The Myth of Fernet:
|Novare serbando (Renew but conserve)|
|Branca Products motto,
The most trustworthy story of Fernet-Branca's creation in 1845 is traced to a home that still sits on a street named Corso di Porta Nuova in Milan. Just before the bloody regional revolt against Austria that unified Italy, self-taught herbalist Bernardino Branca, the great-great-grandfather of Count Niccolo Branca, brewed a new amaro (a bitter digestive liqueur) and, after testing it on his family, went into business selling it with his three sons -- Luigi, Giuseppe, and Stephano -- and Stephano's savvy wife, Maria Scala.
The name 'Fernet' itself was invented then, too, an exotic moniker that loosely implies the use of a "clean iron" in the distillation process, which has since been used for knockoffs like Luxardo Fernet Amaropad and Fernet Stock.
The first adverts in local political papers boasted of a "febrifuge, vermifuge, tonic, anti-choleric, warming pick-me-up" that could be mixed with everything from vermouth to animal broth. Scala wisely marketed it to women to ease menstrual discomfort (until 1913, only women were depicted drinking it in advertisements), but it was also lauded to aid digestion, impede nervous irritation, stimulate the appetite, treat troubles of the "splean," cure anxiety, quell stomach aches and headaches, and arrest the effects of old age.
And the lie spread like wildfire. During the period of shaky near-science at the mid-1840s, old Bernardino's secret concoction of herbs and spices -- which was first credited to a fictional long-lived Swede named Dr. Fernet Svedese and later a clandestine sect of friars from a remote alpine hermitage -- became one of the most successful products in pre-unification Italy. During a time when bloodletting was common and antibiotics were unheard-of, Fernet-Branca -- with its peculiar alcohol kick and heady dose of opiates -- was a certain miracle cure. In stark contrast to the draconian warnings of our modern-day surgeons general, it was widely endorsed by doctors. Some even stocked it in their hospitals.
Popularized by clever advertising -- iconic images of Romanesque women, colorful jesters, and the euphoric alligator (an animal famed for its great digestive abilities) -- Fernet went global. At the turn of the century, Italian illustrator Leopoldo Metlicovitz designed the logo that still graces the bottle: a land-and-water globe under an eagle whose talons clutch the miracle bottle, delivering Italy's "gift to the world" to every continent. The drink came to the United States in the suitcases of Italian immigrants, finding a home in the Italian wards of San Francisco, New York City, Baltimore, and Detroit, as well as those throughout Central and South America.
|Source: SF Weekly – ©2005 SF Weekly|