Meet Cute with an Ancient Italian Elixir

I’ve recently heard it said that you always meet a favorite person or discover the best spot the day before you leave a place.

The medieval village of Fivizzano.
The streets of Fivizzano, loaded with history and charm.

I have thought about this wise travel lesson since leaving our housesit in the Tuscan village of Fivizzano. During the last week, we began to settle in and hit a stride that suited us. We also began to meet more locals, a truly fascinating and accomplished cast of characters.

We would meet the artistic young owner of a very old castle, a handsome Italian reality TV star, and producers of a famed Italian liquor – all within the last 48 hours of our time in Fivizzano!

One of my favorite “meets” began in pursuit of one of life’s simple pleasures, face cream. Those who know me well, know that I’m obsessed with what Matt dubs as “body condiments.” So, when I heard our tiny, walled Tuscan village of Fivizzano (population approx. 9k,) boasted a famed apothecary, I entered on a mission.

Clementi family pharmacy, Fivizzano, Italy.
Clementi family pharmacy, Fivizzano, Italy.

Since 1884 the Clementi family has run this pharmacy, in the town’s center, where history greets visitors at first blush. Ornate cabinetry and woodwork elegantly display a dizzying array of herbs and tonics leaving you not quite sure what you came in for or where to begin. I stared blankly at the shelves until approached by an elegant lady asking if I needed help.

What began as a wrinkle fighting conversation quickly turned to one honoring age, tradition, and history. Signora Clementi explained that her husband’s great-great grandfather, Joseph Clement, was a famed chemist who invented many potions, the most famous being the bitter liquor, China Clementi (pronounced key-nah.)

Like no pharmacy I've seen before.
Like no pharmacy I’ve seen before.

The family still produces the tonic, using the same recipe from over one hundred years ago. The key ingredient is extract from bark imported from South America (during Joseph’s day many Italians explored and migrated to South America, returning with exotic herbs and spices.) Orange peel and a secret mix of herbs are then added to create the dense brown concoction.

Having seen the bottle displayed in shop windows around town, I was curious. After our conversation, how could I not give it a try? Armed with Federica’s favorite serving method – poured over ice and orange slices in a short glass – I enjoyed my first aperitif of China later that afternoon.

Bitter and stout, China is meant for sipping.
Bitter and stout, China is meant for sipping.

My email thanking her for the conversation soon resulted in an invitation to coffee, which later turned into an impromptu tour of the factory where China is still made, located just minutes outside the village. We also had the privilege of enjoying wine, produced just a few kilometers away, with her family in their home later that afternoon.

The lovely Federica Clementi behind the counter of the family's famed pharmacy in Fivizzano.
The lovely Federica Clementi behind the counter of the family’s famed pharmacy in Fivizzano.

During our conversation and tour, Matt and I learned a good deal about the modern day production of this ancient liquor. China Clementi it turns out is currently gaining popularity in Japan and has recently began a relationship with an American distributor. It seems the worldwide craft cocktail craze is helping to shine new light on this old world brand.

In the factory, new lines are being added to increase production and a tasting room is in the works – fascinatingly, in the remains of one of the world’s oldest ice-factories, located on the property.

Look for China on a shelf near you soon.
Keep your eyes open for China on a shelf near you soon.

By just being curious and genuinely interested, we were treated to an amazing  experience and gained another few kernels of understanding of the traditions and history of this country we love so much.

And, by the way, as much as I treasure the China discovery, I am still in search of a kick-ass face cream. Recommendations welcome.
Related stories:

Italy’s Digestion Obsession

Castles of Tuscany x 2 – Castello Della Verrucola

Castles of Tuscany x 2: Castello dell’Aquila

Gunshots & Raindrops: Housesitting in Tuscany

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