CocktailsHow to CookItalian CookingNon-Boozy Drinks

An Ancient, Mysterious Citrus Fruit (& How to Turn it into a Drink)

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My homemade Cedrata—the deliciously perfumed, lightly sparkling Italian soft drink—is a more grown-up version of lemonade. So much so that you might even be tempted to add a splash of gin or Aperol or prosecco.

Homemade Cedrata (Citron Drink)
Homemade Cedrata (Citron Drink)

Cedrata is named for its main ingredient: citron (or cedro in Italian). Citron, when very ripe, can often be mistaken for a monster lemon—all golden, knobbly, and overgrown—but it's a quite different fruit all together. It's one of the most ancient and the most mysterious fruits of the citrus family.

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The citron's peel, which changes from bright-green to golden-yellow as it matures, is bitter but intoxicatingly fragrant; the bright white rind—incredibly thick, spongy, and surprisingly sweet—makes up 70% of the fruit's volume. The rind protects a disproportionately small amount of bitter, dry pulp, and vitamin-rich (though very minimal) juice. No wonder the Ancient Greeks considered citrons inedible.

For centuries, however, its scented skin and bitter juice have been used for a large number of medicinal applications, including as an antidote to poison, and the fruit has been cultivated for symbolic or religious uses, such as for the Jewish Sukkot celebration.

The citron (etrog, as they're called for this purpose) best known for these celebrations are grown along a sliver of beautiful coastline in the southern region of Calabria, around the town of Diamante. These same Diamante citrons are also the ones used to make cedrata, Italy's favorite citron drink, made by the Cedrata Tassoni Soda company.

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Photo by Emiko Davies

Created in the 1950s, cedrata—which is packaged in distinctive little glass bottles, blank except for the “Tassoni Soda” embossed on the side—has made somewhat of a comeback by those who love its kitschy and retro look. Similar to other sparkling citrus drinks like chinotto, aranciata, and limonata, cedrata is appreciated for its refreshing effect and its unique aroma. Thanks to citron's essential oils, sipping it is almost like breathing in an exotic perfume.

Getting your hands on a citron in the U.S. might be difficult, but making cedrata at home is easy. It's essentially a citron syrup made with citron pulp and sugar, then topped with sparkling water. Ice cubes and mint are very good (optional) additions for this fragrant, refreshing drink.

But if you do find a citron and make cedrata, there are so many wonderful things you could do with the other parts of the fruit. Don't throw out the pith or the zest of a citron—those are actually the best bits!

  • The pith is the sweetest part of the fruit; peel all of the zest carefully, then thinly slice and dress the pith with lemon and olive oil to eat as a salad. (Helena Attlee has a recipe for this Calabrian salad in her wonderful book, The Land Where Lemons Grow, where she tosses it with shallots and black olives, then leaves it to mingle for an hour before serving.)
  • Or, heap it on top of bruschetta with a good pinch of sea salt and lemon juice.
  • The zest can be candied (David Lebovitz has an excellent recipe), but it is also very good for infusing alcohol or making your own "cedrello," limoncello's citron cousin.
  • You can also intensify the syrup for the cedrata (in flavor as well as color) by adding the zest to the pulp.
  • You could also use this citron syrup to sweeten tea, and cedrata is delicious mixed in cocktails, too.
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Homemade Cedrata (Citron Drink)

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Makes about 14 ounces syrup for cedrata
  • 2 large, mature citrons
  • sugar
  • water
  • sparkling water, to taste

Tags: citron, esrog, cedrata, Calabria, regional Italian food