Category Archives: Italian

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”