Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sbrisolona Veronese & More: Being the 170th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! The latest on the Italian Wine Review are looks at Chianti Colli Fiorentini and Ribolla Gialla. On Italian Food I have posted illustrated instructions for making Zuppa Inglese, and am continuing to work on several image galleries.

While we're on the subject of About.Com, I wanted to note that Barbara Rolek, our Guide to Eastern European foods, has put together a nice collection of Christmas breads from around the world. Check it out, because you're certain to find something of interest.

Turning to Cosa Bolle, last spring we spent a weekend around lake Garda (and enjoyed some excellent Bardolino) and, since Elisabetta and the kids were going home by train while I was going on to Alba for Nebbiolo Prima, had lunch at the Calmiere in Verona. The bollito misto was -- as always -- wonderful even if it was warm out, and afterwords E and I opted for Sbrisolona Veronese, which is a thin, crisp almondy shortbread liberally sprinkled with grappa,

E wondered how it was made. Our waiter smiled, and a few minutes later returned with a sheet of paper that says:

  • 1 k (2 1/4 pounds) unsalted butter
  • 1 k (2 1/4 pounds) cake flour
  • 1 k (2 1/4 pounds) fairly finely ground (but not powdery) cornmeal
  • 1 k (2 1/4 pounds) sugar
  • 1 k (2 1/4 pounds) blanched peeled almonds, coarsely chopped or crushed (they should be fragmented)
  • 2 eggs
  • 100g (about 100 ml, or 2/5 cup) plain white grappa (as opposed to barique-aged grappa, which is tawny)
  • 175 C (350 F) oven for 15 minutes

It's bare-bones, but quite sufficient, and reveals its professional origins by the way it calls for everything, even the liquid, by weight. And it is quite easy, though as is it makes enough to feed a multitude -- if you decide to prepare it for just your immediate family you can safely halve the ingredients.

How to proceed? Have the butter at room temperature. Cream it with the sugar, then add the flours, almonds, grappa, and egg. Work the mixture quickly until it forms a uniform dough that holds together, but not further.

While you are doing this, preheat your oven to 350 F (175 C). Lightly grease several cookie sheets (or cover them with oven parchment) and spread the dough out on them to a thickness of a little less than a half inch (1 cm). Bake the sbrisolona for 15 minutes; it should turn pale gold, but not brown.

When the sbrisolona has cooled break it into 3-4 inch (7-10 cm) pieces. To serve it, put a couple of pieces on a dessert plate, sprinkle them with grappa, and enjoy.

Store what you don't eat in a cookie box that seals well.

Well, here you have it, and the only addition I make to the recipe is a couple of pinches of salt, to contrast the sweetness of the sugar and the almonds.

Enrico Bernard

Moving in a different direction, when I said I was going to the Salone del Gusto, a friend suggested I stop by Enrico Bernard's stand and taste his liqueurs. I'm glad I did, because his liqueurs are extraordinary. He lives in Pomaretto, a town nestled in the Valle Germanasca, southwest of Torino, and hikes up into the Alpi Cozie to gather the richly aromatic herbs he uses to make his liqueurs.

His flagship liqueur is Amaro Barathier, an infusion of seven herbs whose formula has been handed down from generation to generation. It's about 20% alcohol, and though it is an amaro is fairly sweet, intentionally, because sweetness balances the bitterness of the herbs and also provides fullness and mouthfeel, and he notes that this is why many home-made liqueurs are fairly sweet.

He makes a number of other liqueurs as well, including two versions of Gennepi, the region's signature liqueur, which is an infusion of the blossoms of the artemisia plant -- Gennepi Des Alpes is an infusion of Artemisia mutellina blossoms picked at elevations ranging between 1600 and 3400 meters, and Gennepi Bianco, which is, as its name suggests, colorless, and is made by suspending the blossoms in a basket over the alcohol, whose vapors extract the essences and flavor the alcohol when they recondense back into it.

Genzianella is made from Genziana (Gentiana in English) blossoms gathered above 1500 meters, and he also makes an astonishingly aromatic liqueur called Sërpoul from the blossoms of timo serpillo (Breckland Thyme, Wild Thyme or Creeping Thyme in English), a thyme found at elevations between 1500 and 2500 meters.

They are among the finest liqueurs I have ever tasted, and their quality is entirely dependent upon the herbs and blossoms, which, because of the elevations at which they grow, have extremely high concentrations of aromatic compounds. Enrico doesn't use anything else in his liqueurs, aside from spring water and sugar, and says that if the ingredients list on the back of a liqueur includes "aromi naturali," it was made with something else in addition to the blossoms that he uses to flavor his liqueurs.

It was a very pleasant, instructive stop, and I found myself wishing I was more familiar with floral scents, because I don't know enough to be able to identify the individual blossoms and their components, and therefore couldn't write much, either about the initial sips or about how the liqueurs developed in the glass, because they did, revealing a tremendous variety of facets.

Drawbacks? One, related to the Salone: there were hundreds of people milling about in front of the stand, and since I had individual glasses of the liqueurs, people kept reaching for them, and a couple did disappear. If you want to know more about Enrico and his liqueurs, check his site,
A couple more recipes

Winding down, Christmas is soon going to be upon us. In many parts of Italy it is custom to eat fish on Christmas Eve, and though there is no set menu, Capitone, or eel, is extremely popular. This recipe for lemony fried eel is Neapolitan.

  • 2 1/2 pounds (1.2 k) cleaned capitone (eel), cleaned
  • 2-3 bay leaves
  • Flour
  • 2 cups oil for frying
  • Salt
  • Lemon wedges

Rub the fish with a cloth to remove the mucus eel secrete, wash the fish under cool running water, and pat it dry inside and out with paper towels.

Cut the fish into 4-inch (10 cm) lengths and flour them, shaking the pieces briskly to remove excess flour.

Heat the oil in a pot or fryer, add the bay leaves, and when the oil is hot nut not terrifically hot, fry the fish, a few pieces at a time lest the oil cool, until they are golden.

Drain the fish on absorbent paper, salt it, and serve it at once with lemon wedges.

Serves 6

On Christmas Day it is instead custom to eat meat, and this rich golden sformato di riso will be quite nice. If you set it in a ring mold, it could also double as a container for a thick stew, though you may want to just leave it as a ring, because it is pretty.

  • 3 cups (600 g, or 1 1/3 pounds) carnaroli or other short-grained rice, for example arborio or vialone nano
  • 1/2 pound (212 g) smoked scamorza cheese (scamorza is similar to young caciocavallo, but a touch creamier), diced
  • 1/2 pound (212 g) sliced speck
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 1/2 cups (120 g) freshly grated Parmigiano or Grana Padano
  • 1 healthy pinch of saffron, steeped in a quarter cup of the hot broth
  • 1 quart (1 l) vegetable broth, simmering
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat the butter in a broad pot and toast the rice for 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.

Gradually add the saffron to the rice, and when the rice has absorbed the liquid add the remaining broth and simmer for 10 minutes, without stirring.

Preheat your oven to 360 F (180 C).

The rice will probably not absorb all the liquid; drain away most of it, and put the rice into a fairly large bowl. Season it with the diced scamorza, the grated cheese, salt and pepper to taste, and mix well.

Line a ring mold whose size is proportionate to that of the rice (ideally a springform pan) with the speck, arranging the pieces so they make a spiraling pattern. Fill the mold with the rice, pressing down to compact it well, and bake it for 15 minutes.

Upon removing the rice from the oven, cover the mold with a serving plate, and flip the mod and the plate together. Lift away the mold, leaving the corona on the serving plate, and serve at once.

Serves 8-10

This time's proverb is from Molise: Acqua passata nen macina muline - the water that has already flowed past the mill will not turn the wheel.

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, December 09, 2010

American Ingredients & More: Being the 168th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! This has been a busy week, though it will be a little while before I have much to show for it (other than an illustrated recipe for Pettole, Apulian Christmas bread fritters, and my impressions of the 2006 Barolo: I spent a couple of days tasting wines approved by the Tuscan regional wine tasting commission, and then, when I saw blue skies on Monday, grabbed the opportunity to go take pictures of olive presses in action: Capezzana's which is quite modern, and Francesco Nardi's, which is older than he thought -- he recently found documents authorizing it dating to 1919, and a picture of the press proper dating to 1901. I'll be adding pictures of Capezzana's press, and its orciaia, a hall with the huge terracotta urns called orce that were traditionally used to store oil, which is by now one of the few left in Tuscany, while you can already see photos of Francesco's press in operation here.

Actually, the reason there is still an orciaia at Capezzana is quite interesting:

Growing olives and making oil is extremely labor-intensive: the trees must be pruned after the harvest and fertilized, and then come spring and into the summer months the ground cover must be kept from running wild, while the trees must be treated to prevent outbreaks of various parasites, and if it's damp or worse yet rainy the treatments have to be repeated more frequently. Then comes the harvest, which must be done quickly and by hand, followed by the pressing, which must again happen as quickly as possible, because the olives begin to deteriorate from the moment they are picked. Considering the returns, which are 10-15% by weight -- 100 kilos of olives will yield 10-15 kilos, or about 10-15 liters of oil -- it's a great deal of work for not that much return, even at the prices quality oil can fetch.

As a result, the Contini Bonacossi family considered olive oil to be a secondary crop, and while the harvest was done following the rules to the letter, also because it takes place after the grape harvest, when the field hands are free, pruning and such came after tending the vines. In other words, grass did grow up around the trees between mowings, and though the trees did all get pruned, not every tree got pruned every year.

Then the family had a brilliant idea: Why not establish a cooperative to make the oil? They would supply the trees, and the press, while those who joined, initially mostly retired farm hands, would tend the trees and harvest the olives, and they would split production 50-50. It has worked out better than anyone expected, with the trees responding to the considerably better care they now get (Filippo Bonacossi tells me that people stop by at all hours to tend the trees entrusted them) by producing more, and better quality olives than they ever had before. Production is up, Filippo is planting more trees, and the children of those who initially signed up are signing up too.

And where do the orce come in? While they were originally used to store the estate's olive oil, they now are used to store the shares of the individual members of the cooperative -- it is easier from an administrative standpoint to keep people's shares separate than it is to put them into tanks and tell the members they have x% of tank y. Quality, you wonder? Steel, with an inert atmosphere is much better that terracotta urns with wooden lids, but the members of the cooperative pick up their oil quickly.

And where does the Contini Bonacossi family's share go? Into steel tanks, and then, quickly, into bottle and on to the shippers, because their olive oil is in hot demand.

The Americas in Sardegna

This year at the Salone del Gusto the Regione Sardegna organized a conference on the influence of the Americas on Sardinian cooking, and I attended, expecting to hear about peppers and tomatoes, and perhaps potatoes and corn. Instead they talked primarily about prickly pears and beans, and it was quite interesting.

For me a bit of a surprise, too, because the Italian term for prickly pear is Fico D'India, or Indian Fig, and I had always assumed the India mentioned was the Asian Subcontinent, not Columbus's Indies, i.e. Central America.

But they are from Central America, and had a profound influence upon the topography and agriculture of Sardinia. Not as food, though Sardinians, like those in other parts of Europe where the prickly pear was introduced, do eat the fruit (unlike Mexicans, they never did think to eat the paddle-like leaves), and also transform it into tasty marmalades and sapa, a sweet fruit concentrate.

Rather, they took advantage of the ease with which prickly pears grow under arid conditions, and replaced the stone fences traditionally used to mark the boundaries of the fields with imposing prickly pear paddle palisades. Which did require pruning, because prickly pears are invasive if not kept in check, but that also captured moisture and returned some of it to the ground during the drier seasons, thereby helping the other crops to grow.

A fence that supplies both food and moisture isn't at all bad, and if you drive through the arid parts of Sardegna you'll still see prickly pear fences. Nor are they obsolete; the same ability to capture moisture that made them important in the days before irrigation is important now that groundwater is becoming scarcer and the costs of pumping water are increasing.

Corn? It was introduced in more humid areas of the island, and used to make popcorn, polenta, and also cornbread. Potatoes were instead introduced late, in the 1700s, and heavily promoted by both the clergy and the functionaries of the Savoy government, though they didn't become popular until people figured out what to do with them (early attempts to use them to make bread were less than successful). Tomatoes? They were introduced in the 1700s, and though we now tend to think of them as being used fresh, or at the most canned, before the development of canning and refrigeration a significant portion of the crop was dried and stored.

After these brief mentions, we came to beans, which are culturally quite interesting. Since commercially raised white and dark beans are readily available and have been for quite some time, one might have expected to find them in people's fields throughout Sardegna. But this is not the case; botanists who did studies of the beans grown in the fields and vegetable patches of small farmers found that most of the beans being grown are genetically quite distinct from those preferred by agribusiness.

And quite diverse; beans are original to a large swath of land extending from Mexico to the Andes, and as one might expect given the size of the source area, there are differences from place to place. Andean beans tend to be larger than Mexican beans, and also have different genetic markers in their proteins. About 70% of the beans found in old Sardinian bean patches can be traced to the Andes, and the remaining 30 to Central America; the researchers suspect, and it would make sense, that the farmers who first planted the fields selected Andean beans because of their larger size.

Of course the beans have not remained unchanged since their arrival in Sardegna; they have to the contrary adapted to the local terroirs, and now present an astonishing variety of shades and hues. To further complicate matters, the researchers told us that in many cases beans that look quite similar are genetically distinct.

And why are we still finding these old cultivars in the fields despite the flood of modern commercial seeds? Because people become attached to them; the plants that were grown by parents and grandparents become a link to them, and therefore modern-day farmers continue to plant them. In other words, the fields become a link to childhood, and to those who have gone before.

And what influence did beans have on the Sardinian diet? While they were and are an extremely important source of protein, and in this sense had a major impact, they had a considerably smaller culinary influence because they simply replaced other legumes the Sardinians had already been using.

Winding down, a couple of recipes

Minestra di Fagioli, Finocchetto e Patate, Bean, wild Fennel and Potato Soup

This is a Sardinian recipe, and will be quite filling. In addition to beans it includes wild fennel, of which one eats the fronts, and in this case I don't think I would substitute bulb fennel, because the result won't be quite right.

  • 2/3 pound (300 g) freshly shelled beans
  • 2/3 pound (300 g, or two bunches) wild fennel fronds
  • Slightly more than a half pound (250 g) potatoes
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) plum tomatoes (canned will work)
  • 1/3 pound (150 g) dry short pasta (ditalini, and whatever else suits your fancy)
  • A ham bone, or a 1/4 pound (100 g) slice of pig rind
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • Freshly grated Pecorino Sardo (in its absence use Pecorino Toscano or a mixture of Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano, as Pecorino Romano on its own would be too salty)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse the fennel fronds, pad them dry, and chop them. Peel and dice the potatoes. Blanch, peel, seed, chop, and drain the tomatoes.

Heat the oil in a soup pot, sauté the tomatoes for a minute, and as soon as they begin to wilt add the beans, fennel, potatoes, and ham or pig rind. Add a 2 1/2 quarts (2.5 l) of water, cover, and simmer for at least two hours.

When the time is up remove the ham bone or pig rind, check seasoning, stir in the pasta, and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally lest the pasta stick and burn, until the pasta is cooked. Serve at once with grated pecorino on the side.

A wine? White, and perhaps a Vermentino.

A variation: instead of fresh tomatoes, you can use 1/4 pound (100 g) dried tomatoes, plumped in warm water and then finely chopped.

Gallina Farcita di Verza e Grana, Hen Stuffed with Savoy Cabbage and Grana Cheese
Italian bird stuffings tend to be firmer than those I encountered as a child in the US, and in many cases include meat. This is instead cabbage-based, and will be a nice option for a festive meal. It does require a boned bird; you can either bone it yourself, or have your butcher do it for you. If you have the butcher do it, have her give you the bones (especially the neck) too.

  • A young chicken weighing about 3 1/3 pounds (1.5 k)
  • A head of Savoy cabbage
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 4 fresh sage leaves
  • The needles from a 4-inch (10 cm) sprig of rosemary
  • A pinch each ground nutmeg, ground cloves, ground cinnamon, and paprika
  • An egg
  • 2 cups (100g) freshly grated Grana Padana or Parmigiano Reggiano
  • A glass (200 ml) dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon (60 g) unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Wash the chicken neck and put it and the bones from the carcass in a pot with water to cover. Bring it to a boil, season lightly with salt, and simmer for an hour or more to obtain a concentrated broth. Filter it into a bowl, through a sheet of paper towel put in a strainer to remove the fat.

While the broth is simmering, remove and discard the outer leaves of the cabbage if they are dinged or wilted, bring a pot of water to a boil, salt it, and boil the cabbage for 15 minutes. Drain it, let it cool, squeeze out the moisture, and chop it finely with the garlic.

Heat half the oil in a broad saucepan and sauté the cabbage and garlic mixture for 5 minutes. Let it cool and transfer it to a bowl. Mix into it the cheese, egg, spices, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Stuff the cavity of the chicken with the mixture and sew the openings shut with needle and thread.

Set your oven to 360 F (180 C). While it's heating, heat the remaining butter and oil in a flame-resistant casserole with the sage and rosemary and brown the bird, turning it carefully to make certain all sides color. Sprinkle the white wine over it and cook over a brisk flame until it has evaporated, and then transfer it to the oven. Roast it for an hour, basting it every now and again with the concentrated broth (what you don't use will be a perfect addition to a soup or stew).

Cut the chicken crosswise into half-inch slices and serve it with a crisp red wine -- I might be tempted by a Chianti Colli Fiorentini.

This time's proverb is Sardinian: Ai ricchezzas accudinti i s'amigusu - Wealth draws friends.

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

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Riccardo Falchini, Colatura & More: Being the 168th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! As promised, I have begun to put the images from my new camera to good use, and on Italian Food have posted a step by step dedicated to Recco's fabulously cheesy focaccia. On the Italian Wine review, on the other hand, I have put up a look at Supertuscans and an overview od the Antica Casa Vinicola Scarpa, which -- in addition to classic Barolo & Barbaresco -- makes some excellent and unusual wines in Monferrato.

Returning to Cosa Bolle, we begin some sad news. Riccardo Falchini, the man behind Casale Falchini, one of the first Vernaccia producers to emphasize quality over quantity, died suddenly last week. He presented a rather gruff front to the world, but there was a very kind man behind it, and though I didn't see him that often (my fault, not his) I will miss him.

One of the first travel-related things I wrote for About.Com when I was doing the Tuscany travel site was an exploration of San Gimignano, which included notes on several wineries including Casale Falchini, and here is what I wrote after talking to him:

Back in the 1960s Riccardo Falchini enjoyed driving out into the country to buy wines (he operated a business in Prato, not far from Florence), but realized what the farmers were selling wasn't their best.

So in 1964 he decided, much against the advice of the rest of his family, to purchase a farm outside San Gimignano, which had once been monastic. It's hard to fault his relatives; because of the political situation landlord-tenant relationships were extremely tense, and most people who had land were trying to get rid of it. Moreover, the tenants who lived on this particular farm were herdsmen from the Maremma whose primary interest was their 22 cows.

"It was desolate," he recalls, adding that the neglect of the herdsmen was only the final insult: During the unrest of the 1800s farmers living in the area had planted things that required little supervision, since they never knew when they would have to hide from an invading army. In terms of vineyards, this meant Sangiovese, which is resistant and long-lived, but not necessarily noble, and Trebbiano, which gave large volumes and thus provided much needed calories for the winter (wine was seen primarily as a food), but again, not quality. The enological culture of the Renaissance was gone, and when the new Vernaccia DOC came into being in 1966 many people were not sure what to do next.

Riccardo rolled up his sleeves and got to work, replanting vineyards and studying enological treatises. In 1976 he rebuilt the winery, installing temperature-controlled fermentation tanks and temperature control throughout, and in 1979 began making a Vernaccia based sparkling wine as well; along the way he also began experimenting with non-indigenous grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The results have been spectacular, and Casale Falchini is one of the best bargains in San Gimignano, with excellent wines made even better by the quality/price ratio.

If you like older vintages and are in the area you should by all means visit, because you'll find crates of all sorts of marvels, including decade-old vinsanto and wonderful Chardonnay, all stored under perfect conditions. You'll also enjoy the vinsantaia, which has some of the barriques that yielded first successful vintage of Sassicaia, in 1968, and the view from the estate is of course pretty -- the view of San Gimignano's towers is hard to beat. Small groups only, contact them before setting out, and don't arrive at lunch time, which is from 12 to 1.

To reach Casale Falchini turn right at Piazza dei Martiri, circle around san Gimignano's walls and down the hill, and turn right again onto the road for Ulignano. Fattoria Casale will be to the left, after about 2 miles.

And what of the winery, you wonder? Riccardo's sons Michael and Christopher had worked with him for a number of years, and operations will continue under their able direction.

Moving in another direction: Colatura di Cetara

Torino's Salone del Gusto is full of surprises, and as I was wandering among the booths of the Regione Campania, I came across what I first thought was a large tilted can of canned anchovies, with a little brownish brine that had settled into the slant. Wrong, the can was there for display purposes, and the true subject of the stand was the brine, which is a pretty amber when bottled, and is called Colatura di Acciughe di Cetara, or, well, anchovy drippings from the town of Cetara.

In other words, an anchovy sauce, and they told me it's made by filling a tub with a mixture of anchovies and salt. The salt draws liquid from the fish and with time settles through them as well, and is drained from the bottom of the tub via a spigot. At which point the fish, which has rendered its essence to the brine, is discarded, while the brine, or Colatura, is bottled.

As you might guess, there is more to it than this. The town of Cetara's site goes into much greater detail, saying that the anchovies caught between March and July are beheaded and cleaned, and salted for 24 hours in a tub. After which they are removed, and layered in wooden tubs, with salt between the layers, and covered with a weighted wooden disk; the salt draws moisture from the fish, which is gathered and put in glass bottles that sit in the sun during the summer months, while the fish continue to ripen (in cool, well ventilated rooms) in their salty containers, giving off more brine that added to that already collected. After 4-5 months, in mid autumn, the brine is returned to the tubs and allowed to filter through the fish, emerging from the spigots at the bottom of the tubs.

How, you wonder, did Colatura develop? It's a derivative of salting anchovies, dating to the days when everything, even the brine (which is removed and discarded when the goal is to make salted anchovies), was too precious to waste. Luciano Pignattaro recently discussed it, saying that it was originally something the fishermen made and set aside, using it to season pasta or vegetables when they had nothing else, and also giving it to close friends. He also says its current popularity (Cetara now organizes a Festa della Colatura in December) dates to the 1990s, when Gennaro / Gennaro, who operated a hole-in-the-wall eathery called L'Acquapazza, began to offer spaghetti alla colatura to vacationers. And enjoyed such success that they had to expand the restaurant.

So, what to do with it Colatura?

The folks at the Colatura di Cetara stand at Slowfood suggest making pasta sauce:

  • 8 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup minced parsley
  • A fresh hot pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 4 tablespoons colatura
  • A scant pound (400 g) of the pasta of choice; I would likely go with spaghetti

Set pasta water to boil, and cook the pasta -- given the saltiness of the sauce no need for salt in the water. In the meantime combine the other ingredients in a bowl and mix well. When the pasta reaches the al dente stage drain it into a serving bowl and mix the sauce into it. Serve at once, with a white wine, and I might go with a Fiano here.

Last thing: The can of Colatura pictured here was made by Delfino Battista, a company that makes Colatura di Cetara.

Frittelle di Patate e Noci Per Hanuccá

Winding down, Hanukah begins today. Since it commemorates the miraculous oil that kept sacred flame of the Temple alight, it is custom to prepare fried foods, and Giuliana Vitali Norsa says these potato-walnut fritters are of oriental origin.

  • 3 fairly large potatoes, steamed until a skewer penetrates easily and peeled
  • 3/4 cup chopped walnut meats
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • Oil for frying
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Put the potatoes through a potato ricer, and mix into them the walnuts and the eggs. Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste and make flattened patties of it. Fry them in the hot oil, turning them so both sides brown, and serve them hot.

A note: Ms. Vitali Norsi calls for a mixture of rendered lamb's fat and olive oil. Which you can of course use, though I would be tempted to use just olive oil.

I had planned to also discuss American influences in Sardegna, but that will have to wait until next time.

This time's proverb is Neapolitan: Se te vuó 'mparà a pregà, và 'ncopp' ô mare - If you want to learn how to pray, go to sea.

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Espresso Machines, Laudemio & More: Being the 167th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! Nothing of particular import has happened on Italian Food since the last time -- just some recipes -- though I have recently bought a digital SLR that allows much more control than my old point&shoot digital camera and am in the process of assembling several image galleries. On The Italian Wine Review, I have just put up a look at Supertuscans, wines made outside the strictures imposed by the Appellations.

Returning to Cosa bolle, different people have different obsessions, and Enrico Maltoni's is espresso machines. Not just espresso pots, though he also has plenty of those, but espresso machines of the kind one finds in Italian bars, and also their precursors. He has hundreds of the things (and a site dedicated to them), and brought quite a number to a presentation at the Salone del Gusto.

The first machines for making large quantities of coffee, we were told, were built in the late 1800s - early 1900s, while the first true espresso machine that used steam pressure to force hot water though the coffee grounds was made in 1901 by Ingegner Luigi Bezzera. It was an imposing machine, essentially a tall column of boiling hot water (there was a safety valve too) with cup holders on either side. But it did make espresso, and machines based on the design quickly became popular, though they were expensive enough that only larger locales in larger cities could afford them. Soon all the elegant bars were offering espresso, made by a barrista whose primary job was to tend the espresso machine.

Carefully, because the espresso machines based on Ingegner Bezzera's design could explode -- in 1946 one did, causing enough of a stir that a drawing of the scene made the cover of the Domenica Del Corriere.

One big problem with the Bezzera design is that it produced the same sort of espresso coffee one gets from a home pot, be it a Moca pot or a Neapolitan pot. The coffee is strong, and black, and bitter, and that's it.

In 1946, however, Achille Gaggia had a brilliant intuition and built a square machine with pistons to collect the steaming hot water, and force it through the coffee grounds under a pressure of about 8 atmospheres. The resulting coffee is creamy, and indeed the early piston machines say Caffé Crema Naturale to emphasize this fact. They also take a fair amount of effort to use, and barristi must have greeted the introduction, in the early 1960s, of machines with electric pumps to supply the pressure with considerable joy. And now, thanks to new technologies, the barrista can tailor each cup of coffee to the client's tastes.

We have come a great ways since 1901. And the place of the coffee machine has changed too. The early machines were objects of considerable pride, designed by stylists, made with brass and chrome puffed to a high shine, and placed on the bar, between the barrista and the client. The first piston machines were too, but things began to change in the 1960s, with the introduction of less expensive materials (plastic entered the picture in the 1980s), and during this period the position of the machine also changed -- no longer front and center, but rather on the shelf behind the bar; the change freed space on the bar so more people could enjoy coffee at once, and also (my interpretation) allowed a closer relationship between barrista and client: the machine is no longer in the way.

For more information, and a truly astonishing number of pictures, check Enrico Maltoni's site

Olio Laudemio

Moving in a very different direction, if you visit a well stocked elegant delicatessen in Tuscany, you will probably find -- in the olive oil section -- a number of bottles that all look the same (though the oils will likely vary in color), with the word Laudemio prominently on the label, made by different people. What is going on?

Believe it or not, a reaction to cold. Tremendous cold; in 1985 Tuscany was colder than Moscow for almost a month. In Florence this meant joy for the kids, who got to play in the snow day after day, and hardship for the adults, who had to deal with the rutty slush in the roads (not much plowing, and no place to put the snow they did plow), and to try to thaw the pipes in the walls. In the countryside it was a disaster, because olive trees begin to suffer when the thermometer drops below freezing, and simply cannot tolerate weeks of temperatures below 0 F (about -18 C): They all died.

To say it was a grim moment for Tuscan olive oil would be an understatement and it was made all the worse by unscrupulous "producers" who brought in oil and sold it as Tuscan. Given the situation a group of central Tuscan olive oil producers decided to do something revolutionary, and introduce olive oil crus, in other words olive oils from specific olive groves (though the trees died their roots survived, and in the spring of 1986 began to put out new growth).

Production was to follow exacting standards; the olives were to be hand-picked before they had ripened -- this makes for lower yields but higher quality -- before November 30, they were to be pressed as soon as possible after picking, at the absolute most within 48 hours, and the resultant oils were to be tasted by a panel of experts, once in November and again in January.

What passed would be called Laudemio, a name suggested by Vittorio Frescobaldi, which hearkens back to Tuscan farming tradition -- the share the tenant farmers had to give the landowners (which was of course the best produced by the farm) was called the Laudemio. In 1987 30,000 half-liter bottles of Laudemio were produced, and at present the annual production is about 140,000, which accounts for 2% of Tuscany's olive oil crop.

Since Laudemio oils are from distinct olive groves each has its own distinct characteristics; some are more peppery, others more vegetal, some are darker, and others lighter, but they do share quality and distinctiveness.

Now, of course, with the emphasis on quality olive oils (which has even led to not one, but several olive oil guides) one might wonder at all the effort that went into developing Laudemio, but times were very different then: Before 1992 there were no European Union rules for olive oil production, and those who wanted to could buy cheaply, work the oils cheaply, and then sell them for high prices by associating them with well-known oil producing areas. Sleazy, I agree, but it happened.

And while the first European Union rules were a step forward, they were drawn up primarily to weed out frankly defective oils rather than promote quality. It is within this context that Laudemio was important, because it was a ground-breaking Olive oil initiative that showed what could be achieved if quality was the primary goal. Others took note, and if high quality oils are enjoying the success they are now, it is in no small part thanks to a miserable group of Tuscan olive growers who took stock of the devastation in 1985, and decided not to give up, but rather up the ante.

You will find a list of Laudemio producers and much more information about Laudemio on their site. Which Laudemio oil to choose? As I said, they are distinctive, and though they d share quality, each is different from the next.

Stuffed Capon
Winding down, Thanksgiving in nearing for those in the US, and you have likely seen and heard all you want to about turkey, stuffed or otherwise. But perhaps not capon, and here's a stuffed capon with a rich stuffing based on Brussels sprouts, chestnuts and more. The recipe will also work with chicken or guinea hen.

  • A capon, weighing about 3 1/3 pounds (1.5 k), cleaned
  • 1 cup (250 ml) of meat broth or bouillon
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) Brussels sprouts
  • 2/5 cup (100 ml) Port wine
  • 2 pears
  • 1/2 pound (200 g) dried chestnuts, soaked
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1/2 pound (200 g) sausage meat
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • A bay leaf
  • A sprig of rosemary, rinsed and dried
  • A sprig of sage, rinsed and dried
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Flame the bird to remove stray pinfeathers, wash it inside and out, and pat it dry.

Wash the Brussels sprouts and boil them in lightly salted water until tender. Drain them and as soon as you can handle them cut them in half.

Boil the chestnuts until tender in water with a pinch of salt and the bay leaf; when the are tender drain them, discarding the bay leaf, and put them through a food mill or blend them.

Peel and core the pears and dice them.

Preheat your oven to 340 F (170 C)

Combine the sausage meat, pears, chestnut puree, pine nuts, Brussels sprouts, and Port in a bowl. Mix well and season the mixture to taste with salt and pepper. Stuff the cavity of the bird with the mixture and shut the cavity, either by sewing it shut or using a skewer to bring the sides of the cut together.

Put the bird in a roasting pan, drizzle the olive oil over it, and season it with salt and pepper. Put the rosemary, garlic and sage with the bird and roast the bird for about 2 hours, basting it every now and again with broth.

When the time is up remove it from the oven, let it rest on a serving platter for five minutes, and then serve it at table.

The wine? Red, and I might go with a Montefalco from Umbria.

This time's proverb is Piemontese: La pas ant na ca a l'è 'n gran bel mobil - Peace in the home is a wonderful furnishing.

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

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Formaggio Branzi, Wine Contests & More: Being the 166th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings, and has happened in the past I apologize for the long delay between issues. We shall see if, this time, I manage to establish a schedule and stick to it. While I have been silent here, I haven't been silent overall; all sorts of things have appeared on both Italian Food -- the latest longer thing a look at Porchetta, with pictures that were perfect for Halloween -- and on the Italian Wine review, the latest longer pieces being a look at the 2007 vintages of Roero and Barbaresco, which will be quickly followed by the 2006 Barolo.

Formaggio Branzi

Returning to Cosa Bolle, people who live in Alpine valleys have little land for farming -- much of the ground slopes too steeply for one to be able to plant fields -- and the growing season at higher elevations is also short.

This leaves, as an alternative, herding of one sort or another, and it should come as no surprise that the Alps are among the premiere cheese-producing regions of the world. Some of the cheese is d'alpeggio, made in the summer when the herds migrate up into the mountains, going from meadow to meadow and reaching elevations as high as 2500 meters -- in Lombardia Formaggio d'alpeggio is also called Formai de Mut, a term that derives from Formaggio di Malga, a Malga being an Alpine stable -- and one cheeseman at the Salone del Gusto told us that when he worked exclusively with alpine cheeses (he now handles others as well) he could recognize the aromas of the grasses the cattle had eaten in the cheeses, and therefore, since he knew which grasses grow at which elevations, tell how high the cow had been when a given cheese was made.

Of course flocks and herds can only stay in the Alpine meadows for so long; by late August temperatures begin to drop off and the farmers bring the animals back down the slopes to the stables where they will spend the winter, and continue to produce milk, which must be put to some sort of use.

Now, up in the mountains it makes sense for the herdspeople to make cheese just from the milk their animals produce -- individual formaggi di malga, or alpine cheeses from individual herds -- because it would be very difficult to bring the milks from different herds grazing different slopes together. Moreover, if one were to mix the milks, one would loose the distinctive traits that come from the individual meadows.

Down on the valley floor, on the other hand, the animals are eating forage, which is not going to be as distinctive, and therefore their milks will be more similar. Also, the various farms are much closer together, and connected by a network of roads. It therefore makes more sense to make cheese communally, and in 1953 the farmers in Branzi, a town in the Alta Val Brembana behind Bergamo that has long been known for its cheeses (the Fiera di San Matteo, a cheesefest on the last Sunday of September, was already well established in the Napoleonic era) founded the Latteria Sociale Casearia di Branzi, which makes a number of cheeses.

The most important is called FTB, Formaggio Tipico Branzi, the valley-floor analogue of Formai de Mut; about 60 farmers contribute milk, which is gathered by a small tank truck in the evening and worked in the morning; it's heated to 37 C (human body temperature), rennet is added, and once it has curdled the curds are broken up the size of grains of rice and heated to 45-46 C (about 110 F). The whey is drained away (it's used to make ricotta), while the curds are placed in forms, wrapped in muslin, and pressed; the resultant cheeses, which are 40-50 cm (20-25 inches) in diameter, 9cm (a scant 4 inches) thick, and weigh 10-12 k (22-25 pounds, from 100 liters, or 25 gallons of milk), are salted in a brine solution for 3 days, and then aged in halls with 85% humidity at 8 C (about 48 F) for up to 2 years, or in the case of Branzi Stravecchio 3 years. The resultant cheeses are pale yellow, with smooth pale crusts, and have finely distributed, tiny holes evenly distributed throughout the body of the cheese; in terms of flavor they are mild and creamy when young, and become more piquant with age.

Total production of FTB is 30,000 wheels; cheeses that pass the final inspection are stamped with the cooperative's distinctive red FTB mark, and sold throughout the valley, as well as in delicatessens in Northern Italy.

The cooperative makes a number of other cheeses as well, in particular stracchini, which are soft cheeses with soft rinds; the term stracchino derives from stracch, or tired, and refers to the fact that the cheese was traditionally made from the milk produced by the cattle upon their return to the valley floors, when they were tired because of the migration and therefore produced a distinctive milk. The cheeses are aged in caves, where the crust develops a characteristic moldy white coating, and the body of the cheese softens while gaining pleasing complexity. In other words, stracchino was a very seasonal cheese (it is now made year round), and it is eagerly sought out by connoisseurs.

One important thing: There is stracchino and there is stracchino. The stracchino made in the Val Brembana and other Alpine valleys is an artisanal cheese made in limited quantities. If you visit an Italian supermarket, you will also find very fresh very mild spreadable cheeses, which are wrapped in waxed paper because they are too young to have a rind, labeled stracchino. This is a very different, commercial product that simply happens to also be called stracchino.

The other interesting cheese made in the Val Brembana and surrounding areas, which the cooperative also makes, is Strachitunt: It's a round stracchino (tunt = tondo = round), and is made from morning and evening milks, curdled separately, and interlayered in the cheese forms with curds from the morning milking, which are more consistent, forming the top and bottom layers. After salting the cheese ages in caves, developing a moldy coating, and after 30 days it is punctured top and bottom repeatedly with long skewers to open paths for molds to enter the cheese, and work their magic over the next 3 months or so.

If you think it sounds something like Gorgonzola you'd be right, though the people who discussed it at the Salone del Gusto say it's a progenitor of Gorgonzola (more specifically Gorgonzola piccante, the sharper variety), and potentially more interesting because each individual cheese follows its own path after being punctured. With respect to Gorgonzola it is a bit sharper, and more intense, and therefore can surprise those who have not encountered it before.

Strachitunt production had almost completely stopped after the War, because it was a mountain cheese made primarily to save time -- the cheese maker worked the evening and morning curds together rather than go though the entire cheese making process morning and night, but production resumed in 2002 and the cheese is slated to achieve DOP (Product of protected origin) status. Something I cannot but view positively, because it is a very interesting, tasty cheese.

Wine Competitions & Scoring

Moving in a different direction, I was in Bergamo as a judge for Emozioni dal Mondo, a wine competition dedicated to tagli Bordolesi, Bordeaux blends. I discussed why the competition is dedicated to Bordeaux blends last time, but didn't say much of anything about the competition itself. We followed the OIV (Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin) rules for wine competitions: each wine is judged by a panel of several judges who use a standardized form to evaluate color, bouquet and palate and assign a point score; the president of the panel gathers the scores, discarding best and worst, and we move on to the next wine. The OIV rules also state that there can only be one tasting session per day, and limit the total number of wines each panel tastes -- we tasted four sets (flights is the technical term) of wines, with a break after the first two, for a total of about 36 wines.

The afternoon was free (for us), while the organizers tallied the scores. The OIV awards medals to the wines on the basis of the scores they receive -- 80-82 is bronze, 82-85 silver, 85-92 gold, and above 92 grand gold. The OIV also states that no more than 30% of the wines entering a competition can be awarded medals. Here 204 wines were submitted; nobody got a grand gold (though one wine came very close), while 57 wines got gold medals and 4 got silver. More would likely have gotten silver, had there not been the 30% cutoff.

This scoring system may strike you as strange (it did me at first), and you may be wondering why the competitions don't simply recognize the top three wines with a gold, a silver, and a bronze medal. However, but there is thought behind it the scoring and medals. Logic, too: wine competitions depend upon wineries' deciding to participate and send samples, and the payoff for the winery is the opportunity to win a medal.

If a winery stands a minimal chance of winning something there is no incentive to participate, and this is why the OIV awards medals by score -- if the winery sends a good wine it stands a good chance, and the more good wines there are the more gold medals there will be, while fewer bronze and silver medals are awarded. Still sound odd?

The other thing to consider is that a competition like Valcalepio's invites relatively unknown wineries to send their samples -- a top-flight Bordeaux or Bolgheri winemaker will have no interest in participating at an even dedicated to Cabernet-Merlot blends (and indeed none did), because if he or she wins a medal, having done so will be "to be expected," whereas if he or she doesn't the fact will be noteworthy. A lesser known winery instead can be noted, and while a single medal won't necessarily carry much weight, a string of medals from different competitions will.

Bottom line, competitions like the Valcalepio Appellation's Emozioni dal Mondo offer a window for winemakers who want to emerge, and also give journalists the opportunity to taste wines they would never taste otherwise. For example, I tasted (and enjoyed) several Israeli Merlot-Cabernet blends, also wines from Germany and the US that simply do not make it to Italy. I had a great time, learned something, and hope to be invited again.

Got Cured Olives?

Winding down, I am a great fan of olives, and will happily much my way through a jar of cured olives in a matter of hours. This makes me rather extreme, I think.

However, if you have plain brine-cured olives, be they green or black, and pitted or not, you can jazz them up quite easily. Pietro Morabito, who had a stand in the Calabrian section of the Salone del Gusto, was offering cured plain brine-cured olives seasoned with finely chopped celery, garlic, bell peppers (they used sweet, but you could also mix in a few fresh hot peppers if you wanted), olive oil, and chopped fresh herbs -- parsley, if I remember right.

"Mix everything together," he told me, "let it rest for a few hours, and serve it forth with toothpicks on the side." They were mobbed, and this is definitely something you should consider for your next party, or even as a mixed antipasto. They'll go quickly!

This time's proverb is Tuscan: Chi non vede il fondo, non passi l'acqua - If you can't see the bottom, don't ford the stream.

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