In 1779 Bortolo Nardini arrived in Bassano, opened his grapperia, and a tradition was born. To this day from their gleaming stills near the river Brenta the expert craftsmen of Nardini produce some of the finest, smoothest grappa and liqueur Italy has to offer. Singular among their products is Acqua di cedro, a clear liqueur is made with cedro, or citron.
Known to botanists as Citrus medica, this ancient citrus, with its gnarled yellow skin, flourished in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and was brought to Italy by Alexander the Great. At first glance a citron might be mistaken for a large lemon, but pick one up, and you’ll be surprised by its light weight. A citron has very little watery pulp, a thick layer of pith, and a large proportion of fragrant oil-infused peel. It is this fragrant peel and its oil that go into the making of Acqua di cedro. Nardini uses fruit grown in the region around Lago di Garda, although farther south in Calabria, citron are also grown.
Sometimes called the noble cousin of Limoncello, Acqua di cedro is far more complex than its more famous relative. Where Limoncello has a bright lemon and a highly sweet flavor profile, Acqua di cedro is subtle and layered with essence of lemon and lime, and the scent of citrus leaves. It is in the finish, though, where these two liquors really differ. Limoncello is sweet all the way. Acqua di cedro, while sweet, has a dry finish that is never cloying and far more sophisticated than its cousin.
The Nardini distillers have produced a crystalline liquor that is refined, elegant and extremely versatile. At 29% alcohol, it gives body and a bit of weight to a drink, with no trace of fire in the throat. It is sublime combined with herbs. Try it with basil simple syrup and the effervescence of soda or San Pellegrino water. Basil simple syrup, with its hint of lemon and mint, marries beautifully with the liquor, creating a cocktail you can sip all evening long. Acqua di cedro is also wonderful poured over ice cream or dribbled over a slightly dry cake. For a light, citrus-infused holiday dessert, try it in Panna Cotta. This is a tradition you will want to keep.
Acqua e l’acqua
•1 ounce basil simple syrup (recipe follows)
•1 ounce Acqua di Cedro
•Pellegrino water or club soda
•sprig of basil
Fill a highball or rocks glass 3/4 full with ice. Pour basil simple syrup over ice. Add Acqua di Cedro and top with soda. Stir with a bar spoon, and finish with a sprig of green or opal basil.
Basil Simple Syrup
Simple syrup is easy to make and has many different uses in the kitchen. It can be plain, just sugar and water, or flavored with anything from anise to vanilla, or as here, basil. Plain, it is the ideal sweetener for cold drinks. Mix it with spirits to moisten layers of cake. A simple rule of thumb for flavoring simple syrup is when using herbs, such as mint or basil, add them at the beginning along with the sugar and water. Add spirits after removing the finished syrup from the flame. Generously flavored with basil, this syrup is wonderful over fresh fruit or as a sweetening agent for lemonade or mixed drinks.
•2 cups basil leaves
•2 cups granulated sugar
•1 cup water
Place all ingredients in medium saucepan. Heat over medium until sugar has dissolved and mixture has come to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally. Mixture will be completely clear when sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat. Cool, strain and store in refrigerator up to 5 days.
Acqua di Cedro Panna Cotta
•1 ½ cups heavy cream
•1 ¼ cups whole milk, divided
•1/4 cup granulated sugar
•1/4 cup Acqua di Cedro
•1 scant tablespoon KNOX Unflavored Gelatine
Combine heavy cream, 1 cup whole milk and sugar in 2-quart saucepan. Stir occasionally over medium heat to dissolve sugar, heating until small bubbles form around edge of pan. Remove from heat.
Meanwhile pour remaining 1/4 cup milk into a heatproof bowl with a broad bottom (use of a broad bottom bowl assures that all the gelatin comes into contact with the milk.) Sprinkle gelatin over milk. Soften 5 minutes.
Bring a medium saucepan filled with 1 inch of water to a simmer. After gelatin has softened 5 minutes, place bowl with gelatin and milk mixture in saucepan, and stir to completely dissolve gelatin. The mixture will thin considerably. Pour into the hot cream mixture, stirring to combine. Transfer mixture to a clean bowl. Add Acqua di Cedro, stirring well. Place over ice water bath, stirring occasionally to promote even cooling. Pour into serving glasses. Refrigerate at least 4 hours. Garnish with chocolate shavings and serve.
Acqua di cedro is available at K&L wines (klwines.com) and other purveyors of fine spirits.