Friday, December 01, 2006

Driving, Balmetti, and Antonia: Being the 126th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola, your things Italian newsletter.

To begin at the beginning, the sites: The latest on the Italian Wine Review is an overview of Bergamo's Valcalepio Appellation, whose reds are made with the classic Taglio Bordolese -- Cabernet and Merlot -- and whose whites also feature French varietals. Not necessarily what one would expect from Italy, but nice and in some cases worth seeking out. The latest on About is (for the last time) the Fish Gallery: It's done!

Driving in Italy is Just Not The Same...
The first car I drove in Italy was a 1972 Fiat 500: It looked vaguely like a shrunken VW bug, had an unsynchronized transmission that required double clutching, and could hit 100 (kilometers, about 60 mph) going down hill with a tail wind. The visibility wasn't the best, but it was very maneuverable and fun to drive. In short, the ideal city car, and I still miss it when I'm driving in Florence. I didn't miss in on the highways, however, and was quite happy when we bought a car that would easily reach 160 kph (about 100 mph) -- sure, the speed limit was 130, but if I was in a hurry and the road was clear, I could step on it. Nor was I alone; though I passed people I also got passed regularly, and every now and again a slinky Ferrari or Lamborghini would wooosh past.

Not any more; Italy's Powers that Be have finally decided to put some teeth into the speed limit regulations, and are flooding the highways (and regular roads, for that matter) with rilevatori di velocità: They're squat file-cabinet-sized cement boxes with two 2-inch square (5 x 5 cm) windows on the side facing the road, and a larger window facing in the direction of travel. If the instrumentation looking out the front decides you're going too fast the machine takes a picture of you, and after a while you get a fine, and points off your license -- exactly how much and how many depends upon how much over the speed limit you were going. Most of the machines are marked with red and white striping and a sign, but some are unmarked, or hidden at the exits of tunnels, and as I said there are lots of them: My brother-in-law counted 16 in the 85 kilometers separating Florence from Bologna.

It's important to note that since the machines use optics rather than radar, radar detectors of the kind that were once in vogue in the US won't work. A couple of satellite navigators have begun to advertise that they also warn of these gadgets, but I wouldn't get too excited because the police mount portable rilevatori on their cars, and I've encountered them several times.
The bottom line is that there's now a powerful incentive to obey the speed limit, and it's just as valid if you're driving a rented car: A friend of mine received a ticket in the mail after his trip, and called up the Italian consulate to ask what would happen if he didn't pay. "Nothing if you don't come back," was the answer, the implication being that if he wanted to come back he could have problems at the border. Since the EEU is integrating all aspects of law enforcement, with time failure to pay a fine in one country could lead to problems when attempting to enter Europe from another.

I do miss being able to zip along, but fatalities are down, and that's good.

I Balmetti Di Borgofranco D'Ivrea
Moving in a very different direction, if you drive north from Torino towards the Valle D'Aosta, you'll find yourself following the valley now occupied by the Dora Baltea. It wasn't carved by the river, however -- it's glacial in origin, and shortly after Ivrea you'll come to something unique, so far as I know: Borgofranco D'Ivrea's Balmetti.

Balmetti are houses with cellars built into the glacial moraine along the line where the mountains jut up from the flat valley floor, and what makes them unique are ore (singular ora), fissures in the moraines that emit steady streams of cold air. And I do mean cold; they're 8 degrees C (45 F) in summer, and a little more in winter. In short, the people of the town have naturally refrigerated cellers, and they're fascinating, as is the story behind them.
Borgofranco has existed at least since the 1200s, and the town proper is located a ways out on the valley floor.

People must have known about the cold air issuing from the fissures along the valley wall, but don't appear to have thought about putting it to use until the 1600s, when the first balmetti were built, and used primarily to store wine.

It wasn't until the early 1800s, however, that the townspeople decided to exploit the resource in earnest, building an uninterrupted street of balmetti along the valley wall (if you walk down the street, you see a row of low houses built back into the mountain), and it would appear that the decision stemmed at least in part from changing customs:

Historically, an organization called the Badia had handled popular festivals and fairs (especially Carnevale) in Borgofranco. However, it declined in popularity in the mid-1800s, during which time two things were happening: First, the breath of cultural fresh air associated with the brief establishment of the Napoleonic government had led to new ideas about how to celebrate Carnival and otherwise make merry; Second, the Church, reacting to the innovations, had clamped down. Put simply, those who wanted to have a good time decided to do so out of town, where churchly-inspired moralists would neither see nor comment, and built the Balmetti as a sort of party row, as it were. Even the street names reflect the area's destination: Via del Buonamore, Via di Bacco, and Via della Coppa, respectively the Street of Good Love, Bacchus's Way, and The Cup's Way.

Of course once the balmetti were built, they were also put to other uses, including storage -- primarily grapes and wine -- and industry, though one that fits perfectly with the purpose of the street: In about 1900 the Degiacomini family, brewmasters from Sondrio, built a brewery, using the cool air from the ore to regulate fermentation temperatures. It has since gone out of business (there is talk of readapting the structure), but you can visit the balmetti -- there are about 200 of them, kept cool by close to 300 vents, and the local tourist office has set up a small museum in one of the nicest ones, while its offices are in the second story of the building.

In addition to the concentration of balmetti on these streets there are several individual balmetti built into the valley wall just a little further up the valley. When should you think about visiting? The balmetti are central to three celebrations: Carnevale, in February (when you could stop during a ski trip), in June, when there's the Andoma ai Balmit (Let's go the the Balmetti) festival, a very convivial open house, and in September, at the harvest. Italy has many unusual treats, and this is one of them. For a few photos, see the Cosa Bolle site.

Getting there: Borgofranco is just north of Ivrea. Exit the A 5 highway at Quincinetto, and turn right towards Settimo Vittone. The balmetti are in a hamlet called Quinto. For further information, contact the Pro Loco, through the town's site.

Antonia Isola's Simple Italian Cookery
The holiday season is nearing, and it's time to think about gifts. One volume sure to interest anyone who enjoys cooking, and especially those with a historical bent, is Antonia Isola's Simple Italian Cookery, published (now) by Applewood Books for The Culinary Trust. I say now, because the book was originally published in 1912 by Harper and Brothers, who engaged the services of Antonia Isola, "An American who has Lived Much in Rome." It was the first Italian cookbook published in the United States, and it is an interesting volume for a number of reasons.

First, it turns out Antonia Isola wasn't really Antonia Isola, but rather Miss Mabel Earl McGinnis, an American. She really did live in Rome, however, not far from the Spanish Steps, and one would guess that Harper and Brothers changed her name because they thought an Italian name would sound more convincing given the subject matter -- considering that I have had people wonder why someone with a name like mine is writing about Italian food, things haven't changed as much as one might have expected in the past century.

Second, the timing of the book. As Robert Brower, who wrote the introduction to the new edition, points out, American cookbooks of the period had begun to include Italian recipes, and the US government was also interested in promoting at least the use of pasta, both to support the American durum wheat growers and America's macaroni manufacturers. But nobody had yet done something specifically Italian.

So Antonia's book filled a void, and rather well; Mr. Brower quotes a Review from the New York Times that said, "Though frugal, the Italians are excellent cooks and the American housekeeper will find many interesting suggestions for preparing all sorts of soups, meats, vegetables and sweets. The book shows that Italian cookery is far from being all 'garlic and macaroni.'"

The book consists of 130 recipes divided into 10 sections, and though the number is low by modern standards she does cover the bases in a bare-bones sort of way: there's none of the introductory material or additional information and background that we now expect to find in ethnic cookbooks. Just the recipes, some of which she drew from a book published in London in 1899 entitled "Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen," and some she also drew directly from Italian sources, including Pellegrino Artusi's "La Scienza in Cucina."

The recipes are what one would expect from the period; she assumes the cook is working with a wood-fired stove and therefore isn't as specific about heat levels as we now are, and perhaps to avoid dealing with ovens, omits baked desserts entirely. She is also less precise than a modern cookbook editor might like about quantities -- ingredient lists are optional -- though she does say how much water to add to rice to make a risotto, which is a start. Speaking of which,

Risotto "alla Nostrale" :

Take a small piece of onion, slice it into small bits, and put into a saucepan with two tablespoons of butter. Cook until the onion is browned.

Wash well one-half cup of rice. Put it into the saucepan with the onion, add salt and pepper, and fry until the rice is dry. Then take one and one-half tablespoons of tomato paste, thinned with hot water (or two tablespoons of other tomato sauce), and add to the rice. Little by little add hot water until the rice is cooked through (about one cup of hot water).

Then add grated cheese, Parmesan or Gruyère, one and one-half tablespoons of butter, and mix well over the fire, then serve.

This rice can be served alone or with fried sausages, or with cold chicken, or any left-over meat prepared in the following manner:

Take one and one-half tablespoons of butter in a saucepan. Cut the cold meat into slices, and add them to the butter. Fry well, then take one and one-half tablespoons of tomato paste, thinned in water (or three tablespoons tomato sauce). Add to the meat a little at a time. Simmer for one-half hour, then put in the middle of a hot platter, surrounded by rice, and pour this sauce over all. Add a handful of grated Parmesan cheese to the rice.

This preparation of meat can be served with macaroni or corn-meal instead of the rice.
This is one of the more thorough recipes, with the meat suggestion deriving from something along the lines of Artusi's Lesso Rifatto alla Campagnuola (Recooked Boiled Meat Country Style), though he calls for chopped tomatoes rather than tomato sauce. It also reveals the use of a wood-fired stove top clearly, because given the amount of liquid she calls for to cook the meat, if one were to use something more intense than the corner of a cast iron cooktop, it would quickly dry out.

In other words, the recipe does require some experience on the part of the cook, though it's not that difficult. My one real objection is the yield: A half a coup of rice won't be enough to feed more than a couple of people, especially if they're hungry. But the recipe is a good departure point.

Bottom line, if you have a food lover on your gift list, this will be a nice choice.

Practical stuff:

Simple Italian Cookery, by Antonia Isola
Harper & Brothers 1912
Reprinted by Applewood Books for the Culinary Trust in 2005
ISBN 1-55709-573-6
The Culinary Trust and their book preservation page.

Well, that's it for now. This time's proverb is Tuscan: A chi non piace vino, Dio gli tolga l'acqua: To those who do not like wine, let God deprive them of water.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at Kyle (at@)

PS -- Please forward this to anyone you think would enjoy it! If you would like to read past issues (nothing in them really gets stale), you'll find them on the IWR site, through Access to the online archives is via subscription -- in other words there's a yearly charge that helps us to offset our costs -- and includes extras of various kinds, including illustrations and links to other resources. IWR subscribers automatically have access to the Cosa Bolle archives.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Manholes (only in Palermo), Davide Scabin, and Wines to Drink: Being the 125th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola, your things Italian newsletter.

Greetings from Chilly Tuscany!
Well, not really cold, but temperatures have fallen off by more than 10 degrees C this week, bringing us our first frosts, and it will take us a few days to adjust. At least we're allowed to turn on the heat -- by law, furnaces are supposed to remain dormant until November 1.

As always, we begin with the sites:
The latest on the Italian Wine Review is an ice wine made from Avanà grapes in Piemonte's Alta Val di Susa -- a curiosity for now, because production is minimal, but interesting, and there are lots of Alpine vineyards in northern Italy. We could see many more Italian ice wines in the future. The latest on About is still the Fish Gallery; you'll find photos of and recipes for about 25 Mediterranean fish so far, and I've got another 25 to go.

Manhole Covers: Creative Employment in City Governments
Returning to news, town halls the world over are known for being creative when it comes to finding ways to employ the relatives of local bigwigs, and Italy is no exception. However, Palermo's flash of genius made most everyone shake their heads: They hired 50 people to be Ispettori Ambientali (Sanitary Inspectors), and told them to drive into a different neighborhood each day and count the manholes and storm drains. Yes, count them, and sometimes photograph them, and every now and again ask passers by if the city is clean. Just that, "Is Palermo dirty or clean?" And to watch over these guys, there are another 20 Sanitary Inspectors in an office who record where they went. The pay is 800 Euros a month, about a thousand dollars, and to be frank, one could do a lot worse in a city with high unemployment like Palermo.

How does one get this job, you wonder? When Italian reporters first found out about the arrangement and asked who was employed, they ran into what's known in Italian as a muro di gomma, or rubber wall: Palermo's employment office refused to release the list because doing so would invade the privacy of those employed. This response drew heated protests, and finally Italy's Garante della Privacy, a Government official charged with overseeing privacy issues, ruled that the public has the right to know who is on the public payroll.

Surprise, surprise, all of these "Sanitary Inspectors" are either close relatives or close friends of Sicilian politicians. There's nothing intrinsically illegal about the setup, but it is sleazy, and this is why the politicians tried to keep their names from surfacing. Unfortunately, much of Sicily works this way -- the regional Government has 15,500 direct employees of various kinds, and pays money out to an astonishing 100,000 people every month -- to consultants, employees of municipalized companies including the water supply and transportation, and so on. And in these companies the situation is no different; a counselor of one of the opposition parties in Palermo discovered 400 more created jobs amongst the munies, and despite his being in the city Government got stonewalled when he tried to find out who the employees were (turns out two are the children of the person who should have furnished the list, while some of the others are local politicians).

It's a sad situation, and it would be easy to say its roots lie in the character of the Sicilian people -- they, after all, voted these politicians in -- but what's going on is slightly different, I think. Sicily has been under foreign rule for hundreds of years: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, and more recently Bourbons, Piemontesi, and even Rome, all of whom have looked upon Sicily as a foreign land to be ruled. Sicilians have therefore always seen government as something imposed whose interest is not the good of the Sicilian people, but rather of whoever happens to be in power at the time. They expect nothing from government as a matter of principal because government has never given them anything, and the current Sicilian politicians, who understand the psyche of their countrymen better than anyone else, are happy to take advantage this, looking out for themselves the same way Sicily's rulers always have, since the days of the Romans and before.

Wines to Drink
Last time I discussed the relative merits of Barbaresco and the single vineyard wine Angleo Gaja makes in the town of Barbaresco, but calls Langhe DOC. This is, I admit, a decidedly esoteric discussion -- Barbaresco is expensive, while Gaja sells his Single-Vineyard wines for even more, and therefore one has to be a very serious wine lover to even think about doing a taste comparison between the two, or take advantage of an occasion as I did. Truth be told, even if I could afford them I wouldn't drink Gaja or Barbaresco day in and day out because neither is an every day wine, and this brings us to a missive Don sent me that effectively puts me in my place:

"First let me say that i know nothing about wine. I know that there is white and red and one in the middle. With that cleared up, may I also say that I am 85 and have no time to learn about all the fancy names and the nose and all the other things you talk about. However, I do, on rare occasions, enjoy a red wine….
Could you one day print us a list of red wines that we might find in the USA that you would consider good table wine that we could enjoy without the big price. We care nothing about the brand or the grape, just that it taste good and that it goes well with the different sauces I make for our pasta that we enjoy so much…."

This is easier than one might think to answer: I would go with what Italians call Vini D'Annata, the vintage wines that are released 9-12 months following the harvest. These are wines that are usually fermented in steel or cement tanks, and if they see wood at all it's large oaken casks, not the smaller French barrels that add considerably to the cost of making the wine.

I would skip over Reserves and wines that are labeled Superiore because the additional cellaring and wood required for their production does have a cost, and if it's not reflected at least some by the sticker price on the bottle I begin to wonder about the wine. For the same reason, I would skip over any of the high-end appellations that are released a number of years after the harvest, for example Brunello or Amarone -- if they're much too cheap I begin to wonder why.In terms of wine type, I would likely suggest either DOC or DOCG wines, in other words the appellations (Chianti, Chianti Classico, Barbera D'Asti, Sangiovese di Romagna, and so on), or IGT wines, though one has to select the latter with care -- IGT wine production is less regulated and therefore theoretically a step below DOC, but many top producers take advantage of the reduced regulation to make niche wines that can be very expensive. So check the price of an IGT before you put it in your cart. I would avoid table wines, what are called Vini da Tavola in Italian, because they are for the most part plonk, and not at all fun to drink.

This said, some examples? It's difficult to suggest a specific labels because many wines are irregularly distributed and priced. However, appellations are another matter, and here are some suggestions, by region:

While wine lovers the world over rave about the region's Nebbiolo based wines, especially Barolo and Barbaresco, the average Piemontese gets out a bottle of Dolcetto when setting the table; despite its name (Dolcetto means "little sweet"), it's a dry fairly tannic wine with nice fruit and distinctive bitter almond aromas. Another Piemontese option would be Barbera, a wine made from Barbera grapes, which are richly fruity, with relatively light tannins, and lively acidities. You'll want Barbera D'Annata, the young wine, rather than the Superiore, and I would suggest Barbera D'Asti rather than Barbera D'Alba (the two major production areas) because Alba also has other wines, while in the Astigiano they concentrate more heavily on Barbera.

The other areas I would look to in the North for good inexpensive reds are the Veneto, and Emilia Romagna.
What wines from the Veneto? Though the wine press dedicates most of its attention to Valpolicella, I would look at Bardolino, which is made from the same grapes, but down towards the shores of Lake Garda. It's lighter than Valpolicella, fruity, and can be extremely pleasant -- the sort of wine you set out, and need a second bottle of very fast because the first simply vanished.If you head south from Lake Garda you'll cross the Po Plain, and when you reach foothills in Romagna, find yourself in Sangiovese territory. Not the famed Tuscan Sangiovese, which is used to make Chianti Classico and Brunello, among other wines, but rather Sangiovese di Romagna, which is a lighter, livelier wine that combines deft grace with easy drinkability. Again, you will want the vino d'annata released within a year of the harvest.

And Tuscany?
You might think Chianti Classico, but because of its renown it can be more expensive than the wines of Tuscany's other Chianti appellations; in particular I would look for bargains among the wines from the Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colli Senesi, and Chianti Rufina areas.

Moving further south, there are good inexpensive red wines to be found in the Abruzzo -- look for Montepuliciano D'Abruzzo DOC, and this brings up a point: Montepulciano D'Abruzzo is a grape as well as a wine, and is quite common throughout South Italy.

Campania? It also boasts a number of fine wines; I would concentrate on the Aglianico grape, perhaps Aglianico del Taburno, or Lacryma Christi. The other area of the South where I would seek good inexpensive reds is Puglia -- the region produces a tremendous amount of wine, and though it was once considered to be primarily a source of strong tannic wines more northerly producers could use to add depth to their wines, more recently Puglian producers have begun to work for quality, and bottle themselves. In particular I'd try wines from the Castel del Monte DOC and the Salice Salentino DOC.

This is, I admit, a spotty list, with a great many oversights, and another wine writer would likely make an entirely different set of suggestions (if you send it to me I'll be happy to pass it along) -- I've omitted entire regions, and there are new appellations being created almost every week, or so it seems, leading to a certain amount of confusion even among those who keep their ears close to the ground. But it will at least give you a few ideas.

From the Salone del Gusto: Listening to Davide Scabin
The Prosciutto San Daniele Consorzio had one of the more prominent stands at the Slowfood's Salone Del Gusto in Torino, and there was a steady stream of people stopping to sample slices of prosciutto wrapped around bread sticks. Very good, but also rather predictable -- prosciutto is, after all, salt-cured ham -- a sandwich meat -- and the most obvious ways to enjoy it are with bread or, in summer, with freshly sliced cantaloupe. The people at the Consorzio obviously thought this was limiting, and asked Davide Scabin to come talk about what he does with prosciutto.

Never heard of Davide Scabin? He's the owner and driving force behind Combal.Zero, one of Torino's most innovative and interesting restaurants, a man known for taking recipes and standing them on their sides, transforming them in ways that nobody would expect to work, but do; for example, James Martin (About's European travel guide) tells of enjoying a Zuppizza, "a liquid pizza reconstructed from the bottom up, featuring mozzarella soup supporting a dollop of tomato and miniature basil leaves, with a scatter of toasted bread chips floating over everything--served with beer, of course (link to his review below)."

A man who can do something like that can surely do something interesting with prosciutto, but he began by telling us that he considered it to be just about perfect as is, and that the best way to enjoy it is to be sitting under a tree on a nice day with a glass of wine, while someone else slices prosciutto using a hand-operated Berkel slicer (the circular blades of the electric models turn too quickly, with adverse effects upon the fat) and drops the slices one by one into one's mouth.

Delightful, but not too practical, and this led into a discussion of food design, which is not, he said, about aesthetics, but rather the process that begins with an idea, followed by figuring out how to produce it and serve it consistently -- production and serving are crucial to the concept, while he considers a single unique dish to be art, not food design.

In designing a dish he examines five aspects that follow in sequence: Taste, pleasure, emotion, experience or feeling, and memory. Successful food design will elicit positive results for all these aspects, and this is what he strives for.Returning to prosciutto, here the taste is straightforward: it tastes like prosciutto. But it's not that simple: the environment has a major influence on prosciutto, with temperature, for example, affecting consistency, and texture. He likes a serving temperature of 10-13 C (about 50-55 F).

Then there's packaging: a fresh slice off the Berkel is perfect, but what if that's not possible? They used to vacuum-seal prosciutto, and the ten slices in a package came out welded into a single slab. Then they put pieces of paper between them, and what had been delicate prosciutto became individual leathery slices when the air got sucked out. Now they're boxed, in an inert atmosphere, and therefore come out as soft and delicate as they went in. But when it comes out of the package or off the slicer, what do you do with it?

He shuddered at the memory of the platters of warm cantaloupe and wilted prosciutto people used to serve in the 70s, and said one thing he does is to verticalize it:
He takes a 10 by 10 cm (4 by 4 inch) square of Plexiglas, makes a stand of it by adding a 20 cm (8-inch) vertical bar to it, and attaches a number of removable horizontal thumb-sized Plexiglas rectangles to the bar, each with a substrate -- mozzarella, pineapple, cantaloupe, kiwi, olives, honey gelatin, and so on -- topped by a slice of prosciutto. End result? An antipasto.

The effect is visually fascinating -- a tree with broad horizontal leaves almost -- and since the diners can remove the "leaves" from the "trunk" they can sample them in any order they like, and in doing so they experience the five different aspects of food design, while the requirements for consistency and service are also easily met: Someone in the kitchen assembles the trees, while someone else serves them. The Italian word that comes to mind is "geniale," which means inspired.

Plain prosciutto with cantaloupe can also be subjected to food design; Davide notes that if you just set out so many dishes of with a couple of slices of prosciutto and one of cantaloupe, half the people will finish one before the other and end up unsatisfied. So you take small Plexiglas cylinders (5 cm high and 3 deep, 2 by 1 1/2 inches), fill them with interlayered prosciutto and cantaloupe, varying the proportions depending upon how sweet the cantaloupe is, remove the cylinders, and thus obtain puck-shaped antipasti that people will finish without running out of either ingredient. Make 30 all alike, and you have food design. An elegant concept, and one that is fundamental to the workings of a restaurant kitchen, beautifully illustrated with what is essentially a single ingredient. It was one of the highpoints of the Salone for me.

A couple of links:
Combal Zero's Site
James Martin's impressions of Combal.Zero

I had been planning to discuss cabbage too, but we have gone long enough.

This time's proverb is Piemontese:

Túti I can a bùgiu la cùa e túti I ce-o-co a veulu dí la sua -- All dogs wag their tails, and all fools want to have their say.

A Presto!
Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review

Monday, October 30, 2006

We're Back, Personal News, Drugs in Parliament, Gaja Vs. Barbaresco and More: Being the 124th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola, your things Italian news

Yes, Cosa Bolle in Pentola is back! What, you wonder, happened?

In April of 2004 we put our house in Florence on the market, and began looking halfheartedly for new digs because there didn't seem to be much interest in our house. However, at the end of September a guy appeared with check in hand, and all of a sudden our search became a lot more serious; Elisabetta and I spent most of October and November 2004 driving about with real estate agents, and at the end of November settled upon a place in Strada in Chianti. Then, we had to pack.

First the house in Florence, with more than 20 years of accumulated stuff, and then the house my mother left us in the US, which we also decided to sell -- it was a beautiful base for visits, but was simply too far away to be practical. More months passed, during which we opened a great many boxes, the things we shipped over from the US arrived, we gradually settled in, and somehow two years have gone by since the last issue of this biweekly newsletter. It's time to restart it, and we'll begin with the latest on the Italian Wine Review and About Italian Cuisine:

The most recent overview on the IWR is dedicated to Barbera, with the wines poured this summer at the 2006 Barbera meeting, while the most recent winery notes are dedicated to Campriano, a very traditional Chianti Colli Senesi producer. Upcoming are an overview of the Valcalepio wine region and Franciacorta's Azienda Villa.

On Italian Cuisine, I am working on a picture gallery of fresh Mediterranean seafood -- it's a work in progress, but if you like fish I think you'll find it useful.

The Politics of Drug Tests
If you follow Italian politics, you will likely know that Prime Minister Berlusconi and his center-right coalition lost the general elections this spring by the finest of margins (and not quietly; Mr. Berlusconi demanded a recount and went so far as to write other European Heads of State a note on Italian Government stationary saying he'd be back as soon as the votes were tallied).

Prime Minister Prodi and his center-left coalition won, again by the finest of margins, and now they are attempting to hammer out a 2007 budget that will bring Italy's deficit back in line with the EEU's requirement that no member state's deficit be higher than 3% of its GNP (Under Berlusconi, according to EEU economists the deficit had increased past 4%).

There are two ways to reduce a deficit: Cut spending and increase taxes, and Prodi's government is doing both, either directly, or indirectly, by shifting the cost of services to local governments, and as you can imagine, they're stepping on a great many toes and other vested interests in the process. As a result there have been howls from both sides of the aisle, and Italian MPs have proved quite willing to talk about the proposed budget to anyone with a mike in hand.

So when a pair of newscasters for a program called Le Iene set up a booth outside Parliament and asked the MPs who were coming out of the building for their opinions, 50 lined up, and didn't think twice about letting the make-up person touch them up.

Perhaps they should have, and also recalled that Iena means Hyena, because the make-up person used a drug-swab to wipe the sweat from their brows. Drug-swabs are made by the same people who make breathalyzers, and reveal the use of a variety of what we might delicately call "controlled substances" in the 48 hours prior to the swabbing; the Iene didn't look for opiates, since some prescription drugs, for example those used to treat urinary tract infections, can give a positive reading for opiates, but did look for cocaine and cannabis. And found that fully a third of the 50 MPs interviewed tested positive -- most for cannabis, but 4 for cocaine.

Howls from the MPs, who claimed that the hidden drug test was an invasion of their privacy, and I suppose they have a point, though Le Iene's drug swabber simply put all the swabs in a box without labeling them, so there's no telling who tested or didn't test positive for what, and we won't know unless they agree to be tested again.

In other words, I think the howls were a smokescreen used to distract from a much more important problem: fully a third of the 50 MPs (there are 625 MPs in all) who happened to come out the door and agreed to talk do drugs, and this simply shows how ineffective the draconian anti-drug law the Italian Parliament approved this spring are.

One might argue that the doped up MPs were the ones who voted against the law, but one would again be erecting a smokescreen: the truth is that a significant fraction of the legislature doesn't believe in a law it passed. Given this, one really cannot be surprised if a significant part of the population doesn't either (25% of teens according to one study I saw, and about 14% of those aged 15-34 according to another, have used drugs in the past year). Actually, the percentages of drug-using teens and young adults are lower than that of the legislators, but this doesn't change the fact that the law should be reconsidered. It's not working in Italy, and I wonder what the results of surprise drug tests outside other European or North American legislatures might be. Quite likely similar, and this would invite serious reflection on the prohibition strategy.

Gaja Vs. Barbaresco
Stepping off the soapbox, this week L'Espresso presented its annual wine guide, which is assembled under the able direction of Ernesto Gentili and Fabio Rizzari. In introducing the volume, Ernesto said that while there aren't as many great wines as there have been in past years, mostly because many producers are now presenting the 2002 and 2003 vintages of their flagship wines, he has noted a significant increase in the quality level of what's known as "vino base," or the basic inexpensive day-to-day wines. More good bottles with excellent quality-to-price ratios, and this is a good thing.

The reason for going to the presentation of a wine guide is of course to taste the wines that won the awards, and after Ernesto finished speaking we all trooped into the adjacent hall, where sommeliers were awaiting us. Just about everyone lined up to taste Giacomo Conterno's 1999 Barolo Riserva Monfortino, the only wine to achieve a perfect score of 20/20 (it's the second wine to achieve a perfect score in the 7 years L'Espresso has been publishing the guide), and though I'm certain it was superb, I was drawn to Gaja's 2003 Sorì Tildin Langhe DOC.

Why? Because it was one of the Barbarescos with which Angelo Gaja forged his reputation as one of the best and most innovative winemakers in Italy, if not the world. However, in 1997 he declassified it and his other single vineyard Barbarescos -- Sorì San Lorenzo and Costa Russi -- to Langhe Nebbiolo DOC for reasons that have never been clear to me; there were rumors that he was cutting his Barbaresco with something other than Nebbiolo -- the malicious said Cabernet -- a practice strictly forbidden by the Disciplinare governing the production of Barbaresco, and some people suggested that he decided to declassify because Langhe Nebbiolo can contain up to 15% other varietals, at which point he no longer had to worry about being nailed for fraud. It is possible, because he does now say that he adds 5% Barbera to all three wines -- in the past adding a little Barbera to raise the acidity of a Nebbiolo was common practice in Piemonte -- but he has always denied adding Cabernet to the wines, and to be frank his decision to declassify still makes little sense to me. One usually steps up -- and Barbaresco is Barbaresco's top wine -- not down a level to the catch-all appellation.

In any case, I tasted it: The 2003 Sorì Tildin is deep ruby, with a clean, rich, fruit driven nose that has jammy black currant fruit laced with cherries and deft oak and underlying spice. Enticing and elegant in an extremely international key; it shows great polish but I wouldn't necessarily associate it with Barbaresco. The palate reflects the nose, with rich, surprisingly vegetal berry fruit -- Nebbiolo can be quite vegetal, especially if it's a hot vintage (like 2003) and the vines were stressed, so vegetal doesn't mean Cabernet -- supported by cedar-laced tannins that flow into a long green tannic finish. It's woefully young, and needs at least 2-3 years to get its bearings. It's also very good, though I'd have to say in an anonymous oak-driven way: It could be from anywhere. In short, it's a wine that you will buy if you want to drink a wine by Angelo Gaja, and if you do you will like it, because it's good; even if you are a traditionalist you will find things to enjoy. Score: 2 stars; it's a very good wine. However, if you want to enjoy an expression of the hills of Barbaresco, there are other options I would choose first. Which? Since I was at the presentation of the Guida De L'Espresso, I tasted the other Barbareschi Ernesto and Fabio chose to recognize.

Azienda Agricola Falletto Barbaresco Asili 2001
This is made by Bruno Giacosa, one of the Grand Old Men of the Langhe; it's a pale garnet hue that's much more in keeping with Nebbiolo than Sorì Tildin's ruby, with almandine rim and black reflections, and has a considerably more rustic bouquet with balsam and animal tang mingled with spice and wet underbrush and underlying berry fruit. Considerable backbone to it, and its animal nature is something I have found in Giacosa's wines before. On the palate it's rich, and elegant, with powerful berry fruit supported by clean sweet tannins that still have a youthful splintery burr, and flow into a clean berry fruit finish with tannic underpinning. It's elegant but very young, and needs 3-4 years to really come into its own, though it will already be nice with a rich stew or a porterhouse steak.

Castello di Neive Santo Stefano Barbaresco Riserva 2001
Pale almandine ruby with almandine rim. The bouquet is delicate, with rosa canina and some sea salt mingling with spice and slight tar. Quite a bit going on in a lacy key. On the palate it's graceful, with elegant slightly tobacco laced red berry fruit supported by tannins that are just about velvety and flow into a clean savory finish. Quite deft in a very traditional key, and will drink nicely with roasts or stews, though I would give it another year to develop. If you like the style, it's well worth seeking out.

Produttori del Barbaresco Vigneti Rabajà Barbaresco Riserva 2001
Pale almandine ruby with almandine rim. The bouquet is rich, with deft herbal notes mingled with spice, warmth, red berry fruit and some sea salt. Quite a bit going on, and it feels quite young. On the palate it's rich, with full, powerful berry fruit supported by steely tannins that are becoming velvety, though there is again a feeling of youthful skittishness to them, and it all flows into a clean slightly tannic finish. Great depth, but underaged; it needs another year or two, and if you have the patience to give it a decade or more it will be extraordinary.

Produttori del Barbaresco Vigneti in Pora Barbaresco Riserva 2001
Lively cherry ruby with almandine highlights and rim. It's much readier than the Rabajà on the nose, with rich red berry fruit supported by some herbal notes and underlying tar, with fresh mint as well. On the palate it's full and smooth, and again much readier than the Rabajà, with ample red berry fruit supported by fairly sweet supple tannins that do reveal youth in the finish. By comparison with the Rabajà its tannins are laxer and less steely, and this difference will become more apparent with time; it's more approachable now, and I think will be less long-lived. Lest you think I'm saying don't buy it, it is also pleasant, and will contribute greatly to a meal featuring a hearty roast or a rich stew.
2 stars

With the exception of Produttori del Barbaresco's Vigneti in Pora, I found all of the other wines, and especially Giacosa's Asili and the Produttori's Rabajà to be much more in keeping with what I expect from a Barbaresco, displaying great elegance, backbone, and a certain slightly lofty distance of the sort I associate with Grace Kelly somehow. Continuing with the great actress similes, Sorì Tildin is more in the direction of Marylin Monroe. Beautiful, but more immediate and with less depth. I know some will say that the differences are in large part vintage derived -- 2003 is fleshier and softer than 2001 -- but I'm not so certain they're not attributable to philosophical differences. We will find out when the 2003 Barbareschi are released.

Winding down, a warning: Halloween, with all of its treats, is rapidly approaching, and if you were to go trick-or-treating in Italy, you might come home with a bag or two of candied nuts called Addormenta Suocere -- literally Mother-In-Law Sleep Inducers, the idea being they're so good your mother-in-law will eat many and fall asleep.

They're very good and last week my mother-in-law recently ate quite a few hazelnut addormenta suocere we bought at Impruneta's Fiera di San Luca. She subsequently had kidney pains, but we didn't associate them with the addormenta suocere until we ate some hazelnut addormenta suocere ourselves this weekend and Betty had kidney pains. She thinks it might be the oxalates in the nuts causing problems, but in any case, if you do get a bag of candied hazelnuts either as a treat or for some other reason, go easy on them. As an added bonus, they'll last longer!

This time's proverb is Tuscan: Il Re va dove puó, non dove vuole -- The King goes where he can, not where he would like. Next time I'll discuss some of the discoveries made at Torino's Salone del Gusto, which will be held this weekend, oddness in Palermo, and more.

All best,

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
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