Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Wine Cellar

Carlo’s cantina (wine cellar) is a disordered Aladdin’s cave of demijohns, bottles, bottle crates, empty buckets, buckets filled to the brim with maturing fruits, trays of empty tasting glasses, sieves and funnels on a dilapidated rusting garden table, a twisted-spaghetti-like arrangement of various sized tubes and hoses for siphoning, two walls covered top to bottom with a tubular steel shelving unit filled eight bottles deep and twenty-five wide with a year’s supply of wine, a hand-operated crushing press and a lever-arm-operated wine bottling machine. This is where I’ve come to work today.

Carlo’s my next door neighbour. He also runs the neighbourhood bar, La Crocetta. As well as being my neighbour and my barman, he’s also my mentor in all things spiritual, in a manner of speaking. Carlo’s showing me the ropes. In return for lending Carlo a helping hand (and a strong back), he’s been teaching me everything there is to know about making digestivi, amari [bitters] and any other distillations you care to mention.

Carlo makes liqueurs from everything ranging from fruits and berries he collects in the forest and by the roadside, weeds that grow in his garden to herbs he collects from mountain pastures. He makes drinks from herbs so esoteric that no one has been able to tell me their name.

The morning passes as usual. We have to siphon two demijohns, approximately 52 litres, of Bargnolino – a popular local digestive made from sloe berries - into a large basin. We then have to dilute the contents with several liters of wine and then stir in anything up to 10 kilos of sugar, depending on how sweet the mix is. The only way to tell how much sugar to add, naturally, is to taste it!

Carlo dips a ladle into the basin and pours a generous measure into the cup.
Assaggia [try it]”, he says, looking up and handing me the cup.
“You try it”, I reply, thinking about the pile of pending magazine deadlines, an irate editor (not to mention wife!) and an unwritten blog on my desk.
Assaggia”, he repeats ignoring me.
Reluctantly I take the cup from his outstretched hand. It’s a deep purple colour, too alcoholic judging by the aroma. Without even trying it I already know he hasn’t added enough sugar yet. But Carlo, of course, knows that too. That’s why he’s asked me down here, to help him correct the problem. Tentatively I take a sip and as I suspected it’s sharp and acidic.
Amaro [bitter]”, Carlo says, reading my expression. It’s more a statement than a question.  Carlo’s been concocting liqueurs in this basement for so long he can tell what needs doing just by look and smell. Nonetheless, he takes a sip himself, just to confirm.
“Buh”, he says, scrunching up his face in distaste. He makes a vague gesture, which I took to be agreement and so I set to work. More sugar, a kilo at a time along with a bottle of wine. I whisk, mix and stir… and then taste.
Immediately I add each kilo of sugar, Carlo’s handing me another glass.
Finally, many, many glasses later, we arrive at something that is approaching drinkable… and not a moment too soon.
He pours me another measure and one for himself.
Cin cin” [cheers], he says, downing it in one fierce gulp. One for the road!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pumpkins and Pasta!

Mention ‘pumpkin’ to an American or British child and chances are the little one is conjuring an image of a night spent in costume wandering the streets in a chocolate haze under the gaze of lanterns with glowering triangular eyes and jagged teeth. Mention pumpkin to my eight-year-old son Massimo and it’s anyone’s guess whether he’s thinking pasta, gnocchi, risotto or pie!

Crates at the market stacked high with large orange and knobbly dark green pumpkins are the first sure sign that summer’s over and it isn’t coming back for another year. Italians love their pumpkins, so much so they would never countenance carving one up for the sake of a decoration. In fact, there’s nothing about their beloved pumpkin that they’re prepared to throw away. There’s a local saying that the pumpkin is a bit like the pig, nothing ever gets wasted. As it happens every part of the plant is edible starting from the leaves and the flowers along with the flesh. The seeds are delicious toasted, salted and eaten as an appetiser and even the thick, hard outer skin doesn’t have to go to waste. True pumpkin aficionados will cut it into thin strips, boil it and then lightly pan-fry in olive oil. Alternatively, it can be simply baked in the oven with a little water and served with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese.

My neighbour, Gabriella, is making tortelli di zucca (pumpkin ravioli). I’m sitting in her kitchen watching, mesmerized. “Here in Piacenza”, she explains, “pumpkin tortelli are traditional this time of the year” – and the people of Piacenza are sticklers for tradition. Skillfully she continues to roll, cut, fill and shape ravioli with lightning speed, hardly watching what she is doing. The process is intrinsic. “I first made tortelli in this kitchen with my mother”, she explains. That was over 70 years ago. Clearly Gabriella learned well. In a short span of time the large wooden table is covered with hundreds of square tortelli.

Tortelli di zucca are made all over Italy today but they are, and always have been, most popular in the Provinces of Mantova and Piacenza and other parts of the Bassa Padana (Po Basin). Traditionally they were prepared for Christmas Eve, a festive occasion when dietary restrictions would have prohibited the consumption of meat. The filling is made from a base of pumpkin, a small amount of apple or pear mostarda (a sweet and spicy mustard fruit syrup), amaretti biscuits, grana padano cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg. They are generally served simply with melted butter, a few sage leaves and a generous sprinkling of cheese. Alternatively, in some parts they are eaten with a topping of fried sausage and herbs (a personal favourite) or sliced onions pan fried in butter. 

Of course, the popularity of pumpkin in Italian cooking must at least in part lie in its versatility. If you don’t have a hankering for pasta (which can happen, or so I’ve heard!), you can always use it as the basis to an equally tasty bowl of gnocchi or risotto or minestrone. Whatever takes your fancy! As for me (and my son Massimo), as I walk home with a tray brimming with ravioli, no prizes for guessing what’s on the menu. 

OK, admittedly Gabriella did all the hard work for me this time, but that’s what neighbours are for!  And should you have a craving for a bowl of the same, here’s the traditional recipe.

Tortelli di zucca
Pumpkin ravioli

Serves 6

For the pasta:
3 eggs
300g plain flour
For the filling:
1.5kg pumpkin
150g amaretti cookies
70g mostarda (either apple or pear),
100g grated grana padano cheese
Grated zest of half a lemon
For the sauce:
Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons olive oil
A large sprig of rosemary
2 salamelle (fat Italian sausages)

Prepare the pumpkin by removing the seeds and cutting into chunks.  The pumpkin flesh can either be steamed or baked in the oven until tender.  It is better not to boil the pumpkin as the flesh will become too moist. Once cooked, remove the skin and place into a food processor with all the rest of the ingredients for the filling and whiz to a smooth paste.  You should refrigerate the filling for at least 6 hours as this allows the flavours to develop. 

Make the pasta dough by combining the eggs with the flour and knead until a smooth dough is formed.  Allow the pasta to rest before rolling it out.  Roll out a long sheet of pasta. This is easiest done with a pasta machine. At regular intervals add a teaspoon of the filling.  Cover the sheet of pasta with another sheet and gently press down with your hands around the filling to remove any air pockets.  Using a pasta wheel, cut the ravioli to your desired shape.  Continue until all the pasta and filling are used up.  To cook the ravioli, place in a large pan of boiling salted water for 3-5 minutes (depending on the thickness of your pasta), drain and serve with the following sauce.

To make the sauce, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a pan.  Remove the skin from the sausages and crumble into the pan.  Cook over a medium to high heat until browned and then add the chopped rosemary. Continue cooking for another few minutes and then serve over the cooked pasta with plenty of freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Cheese Van

I remember as a child the rush of excitement I felt every time I heard the jingle of the ice-cream van turning into the street. It didn’t matter that my parents made five different flavors of fresh Italian ice-cream daily for the restaurant. I didn’t care about production methods, natural ingredients or flavor back then. I wanted the sickly sweet, industrially produced stuff that whizzed from the machine that all my school friends were having!

Here in Italy, hardly surprising, there is no ice cream van. Instead, I have to settle for Roberto and his cheese and salami van. I say ‘settle’, but truth be told every Monday morning, it’s like being a kid again. From 9 a.m., I’m peeking excitedly between the cracks in the shutters for the first sighting (or whiff of cheese)! He always arrives some time between 9 and 9.15 without fail. And, without fail, I always seem to be at the back of the queue. I’m not sure how my neighbors do it. There are five women dressed in flowery polyester dresses in front of me this morning. It occurs to me that one of them recently celebrated her eightieth birthday – I was invited to the party! How they managed to get to the van before me is anyone’s guess.

Today Roberto has a particularly tasty three-year-old Parmesan. With a captive and clearly interested audience, he’s cutting off generous chunks and handing them out. It’s as good as he says it is. My lady companions are all nodding their heads in approval. “It’s a steal”, he tells everyone, “at €14 a kilo”. It comes to my turn and I steal a kilo of the stuff, vacuum packed (it keeps for months in the fridge like that). I have a piece left in the credenza (sideboard) but it won’t last long and, as I’ve come to learn over the past few years, running out of Parmesan just isn’t an option. Parmesan, bread and wine; the basic starting points for any Italian meal. You simply can’t get by without it.  Roberto cuts off a slice of a local goat’s cheese. “Stagionato” (mature), he tells me and ‘very tasty’. He’s right again. I order a hefty wedge. As he’s wrapping, he cuts a slice of cooked salami and hands it to me. Now I’m thinking, this beats the ice cream van any day!   

P.S. It’s pumpkin season and tomorrow I’m going to meet Gabriella, a veteran pasta maker, who’s going to show me how to make pumpkin stuffed ravioli.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The vendemmia

It’s that time of the year when the sun rises slowly, hovering just on the crest of the horizon, casting a golden light on the vineyards. I wake early to the sound of old diesel engines rumbling in the hills around.

It’s the first day of the vendemmia - the grape harvest. A day of frenetic activity, there’s a palpable sense of nervous excitement mixed with festivity.  Mechanization hasn’t invaded this region, yet, and everywhere groups of workers are taking to the vines. It’s a motley crew. A few experienced hands, some friends and family members, students and casual workers, but despite the prospect of a back-breaking day’s work ahead, the mood is upbeat. An experienced hand can harvest up to two tonnes a day, if the conditions are right and on this day, they are near perfect.

Timing is the most crucial element of the process. Some say it’s a question of science – determining the point at which the perfect balance is reached between the natural sugars in the grape and its decreasing level of natural plant acids. Just one day too soon, the grapes won’t have achieved their optimum condition. A day too many, the grapes will pass their peak. Weather conditions also add an element of risk and uncertainty to the decision. 

My old friend Carlo eschews the science. With more than 50 wine harvests to his name, he prefers to rely on instinct. It was time to harvest the grapes… and so here we are.

The wines of Piacenza, the northernmost province of Emilia Romagna, are generally unknown to the outside world. For now, suffice to say the area is better known for its cuisine than its wine.  Gutturnio is the most common red here, made from a mix of Barbera and croatina (Bonarda) grapes. In this part of Piacenza the red is more likely to be served with a frothy head than still but as the locals will quickly point out, the slight fizz of the wine is a wonderful accompaniment to the local cuisine, which is robust and hearty.

By midday it’s nearly 30 degrees. A long table is set in the old farmhouse and twenty tired and hungry workers put down their secateurs and sit to a feast prepared by Carlo’s son and his wife. Everyone starts with a glass of sparkling cold white wine – a champagnino, or ‘little champagne’, as it’s known in the local dialect.  A large pot of risotto with sausage is passed from one end of the table to the next. Plates are filled and quickly emptied. Platters of stuffed peppers, grilled aubergines, local cured meats and cheeses follow. And then there’s more wine, both red and white, the result of last year’s vendemmia. No prizes for guessing where it comes from. Carlo, at the head of the table, smiles. The harvest is under way and all the signs are good. This year’s wine will be even better than the last.