Greek Salad – Horiatiki

horiatiki_greek_salad.JPGThe actual Greek name of the ubiquitous Greek salad is Horiatiki, which means, roughly, “village salad.”  As I mentioned in my general post on Greek food, one Greek restaurateur told me that the primordial Greek salad was just feta, onions, and olive oil, and that traditionally the cucumbers and tomatoes are flourishes added only in the summer months.

There are really only two things you need to know to make superlative Greek salad.  The first: for this dish more than maybe any other you need to use amazing ingredients.  Greek salad with pale tomatoes and thick-skinned cucumbers and canned olives is really one of the saddest things you can eat.

I use the following:

  • Gull Valley vine or cherry tomatoes (or in late summer tomatoes from the garden…)
  • Hothouse cucumbers from Doef’s greenhouse.  I prefer the smaller varieties as they have tender skin.
  • Vlahos feta – This is a cow’s milk feta made in Camrose by Tiras Dairies.  It is available at Greek grocery stores like Omonia Foods, as well as the Italian Centre Shop.
  • Marinated kalamata olives from Olive Me.

My second bit of advice: even though this is a very “elemental” salad, and we want the ingredients to speak for themselves, this doesn’t mean we should shy away from seasoning and dressing the salad.  I season the cucumbers and tomatoes a good while before mixing the salad.  The traditional dressing is just olive oil, but I always add wine vinegar, too.  Fresh herbs like parsley and oregano are also nice.

My only other suggestion is to be judicious with the onions.  A good spike of raw onion is a beautiful contrast to the juicy fresh veggies, but a little goes a long way.

Because we are dressing this salad it is best served with bread, to soak up the tomato juice and vinegar and oil left at the bottom of the bowl.

Horiatiki – Village Salad

Ingredients

  • 300 g fresh cucumber
  • 350 g fresh tomato
  • 20 g red onion, finely minced
  • a big pinch of salt
  • sugar (maybe)
  • olive oil
  • red wine vinegar
  • feta

Cretons

Originally posted December 15, 2009 (if you can believe that).  Re-posted today with some major corrections.  I first read about cretons in an article in The Ottawa Citizen by then-food-columnist Ron Eade.  He presented cretons as a Quebecois variation on rillette.  A while back Emmanuel (Manu) of Pied Cochon, Joe Beef, and Woodwork fame gave me the skinny on cretons, and they really are not like rillettes at all.  I am not able to find that original Ron Eade article to expose it.  Presumably someone from the lower St. Lawrence forced him to remove it as libel or lies.  Anyways.  

A ramekin of cretons.Cretons is a pork spread made by simmering ground pork and aromatics like onion, bay, and clove in milk or cream.  As with any Quebecois dish there are as many variations as there are Francophones.

Pork.  You can use regular ground pork.  Actually the pork can be quite fatty as any lard that renders into the pan will be bound up with the dairy and (in my recipe…) breadcrumbs.

In addition to ground meat, Manu also adds gryons. This is the Quebecois word for greaves (see this post on rendering lard for more info).

Usually I’m a fanatic about searing meat, even the ground meat used in chili and meat sauce.  Searing generally improves the colour and flavour of a dish, but there are a few notable exceptions.  In my book those exceptions are veal blanquette and cretons.  We want a soft texture and a light colour.

Onion.  To me onion is essential as a sweet-‘n-savoury bridge between the pork and the spices.

Speaking of Spices.  Clove seems to be the most commonly used spice in cretons.  I use a standard quatre-épices blend of black pepper, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg.  These baking spices can easily become cloying, so use a light hand.

Dairy.  Some use milk, some use cream.  I use cream because it gives the final dish a rich texture but a happy, bright white colour.

Breadcrumbs.  Again, not all recipes include breadcrumbs, but I like using them to bind up any pork fat that has gone adrift and floated to the surface of the mixture.  Starch such as breadcrumb makes for a smoother, more cohesive spread.

Basically all these components are combined and simmered until the dairy has reduced and become a stodgy porridge.  At this point the mixture is potted and chilled.  It is most commonly eaten for breakfast, on toast.

Lazy Man’s Cretons.  Oftentimes when I make pie I misjudge the ratio of dough to filling, and am left with a surfeit of one or the other.  Excess pie dough is easy to get rid of (pie sticks!)  Excess filling can be a bit trickier.  If I have leftover tourtière filling, I put it in a heavy pot and cover it with heavy cream.  If you simmer this mixture for about an hour it’s hard for an Anglo such as myself to differentiate it from true cretons.  I have no idea what Quebecers would think of that, but it’s already happened so we should all move on.

Like many rustic preparations, cretons is a double-edged sword: on the one hand it’s almost impossible to not be tasty; on the other it is truly impossible to make it look appetizing in the modern sense.  It is cold meat porridge, after all.  But it’s delicious, and a great way to use up leftover ground meat.

 

Cretons

Ingredients

  • 600 g ground pork
  • 150 g onion
  • 10 g garlic
  • 1 tsp quatre-épices
  • 470 g heavy cream
  • 30 g bread crumbs
  • 1.5 tbsp kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Gently cook the pork in a heavy pot.  Do not colour the meat.
  2. Add the onions, garlic, and quatre-épices.  Cook gently until the onions are starting to become translucent.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients.  Simmer until the cream has reduced.  The mixture should have the consistency of porridge.  Roughly 45 to 60 minutes.
  4. Transfer immediately to ramekins or ceramic dishes.  Chill thoroughly.
  5. Spread on toast.

Greek Food

Any country that pickles its national cheese in brine and adulterates its national wine with pine pitch should order dinner at the local Chinese place and save its energies for other things.

-Jeffrey Steingarten, on Greek food

Dawn at the harbour at Iraklio, Crete

As the above quote from Vogue’s food critic demonstrates, Greek food is not often taken seriously in North America.[1]  In fact, a trip to a Greek restaurant is not even about the food, as the food is more or less the same at all Greek restaurants.  In our part of the world, dining at a Greek restaurant is about the experience, an experience that usually involves tables for twelve, bazuki music, belly dancing, liquor, repetition of the phrase “Opa!”, smashing plates, and of course setting cheese on fire.  All of this commotion invariably occurs between whitewashed walls supporting plastic grape vines.

It’s cyclical and self-perpetuating: the public has come to expect a zany, raucous, experience, so Greek restaurants deliver to make a buck, which reinforces our ridiculous idea about Greek cuisine and culture.

I haven’t done any solid research on the issue, but I’m pretty sure the initial misconception comes from a movie that is a half-century old: Zorba the Greek.  Based on a Kazantzakis novel, the movie is about a stuffy half Greek half English writer who moves to Crete to run a lignite mine. In Piraeus he is approached by a Macedonian named Zorba who offers his services as a mining crew chief.  Zorba: the name itself is wild.  He is obsessed with women and wine and dancing and in short drinks deeply and lustily from the cup of life.  This has become a stereotype throughout television and film, in everything from My Big Fat Greek Wedding to Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

In the movie, Zorba is the Greek spirit teaching the prudish Englishman how to enjoy life.  Interestingly in the book, both of the main characters are Greek.  Zorba is perhaps the ancient Greek spirit, standing in stark contrast to his contemporary compatriots, who are all fettered by the Orthodox Church, superstition, and poverty.

But I digress.

The day after I wrote my last university exam I departed for a five week trip to southern Greece with my girlfriend Lisa.  My degree was in electrical engineering.  At the time I had a part time job in a kitchen.  Our time in Greece did a lot to make me forget about engineering and work as a cook when we returned to Canada.

Before the trip I considered the word “cuisine” a fancy way of saying “food”, and to me the two terms could be used interchangeably.  The trip (by which I mean the reading I did beforehand, the five weeks of travel, and the hundred or so meals Lisa and I ate in Greece, almost entirely at markets and tavernas) taught me that cuisine was a cohesive set of traditions that informed how a society interacted with the natural world.

I learned that there was a seasonal rhythm to the traditional food of Greece.  One restaurant owner explained that true Greek salad is actually just raw onion, feta, and olive oil, ingredients that are available year round.  Only in the height of summer were flourishes like tomatoes and cucumbers added.  This seems so obvious to me now having spent the last eight years immersed in food, but at the time it was a revelation.[2]

I was fascinated to see how these traditions were interpreted differently by each taverna. Saganaki, for instance, which is essentially just fried cheese, was different in every place we ate.  Sometimes it was made with kefalotiri and flamed with brandy so that the cheese melted into a gooey mat.  At a beachside taverna on the island of Syros it was made with a firm local cheese called San Michiali and gently warmed in the oven, simply to heighten the aroma and flavour.

If I had to characterize Greek food I would say it is above all else simple and elemental.  Your salad is tomatoes, capers, potatoes, and corn.  Your dinner is fish, or octopus, and lemon, and herbs.  Your dessert is melon and raki.  Of course there are exceptions (one does not easily whip up a batch of baklava) but generally food is prepared with minimal intervention using simple techniques that don’t significantly alter or mask the ingredients.

Likewise meals are served without any ostentation.  The entire trip I didn’t see a single belly dancer (maybe one in Plaka…)  No plates were smashed.  The meals were always outside, on a sidewalk or in a garden (Tamam was literally the only exception, the only time we ate indoors in an entire month).  Rarely was there music playing.  Our meals were quiet, humble, and (again) elemental.

One of the most memorable parts of our trip to Greece was the August full moon.  We were staying on the island of Paros, in a small town called Dryos.  For several days leading up to the lunar event the owner of our hotel told us that the August full moon was one of the greatest, most festive nights of the summer.  We had absolutely no idea what to expect, and we let our imaginations run wild with visions of a beachside bacchanalia.  The reality was much more restrained (we ate dinner and went out for drinks with some other tourists) but we remember it fondly.

Every full moon in August Lisa and I eat Greek food and take some time to reflect on that trip.  Some years it’s just a glass of ouzo and water with some small mezze, maybe tzatziki and pita. Other times it’s a full meal, with roast lamb with wine.

Today happens to be this year’s August full moon, which is why I have Greece on the brain.

A Greek dinner for the August full moon: roast lamb shoulder, potatoes, olives, tzatziki, and horiatiki.

 

  1.  This quote is from The Man Who Ate Everything, an article in which Steingarten tries to learn to appreciate his least favourite foods, which include (among many others) kimchi and Greek food.  Here he is referring to feta, which is aged and stored in brine (not actually that weird…) and retsina, a wine from Attica that is flavoured with pine resin.
  2. Of course, this seasonality is a thing of the past, and whether you are in Athens Greece or Athens Ontario (look it up), and whether it is July or January, a Greek salad always has cucumber and tomato.

Grüner Veltliner and Other Austrian Wines

Some shameless self-promotion:  if the type of information contained in this post interests you at all, I’m going to be hosting a tasting of sparkling wines on Thursday, February 11, as part of Little Brick’s Home School series.

 

Three examples of Grüner Veltliner available from wine shops here in Edmonton.I’ve been meaning to write about Austrian wine for some time.  Years, actually: ever since I wrote this post on Heurigen, which are rural taverns that serve young wine and cider.

Last week the Elm wine group did a tasting of Grüner Veltliner, the national grape of Austria, so I thought I would finally put down some info on Austrian wine.

If you haven’t had Austrian wine before, you’re not a freak or a philistine: there isn’t a whole lot available in North America.  Austria produces almost as much wine as New Zealand[1], but in most generic liquor stores the Kiwis have an entire section, while you would be hard-pressed to find a bottle from Austria.  Boutique wine shops like Devine usually carry a handful.  It seems that the majority of Austria’s wine is consumed by Austrians.

Despite its relatively small amount of exports, the Austrian wine industry has garnered a lot of attention in recent years because of its commitment to both its regional identity and quality production.  The latter sounds like it should be a given, but within most wine-producing countries there are regions that make enormous quantities of mediocre or bad wine, creating surplus, driving down prices, and ultimately threatening the entire wine industry.[2]  The southern-most regions of France and Italy are infamous examples.  By contrast, almost all of the area under vine in Austria is devoted to quality wine production.  Austria also has some of the most stringent regulations for processing and labelling, though admittedly these were put into effect after a 1985 scandal that saw some producers adding diethylene glycol to improve the body of their wines.

It’s always tempting to lump Austria in with Germany, and while the two countries do share some grape varietals and labeling practices, Austrian wines have a lot more in common with those of Alsace than Germany.  They produce mainly dry whites, common varietals being Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, Riesling (almost always dry, unlike German examples), and Gewürztraminer (also dry, unlike Alsatian examples).  The most common red variety is Zweigelt, an Austrian native.  As in Germany, wines are sold under varietal name.

Austrian wine production occurs almost entirely in the east end of the country, in the lower regions away from the Alps of the west.  Most of the Austrian wines available to us in North American come from the province of Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), specifically parts of the Danube and its tributaries just upstream of Vienna: Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, and Traisental.  (The suffix “tal” indicates a valley.  The Kremstal is the valley around the town of Krems.  The Kamptal is the valley formed by the river Kamp.)  The most important of these is the Wachau.

Wachau.  The Wachau is a stretch of the Danube west of Vienna.  Much like the German Mosel, the best wines here are labelled by varietal as well as the vineyard or hill that produced the grapes.  Important hills include Loibenberg, Terrassen, and Kellerberg.  These may appear on labels either by themselves, or in conjunction with the name of the adjacent village (eg. Dürnsteiner Kellerberg refers to the hill Kellerberg by the town of Dürnstein).

The Wachau also has its own version of the German “predicate” labelling system, which classifies wines by pre-fermentation must weight, that is, sugar content.  The more concentrated the original must, the higher potential alcohol, and in theory the higher the quality of the wine.  So in Germany Rieslings are classified as Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenasulese, and Trockenbeerenauslese, in order of increasing must weight (and by extension increasing prestige and price-point…)

The Wachau sytem is much simpler, and uses final alcohol content instead of original must weight.  The lightest grade is Steinfeder (named for a type of frizzy grass) which is below 11.5% ABV.  Next is Federspiel (named for a bird) between 11.5 and 12.5%.  The highest quality wines are labelled Smaragd (a kind of small lizard native to the region) and are above 12.5% ABV.

A view of the Donau (Danube) from the ruined castle at Durnstein

 

Grüner Veltliner, the most commonly planted grape in Austria, has become a darling of the wine cogniscenti in recent years.  Here’s what rockstar sommelier Rajat Parr has to say about the varietal…

A robust white, it features some of the greenish flavors of Sauvignon Blanc and a hint of legumes, making it the perfect match for green vegetables like peas, asparagus, artichokes, and lettuces. (Secrets of the Sommeliers[3], page 208)

[Grüner Veltliner] has a beany, green, peppery character that nicely offsets asparagus… (ibid, page 115)

It’s ridiculous for me to try and contradict Rajat Parr, but I’ve never, ever picked up “green” aromas from Grüner (despite its name… which I think means “green grape from Valtellina”, but that refers to the colour of the fruit itself, not it’s aromas).  I’ve always struggled to pick up that smell, even in Sauvignon Blanc, so I should just keep my mouth closed.

Getting back to the original point of this post, for our Grüner Veltliner tasting we tried three examples.  Some quick notes follow.

F.X. Pichler 2007 Loibner Berg Smaragd Grüner Veltliner.  Pichler is one of the big family names in the Wachau.  The wine smelled exactly like an old pineapple, and had a viscous mouthfeel.  If the tasting had been blind I would have sworn it was a New World oaked Chardonnay.  It was almost unanimously the favourite of the three wines we tasted, until it was revealed that it was $49.99 at Wine and Beyond.  With that price tag it is not likely be purchased by anyone in the group.

The next day I happened to read this: “Because Wachau’s producers have the ability to push the ripeness envelope, they are tempted to overdo it, as is happening in Germany’s Rheingau.  A few well-known producers have fallen into this trap – F.X. Pichler and Hirtzberger to name two – and for the privilege of drinking their unbalanced wines, you pay a costly premium.  Stick to the better, more proportional wines of Prager, Altzinger, and Knoll.” (ibid, page 115)

Rabl 2014 Grüner Veltliner Langenlois.  This is an interesting one.  Basically no fruit on the nose.  Strong, frankly peculiar aromas that I described as rice cake, toast, and mock orange blossom.  (The tasting notes posted at the place of purchase said, “citrus notes with a dusting of stony mineral”. Go figure.)  It has a sharp, bright acidity, and the flavour of lemon pith.  Quite distinctive.  The Rabl was $21.99 at Devine.

Gritsch 2013 Steinterrassen Federspiel Grüner Veltliner.  The lightest of the bunch.  A nose of wet stone and red apple.  Medium, round, happy acidity.  Short finish.  $22.99 at Devine.

 

#ButtonSoupCellar is a series of posts about wines and spirits

 

Footnotes

  1. New Zealand and Austria are 17th and 16th, respectively on this list.
  2. The Oxford Companion to Wine says that surplus production is “the single greatest problem facing the world’s wine industry”.
  3. Secrets of the Sommeliers by Rajat Parr and Jordan MacKay.  Published by Ten Speed Press.

Liptauer

A pot of liptauer with chives.This is a tasty spread I often serve at Austrian cooking classes.

Liptauer is originally from Liptov, in Slovakia, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  The dish became quite popular in Austria-proper, and is now considered a classic part of that country’s cuisine.

In Austria Liptauer is made with a soft, fresh cheese called Topfen.  Topf is the German word for pot, so Topfen can be translated as “pot cheese”.  It goes by the name Quark (pronounced “KVARK”) in many other parts of Europe.  Austrians will scoff, but the recipe below approximates Topfen by using a mixture of cream cheese and sour cream.

Besides cheese, the other essential ingredient in Liptauer is paprika, which is ubiquitous in several Eastern European cuisines.  The paprika that has been on your shelf for two years has no flavour and a russet colour.  Fresh paprika from quality-conscious merchants will have a much better flavour and a bright red colour, giving the Liptauer a friendly, salmon colour.

In Austria Liptauer is served with rye bread, as a snack, an appetizer, or Brettljause at a Heuriger (see this post on Heurigen).  This is not even remotely traditional, but I also use it as a spread on sandwiches.

 

Liptauer (an approximation…)

Ingredients

  • 510 g cream cheese
  • 120 g full fat sour cream
  • 50 mL sweet paprika
  • 1 tbsp caper, minced
  • 1/2 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 anchovy fillets, the tinned variety preserved in oil, minced
  • 1/2 a small shallot, minced
  • 1/2 tbsp smooth Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp parsley, minced
  • 1/2 tbsp cider vinegar
  • black pepper to taste
  • chive to garnish

Procedure

  1. Combine the cream cheese and sour cream in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Beat with the paddle attachment until very smooth, about 2 minutes on high speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl part way through.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients and beat until thoroughly combined.
  3. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  4. Serve with rye bread.  Liptauer is also good with radishes when they are in season.

Aperitivo

Mise en place for Italian aperitivo.Aperitivo is the Italian word for aperitif.  Ostensibly it is a drink taken before dinner.

In practice it is both drink and food.  The fundamental idea of Italian aperitivo is that you order a drink and receive complimentary food.  That food may be a fistful  of olives, or it may be a no-kidding smorgasbord.  Isn’t that amazing?

Let’s talk about drinks, then about food.

A Simple Bar for Aperitivo

Amari.  If you can buy only one bottle of liqueur for aperitivo, it should be Campari.  Campari is a bitter liqueur of about 25% ABV, flavoured with obscure herbs and fruit (eg chinotto, the myrtle-leaved orange tree).  It was invented in Novara, Piedmont, by Gaspare Campari.  It was first produced en masse outside Milan, and has become affiliated with that city.

Campari is a bright, cherry red.  Slightly viscous.  It has an intense, smoky bitterness, and is syrupy-sweet.

Campari can be taken on the rocks, diluted with soda or fruit juice, or mixed into proper cocktails.

Vermouth.  Vermouth is fortified wine flavoured with botanicals, which is a fancy way of saying plants.  It can be bone dry or quite sweet.  I think the most common brand is Cinzano (chin-ZAHN-o), especially their sweet, red (“Rosso”) vermouth.

Cinzano Rosso is 15% ABV and has a medium red colour with a russet hue.  It has a medium-intense aroma of herbs.  It is sweet with a bright, balancing acidity.

The bitter-sweet clash of Campari and Cinzano Rosso is the basis of several classic cocktails.  The Americano, for instance is one part each Campari, Cinzano Rosso, and soda water.  If you substitute the soda for gin, you have my favourite aperitivo, the Negroni.

negroni_2Negroni.  The apocryphal origin story of the Negroni has Count Camillo Negroni seated at the bar in Caffè Casoni in Florence in 1919.  He asks the barkeep to stiffen his Americano by subbing soda with gin.

I feel like a real hack just re-typing stuff that I’ve read elsewhere on the internet, but there is a fantastic quip about the Negroni by Orson Welles: “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you.  They balance each other.”

Returning to original content: The most memorable cocktail I’ve ever had was a Negroni from Mr. Brown’s in Trastevere, Rome.  Unfortunately it’s memorable for the lurid conditions in which it was procured, not any nuance of flavour or composition.  Lisa and I were walking back to our apartment after a late dinner, and we finally encountered the raucous, lively Trastevere we had heard about.  Drinkers were overflowing from the bars and pouring onto the streets and campi.  The street was particularly congested in front of a placed called Mr. Brown’s, advertizing 5 Euro “to go” cocktails.  We pushed our way in and stood by the bar to get the lay of the land.  5 Euros didn’t seem especially cheap, until we watched the bartender mix a drink.  Bottles of liquor were inverted and held over plastic cups for 3-5 seconds.  The drinks were enormous and contained several ounces of liquor.  And it seemed you weren’t limited to hi-balls: you could order what ever you want.  Tequila Sunrise?  Sure.  Spritz?  The barkeep opened a new bottle Prosecco, projecting the cork through the air and striking a large bell hung over the bar.  Mojito?  He muddled fresh mint.  I ordered a Negroni.  My 5 Euros got me about 4 fluid ounces each of gin, Campari, and Vermouth.  Actually the drink was so large and purchased so late in the evening that I couldn’t finish it.  I put it in the little fridge in our apartment, and the next day I poured it into a glass of Prosecco, thus inventing the Negroni Spritz.

Tangent: If you replace the gin in a Negroni with bourbon, you have a Boulevardier.

 

aperol_spritzAperol Spritz.  While Campari and Cinzano Rosso are a delicious, versatile power couple, I think that the Aperol Spritz is actually the most common aperitivo in Italy.  I have no official statistics on this, but a short walk through any northern Italian city in the early evening will confirm my hypothesis.

Aperol is from Padua, in Veneto, and is flavoured with bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb, and other stuff.  It is 11% ABV, sweet, orange in colour, and faintly bitter, much less so than Campari.  It smells almost exactly like orange Triaminic.[1]  If you are unfamiliar with the sweet nectar that is orange Triaminic, think orange Kool-Aid-flavoured cough syrup.

The Aperol Spritz originated in the province of Veneto, supposedly during the Hapsburg occupation of the region.  (“Spritz” is the German word for fizz).  It is a mixture of Prosecco, Aperol, and soda water poured over ice and garnished with an orange.  According to the Aperol website the classic ratio for the Spritz is 3-2-1 Prosecco, Aperol, and soda.

 

Food at Aperitivo

When ordering a drink for aperitivo you can expect at the very least a small bowl of olives and potato chips.  You might also receive finger sandwiches, little pizzas, or cured meat and cheese.

Occasionally the food is set out on a buffet.  Maybe some crostini with a variety of spreads, or a large bowl of pasta.

Some advice for students looking to use aperitivo as a meal-replacement: look for starch.  Pasta, toast, whole-grain salads, these starches have sustained most of humanity for most of history, and they will sustain you.

 

Cicheti

Aperitivo plays out a bit differently in Venice.  You can get the usual cocktails, but it is more common to drink an ombre, a small glass of wine.  And instead of receiving complimentary food you can purchase small one- or two-bite cicheti (chi-KEH-tee).  Cicheti can be simple and elemental (roast bell peppers, cheese, olives, et c) or full-on composed hors d’oeuvres (octopus carpaccio and olive spread on a crostino).  Escaping the hideous tourist maze to enjoy a plastic cup of Valpolicella and a bite of food is one of the best ways to enjoy Venice.

 

Footnotes

1. Well before Lil’ Wayne and other southern rappers made it cool, I had my first experience abusing cough syrup.  I was three years old, and the story has become a Suddaby family legend.  When I was a toddler my mom kept a few bottles of Triaminic on hand.  Red Triaminic was for a cough.  Orange for a runny nose.  The red one was disgusting so I was always careful to stifle my coughs.  The orange one was absolutely the best thing I had ever tasted.  Like ever.  It was candy that you could drink.  It tasted kind of like McDonald’s orange drink concentrate.  So one day I climbed onto the counter and reached into the medicine cabinet, opened the bottle, and put it to my mouth.  The exact amount I drank varies depending on who tells the tale.  Mother caught me mid-act, tore the bottle from my tiny hand, and immediately called poison control.  They said that I would get drowsy, then fall asleep.  Mother only needed to jostle me every so often make sure that I was still able to wake up.  If I didn’t wake up she should call 911.  (That’s actually the advice they gave.)  As I remember we went to the park that afternoon and I fell asleep on the tire swing.  I think everything worked out all right, though.

Valpolicella

A view of Valpolicella vineyards and Lake GardaAmarone is the most fashionable Italian wine in North America.  I’m in no way qualified to make such a sweeping statement, but I think the shelves of boutique wine shops offer ample testament.  The wine is rich, concentrated, age-worthy, and expensive.  It is by its very nature more pricey than most other wines: made from partially-dried grapes, it requires more kilograms of fruit to produce a litre of wine.  The absolute cheapest bottles in Canada cost about $40, but most mid-level bottles sell for around $60.  My first taste of Amarone was in the home of a self-impressed eye doctor.  It was delicious.

Amarone is from Valpolicella,[1] a small region in northeast Italy, just outside Verona.  Valpolicella is an old word for an area that doesn’t have a modern administrative function, and so doesn’t appear on most political maps.  Outside Italy the term Valpolicella is always used in connection to wine production, but the people who live there will patiently explain that it is a place with a long history and a unique identity within the Veneto.  My instructor in this lesson was Davide Canteri, who offers wine tours of the area.

Almost every written source I have, including the Oxford Companion to Wine, says that the word Valpolicella comes from a mixture of Latin and Greek, and means “valley of many cellars”.  I asked Davide about this, and he said if he were being completely objective he would have to admit the origin is unknown, but that the “many cellars” etymology is definitely not correct, and was clearly invented by advertising executives.  (“Why would the name of this region have a Greek word in it?”)  He then offered a few other possibilities that he thinks are much more probable (though admittedly less sexy).  One involved the regional word for puddles.  Another was based on the word for maiden, as one of the local coats-of-arms features a young woman kneeled in prayer.

Valpolicella proper is comprised of three adjacent valleys, their principle towns being Fumane, Marano, and Negrar.  They are northwest of Verona, and east of the Adige River.

In the 1960s the Italian government set out to codify its wine regions and methods of production in a system similar to the French appellation laws.  In several parts of the country the permitted production areas for specific wines were expanded well beyond the traditional borders so that more winemakers could benefit from labelling their wine with a famous name.  Valpolicella, though traditionally confined to the three valleys east of the Adige, was expanded west of the river, all the way to Lake Garda.  According to Davide, this enlargement was first met with resistance from the producers in the original region.  The silver lining is that the enlargement increased production to a level that allowed Valpolicella wines to be sold all over the world.  If it hadn’t been for the enlargement, Davide says, North Americans may never have heard of Valpolicella.  But it also means that consumers need to know more about the producer, and where exactly their grapes come from.  Wine produced in the original region is labelled Valpolicella Classico.

Valpolicella wines are made from a mixture of several grape varieties, the three most important being Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara.  Corvina literally means “crow” and refers to the dark colour of the grapes.  This variety holds the highest regard.  It produces wine with the best structure, but its yields are low, so it is supplemented with other higher-yielding varieties.  Rondinella is the second most renowned grape of the region.  Rondine is the word for swallow (the bird), and rondinella means little swallow.  Davide said this is because late in the season these grapes tend to split, and then resemble a swallow’s tail.  Molinara is the third most important variety.  Unfortunately I don’t have a cute bird story about this grape.  These three varieties are the backbone of viticulture in Valpolicella, but there are dozens of other local varieties that are permitted.

According to the wine cognoscenti, vine-growers in Valpolicella and the rest of Italy are faced with a dilemma.  On the one hand they can grow a huge amount of ordinary grapes that will produce ordinary wine, or they can grow a small amount of high-quality, flavourful grapes that will make better, more concentrated, more expensive wine that can be exported.  These grape yields are determined by vineyard site, the grape variety planted, and viticultural details like how the vines are trained.  Vines grown on rocky slopes, for instance, have lower yields than vines grown in flat valleys with rich, loamy soil.

In Valpolicella the traditional way to train vines is up onto a pergola, about six or seven feet off the ground.  Modern international wine-makers prefer to use the Guyot method, where the vines are cane-pruned and trained along wires, closer to the ground.  If you think that this is an esoteric or trivial difference in viticulture, consider this: pergola-trained plants yield about 15 kg of grapes per vine, while Guyot-trained plants yield about 4 kg of grapes per vine.

That being said, as you leave Verona and drive through the endless vineyards of the Veneto, you will notice that some vines are trained on pergolas, others in the Guyot style.  Later you will discover that good wines can come from either camp.

From Verona we drove to what Davide calls the heart of Valpolicella, the small hamlet of San Giorgio, which is perched on a hill with beautiful views west towards Lake Garda (photo above).  In the centre of this town is a medieval church, formally called Pieve di San Giorgio di Valpolicella.  It was this church as much as the vineyards that Davide wanted to show us.

The church, like most buildings in the old town, is made of burnished white stone.  It has a blockish bell tower, and an elegantly crumbling cloister.  Excavations on the adjacent hillside have revealed evidence of a Bronze Age civilization.  There was also a Roman building on this site.  In fact, some of the stones from that pagan temple had been salvaged and re-purposed during the construction of the church.  You can still make out the fragmentary Latin inscriptions.  A stone baldachin carved by Lombards arches over the main altar, and along the walls are frescoes painted as early as the 11th century.  There’s one of Adam eating the bad apple, one of St. John, a scene from the Last Supper, all in the flat, slightly contorted medieval style.

I know: this kind of architectural palimpsest can be found all over Italy.  In Rome there are numberless examples of Christian churches and monuments built with odds and ends from Roman ruins.  But in Rome and in the Vatican that construction was done so lavishly, and on such an impossible, monumental scale, that they are now part of the collective cultural heritage of the western world, and congested tourist destinations.

San Giorgio is a living church.  Davide went to mass here when he was little.  The hot September afternoon when we were visiting a wedding had just ended.  We had to drop coins in a box to switch the lights on.  I could have touched the thousand year old frescoes on the wall.  (I didn’t…)

Yes, here was the same story told throughout northern Italy of Bronze Age pagans, Roman imperialism and collapse, barbarian invasion, medieval Catholicism, and Venetian domination, but here that story was told on the smallest, most personal scale.  A trip to Davide’s boyhood church was an intimate, humble gesture, something that I wasn’t expecting on an outing marketed as a wine tour.  I guess the point is that while wine is an important part of Valpolicella, and central to its identity, it really is only one facet of the region.

Anyways: right now we’re talking about wine.

After we left the church we went to a winery.

It is called Salgari, after a famous Italian author.  I had never heard of him, let alone read any of his books.  He was described to us as an Italian Jack London, a writer of adventure stories.

We started our tour with a quick visit to the vineyard closest to the house.  The vines were festooned on pergolas.  It had been a miserable vinatge across northern Italy from the Veneto to the Piedmont, grey and damp and cool, but the harvest was underway.

In the house we peered into some cement tanks built into the ground.  We also stuck our heads into an old cellar, musky and pungent with the smell of wet earth, with a fat salami and some ancient bottles of wine.

Finally we sat for a tasting of the four main styles of wine made in the Valpolicella.

Valpolicella is the standard, dry wine of the region.  A red, made from a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and possibly a number of others including Molinara.

The most famous wines of the region are made from grapes that have been partially raisined.  After the ripe grapes are harvested, they are spread out on mats in airy attics and storehouses to dry for three to six months, during which time they typically lose about 40% of their weight in moisture.  Only once the sugars have been concentrated in this manner are the grapes crushed and fermented.

Recioto[2] is the traditional premium wine of the region.  It is a sweet red made from partially-dried grapes.  It ferments for about 25 days, but then fermentation is arrested to preserve a good deal of sweetness in the wine.  In modern wine texts Recioto is presented almost as an historical curiosity, a footnote, important only because it is the ancient progenitor of Amarone.  These dismissals notwithstanding, the folks at Salgari unflinchingly stated that Recioto is (still) the most important wine of Valpolicella.

Amarone is the current darling of the region.  Like Recioto, Amarone is red, and made from partially-dried grapes.  Unlike Recioto, it is fermented until it is completely dry.  This takes quite a while: usually forty to sixty days.  The great irony of Amarone is that historically it was considered a mistake: a ruined Recioto, a Recioto scapà, which means a Recioto that has fled or run away.  According to Davide the first time Amarone appeared on a label was in 1935, when the Cooperative Cellar of Negrar marketed a Recioto scapà as Recioto Amarone.  Amarone literally means “big bitter,” though the wine is not bitter in the conventional sense: it’s bitter  in that it is not sweet.

Ripasso is simple Valpolicella wine that has been aged with some of the pressed grape skins leftover from Amarone production.  It therefore has a bit more depth and complexity than a straight Valpolicella, without the concentration and price tag of an Amarone.  Ripasso wines are dry.

We sat at a table, three tourists, Davide our guide, and two members of the family.  The proceedings took the form of a formal tasting: empty glasses lined before us on a mat.  Each wine poured.  We smelled, tasted, discussed.  But truthfully it was not a formal tasting.  It was social.  There were cheeses and salami and olive oil and bread on the table.  And we talked about all sorts of things besides the wine.  Most memorably, what Italian food is like in Canada.

Formal tastings are for suckers.

 

  1.  “val-poll-i-CHELL-a” – with the same “ch” sound as “cello”
  2. “re-chee-OH-to”

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

A bottle of Unico Balsamic Vinegar of ModenaThis is balsamic vinegar of Modena.[1]  We’ve all had it before: it’s brown, and sweet, and acidic.  This bottle was produced by Unico.  I think I bought it at Safeway.

Let’s look at the ingredients list.  First is wine vinegar.  Then concentrated grape must.  “Must” is the winemaker’s term for unfermented grape juice.  So concentrated grape must is just cooked grape juice.  Next we see caramel, or cooked sugar, which gives the vinegar is characteristic colour, sweetness, and body.  Finally we have sulfites, which inhibit micro-organisms and prevent unwanted fermentation.  In other words, this condiment is sweetened vinegar.

Bottles labelled “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” have a faux seal on them that says “Indicazione Geografica Protettata,” or IGP.  This is an EU certification that guarantees a very basic level of quality, a broad style of production, and certifies that at least one part of that production occured in the indicated region, Modena in this case.  None of the ingredients actually need to come from there: the grapes that created the vinegar and concentrated must could have been from other parts of Italy, or France, or Australia.  The part of the process that takes place in Modena is the brief aging period: all the ingredients are combined and stored in a barrel for one year, then bottled.

Balsamic vinegar of Modena is a commercial product made on an industrial scale.  I like it: I always have a bottle at home and I use it semi-regularly for salad dressing.  Or sometimes I cook it down to a syrupy consistency and drizzle it on toast with honey.  It’s tasty, but it is a pale shadow of the original, traditional vinegar on which it is based.

A bottle of San Donnino Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of ModenaThe photo at right shows a bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena.  Instead of an IGP stamp, it has a DOP label: “denominazione di origine protettata”.  DOP regulations are much more stringent than IGP.  Let’s look at the ingredients list of this product.

There is actually only one ingredient that can be used to produce traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena: grape must.

So let’s talk about this grape must.  First, the grapes must all come from around Modena, and they must be of only two varieties: Trebbiano and Lambrusco.  The grapes are harvested, crushed, and pressed to make juice.  This juice is then cooked very gently for about twenty four hours, preventing conventional fermentation and concentrating the natural sugars in the fruit.

Once the must is cool it is aged for several years in a series of wooden barrels called a batteria.  There are usually five barrels in a batteria.  They can be made out of any of six kinds of wood: mulberry, ash, cherrywood, chestnut, oak, or juniper.  Each barrel has an opening at the top, covered only with cloth, so that the grape must is exposed to the air.  As you can see in the photo below, the barrels are of different sizes, lined up on a rack so that they descend in volume.

Batterie at San Donnino in Modena

It is in these barrels, without the addition of any yeast, that the grape must slowly (slowly!) ferments, first to an alcoholic mixture, then an acidic one.  Moisture also evaporates through the opening in the barrels, so the must levels gradually drop month by month.

The batterie are always set up in an attic, where ambient temperatures fluctuate with the seasons.  The micro-organisms working on the vinegar are active in the warm summer months, and stagnant in winter.

The final important aspect of a batteria is that it is a fractional blending system.  Each year the producer is allowed to draw only one litre of vinegar from the smallest barrel.  Then must is moved from the next largest barrel into the smallest.  All the barrels are topped up with must from their larger neighbour.  The largest barrel at the end is topped up with the season’s new must.

In other words:

  • all the barrels contain a blend of musts from different years
  • the largest barrel contains the youngest average age
  • the smallest barrel contains the oldest average age
  • the average age of all the must increases with each year

batteria must be at least 12 years old before its vinegar can be sold as Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.  Vinegar that is 25 years or older can earn a further classification called extravecchio (“extra old…”).

Before it can be bottled and sold, the one litre that is drawn from the smallest barrel of each batteria is evaluated by a consortium.  It is tasted and scored, and if it is not deemed worthy it is returned to the batteria for another year, or longer.  Once the consortium has approved a batch of vinegar, they give the producer a certain number of bottles and DOP labels.

Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is always sold in a particular bottle designed by Giugiaro.  The high speed train that I rode from Rome to Bologna was also designed by Guigiaro.  Every Giugiaro balsamic vinegar bottle holds only 100 mL.  Prices for one of these bottles vary greatly.  I paid 40 Euros for the bottle of San Donnino shown above.

So, that’s how traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is made.  What do you do with it?

Firstly, you never cook it.

Secondly, you don’t make salad dressings with it, or mix it with oil or any other food: you put it directly onto food in small quantities.

The most classical use is as a condiment for cheese and cured meat, especially Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is made just down the road from Modena.  It is also commonly added to mortadella, fish, and pasta.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is rarely served at restaurants because of it’s high cost.  In fact I’ve only seen it in a restaurant twice.  The first was at The French Laundry, where our server shook a few drops of 100 year old balsamic vinegar onto ricotta agnolotti.  The second was at Osteria Franscescana in Modena.  I ate a “croccantino,” which was a piece of foie gras coated in crushed almonds and hazenlnuts, filled with a generous glob of traditional balsamic.  The foie was mounted on the end of a stubby wooden stick, like a popsicle.

It suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t told you what traditional balsamic vinegar tastes like.  The reason this product deserves respect isn’t because of how long it takes to make or how expensive it is: it’s the taste.  I learned what I know about traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena from Davide at San Donnino.  He gave us a tour of his acetaia,[2] and climbing into his attic and smelling those first wafts of balsamic was the most memorable moment of my entire stay in Italy.  Yes, it smelled of vinegar, but with a pronounced aroma of dark, cooked sugar, like molasses.  Later, when we tasted the vinegar, we found that it is not sharply acidic and simply sweet like the industrial version, but balanced, rounded, and again with that incredible, deep, blackstrap flavour.

We brought back a bottle of regular traditional, and a bottle of extravecchio.  To taste this vinegar now is an incredible, visceral reminder of Modena.  It has the transportive power usually associated with wine.

Thank you, Davide.

 

1.  Pronounced “MOH-den-a”, not “mo-DEE-na”
2. Pronounced “a-che-TEYE-a”

Preßwurst

Presswurst at an Austrian Heuriger.Preßwurst, transliterated “presswurst” and pronounced “PRESS-voorst,” is Austrian headcheese.

Headcheese is a polarizing preparation with a terrible name, but I think borrowing a trick from Preßwurst can make headcheese much more palatable to North Americans.

Both dishes are made from pork head and trotter.  The meat is brine-cured so it is rosy pink, then simmered until tender. The meat is strained, shredded, and packed into a mold with some of the gelatin-rich cooking liquid, which firms into aspic when chilled.  Full details on the procedure can be found in this post.

The most important way in which Austrian Preßwurst differs from North American headcheese is that after being packed into the mold, a heavy weight is rested on the shredded meat and aspic.  This compacts the meat and forces excess aspic from the mold, making for a dense, cohesive texture.  Most North American’s objection (or revulsion) to headcheese is the jelly component.  When the terrine is pressed this way, there is no discernible jelly; the gelatin is simply an adhesive that binds the various elements together.

Besides changing the appearance and mouthfeel of the dish, the properly weighted Preßwurst is cohesive enough that it can be sliced very thin, like ham.

To replicate the Austrian version I use a commercial kitchen container called a 1/3 plastic insert as my mold.  Once the meat and aspic are packed inside I make a 3 kg weight by adding 3 L of cold water to a second plastic insert that rests on top of the first.  The terrine should be refrigerated for at least 24 hours, preferably 48 hours.

I realize now, looking at the photo below, that my mixture has a lot more fat than the true Austrian version above.

homemade_presswurst

 

Schmalzfleisch

Mixing cured meat and lard to make SchmalzfleischSchmalzfleisch is one of the staple Aufstriche (spreads) at an Austrian Heuriger.  If that sentence made absolutely no sense to you, read this post before proceeding.

Schmalzfleisch literally means “fat-meat”.  It is one of several dishes Austrians have developed to use up irregular scraps of cured meat, like the very end of a ham that can’t quite be passed through the meat slicer.

The process for making Schmalzfleisch is simple: pieces of cured meat are ground, then mixed with rendered lard to form a cohesive paste that can be spread on bread.  Traditionally cured meat and fat are the only two ingredients.  I like to add a touch of mustard for balancing acidity.

If you grew up in eastern Canada and spent any time in a church basement, you’re probably familiar with minced ham.  Schmalzfleisch is similar to minced ham, only it is bound with lard instead of mayonnaise.

 

Schmalzfleisch

Master Ratio – 3:1 ground cured meat, lard

Ingredients

  • 240 g leftover charcuterie (see Note below)
  • 80 g warm lard
  • 8 g mustard

Procedure

  1. Cube the charcuterie and grind once through a 1/4″ plate.  Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer.
  2. Add the warm lard and mustard to the bowl and mix briefly with the paddle attachment, until the ingredients are combined and the ground charcuterie has formed a spread.
  3. Transfer to serving dish, garnish with chives.  Consume on light rye bread.

Note:  “Ham-type” charcuterie, ie. pork that has been brine-cured and cooked, works best.  A small amount of air-dried meat like salami can be used, but not more than 1/4 of the total weight.  Fresh (un-cured) cooked meat like pork chops and roast beef give the mixture a mushy texture and should be used sparingly.

Yield: 320 g schmalzfleisch

A ramekin of Schmalzfleisch