Tuesday, July 03, 2007

School's Out, Food Legends, and More: Being the 137th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! To begin with, I've been doing mostly maintenance on About, though I have added collections of favorite lemony recipe sand favorite summertime vegetables. The latest on the IWR is instead more substantial: the tasting notes for the 2004 Barbaresco, which include some very fine wines.

School's Out!

(Or, the benefits of oral exams)

In the meantime, son Riccardo completed 8th grade this year, and like millions of other kids spent last week preparing to take the Esame di Terza Media, or Middle School Graduation Exam, a comprehensive set of finals that includes several mornings of written exams, followed by an oral exam of the sort that are standard in Italian institutes of higher learning, and are what really set the grade: Italian professors assume students taking a written exam will find some way to cheat even with proctors in the room, and therefore the student has to do well on the written exam to be admitted to the oral, but it's the performance at the oral that counts.

I went through oral exams at the university level, and they are nerve-wracking: You sit down in front of a panel of three or more professors, while everyone else who will be taking that exam mills about behind you, one of the professors asks a question, and... You start talking. And continue fielding questions, while people murmur and comment on how you're doing behind you, until the professors decide -- usually after about an hour, though it can go longer -- they've heard enough.

At that point (at the university level) they tell you what your grade for the course will be, and you can either accept or refuse; if you refuse you go home to study some more, and take the exam again the next time it's scheduled. The other thing that can happen is the professors can shake their heads and tell you your preparation isn't up to scratch: You get up, take your examination booklet, and head back to your books, while someone else takes your place.

Riccardo of course didn't have the option of refusing the grade, but the friends who watched his performance said he was very smooth, and he did raise his grades (with respect to what was on his report card) considerably. As a system, I think oral exams are an excellent idea because they teach you how to think on your feet; the professors can and do ask anything on the syllabus, and if they hit something you're weaker on, you have to figure out how to lead them into more familiar territory without being too obvious about it, lest they backtrack. You also learn how to work under pressure, ignore distractions, and handle moments of stark terror. In short, taking orals is excellent training for the real world.

With Riccardo, what happens next? High school, which is very different in Italy. The system is divided into Licei, high schools for those who intend to enroll in a university (there are several core curricula, the most important being classical (much Latin and Greek), scientific (math and sciences), and languages), and Istituti Tecnici, what one might call vocational schools. Anyone who passes the Esame di Terza media can enroll in any school, including the toughest. One might think this is a very democratic principle that extends opportunity to all, but it's actually quite cynical: Rather than admit on the basis of transcripts and entrance exams, which would be seen as classist by the left-leaning fraction of the population, the more prestigious, demanding, and sought after high schools simply flunk a significant fraction of their first year students, who subsequently enroll in easier schools after having lost a year.

And Riccardo's choice? A Liceo Scientifico.

Food Legends: The Origins of Tiramisu

Someone on an American food-related listserve I subscribe to recently asked if anyone knew the origins of Tiramisu, a seriously decadent creamy dessert that combines chocolate, coffee, savoiardi cookies, and mascarpone cheese.

I said I had heard it was from Treviso (in the Veneto), and relatively recent, and a couple others said the same, adding that the recipe was developed in the 60s by Treviso's Ristorante El Toula'.

Someone else instead said she had found a story about how Tiramisu was invented by Sienese pastry chefs in the late 1600s to honor Grand Duke Cosimo III De'Medici, who was known for his sweet tooth.

I looked around a bit, and found a number of web pages with the Sienese origin; the texts are pretty much identical (said text also appears in Volume 12 of La Repubblica's Enciclopedia della Cucina Italiana, on page 285). Briefly, they say the Sienese developed the dessert for the Duke on the occasion of a State visit, and initially called it zuppa del Duca, or Duke's Pudding. The zuppa was a terrific success, especially among courtesans, who found it both stimulating and aphrodisiac, and thus enjoyed it before trysts; with time they took to calling it tiramisu, or pick me up. Subsequently, the story goes, tiramisu spread to Venice and the Veneto, where it remained a local treat until it suddenly gained national popularity in the late 70s.

It's a nice story, but I have my doubts, for a number of reasons.

First, historical: Artusi, who gives a number of Tuscan and Venetian dessert recipes in La Scienza in Cucina, doesn't mention it; given his penchant for going off on tangents and telling stories, it would have been a perfect recipe for him to include, had he known about it.

Nor does it appear in Il Talisamno della Felicità, and while it is true that Ada Boni was less given to tangents than Artusi, it's also true that she was aiming Il Talismano squarely at the emerging middle class, and would certainly have included a dessert this rich, tasty, and easy to make had she been aware of it.

Finally, it doesn't appear in La Mia Cucina, a comprehensive 10-volume set De Agostini published in 1978. Had they been aware of it, they would certainly have included it.

The final bit of historic evidence comes from American food writer Nancy Jenkins, who, despite living in Italy from 1975 to 1980, first encountered tiramisu in 1983, on the island of Torcello in the Laguna Veneta.

Cookbooks don't bear out the legend, but there are a couple of other factors too.

Though Mascarpone, one of the major ingredients in tiramisu, is now readily available throughout Italy, it was once a specialty of Lombardia, and more specifically Lodi and Abbiategrasso, towns not far from Milano. It's difficult to see how a cheese as delicate as Mascarpone could have made it from Lombardia to Siena in the days before refrigeration or rapid transportation without spoiling.

And finally, there is the safety factor: Tiramisu made following the classic recipe contains both raw eggs and mascarpone. While raw eggs in their shells keep quite well, raw egg in an uncooked cream becomes dangerous if it is not kept cold. So does Mascarpone: a number of cases of botulism have been traced to mascarpone that was allowed to warm up at some point between leaving the dairy and reaching the table. Given the state of refrigeration in the late 1600s, enjoying a bowl of tiramisu would have been a risky proposition indeed.

So I think the recipe is recent, and am inclined to believe the folks at El Toula'; when I called they told me they don't remember the name of the chef who first made it, sometime in the 30s, but that the clients of a nearby House of Ill Repute used to enjoy it as a ricostituente, or pick-me-up after their labors. Hence the name.

And what about Zuppa Del Duce?
Giovanni Righi Parente says it's essentially zuppa inglese (English trifle), and gives the following recipe in La Cucina Toscana:

Line the bottom of a tureen with thin slices of pan di Spagna (genoise, or pound cake will work as substitutes) and sprinkle them with alkermes (a spicy deep red liqueur), crème de cacao, white rum, or any other liqueur of choice, so long as it's sweet.

Pour over it a pastry cream made with 1 pint (500 ml) whole milk, 200 g (1 cup) granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons flour and 2 whole eggs, which he says should be separated; beat the yolks and whip the whites, and combine both with the cold milk before setting it on the stove. Cook, stirring gently over a low flame until the mixture thickens, without letting it boil, lest it curdle. Some cooks, he adds, whip the whites with sugar and cook them over the hot milk, to make what he calls falsi sospiri, or fake sighs. I confess I have a hard time visualizing this.

If you instead want to make a quick cream, he says, heat the milk, sugar and flour until the mixture thickens, remove it from the fire, and when it has cooled beat the yolks and add them to the mixture. In terms of flavoring, a vanilla bean heated with the milk (a teaspoon of vanilla extract will also work).

Chill the tureen with the pan di Spagna and the cream in the refrigerator, and after about an hour cover it with a layer of whipped cream, sprinkling all with grated chocolate and finely chopped canditi (candied fruit peels).

No Mascarpone, but it will be good.

Tiramisu: A No-Egg No-Cheese Variation
While we're on the subject of tiramisu, I have gotten a number of notes from people worried about its raw eggs, and the health risk they pose. One option that also neatly sidesteps the risks posed by Mascarpone is to use yogurt:

  • 1 pint (500 ml) plain whole yogurt (you could also use flavors that work with coffee)
  • 1 pound (500 g) Savoiardi or ladyfingers
  • 1/2 cup fairly weak espresso coffee, or more if need be
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup bitter cocoa

Combine the sugar and coffee in a bowl and stir to dissolve the sugar. Dip the cookies in it quickly, on both sides, so they are moist but not soaked, and put them in a baking dish; when you have covered the bottom of the dish spread an even layer of yogurt over them. Continue layering until all is used up, ending with a layer of yogurt. Use a sieve to sprinkle the cocoa evenly over the top of the tiramisu, and chill it for 4 hours before serving it.

Want a traditional recipe? There are a great many out there. I very much like wife Elisabetta's version, which you will find here: http://italianfood.about.com/od/spoondesserts/r/blr0290.htm

Villa: Fine Wines But Also a Beautiful Place to Stay
Winding down, last week I was lucky enough to attend a vertical of the Azienda Villa's Franciacorta Selezione Brut, working back from the present through some very interesting wines to the 1986, which was superb. To be honest, this wasn't a surprise; Alessandro Bianchi was one of the first industrialists (his family owns a company that makes hydraulic equipment) to invest in Franciacorta in the 60s: He bought what was a crumbling farm complex, with an eye towards restoring it, and then became interested in sparkling wines, and was one of the first, together with Guido Berlucchi, to visit Champagne, see how they worked, and do the same in Franciacorta.

"They always made wine here," he told me when we first met a few years ago, adding that there are still wild vines in the surrounding woods. He also found traces of both the Gauls and the Romans, in particular in the layout of the buildings, though much was destroyed during the centuries of skirmishing that followed the collapse of the Empire. The Venetians finally prevailed in the 1400s, bringing with them a degree of stability, and gave the complex to a mercenary Captain as payment for services rendered. The Captain quarried some of the buildings of the town for the stones he used to build his home, which has a beautiful main hall with an unusual arcade, and a grate hidden off to the side that the man (or his heirs) used to listen into the mutterings of the farmers down in the cellars. The cellars are also quite nice -- Mr. Bianchi has expanded them considerably -- and there's a section towards the back that's open to the bedrock, thick layers of hard sediments, and gives a good idea of what the vines have to struggle with to get their nourishment.

Villa is more than just a winery, however. The Captain provided housing for his farmers when he built his home, and Mr. Bianchi has restored all but one of the farmer's homes beautifully; there are 15 nicely furnished apartments, space to eat outside in the shade, and a pool. In short, Villa will be an excellent base from which to explore the region, which has quite a bit to offer, including Lake Iseo, the Val Camonica, San Piero in Lamosa, and great bird watching at the Torbiere del Sebino, while the house that Mr. Bianchi hasn't restored, with its stone sink and slightly cramped feel, provides a sobering reminder of how much things have improved in the country in Italy.

For more information about Villa, see http://www.villa-franciacorta.it/eng/ilborgo.asp, and for the agriturismo, see http://www.villa-franciacorta.it/eng/agriturismo.asp
More about San Piero in Lamosa.

Villa's Vertical? I'll post it to the IWR next week.

This time's proverb is Lombard: Ai cà màgher ghe a dré le mósche, flies follow thin dogs.
In other words, the poor have a tougher time of it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Pentacoste, Supporting Artisans and More: Cosa Bolle in Pentola 136

Greetings, and (once again) apologies for being slow in putting this together. To begin with, the latest substantial thing on About is a cold cuts gallery with shots of salami, prosciutto, and so on. Just the thing when packing a picnic hamper! The latest on the IWR is instead the tasting notes from Roero. Next week I'll be adding the Barbaresco notes, and will also be thinking about how to present Barolo.

Pentacoste in Chianti
Castellina in Chianti is both pretty and unfortunate: it's atop one of the highest ridge crests in Chianti, overlooking the Val D'Elsa, and this means you can see it from quite a ways off. Unfortunately, what you note from a distance are the grain silos of Consorzio Agrario. However, behind them is a pretty Medieval town that was one of Florence's bastions in the long wars with Siena.

Didn't start out that way: Castellina's ridge crest has been settled since Etruscan times, while the current town derives from an 11th century outpost associated with the Castello del Trebbio (now Trebbia, in the Comune of Radda), and the Conti Guidi, who swore fealty to Florence in 1193.

Since Castellina is on the most direct route from Florence to Siena its importance increased, and during the 1300s it was Capital of one of the three terzieri making up the Lega del Chianti (a territorial organization Florence established to resolve conflicts with Siena, by force if need be); because of this Alberico da Barbiano, a condottiero in the service of the Duke of Milano (Siena's ally) captured and plundered the castle in 1397.

The Florentines of course rebuilt, and evidence of just how important they considered Castellina to be comes from the fact that Brunelleschi, Florence's most important architect, visited several times around 1430, while the stonemasons who had been working on Florence's cathedral were reassigned to shore up Castellina's defenses. 50 years later Castellina was just as important, and in 1478 Lorenzo de' Medici sent Giuliano Da Sangallo, another great military architect, to make further improvements -- questionable improvements, because Alfonso D'Aragona and the Sienese managed to capture the fortress and hold it until 1483.

Castellina remained firmly in Florentine hands thereafter, and following Siena's defeat in 1554 its military importance declined. But didn't completely vanish; In 1944 the retreating Germans made Castellina a strongpoint of their defensive line, and there was bitter fighting; each of the trees planted along Viale della Rimembranza, the street that crosscuts the town, is dedicated to the memory of a victim.

A visit to Castellina will take a couple of hours. There's the Rocca, or keep, which is now also the town hall, and if you walk down the main street you'll also come to La Castellina, which is both a winery and a hotel; the last time I tasted the wines, a few years ago, I found them pleasant in a traditional key, but what's really interesting is the wine cellar that's dug underground, with hulking glass-lined cement fermentation tanks and huge oaken casks to contain the fermented wine as it matures. The place has a wonderful feel to it. For more information, see http://www.lacastellina.it/azienda_e.htm

The other interesting thing Castellina has is the Via Delle Volte, a long tunnel built into one of the city walls that would have provided protection to archers in the days before cannon. It has recently been restored, and its atmosphere is delightful, especially when dusk begins to fall. It's open to the public, and is also where Castellina celebrates Pentecost, with a banquet featuring wines (mostly Chianti Classico) offered by the producers of the Comune. I was invited by the Consorzio del Chianti Classico, and had a very nice time. Despite the number of people -- 205 in all -- and the tables snaking along the Via, which obligated the servers to hustle back and forth, the service was competent, friendly, and quick. And the food, prepared by Sonia and Francesco of the Ristorante Albergaccio (just outside Castellina) was superb. Bottom line: Chianti is quite pretty in the spring, and if you happen to be near Castellina at Pentecost, make reservations for the banquet. You won't regret it.

Supporting Artisans
Continuing in a travel-related vein, when I moved to Florence in 1982 there were still many artisans, and if you visited the outdoor market surrounding Florence's Mercato di San Lorenzo, you could find all sorts of locally produced goods, ranging from leather jackets to picture frames. It was a market, and you had to go from stand to stand, but there were some very fine things to be found, and if you left the market to explore the shops in the surrounding alleys the quality simply got better.

No longer, alas: One of Elisabetta's cousins works for a silversmith, a large outfit outside Florence that used to make picture frames, flatware, and decorative pieces that were quite nice. He liked making the pieces, but now his job consists of uncrating stuff from China, affixing the company logo to the pieces, and packing them for shipment to stores. The situation around San Lorenzo is similar, and now much of what you'll find for sale, especially in the market stalls, was cheaply made elsewhere, while local artisans are getting squeezed.

Florence, as you might imagine, is not happy about this situation; the city has been renowned for its handcrafts since long before the renaissance (which sprung from said traditions), and the assessori who work with the artisans are acutely aware of the fact that when a tradition vanishes, it's gone for good. So they have begun to actively support Florentine artisans, organizing free walking tours of the Oltrarno (the left Bank, where the artisan traditions are strongest).

The tours, which take place Mondays and Thursdays, begin at 3 PM from Piazza Pitti and take 3 hours, with visits to 3 of the roughly 20 Artisans who have decided to take part in the program. They're free, but you do have to make reservations, calling on 055 303 6108 or emailing to itinerary.turistici@siwebsrl.com. As another option, you could pick up a copy of the Artigiani D'Oltrarno brochure from your hotel or the tourist office, and visit the artisans listed on your own. It will be a different, and very entertaining way to spend a day. Moreover, if you do decide to buy something, you can be quite certain what you're getting is unique, and not some ersatz replica.

The tourist offices have organized something similar for those who want to take a trip out into Chianti, where there's much more besides wine -- terracotta and ceramics, basket weaving, saffron production, and cold cuts, to name a few things, and of course the countryside. The itineraries (there are two, one to Tavarnelle, Barberino, and San Casciano that ends with a stop at Macchiavelli's home, and the other to San Donato, Panzano, Greve, and the walled citadel of Montefioralle) take a full day, and there is a charge: 15 Euros per person, which is quite reasonable. Departure time is 8:45 AM Thursday mornings from Piazza Adua, with return at about 4 PM. To make reservations contact the Agenzia Machiavelli Viaggi in San Casciano, by phone on 055 8228073, or by email at chianti@machiavelliviaggi.it.

These tours are the sorts of things other areas where artisans are being squeezed could also organize, and at the press conference organized to promote the initiative, we were told Florence's APT is also planning to set up an online shop where participating artisans will be able to showcase their products, take orders, and ship directly to people's homes. An incentive for artisans who are willing to open their shops, we were told, but it's also a way for them to increase their client base, and is, again, something that artisans elsewhere could also do. Anything that helps preserve cultures and ways of life is beneficial to us all.

Winding down, Thursday it started to get dark at about 3 PM, and at 4 the heavens opened; in a matter of minutes the street that goes by Daughter Clelia's nursery school became a whitewater torrent. Cloudbursts of this sort tend to be brief and local, but this one wasn't; it extended all the way from Greve, past Florence, and on to Barberino Val D'Elsa (a circle at least 60 km in diameter) and though the rain did let up some after a time it lasted for more than 2 hours, and dumped close to 2 inches of water on Florence -- a record. The drains backed up in Florence's Oltrarno, and the entire neighborhood was at least ankle-deep in rushing water that filled cellars and invaded shops and homes; a friend who has lived on Via Dei Serragli (the street from Porta Romana to the river) for 25 years told me she had never seen anything like it. I'm very glad we no longer live on the ground floor in the Oltrarno.

This time's Proverb is Tuscan: Il bel tempo non viene mai a noia, Good weather never gets boring.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at Kyle@cosabolle.com

Monday, May 21, 2007

Barolo, Barbaresco, and Roero Considerations, Unexpected beauty outside Alessandria, Chocolate and More: The 135th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings, and apologies for being slow in putting this together. To begin with, the latest substantial thing on About is a listing of the Dolcetti I most liked at the Dolcetto & Dolcetto presentation; see If you've already looked through the Dolcetto notes, might I suggest Springtime Recipes. The latest on the Italian Wine Review are writeups of Cascina Adeliade and Livernano, fine wines tasted at Vinitaly, from Barolo and Radda in Chianti, respectively.

Roero, Barbaresco, and Barolo: Impressions
Returning to Cosa Bolle, I was in Alba for Alba Wines last week, to taste through the newly released 2004 Roero and Barbaresco, the 2003 Barolo, and finish up with about 30 2001 Barolo Riservas. In all, 299 wines over 4 days. I'll post the notes when I have finished going over them, but wanted to give my impressions and briefly discuss the vintages.

We began with Roero, which is made downriver from Alba, on the left bank of the Tanaro River, across the river from Barbaresco. The terrains are sandier, and as a result tend to yield wines that have richer, more delicate bouquets, but are not as powerful as those from Barolo or Barbaresco.

Within this framework there is of course considerable variation, and with respect to the other appellations there is perhaps more: Roero's farmers have been making wine for just as long as anyone else in the region, but the appellation is much more recent than either Barolo or Barbaresco, and there is perhaps less consensus among the producers about what Roero should be: A wine that displays grace and finesse in a lighter key, or a more muscular wine? Some are going one way and others the other; I found some of the wines in the grace-and-finesse group to be among the best expressions of Nebbiolo poured in the four days, but have reservations about the more powerful group: Unless they are made with considerable care, they come across as bulked up.

This said, 2004 was a very nice vintage, which yielded a pleasing balance of finesse, grace, and power that the various winemakers worked with as they chose. Though they are almost all drinkable now, they are Nebbiolos, and will benefit from another year or two in bottle; I expect most of them to age well for up to a decade.

We then tasted Barbaresco, which also is made downriver from Alba, but on the right bank of the Tanaro River; the soils differ from those of Roero (there's less sand, and they're more calcareous) and the wines tend to be more powerful. 2004 was just as good a vintage for Barbaresco as it was for Roero, and the wines display considerable elegance and finesse, coupled with supple muscle. It's a powerful vintage, and the wines tend to be very young; while one could press them into service now with rich red meats, almost all will benefit considerably from further bottle age, and many will continue to climb for a decade or more. In short, the 2004 Barbaresco offers much to enjoy.

If one were to pick nits, Carlo Macchi of Wine Surf (link in Italian) found some of the wines to be slightly dilute, and wonders how long they will age; he says the situation arose because the farmers, who are still smarting from the hail, rain, and heat that befell them in 2002 and 2003, were hesitant to carry out a vigorous green harvest in 2004 for fear that the shoe would drop yet again. I did not note this as much, and think the lighter expressions, which are still quite pleasant, will simply drink well with lighter foods.

After Barbaresco we tasted Barolo. Though the Appellation, which extends over all or part of 11 Comuni, is large enough to be quite variable, if one paints with a broad brush one can say that its soils tend to contain more clay and (I think) rock than Barbaresco's, and consequently that Barolo tends to be more powerful. In equivalent vintages, at least.

However (alas) 2003 has very little in common with 2004: It was the hottest, driest summer in recent memory, with temperatures that climbed up into the 90s (30s C) by mid-May and didn't drop again until well into September. If anything, there were hotter spells; I recall visiting Bruna Ferro at Carussin in the Astigiano in mid-June, and it was 43 C, almost 110 F, in their courtyard at 7PM. And coupled with the heat was almost absolute dryness. In short, it was a very difficult summer for the vines; the one positive thing to say about it is that the heat began early, giving the vines time to acclimatize themselves.

And they did, to a degree; I didn't find as many obviously cooked wines as I was expecting to, and this is also thanks to the terrific efforts of the winemakers, who spent the summer managing foliation and doing what they could to keep the sun from striking the bunches directly. And some of the wines are nice. Unfortunately, I found very few that would, when placed in a lineup with wines from more normal years, say 2001 and even 2004, be clearly recognizable as Barolo.

What I instead found was wine after wine that was big, quite alcoholic, with fairly sweet fruit, sometimes berry and sometimes more towards overripe plum (but rarely jammy), ample tannins that are unusually soft for a young Nebbiolo, especially a young Barolo, and low acidities of the sort one associates with an unusually hot vintage. Some, within this framework, were actually rather graceful, but as I said bear little resemblance to Barolo of more normal vintages.

Others, a considerable number, alas, were simply tired, while others still revealed problems related to the vintage, for example the tannic greenness that comes when heat stress interferes with ripening, or the odd aromas and flavors that develop when the must is concentrated enough (sugars continue to accumulate even if ripening of the skins and seeds slows or stops) that the fermentation sticks.

As one might imagine, the state of the wines engendered what is called sconforto -- discomfort tinged with despair -- amongst those of us tasting them, and there was a lot of muttering coupled with worried head shaking. Carlo Macchi sums up one current of thought nicely, saying that he wants to give the wines a few more months because his first instinct was to write them all off, but he fears he's overreacting. There was also some cautious optimism; Franco Ziliani weighed in saying that things weren't as bad as he expected, and has posted a (lengthy) list of the wines that impressed him favorably -- not that they're great, but they did impress him favorably -- on Vino al Vino (link in Italian).

The real problem I see with the vintage, from a consumer's standpoint, is that very few of the wines are typical of Barolo; the classic Barolo is fiercely aggressive in youth, a squalling toddler if you will, which develops beautifully with time, becoming what aficionados admiringly call a fist of steel in a velvet glove in the space of 3-5 (or more) years, and can continue to improve for a decade or more thereafter. The 2003 vintage is much softer, and while some of the wines are pleasant, I think few if any have the potential for this sort of long-term development.

So my advice to consumers is to approach the 2003 Barolo with considerable caution, keeping in mind that what they are buying is an atypical vintage. And in many ways it's a wine lover's vintage, something for those who become a bit fanatical in their passions, and want to know how an appellation will do under every conceivable condition. If you are instead new to Nebbiolo from the Langhe, or less likely to be understanding when faced with a wine that isn't true-to-type, I would recommend that you consider either a Barbaresco or a Roero from the 04 vintage. Both are much more what one would normally expect.

Or, if you are preparing for a special occasion, you might consider one of the 2001 Barolo Riservas we tasted on the last day. They were a refreshing return to normalcy, showing great depth and intensity coupled with supple power, elegance, and finesse -- what one would expect of Barolo from a good vintage. Tasting them, after working though the 2003 wines, was like coming home to a warm hearth on a cold winter's eve: Suddenly, after much trial and tribulation, all was right in the world.

L'Abbazia di Santa Giustina: Unexpected beauty in the Alessandrino
Several years ago I went to a presentation organized by the Viticoltori dell'Acquese, the cooperative winery of Aqui Terme. It was late fall and the event was late in the afternoon, by which time banks of fog were rising and thickening among the trees as the light fell; I wondered what I had gotten myself into as I drove slowly through the flatlands of Alessandria, hoping I wouldn't miss a sign for Sezzadio.

I didn't, and eventually reached a large, rather forbidding farm complex. Imagine my surprise when I got out of the car and beheld a spectacular Romanesque basilica! Santa Giustina was founded, legends say, in the early 700s by Liutprando, a devout Lombard King who stopped at the site to take a nap, setting the reliquary with Santa Giustina's remains that he carried everywhere on the bough of a tree. He awoke to find it dancing in the branches just out of reach, and decided that the Saint was telling him she wanted a church in that spot. So he gave the orders, and a Paleochristian church was built.

Santa Giustina subsequently became an important outpost of the Benedictines; the original church, which has elegant floor mosaics of the kind one also finds in Rome, became the crypt of their church, which is a classic Romanesque basilica with a central nave flanked by two aisles, a transept that's higher than the nave, and apses.

The monastery changed hands several times over the centuries, and following the Napoleonic suppression of 1810 the church was transformed into a grain elevator. In 1863 it was bought by Senator Angelo Frascara, and when he began stripping away the whitewash (applied in the 1600s), in 1912, he found a fragments of an Annunciation in the left apse, and a beautiful XV century fresco cycle with scenes of Christ's passion and the Last Judgment in the central apse. A number of the columns of the nave are also decorated, with a black-and-white checker board pattern; many of the black squares have fascinating graffiti scratched into them, some of which might even be Renaissance in age.

The Senator also transformed part of the monastic complex into an extremely elegant villa with beautiful Romantic gardens, which is now used to host conventions, wedding receptions and so on. Visitors to the church are welcome, and if you call ahead you'll probably also be able to wander the grounds and perhaps visit the public sections of the villa. To reach Santa Giustina, take the A 22 highway to the Alessandria Sud exit, and then follow signs for Acqui until you reach the turnoff for Sezzadio (to the right); you'll also see signs for the Abbazia. It's about 20 km from the A 22.

It's difficult to imagine a more unexpected pretty stopping place, and I was very glad I stopped during daylight on my way home from Alba wines this year. For more information about the Abbey and the Villa, see http://www.villabadia.com, and to let them know you are coming call on 0131 70.36.59.

Chocolate: Time to Raise Our Voices
Moving in a different direction, Italy used to have stringent regulations governing chocolate production: Chocolate could only be made with cocoa and cocoa butter -- no surrogate oils or cheaper ingredients. And this is good, because many of the surrogates aren't particularly good for you. But they are cheaper, and the EEU forced Italy (and Spain) to relax their laws to allow industrial northern European chocolate makers to sell their surrogate-laden cheaper "chocolate" in both countries.

There were howls from the Italian chocolate makers, but most of the Artisans seem to have come through unscathed -- they have devoted followings who aren't interested in the crud sold by cost-cutting industry.

The EEU regulator's willingness to bend before industry must have rankled American chocolate makers, who petitioned the US FDA to allows similar changes to American chocolate production, and thus allow them to sell "chocolate" made with surrogate oils and such. The FDA is seriously considering the petition, which you can read here.
And comment on it here (until June 25 2007).
For more general background, see Don't Mess with Our Chocolate, a site put together by the Guittard Chocolate Company, American artisan chocolatiers.

Even if you don't live in the US, it's worth letting the FDA know what you think, because American policy is influential on the world markets.

Winding down, in the time honored Internet tradition, here is something I got from a newslist, and like enough to forward along. It is, says, the guy who posted it, "A bit dopey, but worth a good chortle, and help avoid grading exams."

Subject: Creation re-explained

  • In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth and populated the Earth with broccoli, cauliflower and spinach, green and yellow and red vegetables of all kinds, so Man and Woman would live long and healthy lives.
  • Then using God's great gifts, Satan created Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream and Krispy Creme Donuts. And Satan said, "You want chocolate with that?"
  • And Man said, "Yes!" and Woman said, "and as long as you're at it, add some sprinkles." And they gained 10 pounds. And Satan smiled.
  • And God created the healthful yogurt that Woman might keep the figure that Man found so fair. And Satan brought forth white flour from the wheat, and sugar from the cane and combined them. And Woman went from size 6 to size 14.
  • So God said, "Try my fresh green salad." And Satan presented Thousand-Island Dressing, buttery croutons and garlic toast on the side. And Man and Woman unfastened their belts following the repast.
  • God then said, "I have sent you heart healthy vegetables and olive oil in which to cook them." And Satan brought forth deep fried fish and chicken-fried steak so big it needed its own platter. And Man gained more weight and his cholesterol went through the roof.
  • God then created a light, fluffy white cake, named it "Angel Food Cake," and said, "It is good." Satan then created chocolate cake and named it "Devil's Food."
  • God then brought forth running shoes so that His children might lose those extra pounds. And Satan gave cable TV with a remote control so Man would not have to toil changing the channels. And Man and Woman laughed and cried before the flickering blue light and gained pounds.
  • Then God brought forth the potato, naturally low in fat and brimming with nutrition. And Satan peeled off the healthful skin and sliced the starchy center into chips and deep-fried them. And Man gained pounds.
  • God then gave lean beef so that Man might consume fewer calories and still satisfy his appetite. And Satan created McDonald's and its 99 cent double cheeseburger. Then said, "You want fries with that?" And Man replied, "Yes! And super size them!" And Satan said, "It is good." And Man went into cardiac arrest.
  • God sighed and created quadruple bypass surgery.
  • Then Satan created HMOs.

This time's Proverb is Genovese: Vin bon e ommo cattivo duan poco -- Neither good wine nor bad men last long.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review

Friday, May 04, 2007

Parched, Concours Mondial and More: Being the 134th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings, from hot and sunny Italy, but more about that later. To begin with, the latest substantial thing on Italian cuisine is a look at bollito misto, or boiled dinner. I know it seems (and is) obvious, but you might be wondering just what to expect when you order a plateful, so I put together an overview. The latest on the Italian Wine Review is a writeup of Dolcetto, the wine many Piemontesi prefer to drink day-to-day. With good reason; when it's good it is extremely refreshing and very food-friendly.

Parched Returning to Cosa Bolle, I've been saying for months that it was unusually dry and I was worried about what the summer might hold: This past week the civil defense people released figures showing just how serious the situation in Italy is. Since September water reserves have fallen between 20 and 50%, and at present the levels of the Great Lakes (Garda, Maggiore and Como) are just inches above the lows they reached during the torrid 2003 summer. Ditto for river levels; television footage of the Po River shows a muddy rivulet, and the Arno, on its way through Florence, is the lowest I've seen it since 1985. Problem is, the Arno's 1985 low stand was in October, after months of drought, and here we are barely into May.

The heat hasn't even arrived yet, though the authorities assure us it will, and when it does saran dolori, as Italians say: It will be painful. We're looking at water rationing for the general public, which is annoying but not a disaster if you have storage tanks and a pump, and many Italians do. What's more serious is the battle that's shaping up between industry and agriculture; on the one hand industry needs water to keep the factories going, and on the other farmers need water not just for the crops they have planted now, but also to keep their livestock and their perennials (e.g. fruit trees or vines) alive.

And in the background are the power stations, many of which rely on river water for cooling. If the water levels drop to the point that the cooling tubes suck up sand, the power plants will have to shut down, and we could face revolving blackouts similar to those we had in 2003, though one would hope that this time they'd come with advance warning -- then people got stranded in elevators, and those on life support at home were also affected.

Things would be better if the infrastructures were in better repair -- close to 50% of the water that enters some Italian aqueducts dribbles away en route -- but even if they were perfect the situation would be difficult. Put simply, there isn't enough water.

It's tempting to attribute the lack of rainfall to global warming, and it probably is at least partly responsible -- while this year has been exceptional, there has been a warming trend over the past decade at least, with the result that Southern Italy's climate is beginning to resemble North Africa's. Nor is the problem limited to Italy; a Belgian journalist I talked with told me that, according to a climatologist friend of his, the climatic zones in France are migrating north at a rate of 10 km a year. If this keeps up, he says, in 30 years Burgundy's climate will resemble what we now find on the French Riviera. How well Pinot Noir will adapt to the change is a good, and worrisome question that Italians will also be asking with respect to Italian varietals, because the same sort of northward shift of climatic zones is occurring in Italy too.

One possible solution will be to plant at higher elevations, where it is cooler. However, doing so entails other risks, because at higher elevations conditions are more difficult -- steep slopes, exposed rock, and so on -- and more extreme, with fierce storms that can do considerable damage. It will be interesting to see what happens, but doing something concrete to limit global warming will likely be good for everyone.

Le Concours Mondal De Bruxelles
I met the Belgian journalist mentioned above at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, one of the most important international wine tastings, whose organizers invited me to be one of 220-odd wine tasters assigned to judge more than 5700 wines from all over the world. To speed things along we were divided into panels of 6 tasters, and each panel tasted about 50 wines per day, broken into groups of 6-15 wines that are fairly specific, e.g. French sparkling wines made with the Crémant technique from the Loire Valley, 2005 Chilean Cabernets and Cabernet blends, or Rioja, one of the classic Spanish reds.

Each day began with "palate calibration," in other words a wine we tasted and then quickly discussed; despite considerable variations in our backgrounds our opinions were similar, which indicates that despite the subjectivity that leads one to prefer certain styles over others, there are also absolutes in wine tasting. And what were the criteria we judged on? The forms we filled out have check boxes to assign scores:

  • Visual -- limpidity (i.e. clarity, 1-5 points) and aspect (2-10 points) -- If it's cloudy few points, and likewise if the color is odd, for example a young white that's veering into brown.
  • Olfactory -- Intensity (2-8 points), genuineness (2-6 points), quality (8-16 points)
  • Taste -- Intensity (2-8 points), genuineness (2-6 points), quality (10-20 points), persistence (4-8 points)
  • Overall judgment (7-11 points)

Since there's no writing involved the process is straight-forward and quick, though a few people did wonder about genuineness -- since we were tasting blind, knowing only the vintage, it was obviously impossible to tell if a wine was true to type. So I took it to be a measure of the wine's character, balance, and harmony. Quality is instead technical merit, e.g. cleanliness and such, while intensity is just that. Medals, you wonder? A score higher than 96 warrants a great gold medal, gold is 96-88, and silver is 87-82.

For me it was a wonderful opportunity to taste (and discover) wines that simply don't reach the Italian markets, for example the above-mentioned Chilean Cabernets. In an Italian context they would be extremely international, with tremendous concentration, high alcohol, and intense use of new oak that, at least for me, overshadowed everything else. But having tasted them, I better understand some Californian wine lovers I was with a few years ago who became ecstatic over a (for me) overly oaked Tuscan Sangiovese. The Tuscan wine greatly resembled these Chilean wines, and was obviously designed to capture the attention of wine lovers used to that style of wine.

Other series were equally unexpected; one that a fellow taster and I thought might be southern European -- there were warm leathery aromas of a sort that make me think of Cirò, Calabria's best-known wine, while she was wondering about Spain -- turned out to be Austrian and German Pinot Noir. I would never have guessed it, and that's what makes a wine tasting of this sort so interesting and educational.

They'll be posting the results on their site this evening (May 4 2007)

Though the event is entitled the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, it was held this year in Maastricht, a Dutch city on the banks of the Maas River that was founded by Julius Caesar at a point where the river could be crossed (stricht, we were told, means crossing point). Very pretty, especially the historic heart of town within the first ring of Medieval walls, and should you happen to visit the area, or even be passing through (it's an hour from Brussels, seat of the European Union and a major air hub), it's well worth a visit.

The heart of town, which has a great many pretty row houses, some faced with brick and others with stone (we were told the gray stone framing the windows was more expensive than that used to make the walls), beautiful churches, and nice squares, can be seen in a morning. And when you have finished wandering about there are a tremendous number of pubs and eateries; in addition to attracting a great many visitors Maastricht is a university town, with students making up close to a fifth of the population. So it's quite welcoming. We stayed in a hotel in the outskirts of town next to the convention center, but if you're passing through you'll be quite happy in the heart of town.

Is Rufina out of its mind?
A few issues ago I mentioned that the town of Rufina, in the heart of the Chianti Rufina zone and blessed by some of the most ruggedly beautiful topography near Florence (it's close enough to be a nice day trip) was set to build a new trash incinerator. I thought a steep-sided valley with narrow roads was a horrible location for an incinerator that will generate significant truck traffic and put a lot of stuff into the atmosphere, and so do many others including Carlo Macchi of Winesurf, who asked Stefano Gamberi, Rufina's mayor, a number of questions (link in Italian) regarding the impact the proposed incinerator will have. No reply, says Carlo, who has asked again.

How a public official replies to a question is often telling, and Mr. Gamberi's reticence is worrisome -- it's not what one would expect of someone who has nothing to hide. Rather, I fear the town's administration is preparing to try to run something boneheaded and shortsighted over the residents of the valley, who do not want the thing, and if they succeed the consequences for the region will be severe and long lasting.

If you're interested, or could be in a position to comment and spread the word or bring influence to bear, Federico and Silvia Giuntini of the Fattoria Selvapiana, one of the finest (and oldest) wineries of Chianti Rufina, are leading the Associazione Valdisieve's fight against the proposal. You can contact Federico and Silvia through Selvapiana's site (http://www.selvapiana.it/), or send an email to assovaldisieve@libero.it. I had hoped to be able to point you to further information on the Consorzio Chianti Rufina's site (http://www.chiantirufina.com/Home/Index.htm), but they are oddly silent on the matter.

This time's proverb is Tuscan: Chi fa male odia il lume: He who does evil hates light.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at Kyle@cosabolle.com

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 http://www.cosabolle.com. 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.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Dico?!, Seeds and More: Being the 133rd issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings, and I'm again sorry to be late with this: First there was Vinitaly, and then there was our furnace/hot water heater, which decided to die just before Easter. The calls to the plumber were especially frantic, but we have hot water again. To begin with the sites, the latest on Italian cuisine are a bunch of recipes, and a couple collections of favorite things. See http://italianfood.about.com. The latest on the Italian Wine Revue is more substantial: Just before Vinitaly I visited Montecucco, a fairly new appellation in the Tuscan Maremma, found some nice wines; you'll find the writeup on site, together with notes from the Nobile di Montepulciano presentation (2004 is a distinct step up for them) and a couple of winery tastings from Vintialy.

If you follow European politics you may know that when Zapatero's Socialist government took office Spain, one of the first things they did was to pass a law recognizing gay marriage and giving cohabiters rights. A Spanish friend I ran into at Vintialy told me there was a flurry of commentary, after which things, he says, have pretty much settled down.

When Prodi and the Center-Left coalition took office in Italy, people wondered if they would do something similar. It took a while, but this year Rosi Bindi, Minister for Family Affairs (Politiche della Famiglia), introduced legislature to recognize and give rights to coppie di fatto, or unmarried couples -- gays and lesbians, but also heterosexual couples who don't want to or cannot marry for one reason or another. There are about 650 thousand coppie di fatto in Italy, in other words 4% of all Italian households, and the number is increasing steadily. So the proposed legislature will affect quite a few people. And what rights are we talking about?

  • To assist a loved one, either at home on in a hospital
  • To make it possible for the foreign half of a couple to get a residence permit quickly (After I married Elisabetta, establishing Italian residency and getting permission to work took a morning. It would have taken months had I not been married.)
  • To allow unmarried couples to sign up for public housing
  • To allow the transfer of the rental lease if the person in whose name it is has to move for professional reasons or dies after the couple has been cohabiting for more than three years
  • To allow inheritance if the couple has been living together for at least 9 years. (In Italy, the surviving spouse is automatically awarded 50% of the estate, with the remainder going to children or relatives. Cohabitants do not count, while children born out of wedlock count less than those born within -- they will inherit from parents, but need not be included in the division of a more distant relative's estate.)

None of this seems particularly radical to me. Quite the contrary; it makes sense, and will make people's lives much easier. Allowing couples to sign up for public housing, obviously, but also (and perhaps more) allowing hospital access; as things stand now a cohabitant has no standing in the eyes of the law and can be kept out by the family, including the soon-to-be-ex spouse if a divorce is under way. This might not seem significant to you if you live elsewhere, but in Italy a divorce is granted only after 3 years of legal separation (used to be 5), and vindictive soon-to-be exes can and do exercise their rights.

I also think the lease transfer and inheritance are good ideas; a number of years ago Adriana, who lived next door to Elisabetta's parents, met Luciano, the poultryman who worked down the street from where I lived while tending her husband's grave -- he was at the cemetery too, looking after his wife's. Something clicked, and after a time she moved in with him, but they never married because their adult kids were very much against the idea (the inheritance law, remember?). They were together for more than 10 years, and then one day Luciano dropped dead. It took his kids less than a week to throw her out.

I wonder what he thought of that? While one could argue he should have married her if he wanted her to be able to stay in their house, we all know how tangled family relationships can be, and how reluctant people can be to do things that will sunder bridges and otherwise divide. Remember also the inheritance laws; there have been cases of former spouses putting new families, including the children of their exes, on the street.

The reaction to Rosi Bindi's proposals? The Church has manned the battlements, saying the only valid family is that comprising a man and a woman joined in Holy Matrimony, and firing declarations in all directions; one Bishop used the words cohabitation, homosexuality and pedophilia in the same breath, and though he later said he didn't mean that the one implied the other, his remarks do give an idea of the frenzied tone the debate has taken.

The political response has been quite interesting, and is what's termed trasversale -- in other words, not by party line, but rather with some of the governing coalition's politicians being against the legislation and some of the opposition supporting it. Less of the opposition, but some are in favor.

And what I find really interesting is the behavior of some of the separated politicians; one might expect them to support something that makes the lives of the separated easier, but Casini, the former head of the House and leader of UDC, one of the Catholic parties, is against the legislation despite having divorced his wife (with whom he had kids) to live with a much younger, very wealthy second woman with whom he has also had a kid. How the Church can stand to have him as the head of a Catholic party is beyond me, but it does, and his family situation pretty much sums up why I think it's high time the Italian legislature accept the fact that people (not just gays) are choosing to live in ways other than those approved by the Church, and adopt legislation to make their lives easier.

We shall see what the legislators do. And what do non-politician Italians think, you wonder? If the question were to be put to a popular vote, the thing would pass by a huge margin, because divorce is common in Italy, and everybody has friends or relatives who have separated and reformed new families.

Seeds and The Third World
Moving in a very different direction, long-term subscribers to Cosa Bolle in Pentola will recall that a number of years ago I wrote about the way Western agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies send people into developing countries to collect promising plants, bring them home, and patent the seed stocks so anyone who wants to grow the seeds commercially has to pay them royalties -- a practice known as gene theft, or gene piracy.

An example? In 1997 Rice Tech, an American company owned by the Crown Prince of Liechtenstein, successfully patented Basmati rice in the United States -- that Basmati rice has been celebrated for centuries in India and all the selection of the strains was carried out by untold generations of Indian and Pakistani farmers made little impression upon the Court that granted the patent. At least at first; when the Indian Government got involved the American courts greatly reduced the scope of Rice Tech's patent. But that doesn't mean other companies aren't still trying this sort of thing.

Carlo Petrini, founder of Slowfood, mentions another American company, W.R. Grace, which patented the curative properties of the seeds of the Neem tree, an Indian tree whose seeds, leaves and bark are used for all sorts of things, from food to tooth protection to pest control. And the patent might have stood, had someone not showed the Court sacred Indian texts hundreds of years old that discuss the properties W.R. Grace was hoping to profit from. You can't patent something when someone else has already written it down and it's general knowledge.

And thinking about this has led Carlo to an inspired proposal of the sort that's so obvious that it doesn't occur to people: To combat gene piracy, why not establish an exhaustive online database listing seeds, plants, and their traditional uses?

Such a database, compiled by the farmers who grow the plants, those who use them, and local experts, would help keep western companies from using western courts to snap up procedures and techniques that are well known elsewhere but appear new to the West, and whose commercialization and should benefit the third world farmers and healers who have developed them over the centuries -- not the western company that sends someone out to talk to a shaman and gather seeds of the plants he mentions.

The first step to true independence is having control over what one grows, and I do think this database will help achieve that goal. It's still in the planning stages, Carlo says, but when it goes online I will visit it.

Carlo's article, from La Repubblica (in Italian)
Seed Savers:
A number of sobering (and frightening) talks on seed diversity and the doings of agribusiness, from this year's Terra Madre meeting in Torino.

Cantine Aperte
Winding down, if you'll be in Italy on May 27 and like wine, you should definitely plan to head out into the country to enjoy Cantine Aperte, the semi-annual opening of wine cellars to the general public organized by the Movimento del Turismo del Vino. won't want to miss Cantine Aperte, the annual opening of wine cellars to the general public. Many of the wineries that participate do more than just open their cellars, organizing, for example, walks through the vineyards or tastings of local foodstuffs. In short, it's a lot of fun. For more information, in Italian alas, see http://www.movimentoturismovino.it/cantine_aperte.html

This time's proverb is from the Veneto: Xe mejo cascar dal balcon che dai copi, or It's better to fall from the balcony than from the roof.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review

Monday, March 26, 2007

Protecting Appellations, A couple of Salads and More: Being the 132nd issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings, and I'm sorry to be late with this. To begin with the sites, the latest on Italian cuisine is an illustrated recipe for Agnello Scottadito, grilled lamb chops, with a salsa alla diavola, or hot sauce. It's quick, easy, and quite tasty. The latest on the Italian Wine Revue is my writeup of the 2007 Chianti Classico Anteprima. Some very fine wines were presented!

Protecting Appellations
Returning to Cosa Bolle, the Chianti Classico Consorzio recently announced that it has joined a number of other wine producing regions in signing a petition requesting international recognition of appellation names.

The movement actually got started last year, with the winemakers of Napa Valley, Oregon, Washington State, Walla Walla Valley, Champagne, Porto, and Jerez signing a declaration stating (among other things) that some areas of the world are uniquely suited to winemaking and people do associate the names of said areas with wine, the goal being to "join together in supporting efforts to maintain and protect the integrity of these place names, which are fundamental tools for consumer identification of great winegrowing regions and the wines they produce."

This year the winemakers of Chianti Classico, Sonoma County, Paso Robles, Tokaj, Victoria, and Western Australia have joined the founding seven, and to be honest I hope the movement snowballs. One might think it would -- after all, the signers of the petition want a wine whose name involves a place, say Burgundy, or Chianti, or Champagne, be made in that place, and not half way around the globe from it -- and this does make sense.

However, the idea faces opposition on a number of fronts. The most obvious is winemakers elsewhere, especially California, who use more renowned names to help sell cheap knockoff wines, for example California Burgundy or California Champagne; the practice is legal (in the US) because the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau defines the knockoff wines as "semi-generic," which implies that it considers the true Burgundy or Champagne to be types of wines (akin to red or sparkling) rather than specific wines from specific places, and this in turn gives an idea of the mindset of the American regulators.

But things are changing; the Consorzio's press release mentions that the California Supreme Court ruled last year that a wine with the word Napa on the label must be made with grapes (minimum 75%) from the Napa Valley, and that the US Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal.

A step forward, though the going is not smooth: The Bronco Wine Company, which lost the ruling, is now selling a Napa-based wine for $ 3.99 at Trader Joe's. This is probably not what the folk who are trying to make Napa something special had in mind, but at least the wine is now tied to a place, and they have begun to label their wines correctly.

Other producers are instead objecting that since they have the word "California" on their labels, consumers know they're not getting true Champagne, Burgundy, or Whatever when they buy the wine, and there's therefore no reason to change practices. This is disingenuous; if the consumers weren't recognizing the foreign names the producers wouldn't be putting them on the labels.

It is true that developing a new name from scratch takes time and effort, but one can phase into it -- winemakers in Alsace, faced with loosing the rights to the word Tokay (the EU ruled it should be limited to Hungarian wines), gradually changed their wine from Tokay D'Alsace to Tokay Pinot Gris D'Alsace to Pinot Gris D'Alsace, and consumers took it in stride. The makers of California Champagne could do the same, and as an added bonus, would be able to export their wines to areas that recognize appellation names -- in particular, Europe.

The other major source of opposition to the recognition of appellation names is the food industry. The Consorzio that oversees the production of Parmigiano recently went to court to keep German cheesemakers from registering a knockoff they call Parmesan as a DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or Denomination of Protected Origin, the food equivalent of an Appellation).

At least they were successful; Canada is blocking Prosciutto di Parma because a Canadian food company registered the word Parma in 1958, and now Canada is saying that the prosciutto producers of the city of Parma who want to put the word Parma on their prosciutto labels for sale in Canada are infringing upon the rights of a Canadian company. That Parma is a place name, and that Parmensi have been making prosciutto since the dawn of time (they offered Hannibal prosciutto, to celebrate his victories over the Romans) makes no difference. However, as the Napa ruling shows, things may be changing. I hope so.

Protection Involves More Than Just Appellations
Moving in a slightly different direction, while it is important to protect and recognize Appellation names abroad, it is just as important to protect and preserve the areas where fine wines and foods come from. Many of these areas are quite beautiful, and close to major population centers, and this can lead to serious problems: Indiscriminate development can do all sorts of damage.

For example, paving over areas that had been forest or field increases runoff, which results in increased erosion and flash flooding downstream, population increase increases the demand for water (in short supply in much of Italy) while stressing the environment in many ways, and then there are simple aesthetics -- many of the new housing tracts and industrial parks are eyesores. To combat the problem in the Chianti Classico area, which is looked at with great interest by those who would like to provide suburban housing for the populations of Florence and Siena, the Chianti Classico Consorzio established the Fondazione per la Tutela del Territorio del Chianti Classico Onlus a number of years ago.

Their track record has been mixed; some towns in Chianti have understood the need to limit the volume of new construction, while others have instead embraced the developers, mushrooming frightfully. San Casciano, about 10 km from Florence, is an especially good example of the latter; they've added miles of new roads packed with houses, and also transformed former industrial buildings into housing, without (it seems from the outside) thinking about how to strengthen the town's infrastructures; the upshot is that if everyone from the new areas heads into the Centro Storico (which used to be delightful) at once they can't park, and the streets are so packed that it's difficult to walk. This is what people left Florence to get away from.

At least San Casciano is just dealing with population. The Chianti Rufina area, one of the wildest and most unspoiled sections of Tuscany, is instead threatened by plans to build a garbage incinerator on the banks of the Sieve River, which bisects it. This is a dreadful location: The Val di Sieve is quite narrow, and will trap whatever emerges from the smokestacks, while getting the trash to the incinerator in the first place will paralyze traffic and increase air pollution further. The local population is up in arms -- they fear that tourism will collapse and property values plummet if the thing is built -- and we shall see what happens.

Tuscany isn't the only part of Italy with problems, however. The Valpolicella, a strikingly beautiful network of valleys just north of Verona, is under a similar assault from developers, who have begun to pour cement in quantity; among the victims so far is a court near the only Palladian villa in the Province of Verona -- it has been replaced by new houses. According to Count Pieralvise Serego Alighieri, who makes some of the finest wines in the region, the mayors who are allowing this belong in Hell with the Ignavi, those who lived doing neither good nor bad because they lacked the moral strength to take a side. He of course has, and has set up a foundation to defend the territory. They're just starting out, but do have a couple of sites, http://www.valpolicellaonline.org/ and http://www.teladoiolavalpolicella.it/.

Preserving appellations is a cause well worth supporting, because if Italian agricultural areas fall under the sway of the developers, we will loose not just the products and the beautiful places, but also the way of life that brought us the products in the first place.

Baccalà and...
Moving in a very different direction, we're still in the midst of Lent, which is not -- as many think -- a specific time of penance (though if one wants to do penance nobody is going to object). Rather, it's a time for spiritual renewal in preparation for Easter. And renouncing meats and rich foods? This ties in with the spiritual renewal; the Church is asking people to renounce out of respect for Jesus's suffering on the Cross and to share the privations suffered year-round by the poor.

I've gotten several requests for baccalà of late, and they would certainly qualify as Lenten dishes. We'll start with a Roman recipe, for Baccalà Alla Trasteverina, which is easy and will be heart-warming at this time of year.

To serve 4 you'll need:

  • 1 3/4 pounds (800 g) soaked baccalà (see http://italianfood.about.com/od/fishdishes/a/aa110897.htm for instructions on selecting and soaking baccalà)
  • A scant pound (400 g) onions, finely sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • An anchovy, boned and rinsed
  • The juice of a lemon
  • 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon minced parsley
  • 1 tablespoon pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup (50 g) flour
  • 1 tablespoon plumped raisins
  • Salt to taste

Rinse the baccalà, remove the skin, and pat it dry. Cut it into pieces, flour them, and fry them, turning them carefully once, in a pot with just a bit of oil until golden. Drain the pieces well on absorbent paper.

Preheat your oven to 420 F (210 C)

Add a little oil to the pan if need be (there should be a couple of tablespoons) and sauté the garlic clove; when it is golden add the onions. Season with salt to taste, and add the capers, raisins, and pine nuts. Add the anchovy too, and stir it about until it dissolves.

Turn the onion mixture out into a baking pan, and arrange the pieces of baccalà over it. Pour the pan drippings over the baccalà, put the pan in the oven, and cook for a few minutes. Upon removing the baccalà from the oven, sprinkle the lemon juice over it, dust it with the parsley, and serve at once.

The wine? White, and Frascati would be a good choice.

Next, a baccalà and potato salad from the Veneto that will be nice when it's a little warmer out -- in the past it would have been a summery dish, because that's when string beans are in season, but now, thanks to freezer bins, we can enjoy it year round. To serve 4:

  • 1 1/8 pounds (500 g) soaked baccalà (see http://italianfood.about.com/od/fishdishes/a/aa110897.htm for instructions on selecting and soaking baccalà)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • A slice of lemon, preferably organic
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • A bay leaf
  • 2 medium sized potatoes
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) string beans (frozen will be fine)
  • A small bunch of parsley
  • 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
  • 1/4 cup pitted black olives
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Cut the baccalà into pieces about 2 inches (5 cm) wide. Put them in a pot with two inches (5 cm) cold water, the lemon, and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil and simmer the fish for 20 minutes, then drain the pieces, and filter a few tablespoons of the broth.

Boil, or better yet steam, the potatoes separately; when a skewer penetrates easily peel them and duce them.

Cook the green beans too, in lightly salted water, until done but not overly soft.

Peel the garlic clove and mince it with the anchovy filets, capers, and parsley. Put the mixture in a bowl and add to it 2 tablespoons lemon juice, the olive oil, 2 tablespoons fish broth, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.

Combine the potatoes, baccalà, and string beans in a salad bowl, add the olives and the sauce, mix gently, and serve.

A wine? White, and Lugana would be nice.

Last thing: Vinitaly, Italy's major wine trade fair, will be held in Verona this week, from Thursday through Monday. If you're in Northern Italy, it's a fascinating event. See http://www.vinitaly.com.

This time's proverb is Calabrian: Miegliu ccù autri spàrtari ca pèrdari sulu: It's better to divide with others than to lose alone.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at Kyle@cosabolle.com

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 http://www.cosabolle.com. 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.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Where It's Going, Traditional/International and More: Being the 131st issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! To begin with the sites, the latest on Italian cuisine is an illustration of how to chop onions and herbs (by hand). I know this sounds obvious, but a great many people reach for a chopper or blender, neither of which does as good a job, and both of which take much longer to clean up after. The latest on the IWR is a vertical of Cantalupo's Collis Breclemae, a beautiful single-vineyard Ghemme.

Where's it Going?
This year Sale e Pepe, one of the major Italian cooking magazines, is celebrating its 20th birthday, and in addition to a picture of a ring cake with candles on the cover, they've picked a recipe per year to reprint. The selection is fascinating, and shows what an Italian food person, who takes the standard dishes, e.g. maccheroni alla Bolognese, pizza, pasta e fagioli, tortellini, and so on, for granted, finds interesting, and perhaps innovative.

Fruit in savory dishes, for example risotto with a terrific abundance of strawberries, or veal with kumquats, both in the late 80s, and a pork crown roast with pineapple, in 2002. Fruit has always played a part in Italian savory cooking; what's different here is that the fruit is fresh, rather than the dried fruit one can encounter in elegant, very traditional north Italian roasts, or in south Italian dishes that draw from Arab traditions. They also reveal an openness to new ingredients; kumquats were virtually unknown when I moved to Florence in the early 1980s, and the pork crown roast with pineapple (another relatively recent import) is in a sweet and sour sauce that is an obvious nod to oriental traditions. A further nod to foreign cooking traditions comes with the curried chicken proposed in 1995, which is authentic, though it does call for curry powder rather than the individually ground spices that would be difficult to find in much of Italy.

Ingredients that suddenly became the rage, with a nod -- in 1989 -- to arugola, which found its way just about everywhere, including pasta with arugola and bacon, a simple dish that draws upon the common Ligurian custom of cooking vegetables with the pasta (string beans and diced potatoes are especially common additions to the pasta pot), and then seasoning everything with a sauce; here the sauce is very simple, diced bacon sautéed in oil, and shavings of Parmigiano. The end result is minimalist, savory, and though some might find it dated now, quite tasty. While savory dishes continued to be minimalist in the 90s -- there's also a Cornish game hen stuffed with spinach and roasted with bay leaf and diced pancetta -- desserts could be quite showy, and for 1993 they picked a strawberry meringue wife Elisabetta remembers very well.

These are all dishes that fit well within the traditional Italian meal; the pasta is obviously a first course, while the meats would be second courses, and the meringue would be dessert.

They also pick a number of things that would not, and in doing so recognize that Italian life has changed tremendously in the past 20 years; the number of people who eat out or eat light during the day because they have to get back to the office in the afternoon has increased substantially, and in 1996 they present what they call a Panino Mediterraneo, or Mediterranean sandwich, a triple-decker with all sorts of greens and a little fish that will be substantial enough to assuage hunger pangs, but not so rich that the diner is unable to get back to work.

They also take stock of the tremendous expansion fast food joints have enjoyed in Italy over the past 20 years, and for 1999 suggest a double cheeseburger. With all the fixings: onion, shallot, lettuce, tomato, cheese, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, mustard, and even pickles. If made with care it will be quite good, and it shows that Italians are anything but monolithic in their view of foods: On the one hand we have Carlo Petrini, who, after discovering a McDonald's under the Spanish Steps in Rome, founded Slowfood, an organization that is making a determined (and successful) effort to preserving traditional foodstuffs, recipes, and agricultural techniques, first in Italy and now world wide. And on the other we have people who note how full those McDonalds restaurants are -- even in areas tourists don't visit -- and suggest how to best use the freshly pressed hamburgers that now occupy a significant portion of the meat section in most Italian supermarkets.

To come back to the question of where we are going, in many directions at once. On the one hand there is a renewed interest in traditional dishes, which Sale e Pepe's editors touch upon with several of their recipes, especially the rich Zuppa Inglese, or English Trifle they drew from Artusi for their 2006 recipe. And on the other there's a great deal of curiosity with respect to new ingredients and cooking techniques, both in restaurants and in the home; almost every Italian city now has shops that sell either African or Oriental ingredients, and the ethnic sections of supermarkets, which simply didn't exist when I moved to Italy in 1982, are expanding steadily. And finally, the foods are adapting to reflect changes in lifestyle, and in doing so greatly increasing the variety one can choose from. It's an exciting time to be following Italian food.

Some of the recipes:
The strawberry risotto is quite similar to one I have on Italian cuisine; with respect to it they omit the celery, use slightly fewer strawberries, and add a third of a cup or so of cream, rather than grated cheese.

Vitello al Kumquat, or Kumquat Veal
Interesting, and very easy to prepare:
  • 1 3/4 pound (800 g) veal fesa -- the cut used to make scaloppini -- in a single piece; boneless veal roast will work
  • 2/3 pound (300g) kumquats, washed, patted dry, cut in half, and seeded
  • A shot of brandy
  • 2/3 cup dry white wine
  • A little broth (unsalted bouillon will be fine)
  • A bay leaf
  • A sprig of rosemary
  • A few sage leaves
  • Olive oil, salt, and white pepper
  • Butcher's twine
Preheat your oven to 400 F (200 C).

Tie the meat so it will keep its shape. In the meantime, heat a quarter cup of olive oil in an ovenproof dish, and when it is hot brown the meat on all sides. Season it with salt and pepper, and with the rosemary and sage.

Sprinkle the brandy over the meat and cook over a brosk flame until it has evaporated. Next, add the white wine and continue cooking, turning the meat occasionally, until almost all of the wine has evaporated too.

Add the kumquats and the bay leaf and transfer the meat to the oven. Cook for about 75 minutes, turning the meat occasionally, and spooning the drippings over it more often; should it look to be drying out, add a few tablespoons of broth.

When it is done, remove and discard the herbs. Let the roast sit for a couple of minutes, and then slice it, Spoon the sauce over the slices, ring them with the kumquats, and serve at once.
A wine? I'd go with a white from Friuli, perhaps a Chardonnay.

Meringata di Frutti di Bosco, or Berry Fruit Meringue

This looks beautiful, and if you have some experience with a pastry bag, is quite easy to do, though it does take a while. You'll need:
  • 4 egg whites
  • 2/3 cup (125 g) granulated sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups (250 g) powdered sugar, of the kind without vanilla added
  • 1 cup (250 ml) whipping cream
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) fresh raspberries
  • 1/4 pound (100 g) wild strawberries, hulled
  • 1/4 pound black currants
Combine the granulated sugar and a cup and a quarter of the powdered sugar. Add half the mixture to the egg whites, and beat them to very firm peaks with an electric mixer. When the sugar/whites mixture is firm and shiny, slowly beat in the remaining mixed sugars.
While you are doing this, heat your oven to 212 F (100 C). Also, take a cookie pan and line it with oven parchment.

Fill a pastry bag with a smooth nozzle with the meringue mixture, and use it to make two 8-inch (20 cm) diameter disks, and one 1-inch wide ring that is 8 inches in diameter; dot the ring with dots of meringue (if you switch to a star-shaped nozzle you will obtain a pretty decorative effect). Cook the meringue in the oven, leaving the door partially open, for three hours.

While the meringue is cooking, see to the filling: Blend half the raspberries. Beat the cream with the remaining sugar, and when it is soft and fluffy incorporate the blended berries.

Put one of the disks on a serving dish and spread a third of the cream over it, dotting it with the fruit, especially around the edges. Set the second ring over the first, spread another third of the cream over it, and dot it with more of the fruit. Put the ring atop the disks, put the remaining fruit in the center, and use a pastry bag to add the ring the fruit with the remaining cream. Chill the meringue in the refrigerator until it comes time to serve it.

Panino Mediterraneo

This sandwich sounds a lot more involved than it is. You'll find just about all the ingredients in the deli section of the supermarket.
For the sandwich you'll need:
  • 3 slices Tuscan bread, lightly toasted
  • 2 slices grilled eggplant
  • 3 slices grilled bell pepper, of the colors you prefer
  • 4 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • A hard-boiled egg, sliced
  • 2 canned sardines, drained
  • 4 pitted black or green olives, halved
  • A clove of garlic (optional)
And for the sauce:
  • 2 fresh basil leaves
  • A couple of sprigs of mint
  • The leaves from a sprig of thyme and a sprig of marjoram
  • Half a garlic clove (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 1 teaspoon pickled capers
To make the sauce, blend everything together. And then see to the sandwich: put down the first slice of bread, and arrange half the ingredients over it, and sprinkle them with half the sauce.

Lightly rub the second slice of bread, top and bottom, with garlic if you want to, lay it over the ingredients put down so far, and top it with the rest of the ingredients. Sprinkle the remaining sauce over all, top with the last slice of bread, and that's it. I'd go with a light, crisp white wine.

Spaghetti Frittata
Here's a last thing, which will be nice come picnic season, and is a good way to use up leftovers, if you have them. If you're instead starting from scratch, you'll need:
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) spaghetti
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) chopped tomatoes (canned will be fine)
  • 1/2 pound (220 g) mozzarella
  • 4 eggs
  • 5-6 basil leaves
  • 4 sprigs parsley, minced
  • 1/4 pound (100 g) spicy Italian sausage
  • 1/2 cup mixed freshly grated Parmigiano and Pecorino Romano
  • A clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Set pasta water to boil, and while it's heating heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a pot; add the garlic, and when it has become golden add the tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and simmer for 10 minutes. Then add the basil.

In the meantime, slice the mozzarella and drain it well. Peel the casing from the sausage and slice it too.

By now the pasta water should be boiling; salt it and cook the spaghetti.
Beat the eggs in a large bowl and add to them the parsley and half the cheese mixture; season with salt and pepper to taste.

Drain the pasta, run it under cold water to cool the strands, and combine them with the egg mixture.

Heat the remaining oil in a large non-stick skillet, spread half the pasta mixture over it, and then spread the tomatoes, cheese, and sausage over the pasta. Cover the tomato mixture with the remaining pasta, cover the skillet with a lid that doesn't have a lip, and cook for 5-6 minutes over a low flame, or until a crust has formed at the bottom of the frittata.

To turn the frittata, grip the handle of the skillet with one hand, and hold the lid firmly against the skillet with your other hand, using a potholder lest you burn yourself. Lift everything, and flip the skillet and lid; the frittata should come free from the skillet, resting with the unbrowned side down on the lid. Turn the skillet right side up, slide the frittata into it, and return it to the fire to brown the other side. This will be nice hot, with a tossed salad and a white wine -- perhaps a Falanghina -- or cool, and if cool will be a very nice addition to a picnic.

Traditional and International, or Modern Italian Wine: What am I talking About?

When I discuss a wine I will often classify it as either traditional or international, which are fairly precise concepts in Italian wine journalism. But if you're not Italian, you may have no idea of what they mean.

Traditional, as you might guess, is a wine made from varietals traditional to the area in which it is produced, say Sangiovese and Canaiolo for a Chianti Classico, or Barbera, Dolcetto, or Nebbiolo for a wine from Piemonte's Langhe.

The differences begin in the vineyard, with the harvesting: Everybody aims for top quality fruit, but traditional producers are not as likely to overripen their grapes, at least not intentionally (in a very hot year it will happen) -- many keep an eye on grape sugar levels, and when they reach the point that will give a wine of x percent alcohol, they harvest.

After harvesting the grapes are fermented, either in steel tanks, cement vats, or upright wooden containers, with temperature control to keep the must from getting too hot if the winery has it, and most now do, and pumpovers (when the must is pumped over the cap of grape skins and such that rises to the top of the tank during fermentation) or pushdowns (when the cap is pushed into the must) to increase extraction.

Following fermentation a simple wine of the kind to be released young is kept in tank (steel or cement) for a time prior to bottling, while more complex wines are aged in botti, which are large casks (high hundreds to thousands of liters), generally made of Slavonian oak. The young wines don't have any oak at all, while the more complex wines, e.g. Barolo, Brunello, or Amarone have comparatively little, because the surface area of the cask is small with respect to the volume it contains. In other words, there won't be much in the way of vanilla/cedar aromas on the nose, and in terms of color the wine will be fairly pale, and tending towards garnet -- no poured ink. On the palate it will be fruity, with lively red berry fruit and (perhaps) quite a bit of acidity, while the tannins will be from grape, and will be lively in youth, tending towards velvet with time. Not much in the way of pencil shavings nor cedar in the aftertaste, which will likely be fruit driven.

In a nutshell, with respect to the international style, traditional wines tend to be brighter, with more marked acidities, fruit that's ripe, but not overripe unless the vintage was very hot, and have more aggressive tannins, especially when young. Problems? One is determining what is a traditional varietal. In most of Italy, if you mention Cabernet or Merlot, people will nod and say, "French." And they are, but the farmers of Carmignano, outside Florence, began working with Cabernet in 1720, while the vineyards around Lucca are full of cuttings -- Syrah, among others -- brought home by merchants in the 1800s.The situation is similar in many parts of northern Italy, where foreign varietals were introduced more than a century ago. Vines that have been in an area for this long have become, as far as I'm concerned, local.

The other problem that can arise with traditional wines is an attachment on the part of the winemaker to equipment that is, yes, traditional, but also just plain old. Specifically, though botti, the big oak casks, have a much longer lifespan than the small oak barrels used by the modernisti, they do eventually reach a point where they begin to impart off aromas and flavors, what are known as puzzette (little stinks). A stink is a stink, and not a tradition, but you still can come across traditional wines aged in casks that should have been changed long ago. Fortunately they're not as common as they once were.

Wines of the international style, which is also referred to as "moderno" by some journalists, much more closely resemble the wines made elsewhere in the world -- Bordeaux, California, South America, and also Australia, and were indeed introduced in the 60s and 70s in large part to appeal to international markets. At least that was the initial goal; now they enjoy a great following in Italy too.

With respect to traditional wines, international wines differ in a number of respects. One of the most important is the varietal makeup; whereas traditional wines are made from varietals that have long been grown in a given area, international wines often contain significant percentages of newly introduced French varietals, in particular Cabernet and Merlot, though now people are also working with other varietals, including Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Pinot Noir. Some appellations, for example Chianti Classico, allow the inclusion of French varietals, while others do not; in many areas where the primary appellation doesn't allow them, there will be a catchall appellation that does, e.g. Langhe DOC for the Barolo-Barbaresco area, or Sant'Antimo for Montalcino.

The other major difference between the traditional and international styles is wood use, and indeed the use of small oak -- 225 liter French barrels, called barriques -- in many ways defines the international style: the surface area of the barrel is large with respect to the volume of wine it contains, and as a result the wood has a tremendous impact upon the wine, imparting vanilla and cedar aromas, stabilizing color, which tends to be darker and more purple, and smoothing the wine, providing velvety tannins that have cedar or vanilla overtones, while also reducing the overall acidity.

With respect to traditional wines international wines tend to be richer, softer, smoother, and thus more approachable. They also tend to be less unique, because the wood, unless it is very deftly used, acts as an equalizer, smoothing the wine over and giving it something in common with all the other wines in the world that are aged in small oak barrels.

This is of course the goal behind the style, but is also the reason that as you drink more Italian wine you may find your preference shifting from the international style (if that's what you start with) to the more traditional style: there's more to discover in the traditional wines, where the grapes are going it solo, and in doing so revealing aspects of their varietal character and the terroir that produced them, rather than performing a duet with oak. In short, though there are some notable exceptions to this generalization, traditional wines tend to have more character. Because of this, though there are international style wines I greatly enjoy drinking, I tend to prefer the traditional style, and have more traditional than international bottles in my cellar.

This time's proverb is Piemontese: Chi veul savei la vrita' c'a i ciama a i ciuch e a le masna' -- He who would know the truth should ask drunks or children.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review