Massagli, the bitter-sweet soul of Lucca

It has been since the times of Hippocrates of Kos that sumptuous dinners were digested thanks to the assistance of an elixir of health made of wine to which barley, honey and various herbs had been added. In medieval Europe the Benedictine monks took things in their hands and started brewing roots and plants in alcohol for medical reasons. In the last two centuries Italy has successfully taken up the tradition and produced an excellent herbal liqueur called amaro (Italian for ‘bitter’) to be consumed as an after-dinner digestif.

Amaro is typically produced by macerating herbs, roots, plants, bark and citrus peels in alcohol, spirit or wine, subsequently mixed with sugar syrup and then left to age in casks. Traditionally the most popular officinal plants generally used in making the amaro are Cinchona, known as China [Quina] in Italian, whose properties are antimalarial and highly analgesic, Gentiana, very helpful for digestive and skin disorders, and Angostura bark, considered efficient against tuberculosis.

Every region in Italy has its own particular amaro, generally bound to a typical local ingredient. Tuscany has various, one of which was created in an old chemist’s shop in the square of San Michele in Lucca. In 1855, this beautiful Art Nouveau pharmacy was the scene of Doctor Pasquale Massagli’s new concoction, a quina elixir named China Massagli. Only in 1901 did they start to sell the amaro also in other places. As in the past, today China Massagli is prepared with cinchona bark, which arrives directly from the Amazon rainforest. The bark is put to macerate in pure alcohol and decalcified water, together with aromatic herbs and officinal roots. After a long period, during which it is emulsified and filtered twice, the elixir is ready to be consumed, even in long drinks with ice, both as an aperitif and a digestif.

However, Lucca’s production of amari didn’t stop there. In the 1940s the company created a new concoction using one part of the China Massagli with the addition of spices and aromatic herbs. Thus the Biadina Massagli was created, an amaro with a light, sweet taste which is enhanced by the adding some pine-seeds to the glass. This dark amber-coloured liqueur takes its name from horse fodder, in Italian biada, because, tradition as it, that when the horse carriages had to wait in front of the Lucca’s local theatre and opera house, the horses were offered fodder, biada, and the coachmen were offered something strong to keep them warm, precisely  Biadina.

And since three is the perfect number, Massagli in the 1970s went on to produce the Amaro Massagli. Even in this case we have one part of China Massagli but with the addition of herbs and spices which make it more bitter, as well as less sugary and with a slightly higher alcohol content than its siblings (30° compared with the 25° of China and Biadina).

What makes these three liqueurs so special is that their personal and traditional peculiarities have been lovingly handed down without altering a single thing, especially the ingredients and procedure. So if you ever visit Lucca, make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to get a really good taste of town savouring some of its excellencies:  the Massagli Amari.

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