This time I take the stand.
Slowfood’s Salone del Gusto has a great many Laboratori del Gusto, or Taste Workshops, and if you flip through the catalog you’ll likely be attracted to things such as a comparison between great Burgundy and great Barolo, the discovery of rare age-worthy Alpine cheeses, or old Champagnes (including the degorgement of a bottle during the workshop, using a saber). You might not think to look at soda. But if you had — like I did — you’d have made out very well.
By soda I mean a fizzy bottled drink, and most modern soda is industrially produced and frankly banal. However, there are artisinal productions, which hearken back to the early days of the drink, and they can be quite interesting.
Soda shares, we were told, a common origin with ice creams and sorbets, while the name Selz derives from Seltzer, a German city. At the time people already knew that one could obtain sparkling water by adding sodium bicarbonate to still water (hence the term soda water, or soda), but around Seltzer they carbonated the water differently, by adding to it under pressure the CO2 that is a natural byproduct of the fermentation of beer.
The carbonated water thus obtained was distributed to druggists who would add syrups to it and sell it, either as a refreshing tonic or as a curative — The folks in Atlanta added cocaine and cola to theirs, giving it an uplifting zing, and called it Coca Cola, whereas the people behind Pepsi were initially aiming for a cure for Dyspepsia.
In 1892 the crown cap was invented, and production took off in Great Britain and the United states.
But not in Italy, where local chemists and druggists continued to make syrups and flavor fizzy water with them until the end of the teens. The first Italian bottled sparkling drink was Gazzosa, which is lemon flavored. It was introduced between the wars, as was Chinotto, which is made with a small, green bitter citrus fruit called the Chinotto (it’s bitter enough that you might think quinine, though there is none involved). Chinotto didn’t catch on until after WWII, when a number of other drinks were introduced as well, including something called Ginger that didn’t contain ginger, but rather bitter oranges: it was named after Ginger Rogers, and made by a factory called Copacabana that opened outside of Milano.
To be honest, the future looked rosy for Italian soft drink makers; the products were good and had considerable character. However, to gain market share the industrialists cut prices (and costs, by reducing the amount of flavoring). Since their products were cheap they did sell, but came to be viewed as second rate by consumers, who much preferred the more flavorful American soft drinks that were introduced in the 50s and 60s. Nor has the situation changed much since then; if you visit an Italian supermarket today most of the soft drink section will be colas, with some orange soda, tonic water, and so on. Very little Gazzosa, a few bottles of Chinotto, and I have never seen Ginger. In short, Italian soft drink manufacturers shot themselves in their collective foot and have never really recovered.
But there are still artisinal producers of both Chinotto and Gazzosa, and with them things can get quite interesting, primarily because they don’t stint on the flavorings — Italian law requires that a fruit-flavored drink contain a minimum of 12% of the given fruit juice, and they are adding more;
We began the workshop with a comparison of several different artisinal Chinotto bottles. Taken as a group, they were varying shades of pale slightly orangish brown, a color that derives from caramel, or even simple burnt sugar in the paler bottles. In terms of flavor and aroma, chinotto is a little unusual and takes some getting used to; it has citrus notes with candied bitter orange and fairly intense, almost pugnacious bitterness as well that comes though strongly on the palate too.
There was also a surprising amount of variation, with some Chinotto more delicate than others, and a Sicilian Chinotto called Polara that was much, much bitterer than the rest.
After the Chinotto, the organizers distributed bottles of Gazzosa, which is essentially fizzy lemonade, and is actually — provided the fruit juice concentration is high enough — extremely refreshing, leaving the palate crisp and clean, much as a good lemon sherbet does. In this case the fruit used was of high quality — Lurisia uses lemons from Amalfi, the same lemons used to make Limoncello, whereas Polara’s lemons are Sicilian and just as flavorful if not more.
One thing to note about Gazzosa is that it is more versatile at table than some of the other soft drinks; it is a good option for those who want some sparkle, and a drink that won’t overwhelm foods the way a cola can, but don’t want alcohol, and can also be served between courses much the way a lemon sorbetto is. Some people also enjoy it after richly flavored fish such as salmon, again because it leaves the palate crisp and clean.
Very nice, and all I could think as I sipped — I finished most of the Gazzosa samples, which were easier to drink than the Chinotto — is that it is very sad that Italian soft drink makers increased their profits by weakening their drinks during the 50s. Had they not, Gazzosa would likely be as popular today as the Cola family of soft drinks is.