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