, the original home of the sour orange, for that matter – which suggests that the mutation took place elsewhere, probably somewhere in the Mediterranean basin since it is only found there. According to this version of events, the plant got its Italian name because to the Italians it “looked Chinese-like”, referring to the fact that the fruit looks quite like a mandarin orange, which does indeed come from China. I throw in here a close-up photo of the fruit, which I think readers will agree looks quite mandarin-like.
Personally, I am more inclined to the sober-headed creation story, although in the end the origin of the plant is not of any importance to the rest of my story.
Moving on, then.
As readers might surmise, since the sour orange is bitter in taste so will its offspring be. And indeed the chinotto is very bitter, even more so than the sour orange. Given this state of affairs, I can’t quite understand why anyone would have bothered to grow the plant, but people did. Perhaps it’s because we are so inundated with sugar and sweet tastes nowadays that we can’t imagine that our ancestors might have had a greater inclination to search out sourer, bitterer tastes than we do. That being said, the use of chinotto really took off when it was combined with sugar, leading to various plays in foods and drinks between sweet and sour (a concept which was the subject of a post I wrote some years ago).
Which leads me to chinotto – the drink this time, not the tree or the fruit. It is this which my son has a predilection for and why I dedicate this post to him.
Unless my readers are Italian or have an immense curiosity about foods and drinks from around the world, they will never have heard of this drink. I certainly never had until I met my wife and arrived in Italy. One day, when we were in a bar, she suggested that I try it, which of course I did (I always do everything my wife suggests me to do …). I will be frank, I did not like it. It rather reminded me of another drink I had tried many, many years ago in Canada, root beer, which I also rapidly put aside. But in Italy, chinotto has an enthusiastic following (my son being among them). So that readers may have an idea of what we’re talking about here, I throw in a picture of several of the better known brands of chinotto currently on the Italian market.
To give readers a few more details, it’s a non-alcoholic drink, fizzy, dark in colour, sweet with a hint of bitterness given to it (supposedly, as we shall see) by chinotto. In all this, it is quite similar to Coca Cola, and in fact in the initial periods of its life it was often advertised as Italy’s response to Coca Cola.
When exactly chinotto was invented is a matter of intense debate among the small band of chinotto aficionados. It might have been in the early 1930s (when it could have been a response to the Fascist government’s desire to rid Italy of all foreign barbarisms, in this case Coca Cola), or it might have been in the late 1940s (when it could have been created through a desire by local entrepreneurs to cash in on the enthusiasm for all things American, in this case Coca Cola). Whichever it was, it became immensely popular in the 1950s and 60s. Here we have a group of young men drinking chinotto at a bar in the 1950s.
While here we have one of the more popular brands of chinotto being delivered to those bars.
And here we have a photo of another of the more popular brands of chinotto advertising its wares with huge bottles installed on cars which cruised through towns and cities as they delivered their bottles to bars.
Which brings me of course to the bright and cheerful posters which were used in those years to persuade people to buy chinotto; as I said in my previous post on Aperol, no-one needed to buy this kind of product, they had to be made to want it. Here is a medley of such posters, taken from the 1950s.
In the decades at the end of the last century, chinotto drinking went into decline, being viewed by the younger generations as something only yokels from the countryside would drink. But it is now having something of a comeback! And as the photo above shows, Italian drinks companies have been quick to jump on the bandwagon and offer updated versions of chinotto worthy of the 21st Century. This comeback, though, has been accompanied by a drumbeat of criticism from people who say that these commercial products actually have little if any of the chinotto fruit in them, being mostly sugar and fizzy water with lemon and orange aromas being added in the place of chinotto. Which may well be true because at the same time there are alarms being sounded at the disappearance of the chinotto tree; it is becoming an endangered species.
All this leads me to report here a recipe for any brave souls (like my son, for instance) who would like to make their own chinotto at home.
Start by making a good strong espresso coffee (yes, I was also surprised by this, but there you go) – two espressos for a litre of chinotto should do nicely. While still hot, dissolve some 4 tablespoons of raw sugar into the coffee (yes, it’s a pretty sugary drink; you can try molasses if you can locate any). Add about 4 tablespoons of syrup of chinotto (which adds even more sugar, as we will see). Mix well. Pour into a litre bottle. Add the juice from one sweet orange and one lemon. Slowly fill up the remainder of the bottle with sparkling water. Turn the bottle upside down a few times, to mix everything – of course, you must do this slowly so as not to lose the fizziness! Put in the fridge to chill, et voilà!
I will admit that readers may find it hard to lay their hands on syrup of chinotto. There are some companies which are devoted to the chinotto cause and still make it. Readers can try ordering it online.
Here too, though, I can suggest a recipe for making the syrup at home (which does, however, presuppose having a source of chinotto fruit; all I can say is, buy a tree, it will help to save it from extinction and it makes for a very nice balcony plant). Place several green, unripe chinotti in salt water for 25 days or so, changing the water every five to six days. Fish the fruit out and shave off a thin layer of rind (this contains much of the fruit’s bitterness). Put the fruit back in salt water for another week or so, after which boil them for 30 minutes to an hour. Now place them in fresh water for four-five days, changing the water 2-3 times a day (this is to get rid of the salt). At this point, prepare a syrup of sugar – two parts sugar to every part water – boiling it to get the sugar to dissolve. Place the chinotti in the syrup for two weeks. You will end up with a sugar syrup with a sharp taste of chinotto. The now candied chinotti can be taken out and left aside or used in pastries.
Mentioning these candied chinotti allows me to introduce what seems to me to have been a wonderful habit in Italian (and to some extent French) bars in the 19th Century. The bars would have looked something like this.
On the counter, clients would find a ceramic bowl – the best came from the Savona region with its typical blue and white designs. This photo gives an idea of what we are talking about, although I’m sure the bowls on the counters wouldn’t have been nearly so grand.
The bowl would contain candied chinotti drowned in Maraschino – this is a liqueur made with Marasca cherries, which are slightly sour cherries. At the end of a meal as a digestive, the client would ceremoniously fish out a candied chinotto from the bowl, using a ceramic spoon to do so, and eat the chinotto, thereby giving himself a shot of both sweet and sour.
You can make other products with chinotti: a liqueur, of course; given its relation to the sour orange, a marmalade, naturally enough; sweets; chocolate-covered candied fruit; even a perfume. I would suggest to readers to buy all these products, to save the chinotto from extinction; they are all available on-line. Savona, in Liguria, which was once a major producer of chinotti, seems to be at the vanguard of these efforts to save the plant. I will suggest to my wife that we visit Savona one of the next times we go down to the sea (it’s a train ride away), to explore all these chinotto products and do our part in saving the plant for posterity.