This is the third in a series of posts explaining the background behind the choice of places I am aiming to visit on my travels for my project The Best Water Skier in Luxembourg: Tales of Big Fish in Small Ponds.
The book is being crowd-funded via the innovative publisher Unbound and I would appreciate anyone interested in it to support me in reaching my goal.
Malta was an obvious choice of destination for a chapter of my book. A nation of about 450,000 people, densely packed into three densely populated island of only 121 square miles in total, it is similar to Luxembourg and Iceland: countries that are big enough to have the full range of features of other states, but in miniature.
At the same time, the chapter that I hope to write about Malta is a little different from some of the other chapters. With Luxembourg, Alderney, Suriname and Alderney I knew virtually nothing about the object of my mission before starting out. With my mission to find Malta’s favourite soft drink, I’m drawing on a longstanding obsession – not so much obsession with Malta but an obsession with soft drinks.
I’m not addicted to sugary liquids, although I do enjoy them. Rather, it’s what soft drinks represent that interests me. Soft drinks are neglected by writers and gourmets in favour of alcoholic drinks, which have an image of complexity and sophistication that soft drinks do not. Soft drinks are vulgar, filled with sugar and chemicals. They are childish, fit only for those who cannot drink alcohol and are too immature to be content with water as a thirst-quencher. Even more expensive soft drinks like Elderflower pressé are seen as, at best, substitutes for alcoholic drinks.
Part of the problem is that soft drinks are dominated by the leviathans of Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the like. Even for those who have no problem with multinational corporations per se may see corporate soft drink culture as something difficult to treasure.
But soft drinks are more interesting than they might at first seem. For one thing, if you look beyond the obvious – the Sprites and Cokes – there is a whole world of taste sensations that awaits the aspiring soft drink aficionado. A drink like Japan’s Pocari Sweat doesn’t just attract because of the bizarre name, but by the extraordinary and indefinable range of flavours it contains.
What really excites me about soft drinks is how you can trace the characteristics of globalisation and contemporary capitalism through them. It is striking how far the diversity of soft drink provision has declined in recent decades. When I was young, there were still places, like cinemas, where you couldn’t get Coke or Sprite, where the likes of Panda Pops or obscure orange squash drinks ruled. Every country had its Coke substitute or competitor, like Israel’s Kinley Cola. Today, the last bastions of resistance to Coke and Pepsi have mostly been conquered.
Yet some redoubts of soft drink diversity remain – and one of them is Malta. The small Mediterranean island state is home to one of the glories of the soft drink world: Kinnie. Kinnie is a bitter orange based drink that manages to balance complexity (its exact formula is a secret), the sharp bitterness of orange and the kick of sugar. It tastes great in the sun as I discovered on my visit to Malta in 2000.
From what I can tell, Kinnie appears to be thriving. It’s 60 years old this year and the company that makes it, Farsons, has even made tentative forays into selling the drink abroad. From conversations with Maltese, it appears that Kinnie is an important part of Maltese identity – they even serve it at the Maltese embassy in London.
If it looks like I already know what I am going to find on my mission to find Malta’s favourite soft drink, things aren’t as simple as they might seem. Coke et al are sold on the island and I need to establish what drink actually sells the best. As with every other chapter in the book, I’m on the hunt for stories. I want to meet the people from Farsons, as well as the local representatives of Coke and Pepsi and hear what they think. I want to visit the Kinnie factory and learn about its history. I want to get under the skin of what it is to be Maltese and what part Kinnie plays in Maltese identity.
It may be of course that Coke or a similar brand may be Malta’s favourite soft drink in terms of sales. Still, I make this vow: when my book is published, Kinnie will be the drink of choice at the launch party.
So that’s my Malta mission. Please support it!