Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Elections, More Montalcino, and More: Being the 148th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! The latest things on Italian Food are a look at how the Perini Family, which has a fine deli in Florence's Mercato di San Lorenzo, puts its food on display: if you work carefully you could do something similar the next time you hold a party, buffet, or cookout. Also, a look at some of the wines that impressed me the most at Vinitaly.

Le Elezioni

And though this naturally leads us towards Vinitaly, a quick aside on yesterday's election results. Mr. Berlusconi, the conservative businessman who was prime minister from 2000 to 2005 won handily, and will be leading a center-right to right wing coalition for the next 5 years.

The results are really not a surprise; Mr. Prodi's center-left coalition was a many headed thing that spent most of its time pulling in several different directions at once and got very little done.

Small wonder then, with the economy souring and a host of problems, that people should vote for change, though to be honest many of the problems Mr. Prodi failed to solve -- budget deficit, immigration issues, employment, housing and so on -- were inherited from the previous Berlusconi Government.

What is interesting, surprising even, is the complete collapse of the far left -- true communists, greens, and so on. They went from several senators and 20 congresspeople (including the Speaker of the House) in the former legislature to none at all this time, because the electoral law says -- to keep tiny parties from holding the majority hostage -- that to gain access to Parliament parties must get at least 4% of the vote. In 2005 the communists and greens got about 10%; this time they settled in at 3.5%. If they had spent less time squabbling and more governing, rather than behaving like the opposition (some of the radical MPs participated prominently in anti-government rallies), they might have gotten more votes.

Now the ball is in Mr. Berlusconi's court. The first test (of sorts) will be Alitalia; he said that if he won a group of Italian investors would emerge to save the troubled airline. We'll see if one does.

Vinitaly: Good, But Troubles Too

I enjoyed Vinitaly this year. It was a busy fair, but nowhere near as packed with people interested primarily in drinking as it has been in years past, and this made it much more productive for me. Troubles? They take the form of Velenitaly (PoisonItaly), the cover article L'Espresso, one of the major Italian weeklies, released on the day Vinitaly opened. The authors of the article weave together a scandal involving tainted very cheap jug wines that may or may not be poisonous, Brunello's problems, and several other things, some that are rather old, to unleash an indiscriminate blast at the Italian winemaking industry.

To be honest, I don't understand the logic behind the article, because wine is one of the few things that really works in Italy today. There are problems, and they need to be dealt with, but crude, sensationalist yellow journalism isn't the best way to go about it.

Especially not for a publisher that also puts out La Guida Dell'Espresso, one of the more respected Italian wine guides. The Guida's editor-tasters, who first heard about Velenitaly when they arrived at Vinitaly, all distanced themselves from the weekly's article while saying that the editors of the sister publication were independent and free to publish what they wanted. Enzo Vizzari (one of the Guida's editors) did, however, say he was profoundly disturbed (or something to that effect) by the Velenitaly article on his blog, which was hosted by L'Espresso. I say was and to that effect because following his comment the publisher shut the blog down, and now visitors to Vizzari's page (http://vizzari.blogautore.espresso.repubblica.it/) are greeted with "This user has elected to delete their account and the content is no longer available (in English)."

So much for editorial independence.

And this brings us to Brunello, the Continuing Saga
At Vinitaly I met with Lars Leicht, Banfi's Director of PR, who told me that yes indeed, Banfi is under investigation for fraud with respect to the 2003 vintage of Brunello, which they have been told to declassify. But not for having used non-Sangiovese grapes to make Brunello. Rather, for overcropping (producing more grapes per hectare than the Disciplinare governing Brunello production allows -- 80 quintals, or 8 metric tonnes), and this is where things become surreal and (to me) disturbing.

Banfi makes the Brunello in question from several vineyards located around the castle, and Lars told me the total yield of all the vineyards in question was less than the legal limit of 80 quintals/hectare. However, it was uneven, with some producing slightly less, and one slightly above. And that's what created the problems; the Prosecutor in Siena looked at the vineyard-by-vineyard yields, and even though the yield for the total vineyard area was within the limits set by the Disciplinare declared the entire production illegal because one vineyard produced more.

From a very narrow legalistic standpoint the man is right; yields should be below 80 quintals per hectare.

However, as Lars points out, vineyards are not precise factory environments. Vines produce grapes, and if left to their own devices produce lots, so the winemaker aims for a given per-hectare yield through vineyard management, which includes green harvesting and whatnot. While it's true that if one stays well under the maximum yield, one has no problems, doing so also costs money -- less wine = less income -- so people try to get close, and if this means averaging production, I see nothing wrong with that, provided total production doesn't exceed what would be allowed for a single vineyard of that area.

You may wonder, don't the vineyards that produce more grapes produce less quality? The answer is not necessarily. What is important is the production per individual vine, and if a producer has some older vineyards planted to a density of 4000 vines per hectare, and newer ones with vines planted to 8000 vines per hectare, the 80 quintals from the newer vineyard will be much better than the 80 quintals from the older vineyard because the older vineyard's vines are producing twice as much. 81 quintals from the new vineyard will probably be better than 65 from the older, and this is why I think the prosecutor is showing an excess of zeal in ordering that Brunello made from a series of vineyards whose average yield is less than 80 quintals/hectare be declassified because one parcel goes over.

"In the future we'll just aim for a maximum of 75 quintals/hectare; the wine will be better and we'll charge more for it," said Lars, and this brings up a second very important point about this investigation. The names that have come out so far are almost all large, but we've heard rumors to the effect that another 20-80 producers are under investigation, as is the Consorzio itself.

If these as-of-yet-unnamed producers are under investigation for using non-Sangiovese grapes in their Brunello, they should be prosecuted, because they're doctoring Brunello to appeal to market tastes (they could just as well label their "appealing" wine Sant'Antimo DOC, Montalcino's catchall appellation, but that doesn't sell as well as Brunello or for as much, which brings greed into the picture as well). Ditto if they're overcropping by a significant margin. But if they're under investigation for what Banfi is, the punishment -- having cellars sealed and being forced to declassify a vintage -- seems totally out of proportion with respect to the crime.

Especially in the case of small wineries; someone Banfi's size will be hurt by a forced declassification, but makes lots of other wines that are unaffected and will weather the storm. Forced declassification and cellar closure could (probably will) be a death knell for many smaller wineries, and if wineries are facing this despite staying within the limits set by the Disciplinare something is very wrong. Especially since Lars tells me the Consorzio has always told people to figure their production over their total vineyard area, and adds that as a result of this policy the Consorzio is now also under investigation too.

Bottom line: There are two things happening at Montalcino. On the one hand, some people cheated and got caught. On the other, people followed established practices and are getting ground up by an extremely narrow reading of the rules. The former should be punished, but the latter? I think not.

Budino di Fragole, Strawberry Pudding
Moving in a very different direction, the markets have been full of strawberries of late. It seems a little soon but it's nice to see them. While you can simply hull them and enjoy them, you can also do other things with strawberries, and this pudding, which Elisabetta and I made the other day, is very tasty and very easy. To serve 8:
  • 1 1/8 pounds (500 g) strawberries, hulled
  • 1 1/5 cups (300 ml) heavy cream, lightly whipped
  • 1 cup (225 g) sugar
  • 1/2 an ounce (15 g) fish gelatin in sheets, or gelatin sufficient to set 1 pint (500 ml) liquid
  • Maraschino or other liqueur (optional, and we omitted it)
  • A sprig or two of fresh mint, as garnish
Set the gelatin to soak in cook water, separating the sheets (if you are using another kind of gelatin follow the directions on the package).

Rinse the hulled strawberries and pat them dry. Set aside 3-4 of the prettiest ones to use as garnish, and blend the rest with 2 tablespoons sugar, and a tablespoon or two of the liqueur if you're using it..

Set aside 1/4 cup of the sugar, and mix the remainder with 1/4 cup water. Heat it to a boil and simmer stirring gently, until the mixture thickens and becomes syrupy, about 8-10 minutes.

Remove the syrup from the fire. Squeeze excess moisture from the sheets of gelatin, add them to the syrup, and stir gently until they have completely dissolved. Whisk the mixture into the blended strawberries, mix well, and let the mixture cool.

In the meantime whip the heavy cream with the remaining sugar; you want the cream to be airy and light, but not stiff.

Fold the whipped cream into the blended strawberries.

At this point you have a choice:
  • You can fill 8 small molds with the pudding, if you want to serve individual portions.
  • Or you can put all the pudding into a pint (500 ml, or slightly larger) ribbed mold. Chill the pudding in the refrigerator for several hours, or, better yet, overnight.

Come time to unmold the pudding, heat a pot of water you can dip the mold into. Let the water heat the mold for just a second (longer and the pudding will begin to melt and run). Cover the mold with your serving dish and flip the two together; the pudding will settle gracefully onto the serving dish (if it doesn't, dip the mold briefly again).

Decorate the pudding with slices of the reserved strawberries, sprigs of mint, and, if you want, a little more whipped cream. Serve at once, before it has time to start warming up.

This time's proverb is Tuscan: Le Disgrazie Sono Come Le Tavole Degli Osti -- Misfortune is like the hostler's table (which is always set).

Until next time,

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

PS -- Please forward this to anyone you think would enjoy it! If you would like to read past issues (nothing in them really gets stale), you'll find recent ones at Cosa Bolle.Com, http://www.cosabolle.com, and older ones at http://italianfood.about.com/blbol.htm.