(CNN) – It is very strong, fennel-flavored, transparent as water, and in many homes in Sardinia it is still produced illegally.
Filu ‘e ferru, or “iron wire”, is an ancient drink with a dangerous past and an alcohol concentration of up to 45% that knocks out even those with a high tolerance.
Rosa Maria Scrugli was barely 23 years old when in 1970 she was sent on a work mission to the small village of Santu Lussurgiu, located in the wilderness of Oristano in western Sardinia, amidst rocky hills and caves .
For 400 years, this place of barely 2,000 inhabitants has been making a powerful filu ‘e ferru called locally “abbardente,” a word derived from the Latin that appropriately means “burning water.”
The mayor, the town shoemaker, greeted Scrugli at noon with several shots of welcome, but when the second one went off, he nearly collapsed and fell on top of the mayor who was only slightly drunk.
“The next thing I knew, someone had dragged me and I woke up in my hotel room with the worst hangover ever. The mayor wasn’t too well either, but he was used to drinking filu’ e ferru. It was my first time, and it was a shock,” Scrugli tells CNN.
Santu Lussurgiu is considered the birthplace of the oldest Sardinian tradition of “acquavite”, literally “vine water” in Italian, and indicating a premium alcohol distillate.
A secret code
The villagers have made filu ‘e ferru for 400 years.
“Acquavite and abbardente are just synonyms for filu ‘e ferru, which is a metaphor, part of a secret code invented at a later stage to refer to acquavite to escape police checks,” says the sole distiller ( legal) of Santu Lussurgiu, Carlo Psiche. .
It became an “outlaw” drink in the 19th century when the Italian royal house of Savoy introduced taxes on alcohol production, starting an illegal trade that continues in Santu Lussurgiu on a large scale.
Until a few decades ago, police raids were frequent, farmers had to hide the bottles of their filu ‘e iron in some secret place at home or underground in their garden, marking the place with a piece of iron. Hence the name “iron wire”.
In creating this nickname, the inhabitants have also been inspired by the nearby rocky mountain range of volcanic origin called Montiferru, the “iron hill”.
What has always made the acquavite of Santu Lussurgiu exceptional, unlike those produced in the rest of Sardinia, is that it is distilled from wine, not brandy, a brandy made from the waste of grape skins and seeds after the wine has been extracted. . So it’s not grappa – Italy’s favorite post-meal shot.
Psiche claims its Distillerie Lussurgesi, which features copper stills used for old-style distillation processes, is the only one of five filu ‘e ferru distilleries in the wider region that uses real wine instead of vinacce.
Meanwhile, families in the village have been making filu ‘e ferru at home since the late 16th century, after monks from the local abbey introduced this potent alcoholic distillate to the area.
“At first it was used for its medical and therapeutic properties, especially for toothaches, then people realized it was also great as a drink,” says Psiche.
Police raids and secret signals
Santu Lussurgiu is located in the hills of western Sardinia.
Courtesy of Michele Salaris
Everyone in the village still makes abbardente secretly at home. None of them pay taxes there, except Psyche, who runs a business.
Today things are less risky than in the past. After all, many Italians make wine and all kinds of spirits at home, and the authorities no longer go knocking on people’s doors unless they have set up a large-scale business.
Psiche remembers that until the 1960s, when the tax police patrolled the village in search of clandestine producers, people hurried to hide their bottles and stills, calling each other the emergency code “filu ‘e ferru “. It was like a curfew signal.
“I was only a child, but I remember the elders describing the policemen parking their cars in front of the town hall and walking around to hunt like the dogs of illegal producers.”
Fennel seeds are added to filu ‘e ferru to soften the pungent flavor and, given its strong smell, the smell of fennel wafting from houses occasionally helped the police track down illegal activities.
“There was a village messenger whose job it was to announce local laws, events and measures with the trumpet. When raids occurred, he used another key to warn the people,” says Psiche.
Italians and foreigners who knew the filu ‘e ferru secret flocked to Santu Lussurgiu to buy whole jars, Psiche says, but they asked too many questions at the risk of exposing the producers. So finally the locals decided to go completely underground.
The town had about 40 distilleries in the late 1800s, when filu ‘e ferru had become a popular drink and was exported throughout Italy. However, the distilleries were closed in the early 20th century and production became exclusively “domestic”.
Psyche, a former mechanic, decided to bring back the village’s ancient tradition of aquavite 20 years ago. Its abbardente, made from fresh local white grapes, comes in two versions, both aged for at least 12 months.
The clear water abbardente has an intense enveloping flavor with a slight flavor of dried fruit and almond, and is diluted with water from a spring in the nearby village. It is aged in steel tanks.
The amber colored abbardente is aged in oak barrels. The aging of the wood gives it a sweet flavor reminiscent of honey and homemade bread.
A female affair
Psyche uses traditional copper stills in its distillery.
Psiche’s craft distillery features antique stills and an original bottle of aquavit from 1860. It has several American customers in Ohio and Chicago, where many villagers immigrated.
“Our village has always used wine instead of marc because the vines here tend to over-yield, so the best way to avoid any wastage was to use the wine to make abardent,” says Psiche.
While men looked after the fields, the production of filu ‘e ferru in Sardinia was a women’s business. Wives, daughters and grandmothers became expert distillers. In the beginning, large copper pots were used, traditionally for milk, which were closed with flour dough to heat the wine. Later, the ladies moved on to copper stills.
Sardinians have a love affair with their “hot water”, just like Neapolitans with coffee.
While it’s great as an after-dinner digestif, whenever it’s time to toast a shot of abbardente works well.
According to Psyche, it is also a drink with which to observe death: when someone dies it is customary to enjoy a glass of filu ‘e ferru during the midnight vigil to honor the deceased.
Filu ‘e ferru is as fiery as the Sardinians who continue to make it at home, just like their ancestors, following the tradition. They believe it can be drunk like pure water.
A woman from Santu Lussurgiu, who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested by the authorities, says it’s not just for special occasions: “Those who like it drink it at any time of the day, even at breakfast.”
Making filu ‘e ferru strictly for personal consumption, he uses a huge still that belonged to his grandparents and has been in the family since the 1960s.
“It takes me half a day to distill the wine, which grows on our land. Apart from fennel, I often add absinthe,” he said.
The woman says she has now also involved her son in the daily preparation of her homemade filu ‘e ferru, perhaps a sign of the changing times that men like Psyche should play a key role in preserving the alcoholic heritage.