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The Centerbe liqueur

15/05/2006

by Pietro Valdiserra

This liqueur is the result of a very old tradition. The “centerbe” has been produced for centuries at home in many places in Central Italy. With the passing of time it has been enriched with a lot of nuances, aromas and original flavours, which are often kept secret. It is particularly spread in Abruzzi: here there is a very old custom according to which many wild herbs growing on the mountains are picked and used to prepare a curative liqueur at home. In dialect it is named “cianterba” (maybe it derives from the vernacular Latin, centum herbora). Many villages in Abruzzi are renowned for this liqueur, in particular Tocco da Casauria, a town located in the Pescara hinterland. Since the Middle Ages in Tocco there has been an abbey which in the past was visited by many pilgrims passing there and by shepherds who drove their flocks, through cattle-tracks, to Apulia where they spent winter. The wayfarers, when they stopped here to take some refreshment, drank a powerful liqueur with an unmistakable aroma. The abbey became less renown but this full-bodied liqueur continued to be used at home near Tocco da Casauria. At the end of the eighteenth century the chemist Beniamino Toro, who had moved in the new drugstore a short time before, started to produce the “cianterba”, turning this product, drunk just at home and as a medicine until that moment, into a hand-made liqueur. Its original characteristics and its recognized therapeutic properties immediately made it famous in all the reign of Naples. They tell us that during the cholera epidemic which spread in the Naples area in 1884 every evening handcarts full of “cianterba” left to reach Naples. Still now in Tocco da Casauria the descendants of Beniamino Toro continue to produce their “centerbe” (the authentic word is “centerba”, according to the original dialectal diction) which undoubtedly is one of the most typical traditional Italian liqueurs. The originality of this alcoholic drink is its secret mixture of wild herbs picked on Mount Gran Sasso of Abruzzi and Mount Morrone. After picking them, these herbs are carried to the workshop in particular sacks and they are dried in places sheltered from sudden changes in temperature and humidity. Then they are selected in order to use only the best parts of the leaves and, after an accurate dosage, they are soaked in alcohol. The dosage of the chosen varieties and the time of infusion (from two to four months) may vary according to the weather conditions of the year of picking. The product is packaged in very fine straw-covered bottles. The “centerba” of Tocco da Casauria is an emerald green elixir without sugar and flavour enhancers, with high alcoholic content (the strong version is even 70 grades!). It has refined vegetal scenes among which the mint ones prevail. Its taste is full-bodied and well defined if it isn’t diluted as it is usually served at the end of the meal. It is delicately aromatic if mixed with coffee, chocolate or milk and for this reason it is often used in bars and confectioner’s shops. It can also be used in cuisine in many ways with imagination like in pizzas, risottos, pasta and to flavour meat (hare, rabbit and cock) and seafood (trout in salt and scampi au gratin). This alcoholic product, which makes Tocco da Casauria famous, has also a sound literary tradition. At the end of the nineteenth century the abbot Antonio Stoppani, in his book “Il Bel Paese”, wrote these words: “the cent’erbe from Tocco is a very well known liqueur in the Naples area where it was also said to be a medicine to treat cholera. It is obtained from the distillation of aromatic herbs, it is a tasty, spicy liqueur which is good for your stomach, too”. In 1963 the great food and wine journalist Paolo Monelli wrote “O.P. ossia il vero bevitore” in which he affirmed that “drinking this precious emerald liquid we come into contact with the big mountain, with the massif of noble rocks and shining frost which protects the heart of Italy…it is a vehement lymph with a very well defined aroma which gives life to a storm in your mouth and gets into your heart…A member of the Italian Alpine troops drank a whole flaskful of this centerbe and he tumbled down remaining drunk for two days; when he recovered consciousness he killed a mule with a punch.”

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