Friday, January 25, 2008

La Sapienza, Getting to the End Of the Month, and More: Being the 141st issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! This has been a busy but productive week. I've posted my notes for Dolceto & Dolcetto, the annual presentation organized by Dolcetto producers on The Italian Wine Review, at On Italian food I've posted a selection of Dolcetti, and added several recipes.

Addio Romano!
Returning to Cosa Bolle, you may have heard that the Italian government collapsed last night, thanks to a vote of no confidence in the Senate. This wasn't a surprise, and indeed the real miracle in some ways is that Romano Prodi and his government managed to hang on as long as they did with a 3 (I think) seat majority in the Senate.

What will happen now? In theory, new elections, but with the current electoral law, which was passed by the previous government, the outcome could be just as close again, leaving the country almost impossible to govern. The problem is, from what I understand, that whereas in the House the winning coalition automatically gets a set of bonus seats that serve to strengthen the majority, in the Senate it does not. Couple this with a system that allows tiny parties to form and send just a handful of deputies, and maybe one or two senators to Parliament, and you have a recipe for disaster, because all it takes is one little party not getting its wish and stamping its feet, and the whole thing collapses.

This time the foot-stompers were of a party called UDEUR, one of the formations that rose from the ashes of the old Christian Democrats, led by a guy named Clemente Mastella (the Minister of Justice before the scandal brewed up), who was on the one hand upset by the way left-leaning students and professors of La Sapienza, one of Europe's oldest universities, led protests that resulted in the Pope's deciding to back out of an invitation to speak at the opening of the academic year, and on the other because his wife, who is a high-ranking politician in Campania, was arrested along with quite a few of her colleagues for influence peddling.

Incidentally, the first professor to object to Papa Benedetto's going to speak at the opening of La Sapienza has since said he was dismayed by the way others took his message and turned it to suit their needs, some erecting anticlerical barricades and holding sitins, and others wailing about preventive censorship and the insult paid to the Pope. "I don't have anything against the Pope's coming to talk," he said, "but thought that if he came for the inauguration of the Academic Year, his presence would completely overshadow the event. So that's what I said." The sad thing is, he's probably right. Had Benedetto gone, everyone would have focused on him, not the University.

ISTAT: Times Are Tough
The only other thing one can say about the collapse of the government is that it came at a singularly bad time. According to a recent survey by ISTAT, the Government's statistics bureau, half of all Italian families make do with less than 1900 Euros per month (though the Euro is worth more than the Dollar, in terms of purchasing power this is about 1900 Dollars), and 15% -- one out of seven -- run out of cash before payday, while close to 30% say they would be unable to meet an unexpected expense of 600 Euros, say if the car breaks down. Those who run out of cash resort to letting bills slide for a few days (9%), turning off the thermostat (10%), and even fasting (4%) to weather the drought. As you might expect, poverty is not evenly distributed; on average southern families earn 30% less than northern families, and in the south wealth is less evenly distributed.

Education also plays an important role in determining earning capacity; the average Italian family with college graduate breadwinners earns close to 3200 Euros per month, while 50% of the families whose breadwinner began working at the end of the scuola dell'obbligo (reqired schooling, which now includes some high school, though it hasn't always) make do with 1200 or fewer Euros a month. Surviving on 1200 Euros per month is not easy (gasoline, to name one commodity, is about 1.40 Euros/liter, or 8 Dollars/gallon), and because of this in most lower-income families both parents work, while many also depend upon the pensions of the Elder Generation.

And how do people survive? By going into debt; though Italians were once known for being a nation of savers, now 56% are paying for something, or perhaps a number of things, in installments. Mortgages and cars naturally come to mind, but now most everything is sold "a rate" too, from vacations to TV sets, and if you flip through the just about any advertising flyer, especially those from electronics shops, you'll be amazed at the number of things you can take home, and begin to pay for in 6 months or more.

While it is true that wages haven't kept pace with inflation in the recent past, especially in the past couple of years, there are other forces at work as well. Paola Zanuttini, of La Repubblica, took a look at prices considered as a percentage of wages over the past 30 years and came up with some very interesting results. In 1975 the average factory wage for an operio di terzo livello (an experienced worker) was 248,000 Lire (about 415 dollars), and a tank of gas cost 15,000 lire, or about 6% of the monthly wage. Now, with the average factory wage 1121 Euros for an operaio di terzo livello, a tank of gas costs 65 Euros, or about 5.7% of the monthly wage.

Ms. Zanuttini found similar cost-as-percentage-of-wages over the years for a great many things, including records and movies. She also found some declines, for example the cost of a month's supply of pasta, which went from .98% to .25%, and some increases, in particular of cars -- a compact then cost 3 months of salary, and an equivalent model now costs 7 -- and houses, which have skyrocketed.

So why are people now having a harder time than in the past? She thinks, and I think she's right, that people's expectations have changed. 30 years ago most families had one TV set. Now many have one in every room, a satellite hookup, and a computer too, together with an ADSL account. And several cell phones, at least one per person above age 10. Everyone goes to the gym; they didn't 30 years ago. People now buy children's clothes that fit, rather than getting coats long enough to last for 2-3 years, and come the new season buy again both to insure the proper fit and the correct style.

Bottom line, in 1975 there wasn't much money, nor much to buy. Now the money is still tight, but much more stuff is available, and that's when the installments begin.

Winding down, a reader recently asked me for a recipe for crumiri, a classic crescent-shaped cookie from the Monferrato region in Piemonte, made with a combination of flour and finely ground corn meal. To make a batch you'll need:

  • 2 cups (200 g) finely ground corn meal
  • 1 3/4 cups (175 g) unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1/2 pound (220 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature (it should be soft), broken into bits
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • A packet of vanillin or a teaspoon of vanilla extract

Sift the flour onto your work surface with the corn meal. Add the sugar and the vanillin (if you're using vanilla extract add it with the eggs), scoop a well into the mound, and crack the eggs into it. Work everything together quickly, using the tips of your fingers.

Add the butter and continue kneading the dough energetically, until it is smooth, homogenous, and elastic. Shape the dough into a ball, put it in a floured bowl, cover it, and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.

Come time to make the crumiri, preheat your oven to 400 F (200 C).

Take the dough and shape it into a considerable number of snakes the diameter of your little finger and about 4 inches (10 cm) long. Use a fork to flatten them so they are about half as thick as they are wide; the fork will leave longitudinal ridges that are quite distinctive. Next, bend the flattened ropes into the crumiro's characteristic open parenthesis ( shape, and put them on a cookie sheet lined with a piece of oven parchment.

Bake the crumiri for about 20 minutes. Cool them on a rack, and they're ready.

A couple of observations:
  • If the cornmeal is too coarse the texture of the crumiri will suffer.
  • The word crumiro also means strike breaker, i.e. scab.

This time's proverb is from Lucania:
I pariend so' cum lu stuwal: cchiù so stritt' e cchiù t' fann mal.
Relatives are like boots: The tighter (closer) they are, the more they hurt.

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, January 18, 2008

Trash, Bottled Water, and More: Being the 140th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! Another hectic week, and I'll be adding something new to the IWR tomorrow, though if you visit Italian Food, you'll find something on Cavolo Verza, or Savoy cabbage, one of my favorite winter vegetables.

The Garbage Update

The trash troubles continue in Campania, and they offer opportunity for thought and reflection. The Government, faced with the necessity of getting mountains of refuse off the streets, is filling trucks and boats, and sending them elsewhere. The reception elsewhere has been mixed; bands of Sardinians tried to block the port of Cagliari to keep a boat of Campanian trash from docking, and since then two people have been arrested with fire bombs they planned to use upon the house of Renato Soru, President of the Regione Sardegna. If nothing else, Sardinia as a political entity is coming to the assistance of those in need, while Sardinians who disagree with their island's government are being up front with their feelings.

Lombardia has been much more simpering in its handling of the crisis; the Region's President Formigoni said in an interview that he'd be happy to come to Campania's aid, if it weren't for the fact that his region's trash collection is entirely differentiated, and they're simply not set up to handle mounds of undifferentiated stuff, especially not stuff that was set alight by enraged Campanians and put out with fire hoses -- who knows what dangerous chemicals might be lurking in there? An Italian might say, Non Fa Una Grinza -- the reasoning is formally correct, but…

An honest refusal, and there have been those as well, would have been better.

And that’s the situation; the EEU has said Italy must resolve the problem, but exactly how Italy will, especially in the long term, is not clear.

To keep this discussion at least nominally food related, sales of Campanian products have taken a tremendous hit since the story broke. The most obvious victim is Mozzarella di Bufala, probably because the word Campania figures prominently on the packaging; though the Consorzio admits there has been a 15% decrease, some other sources say it's closer to 40. But it's not alone; sales of fruit, vegetables, and even wine are off.

My thoughts?

While the mounds lining the streets are frightening to look at and as such are a PR disaster, I don't think they are responsible for current contamination problems, especially in areas removed from the accumulations. The real problem besetting Campania is its hundreds of undeclared dumps, some operated by the mob, which earns hefty sums for disposing of stuff (from all over Italy, and other parts of Europe as well) without asking any questions, and some that were filled and forgotten before people realized how dangerous dumps can be to the environment. In other words, these are problems that have been long in coming, and are going to require a great deal of thought and resources to solve.

And how do I feel, watching from the outside? At least the Campanians know they have problems. Elsewhere, including Tuscany, people enjoy a sense of false complacency. A number of years ago, I translated a study of Tuscan ground water for a professor at the University of Florence.

The results were disturbing: It turns out that the groundwater is uncontaminated in the steep-sided high mountain valleys, but as soon as the slopes soften enough for cultivation to be practical one begins to find agricultural chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, and animal waste) in the ground water, and when the valleys widen enough to contain towns one also finds urban and industrial contaminants; under Florence, for example, the water is contaminated enough that of one sinks a well one must run what comes out through a purifier of the sort used by the municipal water company before drinking it. Along the Tuscan coast, the problems posed by industrial and urban groundwater contamination are compounded by salt water infiltrations consequent to pumping for irrigation. I'm certain that if one were to look elsewhere, say the Pianura Padana, which is agricultural, heavily settled over large areas, and industrialized, one would find much the same situation.

In short, Campania's problems may be more obvious, but they're not alone.

Acque Minerali: Boon or Bain?

While we're on the subject of water, Italians are known for sneering at what comes from the tap, and considering it much better suited to housework or cooking than drinking. As a result of these feelings there has been a dramatic increase in the country's per capita consumption of bottled mineral water, which went from about 80 liters per person in 1988 to 182 in 2003 (+ 115%), and is by now approaching 200 liters/year -- the highest per capita consumption in the world.

When asked why they drink bottled water, many people reply that they find it lighter than what comes from the tap, and therefore think it's healthier.

Alas, though this is what the advertisers spend terrific sums to convince people of, consumers would have been wrong about the healthier part until recently, and perhaps still are: Until 2005 Parliament considered mineral water to be therapeutic, as opposed to a foodstuff, and therefore tolerated much higher concentrations of many chemicals in mineral water than they did in tap water, for example five times as much arsenic and manganese.

But that's not all: in 2003 a magistrate from Torino ordered mineral water analyses that turned up all sorts of things that would get a municipal water supply shut down, including hydrocarbons, tensioactive compounds (soap) and pesticides.

Rather than order the bottlers, most of whom are owned by multinationals (the brands owned by Nestlé and Danone account for close to 70% of the Italian bottled water market), to clean up their act, the then Minister of Health Girolamo Sirchia relaxed the standards to allow them to continue bottling.

As you might expect, there was considerable outcry on the part of consumer organizations, and the Minister of Health decreed that as of January 1 2005 bottled water should meet the much more stringent standards set for tap water in a law passed in 2001. All of the major bottlers passed the analyses and continue to sell briskly, but everything I have read on consumer sites about bottled water is quite wary in tone, with people wondering what the bottlers did to purify the water they had analyzed, because some substances, for example ozone, can introduce other hazardous compounds as they remove those that are banned.

We drink tap water.

Frittole di Mela, Uvetta, E Frutta Secca

Winding down' we're still in Carnival season, and it's time to enjoy some sweets before the long privations of Lent set in. Fritters are especially popular, and these, made with dried fruit, apples, and raisins, are tasty and a pleasant surprise when you bite into one. You'll need:

  • 2 3/4 cups (275 g) unbleached all purpose flour, plus 2 more tablespoons
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
  • 3/5 cup (150 ml) whole milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 ounces (100 g) raisins
  • 4 ounces (100 g) whole shelled pistachio nuts, chopped
  • 2 baking apples (in Italy one uses renettes, which are pale brown, sweet, and a bit mealy)
  • A shot of brandy
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • An organically grown lemon
  • Olive oil for frying

Put the raisins in a bowl, sprinkle the brandy over them, add warm water to cover, and let them plump for 20 minutes. In the meantime, peel,, core, and quarter the apples. Dice them and sprinkle them with lemon juice.

Grate the zest of the lemon.

Prepare a batter by beating the eggs in a bowl with all but 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and the grated lemon zest. Beat in the flour and the baking powder, followed by the milk and the pistachio nuts.

While doing this, set your oil to heat. Next, drain the raisins well, and dust them with the 2 leftover tablespoons of flour, shaking them about in a strainer to dislodge excess flour. Incorporate them and the chopped apple into the batter.

By now the oil should be hot; drop the batter into it a tablespoon at a time, and fry the fritters until they are golden, turning them about to they brown evenly. Drain them on absorbent paper when they become golden, and when they are cool enough to handle dust them with the remaining sugar.

Well, that's it. Happy Carnevale!

Here's a proverb: E' come un cardo senza sale, far col marito il Carnevale - It's like eating a cardoon without salt, if you celebrate Carnevale with your husband.

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!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Olive Oil, Cotenne and More: Being the 139th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! This has been a hectic week, and I regret to say I haven't added anything to the Italian Wine Review, and only a couple of recipes to Italian Cuisine, though I did update a few things.

Olio Italiano? There are Other Options
Thus we quickly find ourselves with Cosa Bolle, and this means (to start out) olive oil. A couple of years ago I was invited to a conference hosted by the Fattoria di Monte Morello, a major olive oil producer on Monte Morello, northwest of Florence (see The topic was "Are there terroir-related differences in quality oils?" and the result was a surprising no; the extraction technique commonly used has a leveling effect that leads top quality oils to resemble each other, unless a given producer uses very distinctive olives. I perhaps wouldn't have believed the panelists, had the conference not closed with a blind tasting of quality extra virgin olive oils from all over the world. I am not an olive oil taster, and therefore the fact that I was unable to guess the provenance of any of the oils is not surprising. However, a number of the other participants were (a couple worked on one of the major Italian olive oil guides), and none of them were able to place the oils either.

The reason for this anonymity, if one can call it that, is that the cold-pressing technique used to extract extra virgin oils oxidizes the membranes within the olives that trap much of the oil, and as a result the oil too is slightly oxidized, and this masks differences between terroirs and cultivars. There is another technique that doesn't oxidize the membranes, but yields, which are already low with the commercial technique (18% maximum, or a kilo of olives yields at the most 180 grams of oil), become economically unfeasible with the other technique.

Therefore, I concluded, if you go to the store to buy olive oil, you needn't feel you must buy something from the Mediterranean. A well made oil from California or South America can be just as good, and may cost significantly less depending upon where you live.

Among the new producers of olive oil, Chile is attracting a great deal of attention. Though the country has had olive trees since the arrival of the Spaniards, nobody really thought about cultivating them seriously until about 10 years ago, when farmers in the Province of Coquimbo, north of Santiago, started planting olive groves, with high planting densities, on the order of 800 trees per hectare, and employing drip irrigation. The land, says Marco Mugelli, an Italian expert who also spoke at the Morello conference I attended, is quite good, and the farmers, who enjoy the sponsorship of the Chilean Government, are using the best modern techniques to extract the oil.

What's it like? This summer I attended a comparison tasting in Florence: ten extra virgin oils, five Tuscan and five Chilean. It was quite interesting; I found the Tuscan and Chilean oils to be evenly matched, and I wasn't alone -- a number of Tuscan olive oil producers who had come to scope the competition were pulling at their chins by the time we had tasted the last oil.

Bottom line: I was impressed, and all the more so considering that Italians have been making olive oil for millennia, whereas the Chileans started quite recently. They do have, on their side, a lack of traditions that allows them to use the most modern techniques, but even so I would have expected somewhat greater differences considering that the Italian trees have had centuries to adapt to where they live.

It could be that one would find greater differences using the high-quality low-yield extraction technique I mentioned above, but without it the Chilean oils made a most impressive showing, and if you come across one it's well worth considering.

Cotenne: Treats of the Season And a Step Into The Past
Moving in a very different direction, a reader recently asked me for a recipe for cotenne. Cotenne, also known as cotiche, are raw pork rinds, or skins. Before you blanch, some context.

In the past, when most Italian farmers paid the landowners rent to work the land, said rent was in part in cash, but also included a share of the harvest, and as such some meat from the pigs when they were butchered in late fall or early winter (the traditional time for pork butchering in Italy). While the landowner probably didn't get a fresh ham (he might have gotten one after it was cured and became prosciutto), it's a safe bet that his share came from the more noble sections of the animal, say the loin. With famine a constant possibility the farmers couldn't afford to let even the tiniest part of their pigs go to waste, and therefore also came up with all sorts of ways to use the cotenne, or pork skin.

The most common use for pork skins today is in the fillings of cotechini, the classic large pork sausages one simmers for hours and enjoys with lentils on New Year's Day; the sausages derive their name from cotiche, pork rinds, and also their texture, which has a satiny gelatinous feel people either adore or can't stand. I have found there is no middle ground.

However, if you can find fresh pork skin -- I've never seen it in a supermarket in Tuscany; it's one of those things that you have to special order from your butcher -- there are a number of things you can do with it. The easiest is to enhance the texture of a stew; take a strip of cotenna, wash it well, blanch it and scrape it to remove bristles, and then add it to the stew pot. It will impart a rather libidinous feel to the texture; remove it before serving the stew. Here are a few more recipes in which cotenna plays a leading role, and as such offers a glimpse back to when people were of necessity much more frugal than they are now:

Cotechinata is a specialty from Basilicata; true peasant food of a sort that one doesn't encounter often any more. To serve 6 you'll need:
  • 2 1/4 pounds (1 k) fresh pork skin
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup minced parsley
  • 2 fresh hot red peppers, minced
  • 2 tablespoons lard or olive oil
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • Toothpicks
Blanch the skins, scrape off any bristles you see, and cut them into squares between 4 and 6 inches (10-15 cm) per side.

Combine the garlic, parsley, and peppers, and mix well. Spread the mixture over the squares of pork skin and roll them up to make involtini, securing them with toothpicks.

Heat the oil or lard in a skillet large enough for the involtini to lie in a single layer. Brown them, turning them to color all sides, add the tomato sauce, and simmer them covered until the skins are quite soft, at least an hour and more likely two, adding water if need be to keep the pot from drying out. Serve hot with a zesty green, for example broccoli raab, and a bright red wine, for example an Aglianico.

Cotenne e Verdure, Cotenne with Greens, is instead a Sicilian recipe, and again a testament to frugality. To serve 6 you'll need:
  • 2 pounds (900 g) fresh pork skins, flamed to remove bristles
  • An onion, sliced
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup (250 ml) tomato sauce
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) potatoes
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) cabbage leaves (whichever variety you prefer)
  • A pear, cored and diced
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Boil the pork skins in salted water for two hours. When they are cooked, drain them and slice them into thin strips.

Peel and dice the potatoes. Coarsely shred the cabbage.

Sauté the onion in the olive oil in a large saucepan; when it becomes a translucent gold add the tomato sauce and the pork skins. Cover, reduce the heat, and simmer for an hour. Add the potatoes, cabbage, and pear, together with a ladle of hot water. Check seasoning and continue simmering until the potatoes and the cabbage are done. Serve at once with a brisk red wine.

Finally, pork and beans are an old standby, and as you might guess, you can also use pork skins. This recipe for Fagioli con le Cotiche is from Lombardia, and will be a very nice way of keeping winter at bay. To serve 6:
  • 1 1/3 pounds (600 g) fresh pork skins
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) dried borlotti (cranberry beans), soaked overnight
  • An ounce (30 g) of cured lard or fatty pancetta, minced
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 medium onions
  • 2 8-inch (20 cm) ribs celery
  • 2 6-inch (15 cm) carrots
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • A hint of ground spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg)
  • 3/4 cup (200 ml) tomato sauce
  • Ground cayenne pepper to taste (go easy)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
Drain the beans, put them in a pot with cold water to cover abundantly, and boil them until tender, salting them at the end.

In the meantime, flame the pork skins to remove bristles, rub them clean with a cloth, and cut them into thin strips. Put them in a pot with cold water to cover, add an onion, a stick of celery, and a carrot, all coarsely chopped, together with the garlic clove, and set the pot to heat; then it comes to a boil turn the heat down to a simmer.

Mince the remaining onion, celery and carrot and combine them. Heat the butter and oil in a large casserole and sauté the chopped lard until it begins to brown. Add the minced onion mixture and the spices and continue to sauté, stirring, for about 10 minutes.

Drain the beans and add them to the saucepot. Drain the pork skins and add them too, together with the tomato sauce and a ladle of the liquid the rinds cooked in. Mix carefully, cover, and simmer over a low flame for about 40 minutes. Check seasoning and serve at once, with polenta and a bright, fairly acidic red wine, perhaps a Valtellina DOC. Sfursat would be overkill, as would Sassella, but an Inferno or Grumello would be nice.

Winding Down, Naples
I was going to say something about the garbage crisis in the Province of Naples, but I am certain you have seen news reports, and I would simply be rehashing what has already been said. One thing you may not have heard, however, is that the situation isn't much better in much of the rest of Italy. Put simply, the dumps and landfills are filling up, and not enough has been done to transform recycling from a pipe dream into reality.

Planners say the future will revolve around what are called ecoballe, burnable bales made from what is left over after all the recyclables are taken out, but for now everything, including most of the termovalorizzatori where the bales will be burned (producing some energy, one hopes, and as little pollution as possible) is either under construction or in the planning stages. Among the other cities especially at risk are Florence, Torino, Genova, and Rome. It will be interesting to see what happens.

This time's proverb is from Molise: Chi è state muccecate da na serpe, tiè paura de le lucertole, One who has been bitten by a snake fears lizards.

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 them on the IWR site, through

Friday, January 04, 2008

Dozza, Case Basse and More: Being the 138th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! It has been entirely too long since the last issue, and I apologize profusely. Let me begin with belated best wishes for the Holiday Season; I hope and trust everyone had a safe and wonderful time. Next, the latest on the Italian Wine Review is an overview of the 2003 Barolo, which, to be honest, I found wanting: It was a long, very hot summer, and many wines are unbalanced or otherwise suffered the weather. Many, but not all, and this means that when you buy you'll have to select with care. See

Returning to Cosa Bolle, I recently visited Romagna at the invitation of Romagna Terra Del Sangiovese, an organization established to promote Romagna's Sangiovese, and though this sounds obvious it requires explanation: Sangiovese di Romagna is produced over a huge area that extends along the foothills of the Apennines, from San Pietro Terme in the province of Bologna all the way to Rimini, on the Adriatic coast -- a distance of about a hundred kilometers that spans several provinces.

As an appellation, from a promotional standpoint Sangiovese di Romagna is beset by two problems. First, its size: The promotion of an appellation is generally financed by the province that hosts it (for example, the Province of Prato contributes to the promotion of Carmignano). While the provinces where Sangiovese di Romagna is made are happy to promote the wines produced within their borders, they are much less enthusiastic about promoting wines made a province or two away, and therefore the "official" promotion of the appellation is fragmented. Second, Romagna was (and is) the land of wine cooperatives, and until recently the cooperatives paid a flat rate for grapes that encouraged farmers to pay much more attention to quantity than quality. The result was a tremendous volume of plonk labeled Sangiovese di Romagna, and this led those interested in serious Sangiovese to look elsewhere, e.g. Chianti.

Romagna Terre Del Sangiovese was founded by drawing from the four provincial Strade del Vino for the Romagna area to promote the entire Appellation, thus gaining strength from numbers, and also to promote quality wines. In other words, producers can apply, but have to meet a series of standards to be accepted. Thus those who visit the events the association organizes can be certain of enjoying good wines rather than the mass-produced stuff. In addition to promoting the wines, the association promotes other local foodstuffs, for example formaggio di fossa, grotto cheese, which merits another aside:

In the days before refrigeration cheesemaking was the only way to preserve milk, and thus store today's bounty to help survive tomorrow's famine. It was therefore an extremely valuable commodity, and if bandits came raiding, they would take it in addition to whatever other valuables they could find. Therefore the inhabitants of a number of Romagnan towns took to scooping chambers out of the tufo that was the bedrock and lining them with reeds; the families would gather all the cheeses they had made during the summer milking season, put them in burlap sacks (10-15 kilos per sack), fill the chamber with them, and cover the entrance so outsiders wouldn't find it. They'd wait until late fall to reopen the chambers, at which point the cheese would emerge transformed: under the anaerobic conditions it referments, giving off a great deal of oil in the process, becomes crumbly, and acquires a piquant sharpness that many find utterly addictive. What started out as a means for guaranteeing a supply of good cheese during the winter months has become one of Italy's most sought after gourmet cheeses.

And, returning to the reason I began talking about the Romagna Terre Del Sangiovese organization in the first place, it supports travel too.

The second day of our trip began with a visit to Dozza, a walled town in the foothills above Imola that's well worth a quick stop if you're exploring the region. The town, which dates to the time that the Pianura Padana was inhabited by the Gauls (before the arrival of the Romans), was fortified in the 11th century by Bologna because of its strategic position dominating the Via Emilia, and acquired a massive Rocca, or keep, while under the rule of Caterina Sforza (a woman of legendary beauty, courage, and brashness) in the late 1400s; the town subsequently became the fife of Bologna's Malvezzi-Campeggi family, which transformed the interior of the keep into a renaissance palace, while maintaining its ponderous outer structure.

The Rocca is now host to Emilia Romagna's Enoteca Regionale, and boasts a wonderful selection of all the wines produced in the region, everything from Lambrusco through Albana Di Romagna and (of course) Sangiovese di Romagna; you can taste by the glass, and if you like something buy bottles at decidedly promotional prices.

The town is also fun; in 1960 Tommaso Seragnoli, a local artist, suggested they hold a fresco show, with artists painting on the walls, and the town council liked the idea. So did the public, so much that Dozza decided do it again, and since then the Biennale del Muro Dipinto (the Painted Wall Biennale) has become firmly established, with world renowned painters participating. You can see all sorts of things -- I noted Coppi and Bartoli, legendary cyclists of the 40s, riding on the clouds -- and frescos that are especially nice are pulled from the walls to free up space for the next time.

A visit to Dozza will take 2-3 hours, and offers a fine change of pace if you're hiking or heading to the coast. To reach the town, exit the A 14 Autostrada at Castel San Pietro, turn right onto the SP 19, left onto SS 9, and right onto the Strada Provinciale Dozza Imolese (about 11 km from the highway).

A few links:
Dozza's site (in Italian)
Muro Dipinto (the frescos and more)
Romagna Terra del Sangiovese (in Italian)

Gianfranco Soldera and Case Basse: If he's right, where does that put me?

Gianfranco Soldera is a former insurance executive who likes wine. Very much, and in 1972 (long before he retired) he planted a 6 hectare vineyard not far from Montalcino. He based his decision of where to plant on two criteria: exposure, and soil, saying that vines need long hours of direct sunlight to give their best, and without them even the best land isn't fit for winemaking. One of the colleagues I was with asked about the Alto Adige: "With all those mountains providing shade?" He shrugged and shook his head.

Assuming the exposure is good and provides sufficient light, there's the soil: It should be infertile, with deep natural drainage that allows the vines to send their roots down for many meters and draw up minerals from the rocks with what water they find. It takes nature millions of years to create the optimal cconditions, he says, adding that if one improves vineyard drainage by artificial means one ruins everything. Or, to be more succinct, "Some land is good for vines, and some is best suited to potatoes."

Backtracking slightly, the first Brunello Mr. Soldera released caused a tremendous stir, and he quickly attained a legendary status among wine lovers and critics. Some people revel in attention, while others would rather be left alone, and when I drove up to his door unannounced a number of years ago, he had no interest in seeing me. But he has since begun writing for Andrea Cappelli, a friend and colleague who plays a major role in a magazine called Il Chianti e le Terre del Vino, and invited a number of us to come visit.

It was quite interesting; and also a bit humbling; he doesn't think much of most wine, saying that of the billions of bottles produced every year there are about 50,000 he'd care to drink -- his own, some Barolo, a little bit of Champagne, and he didn't say what else. The appellation system that has governed European wine production is falling apart, he says (correctly, alas), thanks to EEU provisions that will open the appellations, allowing large scale industrial producers much more freedom in moving and bottling wines, and he feels that the buyers for mass market wine sales (supermarkets and so on) have driven wholesale prices -- what the wineries get -- down through the floor. For example, he quoted a major Brunello producer who said, at a meeting, that buyers won't pay more than 3 Euros for a bottle of Brunello. If you consider retail prices you realize there are terrific margins to be had in the wine trade, and with that much money to be made he says the possibility of shady dealing is quite real.

Nor does he much trust producer's associations (such as Appellations, which depend upon member wineries for their survival), because the people working in them end up becoming both enforcers and enforcees, and this is an invitation to mischief. He thinks pretty much the same thing about the wine press -- journalists depend upon wineries for samples, press trips, and often double as PR people, while magazines derive much of their advertising budget from the wine world, and this all leads to a group of people very unwilling to bite the hands that are feeding them. Actually, he went further, saying that much of wine journalism is fraudulent.

Nor does he supply samples; he says that for a tasting to be truly representative a journalist should buy three bottles of a given wine from three different stores, and compare them. Only then can one be certain of getting what the public gets. My reaction? He is of course correct, and though few speak publically about the matter, we all have heard stories about special casks being selected to provide samples from. If one can afford to do what Mr. Soldera advocates one sidesteps the problem, but I cannot. So I ask for samples, and if possible pick them at random from the winery's storage bins.

The other bone he has with the wine press is the influence wine writers exert on consumer tastes. Wine drinkers should, he says, buy wines, taste them, and decide what they like or don't. I definitely agree; a great many consumers are overly influenced by wine writers, and I recall a friend who owns a wine shop telling me about a client who had tried something new, liked it, and bought a case: The man returned a month later with the case less a bottle, saying he only drank 90-point wines and Parker had given this particular wine an 89. The guy was allowing the wine press to second-guess his own palate, and that's a shame. Alas, few consumers can taste the range of wines wine writers have access to, so I think Mr. Soldera's advice that one go it completely alone is impractical.

Having talked for a while, we toured Case Basse, which is also known for Mrs. Soldera's botanical garden; she's as devoted to horticulture as he is to wine, and it's one of the richest and most varied in central Italy, with plants from all over the world ("flowers with white blossoms" -- a large area of the garden -- "are important because they attract nocturnal pollinators").

Cultivation at Case Basse, as one might expect, is completely organic -- the only chemicals they use are copper and sulfur -- and when you step from the garden to the vineyards, you'll note that the poles from which the wires supporting the vines are strung are dotted with bat and bird houses: More natural pest control.

The winery is a newly completed structure, made with stone and steel but no cement, because Mr. Soldera thinks cement is bad for wine. Once the grapes reach the winery he destems them, but doesn't press them -- "if you see a press in a winery, go elsewhere" -- rather, his staff picks through them to remove all imperfect grapes, and the whole grapes that pass muster go directly into fermentatori troncoconici, vertical oak fermentation tanks. Temperature control? None; he actually wants high temperatures, because he says that some aromas aren't released unless the must reaches 37 C (about 99 F). He does of course hope that the must won't overheat (one year it reached 38.8 C), but adds that those who don't take risks don't win. Lack of temperature control doesn't mean the must just sits; he pumps it over the cap three times a day for 90 minutes each time. And then racks the wine into botti (large casks, one per vintage), which are in a rock-lined chamber where the temperature ranges from 10-14 C and the humidity stays at 85%.

How long in cask? 5-6 years, until he, his wife, and Giulio Gambelli, the Grand Old Man of Tuscan winemaking, think it's ready. No filtration, no clarification, and the barest minimum of sulfites for stability. Capsules made from aluminum because he doesn't want lead near his wine, and indeed he said he only uses lead-free glassware because lead has an adverse effect upon the wine it comes in contact with.

"Tannins and alcohol preserve," he said, as he drew from the botte containing the 2007 vintage, "but they must be harmonious. If the tannins are rough, the grapes weren't good."

The 2007 was frankly impressive, though it was only a couple of months old. Freshly made wines are usually clearly babes going in many different directions at once, but Mr. Soldera's Brunello already displayed great harmony, balance, and finesse; though he does things nobody else does (e.g. the high temperatures in vertical wooden tanks) it clearly works.

The 2006 again displays beautiful balance and great finesse; it's very clean, and also very, very long. It will be spectacular.

The 2005 is a bit weaker than the 2006, and a bit more vegetal on the nose, with hints of balsam and tobacco as well. But nice structure and very fresh.

The 2004: Great richness coupled with fantastic berry fruit on the nose, with peppery notes from grapes. Spellbinding fruit on the palate too, and it will be very long lived.

"Never write it down. Remember it," he says as I take notes and he pours the 2003:
It's richer on the nose than the others, with jammy notes that came from the hot summer blended into the fruit, but they are balanced by minerality and don't distract. Palate full, rich, and with great finesse.

The 2002: He will have 6000 bottles when he decides to bottle it; it's lively ruby but paler than the previous years, and has a more greenish nose with vegetal accents, while the palate is elegant and lively with clean acidity and great finesse, and is by far the best 2002 Brunello I've tasted.

As we emerge from the cellar, we note that he uncovers the grafts between vine and rootstock (grape vines are almost always grafted onto American rootstock, which is resistant to the American phylloxera bug that wiped out European vineyards in the late 1800s) -- so the cold will kill parasites. Most people cover them up, and this is another example of how he does things differently.

At lunch we enjoyed his 2000 Brunello Riserva: Lively ruby, and with a very fresh nose that has berry fruit mingled with minerality and some floral accents -- beautiful balance and extraordinary harmony. On the palate it displays extraordinary finesse with rich mineral laced fruit supported by warm savory tannins, while lively acidity provides direction and it all flows into a clean savory finish. Harmony and finesse in a glass, an impressive display of depth and balance that is very pleasant to drink now despite its obvious youth, and that will age beautifully for decades.

Taken as a group, Mr. Soldera's wines are harmonious, but also bright: They have a lively acidity to them that keeps them very much on their toes, rather like a ballet dancer who effortlessly makes steps that would be almost impossible for anyone else seem easy. If you're inclined to the seductive elegance of the International style, for example Ornellaia, you'll find Case Basse an eye-opening change of pace, with much more brash aggressiveness, but after the second sip you'll find yourself cocking an ear to what's in the glass, because it has many stories to tell.

Bottom line: I very much enjoyed Case Basse, and hope Mr. Soldera won't be too offended if I say they reminded me of the Barolo Bartolo Mascarello poured for us when I went to visit him with several other colleagues a few years ago: it was a 1982, and had the same brightness and depth.

Winding down, Lent comes early this year (Ash Wednesday is February 6), and it therefore is already time to begin celebrating Carnevale. These Turtlitt are treats from Romagna. To make enough for about 10 people, you'll need:

The Dough:
10 cups (1 k) flour
4 eggs
3/4 cup (150 g) sugar
1/2 cup (100 g) unsalted butter, reduced to bits
Abundant oil or lard for frying
The Filling:
4 ounces (100 g) amaretti (crunchy almond macaroons), finely crumbled
1 1/8 pound (500 g) mustarda, chopped into bits -- a jar, and see note below
A small glass of rum
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
Confectioner's sugar for dusting

Make a mound of the flour on your work surface, and scoop a well in the middle. Fill the well with the eggs, sugar, and bits of butter, and work the mixture until you have a smooth homogeneous dough.

In a bowl, combine the finely crumbled amaretti with the chopped mostarda, rum, and chocolate. Mix well, until you obtain a soft, but firm mixture.

Roll the dough out to a thickness of 3/4 inch (2 cm), and cut the sheet into strips about 2 fingers wide. Put a teaspoon of the filling about an inch from the end of each strip, and fold the ends over to cover the filling. Cut the filled bits free with a serrated pastry wheel, tamp them down to seal in the filling, and repeat the process until you have finished dough and filling. Fry the turtlitt in hot oil until golden, drain them well on absorbent paper, and dust them with confectioner's sugar.

The note about Mostarda: It's candied fruit in a syrup that gains considerable kick from mustard oil. You could substitute for it by stirring a couple of teaspoons of powdered mustard seed into a sweet syrup along the lines of corn syrup, filling a jar with chopped candied fruit, and adding flavored syrup to cover. Let the mixture sit for a few days before you use it.

This time's proverb is Romagnan: Un gòt e' fa ben, dù i n'fa mêl, u t' sagàta un buchêl.
A sip of wine does you good, and two do no harm, while a tankard will do you in.

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review