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!