Archive for the ‘Italy’Category

Recognizing real balsamic vinegar of Modena

La Vecchia Dispensa tasting bottles

La Vecchia Dispensa tasting bottles

Few culinary terms have been so abused in recent years as “balsamic vinegar.” A generation ago, the only people who knew true balsamic vinegar were either wealthy gastronomes or members of old-fashioned families in the Modena and Reggio Emilia districts of Italy’s region of Emilia Romagna — best known even then for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and prosciutto di Parma.

Simone Tintori of La Vecchia Dispensa in Castelvetro, Modena “It was a traditional family product,” explains Simone Tintori (left) of La Vecchia Dispensa in Castelvetro di Modena (Piazza Roma 3, +39 059-790-401, www.lavecchiadispensa.it), a fourth-generation commercial producer of the two controlled types of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (aceto balsamico di Modena). “And everything you have been told about it is probably wrong.”

The two categories of protected Modena vinegar are IGP and DOP, and it’s helpful to understand the differences so you get what you pay for. The Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP must be made from wine vinegar and grape must (from any of seven grapes, but usually Trebbiano) and must be aged in wood in the province of Modena and bottled there. Furthermore, it has to pass taste tests by the consortium of traditional producers and must be sold in a traditionally styled 100ml bottle that cannot have any reference to age on the label.

The other protected type is Aceto Balsamico de Modena IGP (without the “Tradizionale”). The IGP is a geographic designation under European Union law. The permitted ingredients are wine vinegar and grape must, but the producer is also allowed to use grape must concentrate and to add caramel coloring. The vinegar also must be aged and bottled in the province of Modena and pass a set of laboratory tests before it can be bottled with the IGP label.

modena 1 The mechanics of making balsamic vinegar are not particularly complicated. Grape must and wine vinegar are combined. The most expensive products may have as much as 70 percent grape must with just 30 percent vinegar, while the cheapest could have as little as 20 percent grape must. The mixture is aged in wooden barrels—usually a sequence of increasingly smaller barrels for the DOP product and usually in large wooden casks for the IGP. Over time, some vinegar evaporates, concentrating the vinegar that remains behind. The barrels are used repeatedly over decades, so little flavor of the wood is imparted to the vinegar. The best of the products become almost syrupy in their viscosity, as the sugars from the original grapes become more and more concentrated.

While Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP tends to be fairly consistent from producer to producer (and generally costs $75-$200 for a 100 ml bottle), Aceto Balsamico de Modena IGP bottlings vary a lot in both quality and price. The least expensive use grape must concentrate, which is a little like making a marinara sauce using tomato paste but no fresh tomatoes. It’s tomato-y, but not the real sugo. That said, it can be a tasty and useful vinegar—just not the gustatory powerhouse of a DOP or a better IGP vinegar.

With a deeply concentrated mix of fruitiness and complex spice, the DOP vinegar is principally for use as a drop or two on a steak, roast, or hunk of incredible cheese. For salads and cooking, most of us are happy with the modestly sweet and tangy IGP product—if we can get a good one.

Modena 4 After visiting La Vecchia Dispensa in Castelvetro (old castle), I went a few kilometers down the road to visit Antichi Colli in Castelnuovo, or “new castle” (Via Rio dei Gamberi, 2, +39 059 533 1332, www.antichicolli.it). A complex of vast stainless steel tanks with an attic of aging barrels, this large firm mostly produces IGP vinegars. Interestingly, they only use concentrated grape must in the lowest grade, which retails at about $10 per 250ml bottle. Their IGP vinegars go up in price to around $120 per 250ml bottle.

So what should you look for? First, look for the IGP insignia or the DOP seal. Second, reject any product stamped with the number of years it has been aged (if it has the seal and a claim of years of aging, it’s a fraud). Third, if you’re looking for flavor complexity, skip any vinegar that lists “concentrated must” or caramel coloring as an ingredient. They are legitimate, but usually lower-quality. Finally, taste it if you can. For salad dressing and the like, we use a Whole Foods-branded IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena that’s both reasonably priced and versatile in the kitchen (and is made with concentrated must). We keep the DOP for drizzling on really old Parmigiano Reggiano cheese….

Aging barrels at Antichi Colli, Castelnuovo, Modena

Aging barrels at Antichi Colli

25

03 2015

Pantelleria vineyards honored by UNESCO

Bringing in the harvest of Zibibbo grapes on Pantelleria It’s a delight to learn that the United Nations has honored the grape growers of Pantelleria, naming the island’s viticultural technique part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. And here I thought it was merely heroic. That’s what the Pantellerians themselves call it.

Donnafugata Zibibbo vineyard About halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, the rocky island of volcanic origins is arid and scoured by ferocious winter winds that stunt even the olive trees. Typically, houses are cut into the rock to provide protection from the wind and the blistering sun. The grapes are grown on “head trained bush vines” (vite ad alberello, in Italian). Each one is planted in a depression and trained in a low, broad bush system with two to four branches. Vines are typically 100 years old at minimum, and the vineyards are terraced inside rock walls, as if each area was a cellar hole. Maintenance is minimal, as the winds tend to keep the vines pruned. Picking is all done by hand.

Zibibbo grapes set to dry on Pantelleria The main grape grown on Pantelleria is known locally by its Arabic moniker, Zibibbo. Genetically, it is the ancient Muscat of Alexandria—considered one of the oldest genetically unmodified grape varieties in existence. Tradition holds that Cleopatra drank wine made from it. One of the world’s great aromatic wine grapes, this strain of Muscat is found all around the Mediterranean rim.

Antonio Rallo Pantellerian viticulture is the model of small-plot vineyards. Of the island’s population of 7,679, about 5,000 inhabitants own a plot of land where they cultivate Zibibbo in the traditional way, handing down the techniques from generation to generation. The old vines produce grapes that achieve powerful sugar and acid levels as well as a spicy aromatic quality lacking in a lot of hot-weather Muscat. Although Zibibbo is a tasty table grape (albeit with a tough skin and big pips), most of the harvest is dried on screens to concentrate sugar and acid before being pressed to make a sweet passito wine.

Ben RyéThe Khamma winery, owned by the Rallo family of Donnafugata (that’s Antonio Rallo above holding a cluster of grapes), handles the lion’s share of the island’s harvest, drying and pressing each region’s grapes separately to create a final blend for Donnafugata’s Ben Ryé, possibly one of the greatest Muscat wines in the world.

26

12 2014

TWL: Prosecco lifestyle at Villa Sandi

prosecco villa sandi Villa Sandi (Via Erizzo 112, Crocetta del Montello; +39-0423-665-033; www.villasandi.it) is one of the most striking producers of both Prosecco DOC and Prosecco DOCG wines. The winery’s headquarters and cellars sit amid formal gardens in a verdant landscape. The property resembles a fairytale version of how a distinguished Italian winery should look.

prosecco villa sandi Nestled into the hills of the Marca Trevigiana about 25 kilometers northwest of Treviso, the estate borders the Piave river. The cellars once had a passageway that led to the riverbank, which Italian soldiers used to move surreptitiously during World War I. The villa itself, pictured above, is a splendid example of Palladian architecture built in 1622. It is a real period piece, with several rooms maintained in high 17th-century style, complete with Murano glass chandeliers and furniture with intricate marquetry. Not surprisingly, Villa Sandi serves as a venue for a number of important wine events in northern Italy, including courses for sommeliers and a regular lecture series.

prosecco villa sandi The cellars are somewhat newer than the villa. The oldest section dates from about 1700, and the full 1.5km extent of the passageways was finished in the 20th century. The cellar walls are all lined with brick and the barrels sit on beds of gravel to ensure good drainage and air circulation. Tours of the villa and cellars can be arranged Mondays-Saturdays by calling the main number (+39-0423-665-033) or by email to info@villasandi.it. Tours are available in Italian or English.

prosecco villa sandi Villa Sandi is owned by the Moretti Polegato family, and the aristocratic Giancarlo Moretti Polegato serves as the company’s president. (His brother, Mario, is the founder and president of Geox shoes, in case you were wondering how well the family manages.) For travelers who wish to stay in the immediate area, the winery also owns a rustic country house, Locanda Sandi, about 10km away (Loc. Zecchei, Via Tessere 1, Valdobbiadene; +39-0423-976-239; www.locandasandi.it). There are just six simply-finished rooms. The one single room costs €60, the five double rooms are €85 each. The Locanda also has a superb restaurant that seats 70, with an additional 100 seats on the outdoor terrace in the summer. Open Friday-Tuesday for lunch and dinner, it serves traditional local dishes of the Veneto—and the wines of Villa Sandi. Figure on €25 per person for a modest three-course meal with wine.

Villa Sandi Prosecco

prosecco villa sandi Villa Sandi straddles the Valdobbiadene DOCG region and the Montello and Piave DOC wine regions. Moreover, the company owns 4 hectares in the highly prized Cartizze cru of Valdobbiadene. To give an idea of the significance of that plot, Cartizze has only a total of 107 hectares divided among 140 producers. Although the company makes a number of still wines, the core of its production consists of Prosecco, including nine different spumantes and two frizzantes. Just to confuse things, Villa Sandi also makes a limited number of sparkling wines from chardonnay and pinot nero using the “classico” method (i.e., in-bottle secondary fermentation in the manner of Champagne).

prosecco villa sandi I can’t say I tasted them all, but I was struck by the complexity and depth of the Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Millesimato, and the sheer quaffability of the Prosecco DOC Treviso. Judging by the smile on his face when we sat down to lunch, Giancarlo was pretty happy with the Millesimato as well.

25

10 2014

TWL: Prosecco over the line in Friuli

San Simone welcome2 The most rarefied Prosecco may come from the hills between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, as suggested in an earlier post but some superb examples also come from the plains and river valleys eastward toward Pordenone in Friuli. It may be an entirely different political region from the Veneto, yet it’s less than 40 km (25 miles) from Conegliano.

Maglio 1Driving east on the A28, it’s even worth taking a 15-minute detour to the village of Francenigo to see the historic power-hammer smithy — the Maglio di Francenigo — that’s one of the last touchstones of the agricultural heritage. The Pessot family started making tools to till the fields and vineyards, using water power from a falls on the Livenza River to raise and lower the power hammer on the anvil. The smithy was converted into a museum in 2000, and during the summer tourist season, someone is usually around on weekends to demonstrate the forge and mill-wheel powered hammer. During my visit, it was the august 74-year-old Beppe Pessot, who started work at the smithy at age 14, and is seen here at the forge. Nowadays the museum makes a few fireplace tools and other simple fabrications for sale as souvenirs.

Prosecco at San Simone di Brisotto

Seeing the industrial roots of farming in this bucolic landscape was a reminder that however idyllic and rustic the vineyards and farms might seem, there’s a lot of hard and dirty work behind that green facade. My visit to Francenigo was a stopover en route to a glamorous Prosecco house, San Simone di Brisotto (Via Prata 30, Porcia; +39 0434-578-633, www.sansimone.it). Located at the far western edge of DOC Friuli Grave and in the heart of the Prosecco DOC region, San Simone can (and does) make a number of excellent DOC wines. They also manage to make those wines in about as green a fashion as possible. (Antifungals and sulfur have their place in even organic practices.) San Simone is operated by three siblings—Chiara, Anna, and Antonio—who represent the family’s fourth generation in the business. (Anna Brisotto is at the top of this post at the entrance to the estate.)

millesimato bottle2 San Simone makes four different Prosecco DOC frizzante wines (lower alcohol, less carbonation) as well as brut and extra brut versions of Prosecco DOC spumantes, and a Millesimato (single vineyard) brut Prosecco DOC (Perlae Naonis) that is one of the most complex examples of Prosecco DOC brut that I drank during my travels in the region. It was creamy on the palate (great mouth feel), fruity on the nose, with just a hint of toasted almonds in the aftertaste. The acidity gave the wine a real freshness yet enabled it to hold up to a small feast prepared by the winery’s cook staff.

That included, as pictured below, some frico (Montasio cheese grilled until crisp), a fresh asparagus salad with quail eggs, a shrimp risotto, and cheese ravioli in a Prosecco sauce.

san simone food

15

10 2014

TWL: Visiting the school for Prosecco

Prosecco Conegliano

Vineyard of Glera clones at Oenology School.

According to the Prosecco DOC consortium, farmers in the Friuli Venezia-Giulia village of Prosecco began making sparkling wine from the grape now known as Glera around 1600, and it became so popular that it spread to nine provinces in the 17th century. (Those provinces now lie within Friuli and the Veneto, and the symbol of Prosecco DOC is nine wine glasses.) Originally a farmhouse wine, Prosecco would stop fermenting in the fall when the weather cooled, then begin again in the spring, when it was sold as a “frizzante” wine. Antonio Carpenain invented modern Prosecco in the mid-19th century when he began using a pressurized tank for a second fermentation. His adaptation of France’s Charmat process quickly became known as “The Italian Method.”

Prosecco The full history lesson is something you can learn at the School of Oenology & Viticulture in Conegliano — or better yet, at the adjacent Enoteca Regionale Veneta (Via Giovanni Dalmasso 12, Conegliano, +39 0438-455-138, www.enotecaveneta.it). Carpenain established the school in 1876, and it still trains more than 90 percent of the region’s winemakers. It’s also a research center for establishing the characteristics of different grapes and clones of known varietals. (That’s one of the school’s vineyards above.)

While the school does have a Bottega del Vino on the property where you can learn about some of the experimental wines made at the school (and purchase them after a tasting), it is open mainly on weekdays. The Enoteca is for both the more considered drinker, and possibly the partier. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 6 p.m. until midnight with light snacks and the opportunity to taste any of the wines in the library. The collection includes about 500 still wines from the Veneto, as well as about 100 different Proseccos. There are typically a dozen open bottles of chilled whites, about half of them Proseccos. But if something else on the shelves piques your curiosity, you need only ask.

Some technical matters

The street of the Enoteca is named for Giovanni Dalmasso, who proposed the first delimitation of “Prosecco Superiore” around Conegliano and nearby Valdobbiadene in 1936. Finally, in 1969, the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOC was created. In 1977, the Prosecco IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica, or “typical of the region”) was established and in 2009, the Prosecco DOC was created to certify IGT producers who met all the consortium’s criteria. Just to confuse things more, the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOC is now Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG. Total production varies by year, of course, but in 2013 there were about 241 million bottles of Prosecco DOC and 70 million bottles of Prosecco DOCG.

What does this mean in practice for the buyer at an American wine shop? As a rule of thumb both DOC and DOCG certification indicates that the wine hails from the Prosecco region and is made according to some fairly strict regulations. The main grape is Glera (a rebaptism of the Prosecco grape to stop other countries from making sparkling wine called Prosecco), and there are three styles. The simplest and cheapest is frizzante, which has less than 2.5 atmospheres of pressure. Bubbles tend to dissipate quickly and most frizzante wines are low in alcohol. Prosecco brut (the most popular style in the U.S.) has higher alcohol, tighter and more persistent bubbles, and is bottled around 3 atmospheres. Extra dry, often with less persistent bubbles, is bottled around the same pressure but has more residual sugar than brut.

Prosecco

Vineyards in the rolling countryside of Conegliano.

24

09 2014

TWL: Getting to know Prosecco DOC in Treviso

a-psan marco
Wine is one of the easiest and best ways to bring the taste of travel back home, so this post initiates what we’re calling The Wine List — travels in wine country with a focus on the wines themselves. And we launch TWL with a journey through the beautiful towns and delicious wines of the Prosecco DOC region of the Veneto and adjacent Friuli–all within driving distance of Venice.

a-Zonin prosecco Prosecco is one of those wines that’s almost too good for its own good. The light sparkling wine made from the Glera grape is the signature sipping wine of Venice, and it is synonymous with laughter and indolent afternoons at an outdoor cafe (see above, on Piazza San Marco). The wine is made in a tightly limited area of the Veneto and parts of nearby Friuli, and there’s a lot of good Prosecco DOC to go around. Although many of the members of the Prosecco DOC Consortium are small operations, some (like Zonin) are big enough to slake the insatiable thirst of Trader Joe’s customers. Even these mass-produced Proseccos are very good.

a-Treviso sculture little Venice My Prosecco fact-finding trip began at the Prosecco DOC headquarters in Treviso, a beautiful little city north of the Venice airport. Treviso is sometimes called the “little Venice” because four rivers flow through it and some of them were channeled to power mills. Despite being heavily bombarded by the Allies in World War II, traces of its old mill wheels and mill architecture remain. Dante immortalized the town in a line in the Paradiso dutifully reproduced on the 1865 bridge over the convergence of the Sile and Bottiniga rivers. The charming city makes a good base for exploring Prosecco country. My lodging, the Carlton Hotel (Largo Porta Altinia 15, + 39-0422-411-611, www.hotelcarlton.it) was modestly priced and conveniently located near the outskirts of the city. The center of the city was a five-minute stroll away, yet it was easy to get onto the circumferential highway to drive to the countryside. Future posts will visit specific producers, the wine-making school and vinoteca of Prosecco, and hit on on some of the scenic highlights of the region.

a-making tiramisu at Al FogherOne evening in Treviso, I dined at Al Foghèr Ristorante (Viale della Repubblica 10, +39-0422-432-950, www.hotelalfogher.it), which figures in the origin story of the now-ubiquitous dessert, tiramisù. The grandmother of the current owners, who had a more modest restaurant in the 1950s when the queen of Greece visited Treviso, concocted what she called an Imperial Cup. This link to gastronomic fame (or infamy) serves as a lure to the restaurant, which serves excellent Trevisano food. I caught just the tail end of the local radicchio season and enjoyed a couple of light dishes (including an excellent squid ink pasta with fresh vegetables) with a bottle of Bosco del Merlo Prosecco DOC (about $12 in the U.S.).

Periodically, the restaurant gives demonstrations of making tiramisù and I took furious notes. Here’s my translation into American measure based on a rapid-fire presentation in Italian. It goes very well with an extra-dry Prosecco DOC (which is sweeter than a brut).

TIRAMISÙ AL FOGHÈR

Serves 8

Ingredients

2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup brandy
4 large egg yolks
12 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 cup espresso
package of ladyfingers or champagne biscuits
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, grated

Directions

Whisk together sugar, brandy, and egg yolks in heatproof bowl. Set bowl over saucepan of simmering water and whisk until well dissolved and mixture reaches 170F (77C) on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat and beat in the mascarpone. Reserve mixture.

Dip a ladyfinger briefly in espresso, turning to coat, and place in clear glass serving bowl. Repeat until entire bowl is lined with espresso-saturated ladyfingers. Pour half of mascarpone mixture over them. Then make another layer of espresso-saturated ladyfingers, and top with remaining mascarpone. Grate chocolate over the top and refrigerate overnight.

14

09 2014

Last taste of summer in Tuscany

burrata tomato I just returned from touring vineyards in the Morellino di Scansano DOCG district in southwest Tuscany, and once in a while I had to stop to eat. One of the most memorable meals was at Trattoria Verdiana (Ponticello di Montemerano on the road between Scansano and Montemerano, tel: [011-34] 0564-602-576). It’s open nightly except Wednesday, and uses the produce from a 10,000 square meter garden as the basis for the menu. There, as here in New England, the growing season is coming to a close. So I was surprised and delighted when the amuse-bouche pictured above appeared in front of me. It’s a grape tomato (upside down) cut in half, filled with a dab of creamy burrata and a tiny basil leaf. The whole composition was then drizzled in a great local olive oil. It summed up summer in a bite.

16

10 2013

Italy #6 – Grilled Montasio, prosciutto, and fig

Grilled legends 2 All good things must come to an end, and so too our cache of world-class cheese and ham from the Legends from Europe consortium. We had one 4-ounce piece of Montasio cheese remaining, along with four slices of prosciutto di Parma. And it was time for lunch.

Grilled legends 4 We found a jar of fig jam and some slices of whole wheat sandwich bread in the pantry. Drawing on inspiration closer to home (the fig, prosciutto, and Gorgonzola pizza from Todd English’s original Olives, now Figs), we had the makings of a terrific grilled sandwich. If it were Italy and we had a panini press, it would have been a prosciutto and cheese panino and we might have skipped the fig jam.

Whatever you want to call it, it’s easy and delicious.

04

01 2013

Italy #5 — Parmigiano-Reggiano for dessert

Parmigiano dessert plate 1 Leave it to the Italians to keep dessert simple. With its strong umami flavor (second only to Roquefort cheese in glutamate levels), Parmigiano-Reggiano makes everything around it taste better. Following the Italian example, we like to make a plate with a mix of nuts, dried fruit, and fresh fruit. This fall, for example, we paired chunks of a two-year-old buttery summer milk Parmigiano-Reggiano with lightly toasted walnuts, diced apple, and buttered slices of baguette.

Donnafugata passito The extra special touch on each plate was a small cluster of raisins that I brought home from Donnafugata’s vineyards on Pantelleria. The Zibbibo grape (Moscato di Alessandria) is one of the few things that grows on this windswept rock halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. (The other is capers.) The picked grapes are spread under muslin-topped hoops to dry from the heat and wind. Then the Rallo family presses the bunches to make Ben Ryé, an intense passito wine. When I visited the winery, Giacomo plucked a large bunch off the conveyor belt and handed it to me. “For the flight,” he said, but the grapes were so intense that I saved them for months – until the Legends from Europe presented us with all that delicious cheese.

31

12 2012

Remembering Italy #4 — pasta with prosciutto & tomato

San Daniele pasta with tomato and prosciutto The last time I was in San Daniele del Friuli, I was traveling with the restaurateurs of Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani (GRI) on one of their annual pilgrimages to Italy to research products, find new sources, and generally take inspiration from the regional products. Since we were a fairly large group, we booked a meal at Prosciutterie DOK dall’ Ava (via Gemona 47, tel. 0432-940-280, www.dallava.com, open daily 10-10), one of the town’s full-service restaurants with a prosciutto-oriented menu.

DallavaIt’s a funny place, since it’s outside the main village and near one of the prosciutto factories. It looks like a tourist trap, to be honest, and bus groups stop here. But the service and the food are both terrific and the prices, while not cheap, are pretty reasonable for top-quality prosciutto. We shared lovely plates of sliced prosciutto, prosciutto and melon, and prosciutto and asparagus, and we each ordered a small individual plate. Mine was as simple as it gets – fresh pappardelle tossed with prosciutto and hastily sautéed tomatoes.

Normally I reserve this dish for the summer months when I have a surplus of sweet, fresh tomatoes. I dip them in boiling water and slip off the skins, then chop them coarsely, and sauté in a little olive oil with shredded prosciutto. Tomatoes this time of year are nowhere near as good, so I’ve taken to using the Pomi brand of boxed diced tomatoes instead. A 750 ml box drained and three slices of prosciutto works out just right for two people. (Save the juice for making minestrone.) To make a really easy dish at home, I like to use Colavita brand dried pasta. The rigatoni 31 cooks up nice and plump to support the tomato and flecks of ham.

22

12 2012