Italy's relationship with chinotto has been a bittersweet affair. John Irving traces the fall and rise of the fruit and the drink of the same name, now a symbol of Savona.
In the 16th century a sailor from the north-western Italian region of Liguria took home the seeds of Citrus myrtifolia, the myrtle-leaved orange tree, from China; hence the Italian name for its small greenish fruit, chinotto. The tree acclimatised well and its health properties soon became apparent. Too bitter to eat fresh, its fruit was prized for its digestive qualities when candied or preserved in syrup or alcohol.
The first chinotto-candying company, Silvestre-Allemand, opened in the French town of Apt in 1780.
A century later it moved up the Riviera to Savona, in Liguria, where Citrus myrtifolia had been crossed with the Seville orange to create the more prolific, virtually seedless hybrid Citrus aurantium. "In this form it's unique to Liguria," says grower Enrico Pamparino.
The Savonesi were quick to learn the ropes of chinotto candying, soaking the fruit in seawater or brine before peeling it and boiling it in syrup. "The syrup seeps through the skin by osmosis to make the flesh more aromatic," explains Vincenzo Servodio, owner of Besio, one of the last candying businesses in the city. "Tough skin, soft heart" was how the Savonesi described the fruit in the Belle Époque, when punters would pluck chinotti preserved in maraschino from majolica jars on the counters of local cafés.
Chinotti were and are an important ingredient of cakes and biscuits and are used to flavour countless aperitivi and digestivi. Chinotto juice was also mixed with fruit syrups to create thirst-quenching summer drinks. These were the ancestors of a fizzy drink, a bittersweet concoction of carbonated water and chinotto extract called simply chinotto, first produced by San Pellegrino in Lombardy in 1932, then in the postwar years by Chinotto Neri in the province of Viterbo and by the Veneto-based company Recoaro.
In the 1950s, Italians still revered the glamorous image of American GIs seen in wartime. In the movie An American in Rome, Alberto Sordi played a local youth who dreams the American dream dressed in white T-shirt, jeans and baseball cap. Jukeboxes blared out "Tu VuÒ Fà L'Americano" (You Pretend to be American), Renato Carosone's hit about a Neapolitan kid enamoured of whisky 'n' soda and rock 'n' roll.
Little wonder the nation began cheating on homegrown chinotto and fell in love with Coca-Cola, which began advertising in the Italian press and on TV in 1956.
In the same year, the fall from grace of chinotto the drink appeared to coincide with the coup de grâce for chinotto the fruit when a severe winter of freak frosts decimated the Savona groves. "For many years the chinotto was a forgotten fruit," recalls Pamparino, while agronomist Danilo Pollero explains how a 2003 survey revealed that only 118 fruitful trees still survived.
Citrus aurantium was tottering on the verge of extinction, but a string of coincidences - including Savona's desire to find a symbol to raise its international profile and the urge to return to tradition - combined to relaunch it. "By promoting chinotto we want to promote our land and the people who work it," said the mayor of Savona, Carlo Ruggeri, at the time.
About 15 small producers and processors came to the rescue and, in collaboration with Slow Food, established a "presidium", a project to grow more trees and revive the candying industry. Today more than 500 trees are productive and another 700 have been planted. For commercial purposes, Citrus aurantium, rechristened "chinotto di Savona", is now grown exclusively in the province of Savona, where Enrico Pamparino owns four tiny groves. "In this narrow strip of land between mountains and sea, larger plantings would be unfeasable," he says.
The chinotto boom has triggered a new lease of life for chinotto the drink. The Lurisia mineral water company now markets a version in a '50s-style bottle as "il vero", the real thing. "The fresh chinotti of the Slow Food presidium give our tonic water a special vintage flavour," enthuses CEO Alessandro Invernizzi, who sings its praises as an ingredient in new cocktails such as the Savona Libre and the Pamperotto.
An association, Amici del Chinotto, has even been founded in Milan "to promote the consumption, knowledge and culture" of the beverage.
The upshot is that chinotto is definitely back.
Not with a bang but a pop.
Related link: cocktail recipes.