Friday, November 27, 2009

The Postal Service, Alcohol Levels & More: Being the 165th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

I have been writing. Quite a bit, it seems. The latest addition to the Italian Wine Review is a look at the 2009 Carmignano Vintage presentation, while the latest additions to Italian food are recipes, which I won't list, and new shots to the Fruit and Vegetables Gallery: we're up to 92 shots! I didn't expect it to get this big but I keep finding new things to add.

Turning to Cosa Bolle in Pentola, Bergamo's Valcalepio appellation is one of the more particular Italian appellations: rather than concentrate on autochthonous varietals, they decided to use the so-called Taglio Bordolese in their wines: 25-60% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the remainder Merlot for the reds, and 55-80% Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay, plus the remainder Pinot Grigio, for the whites. You might wonder why an Italian appellation would choose to work with French varietals, but the French varietals have long been grown in northern Italy, and the wines, especially the vini d'annata can be quite nice. With the red Riserve things are a little more uneven, with some people bulking up their wines more than I might like, at which point finesse gives way to lumbering qualities.

A few years ago they brought together all of the appellations that allow Merlot-Cabernet blends for a general tasting, and that was quite interesting. More recently, however, they have organized en event called Emozioni dal Mondo, a competition featuring Merlot-Cabernet blends from around the world (primarily Italian, though this year there were also Eastern European, South American, and South African wines). The tasting was held in the Palamonti, a gym dedicated to rock and mountain climbing run by the Sezione Bergamo of CAI (Club Alpino Italiano). A beautiful, and frankly unique setting for a tasting; should you want to go climbing in the Alps, or anywhere else, it would also be an excellent place to train.

One Grand Gold Medal was awarded, to a wine from the Abruzzo -- the Azienda Masciarelli's Merlot Marina Cvetic IGT Colli Aprutini 2006, followed by a great many Gold Medals. No Silver, because the OIV regulations organizers followed say no more than a certain percentage of the wines entered into a tasting can be awarded medals. Here the average quality was high enough that the percentage was reached before silver medals could be awarded. A very interesting event, and if you want to see the list of award-winning wines, check the Emozioni Dal Mondo's Elenco Premiati.

Cornello dei Tasso, and The Postal System

After the tasting, some of the judges boarded a minibus to go visit a few wineries. The rest of us boarded a much larger bus and rode up into the Alps behind Bergamo; the initial few km of the Val Brembana (formed by the Brembo River) were decidedly nondescript, with an abundance of relatively recent construction jumbled together on the valley floor, but after going through a few tunnels the construction started to thin, and in the space of a few more km (and more tunnels) we were at the bottom of a V, with mountains climbing all around us.

At Camerata Cornello we tuned off the main road and climbed through a series of switchbacks. The bus let us off by a steeply sloping meadow, and we walked down the modern paved road to where it stopped at a parking garage built for the residents of Cornello dei Tassi, who live a little further on, down the old Via Mercatorum, the medieval commercial route (a wide, well packed trail) that followed the flank of the valley due to an impassable gorge on the valley floor. The Via Mercatorum passes literally through Cornello -- the ground floors of the buildings on its path are porticoed, allowing people to pass under them -- and as a result Cornello was an important stopping point where merchants could rest their animals and themselves, and if the weather was bad enjoy some shelter. They could also trade, and talk, and we will return to this.

The town of Cornello can easily be seen in the space of an hour -- the porticoed section is about a hundred yards long, and the other major local attraction is the parish church, a XII Century Romanesque church dedicated to Saints Cornelio and Cipriano. To reach it, go through the porticoed section, turn right, and climb to a parallel lane. The church's façade is simple rather sever stone work, and you'll note that the tower is slightly out of kilter. Inside there are many frescoes dating to the XV-XVI centuries depicting people of all walks of life. Some are quite nice, but the one that really caught my eye is to the left as you enter: Sant'Elvio, the patron saint of Maniscalchi, or blacksmiths, who -- since he is saintly -- simply removes the horse's foreleg, to affix the shoe to the hoof without worrying about what the animal is doing. A miracle, and then he reattaches the leg when he has finished. Beautiful.

As I said, the traders who stopped in Cornello also talked, and it didn't take long for the scions of the Tasso Family, one of the leading local families, to wonder if those who were talking might also want the services of a courier to send missives forward or back. So, in the XIII Century Odone De Taxo set up such a service. It proved successful, but one can only have so much success if one works from a town in an Alpine valley. So part of the family moved to Venice, and managed to become the Official Couriers for the Venetian Republic. They did well, and one branch of the family moved to Rome, where they became Maestri delle Poste Papali -- the Papal Postmasters.

Others instead entered into the service of the Holy Roman Emperor, and again did well: In 1512 the Emperor Maximillian bestowed a title upon the family, with a coat of arms featuring a badger (tasso) and a postal bugle, enriched by the Imperial Eagle. They also worked for Maxiimillian's cousins, the Kings of Spain, and for several centuries various branches of the Tasso Family (part of the German branch became Princes of Thurn and Taxis) ran the postal system throughout much of Europe, establishing routes between hundreds of cities and precise schedules.

They became fabulously wealthy, and continued to provide postal services throughout Europe until well into the 19th century, by which time the various European governments had realized that government-controlled national postal systems were perhaps a good idea. Indeed, when the European governments met in the 1850s to discuss postal matters, the Tasso Family joined them at the table, and subsequently issued stamps for its routes, which continued to function until 1866, when the Prussians unified Germany and nationalized the German postal system. At this point the Tasso family ceded its operations to the various national postal systems and turned its attentions to other ventures.

Not bad for a family that started out sending packets up and down an Alpine valley! And they are well remembered in Cornello, which changed its name to Cornello Dei Tassi, and hosts a small but fascinating museum dedicated to the Tasso family and the postal system they established, with stamps, letters, portraits of royal sponsors, and much more.

And why is Cornello now served by a mule track rather than a paved road, you wonder? Because in 1592 the Venetians, who ruled Bergamo at the time, overcame the obstacles on the valley floor and built a new, easier to travel road called the Via Priula. Cornello became isolated, and while this did mean hardships for generations of its inhabitants (an Abbot who visited in 1899 spoke of poor mountaineers who spent their summers working in France, to earn enough to survive the winters), because of the isolation the town remains unchanged, and is one of the best preserved Alpine trading villages anywhere. And well worth a visit.

Alcohol Levels in Wines
Moving in a very different direction, I recently went to a presentation of the current (2007) Chianti Colli Fiorentini Vini d'Annata, or vintage wines. As is always the case at presentations of this sort some wines were better than others, but there were several that were quite good. However, there was also a problem: A vino d'annata, or vintage wine, is a wine that's made to be drunk upon release, or fairly soon thereafter - though some of them can and do age quite well, they're wines intended primarily to be set out and drunk. Only thing is, here, with one exception, they were all 13.5% or more alcohol. This is a strong wine, and not the sort of thing one would usually think of quaffing with maccheroni alla bolognese or a burger.

In their defense they were nicely balanced, and the alcohol wasn't that evident, but it was there. In vintage wines. Why? While people do talk about global warming raising the sugar levels of grapes (higher temperatures make for riper grapes with more sugar, which in turn makes for wines with more alcohol), 2007 wasn't a particularly hot summer. Yes, there were hot spells, but it was nothing like 2003, when the thermometer stayed pegged above 99 (38 C) from late May through September. So what is the answer?

I think it's something called maturazione polifenolica, or polyphenolic ripening, which has become all the rage with Italian winemakers over the past few years. You might think a ripe grape is a ripe grape, and while this may have been true in the past, it isn't quite as easy any more. There are two ways to judge grape ripeness: Sugar level, and the ripeness of the tannins contained in the skins and seeds.

Sugar level, which is what was traditionally measured, is straight forward: the wine maker keeps track of sugar levels, which rise as the grapes ripen, and when they reach the level necessary to yield a certain percentage of alcohol in the wine, say 12%, starts to harvest.

In polyphenolic ripeness, what is measured is the ripeness of the compounds that give wine its color and structure, with special emphasis on how smooth and sweet the tannins are; the idea is to obtain a wine with sweeter smoother tannins that is also richer and more concentrated. And on paper it seems like a very nice idea. However, polyphenolic ripening tends to lag behind sugar ripening. As a result, while the winemaker waits for the tannins to smooth and soften sugar levels increase enough to yield a wine with 14 or more % alcohol. And at the same time, grape acidity, which decreases with increasing ripeness, falls through the floor, while the flavor cast of the fruit shifts away from red berry fruit such as cherries, strawberries, red currants, and such, and more towards prune and plum.

The end result of polyphenolic ripeness is wines that do have smoother softer tannins, and more concentration, but are also much less acidic, more settled (prune and plum are more settled than red berry fruit, at least for me), and much (much) more alcoholic.

In short, they're not as pleasant to drink, if not difficult to drink, the sort of wines that people swish and swirl while saying vaguely complementary things about ("nice concentration, silky smooth" and so on) but then leave in the glass. And, because they tend to seem fairly sweet, due to the ripeness of the fruit, the lack of acidity, and the high alcohol levels (which are perceived as sweetness) they are much more difficult to pair with foods than less alcoholic, zestier wines.

By way of comparison, wines made from grapes harvested when the sugar levels translate to 12% or so alcohol tend to be much brighter, with livelier acidities, tannins that are a bit more aggressive, and fruit that is brighter. In short, they are fresher, and I find them much more inviting to drink.

Because of this, I am eagerly waiting for the infatuation a great many Italian winemakers have with the concept of polyphenolic ripening to end. The result will be wines that are fresher, more enjoyable, and easier to pair with foods.

Returning to the Chianti Colli Fiorentini presentation, the wine we found to be the freshest? It was the Azienda di Uggiano's La Casa di Dante Alighieri Chianti Colli Fiorentini 2007. A wine made from grapes harvested with an eye more on sugar levels than polyphenolic ripeness: The fruit was lively, with red berries, the acidity was brisk, and the alcohol content was 12%.

This time's proverb is Pugliese: La bbona ngudene rombe u martiidde, A good anvil will break a hammer.

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Olive Oil, Stuffed Birds & More: Being the 164th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Olive Oil, Stuffed Birds & More: Being the 164th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

This has been a busy several weeks, and I am also dealing with Dread Swine Flu, which isn't an excuse for tardiness though it does provide some sort of explanation. To begin with, a number of additions to the Italian Wine Review: Barolo, Barbaresco, Gavi, and Bolgheri. All sorts of wines, some of which are well suited to the upcoming Thanksgiving for those living in the US.

On Italian food, instead, I have continued to work on the Galleria delle Verdure (we're up to 84 shots as of today) and have also done a quick article on white and red cabbage, what Italians call Cavolo Cappuccio. And posted a number of recipes. In short, lots of writing since last time.

And now, for something I haven't done before: A reprint. During the period between when I stopped posting issues of Cosa Bolle on Italian food and started posting them on the Cosa Bolle blog, I wrote a long piece on olive oil that seems quite apropos now, seeing that we're in the midst of the olive harvest in Tuscany, and those with olive groves (or even just trees in their yards) are spreading parachutes under the trees and picking them prior to carting them off to the presses. So here we go:

Olive Oil: Tasting and Thoughts on Quality
The Fattoria di Morello is a pretty estate on the flank of Monte Morello, the mountain northwest of Florence that Florentines use as an impromptu weather service (Se Monte Morello Mette il Cappello, Fiorentin Prende L'Ombrello, If Monte Morello Dons his Hat, The Florentine grabs his Umbrella). Rather than make wine, they have about 15,000 olive trees and make an excellent oil eagerly sought out by connoisseurs the world over. A few years ago they held a conference entitled Incontro con l'Olio Nuovo, Meeting the New Oil, which examined the relationships between terroir and technological advancements in the production of quality olive oil.

We were given a fair number of statistics, for example that 90% of the world's olive groves are in the Mediterranean Basin, primarily in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Tunisia, and that 60% of all olive oil produced is of European origin. The per capita consumption in Greece is 20 kilos (this is about 20 liters), in Italy it's 12, though more oil is consumed because the population is higher, and Spain is catching up with Italy; in other parts of the world consumption is considerably lower -- 400 g/person -- but increasing: per capita consumption has doubled worldwide, and tripled in the US, Japan, and Northern Europe.

It also turns out that much of what the rest of the world consumes is funneled through Italian olive oil processing plants that procure from a variety of sources, mix, and resell. Unfortunately, a huge percentage of this oil is extravirgin, in other words, its acidity is less than 1% and it has been tasted by a panel of experts who (presumably) say it's free from obvious defects.

I use the words "unfortunately" and "presumably" because though extravirgin oil is supposed to be the best, it varies tremendously in price, from 3 to 30 Euros/liter (in Italian supermarkets), and it's quite obvious that what costs 3 Euros is going to be very different from what costs 30. The former will be made primarily from imported oils, cut as an industrialist sees fit, and will likely be quite bland, whereas the latter will, one hopes, be made from olives picked in an individual grove somewhere in Italy -- most likely Tuscany, though Umbria, Liguria, and Lake Garda are also famed for their oils, and likely be quite flavorful.

Something is seriously amiss when two very different products are being sold with the same name, and the obvious solution would be to tighten the criteria an oil need meet to qualify as extravirgin -- there would be a lot more virgin oil (which is perfectly adequate for cooking) and only what really is superior (and is best used as a condiment) would be extravirgin.

Alas, any attempt to demote the cheap extravirgin oil to virgin status would meat with tremendous political resistance on a pan-European scale, and therefore the more practical solution would likely be to create something superior to Extravirgin, along the lines of the Laudemio consortium that many of the top Tuscan olive oil makers belong to. Its requirements are more stringent than those for Extravirgin oil; oils that qualify have the word Laudemio on the label, and are bottled in a distinctively shaped bottle that does stand out.

The statistics were interesting, and they do trace a path one hopes the legislature will follow to help producers differentiate and define their products.

The most interesting, and most sobering part of the conference, was Marco Mugelli's speech. He's a world-renowned expert on olive management and olive oil production, and began by saying that as a whole olive oil extraction is a low-yield proposition: The best one can do is about 18% (a kilo of olives yield 180 g of oil), and this with techniques that allow oxidation of the oil during the pressing -- a significant part of the oil in an olive is trapped between membranes composed of sugars, and to free it the olive presser oxidizes the sugars, and as a result exposes the oil to oxidation.

There is another technique that doesn't collect this "trapped" oil; since there's no oxidation the resulting oil is distinctly superior (Mr. Mugelli says the two kinds are not comparable), but the yield is so much lower that the technique is not used.

The problem with the high production philosophy, Mr. Mugelli says, is that though the oil can be of high quality if the olives were picked and handled with care and carefully pressed, the technique masks the differences attributable to different production areas and cultivars.

In other words, high quality oils now being made in various parts of the world, for example Chile, Tuscany, and Greece, closely resemble each other. To drive the point home, the organizers of the conference called a recess during which they set up a blind tasting featuring oils from Tuscany (Fattoria di Morello), Sardinia, Spain, Puglia, Greece, Chile, California, and Argentina. One was slightly off, but I found the rest to be quite good and quite similar, to the point that I would have been guessing had I tried to say where they were from. I am not a trained oil taster, so this is perhaps not a complete surprise, but a number of the participants at the conference (primarily journalists and agronomists) do specialize in olive oil, and they had a tough time too -- one guy identified Tuscany, Sicily, and Sardegna, and then stopped, while Mr. Mugelli also identified Spain because he consults for the producer and recognized the cultivar.

Some people identified others, but nobody got them all. It was a sobering experience, and provides a fine argument for adopting the low-yield technique for the best oils, which would therefore be much richer and more distinctive. One would have to establish a new classification to distinguish them from the current extravirgin oils, but it would be worth it.

Establishing a new high-quality oil is something for the future. What does this tasting mean now, for the average consumer? Buy olive oil with care, and remember that you get what you pay for. The cheap stuff that comes in a 5-liter screw-cap can is going to be uninspiring, and though you may want to cook with it, you will likely not want to drizzle it over your soup or salad because it won't contribute those wonderful olive oil aromas and flavors one gets from better oils. In terms of quality oil don't overlook a (relatively) conveniently priced local olive oil if you live in an area where oil is produced -- if it was properly made, our tasting showed that it will rival just about anything imported. And if you live in a non-producing area, don't feel you must buy the most expensive European import to enjoy olive oil. Taste the various possibilities with an open mind, and you may find yourself preferring something from a less renowned area that's less expensive.

Never tasted olive oil?
You'll not want to taste more than 6-8 oils at a sitting because palate fatigue sets in quickly, and you'll want a glass of cool water to sip between samples. The glasses we were given were clear glass and small, about half again larger than a shot glass, and each contained a couple of tablespoons of olive oil.

You begin with the color: Intensity, hue, which varies from green to gold, and transparency, which varies from cloudy (not necessarily a defect) to quite clear. And you continue with the aromas, gently shaking the glasses and sniffing deeply. As is the case with evaluating a wine, you identify the primary aromas and then concentrate on the secondary aromas that emerge as you continue to sniff; in tasting an olive oil, I was told, the aromas play a greater part than they do in a wine, and I tend to agree.

Once you are done sniffing, you taste -- just a drop, initially on the tip of the tongue, and you work it around the rest of your palate, analyzing the tastes and textures you perceive. A sip of water to clear the palate, and on to the next oil.

So what are you looking for?

According to the key we were given, olive oil can display three positive attributes:
  • Fruity -- olive fruit aromas and flavors
  • Bitterness -- characteristic of oil from green (unripe) olives
  • Spiciness -- Pepper, specifically, and characteristic of oil made from olives picked at the beginning of the harvest

There are many more defects; these are the major ones:
  • Riscaldo (heated) -- characteristic of olives that began to ferment before they were pressed
  • Mold/dampness -- moldy aromas and flavors from olives that were stored where it was damp, and got moldy.
  • Muck -- a flavor characteristic of oils that remained in contact with the olive pulp after pressing
  • Winey/Acidic -- The oil has overtones reminiscent of wine or vinegar. This happens when the olives fermented before pressing, forming acetic acid.
  • Metallic -- A metallic taste derived form the oil's being in contact with metal surfaces too long during the production phases.
  • Rancid -- Characteristic aromas and tastes caused by oxidation
And these are minor:
  • Cooked -- this happens when the olives or olive paste were overheated during pressing.
  • Grass or wood -- characteristic of olives that were dried out (this is a lot of grass; a little is all right).
  • Coarse -- a dense, chewy sensation found in some oils.
  • Lubricant -- when the oil brings to mind motor oil or diesel fuel.
  • Vegetation water -- a flavor the oil acquires if it's not separated from the water component soon enough after pressing.
  • Briny -- brings to mind olives that were preserved in brine
  • Dirt -- earthiness from olives that sat on the ground
  • Wormy -- from olives that were infected with the larvae of the olive fly
  • Cucumber -- typical of oils that have been stored too long, especially in cans

In short, there are lots of problems to look out for, and many are more common than you might think. Indeed, I once attended a comparison of artisinal and mass-produced commercial oils, and the master taster found defects, in particular brininess, in almost all the commercial oils.

However, when it all works, and what you find is positive, the next step is to break out the bread to make bruschetta, together with a bowl of freshly sliced vegetables for pinzimonio (give each guest a dipping bowl to fill with oil, seasoned to taste with salt and pepper, and include bell peppers, artichoke hearts, celery, carrots, and whatever else you like that's firm enough to be dipped among the vegetables). Follow the antipasto with a bowl of minestrone or pasta e fagioli drizzled with a little more oil, and follow the first course with grilled spare ribs, served with plain white beans and chickpeas, both drizzled with oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Who could ask for more?

Actually, since we're coming to the Season For Stuffed Birds, one could ask for one of those, and here are a couple of ideas:

Pollo Ripeno alle Noci, Chicken Stuffed with Walnuts
This stuffed chicken recipe is from Trentino Alto Adige, and will be quite nice in the fall, when freshly harvested walnuts come to market. Unlike many Italian chicken stuffings, this one does not contain meat. To serve 4-6:

  • A chicken weighing 2 1/5 pounds, with its giblets
  • The numeats from 12 walnuts, skins removed and chopped
  • 1/3 pound (150 g) stale bread - in terms of volume, this should be close to 3 cups
  • 1/3 cup (30 g) pine nuts, chopped
  • 1/2 cup (25 g) freshly grated Parmigiano
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/5 cup (150 ml) meat broth; unsalted canned bouillon will also work
  • A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Begin by setting a pot of water big enough to contain the chicken to boil.

Next, clean the gizzard and simmer it in boiling water for 15 minutes.

While it's cooking, crumble the bread into a bowl and sprinkle the broth over it.

Squeeze the excess moisture from the bread and return it to the bowl.

Chop the chicken liver and the gizzard. Add them to the bread, together with the walnut meats, pine nuts, and grated Parmigiano. Add a pinch of grated nutmeg and the eggs. Season with salt and pepper and mix well.

Fill the chicken with the stuffing and sew the cavity shut with string.

Salt the boiling water, and simmer the chicken for an hour. Drain it well, cut it, and arrange the pieces and the stuffing on a platter. Serve the chicken with the stuffing and vegetables of choice.

In terms of a wine, since the recipe is from the high Northeast, I might go with a Lagrein.

Pollo Ripieno al Pistacchio, Chicken Stuffed with pistachio Nuts
The above is boiled, and is something North Americans are less used to than Italians, for whom boiled Capon is one of the standard Christmas dishes. Here is a recipe for a roast stuffed chicken with pistachios and rice in the filling, which has a rather south Italian feel to it. To serve 4:

  • A chicken, weighing about 3 pounds (1.3 k), cleaned, and with its giblets
  • 1/4 pound (100 g) shelled pistachio nuts, peeled too
  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • 2 tablespoons minced parsley
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and crumbed with a fork
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup (50 g) unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup plumped sultana raisins
  • 1/2 cup broth overtones unsalted bouillon
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) heavy cream
  • Paprika
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Flame the bird to remove stray pinfeathers, if need be, and season it inside and out with salt and pepper.

Clean and chop the giblets. Drain the raisins.

Preheat your oven to 360 F (180 C).

Heat the butter in a saucepan and sauté the chopped onions and giblets for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. When the time is up, combine them in a bowl with the pistachios, rice, hard-boiled eggs, raisins, and parsley. Season the mixture to taste with salt and pepper and use it to fill the chicken, sewing the cavity shut when you have finished.

Rub a little paprika into the chicken's skin, and put it in an oven pan that can also go over a burner. Add the olive oil too and brown the chicken for about 5 minutes over a brisk flame, turning it this way and that. When the 5 minutes has passed, transfer it to the oven and roast it for about 45 minutes or until done, basting it often, at first with a little hot broth, and later with pan drippings.

About 5 minutes before the chicken is done, pour the cream over it and return it to the oven. If your roasting pan is elegant, serve it directly in the pan. If it is less so, transfer it to a platter and serve.

The wine? Red, and I might be tempted by an Aglianico del Taburno here.

This has gone on longer than I expected. This time's proverb is Sicilian: Aceddru `nta la aggia `un canta p`amuri, ma pi raggia - A caged bird doesn't sing out of love, but out of rage.

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

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Monte Forato, Risotto & More: Being the 163rd Issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! It has (again) been entirely too long since the last issue. I spent August on the coast, at Cinquale, alternating between working on About Italian Food and the Italian Wine Review, and taking daughter C to the beach -- we were with my inlaws, who were quite happy to host us, but are no longer able to take an 8-year-old swimming. Cinquale is on the thin strip of flatland between the sea and the Apuans, and if you swim out a ways and look inland, you'll see (on a clear day) a mountain with a spot of blue in it: it's called Monte Forato, the holed mountain, and I spent quite a bit of time looking at it. But before we get to it, the latest on the sites:

On Italian Food, in addition to putting up a number of recipes I have taken a look at scaloppine, which are usually veal scallops, though one can also use other meats, including chicken or turkey breast, boned pork loin, and fish including swordfish. I also went to visit Barbara Lucchi, of the Vecia Cantena d'La Pre' in Predappio Alta, and took pictures as she prepared a traditional ciambella Romagnola, a ring cake that's wonderful dipped in coffee or caffe' latte in the morning, or with Albana di Romagna at the end of a meal.

On The Italian Wine Review I've taken a look at Ortrugo, a newly rediscovered white wine from the Colli Piacentini. It can be still or sparkling, and dry or sweet; I find it to be more successful as a sparkling wine -- it's about 11% alcohol, quite zesty, and very pleasant to drink. I've also written about Podalirio, a recently developed Merlot-based IGT from Querceto di Castellina in Tuscany; they started with Sangiovese because the Merlot vineyards were immature, and have modified it over time, and the progress is interesting. And I've written about Villa's Franciacorta Satèn: Alessandro Bianchi bottled his first Satèn in 1995, and we tasted through the 2005. To be frank, I was impressed by how well the wines have aged, and it was fascinating to see how they adjusted their Satèn, which is a wine designed to be softer and more seductive than a Brut, to meet the developing tastes of Italian wine drinkers. Finally, I've posted my notes from the 2006 Roero poured at Alba Wines this year. It was a good vintage and there are some fine wines.

Il Monte Forato

Returning to Cosa Bolle, as I said, every time I went swimming I couldn't help but note the spot at the top of the mountain, so one day I asked the people at the next umbrella, who live in nearby Montignoso year round, about it. "My father laid out the trail, came the reply. It's an easy hike from Stazzema. Takes about 3 hours."

So I procured a map, got my hiking shoes, and decided to go one morning. A hike is not the sort of thing one can write volumes about, but one can accompany notes with pictures. Briefly:

If you are driving to the area, you will want to take the A 12 (Genova-Collesalvetti) and exit at Versilia. From there, follow the signs for Stazzema, which lead into the mountains, stopping at some point to fill your water bottle and buy lunch (I got a sandwich and 2 peaches).

You can drive all the way up to Stazzema (439 m ASL) and park in the square, and I did. However, if you do you will have to walk through town (the road narrows to about 4 feet at one point), and then up a steep hill, adding about a hundred (or so it seemed) meters to your climb. So I suggest you bear right at one of the hairpin turns below Stazzema, following a sign for Casa Giorgini, an Agritursmo located in what was once the home of Admiral Giorgini, who wanted a place that offered spectacular views of mountains and sea.

The road leads up past a sawmill, and you should park where it becomes dirt, at the mouth of the number 6 trail (you'll see a red and white CAI (Club Alpino Italiano) maker with a 6 in it). The trail is the old mule track that led up, over the pass, and down to Fornovalasco, a town in Garfagnana, and as such it is paved, with steps in the steeper parts, and though it does climb steadily it is easy going, also because it is almost entirely in shadow in the morning.

Initially you'll be walking though woods, but after about 45 minutes you'll come to Casa Giorgini (735 m ASL), and begin to see the mountains (Pania and Corchia) on the other side of the valley though the trees. A bit a bit after that you'll note that the bedrock has changed from black to white; you are now walking on the calcareous rocks that form the backbone of the Apuane and are responsible for both the marble quarries and -- where water infiltrates and dissolves -- the region's spectacular caves.

More beautiful views, a spring with bracingly cold water, and you will climb steadily; remain on the number 6 trail until you come to the pass, the Foce di Petrosciana (960 m ASL) and behold all of Garfagnana (the picture above) laid out below you.

By the time you reach the pass you will have walked for about 2 hours, and be 2/3 of the way there. Exactly at the pass you will see, to your left, trail 110 that goes up the naked rock. Scramble up (at least I did), and the first quarter mile or so is steep, with a couple of sections I did on hands and knees, and one section with a rope to hold on to, and then the trail becomes wooded again and easy, though it again climbs steadily. After about 45 minutes you will come around a bend, and see a cliff. Look closer and you'll realize you're looking at the arch, and it is big.

The trail circles around to the back of the arch, where I found a great many people, including a church youth group, relaxing and having lunch.

I climbed up the scree slope to slightly above the arch, found a spot (at about 1200 m ASL) with a beautiful view, ate, and relaxed for about a half hour before starting back down.

(A brief aside: The arch is impressive, at least 50 meters (150 feet) in diameter, and though one could cross it I decided not to. Legend has it that the mountain was pierced in the course of a battle between demons and hermits, or perhaps demons and the Madonna. As you behold the span, the legend doesn't seem so far-fetched.)

The walk down took about the same as the walk up -- 3 1/2 hours, and was noticeably warmer, because by then the sun had come around and was shining on the trail.

By the time I got to the head of the trail I wished I had left my car there, and not down in Stazzema proper, but the walk through town was nice -- there are some pretty houses, some dated to the 1700s, and there's a bell tower with the Medici coat of arms, dating to 1739. And, as you leave town, you'll go past Santa Maria Assunta, a pretty Romanesque church built where the Madonna is said to have appeared. The foundations date to the IX century, while the façade has a 14th century rosette.

Pictures of another person's hike up to Monte Forato.

Two last things: As I said, Casa Giorgini is now an Agriturismo. There are a couple of pages dedicated to it, one in Italian and the other in English, and they have a personal page too.

I also saw, on the trail, a sign for something called Mulinando, mule tours. If you're interested, you can call Jacopo on 328 963 6968, or Francesca on 339 211 6477.


Moving in a very different direction, for a long time the most popular page on About's Italian food site was bruschetta. One week it was the most popular page on the entire food channel, and though I couldn't understand why, I didn't object. Now Risotto has become the most popular subject, and in its honor here are a few recipes that will work nicely in the fall:

Risotto con Pancetta E Prugne - Risotto with Pancetta and Fresh Prunes

The combination of fresh -- not dried -- prunes, with their sweetness and acidity, nicely balances the richness of pancetta. You could also use tart plums here, though I don't think sweeter fruit along the lines of Regina Claudia plums would work as well.

To serve 4:
  • A small onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 2/3 cups (320 g) short grained rice, for example Arborio or Carnaroli
  • 2 tablespoons dry white wine
  • 1 quart (1 liter) simmering broth, either meat or vegetable
  • 1/2 pound prunes, washed and dried
  • The skin of 2 zucchini, removed in thin strips with a potato peeler
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2/3 cup (30 g) freshly grated Parmigiano
  • 1/4 pound (120 g) smoked pancetta, thinly sliced
  • White pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a pot and sauté the onion until it is translucent. Add the rice and continue to cook, stirring, until the grains become translucent, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle the wine over the rice, and when it has evaporated begin adding the broth, a ladle at a time. Add more broth as the rice absorbs it, until the rice reaches the al dente stage.

In the meantime, pit the prunes, and dice them.

Wash and dry the zucchini, and use a potato peeler to remove strips of green zucchini skin, which will act as garnish. Heat the oil in a small skillet and sauté the strips of skin until crisp. Drain them on absorbent paper.

The other thing to do is lightly broil the pancetta; if you don't have a boiler you can simply cook it in a skillet as you might bacon. Drain the cooked pancetta on absorbent paper.

When the rice reaches the al dente stage, carefully stir in the prunes, the remaining butter, the cheese, and season to taste with a little white pepper. Cover the pot and let it sit for two minutes.
Spoon the risotto onto four plates, garnish each serving with some of the pancetta and some of the zucchini strips, and serve at once.

The wine? A Rosé might be nice, for example a Bardolino Chiaretto or a Castel del Monte.

Risotto al Rosmarino - Rosemary Risotto

Risotto is generally seasoned with some sort of meat or vegetable, or something creamy. But there are other options, and a risotto seasoned with rosemary will have a delightful woodsy feel and provide a nice change of pace. To serve 4:
  • 4-5 fresh sprigs of rosemary
  • A small onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 2/3 cup (320 g) short grained rice, for example Arborio or Carnaroli
  • 1 quart (1 liter) simmering broth, either meat or vegetable
  • 2/3 cup (30 g) freshly grated Parmigiano
Wash the rosemary, pat it dry, and strip the needles from all but the best looking sprig. Finely chop the stripped needles.

Heat the oil in a pot, and sauté the chopped union until the pieces are translucent. Add the rice and continue to cook, stirring, for another 4-5 minutes. Remove the pot from the fire and stir in the chopped rosemary needles.

Return the pot to the fire and stir in a first ladle of broth. Add more broth as the rice absorbs it, until the rice reaches the al dente stage. As this point add a last drop of broth, stir in the grated cheese, and cover the pot for 2 minutes.

Turn the risotto out onto a heated serving bowl, garnish it with the remaining sprig of rosemary, and serve at once. A wine? White, and I might be tempted by a Greco di Tufo.

Risotto alle Noci - Walnut Risotto
With the arrival of September we enter walnut season, and even though they are available year round, fresh walnuts are nicer, and make for a simple, very tasty fall risotto. To serve 4:

  • A small onion, peeled and chopped
  • 3 tablespoons (45 g) unsalted butter
  • 1 2/3 cup (320 g) short grained rice, for example Arborio or Carnaroli
  • 2/5 cup (100 ml) dry white wine, warmed
  • 1 quart (1 liter) simmering broth, either meat or vegetable
  • 2 ounces (60 g, or about a half cup) chopped walnut meats
  • A pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
  • 2/3 cup (30 g) freshly grated Parmigiano

Sauté the onion in 2 tablespoons of butter until it is translucent. Add the rice and continue to cook, stirring, until the rice is toasted, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle the wine into the rice, stirring, and when it has evaporated begin adding the broth, a ladle at a time. Add more broth as the rice absorbs it, until the rice reaches the al dente stage.

About 5 minutes before the rice is done (figure a cooking time of 12-15 minutes) stir in the chopped walnuts and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg.

Remove the pot from the fire when the rice is al dente; the risotto shouldn't be dry, but rather creamy. Stir in the remaining butter and the grated cheese and let the risotto sit, covered for a couple of minutes. Turn it out onto a warmed serving dish, and serve at once, with a white wine. I might be tempted by a Vermentino dei Colli di Luni, or a Roero Arneis.

This time's proverb is Tuscan: A goccia a goccia s'incava la pietra - drop by drop, water hollows stone.

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, July 31, 2009

Barolo And Barbaresco Vintage Considerations, a Vegetable Gallery, School's Out & More: Being the 162nd issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! The month following Alba Wines was quite hectic, and then Wife Elisabetta managed to free herself from work (it's not easy for Italian MDs, who have to arrange substitutes), so we went to France for a couple of weeks and I fell even further behind.

To begin with, the most recent things on the Italian Wine Review are looks at Montenidoli, which presented some fine older reds and whites at Vinitaly, in addition to excellent current releases of Vernaccia di San Gimignano and Chianti Colli Senesi, Cà Lojera, whose Lugana continues to be spot on year after year, and Carpené Malvolti, whose Prosecco is always pleasant, and whose specialty wines can be very good.

On Italian food I'm still working on the fruit and vegetables gallery -- 64 photos by now. And have begun to assemble an Italian-English glossary, and done a few recipes, notably Panissa, which I knew to be a frugal Ligurian chickpea flour farinata, but have now discovered is a pork-laden rice and beans from the Vercellese region of Piemonte as well.

Murlo: A Restrospective Show
Returning to vintage considerations, I drove up to Alba in the evening, arriving at about 3 AM, and though the trip in and of itself is of little interest, the reason for my leaving so late might be: I was at the opening of a show.

My father was an archaeologist, and after working for several summers excavating Etruscan tombs in Roselle, southwest of Siena, asked Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, one of the great Italian archaeologists, where he would dig for Etruscans in that area. Armed with the list he spend some of the summer of 1965 scouting locations, and in 1966 began excavating Poggio Civitate, a hill overlooking the town of Murlo, about 15 km south of Siena. He hoped to find something other than tombs, and was richly rewarded: On the first day of digging a thick wall emerged from the dirt, and I remember jumping over it. The wall proved to be part of a large structure, and the excavation quickly became one of the most important Etruscan sites in Italy (I have written an itinerary).

Dad hired local workmen to do the actual digging (an this is why a very Communist town welcomed Americans with open arms at the height of the Cold War), while having graduate students manage the trenches and analyze the finds. The students came from all over, and among them was Göran Söderberg, who was the excavation photographer for three years. As such, he spent most of his time snapping pictures of pots and other objects. But he also has a keen eye and an excellent sense of timing, and took a great many candid shots of Dad, fellow students, the workmen, and the residents of Murlo. Shots that he, Professor Ingrid Edlund (who worked at Murlo as a student), and Emilia Muzzi, director of Murlo's Museum, went through, identifying the people, and selecting the best for a small show in the Circolo ARCI (which was once the Communist bar) in Vescovado, the neighboring town that hosts the Comune of Murlo's Town Hall.

The Circolo was packed for the opening, with Armida Ferri, who cooked for the students in the early years, looking very well (she'll be a hundred this year), and a great many others who are much grayer now than they were then. And there were the photos, of those still with us and those who no longer are, and of Murlo as it was, and in some cases still is. I'm glad I went, and glad my children saw it. Göran, who is now an architect, has a nice page dedicated to the show on his site.

2006 Roero & Barbaresco, and 2005 Barolo: Vintage Considerations

The next morning, at Alba, we began with the 2006 Roero, and I confess that I continue to have the same impression of the wine that I have in the past: That Roero has yet to decide what it really wants to be. Because of the sandier nature of Roero's terrains, the Nebbiolo grown there tends to yield wines with richer, more delicate bouquets, but less power than those from Barolo or Barbaresco.

Of course, the grape is only half the equasion. There is also the winemaker, and because of the characteristics of the Nebbiolo, their stylistic preferences -- grace and finesse on the one hand, or power and structure on the other -- are more apparent than they are in either Barolo or Barbaresco. 2006 was a fine vintage, giving those of both schools considerable material to work with, and there are good wines across the spectrum. But one does have to select with care to match one's palate with the winemaker's. Most of the Roero we tasted -- 15 wines -- were 2005. There were also a few bottles of 2005 Roero Riserva, which were considerably weaker, and this is attributable to the weakness of the 2005 vintage.

After Roero, we tasted the 2006 Barbaresco, and here I confess to being much happier. It is a fine vintage, and though the wines are still very young they display a suppleness and power that I found quite invigorating, coupled with fairly rich, fairly tart (in many cases) fruit, and brisk acidities. In short, I think that the 2006 Barbaresco displays considerable aging potential, and while you will have to select a winemaker whose tastes match yours, you will find many fine wines to choose from.

Also tasted a few 2003 Barbaresco Riserva wines, which were a mixed lot. Some displayed the ravages brought by the heat of the summer, but a couple pleasantly surprised me, showing more fruit and depth than I expected to find.

We finished the week with Barolo: the 2005 vintage, and here things were more difficult. As was true in much of the rest of central/northern Italy, the 2005 summer was cool and damp in Piemonte too, and as a result the grapes didn't ripen as well as they might have given more sun and less damp; the problem was compounded by a 10 days of rain during the harvest, from October 3 to 13th, and several producers told me that what they managed to harvest before the 3rd became Barolo, while what they harvested after either became Nebbiolo d'Alba or went to the bottlers. Others smiled as they said that upon hearing the weather report, they went out, started to pick, and didn't stop until it was all in.

Given the climatic situation, the results are what one might expect: Most of the 2005 Barolos are weaker than the 2004s poured last year, and within this framework there are also wines made from grapes picked after the rains began. I'm not saying to avoid them; quite the contrary, because I very much enjoyed some of the wines, which are graceful and elegant in a cool weather key. But it is a vintage that should be approached with care, and when purchasing the wines you should keep in mind that it probably will not be a long-lived vintage.

One important general observation I would like to make is that the pendulum continues to swing back towards the traditionalist (for want of a better term) camp; new French oak continues to be less apparent than it once was, both in the 2006 wines, and in the 2005 Barolo, some of which would have been extremely oaky had it been made a few years ago, because producers would have added wood to compensate for Nature's stinginess. Now, they seem to have decided to leave well enough alone, and I commend them for it; the wines, while not as powerful, are better balanced, more graceful, and more pleasant to drink.

Last thing: In addition to pouring the current vintage, the producers poured (later in the afternoons) bottles of their 1999 vitnages, and these were quite interesting; I am going over my tasting notes now and will also post the notes of the older wines that impressed me the most.

Winding down, a few refreshing dishes that will help keep the heat at bay.

Bruschetta Coi Peperoni, Bruschetta with Bell Peppers

Bruschetta at its simplest is toasted bread (ideally toasted over the coals) rubbed with garlic, drizzled with extravirgin olive oil, and sprinkled with salt. But there are richer options, including tomato bruschetta and bruschetta with canellini (white) beans, and Bell pepper Bruschetta will make a welcome addition to a bruschetta patter on a hot summer day. To serve 4:

  • 4 slices crusty day-old bread
  • 2 bell peppers, of the colors you prefer (yellow and red, for example)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 canned anchovy fillets, rinsed
  • 4 tablespoons extravirgin olive oil

Stem, rib, and seed the peppers. Cut them into strips lengthwise and broil them, skin side up, until the skins are blackened and blistered. Scrape away the skins, running the strips under cool water if need be, and dice the strips. Put them in a bowl.

Peel the garlic, slice it finely, and lay the slices over the peppers. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of olive oil over the peppers, cover, and chill for 2 hours in the refrigerator.

Come time to prepare the bruschetta, toast the bread, either over the coals or in a toaster.

Chop the anchovy fillets and distribute them evenly over the slices. Remove and discard the garlic, spoon the peppers over the toast, sprinkle with the remaining oli, and serve, with a white wine, for example a Sauvignon.

Note: If you like garlic, rather than discarding the garlic, mix the slices into the peppers before marinating them.

Riso al Latte e Limone, Rice with Milk and Lemon

If you visit an Italian supermarket, you're sure to find small containers of fiocchi di latte -- cottage cheese -- in the dairy section. It is primarily consumed by those on diets, and is generally eaten along side salads. But there are other options, including this summery rice dish. To serve 4:

1 2/3 cups (320 g) short grained rice, along the lines of Ribe
1/2 pound (200 g) fine curd cottage cheese
The juice of half a lemon, and some of its zest, julienned
1 clove garlic
The leaves of a sprig of mint
1 tablespoon extravirgin olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

Bring equal volumes of lightly salted water and milk to a boil in a pot and cook the rice until it reaches the proper al dente consistency.

Wash the lemon and squeeze half of it, filtering the juice. Using a paring knife or potato peeler, trim several strips of zest (just the yellow part) and julienne them. Peel and mince the garlic clove.

Wash the mint leaves, pat them dry, and shred them.

In a bowl, combine the cottage cheese, olive oil, lemon juice, half of the lemon zest, garlic, and half of the mint. Season to taste with salt and pepper and mix well.

Drain the rice, turn it into a serving dish, and stir the cottage cheese mixture into it. Garnish with the remaining lemon zest and mint, and serve at once.

The wine? Something light and zesty, for example a Prosecco.

Mele agli Agrumi, Apples with Citrus Fruit

I confess I'm not a great fan of sweets in the summer months. It's simply too hot. Fresh fruit, on the other hand, is quite nice, and here's a nice change of pace with respect to the standard summer peach. To serve 4:

  • 4 golden delicious apples
  • 3 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • An organically grown lime
  • An organically grown orange
  • A packet of vanilla-laced powdered sugar
  • A sprig of mint
  • A pinch of salt

Squeeze the lime and the orange, and combine the juices. Add half the brown sugar, a pinch of salt, and mix well.

Peel and core the apples, then slice them crosswise into thin rounds and put them on a serving dish.

Sprinkle them with the remaining brown sugar, and the citrus juices. Set the dish in the refrigerator, and let it chill for 2 hours.

In the meantime, wash the mint and pat the leaves dry. Remove the zest from the lime and the orange using a paring knife or a potato peeler, and julienne it.

Come time to serve the fruit, dust it with the powdered sugar and garnich it with the zest and the mint leaves.


There are new developments in the Brunello Scandal, and I will discuss them in the next issue. In the meantime, a Calabrian proverb: I dinàri tiègninu i scilli, Money has wings

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 04, 2009

Badia A Coltibuono Opens a Window Onto The Past, and Judy Writes a Book: Being the 161st issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! To begin, I haven't done much on the Italian Wine Review and apologize. On the other hand, I've been putting together a fruit and vegetables gallery on About Italian food, which has a ways to go, but is shaping up nicely.

Badia A Coltibuono: Older Vintages, Or, A Rare View Into The Past

Badia A Coltibuono is one of the older estates in Chianti Classico, and was one of the first to bottle wines -- they still have a very few bottles from the 40s (the occupying Germans drank everything pre-1945), and also bottles from the 50s and 60s. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to a tasting at the Badia that began with the 1946 vintage, so when Emanuela Stucchi Prinetti told me she'd be pouring a number of older vintages this year at Vinitaly, I made plans to attend.

This time she was pouring the 1965, 1970, 1979 and 1995 Chianti Classico Riservas, and before we get to them some background is in order. Like most Tuscan estates, until well after WWII Badia a Coltibuono was farmed through mezzadria, a share cropping system in which the land of the estate was divided into farms, or poderi, each consisting of farm houses and the necessary other buildings (haybarns, stables and such), fields, and vineyards. The poderi were worked by one or more families, and were pretty much self sufficient, producing everything the residents needed to live. But not money, and therefore the mezzadri paid Emanuela's family in kind, with a share of the crops.

This share included wine: The residents of each podere harvested the vineyards they tended, and made the wine in the podere's cellar, under the supervision of someone from the Badia. With the fermentation complete, the Stucchi Prinetti family's share was transferred to the cellars of the Badia, where it went into huge, ancient (centuries old) chestnut casks. And there it stayed: though the family did bottle some Chianti Classico Riserva each year (they didn't begin to bottle Chianti D'Annata until the 1970s), when Maurizio Castelli joined the staff as Badia a Coltibuono's enologist in 1980, he found cask after chestnut cask full of old wine. Good old wine, because the cool dampness of the cellar was such that the wood was in perfect condition, but he had been hired to help modernize the Badia's winemaking, and one of the first orders of business was to replace the old chestnut barrels with oak, which yields wines that are much more approachable. So all of the old vintages were bottled in 1981, and a significant percentage of the bottles went into Badia a Coltibuono's vintage archive.

And now they offer a fascinating look into the past. Everything was different then. Though Sangiovese was the primary varietal, the old wines also contain the white grapes that no longer go into Chianti. Rather than await polyphenolic ripeness (which helps insure concentration), people harvested when sugar concentrations reached a certain level, or -- if they didn't have the tool for measuring grape sweetness -- when the grapes seemed sweet enough to yield about 12% alcohol. There was no destemming and therefore everything went into the fermentation tanks -- seeds, skins, stems (with their vibrantly green tannins) and all. There was no temperature control, and fermentation was empiric. And finally, the wine, which was quite acidic by modern standards, went into chestnut, which -- though the wood was old and therefore didn't contribute much -- yields tannins that have a different, more vegetal feel to them than do the sweet tannins released by oak.

In short, trying to compare the wines made then with those made more recently is rather like trying to compare a one of those beautiful single-cylinder tractors from the 1930s with a modern high-tech tractor with air conditioned cab and living room-worthy stereo system. Yes, they both have four wheels, but... Looking at them for what they are is instead fascinating. So here we go:

Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva 1965
Dealicate leathery almandine ruby with almandine rim paling to brown. Deft bouquet with delicate leaf tobacco and saddle leather mingled with some underbrush as well, and warm acidity. Mature but very much alive. On the palate it's full, with fairly rich sour red berry fruit supported by warm berry fruit acidity and by tannins that combine a deft burr with surprising silkiness and flow into a clean tart savory finish. Graceful, displaying considerable depth and great beauty; it's a wine for wine lovers that will also open the eyes of those who think Chianti inferior to other Tuscan wines -- an emotional experience.

Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva 1970
Garnet ruby with leathery accents and garnet rim. Slightly more orange than the 65. The bouquet is fairly intense, with Moroccan leather and leaf tobacco supported by savory notes and some underbrush. Pleasant though not as rich as the 65. On the palate it's full, with minerality and tart sour berry fruit supported by considerable warmth that flows into a clean, long warm finish. Very fine, and has a lot to say; it isn't quite as deft as the 65, and this is an effect of vintage variation.

Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva 1979
Tawny brownish almandine with almandine rim. The bouquet is quite tertiary, with bitter green leather and leaf tobacco that bring to mind old leather book bindings, together with tart chestnut leaves and wet underbrush. On the palate it's ample, and warm, with moderately intense warm sour cherry fruit supported by rather tart graceful acidity and by smooth tannins that flow into a tart leathery finish. Of the three older wines it's the weakest, but does display a pleasing lacy grace, and is a wine that still has quite a bit to say.
2 stars

Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva 1995
A huge jump: Just Sangiovese, temperature regulation in the fermentation, and oak rather than chestnut in the cellars. The wine is deep garnet ruby with brown reflections and almandine rim; the color is deeper and more ruby/less garnet than that of the older wines, an this is an effect of oak as opposed to chestnut. The bouquet is delicate, with green leather and leaf tobacco supported by spice and deft dried apricot acidity, also pleasing savory accents, and it develops nicely in the glass, opening beautifully. On the palate it's full and rich, with cherry fruit supported by smooth sweet tannins and delicate lacy acidity that flows into a clean tart finish. The wine is quite different from the older wines: they display a greenish chestnuty imprint and the tannins are more biting, thanks to the stems; whereas here the tannic matrix is sweeter -- a mixture of grape and oak, and this translates into a more delicate wine. The older wines are brisker, and owe their long life both to acidity and to the tannic structure; the 95 (and other vintages made this way) will not be like the 65 when they reach its age. This said, even though 1995 was not the best of vintages, the wine has held up quite nicely.

Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva 2005
Lively cherry ruby with cherry rim. The bouquet is deft, with cherry fruit supported by clean vegetal accents and spice, Nice balance, and pleasant to sniff. On the palate it's full, rich, and graceful, with pleasant tart berry fruit supported by clean fresh slightly splintery tannins that flow into a clean finish with some savory minerality. It is a slightly greener, cool weather wine -- the 2005 summer was wet and cold, after all -- but is a very pleasant food wine that will go nicely with succulent red meats of the grill or out of the oven, and will also age nicely for 8-10 years.
2 stars

A barrel sample of the 2006 Chianti Classico Riserva promises very well.

This takes care of the Chianti Classico Riserva Vertical, which was beautiful. Emanuela had another vertical as well, of Sangioveto, a barrique aged 100% Sangiovese they introduced in 1980, calling it Sangioveto to increase worldwide awareness of the Sangiovese grape, which was then relatively unknown. At the time Chianti Classico required the addition of white grapes, so they labeled it as a Vino da Tavola, or table wine (where it joined the ranks of other now classic Tuscan wines including Tignanello and Le Pergole Torte). With the changes that have taken place in the regulations governing Chianti production, Sangioveto could now qualify as Chianti Classico, if it weren't for the name -- the regulations prohibit the use of grape names. So Sangioveto is an IGT Toscana. To keep this from going too far into wine, I am posting the Sangioveto vertical and my notes for the other older vintages of Chianti Classico (1946, 1959, 1962, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1976, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1993) on the Italian Wine Review.

Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen
And now, moving in a Very Different Direction: I have known Judy Witts Francini online since the early 1990s, and though we have written back and forth and live not far from each other, we had never chanced to meet. Until last weekend, when she presented her new cookbook, Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen, up at Dario Cecchini's butcher shop in Panzano.

It's beautifully put together, with a pretty cover drawing and a nice subtitle -- Divina Cucina's Recipes -- a reference to her cooking school -- and the Tuscan Husband Seal of Approval, to say her husband Andrea has tried and approved of everything in the book. And, inside, there's a nice custom font that looks hand-written. Of course aesthetics will only take one so far with a cookbook; what counts is the recipes, and Judy doesn't let us down:

She begins with a section on organizing a Tuscan pantry, with the ingredients one should have handy (dried beans, dried mushrooms, canned tomatoes and so on), continues with notes on the organization of the day -- breakfast, snack times and meal times -- and continues with about a hundred recipes, beginning with antipasti and continuing with first courses, main courses, quite a few side dishes, desserts, and (finally) several bread recipes. The recipes are on the right-hand pages, while the left-hand pages are lined, for notes.

To give a better idea, here's:

Braciole alla Livornese, Twice-Cooked Beef
  • 4 thin beef slices, trimmed of any fat
  • 1-2 c flour
  • 1 egg, beaten with a pinch of salt
  • 1 c breadcrumbs
  • Oil for frying

  • 1 garlic clove
  • extravirgin olive oil
  • 1 large can tomatoes
  • salt

Prepare the beef for frying:
Lightly flour, then pass in the beaten egg and dip in the breadcrumbs, pressing to be sure they stick well on both sides. You can do this twice if you like.
Refrigerate the beef.

Prepare the sauce:
Sauté the garlic and chili flakes in the olive oil.
When the garlic starts to get golden, remove the pan from the heat and add the canned tomatoes, crushing the tomatoes into small pieces.
Salt to taste. Let the sauce cook for 20 minutes.

Fry the beef slices in hot oil until golden.
Remove from the oil and let drain on a paper towel

Place the beef slices in a single layer in the tomato sauce and cook until tender, about 20 minutes.

In classic Italian style, Judy leaves the amount of chili flakes up to you -- if you're mildly tongued, like my daughter, you might omit them, whereas if you're asbestos-tongued, like a Livornese, you might want a teaspoon. The homey trattoria in Florence where I often enjoy this takes the middle route, and serves them up moderately spicy. They're perfect with a tossed salad and a glass of red wine, and the book is quite nice too; if you have a foodie friend it's the sort of thing you might want two of, one for you and one for the friend.

Practical Information:
Secrets from my Tuscan Kitchen
Judy Witts Francini, 2009
Nidiaci, San Gimignano
ISBN 0-9764066-1-6
For more about Judy, and to order the book, see

And for photos of the presentation (and Dario Cecchini's shop in Panzano) see James Martin's gallery, at

One recipe, and there will be more next time. This time's proverb is Tuscan: Se il prestar fosse buono, si prestarebbe anche la moglie - If lending were a good thing, one would even lend one's wife.

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

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Michela's Herb Patch, Colle Val D'Elsa and More: Being the 160th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! This is a bit late, because I was out for a week at Vinitaly, the major Italian wine trade show, and then we had Easter, with all the preparations and activities. Speaking of which, I trust all who celebrated the holidays had pleasant Easters and Passovers.

Returning to Vinitaly, it was more subdued than it has been in past years, and a number of winemakers told me that orders were off, with not as many people placing orders, and those who did ordering significantly less than they did last year, especially of the more expensive wines. Also, the rush of restaurant and other food industry people that usually occurs on Monday, the last day of the show, was much less intense than normal, to the point that a number of people told me they could have packed up and headed home early without loss. With any luck, next year will be more profitable.

I of course took full advantage of the show to taste until late Monday afternoon; the highlights I will be writing about include Montefalco, which has a lot more than Sagrantino to offer, Ortrugo, a white from the Ortrugo grape varietal in the Colli Piacentini, which had almost disappeared but is now being planted anew, and Romagna's vini della Sabbia, which are produced in the sandy coastal zone between the mouths of the Po and Rubicon Rivers, in part from vines that are on native root stock because the Phylloxera bug doesn't like sand and therefore avoids the area. The other thing that really impressed me at Vinitaly was a Badia a Coltibuono vertical going back to the 60s, which opened a door onto a very different world. Beautiful wines, too.

I have already begun to post notes from Vinitaly on the IWR, and have, so far, discussed Fattoria di Lucignano, a very nice, very traditional Chianti Colli Fiorentini and Tedeschi, whose Valpolicella is as impressive as ever. Isole e Olena (and the wines they make in Piemonte) I instead tasted at Isole, because Paolo De Marchi was mobbed at Vinitaly.

The latest things on Italian food are instead a collection of Italian steak recipes, a simple, tasty beef and pork stew from Adriana Begali, and Michela's healthy legume-based Minestrone

The Michela in question is Michela Cariolaro, who with her husband Carlo Sittizia runs Palazzetto Ardi, an agriturismo not far from Gambellara, mid-way between Vicenza and Verona. Michela and Carlo farm organically, and as one might expect, Michela, who is a trained chef, makes extensive use of things from the fields. I usually visit them the day after Vinitaly, and generally end up spending hours in the kitchen taking notes and photos; this time I also found myself crawling about outside squinting at what's growing now.

Michela began by pointing out Silene Inflata, which is called Sculpit in English. In the Vicentino it's also known as Schioppettino (crackler) because it develops white blossoms farm kids enjoy crackling. Its flavor is a cross between artichokes and spinach, and one eats the leaves and budding tips, both raw and cooked.

She next steered me to a Tarasacco, or dandelion plant. Until March, one can eat the tiny freshly sprouted leaves raw in salads, or with cubes of polenta and browned pancetta. Larger leaves, before the plants blossom, can be scalded and rubbed with lard or garlic as a cooked vegetable. The other thing one can do with a dandelion is harvest the flower buds when they're still buttons close to the ground, i.e. before they begin to rise up on stocks. They're called capperi di tarasacco (tarasacco capers) and are treated like capers -- either salted, or blanched in vinegar and then pickled in the vinegar. Michela also uses them as she would capers, to flavor dishes.

She next pointed out nettles; she uses the freshly sprouted smaller, tenderer leaves, picking them while wearing gloves and blanching them before using them -- they're a nice addition to soups, pasta fillings (ricotta and nettles instead of ricotta and spinach), and are also nice in a frittata (nettle frittata instead of spinach frittata). If the prospect of preparing nettles seems daunting, Kari Diehl shows how in a nicely illustrated article.

After nettles we looked at Parietaria, which derives its Italian name from the fact that it grows on walls (pareti); its English names include pellitory of the wall and lichwort, and though it is a member of the nettle family it doesn't sting. The leaves are abrasive and finely haired, however, and because of this, farmers used to use large plants to clean bottles and demijohns. One can eat the smaller plants, however, using them as one might sage (with butter) to flavor stuffed pasta, and also in meatless pasta fillings. Michela notes that paretaria is extremely rich in iron, more than spinach.

The last thing we looked at was Chenopodio, Chenopodium album, which is called fat-hen and white goose foot, among other things, in English. It's very rich in iron, and can substitute for spinach when newly sprouted. After a couple of months, however, it becomes several feet tall and its stem becomes as tough as a thick wire, while the leaves become coated with a white, abrasive powder; at this point itìs perfect for cleaning bottles.

This was just a sampling -- we didn't look at obvious things such as rosemary or sage -- and we then returned to the kitchen, where she finished making her minestrone.

What does this all mean? Most of these herbs are defined erbacce -- weeds -- in the Italian edition of Wikipedia, and all seemed to be growing spontaneously; if you have access to a field that hasn't been treated with chemicals you'll likely find similar richness, though if you're not familiar with the plants I would pick up a good herb guide in a bookshop and also ask a local gardener for advice.

Colle Val D'Elsa
Moving in a very different direction, an itinerary dedicated to Colle Val D'Elsa, which looks, if one drives past it on the Florence-Siena highway, like just another dingy industrial town. But there's quite a bit more than meets the eye. This itinerary assumes you are coming from Volterra:

After you have had breakfast, gather your things and leave Volterra, following the signs for Colle Val'D'elsa and Siena. Very pretty scenery, and you'll understand where the Renaissance Masters got their inspiration. After about 20 km you will reach the imposing bulk of Colle's Porta Nuova. Bear left.

Assuming that it is a weekday and you made an appointment, your first stop will be the Vilca glassworks, which also provides interesting insights into Colle's history.

During the Roman period the residents had lived down in the valley, but withdrew to the safety of the heights with the arrival of the Dark Ages. In the 10th century the area belonged to the Aldobrandeschi family, which built a castle on the hilltop. Due to its position dominating the Val D'Elsa it was highly strategic real estate; Florence and Siena skirmished over it repeatedly, until the residents put themselves in the hands of the Florentines in 1107. The Florentines repaid their trust by fortifying the entire town. Considering how perilous times were this must have been a great relief. Florence also changed the town's name from Piticcino to Castrum Collis, which eventually became Colle.

Thus was born the first nucleus of Colle, perched on top of the hill. In the meantime, the surrounding territory was evolving: In the 1150s the Sienese and other local nobles attempted to limit Florence's growing power by laying out an alternate route for the Via Franchigena, the pilgrimage route to Rome, that avoided Florentine territory. Colle was equidistant from the new and old routes; its strategic importance increased, and as a result so did its population, an increase also stimulated by the edicts adopted in 1173 that gave settlers land and other privileges. During this period Colle declared itself a Free Commune, and in 1181 extended the city walls to include Borgo dei Franchi, a hamlet down the hill by the river. Free did not mean alone, and Colle's governors mixed their blood with that of the Florentine dignitaries who came to watch construction begin, then mixed the blood with the mortar used in the wall, thus cementing a perpetual alliance.

Colle continued to grow, and in the following century the Mendicant Orders arrived, the Franciscans building their convent on the next hill over form the town and connecting it to the town gate via a causeway, while the Augustines took over and expanded an old parish church down on the valley floor. In the meantime industry flowered. Wool played an important part in the economy, and the river was transformed into a series of channels that made it possible to build paper mills. Money flowed in and people built; in the late 1200s the walls were extended a third time, in the direction of Volterra.

In 1338 Florence took direct control of Colle. Unlike many other towns that declined following their loss of independence, Colle grew more, expanding the paper mills, working iron, establishing glassworks, and introducing one of Italy's first printing presses, in 1478. Of the various industries, glass working was perhaps the most successful: in 1577 Cosimo I declared that no "foreign glass" was to be used within his dominions.

During this period things weren't all peace and growth, of course. Siena and Florence fought constantly. And Florence had other enemies as well; in 1478 the Armies of the Pope besieged Colle. Unsuccessfully, and as a result the Colligiani were granted Florentine citizenship after peace was negotiated.

Returning to glass, though Colle is now the primary producer of Italian lead crystal, the tradition only goes back to the mid-1800s. It was begun by a French family, the Mathis, which was drawn to the area by the ready supply of the raw materials. They employed only French workmen, at great cost, and foundered commercially; in the late 1800s they were bought out by a German named Schmid, who trained local workers to man the furnaces and produce the pieces.

Though most of the modern factories are industrial and closed to the public, the Vilca factory continues to do things by hand; the work day begins in the afternoon, when the crucibles are filled with the raw materials and the furnaces are fired up to make the crystal, which is kept at a temperature of about 1,000 C throughout the night. The master glass blowers arrive at 5 in the morning and work through until 1 in the afternoon, two producing stemware (goblets, glasses and other vessels), and the third doing sculptures; they're helped by a bevy of assistants, some who see to primary shaping, and others who make sure the masters have a steady supply of glass and the other things they might need. It's a hot, noisy, carefully orchestrated dance that's fascinating to watch. Once blown the pieces are annealed for 5 hours, lest they crack from over-rapid cooling, and are then ground to remove imperfections and rough spots.

To reach Vilca, turn right at the Porta Nuova parking lot and enter Colle Alta through Via della Porta Vecchia, going by an imposing round bastion built to defend the walls, a Renaissance pillbox, as it were. The road goes down the hill; bear right on Via XX Settembre. You'll pass through the Porta Guelfa, one of the few surviving 13th century gates, and should then follow the signs for Grosseto. It's about 2 km, and Vilca is on the right, 300 m after the bridge over the Elsa River. The tour takes about an hour, and ends with a visit to the showroom. They don't do much in the way of colored crystal, but do have a strikingly beautiful line of decorative pieces that are aswirl with gold dust.

It will by now likely be late morning. Return towards Colle and park in Piazza Arnolfo. Exit the square to the left of the station on Via Traversa Stazione, turn right onto Via Spugna, and follow it past a rather messy intersection to where it narrows considerably, and stops by a tiny tenth century church, S. Maria a Spugna. If you look down at the river from here you can see traces of the medieval channels, and also, on the far bank, a pylon from a bridge designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, the renowned architect who also began Florence's Santa Maria Novella. It was swept away by a flood in 1806, but drawings show it as a daring arched span that must have been quite pretty. Return towards the center of town, cross Piazza Arnolfo, and follow Via Dei Fossi to Piazza Sant'Agostino. The uncompleted façade is Sienese Gothic (the bell tower was added in 1900), while the interior, was reworked by Antonio da Sangallo the elder. It has a number of pleasant late 16th century paintings, and it's odd to see some of them leaned against a wall in the transept. Exit the square to the right for a better look at Porta Guelfa.

At this point you may be thinking about lunch. Gambero Rosso's Restaurant Guide speaks highly of the Ristorante Arnolfo in Piazza Santa Caterina (Colle Alta; Tel 0577 920 549, closed Tuesdays), but also notes that it's expensive. For a pleasant, reasonably priced meal, try the Osteria La Ghiotta, on Via Piave del Piano, just off from Sant'Agostino (Tel 0577 920 231, closed Sundays). Assuming you eat at the Osteria, retrieve your car and drive through town, turning left at the sign for Volterra.

The road follows the hillside flanking Colle Alta and offers an excellent view of the hilltop town. Follow it to the Porta Nuova parking lot, and then walk up the hill to the imposing Porta Nuova, , built in the late 1400s by Antonio da Sangallo to replace the gate damaged in the siege of 1478.

Colle's homes and palaces provide further evidence that the town remained prosperous after coming under Florentine sway, rather than become a provincial backwater: many are built in High Renaissance style, and this means that their owners could still afford to build in the 1500s (think, by way of comparison, of the almost exclusively mediaeval architecture of Certaldo or San Gimignano). Follow Via Gracco del Secco down the hill, past the Ospedale di San Lorenzo, founded by Fulvio Usimbardi in the 16th century. Facing it is the Conservatorio di San Pietro, which trained generations of students. It was founded in 1610 by Pietro Usimbardi, who was Bishop of Arezzo at the time, and built following plans by Giorgio Vasari. The complex, which has two pretty cloisters, also has some elegant Florentine Baroque works, including a painting by Pietro Dandini over the altar.

Continue down the street to Piazza Santa Caterina, a pretty square with a modern fountain. The church, which dates to the XV century, is simple but pleasant. From here bear left onto Via Campana; the elegant brickwork building to the left with stone moldings and Medici coat of arms is Palazzo Renieri e Portigiani, now the town hall.

Piticcino, the original nucleus of the town that was rebaptized Castrum Collis in 1107, is at the other end of the bridge. Palazzo Campana, which doubles as an extraordinarily elegant gate, was built in 1539 by Giuliano di Baccio d'Agnolo for a man who, among other things, dealt with antiquities, and asked that the design include Etruscan elements. Pass through the archway and follow Via del Castello to Piazza del Duomo.

The first thing you will see is the Palazzo Pretorio, the Renaissance seat of government, which was recently transformed into a very interesting archaeological museum. The ground floor has several rooms dedicated to Medieval and Renaissance Colle, with models by a local artist of landmarks, including Arnolfo's bridge, and a number of decorative architectural elements. There are also the town jail cells, which were used until well into this century: One graffito, signed W L'Anarchia (Long Live Anarchy), warns Communists, Socialists and Republicans to beware of those "who grow fat in the shadow of the flag." An obvious reference to the Fascists, and one of the custodians says it was likely written by someone who was put in the clink to keep him from making trouble during the visit of a Fascist dignitary (this was common practice).

The second floor is equally interesting, with a beautiful collection of Etruscan artifacts from nearby tombs that are very well laid out; in particular there's the skull of a young woman whose gold earring is still in place, and a funerary urn that has a roof tile fitted over the sculpture of the couple whose ashes are within. The frescos on the walls are instead a pleasant surprise. Nobody knew about them when the renovations necessary to house the museum began; once they were discovered, after much of the work was done, what remained was restored, and now one can enjoy examining them from close up. Museum hours: Weekdays 5-7 PM and Sundays & holidays 10-12 AM as well; in winter weekdays 3:30-5:30 PM and Sundays & holidays 10-12 as well; closed Mondays.

The Duomo, next door, was built in 1603 to celebrate Colle's erection to a bishopric, and you can see some of the Romanesque elements of the earlier Sant'Alberto it replaced in the walls, most notably a series of arches. The interior is rather cavernous, but has a number of pleasant 17th century artworks. Continue along Via del Castello; at this point you are entering the medieval section of town, and the atmosphere is very different. After about 100 yards you will come to the Palazzo dei Priori, the seat of the Mediaeval Government, which hosts the showrooms of Colle's Consorzio del Cristallo on the ground floor, and has, upstairs, the Museo Civico e D'Arte Sacra, with a number of works from local country churches, funerary urns, and a collection of silver for celebrating communion dating to the VI century. Museum Hours: April 1 - Oct 1 Mon-Sun 10-12, 4-7; in winter Sat-Sun 10-12, 3:30-6:30.

When you have finished exploring the museum, continue down Via del Castello. The tall tower home with the plaque was home to Arnolfo di Cambio, the architect who built the bridge over the Elsa and designed Florence's Duomo. Continue on down to the end of the street, which opens out onto a large battlement that offers a beautiful view over the valley. To return, take via Muro Lungo, which offers more pretty views over the valley, and opens into Via Delle Romite. Turn left, and right at the second side street, towards Piazza del Duomo. Just as you enter Piazza del Duomo you will see, to your left, a vaulted street appropriately called Via delle Volte. More than a hundred yards of vaulting, and the feeling is unique. It will lead you back to Palazzo Campana and the gate to the newer part of town.

Places to stay:
Colle has a number of hotels. If you'd like to stay in Colle Alta, there's the Hotel Arnolfo in Via Campana 8; tel 0577 922020, Fax 0577 922324

Things to see and do:
During the first three weekends of September Colle hosts the Mostra del Cristallo, a show dedicated to the town's crystal production, with roundtables dedicated to the foods and wines that will go best with the wares.
For more information check Colle's Rete Civica, or, for crystal,

I had planned to finish with a couple of recipes, but this is quite long enough. This time's proverb is from the Veneto: No tor mai consegi da zent andada in malora - Never accept advice from those who have gone bad.

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