Maremma dispatch: the 1954 Ribolla coal mine tragedy

ribolla mine accidentA number of people commented yesterday on this photo, posted from the village of Ribolla (Roccastrada township) in the heart of Maremma (Tuscany) yesterday.

It’s a memorial to the victims of the 1954 coal mine tragedy there, which claimed the lives of 43 miners and shook Italy and its citizens just as the nation was rebuilding in the wake of the Second World War.

An explosion was caused by firedamp (a flammable gas) just as the miners had begun their morning’s work.

More than 50,000 persons attended the miners’ funerals, according to the Italian Wiki entry for Ribolla.

Here’s the only English-language account I could find.

The episode inspired the 1962 novel La vita agra by Luciano Bianciardi (published in English as It’s a Hard Life), which was adapted for the screen in 1964 by Carlo Lizzani.

The hills of the Maremma Toscana, which lie roughly 15 km from the sea, were a historical center for mineral and coal mining, with a legacy that stretches back to the iron age and the time of the Etruscans.

Viticulturally, Maremma is more widely known for its coastal vineyards. But today there is a growing presence of fine wine production in the hills that lie inland from the sea.

More on that later. Heading out now for my first appointment of the day in Montalcino…

“Pasolini’s girlfriend” and a poem in the shape of a rose

pasolini poems poetryImage via GoogleBooks.

Happily, I’m not alone in my insatiable interest in Italian essayist, poet, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.

With the current financial crisis looming over Italy and the nation’s general malaise, many Italians agree with me that his writing is more relevant today than ever.

A number of Italian intellectuals have invoked his name, for example, when addressing the continuing controversy over the construction of a new high speed train in the northwest Alps.

Sadly, most Americans know Pasolini only as a cineaste. In fact, his essays and his poetry are the works that have most greatly shaped his legacy following his assassination in 1975.

Beyond my scholarly fascination with his writings, Pasolini has become a sort of code word for me. In my social interaction, the utterance of his name is a synecdoche for an overarching attitude and an ideological stand against consumerism, the reification of our bodies, and the subjugation of the disenfranchised.

And Pasolini has also been the catalyst of some of my most cherished friendships.

One of those best friends is Paolo Cantele, who is also my client.

Earlier this week, he brought a wonderful blog post to my attention: “Pasolini’s girlfriend,” by Rome-based blogger and author Carmelo Albanese.

However apocryphal the story may be, it touches the heartstrings of Italians’ self-awareness and counter-culture today. The comments to the post, alone, would merit the attention of a doctoral thesis: this is the power of Pasolini’s towering presence in the country today.

I loved the story so much that I have translated it for Paolo’s winery’s English-language blog.

Please click over to read it.

Spoiler alert: the tale’s denouement revolves around a poem by Pasolini, “A un papa” [“To a Pope’].

Unfortunately Stephen Sartarelli’s translation of the poem was not included in his landmark Selected Poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a Bi-Lingual Edition, published last year by University of Chicago Press. (Stephen is a friend and a mentor and he’s the Italian translator I admire most.)

But here’s a note on the importance of the poem by James Ivory (the celebrated director) who wrote the book’s introduction.

“Early in 1959…,” he writes, “problems” with Pasolini’s then publisher Bompiani arose “because of a polemical poem [by him]: ‘A un papa’ (‘To a Pope’), a rhetorical invective against Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, considered by many to have been compromised by his silence and inaction during the Fascist-Nazi epoch. As the publisher was close to the Vatican, the controversy created strife with the editorial board… The poem itself, part of a series of what Pasolini called ‘epigrams,’ represented a new vein for him, merging politico-moral invective with verse, which he would tap with varying degrees of frequency for the rest of his life.”

Carmelo reveals in the post that he’s not an avid reader of Pasolini’s poetry. And I wonder if he was aware of the significance of the work in the arc of Pasolini’s literary career.

Anyone intimately familiar with the Pasolini mythologies would surely agree with me when I say that Carmelo’s post is even more moving because of the very fact that he hadn’t ever read the poem.

When you read Carmelo’s post, you might wonder — as I did — why he didn’t call the post Poesia in forma di rosa (Poetry in the Shape of a Rose, Pasolini’s famous collection of poetry published in 1964).

I hope you enjoy my translation as much I did composing it. Buona lettura!

Italians say it better: publicist/journalist Annamaria Testa asks Italians to speak “a little bit more, please, in Italian.”

alice feiring wine writerAbove: last night, Alice hosted Giovanni, his crew, and me in Soho for salad and cheese after we pigged out at Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It’s so important for me to eat leafy greens when I’m the road. Alice always hooks me up. Photo by Ben who was also in attendance.

Last night, as the Italians and I sat around Alice’s table, tasting wines and bantering about, I couldn’t help but think of how many English words Italians use in wine trade parlance. Even the word winemaker has found its way into the language of Dante: it’s used loosely and frequently in Italian to describe someone who may or may not have a degree or experience in formal enology yet who makes wine nonetheless. In Italian, an enologist can be a winemaker but a winemaker doesn’t necessarily have to be an enologist.

Giovanni (above) is a winemaker, for example, even though his winemaking partners Andrea and Nico are the formally trained enologists who arguably do more of the heavy lifting when it comes to the technical aspects of vinification. Giovanni carries his weight when it comes to pruning, racking, tasting, blending, etc. But no one would call him an enologo.

I was thinking about the use of English words in Italian after a new petition to encourage Italian leaders and marketers to eliminate Anglicisms from Italian was brought to my attention by my ex-college roommate — an American who has lived and worked in Italy for more than twenty-five years and who is perfectly bilingual.

It’s called Dillo in italiano (say it in Italian) and according to its online petition, it calls on “the Italian government, public administrators, members of the media, and businesses to speak a little bit more, please, in Italian.”

One of its pillars is based on an old Italian saying.

“In Italglish,” writes the author of the petition, “it’s easy to use terms clumsily, incorrectly, or inappropriately. Those who speak in the same manner that they eat speak better [Italian].”

The project has been spearheaded by Italian publicist/journalist Annamaria Testa and the topic began trending in English as well as Italian in late February after Italian humorist and essayist Beppe Severgnini published a New York Times op-ed entitled “Italy’s New Lingua Franca.”

“Beautiful though our language may be,” he wrote, “it is not the medium of choice for engineers when they’re building a beltway in Norway or designing a dam in Vietnam.”

The thorny question of Italian linguistic purism dates back to the Fascist era and beyond.

In 1977, in The Italian Language Today, the great Italian linguists Anna and Giulio Lepschy wrote the following account.

“During the Fascist period there were severe puristic relapses. As early as 1923, a tax as levied on foreign words used in shop signs, and at the beginning of the second world war, a law banned such words altogether; a poster appeared with ‘Italiani, bicottate le parole straniere’ ‘boycott foreign words’ (not untypically using the verb boicottare, which etymological dictionaries trace back to circa 1880, deriving it, through French, from the English ‘to boycott,’ from the name of Captain James Boycott, first victim of this treatment in Ireland). A Fascist law which prohibited the giving of foreign Christian names [i.e., first names] to Italian children was abolished as late as 1966.”

Listening to Nico, Andrea, and Giovanni speak (as I translated for Alice and Ben), I wondered how stilted our conversation would be if they eliminated all English words from their banter.

Thankfully, the three of them are progressivists and they embrace foreignisms with gusto (hey, was that just an Italian word I used?).

I am an unabashed lover of Italian and find great joy in my knowledge of Italian language and literature. But I also believe that — historically — one of the Italian language’s greatest strengths has been its ability to absorb words from other languages.

Winemaker is such a powerful word in Italian in part because it is borrowed. It represents a new generation of people who make wine in Italy as they break away from past paradigms and forge new ground. It doesn’t threaten Italian. It enriches it with its foreignness.

But, hey, what do I know? Io sono solo un semplice blogger. I’m just a humble blogger.

Speaking of Italians who say it better, check out this post today for the Franciacorta, the Real Story blog. It features Chef Vittorio Fusari and his wonderful and wonderfully concise description of Franciacorta.

Serge Hochar of Musar will be sorely missed

best photo of serge hocharThere’s not a lot that I can add to the many wonderful tributes that have been published since Lebanese winemaker Serge Hochar (above) died last week in Mexico.

See Eric Asimov’s obituary for the New York Times.

See also Jancis Robinson’s post, where she describes a visit to Musar in September of 1980 at the height of the Lebanese civil war.

I had the good fortune to meet Serge on a number of occasions, including our first encounter at Aspen Food & Wine back in 2008, where I was writing a story for a trade publication.

The photo above was taken at a party in a suite at the Ritz Carlton Aspen reserved by importer Domaine Select who represented the wines in the U.S. [Broadbent is the U.S. importer, I’ve been told since I posted this.]

It’s not the greatest photo but it does capture his ability to command a room’s attention to the convivial delight of all those present.

You can read about his unrivaled charisma, his indefatigable presence on the international wine scene, and his (inmho) superb wines in the myriad profiles published since news of his passing broke (just Google him).

But the one thing that many have overlooked is the fact that Serge didn’t just travel to top markets to sell his wines.

As early as 2011, before Texas and the Texsom conference had established themselves as mandatory stops on the wine sales routes, he was here, working the marketing and the crowds with the ease and grace that only he could muster so readily. (See this post by Alfonso Cevola on his Texsom tasting.)

I’ll never forget when, in 2012, Master Sommlier Drew Hendricks, then wine director for the swank petroleum-crowd Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston, added a vertical of Musar to his list. Stretching back to 1967, it was an unlikely addition to the otherwise big-hitter, mostly Napa Cab and Bordeaux selection there.

I wrote about it for the Houston Press here.

And that’s the thing about Serge that I’d like to add here.

When he visited places like Texas, he didn’t come solely to sell his wines (and in fact, his wines didn’t really sell that well at Pappas, at least according to one young sommelier I spoke to at the time).

He came to make young wine professionals feel special and to help them understand that they were members of a greater, broader, and wonderfully dynamic international wine community.

He taught young people that wine was a gateway to a deeper awareness of the world and that it can bring them into contact with people, like Serge, who will enrich their lives not just through wine but by means of culture and knowledge. After all, that’s the greatest thing, to my mind, about working in and with wine.

Sit tibi terra levis Sergie.

In other sad news…

Today, the sensuous world also mourns the loss of another larger-than-life figure, Pino Daniele, the great Neapolitan guitar player and songwriter, who fused Campanian music with jazz, blues, and Latin rhythms.

He shaped a generation of Italian rock, jazz, and pop musicians. And he was one of the most influential Italian artists to crossover into the international music scene in the latter half of the twentieth century.

I really love his music and know he will be missed by so many of my friends in Italy, in Campania and beyond.

My good friend Anna Cortese, who was born and raised on the island of Ischia (Naples province), posted the below photo on her Facebook this morning.

pino daniele concert

Absurdist EU wine marketing regulation & why Prosecco Col Fondo matters more than ever

giuseppe beppe citrico rinaldiAbove: Giuseppe Rinaldi at his winery in Barolo in 2010. Aggressive enforcement of EU regulations and the prospect of steep fines are forcing him to change the names of his wines.

Across the Italian wine world, producers and trade observers have been loudly protesting and denouncing new European Union regulations that restrict what wineries can and cannot say about their products on the internet and in other marketing materials.

I posted about it here a few weeks ago and leading Italian wine writer Luciano Ferraro wrote about it for the Italian national daily Corriere della Sera just last week.

Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini wrote an editorial about it some weeks ago for Slow Wine. In his piece, he robustly endorses the Italian Federation of Independent Grape Growers’ call for civil disobedience in the face of fines by authorities.

Basically it comes down to the following.

Although regional references are allowed in labeling (as long as the text is in accordance with highly detailed specifications for what can appear on the label and its font size etc.), they are not allowed in promotional materials.

As a result, a producer of Barolo (the appellation), whose winery lies in Barolo (the township), cannot write that her/his winery “is in Barolo” in her/his marketing materials.

In his article for the Corriere, Ferraro cites another potential example of a seemingly nonsensical restriction offered by Montalcino producer Donatella Cinelli-Colombini.

If a Tuscan winery property includes a farmhouse bed-and-breakfast and/or restaurant, she notes, said winemaker cannot use the word “Tuscany” in marketing materials. The results, she noted, would be devastating for the winery, who otherwise rightfully can lay claim to Tuscany and all that it evokes in marketing her/his products and services.

The EU marketing restrictions include other counter-intuitive measures as well. In one instance, the legacy Barolo producer Giuseppe Rinaldi (above) was forced to remove the reference to two vineyards on a single label for a blended wine. Even though his family has been bottling a blend of these two crus for generations, only one vineyard name is allowed by the Italian legislation modeled after EU regulation.

There is a logic to the restrictions, however misguided (and perhaps abused).

If a winery is located in Barolo township but doesn’t produce Barolo wine, the strict regulation of marketing verbiage prevents an unscrupulous winemaker from writing Barolo in marketing materials that could potentially confuse or mislead consumers (at least this is the logic that I was able to find in my research on the subject; see this abstract of an article from Wine Economics and Policy by Florence-based wine economics researchers).

Of course, there are dishonest bottlers out there and every time I visit an American supermarket, I am reminded that end users of Pinot Grigio and Prosecco are often deceived by less-than-earnest marketing practices.

But the damage being done in Italy, in my view, greatly outweighs the harm to my 80-year-old mother when she goes wine shopping. Wine trade oversight is intended to protect the producers first and foremost. After all, without them and their well being, we wouldn’t have the honest wine in the first place.

The new regulations have actually been in place since August 2009. But authorities have only now begun to enforce them fully.

And that’s why everyone is talking about it now: because authorities have begun fining winemakers and these nonsensical applications of the law are coming to light.

Small Italian wineries like Rinaldi’s have become the Davids to the European Union’s Goliath wine marketing regulation. But there’s a lot more at play than just wine marketing.

The Great Recession and stark austerity measures have led to growing discontent and disillusionment among European Union citizens. Today, there is a widespread feeling among regular people that Brussels (the synecdoche EU capital) doesn’t hold their traditions and aspirations in high regard.

And this is why I believe that wines like Prosecco Col Fondo matter more than ever.

The Prosecco Col Fondo movement emerged right around the time that the new EU policies came into effect.

Its epicenter was a small group of likeminded and mostly youthful growers and winemakers who wanted to revive a generational tradition of winemaking that had all but disappeared: bottle-fermented, undisgorged, ancestral-method Prosecco, a style that was eclipsed by the Charmat method in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Over zealous enforcement of poorly conceived, however well intentioned, policy will stifle the spirits of young winemakers who want to preserve the legacy and continuity with the past.

Anyone who follows Italian wine — and anyone whose ever spent time in Italy, for that matter — will tell you that unique local tradition is what makes Italian wine so special.

As an expression of that youthful embrace of artisanal tradition, Prosecco Col Fondo represents a vital element in Italy’s future as a producer of wine that transcends its mere value as a luxury product.

It would be a tragedy to see such spirit disappear from the horizon of Italian wine.

If you happen to be in San Francisco this week, please come out and taste with me at Ceri Smith’s amazing shop Biondivino. I’ll be there tomorrow, pouring one of my favorite expression’s of Prosecco Col Fondo by my client Bele Casel. Please click here for details.

One of the more remarkable things I saw in Italy: the Villa Collazzi

pietro porcinai architettoAbove: the pool at the Villa Collazzi designed by Pietro Porcinai, a pioneering landscape architect, active in Italy from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Enogastronomy has become my professional focus over the last fifteen years or so.

But every time I return to Italy, I am reminded by what first drew me there: the Italians’ rich cultural and artistic legacy and the country’s many extraordinary works of art and immense natural beauty.

During my November trip, I took a break from the wine and food trail to visit the remarkable Villa Collazzi just outside of Florence.

villa collazzi florentine rentalAbove: a shot of the pool with the villa in the background. Note how the villa façade is reflected with perfect symmetry in the body of water.

Continue reading

Op-Ed: the Venice roller suitcase ban & why it makes sense

best hotel venice grand canalWriting in a hurry this morning as I head out of Boulder on my way back to Texas.

But I did find time to post my op-ed about the Venice roller suitcase ban and why it makes sense over on the Bele Casel blog.

It’s been an incredible weekend here at the Boulder Burgundy Festival. I’ll be posting more images and notes after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Thanks for being here and please stay tuned…

Fantastic Roman ruins in Brescia, once a hub of the Empire

capitolium brescia brixiaI just had to share these photos of the fantastic Roman ruins at Brescia, which was once a major hub of the Empire.

That’s the Capitolium or Capitoline Temple, above. It was constructed under Vespasian (first century C.E.). It sits today on the city’s Via dei Musei or Museum Row. It’s part of a UNESCO Heritage designated site, “Longobards in Italy: Places of Power.”

Brescia is arguably more famous for its Longobard artifacts (which can be viewed in the superb Santa Giulia Museum there).

But its Roman ruins, including the Capitolium, Forum, and Theater, are considered northern Italy’s most important Roman archeological site.

roman inscriptions bresciaDuring my recent stay in Brescia, I had the great fortune to be led on a guided tour by my friend Laura Castelletti, the city’s deputy mayor and superintendent of culture.

Over the course of her tenure in city government, Laura has worked tirelessly to reopen the ruins to the public. It’s one of the achievements she’s most proud of, she told me.

That’s the lapidarium, above.

teatro romano theater brescia brixiaThat’s the theater, above.

Brescia isn’t always the first destination that comes to mind when planning a “grand tour” trip to Italy. But I highly encourage you to check it out next time you’re in that part of the country.

It’s a very easy city to navigate, medium in size, with a beautiful city center (the Via dei Musei lies on the northern edge of the historical center).

Check out the Brescia Museum Foundation website, which includes an excellent English-language version.

The All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburger: Italy’s love affair with the hamburger

Today’s post is the first in a series devoted to my recent trip to Italy, the wines I tasted, foods I ate, and people I met.

best hamburger bresciaAbove: Arianna Vianelli’s “All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburger,” a masterwork by any international standard.

Italy’s current love affair with the hamburger shouldn’t be surprising to Italian food and wine cognoscenti.

After all, think of how many pillars of Italian gastronomy have been borrowed and adapted from other cultures and places.

Tomatoes, corn meal, and potatoes: all of these foods came from the New World. Can you imagine an Italy without spaghetti al pomodoro, polenta, and gnocchi di patate?

cipolla di tropea recipeAbove: not just any onions but EU-designated cipolle rosse di Tropea from Calabria. Arianna sautéed them with aromatized balsamic vinegar.

Anyone who’s read the footnotes to Pellegrino Artusi’s late nineteenth-century landmark tome La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well) knows that eggplant, a transplant from the Middle East, was just beginning to catch on at the time.

Where would pan-Italian cooking be without melanzane alla parmigiana?

italian baconAbove: Arianna explained to me that Italian butchers have begun to slice pancetta the way that bacon is sliced in the U.S. The curing process hasn’t changed. Only the way it’s sliced has.

And when the food scholar looks more closely at pasta — the crown jewel and sine qua non of Italian cookery — she/he learns that the Italians learned how to make dried pasta from their Arab neighbors. At the zenith of Arab culture during the Middle Ages, when Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily Frederick II invited Arab mathematicians and philosophers to his court, it’s very likely that they also brought with them techniques for drying pasta in the “August moonlight,” as Maestro Martino wrote in his Libro de arte coquinaria (The Art of Cooking, probably composed around 1450).

Where would the world be today without pastasciutta?

how to cook hamburgers on a griddleAbove: the thing that sets the Italian burger apart from the rest is the quality of the ingredients. Pasture-raised Chianina beef, artisanal cured pork belly, heirloom onions, and wholesome freshly baked bread. It takes the art of this American classic to a new level.

So it’s only natural that Italians would embrace the hamburger with gusto.

Italy’s Slow Food movement was founded in 1986 after McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Rome at the foot of the Spanish Steps. I traveled to Italy for the first time in 1987 and I remember those years well.

To many, the thought of an icon of American imperialism in the heart of the Eternal City was blasphemy.

At the time, Italy already had a fast-food burger chain. It was called Burghy (it was purchased by McDonald’s in the 90s). Like McDonald’s, the quality of the beef was atrocious.

Before Burghy, the ground beef patty was called a svizzera di carne in Italian gastronomic parlance, “Swiss beef.”

Today, hamburger culture has come full circle in Italy and it now aligns seamlessly with the Slow Food ethos (as you can see from the burger above).

Italian food blogs abound with hamburger ratings in Milan and Rome, the hamburger movement’s epicenters (see this post, for example, on Dissapore). And a new restaurant category has emerged, the hamburgheria or amburgheria. Even Eataly in Rome has a hamburgheria and I’ve been told that guests go crazy for the hamburger served at the Bastianich restaurant in Friuli, Orsone.

And invariably when you order a hamburger in Italy, when you’re asked whether or not you want bacon, you’ll note that the waiters use the English word for pancetta to denote the way the cured pork is sliced and griddle-fired.

giovanni arcariAbove: Arianna Vianelli, left, creates and executes menus for many of the Franciacorta consortium’s tastings and events. Giovanni Arcari, right, is my bromance in Brescia, the city that’s become my Italian home base in recent years.

On our last night in Italy last week, my traveling companion Ben Shapiro and I were treated to Arianna Vianelli’s superb hamburgers in the home of my good friend Giovanni Arcari in Brescia.

Arianna had made our first proper meal in Italy a few weeks earlier: spaghetti dressed with dried fresh water sardines, toasted breadcrumbs, and olive oil. The sardines came from nearby Lake Iseo in the heart of the Franciacorta appellation.

It seemed only fitting that she would send us back home to America with bellies full of All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburgers and Franciacorta wine.

Thanks again, Arianna and Giovanni, for taking such great care of two weary American travelers!