The phrase "sal de uvas" literally means "salt from grapes" and the word "Picot" refers to "Laboratories Picot" which is the name of the company who developed the product in 1928. In order for me to explain the "sal de uvas" part we need to drop back in time to at least 1835 and take a look at the invention of baking powder. Up until this point in time most bread was made with some form of yeast. The yeast provided the bubbles that made the bread rise. One could also use bicarbonate of soda, called "baking soda" but only if the bread dough had an acid component to react with the baking soda which is a base. Baking "powder" was developed from baking "soda" by several individuals between 1835 and 1845 in order to be able to make bread without having to wait for yeast to rise or without the need for an acid component in the bread dough. Interestingly enough, the British military was one of the first entities to take advantage of this new invention to make biscuits to feed His Royal Majesty's troops. Perhaps for this reason the word "royal" was very early associated with baking powder and in Mexico baking powder is referred to by cooks as “polvo royal” or “royal powder” to this day…no matter what the brand. There were several early brands that claimed the name “Royal” and I am not even sure how “Royal” became the favorite brand in Mexico. Perhaps it arrived with the English when they built the first railroad from Veracruz to Mexico City or perhaps it arrived with the Americans during the Mexican War with the United States. It doesn’t matter. In Mexican recipes “royal” means “baking powder”.
That is all well and good about baking powder but what does it have to do with “sal de uvas”? It just so happens that the English transliteration for “sal de uvas” is “cream of tartar”. I hate to show my ignorance but I always thought that cream of tartar was some kind of cream but that is not so. It is a white powder that is used to supply acidity in the realm of cooking. To make baking powder they originally mixed bicarbonate of soda with cream of tartar in dry form and when added to a liquid it formed bubbles because the cream of tartar is acidic and when dissolved in liquid it reacts to the bicarbonate of soda base. Cream of tartar comes from grapes and is obtained when tartaric acid is half neutralized with potassium hydroxide and becomes a salt. Grapes are one of the very few significant natural sources of tartaric acid and cream of tartar is obtained from the sediment called “argol” produced in the process of making wine. Tartaric acid comes from the grape skins and is what gives wine its tart and acidic tasting properties. Cream of tartar is formally called potassium bitartrate and was known in ancient times as “Crystals of Argolis”. The argol that it comes from is a reddish brown in color and sometimes the white crystals would grow inside of a wine bottle, especially around the cork. It had some very strange chemical characteristics that intrigued early scientists who called it “sal tartari” and the argol that it came from “terra foliata tartari”. The medieval alchemists used it in many of their concoctions and called it “Arcanum tartari” which more or less means “secret blood stone”. How romantic can you get, eh?
Around the turn of the last century the Brioschi company of Italy began making a successful antacid relief powder named “Brioschi” (pronounced bree-OSS-kee) and about the same time a man named Isaac E. Emerson began making the famous “Bromo Seltzer” and both used the concept of mixing tartaric acid in dry form with bicarbonate of soda. Sal de Uvas Picot is a similar product and made its debut in 1928. Each serving size envelope contains 2.485 grams of Bicarbonate of Soda, .2165 grams of Tartaric Acid (Sal de Uvas) and 1.9485 grams of Citric Acid. It was shear marketing genius to call this otherwise simple and unsophisticated product “Sal de Uvas”. Like many contemporary products it became a household word through promotion via the new media, radio. The Laboratories Picot began to buy air time on Mexican radio station XEW, the “Cathedral of Radio” in 1931. Their commercials were a resounding success and the company exceeded its expectations of popularity and sales so they decided to launch a songbook called “Cancionero Picot. It was distributed in pharmacies and house by house, and contained many of the lyrics of songs heard on station XEW. Thanks in part to the success of the Cancionera Picot the radio station XEW became known as the “Voice of Latin America from Mexico”. One of the most effective features of the Cancionero Picot were Chema and Juana, two characters who always announced the virtues of the product in the form of verse. Chema is the pet name or “hypocoristic” name for José Maria, and Chema looks like a typical Mexican cowboy with a big drooping mustache. His female counterpart Juana looks like a rather plump Mexican version of Betty Boop. Together they were a smash hit. In the late 1950’s, Laboratories Picot began to advertise on television with an animated character named “Burbujita” which means “little bubble” . She was a cute little pixie-like character dressed in a modern nurse’s uniform and she carried a magic wand that emanated bubbles.
The reward that I got for checking out the “Sal de Uvas” story was not only an interesting bit of Mexican folklore but also the amazing history of baking powder. The ironic thing is that cream of tartar is no longer used in baking powder because cheaper and better chemicals have been discovered and put to use. That is why if you are following an old, old recipe for something like pancakes that calls for “Royal” and requires a single acting baking powder it is better to make your own. You just mix two spoonfuls of cream of tartar with one spoonful of baking soda and one spoonful of corn starch. In my search for cream of tartar and the history of baking soda I encountered a cast of characters second only to the Wild West or the Sopranos gang. There were baking power wars, and baking powder barons, and a corner on the argol market, etcetera. By the way…what brand of baking powder did your mother use? My ma used Calumet brand and I can still remember the picture of the Indian Chief on the can. Who knew that such a simple thing could have such an interesting past. And so, as I close this chapter on my quest for the truth I tip my hat to the Sal de Uvas Picot people who made their product a vibrant part of Mexican history and opened my own curious eyes just a little bit wider.