05 June 2008

Sal de Uvas

I am constantly running across interesting sounding names for Mexican commercial products and at times curiosity gets the best of me and I just have to check them out. Almost always, I am rewarded by a unique and colorful history that makes it well worth the effort. My current object of investigation is a Mexican product called "Sal de Uvas Picot" ( pronounced SAHL deh OO-bas pee-COHT). It is a carbonate type aid for acid indigestion and it comes in the form of a powder that you dissolve in water. It immediately starts to effervesce when it hits the water and you drink the vigorously bubbling liquid to initiate a cure for your upset tummy.

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.

27 comments:

bob cox said...

Bob.. great story... something else that British miners brought to Mexico was "Pasties".. a sort of empanada that the miners wives would fix for them to eat in the mines. Traditional pasties are filled with potatoes & venison (or beef). You can find many Pastie shops around Hidalgo & a few have drifted over into Tlaxcala & Puebla, I saw one in the Mexico City bus station (T.A.P.O.). The miners were from Cornwall, I also discovered pasties in upper peninsula of Michigan. Amazing how some foods travel around.
It's like Flan... which everyone keeps saying is a Mexican dessert... Wrong... The French brought it over (egg custard) & they left it everywhere they went... you can find it in Morrocco & VietNam also.

Michael Warshauer said...

Bob, you are an inspiration to us TMI wonks.

Saludos,
Mike
PS: Today's secret word: hotylase.

Xersize said...

Congratulations on this excelent documented story Bob!! Wow, I was searching the web to find what Sal de Uvas Picot really was, I'm mexican and always have use it, but never knew the history behind it, thanks!! You are a wonderful investigator.

Eduardo

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob...
I find You every where. Sal de Uvas ehhh. May be you wake up "Crudo" after some beers... JEJEJEJe
Hugs Amigo.
Marco

Senorita Irma said...

wow!! you cleared two enigmas in one go. very very interesting

Anonymous said...

Thank you VERY much for this. As a Mexican that has been taking Sal de Uvas all her life (I prefer it to Alka Seltzer), I always wondered where the name came from. Right now I was about to start my quest on finding out about it...but you got there first! Thanks, I passed it along to other peeps that I know have always been curious...

Magdiel said...

hi Bob.. i liked your post... its interesting... recently i found aold bottle of "Sal de Uvas Picot", but it didn't have its tag... so I can't know when was made it. Only I Know that's oldder...

Best regards from Mexico

Rich Rodriguez said...

Great article. I just wanted to know the ingredients, but I got a very interesting history lesson. Thanks.

Tiffany said...

Interesting article.

As a non-Mexican, I had never heard of this, until I met my Mexican husband. I've used it since then. It works great, and is very inexpensive. I expected it to taste really bad like alka seltzer - and it does not. Furthermore there's not any painkillers which is great. When I just have an upset stomach, I don't want to unnecessarily consume aspirin.

Thanks for the info...now to continue my search if it's safe for pregnancy.

alex0ml said...

Wow this is very interesting. I'm mexican and now I'm working at Bristol Myers-Squibb the company that currently owns Sal de Uvas Picot and I didn't know why this product is called "salt of the grapes". Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Sal de uvas: very good for the hangover

alex0ml said...

Wow this is very interesting. I'm mexican and now I'm working at Bristol Myers-Squibb the company that currently owns Sal de Uvas Picot and I didn't know why this product is called "salt of the grapes". Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Sal de uvas: very good for the hangover

Bob Mrotek said...

Alex,
I appreciate the comment. ¡Saludos!

chinanteco said...

Hello Bob!...

What a great insight!.


Thanks for the enlightenment... what a great research!.

Bob Mrotek said...

Hi chinanteco,

Thanks for the kind word :)

Anonymous said...

Great job and interesting post! I just bought some Picot Sal de Uvas at my local grocery store. Great because it takes care of indigestion without needing to take aspirin (like with Alka-Seltzer). Good work on the history and background of the product. Very interesting!

RandomThoughts said...

Ok, I'm more confused now. You got me right at the beginning of the explanation.

"Transliteration" is the process of phonetically representing words of a certain language in one alphabet in another alphabet's system of sounds. As far as I know, spanish and english are usually written in the same alphabet. so what is the process that represents "cream of tartar" as "sal de uvas"? or vice-versa? I can't tell which one is moving into and/or out of a foreign alphabet. Help???

Bob Mrotek said...

Come on Random, you are not confused. You know that my choice of "transcription" is wrong. Thanks for pointing that out. Now, what would you call it? The "Cream of Tartar" and the "Sal de Uvas" are not really correct either but they both represent the idea of a mixture of Bicarbonate of Soda and Tartaric Acid from different perspectives. I am really curious as to what would be the correct term. Please help me out and I will make the correction. Again, thank you!

Bob Mrotek said...

Ooops, I meant to say "transliteration" not "transcription".

Kal said...

Bob

Great info on this product. Very interesting. I have been upset over the lack of being able to get Bromo-Seltzer (at least my tummy has been upset). It appears as though Bromo is no longer being sold these days. Picot seems like the best alternative available and is without the acetaminophen that was in Bromo. Even better... Picot is less expensive. Yeah!

Iris Gonzalez said...

What happend if i eat to much SAL DE UVAS ???everyday

Bob Mrotek said...

Iris, I think you would have a serious health problem. A little medicine can be good. A lot of medicine can be not so good.

gabriele gray said...

Hi Bob....Good advice and good information never goes out of date...as this post of yours proves.
I live in LA and have pretty much sworn off the big name chain stores...not just their much higher prices but the lack of diversity. I grew up in California so ethnic foods to me are opportunities to learn AND enjoy...
And the local markets are a real joy, whether the Super King chain (small, Armenian but with lots for other ethnic groups) or the ones such as Big Saver or El Super.

But what I really really appreciate is that with ethnic markets I can find many of the old-fashioned remedies that I remember from childhood...or more modern items but which are less expensive with a non-name brand label.
So when I was looking through the El Super weekly ad (online) I saw the Picot Sal de Uvas and wanted to know what it was.
I had sort of figured out what 'sal de uvas' was and since I have baked a lot and had an old baking powder cookbook from the 20s or 30s) I remember it had an introduction into the history of baking powder which included the tartaric acid and such. Wish I still had the book...probably a collector's item now and I seldom bake but it had been an old friend.
But I couldn't put it all together and so I looked it up and having a choice between the Amazon listing and your listing, well of course I chose the human, personal, interesting one.
El Super has a package of 8 for 99 cents so it's on my shopping list now. I've always gone low tech and just used baking soda (Bromo always seemed to leave a residue in the glass and while I liked the old ads for Alka-Seltzer I didn't like the price.

So thank you, I will enjoy buying something worthwhile and yes, I love the history of things (one store has Pisco on sale so I had to read about THAT...I'd had Pisco Punch but didn't know the background).Don't drink much but who knows when I might need to know something about it? ).

I enjoy your writing so I'll be able to come back and learn all sorts of new/old useful/informative/interesting things.
And you may not be aware of it but the people in the US who buy sugar owe a great debt to the Mexican sugar companies. The US companies were really a monopoly so we had to pay whatever (there was a shortage ONE year and after that the prices didn't come down...now, we have Zulka (Morena is the brand I buy)...in durable plastic bags (not paper sacks), much better priced (the US brands have sales now with lower prices) but best of all, the zulka isn't as processed AND is non-GMO. It measures and dissolves the same as the pure white pricey kind so it's a win-win-win for shoppers who look beyond the Spanish name.

Bob Mrotek said...

Thanks for your comments gabriele gray. I really appreciate the feedback :)

Patricia Del Alba said...

I wanted to know what exact side effect or medical problems you would have if you ate for years maybe even when you didn't have an upset stomach? Just curious

Patricia Del Alba said...

I wanted to know what exact side effect or medical problems you would have if you ate for years maybe even when you didn't have an upset stomach? Just curious

Bob Mrotek said...

Patricia Del Alba
Todo con moderación - Moderation in everything :)

jeffm12012 said...

Replying to Kal:
As far as I know, Bromo-Seltzer is still being made, by a company called Tower Laboratories, but the acetaminophen has been changed to aspirin, so the product is now probably just about identical to Alka-Seltzer.
The bromide that gave Bromo-Seltzer its name (and made it a preferred remedy for hangovers) was removed from the product in the late 1940's or early 50's as too hazardous a drug for an over-the-counter medication.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.