Friday, May 30, 2008

Hard Times, Peposo Revisited and More: Being the 151st issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! I've just added my tasting notes for the Chianti Classico Anteprima to the Italian wine review. On Italian food I have instead added a few recipes, but nothing major or noteworthy.

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.

Alessio's Peposo
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
Cube the meat into fairly large pieces, a couple of ounces each. Put them in a pot with the pepper, garlic, and salt, and heat over a medium flame, turning occasionally, until the meat has browned and almost all the water it gives off upon being heated has been reabsorbed -- for this volume of meat figure close to an hour. Add enough wine to submerge the meat by an inch (2.5 cm) or so; if the wine is not enough add warm water or broth -- Alessio used vegetable, but meat will work, as will unsalted bouillon. Add the bay leaves, cover, and simmer over a very gentle flame for at least 4 hours, giving the pot a stir every now and then.

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
Put the pears in a pot, sprinkle the wine and lemon juice over them, add a little warm water, and cook them over a medium flame for 5 minutes.

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,

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, May 19, 2008

Italian Immigrant Cooking, Football (Soccer) and More: Being the 150th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings, and I'm sorry to (again) be late with this: last week I was in Alba for Alba Wines, the annual Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero presentation. Since it is news, a few quick thoughts about the vintages:

Roero was the 2005, and presented us with little to go on, because the appellation has just achieved DOCG status, and many producers have decided to hold off until next year when they can put fascette (the pink or green -- depending upon the color of the wine -- paper strips affixed to the necks of DOCG bottles) on their bottles. In all there were 11 Roero samples ranging in style from fairly traditional to decidedly modern. Some were good and others less so, but I'd want more samples before I tried to conclude much about the vintage because the variations could producer-related.

We had more than 50 2005 Barbareschi, and this is a sufficient number to draw some conclusions. I came away with the impression that 2005 in Piemonte was similar to 2005 in Tuscany: a chiazze di leopardo, in other words like a leopard's spots, with location having a much greater impact on quality than it does in some years.

In particular, though I did find some good wines from the Communes of Barbaresco and Neive, many were lacking in fruit and acidity, with oak stepping in to provide direction, fullness and structure in a way that wouldn't be necessary in a richer vintage, and I found myself wondering if the conditions had been as cool and wet in these two communes during the summer of 2005 as they were in my neck of Chianti. As is often the case under these sorts of conditions, producers who tried to make Important Wines (including many top producers who are usually quite dependable) were less successful than those who accepted the hand Nature dealt them and made wines in a lesser-vintage key.

Conditions were better, I think, in the Commune of Treiso. At least the wines were better, with richer fruit and more pleasant acidities that allowed the wood to settle back into the supporting rule that it should play. I confess to feeling quite relieved by the better quality of the Treiso wines, and several colleagues I talked with said the same thing.

Bottom line for the 2005 Barbaresco: It's a vintage to be approached with caution, and the provenance of the wine is much more important than it was, for example, in 2004.

2004 brings us to Barolo.
In one word, impressive, and I found wines worthy of note in all the Communes of the appellation. As was the case with Barbaresco, there were considerable differences from Commune to Commune. The wines of Barolo, which often stumble with respect to the others, were quite nice this time, with lively aggressive wines blessed with considerable acidity, and while they were very unsettled last week, they have the legs to age quite well and do very interesting things with time. I was also pleasantly impressed by the wines of both Verduno and Novello.

The wines of Castilgione Falletto were (I thought) a bit weaker, and there was less that really grabbed and held my interest, though we are to a degree picking nits here.

Monforte also showed less well, with wines that seemed somewhat unsettled, and while this may mean greater power that needs more time to come together, it could also mean that the weather wasn't quite as nice.

Serralunga was also a bit of a surprise for me; the Commune is known for producing the most powerful Barolo, but there were a fair number of wines that were softer, riper and less acidic than I might have expected of a young Barolo, and since 2004 wasn't a vintage plagued by overripening, I can only conclude that this soft ripeness is a conscious stylistic decision on the part of the winemakers. One that I don't agree with, because though the wines are approachable now, I wonder how long they will age and how they will develop given their softness and relatively low acidities.

Finally, La Morra showed very well, especially the wines from L'Annunziata, a vineyard-draped hollow below La Morra. Wines to think about, seek out, and set aside.

Bottom line: I don't often give 90 points at a vintage presentation, especially not to wines that are very young and not really ready yet (if I give a toddler 93 now, what do I give it when it has improved markedly, coming into glorious adulthood a few years from now -- 102?), but I found a number of 2004 Barolos worth 90 points or above already, and with time many of these wines will be spellbinding. A memorable vintage indeed, well worth seeking out, I think many of the wines will age well for decades.

Italian Immigrant Cooking Revisited: Chicken and Other Things

Moving in a very different direction, when I heard Francesco Nardi would be roasting a piglet in a wood-fired oven and that I could take pictures, I jumped at the opportunity, especially when he said they'd also be making focaccia (just posted a series of photos illustrating focaccia, while the piglet is here).

When I drove up to the villa, however, the first thing I saw was a 2-foot in diameter, shallow iron bowl (for want of a better term) sitting on what looked like the legs of a trivet, above a busily burning logwood fire.

"Not mine," Francesco said when I shot him an inquiring glance. "His," and he indicated George (I'm not sure how it's spelled), a Rumanian farmhand who helps Francesco tend to vineyards and olive groves, and lives on the estate with his family. "It's something farmers do in Romania."

Upon closer examination I realized one would have to be a farmer to cook this way, because the disk, which is about a half an inch thick and has serrated teeth, came from an old disk plow, and what looked like a trivet was actually three legs made by sawing up a half-inch thick iron rod and welding the pieces to the underside of the disk.

George had taken a large piece of fresh pork side (what becomes pancetta when cured) and scored it in one direction, making parallel cuts about a half-inch apart and almost all the way down to the rind. He then turned the pork side 90 degrees and cut ti into inch-wide strips, and set the strips on the hot disk, where they began to smoke and give off quite a bit of fat.

While they were rendering, his wife brought out a bowl filled with chicken pieces -- it looked like they had chopped up at least two birds -- that she had liberally seasoned with salt, pepper, and paprika (and perhaps hot pepper -- there were red flakes) and then rolled in coarse corn meal so they would form a crisp crust.

George arranged the chicken pieces in a ring around the disk, leaving the middle free. He then took a cup of lard, dribbled it into the center of the disk, where it formed a pool of hot fat, and when he added a bowl of home-cut fries, I realized why the chicken pieces ringed the middle of the disk.

The coals continued to heat from below, and he used a pair of tongs to turn the pieces, and also to stir the fries around so they cooked evenly. At some point during this phase he removed the strips of pork side, which had curled some, and now resembled strips of zipper teeth, salted them, and set them aside, putting a large piece of turkey where they had been.

Another few minutes, turning the fries occasionally, and when they were done and removed, he shifted the pieces of meat down into the fat to finish up their cooking by frying them. By the time he removed the pieces, about 45 minutes after having set them on the disk, they were a pretty golden brown.

I had never seen anything remotely like this, and though Francesco's sister Francesca, who is a GP, shook her head in horror at the thought of how much cholesterol and fat the Romanian Sunday meal entailed, I found it fascinating, and a testament to human ingenuity: With the simplest of tools -- a fire, tongs, and a shallow steel bowl -- these people had cooked what looked to be a very tasty meal.

This is something most people could not eat every day -- it's a high energy meal that will take quite a bit of exercise to work off, and one's cholesterol count must be able to take a hard shot -- but it is a very interesting example of immigrant cooking, with the tables reversed: Rather than the Italians who traveled elsewhere bringing their recipes with them, here we have people coming to Italy to do things Italians are no longer willing to do, and bringing their dishes and techniques with them.

Want to try this? Unless you have access to old farm machinery and are handy with a welding torch or arc welder I doubt you will be able to duplicate the bowl Geroge cooked with. However, one could achieve something similar with a pair of trivets and two cast iron skillets, one for the pork side and initial chicken cooking, and the other for the lard and potatoes. Something decidedly alternative that will turn heads at your next cookout. And what did they drink with it? Beer.

Fragole al Marsala, o All'Aceto Balsamico
Artery-Hardening Chicken not your thing? We're also in strawberry season, and while Italians generally season (for want of a better term) bowls of strawberries with sugar and either white wine or lemon juice, one can use other things.

Marsala, for example:
1 1/8 pounds (500 g) strawberries, washed, drained, hulled, and quartered
1 1/2 cups (150 g) powdered sugar
1 cup (250 ml) dry Marsala
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Put the strawberries in a bowl, sprinkle the vinegar over them, turn them to coat them well, cover the bowl, and chill it in the refrigerator for an hour.
In the meantime, combine the Marsala and the sugar, and stir until the sugar has completely dissolved.

Sprinkle the Marsala over the strawberries, mix gently, and chill the strawberries for another hour before serving them. Will serve 4.

Or Aceto Balsamico:
1 1/8 pounds (500 g) strawberries, washed, drained, hulled, and quartered
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup (50 g) granulated sugar

Put the strawberries in a bowl, sprinkle the balsamic vinegar over them, mix gently, and chill them for 15 minutes. Gently mix the sugar into them and serve. Will serve 4.

Inter Campioni!
Winding down, the soccer season has come to a close, with Inter Milano winning the championship for the third year in a row, though this time they had to sweat it -- Roma trailed by a point at the beginning of the last game, and was actually Campione Virtuale for an hour, because they scored before Inter did during the last game.

This time's proverb is Neapolitan: A ppava' e a mmuri', quanno cchiù tarde è pussìbbele - Pay, and die, as late as possible.

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, May 02, 2008

Le Concours, Organic Wines and More: Being the 149th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings, and I'm sorry to be late with this: last week I was in Bordeaux for the Concours Mondial De Bruxelles. The latest on the IWR is a vertical of Tedeschi's La Fabriseria Valpolicella Classico Superiore, a most impressive wine. Nothing specifically new on Italian Cooking. However, one of the first things I did when I got home was fire up the pizza oven and bake pizza -- a welcome change of pace after a week of very good, but decidedly elegant French cooking. Our pizza oven came with the house, and indeed was one of the things that attracted me to this house when we were house hunting a few years ago, but if you have a yard they're not difficult to install, and once installed are quite easy to use. For roasting too; I put a some spare ribs on a rack in an oven pan in the mouth of the oven and in the space of an hour they were prefect (how Tuscans do spare ribs).

Le Councours Mondial De Bruxelles
Just got back from the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, one of the most important annual wine compositions, with several thousand wines being poured over the space of a few days, to be judged by about 250 wine people -- journalists, sommeliers and so on. Not that I (or any of the other judges) tasted them all; we were divided into tasting panels consisting of 5 tasters from different countries, and sampled about 50 wines each morning. Blind (i.e. with the labels hidden), and divided into flights that are similar, say Sicilian white Grillo-based IGT wines, Chilean Pinot Noir, or Sauternes; the flights ranged in number (for my panel) from 5 to 18 wines. The sessions lasted about 3 1/2 hours (with a 15 minute break), and went quite smoothly under the direction of Henri Boyer, a French enologist -- unlike some other panels, whose judges had very different tastes, we pretty much saw eye-to-eye on the wines, and as a result returned fairly uniform scores.

The afternoons were instead dedicated to discovering the wine region hosting the Concours; though the organizers are Belgian the event travels, and this year took place in Bordeaux. So white and red Bordeaux before (and during) lunch, and visits to the various parts of the Appellation in the afternoons, followed by more Bordeaux before and with dinner.

Sounds (and is) enjoyable, but it was also a lot of work. Not the tastings, which were straight-forward, and also very important, especially for those of us who live outside the wine-consuming capitals of the world. Why? Wine writers who live in or often visit, say, New York or London, can be fairly certain of encountering -- sooner or later -- just about every wine produced world-wide. On the other hand, there is simply no way a Pinot Noir made north of Niagara Falls, in Canada, is going to reach Florence. But several did reach our tasting panel, and some of them were good. The work came with Bordeaux, which has a very long, complex history, and for those of us who aren't familiar with the region trying to come some sort of understanding in the space of a few days isn't easy. Indeed, what I've mostly learned is that I have a lot more to learn about Bordeaux. One might think that realizing how little one knows isn't much of a result for a trip, but one has to start from somewhere.

So I am greatly indebted to the folks who organized the Concours! To wind down with the Concours (for now), one of the wines that impressed me most at the post-session tastings was a Sauternes:

Chateau De Myrat Sauternes 2002
Liquid gold with brassy gold highlights. Rich bouquet with sweetly botrytized white berry fruit supported by hints of petroleum that add considerable depth and rich underlying acidity; it's one of those wines one can hold a long, long conversation with. Spellbinding. On the palate it's full and rich, with clean botrytized honeydew melon and drippingly ripe yellow peach fruit supported by sweetness and bright apricot acidity that flows into an extremely long finish that gains definition from some greenish savory bitter accents. Beautiful.

This was head-and-shoulders above a flight of more recent Sauternes our panel tasted; those wines were pleasant enough, with the characteristic sweetness that comes from the way botrytis concentrates the sugars in the grapes, but didn't have the Myrat's acidity to keep them on their toes, and therefore came across as much flatter and weaker. As a friend once said, speaking of sweet wines, "Sweetness is easy. Acidity is interesting."

Why I don't Pick Out Organic Wines Per Se
Moving in a slightly different direction, though this is turning out to be a wine-related issue, a friend asked me to keep an eye out for organic wines for her at Vinitaly, because some of the additives non-organic producers use give her problems. I said I would, and then rethought my position for a couple of reasons.

First, what makes a wine organic? That the winemaker not use industrial fertilizers or pesticides, and practice organic farming and winemaking techniques, obviously. I know many people who do, without declaring themselves to be "officially" organic. Why? For a purely practical reason; a friend I talked with at Vinitaly said she and her husband had thought about getting certified because they've always followed organic farming techniques, until an extraordinarily wet spring a few years ago: the first leaves to sprout were infected with peronospera from the time they appeared, and the infection was severe enough that traditional techniques would have been unable to deal with it. Fortunately the weather improved, and though the first leaves remained stunted those that came in subsequently and the fruit were good. However, the prospect of loosing all their production (severe peronospera can do this) scared the daylights out of them, and they decided to forgo certification because doing so allowed them to keep their options open. One can hardly blame them; being organic is great but won't pay the bills in the event of a catastrophic parasite-induced crop failure.

The second problem with being certified organic is more philosophical: this sort of certification is not (at least in Italy, so far as I know) issued by government bodies, but rather by organizations that one joins. While these organizations do establish criteria one must meet to join, and then inspect regularly, the truth of the matter is that the organizations doing the certifying depend upon the dues they collect from those they certify to stay in business, a shady relationship at best. They also depend upon the honesty and diligence of their members; as Carlo Sitizia of Palazzetto Ardi, an organic agriturismo in the Vicentino, points out: The owner takes the inspector around, and can profoundly influence the inspector's report. Also, inspectors aren't there day to day, and this means that someone who decides to bend the rules could easily get away with it.

The other thing Carlo points out, which I hadn't thought of, is that one must keep in mind what the organic certifiers allow. Take sulfites, for example: almost all winemakers add some, because they help keep the bottled wine stable. But there's a big difference between 10 mg/liter and 80 mg/liter, the maximum allowed by one of the organizations Carlo looked into. "80 will give me a blinding headache," he said, as he poured us a glass of Chablis made by a French organic winemaker who adds no sulfites at all. It was quite good, and Carlo wishes he dared follow the man's example, though he doesn't quite dare -- if an untreated wine goes bad it goes bad, and would leave both him and his customers hanging -- so he adds about 10.

The bottom line: Much more wine is organic than one might gather from reading the certifications on wine labels, and some of the best organic wines may not be certified. If I am talking with a winemaker I'll ask if the wines are organic, but given this situation I won't limit myself to wines that are certified organic if I'm in a wine shop.

A Tasty Meringued Fruit Cocktail
Winding down, mangos are not native to Italy, but are much more common than they once were, and cheaper too. This is cool, refreshing, and will be very nice when it's hot out. To serve 2-4 (depending upon the number of glasses you fill):
  • 4 ripe apricots, chilled
  • 1 ripe mango, chilled
  • 1 cup chilled milk
  • A meringue about 3 inches (7 cm) in diameter
  • 4 sprigs mint (optional)
Wash and dry the apricots. Split them and remove the pits. Peel the mango, separate the flesh from the seed, and dice it. Blend the fruit in a mixer, and pour the puree into 4 glasses.

Crumble the meringue into the blender. Add the milk and whir for a few seconds. Pour the milk mixture over the fruit, garnish with the sprigs of mint if you're using them, and serve at once.

This time's proverb is from Lombardia:
S'at vöri cunservr' la to salut, fa no al smurfius: mangia dal tüt - If you want to stay healthy, don't be picky: Eat everything.

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