A network for Savona Chinotto

20 April 2021

We’re used to drinking it, but you can get much more than just a fizzy drink from the chinotto fruit: there are many uses, not all of them culinary, for this storied citrus fruit, from Italy to China. 

In Italy chinotto is synonymous with a dark soft drink with characteristically bittersweet flavor.

Yet from the fruit and flowers of the chinotto plant, Citrus myrtifolia, there are producers making biscuits, flavored salt, even perfume.

Savona Chinotto, Slow Food Presidium

A close up of a chinotto plant.

There are lots of products on offer from this group producers united by their love for this citrus fruit (a Slow Food Presidium) and who, for over ten years, have formed a network of businesses: Il Chinotto nella rete (The Chinotto Network). There are nine members so far: as well as farmers and plant nurseries, there’s a travel agency, (that organizes tours around sites connected to the chinotto plant), a publishing house, a hotel and different producers who use the fruit to create food and cosmetic products. 

So what else can be made from the Savona chinotto, besides as a soft drink? We can find in the form candied fruit in the maraschino style, as a marmalade or chutney, as a cream liqueur, in biscuits, pasta, tea, salt, beer, ice cream, chocolate… and even in cosmetics and perfumes!

Marco Abaton, coordinator of the Slow Food Presidium and President of the Association for the Protection of the Chinotto, a perfumer, whose story begins from the essence of chinotto. 

The ugly duckling of the citrus family

Abaton explains: “The network was founded in 2012. Two years prior, I’d released a chinotto-scented perfume. The idea came not just from a passion for this fruit, but also for Savona, my town.” An experiment then, and little more. At least that’s how it seemed at first. “Looking for the product, I founded very little extracts, and a sort suspicion among the growers. I decided to go ahead anyway, and create my fragrance, and I then presented it a trade fair. Unexpectedly there was a great public interest in it, both from young people and adults. The former saw it as something vintage, while the latter recalled memories of the past. This interest was encouraging, so I started to speak to producers from around the area who work with chinotto, and so we formed a group that could organize events together with a common theme.”

In a just few years numerous initiatives have since sprung up around the chinotto fruit. “We fell in love with the plant and the story behind it: the chinotto arrived in Savona around the year 1500 thanks to a Savonese navigator who imported a few exemplars from China. At that time, the plant was considered a charm because it was thought that it had health-giving properties.”

A delicate plant

Together with enthusiasm and curiosity, though, there are difficulties too. As Abaton admits, “We discovered how delicate the plant is. Only 50% of grafting operations succeed, and it can take 10 years for a plant to bear fruit. I like to define the chinotto “the ugly duckling of the citrus family” because it’s complicated, and requires more time, effort and investment than, for example, a lemon tree.”

This one reason why chinotto isn’t a fruit that producers can afford to let go to waste. “We try to use 100% of the fruit,” Abaton continues, “and it’s shared among producers. If one uses the pulp, another uses the peels, so that no part is wasted.”

Engine of the area

Chinotto 2
Flowering chinotto plant in Liguria

Over the years, the network of businesses has worked to plant chinotto trees, and there are now around 3500 in the area around Savona. The production, as Abaton explains, continues with limited volumes. “The quantities are small, but demand is growing exponentially. A decade ago the sales of chinotto had practically dried up, but today we receive business proposals for exclusive supply contracts over long time periods. As a network, and as a Slow Food Presidium, we work to protect and safeguard the small-scale producers, to avoid the harvest ending up in the hands of a select few big players.”

The network is also a way to bring together different businesses from around the local area. “Beyond the fruit, we really care about the history and the local culture. Right now, for example, we’re working together with Ceramic Museum of Savona to reproduce a set of crockery which was used in the past for tastings of the candied fruits.” These are in fact an amphora with a ceramic base and also glass vases, two different local productions from towns just outside Savona, Albissola and Altare. The objective of the Chinotto network is to promote Liguria and all its wares connected to this plant, which, after arriving from far away, has found its ideal home along the Italian Riviera.

by Marco Gritti, m.gritti@slowfood.it