La Dolce Vita isn't So Dolce Now
Italians have been saying for a while that their purchasing power has been eroding, and the recent jump in gasoline and (to an even greater degree) diesel fuel certainly haven't helped matters at all. In case you were wondering, regular diesel fuel, which used to me significantly cheaper than gasoline, has now caught up -- they're both about 1.50 -- while high test diesel has surged to 1.55 or so. That's Euros/liter and at the present anemic exchange rate that comes out to about 9 Dollars and 60 cents per gallon (of which 70% is tax). It takes about 15 more Euros to fill the tank than it did a few months ago, and people are driving less, while those who must use fuel to work are getting hammered. Truckers, obviously, but also fishing fleets, many of which are wondering if it's worth even heading out of port. We haven't had any of the demonstrations of the sort the British have had (truckers tied up London the other day), but we may.
And faced with mounting energy costs -- Italian generators use a mixture of oil and gas, which is also going up -- there have been calls to overturn the ban on nuclear power that was enacted after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and the government has announced it intends to start building new reactors within 5 years. To those who object that reactors aren't safe and Italians voted against them the Government replies that we're surrounded by them anyway, so we're already at risk.
A comedian said the other day (on a primetime news show with many politicians present) that it's true, other European countries do have reactors, but how can one expect a country that can't even manage its garbage -- look at what is happening in Naples and Campania, where the problems are getting worse, not better -- to manage nuclear power plants?
The guy has a point, but there are more serious reservations regarding nuclear power plants in Italy. First of all, where would one put one? Much of the country is an earthquake waiting to happen (Messina in 1908, Irpinia and Friuli Venezia Giulia in the 80s, Assisi and much of the rest of Umbria 5 years ago…), and putting a reactor near a major, active fault is not the textbook way. The second problem is, how does one cool the thing? Italy doesn't have much readily available water -- a couple of major rivers in the north, but even they are quite seasonal, with the flow slowing to a trickle in the summer, and their water is already fought over by agriculture, industry, and municipal water supplies. Adding nuclear plants to the existing plants would further strain the supplies at a time that rainfall is decreasing as climatic zones migrate north (at a rate of about 10 km/year). One could, I suppose, use sea water, but again one would have to find a coastal site that's stable. And finally, there's the problem of nuclear waste: a treatment facility, with storage areas and such, is not the sort of thing one can put on a mountain side, and since almost every flat-lying area of Italy is densely populated there will be ferocious protests no matter where they decide to treat the waste.
The Albanians have offered to host Italian nuclear reactors on their soil, and somehow that doesn't strike me as quite right either. We will see how this plays out.
And returning to La Dolce Vita, ISTAT, the Government statistics office, announced the other day that Italian salaries, which were once relatively high by European standards, have decreased by 13% with respect to the average in the EEU over the past 7 years.
The average salary in Italy is now 2300 Euros/month, while the median is lower, 1900. Considering that the purchasing power of a Euro is about the same as that of a Dollar, this means that lots of people are living on Not Very Much, and it comes as little surprise that ISTAT also announced that 60% (nationally, percentages vary regionally) of families say they're very careful about what they spend, another 20% of have a hard time making it to the end of the month, and another 15% say they run out before payday. In addition, 28% say they would be unable to weather an unexpected expense of 600 Euros, while 66% say they're not saving at all.
Difficult times, and we will see how they play out. The one remedy everyone is invoking is tax cuts, and considering that the Italian tax bite is more than 40%, it would be nice if they were to come down some. Especially since inflation has climbed to an official rate of 3.6%, the highest in 6 years, with food rising as much as energy.
Moving in a very different direction, a couple of years ago I watched Chef Cristoforo, of Impruneta's Albergo Ristorante Bellavista make peposo, the peppery beef stew the tile makers of Impruneta used to cook in their kilns, and that Brunelleschi, the architect who built the octagonal dome of Florence's Cathedral, fell in love with. Chef Cristoforo's peposo regularly wins Impruneta's peposo cookoff, and it is very good. However, his recipe is modern, with tomatoes Brunelleschi would not have encountered, as he lived before 1492.
Chef Alessio Pesucci, of the Locanda del Gallo in nearby Chiocchio chooses to follow the older traditions, with equally good though different results. He also uses a different meat, boned beef shank (what is ossobucco if it's cut crosswise with the bone, from a smaller animal), and cooks it for hours to allow the gristle to soften and produce a delightfully satiny texture. Finally, he uses considerably less ground pepper than Chef Cristoforo, 5 grams per kilo of meat (this is about 2 teaspoons per kilo, or a little less than a teaspoon per pound).
I watched Alessio make his peposo in the course of a cooking lesson, and his quantities are more substantial: in theory the recipe will serve 10, though if your diners are hearty the most it will feed is 5-6, because they will demand seconds. This recipe works best if made a day ahead and reheated come serving time, because the flavors have more time to meld.
- 7 1/4 pounds (3.2 k) boned beef shank
- 6 teaspoons (15 g) freshly ground black pepper
- 1 ounce (about half a head) of garlic, peeled and chopped
- 1 1/2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt
- 2 bottles Chianti (other tannic dry reds will work)
- 6 bay leaves
- Finely sliced Tuscan bread, toasted
When the time is up, let the meat cool and remove it to a bowl, leaving the liquid in the pot. Cover the meat and refrigerate both the meat and the liquid in the pot (you could put the liquid in a second bowl to save space if need be). The next morning a layer of congealed fat will have risen to cover the surface of the liquid. Remove it and discard it, and return both the liquid and the meat to the pot to reheat it before serving it.
The standard Tuscan way to serve peposo is with slices of toasted bread, and Alessio also adds pears simmered in white wine. For the above peposo you'll need:
- 1 1/8 pounds firm pears, quartered and cored
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons dry white wine
The contrast with the peposo is quite pleasant.
Another way to serve peposo would be with polenta.
A final note: Alessio says not to use more than a teaspoon of ground pepper per pound of meat. This yields a mild, flavorful peposo that my father-in-law would enjoy (he had a hard time with Cristoforo's). If you're more of a chilihead, feel free to increase the ground black pepper, though I would hesitate to more than triple it. And for another interesting effect, you could use a mixture of ground pepper and whole peppercorns, which have more spice and less heat.
This time's proverb is Sardinian: Prestu e bene no andant mai bene - "Quickly" and "well" never go well together.
Until next time,
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
Want to comment? Drop me a line at Kyle@cosabolle.com
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