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