Friday, March 28, 2008

Montalcino, Restorations and More: Being the 147th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! The latest on Italian Food are Leonardo Romanelli's Tiramisu recipe, which gets around the dangers posed by raw egg in a deceptively simple way: He makes a zabaione of the yolks and stirs them into the Mascarpone cheese to make a Mascarpone cream. See here for illustrated step-by-step instructions. The latest on the Italian Wine review is instead an overview of the 2004 Amarone, with the notes from the presentation held in Verona about a month ago. 2004 is a good vintage, and some of the wines are superb. More could be, and those that aren't offer an opportunity to reflect upon the effects of supply and demand. See here.

Rumblings in Montalcino
Supply and demand lead us straight to Montalcino, where those in charge are doing their best to keep the lid on an ominously rumbling pressure cooker, and this invites yet more reflection.

Why the rumbling? Rumors of counterfeit wines. Actually, they're more than rumors: Before Benvenuto Brunello a friend and colleague told me that a dinner guest of his had told him that a fairly large -- several hectare -- vineyard not planted to Sangiovese had been found in the course of an inspection of one of the major Brunello producers. This would have been fine had the vineyard been destined to the production of Sant'Antimo DOC, which is Montalcino's catchall appellation for wines that contain things other than Sangiovese. Unfortunately, the vineyard in question was "atto a Brunello," for the production of Brunello -- winemakers must declare what their vineyards are for -- and since Brunello can contain only Sangiovese that vineyard shouldn't have had other varietals. But it did, and the Magistratura (essentially the DA) launched a criminal investigation for fraud, which is ongoing, and -- rumor has it -- has expanded to include several other major producers, who also have non-Sangiovese varietals in their Brunello vineyards.

I hadn't mentioned this because the investigation is ongoing, and I didn't think it was worth saying much before the names were released and the charges were made public -- conjecture can and often does wildly exceed truth, and in the process do much harm. However, Franco Ziliani, who is always in the forefront when it comes to ferreting out problems of this kind, said on March 21:

"Insistent and worrisome rumors reach us from Montalcino, and also from Germany and Holland, to the effect that several wineries (4-5) have been seized after the discovery, by the NAS -- The Carabinieri's food fraud unit -- and the Guardie di Finanza -- the Revenue people -- of Puglian wine that was sold (or rather passed off) as Brunello di Montalcino.

"The charge is said to be the usual "frode in commercio e falso in atto pubblico", commercial fraud and public falsehood…" (translation mine, see here).

As one might expect, the effect of Franco's post was like kicking a hornet's nest; a great many other bloggers weighed in, many saying it's about time (there are always rumors of fraud, but they rarely come to much), and a few -- Franco quotes Wine Spectator's James Suckling -- saying that what's going on is driven by envy and will turn out to be a tempest in a teapot. Then, yesterday, La Repubblica, one of the major dailies, said in a short piece that fully a quarter of all Brunello might be at risk (what I said about conjecture…).

Faced with a mounting wave the Consorzio took the extraordinary step of sending out a blanket email informing us that since 2004, when they began inspecting member vineyards (in 2002 the Italian government charged the Appellations with making certain their members followed the rules), they have found 17 hectares of non-Sangiovese vines, in a total of 1667 hectares of Brunello vineyards inspected. Less than 1% of the total acreage is not what is should be.

On the one hand, this is reassuring: Most people are playing by the rules. On the other it is not, because we don't know how those acres are distributed. The occasional different vine in a vineyard planted to a density of 6-8000 vines/hectare can occur, because nurseries do make mistakes when they deliver (Marchesi Pancrazi's entire Pinot Nero vineyard, whose wines now win awards, was a mistake -- the nursery was supposed to deliver something else).

But I have the impression that the occasional mistake is not what we're talking about here -- it certainly wasn't in the case of the winery my friend mentioned months ago, because a several-hectare vineyard with the wrong vines is not the isolated Cabernet, Merlot, or even Colorino vine surrounded by legitimate Sangiovese vines. And while it's true that when cuttings (which look like sticks with a root grafted to them) are planted, one plants on faith, assuming the nursery supplied what it said it supplied, when said cuttings grow into vines and begin producing fruit, one can see what they are. And if they're the wrong thing, one rips them out and sues the nursery, or at the very least changes the designation of the vineyard. One doesn't continue declaring the vineyard to be a Brunello vineyard (and making "Brunello" from those grapes) when it no longer qualifies. Nor does one leave the isolated Cabernet or whatever vine there, because it doesn't belong and that's that. But is seems that some people have, and here's the rub.

Does this mean all Brunello is suspect? Certainly not, not any more than the persistent rumors one hears every year of Brunello (and other northern appellations including French) being cut with inky dark, concentrated, alcoholic wines from the south. Some winemakers will do it, and then the question becomes which, and why.

The which is easy: Winemakers, like everyone else, have all sorts of personalities. On one end of the spectrum are the upstanding who follow the rules. Because they're rules and serious people live by them. On the other are those people who are great fun at a party, but you wouldn't trust with your house keys. If the rules are convenient (for them) they follow them, and if they aren't they don't. The former's Brunello will be Sangiovese and nothing but no matter what the vintage was like, while the latter's may not be -- if they think they can work around the regulations to counter nature's adversity or get ahead they will, especially if they think they have to.

And this brings up the more interesting question, why would one cheat? After all, the risks are enormous, because if one is found out one is (ahem) screwed -- a sales rep who handles one of the wineries under indictment posted a comment on Franco's blog saying he's been told not to sell any of that winery's 2003 Brunello indefinitely.

The answer is multifaceted, and in part imponderable. In the case of a small winery, I can think of three reasons: Willingness to gamble, laziness/incompetence, and a desire to make "what the markets want;" with this latter factor becoming much more important for larger wineries.

To begin with the gambling, some people are simply willing to gamble. I don't understand it. Laziness/incompetence? A small winery that works well, and makes good wine, will always be able to find someone willing to buy the volume it produces. If it works less well, the owners may decided to cut corners, turning to outside help to get the concentration, color, or whatever they were unable to achieve on their own.

And this brings up "what the market wants." As I said, a small winery that makes good wine (of any style, from the traditional austerity to the most opulent starlet in a glass) will always find someone interested in purchasing it. A large winery that makes several times the volume of the smaller winery is in a much more difficult position, because it cannot wait for the impassioned wine merchant/importer to say "This is the wine I like and will sell to my customers!" It instead has to find many purchasers, and is therefore much more conscious of what the wine press speaks admiringly of, leading the vast mass of wine consumers to seek: Depth of color, concentration, power, smoothness of tannin, richness of fruit and so on. And if what's in the glass the large winery's enologist draws from the cask doesn't match what the press is favoring, he or she may well decide to make it so, with outside help (the owner or enologist of a small winery that wants high scores may also do this).

In other words, some winemakers of most every appellation -- Brunello producers are certainly not unique -- will bend the rules for a variety of reasons, and though some are more understandable than others, I don't approve of or condone any. I would venture that the winery my friend heard about at dinner was trying to make what it thinks consumers will like, because it has to move a lot of wine. And it's successful, because its wines get good ratings -- I've read them. This doesn't justify what the winery did, though I can understand why it did it, and I will be quite curious to see who else has gotten caught in the net.

And what would I suggest to people thinking about buying a Brunello? Traditionalists are much less likely to be involved in this sort of thing than innovators, for the simple fact that though full bodied, traditional Brunello is neither packed with color nor tremendously concentrated. With this in mind, I'd say the same thing I've been saying all along: 2002 and 2003 were very poor vintages, and there aren't many wines I would consider buying of either. 2001 and 1999 are vastly superior (of the sort there would have been much less pressure to "correct;" the incriminated wines are said to be 2003) with many very good wines to be enjoyed. If you have read my notes, you'll know what I said I would look for at the vintage presentations, and I think I would continue to look for the same wines now. In particular, see here for the 2001 Brunello, and here for the 2001 Brunello Riserva.

On Cleaning Paintings
Moving in a very different direction, you may recall the tremendous controversy engendered by the Vatican Museum's decision to clean and restore Michelangelo's frescos in the Sistine Chapel. A great many art historians/critics wailed that the frescos would be ruined forever, and we were much better off looking at them darkened by centuries of grime. Some even went so far as to suggest that Michelangelo may have put a wash of grime up there to tone down the colors. While I have my doubts about this -- the Renaissance was known for lavishness, and I can't see people who enjoyed lavish lives wanting to tone down their paintings -- one thing people really didn't talk about was the fact that the frescos had already been restored or touched up several times, and a respectful cleaning using techniques and equipment of a sort unthinkable even 50 years ago could give us a much better idea of what Michelangelo actually painted, and his patrons saw (Daniele da Volterra's Braghe, or undies, added to Michelangelo's naked figures by order of the Counterreformational Congregation of Trent in 1564, were but the first of many additions made to the frescos ). The truth of the matter is that very few old paintings have escaped restoration at some point.

And that's what makes Vasari's Pala Albergotti so interesting. It's a large panel depicting the Assumption and Crowning of the Virgin, with Saints Donato and Francesco to the sides, and a number of smaller panels with facial portraits surrounding the major composition, which Vasari delivered to Filippo Salviati in 1567. Salviati had it placed in a chapel of the convent of the Suore di San Vincenzo in Prato. In 1570 Nerozzo Albergotti purchased it for 200 Scudi, as Vasari notes in his diary -- exactly how the transaction came about is unclear -- and took it to Arezzo, where he had it placed in his family's chapel in the Pieve di Santa Maria. There it remained until 1865, when the Church fathers decided to restore the Pieve and moved the painting to the Church of Santa Flora for safekeeping. The restoration was radical enough that the Albergotti chapel was ripped out (to reveal what was older) and therefore Nerozzo's painting remained undisturbed in Santa Flora until quite recently, when the parishioners and Don Soldani, the Parish Priest, decided to get it cleaned.

It didn't take long for the restorers they hired to realize they were the first to have worked on the painting since Vasari, and they therefore had something unique in their hands, which offered an unparalleled opportunity to study the painting technique of a Renaissance Master without the filters applied by subsequent generations of restorers. Rather than rush forward, they have studied the work at length, and will be holding a conference that promises to draw restorers from all over.

Just a reminder that even the smallest parish church in Italy can hide an unexpected treasure. The restoration, we were told, will likely take a year -- if you visit Santa Flora now you will find Vasari's painting hidden behind the walls of a tent erected in the church -- and I eagerly await the opportunity to see it next year, once again looking the way it did when it captured Nerozzo's attention and admiration.

Pastissada di Manzo
Winding down, Pastissada is an old Veronese stew that draws from Austro-Hungarian tradition (Verona was a part of the Empire for a long time) and brings goulash to mind. Most of the recipes I've seen call for horsemeat, but this one is beef-based, and might be nice with an Amarone. To serve 6:

  • 2 1/4 pounds (1 k) boneless beef; I would be tempted by the rump
For the marinade:
  • 1 onion, finely sliced
  • A carrot, peeled and diced
  • 2 ribs celery, diced
  • 2 cloves (the spice, not garlic)
  • A teaspoon of powdered cinnamon
  • A spring or two of rosemary
  • A bottle of dry red wine, e.g. Valpolicella
  • Peppercorns to taste
  • Salt
Come time to cook:
  • 2 ounces (60 g) cured lard or pancetta, cut into matchsticks
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste diluted in a little hot water

Put the meat in a bowl, together with the chopped vegetables, herbs, spices, and finally the wine. Marinate the meat for at least a day, turning it occasionally. Come time to cook it, remove it from the marinade and pat it dry. Make several thin punctures in it and slip the matchsticks of lard into them to baste the meat from the inside as it cooks.

While you're preparing the meat, heat the marinade in a saucepot big enough to comfortably hold the meat. Add the lardoned meat to the pot, together with the tomato paste diluted in warm water, cover, and simmer for about 2 hours, turning the meat every now and again.

When the meat is dome remove it, slice it, and set the pieces on a warmed serving dish. While you're doing this, cook the pan drippings down some over a fairly brisk flame, and blend them. Spoon the sauce over the meat and serve at once. Accompaniments? Polenta, and greens or spinach wilted in a pot, squeezed somewhat dry, and sautéed in a little olive oil with a clove of crushed garlic and salt and pepper to taste.

This time's proverb is from the Veneto: A chi che no ghe piase el vin , che Dio ghe toga anca l'aqua: May God leave he who doesn't like wine without water, too.

Until next time,

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

PS -- Please forward this to anyone you think would enjoy it! If you would like to read past issues (nothing in them really gets stale), you'll find recent ones at Cosa Bolle.Com,, and older ones at

Monday, March 17, 2008

Old Whites and More: Being the 146th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola


To begin at the beginning, the latest on Italian Food is a quick thing dedicated to broccoli, which the Romans greatly enjoyed -- at least the cabbage Pliny the Elder says is among the best sounds like broccoli -- though it seems to have been a food for the masses. I gather this because, as far as I can tell, Pliny doesn't tell the story about the Emperor Tiberius's son Drusus's gorging on cabbage until his urine turned green that several websites (and a book) attribute to him. Quite the opposite; Pliny says that a famed bon-vivant abhorred the cabbage and therefore so did Drusus, at which point the Emperor Tiberius (his father) criticized him for having overly delicate tastes.

Granted, there is a certain morbid fascination in wondering how much broccoli a guy has to eat to pee green, but what Pliny says is just as interesting, and perhaps more so because it shows Tiberius being much more down-to-earth and sensible than his kid. In any case, you will find the thing here.

The latest on the Italian Wine Review is instead a spectacular vertical of Vernaccia di San Gimignano organized by Elisabetta Fagioli at Montenidoli. We started with barrel samples and tasted all the way back through her first (quite successful) attempt at barrel fermenting, past her first Vernaccia (in 1984), and onto the first wine she made at Montenidoli, a 1971 Chianti di San Gimignano DOC. Very good it was, too.

Thinking About Old Whites

The best wine was -- we all thought -- A Vernaccia Fiore from 1991, and this leads to some interesting considerations on Italian wines. As you likely know, Italian reds come in all kinds: some are meant to be drunk immediately, for example light brash Dolcetto or Sangiovese di Romagna, some are best after a few years, for example Chianti Classico (especially the Riserva) or oaked Barbera, and some, including Barolo, Brunello, Amarone and Taurasi, can take decades to develop fully. Wine lovers know and expect this, as do Italian restaurants, which -- if they pride themselves in their wine lists -- often have older vintages of the wines that age well.

The situation changes with whites; if you go to a wine show you'll be presented with the latest vintage, still smarting from having been bottled if the event is in the spring, and if you ask about previous vintages as you eye the squalling toddler in your glass, the winemaker will shrug apologetically and say that the restaurant crowd has been trying to get him to release the new vintage since January.

To be honest, I have never understood the Italian infatuation with young white wines; while it's true that whites do develop faster than reds, and by the end of the summer that follows release (non-oaked whites are generally released the spring following the harvest, 2008 for a wine from grapes harvested in 2007) the wines are entering physical maturity, maturity is a relative term. By the end of the summer the wine will be at best an adolescent, and while it is true that some people look and are at their best in adolescence and thereafter it's a long slow slide, the vast majority are physically more attractive, not to mention more interesting to talk to, when they reach their 20s, and some continue to improve for decades.

The same is true for white wines. Some are at their best when they're so young they have little more than lively zest and forward fruit, but others, especially those made by winemakers who farm to low yields to insure concentration, continue to develop for many years, and if you open them too soon you end up drinking a pale shadow of what the wine was destined to become.

This is true even for wines that are generally drunk very young. I recently attended Alessandria Top Wines, a show featuring the wineries in the province of Alessandria that received high scores from the major wine guides. The province of Alessandria's best (in my opinion) white wine is Gavi, a wine made from the Cortese grape that is brisk to frankly acidic with lemony overtones, when young, and producer after producer has told me (I've tasted through Gavi on other occasions too) that they simply cannot sell anything but the most recent vintage: restaurant and wine shop owners aren't interested in the older wines. And this is a great pity, because it has the structure and acidity to age well for many years.

La Sparina was pouring their current Gavi, a 2006, which was nice, in a direct key: Brassy white with brassy reflections, and a deft bouquet with pleasing floral accents mingled with bitter almonds and gunflint. On the palate ample, and fairly soft, with greenish white berry fruit supported by clean mineral acidity that flows into a clean bitter finish; it's a wine that will work well with a variety of foods.
2 stars

They were also pouring a 1995 Gavi La Villa:
Pale brassy yellow with greenish reflections, and looks quite young, actuall. Intense bouquet with pleasing bitter gunflint and hints of balsam mingled with tropical fruit and savory overtones. Quite nice, with a lot going on. On the palate it's full and bright, with powerful sour lemon fruit supported by clean bright lemony acidity that flows into a long, long citric finish. Very nice, and is the sort of wine you will greatly enjoy if you like mature whites.

There is an obvious difference in the vintages; 1995 was clearly better than 2005, and there may be differences in vineyard technique; it felt to me as if the 2005 grapes might have been harvested a little riper, and consequently with less acidity (in the past grapes were harvested when their sugar level would give a desired alcohol content, whereas now many producers wait until the grapes reach what is called maturazione fenolica or polyphenolic ripeness, with the result that sugars continue to accumulate while grape acidity drops, leading to a more alcoholic wine, less acidic (softer) wine). But there's no getting around it; the 1995 Gavi has aged very well, and those who drank it fresh out of the blocks missed out on all that it has become.

To finish up this discussion of older Italian whites, my impressions of Montenidoli's Vernaccia Fiore 1991:

Montenidoli Vernaccia Fiore Vernaccia Di San Gimignano 1991
Brassy gold with brassy highlights. The bouquet is impressive, with petroleum and minerality mingled with savory accents and some honeysuckle richness. Beautiful. On the palate it's extraordinary, with bright clean lemony fruit supported by clean slightly bitter citric acidity, and it flows into a clean savory citric finish. Extraordinary wine, and one would never guess its age were it to be presented blind. The stuff of dreams.

Again, the complete Montenidoli tasting is here.

Pastiera and Lamb: Happy Easter!

Moving in a very different direction, this Sunday was Palm Sunday, and next Sunday will be Easter. As is the case with every other holiday in Italy, the celebrations vary greatly from place to place. One of the most spectacular Easter pastries is the Pastiera Napoletana, a wheat berry and ricotta pie that gains grace and allure from orange water. "Nobody escapes its allure," wrote Caròla Francesconi in introducing it, "an allure due not so much to its goodness as to a subconscious love that's transmitted from generation to generation." Anything that can burrow into the regional psyche, bearing with it the "perfumes of spring," is powerful stuff, and it comes as no surprise that the descendents of Italian immigrants continue to make it in their new homelands. Aironeverde is a regular visitor to the Italian food forum, and recently posted her recipe; as usually happens on forums a couple of other people chimed in.

Her recipe:

This is approximately the way I made Pastiera di Grano (Easter wheat pie)

  • Hulled wheat grains (or one-pound can of presoaked wheat)*
  • 1 1/2 lbs. of the best quality whole-milk ricotta you can find
  • 6 eggs (You will use 6 yolks and 4 whites.)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • One teaspoon salt
  • About 1/2 cup finely diced candied orange rind (the best quality you can find)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup finely diced candied citron (the best quality you can find)
  • About 1/4 cup finely diced candied lemon peel (the best quality you can find) (Substitute this for some of the citron if you can find it.)
  • 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons orange flower water*
  • 2 or more teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons oil of orange peel*
  • A very small drop of oil of lemon peel*

Crust--Follow recipes for "pasta frolla" or use commercial graham cracker crust, which is absolutely not authentic, but tastes good with the filling. See note.*

To start preparing the wheat, boil the hulled wheat grains in water until the grains burst open.

Add more water and a little salt and boil covered for about 45 minutes. Then set it aside for about two hours. (If you use unhulled hard wheat, the steps are the same, but everything will take much longer, i.e. more than an hour boiling, and overnight soaking).

Drain the soaked wheat. Measure about two cups (or a little more), which will probably be a little over a pound, or squeeze out excess liquid and use about a pound or 1 1/4 pounds. Or, if you are not preparing your own wheat from scratch, open your one-pound can of pre-soaked wheat.

Boil 1/2 cup of milk, add a little sugar, and cook the wheat in this for a few minutes. Add a little salt.

Add the candied orange, citron and lemon peel and the orange peel oil (and optional lemon peel oil) to the wheat. Set aside or refrigerate to cool.

Prepare filling as follows. Mix 1 1/2 lbs. ricotta with 1 1/2 cups sugar until uniformly mixed. Add the orange flower water, vanilla extract and cinnamon and mix well.

Beat separately 6 egg yolks and 4 egg whites. (The whites should be beaten until very light and high.) Mix the yolks into the ricotta mixture. Mix the whites into the wheat mixture. Then mix the two parts of the filling together and blend evenly.

Spoon the filling into the graham pie crusts. This filling recipe is enough to fill one large, one medium and three mini commercial pie shells.

Bake in preheated 350 F. oven until the filling is medium tan (probably more than a hour).
Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.

Quantities for the flavorings are approximate and can be adjusted according to taste.

* Re: ingredients.
The wheat grains may be available from Italian specialty food stores, especially around Easter time and in early December. They may also be available from "whole" or natural foods stores, but try to get the hulled wheat; unhulled wheat can also be used, but it requires a much longer soaking period in order to soften it. If you get unhulled, get "spring wheat," which is softer. The canned wheat is usually available from Italian specialty food stores around Easter time, and though it looks bad when it comes out of the can, it works quite well. Orange and lemon peel oils are available in Boyajian brand from many stores specializing in "gourmet" cooking ingredients and from some mail order cooking and baking supply catalogues. Orange flower water is essential to this recipe; nothing can substitute for it. You can generally find it in "gourmet" food stores, Italian specialty food stores, middle eastern and north African grocery stores, and some old-fashioned toiletries shops like Caswell-Massey and Crabtree and Evelyn.

The authentic sweet crust for this Easter specialty of Naples is called pasta frolla; it is not at all like graham cracker crusts. If you would like to make an authentic pastiera di grano napoletana, you can find recipes for pasta frolla in cookbooks containing traditional recipes of southern Italy. The filling recipe above will be very good with either the authentic pasta frolla or the graham cracker crust. Do not use standard pie crusts normally used for American fruit pies. They do not go well with this filling at all because they are too salty and tough.

Blue Moon, another forum regular, chimed in with,
This does sound VERY good...Here I go being me...I'd (that's me) have to add about 1 tablespoon rose water along with the orange blossom water.

You can find food grade rose water along-side the orange blossom water. If anyone has a hard time finding an Italian specialty store for any of these wheat berries...try your local healthfood store(s). I usually find a variety of wheat bulk(by the pound)...summer, winter, hulled, unhulled, ancient varieties, spelt, you name it, etc...

Good luck and Happy Easter to all!

I thank them both, and with regards to a pasta frolla recipe, suggest Artusi's which you will find here. And a traditional Neapolitan pastiera recipe, if you're curious.

While we're on the subject of Easter, one more lamb recipe:

Agnello Coi Carciofi, Lamb With Artichokes
Artichokes and lamb go hand-in-hand, with the bitterness of the former nicely balancing the richness of the latter, and at this time of year the markets are full of both. To serve 4:
  • 2 1/4 pounds (1 k) boned lamb, cubed
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 artichokesù3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4/5 cup (200 ml) dry white wine
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • The juice of 2 lemons
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a saucepot large enough to contain the lamb, add the garlic, and cook until it is golden but not brown. Add the cubed lamb and brown it over a brisk flame for 5 minutes, stirring the pieces to color all sides. Add the wine, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare the artichokes by trimming the stems and removing the tough outer leaves (you'll find detailed instructions here). Cut the cleaned artichokes in half from top to bottom, and scoop out any fuzz you may find in the artichoke hearts. Sliver the artichokes lengthwise (figure 6-8 slices per half) and put the pieces in a bowl of water acidified with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice to keep them from discoloring.

When you are done slicing, add the slivered artichokes to the lamb and continue cooking for another half hour, adding a little water of the pot looks to be drying out. At some point check seasoning.

In the meantime, beat the eggs with the remaining lemon juice to form an emulsion. Lemon. When the meat is done, turn off the burner and pour the egg-and-lemon emulsion over it, stirring carefully to evenly distribute the sauce, which will thicken thanks to the heat of the meat. Serve at once.

A wine? I'd be tempted by a white because reds and artichokes rarely work. Perhaps a Falanghina.

Election Talk

Winding down, Italy is also in the grips of election fever, and the candidates of both sides are doing their best to garner votes. A few days ago Former Prime Minister Berlusconi, head of the center-right coalition, was participating at a question-and-answer session, where a young woman asked what Mr. Berlusconi's coalition would do for those who are unable to find stable employment, and thus qualify for a mortgage and begin a family. "I suggest you marry someone rich who doesn't have those problems, like my son," replied Mr. Berlusconi, adding, "with a smile like yours you certainly can."

As you might expect, the left hooted and hollered, while at least one site posted a declaration of marriage for people to compile and send (registered mail) to Mr. Berlusconi's sons. However, Mr. Berlusconi is known for this sort of comment, and most people simply shook their heads, while the young lady in question said she got a laugh out of it. She also said she would cast her vote for him, while the left offered her a candidacy in Rome, which she has declined.

This time's proverb is Calabrese: 'U ciucciu all'irtu e l'omu allo perrùpu -- One measures the strength of a mule on a hill, and that of a man in difficult times.

Until next time,

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

PS -- Please forward this to anyone you think would enjoy it! If you would like to read past issues (nothing in them really gets stale), you'll find recent ones at Cosa Bolle.Com,, and older ones at

Friday, March 07, 2008

Felice Otto Marzo and More: Being the 145th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings, and the happiest of March 8ths to all who celebrate International Woman's Day.

Not familiar with it? Like many other days set aside to celebrate the rights of workers, its origins are American: At the turn of the last century women were entering the workforce in record numbers in the United States, and began to agitate for better working conditions and pay, as well as the vote. In 1908 the Socialist women of the US held demonstrations for improved working condition, better pay, and suffrage on February 28. On February 28 1909 several thousand women turned out in Manhattan, and during the same winter the women working in the sweatshops struck for better conditions and pay, with the support of the Woman's Trade Union, which provided bail money and food.

American women continued to observe February 28 as Woman's Day, while in 1910 the delegates of the Socialist International Meeting in Copenhagen voted unanimously to establish an International Women's Day, without setting a specific date.

So in 1911 the women of Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland demonstrated on March 19, and it is estimated that more than a million people participated. A week later, on March 25, in Manhattan the Triangle fire claimed the lives of more than 140 workers, mostly immigrant girls -- there was only one fire escape for the hundreds of people trapped in the burning floors -- and the newspaper accounts led to calls for reform, while tying the fire to the struggle for women's rights in popular imagery. (For more information, including heart-rending newspaper accounts, see

Yearly demonstrations continued, becoming associated with the peace movements that formed as a response to the gathering clouds of war in Europe; in particular, Russian women settled on February 28 as the day for their demonstrations. And continued to demonstrate during the war; despite opposition from other activists, on the last Sunday of February -- the 23rd -- 1917 they went on strike to protest conditions at home and the more than 2 million war dead. They called for "bread and peace," and four days later the Czar capitulated; one of the first things the provisional government did was grant women the right to vote. The date, February 23 on the Julian calendar then used in Russia, was March 8 in the Gregorian calendar used elsewhere, and that's why International Woman's Day is March 8.

In Italy it's an occasion for meetings, talks, and demonstrations, and men traditionally give women a sprig of mimosa, with its bright yellow blossoms, to mark the occasion.

Again, happy March 8 to all who celebrate it!

Returning to Cosa Bolle, the most recent addition to The Italian Wine Review is a look at Marsala, a wine that once launched ships, and was enjoyed by kings, but then fell into a long, agonizing decline from which it has never really emerged. But even within this depressing picture there are punti di eccellenza, points of excellence, and if you happen upon a bottle of Marsala made the way they used to make it, it will open your eyes to a world well worth exploring.

The most recent addition to Italian Cuisine is instead a look at "Italian Seasonings," those jars of seasoning mix one can find in supermarkets outside of Italy: A reader wrote asking me why I didn't give a recipe, and I replied because it had never occurred to me -- Italy is so regional that almost everyone here would find fault with something labeled "Italian Seasonings," either because it lacked lack an ingredient they considered absolutely essential, or because it contained something they considered superfluous. If you have a recipe, please share, I said, and so far three people have, one giving a mix that can be turned into a sauce for boiled meats, one a seasoned salt, and another a rub. You'll find them here, and if you have a recipe you'd like to share I'll be happy to add it.

Lamb For Easter
Winding down -- this is a short issue -- Easter comes unusually early this year, on March 23. In the Italian Easter dinner lamb plays the same role turkey holds in the American Thanksgiving dinner -- the celebrations wouldn't be quite the same without it. With this in mind, here are a couple of lamb recipes:

Agnello Con Finocchi e Patate - Lamb with Potatoes and Fennel
This is an old, and very simple recipe from the Abruzzo, and also quite delicate; fennel adds a delightful hint of anise freshness to the dish, while the oloves also contribute. To serve 6:
  • 2 1/2 pounds (1.2 k) boned lamb, cut into pieces
  • 2/5 cup olive oil
  • 1 pound (450 g) potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) bulb fennel, cubed
  • A bay leaf
  • 2 cloves, crushed
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) pitted green olives
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil in a broad pot (terracotta if you have it), add the lamb, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring the pieces about to brown them on all sides. Add the diced potatoes and fennel and the olives, together with the bay leaf and the cloves, and mix well, cover, and simmer until the meat and the potatoes are fork tender. After a bit, check seasoning.

Liquid? Fennel gives off quite a bit of water as it cooks, but should the pot look to be drying out, add a little boiling water to keep things from sticking and burning.

A wine? Red, and I would go with a Montepulciano D'Abruzzo.

Coscia Prena - Stuffed Leg of Lamb
It's difficult to overstate the importance of shepherding in the Sardinian economy, even now that the island is a magnet for tourists who flock to the coastal towns -- inland it's just as dry and barren as it ever was, and the animals that thrive best are sheep. Hence Sardinia's renowned pecorino cheese (they make both pecorino sardo and the saltier pecorino romano), Sardinian wool (my father collected Sardinian rugs), and -- of course -- lamb. Here we have a leg, stuffed. To serve 6:
  • A leg of lamb, weighing about 4 1/2 pounds (2 k)
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) minced lamb
  • 1/4 pound (110 g) fresh mild sausage, casing removed and crumbled
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/3 cup (50 g) dry bread crumbs
  • 1 2/3 pounds (750 g) plum tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and chopped -- canned tomatoes will also work
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • A small bunch parsley, minced
  • A medium onion, peeled and minced
  • 2/5 cup (100 ml) olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Butcher's twine
Bone the leg of lamb, working carefully to obtain a single piece of meat you can flatten out.

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan or Dutch oven large enough to contain the leg of lamb and sauté the minced garlic, parsley and onion until the onion is a translucent gold. Remove the mixture from the saucepan to a bowl with a slotted spoon, leaving the pan drippings behind. When the onion mixture has cooled, work into it the minced lamb, sausage, eggs, and bread crumbs. Work the mixture until it is homogeneous and season it to taste with salt and pepper. Spread the mixture over the inner side of the leg of lamb. Roll the leg up tightly and tie it with the twine lest the stuffing escape as the meat cooks.

Reheat the pan drippings in the saucepan and brown the meat, turning it to get all sides. Add the tomatoes, crumbling them between your fingers, add enough water to reach part-way up the sides of the pot, and simmer everything gently for at east an hour, until the meat is quite tender.

When the meat is done, remove it from the pot. Remove and discard the string, and slice the leg, arranging the pieces on a warmed platter. Spoon the sauce over it and serve at once. A wine? Red, and Canonau would be quite nice here.

Variations: Some people use cured lard instead of sausage, and you can also use coarsely ground semolina instead of bread crumbs.

Capretto alla Cacciatora - Kid Cacciatora Style
There are many recipes for things alla cacciatora, which refers to a seasoning mix containing garlic, rosemary, and (usually) vinegar. In this recipe from Trentino Alto Adige we have lemon juice instead. Though it calls for kid, you could also use lamb. To serve 6:

  • 2 1/2 pounds (1.2 k ) kid or lamb, cubed
  • 1/4 pound (110 g) cured lard, ground (you could also use fatty pancetta)
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 glasses (about 1 3/4 cups) dry white wine
  • A bay leaf
  • Several leaves fresh sage
  • A 6-inch (15 cm) sprig fresh rosemary
  • The grated zest of an organically grown lemon, and its juice too
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat your oven to 400 F (200 C)

Heat the oil and butter in a casserole large enough to hold the meat and brown the meat with the pancetta and the shallots. As soon as the meat has browned, sprinkle some of the wine over it and add the herbs. Mix well and transfer the casserole to the oven.

Cook the meat until it is fork-tender, at least an hour, turning the pieces occasionally and sprinkling more wine over them as what's in the pot evaporates; if you finish it all use water.
When the meat is just shy of being done, sprinkle the lemon zest and juice over it. Mix well, and serve.

A wine? Red, and I would be tempted by a Lagrein Riserva here.

One thing: The cooking times of these recipes may strike you as long, if you are used to rare lamb. Italians as a rule prefer their lamb well done -- my father-in-law would return it to the pot or oven if he saw blood -- and a couple of people have written to tell me that they had never liked lamb, until they had it well done.

This time's proverb is Ligurian: L'é megio ese invidiae che compatï - Better people envy you than feel sorry for you.

A presto,

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
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