On hot summer days, here in New York City, you will often see, at a stoplight in one of the neighborhoods where the traffic gets thick and slow, or in one of the places where the hapless pods of tourists find themselves most exposed to the sun’s pitiless rays, a young man or woman equipped with a blue Igloo ice chest and a lot of lungpower, pulsing out the standard cry of “Icecoldwateronedollar!”
These water-sellers are regarded by many—the rich, the comfortable, the provident and hydrated—as little more than public nuisances. And yet theirs is an ancient and honorable profession.
Here in America, we are fortunate to have built the majority of our infrastructure after the development of indoor plumbing. That meant that, since the early nineteenth century, for us water was centrally distributed; something that flowed to each individual building, cheap, plentiful and, for the most part, reasonably clean. In other parts of the world, buildings would have to be retrofitted and indoor plumbing would come somewhat later. In the meanwhile, in the places, such as Northern Europe, that were well-watered and developed, at least there were numerous and well-placed fountains and public taps.
Other people in other places didn’t have it so easy. In the countries around the Mediterranean, for instance, clean water was rather more difficult to obtain, particularly in the sweltering summer months. Hence the water-sellers: men or women who roamed the streets, armed with a heavy container full of water, a few cups and a familiar cry. When the heat had ginned your thirst up to the torture point, you’d stop one of them, hand them a trifling coin and get a glass of water. Pause for a moment, drink it down, and be on your way.
You can find these water peddlers depicted on old postcards from Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Naples, Sicily—all the region’s hottest places. Each has his or her traditional costume and paraphernalia. Some keep the water in giant goatskins, others in smallish wooden kegs, others in tin tanks, buckets, bottles or clay jars.
In Palermo, the metropolis of Sicily, the uniform the typical acqualoru sported was nothing special, especially compared to the ones in, say, Morocco, which turned their wearers into walking yarn-dolls. A hat to keep off the Italian sun, a shirt, a pair of pants and, the only nod to the occupation, a sort of leather half-apron covering his right leg.
He needed that to rest the jug that held the water while he poured a glass. The quantara, as it was known, was the heaviest and most awkward of all the traditional types of containers: a large, two-handled, flat-bottomed amphora, made of unglazed clay. Where water-sellers elsewhere had various straps and yokes to help them bear their load, the poor acqualoru had to drag the thing around Palermo by one of its handles. He couldn’t even switch hands, not easily, anyway. That’s because in his other hand he had to carry his tavulidda; his “little table.”
This, too, was unique to Sicily. A sort of side-table with a top measuring some 8” by 15” and standing about as high as your knee, it had a rim around the edge and a thin brass rail on top of that and a handle in the middle of the top. On it were a handful of glasses and a couple of bottles with long, copper quills sticking out of the top. The whole thing was painted in the Sicilian manner, with bright yellows and reds and blues in simple geometric patterns and decorated with bits of bright, polished brass.
When you stopped one of these gents, he would set down the table and the jug and polish up a glass for you. Then he’d hoist the jug to his right thigh, fill the glass from it and ascertain if you wanted it topped off with lemon juice (the contents of one of the bottles, usually lightly salted) or zammù, in the other bottle.
You wanted the zammù. “Zammù” (pronounced “zam-MOO”), you see, is Sicilian for the Italian “sambucca.” But the actual contents of the bottle weren’t the cloyingly-sweet, fairly low-proof stuff we know by that name. Since 1813, in Palermo zammù has been synonymous with the “Anice Unico,” the “Only Anise” made right in the heart of the city by the Tutone family. The stuff is unsweetened and comes in two strengths: 60-percent alcohol or 70-percent alcohol. (Like most Italian sambucca, which is named after the elderflower, it no longer has any elderflower in it, being flavored with star anise.)
Assuming you chose correctly, the acqualoru would hold your glass in one hand and pour a graceful stream of anise into it with the other, flourishing the bottle high over his head in the process. As the spirit hit the water it would turn it as white and opaque as a glass of milk.
Cool milk, at that: the reason for the cumbersome quantara is that the unglazed earthenware was porous, and as water worked its way through its walls it would evaporate, cooling the contents within. It was worth hauling all that gear around because it made for a better drink, and Italians will to this day go to what seem to some people absurd lengths for incremental improvements in the quality of what they eat and drink.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the acqualori were trading in their amphorae and tables for permanent kiosks, also elaborately decorated. A few of them are still there, and you can still get “acqua cu’ zammù” from them, although now it usually has ice in it and a mosca, or “fly”: a single coffee bean, floating in it. The half-ounce or so of the dry anisette that gets splashed in is just enough to flavor the water lightly, without making the drink heavy or intoxicating. It’s a perfect hot-weather drink, from a place that knows hot weather.
Unfortunately, as far as I’ve been able to determine there’s no United States importer for Anice Unico Tutone—odd, considering the number of Palermitani who have settled in the country. But Palermo is not the only place that flavors its booze with anise. Indeed, most of those other Mediterranean countries do the same thing, and drink it the same way, with cold water (they just don’t do it on the street, although there are exceptions).
While none of these other versions are as concentrated, and few as dry as the Tutone, if you can find the Spanish Anis del Mono brand, that makes a good substitute, as long as you’ve got the green-label seco, or “dry” version, and not the red-label dulce, or “sweet” one. Turkish raki and Greek ouzo tend to be unsweetened or lightly-sweetened at most, and work quite well, although (as with the Anis del Mono) you’ll have to use more like three-quarters of an ounce to get the same effect; the Turkish Yeni Raki brand is widely available and works quite well. You can even go with a sambucca, but you might need a whole ounce (gasp!) and the result will be a little sweet. Not the end of the world.
As for the water. You can get that right out of your faucet, and you don’t have to drag it around in a huge earthenware jug to cool it off, either; that’s what we’ve got ice for. Or, of course, you can track down one of those entrepreneurial youths with their “icecoldwateronedollar.” You’ll have to add your own zammù, though.