My Italy: 150 years of Italian Unity

March 18, 2011

Yesterday, in one of the most tumultuous moments of its history (between the general discontent of its people, the governmental crisis, and the situation in Libya, its historical client state), Italy celebrated 150 years of Unity.

My friend Simona, author of the excellent Italian gastronomy blog Briciole, published this FANTASTIC post including the video above. I highly recommend it: she’s composed a beautifully woven timeline for Italy’s last (and first) 150 years as a united country and she’s translated a number of the quotes from the video above (you’ll find quotes by a number of historical figures that have appeared here on my blog).

Chapeau bas, Simona!

Above: The Italian Alps, as seen from the vineyards of my friend Giampaolo Venica, September 2010.

My friend Simone, a young and gifted wine professional from Lucca, wrote me to remind me this morning of a poem dear to both of us and as vibrant and topical as it was when Petrarch wrote it (probably) during the siege of Parma in 1344-45 (the fact it was composed in Parma will not be lost on those who fear and loathe the rise of the Italian Separatist Party). It’s one of Petrarch’s most moving political poems and I spent hours and hours pouring over every line, every syllable, and every scansion as I prepared my dissertation on Petrarchan prosody. I’ve scanned and reproduced the Robert Durling prose translation below (Petrarch’s Lyric Poems, Harvard, 1976), which I also highly recommend to you.

On our recent trip to Italy, every time Tracie P and I gazed at the Alps, I couldn’t help but think of the lines (see the fifth stanza below), Nature provided well for our safety/when she put the shield of the Alps/between us and the Teutonic rage.

The incipit of the song is immensely powerful and could not be more a propos today — whether in the sphere of Italian politics or viticulture.

    Italia mia, ben che’l parlar sia indarno
    a le piaghe mortali

    My Italy, although speech does not aid
    those immortal wounds

The song’s congedo is even more moving… Your divided wills are spoling the loveliest part of the world.


A closer reading: “The vine is the greatest commodity of Tuscany, if not of Italy.”

September 16, 2009

This just in: taste old Australian Semillon with me at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego on Saturday, September 26… yes, Australian wine, can you believe it?

Above: At the time of Dallington’s visit to Italy (1596), Bacchus was often depicted with Ariadne, his wife, as in this painting by Guido Reni (1557-1642). Today, we think of Bacchus (or Dionysus) as the god of wine. In fact, he was the god of luxuriant fertility, which was symbolized by the vine in antiquity, and so by association he became the god of wine. In ancient Italy, he was associated with the indigenous god Liber, who was celebrated with joyous abandon during the time of the grape harvest.

My post the other day on an “earlier Tuscan sun” and the description of grape growing and viticulture in late 16th-century Tuscany elicited some interesting comments and questions. Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read and comment.

Simona, author of Briciole, brought up an important point: in the first line of the passage, Dallington uses the term Italy.

    The Vine.. without comparison is the greatest commodity of Tuscany, if not of Italy

Italy, as we know it today, was unified for the first time for a brief period in the modern era under Napoleon (1805-1814). Only in 1861 did Italy — as a nation — achieve independence from foreign domination. Until that time, the Italic peninsula was divided among its principalities or microstates, which often aligned themselves in league with foreign powers but never achieved a confederation defined by Italy’s natural geographical boundaries.

According to the OED, the toponym Italy begins to appear in the English language toward the end of the sixteenth-century, the same time that Dallington made his trip to Tuscany. (The terms Italy, Italian, and Italo, derive ultimately from the Latin Italia, in turn from the Latin Vitalia from vitulus, meaning calf; the ancient name Vitalia was owed to Italy’s abundant cattle.)

Even though the notion of the Italian nation and the term Italia had distinctly emerged by the 14th century (think of Petrarch’s song 126, Italia mia, ben che’l parlar sia indarno [My Italy, although speech does not aid]), the citizens of the Duke State of Tuscany encountered by Dallington would hardly have called themselves “Italians.”

Simona was right on: it’s truly remarkable that Dallington uses the term Italy and implicitly refers to an Italian nation. But what I find even more remarkable is the fact that he calls the vine the “greatest commodity of Tuscany, if not of Italy.”

More than two centuries had passed since Petrarch reproached the gluttonous cardinals of Avignon for their immovable love of Burgundian wine, asking them, “Is it not a puerile ambition to malign the many types of wines, so plentiful, found in all parts of Italy?” (See my post on this famous letter by Petrarch to Pope Urban V here.) The papacy was returned to Italy in 1378.

More than two centuries later, a foreigner arrived from Elizabethan England, and called the vine “Italy’s greatest commodity” — a preview of how viticulture would become a sine qua non of the Italian nation and Italian national identity.

This is the first in a series of “closer readings” of the Dallington text inspired by visitors’s comments. Next up: the origins of the term zibibbo. Stay tuned…


Recipe for Picchiapò (we all loved each other so much)

September 5, 2009

My depressing post yesterday made think of the Roman dish Picchiapò and the great scene from the 74 Scola film C’eravamo tanto amati (We All Loved Each Other So Much) when the three main characters (an intellectual bourgeois, a rich bourgeois, and a proletarian) realize that they have lost touch with the ideals they fought for together as partisans during the Second World War. Italian leading man Vittorio Gassman fantasizes his own death and utters the famous line, our generation really stinks!

The clip is in Italian but you don’t need to understand Italian to watch it. Picchiapò plays an important role: it’s one of the great Roman “recycled” dishes, a dish born from necessity but a delicacy because of its very nature.

I should leave the recipe writing to Simona and her excellent blog Briciole but feeling inspired this morning after Tracie B’s brioche French toast, I went online and found and translated this recipe.

Picchiapò

Ingredients

l lb. leftover boiled veal or beef, cut into small pieces
2-3 onions
2 cups tomato purée
rosemary (basil is sometimes used and cinnamon can be used as well)
salt and pepper
2 cups white or red wine
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

Slice the onions into rounds and then wilt with a drizzle of the olive oil in a pan. When they have lightly browned, deglaze with the wine.

Add the tomato purée and spices and simmer until the sauce thickens.

Add the meet and let it absorb the flavor of the sauce.

Serve hot with potato purée or boiled potatoes or seasonal vegetables.

The Scola classic film is a commedia all’italiana but it is also a stinging social commentary and a moving film about love and country. It is also a meta-film — a film about film — and includes a cameo by Marcello Mastroianni and Fellini and a number of timeless Italian film clips. I highly recommend it.


NPA and NN+ in SF CA

May 8, 2009

Above: A view from the stage. My bandmate Céline Dijon (Verena Wiesendanger, right) was in a super good mood last night at our show at Rickshaw Stop (hint: a fan was buying her Jameson). The show was a blast and we did three encores. Thanks again to Waldo of Rickshaw for letting us rehearse at the club: enjoy the Clos Roche Blanche Cot we gave you!

It was something of a blogger summit and a meeting of virtual friends last night between Terroir Natural Wine Bar and Merchant and Rickshaw Stop in SF.

Among them were my virtual and now real friends Cory Cartwright (author of Saignée) and his delightful wife Emily. We shared a bottle of the enigmatic 2002 Ribolla Gialla by Gravner. One blogger, who prefers to remain anonymous, noted (and I concur) that the Gravner is an “abstract” wine, a wine (in a certain sense) that you cannot drink. There’s no question that Gravner’s wines are fascinating, thought-provoking, and intriguing: as the wine aerated it revealed a remarkable array of fruit aromas — think dried and moldy apricot (but in the mouth, it still felt to me like the wood dominated). Owners Dagan Ministero and Luc Ertoran were on hand as well, and a lively discussion of “orange wine” ensued and they generously tasted us on a number of bottlings (including Ca’ de Noci and Damijan). Virtual friends Slaton Lipscomb and Simona (author of Briciole) were there, too, and Clark Terry of Kermit Lynch blog fame also joined up at the show.

The most interesting and unique wine of the evening was the Natural Process Alliance skin-fermented Chardonnay (above), sold only in reusable stainless-steel containers. (Spume has written about this wine as has Alice.) This wine is as stinky and cloudy as it gets and it is 100% delicious (maybe not for everyone but just right for yours truly). Slaton noted that it tastes slightly different every time because its malolactic fermentation has not completed when it ships. You can only get locally and I highly recommend it.

The crowd was fantastic last night and we did three encores, closing with a rocking version of “Ca Plane Pour Moi” by Plastic Bertrand. Tonight we play at an all-ages club in San Jose and I’m just passing time until tomorrow when I get to be reunited with my Tracie B, who’s flying in to visit with her girlfriends and see our show at Spaceland.

Highway run
Into the midnight sun
Wheels go ’round and ’round
You’re on my mind
Restless hearts
Sleep alone tonight
Sendin’ all my love
Along the wire


Italian wine: the price is right (and catching up on my reading)

February 13, 2009

It wasn’t easy to get online where Tracie B and I were staying last week in Paris: there was no wireless in Céline’s father’s fourth-floor studio on the Left Bank in the 6th and I am only now catching up on my blog and newspaper reading. (I don’t know: a week’s stay in a private apartment in Paris two doors down from the Seine or wifi? I’ll take what’s behind door number 1, Bob.)

I was thrilled to see Eric’s article on Italian Unknowns in The Times. I am a huge fan of Valle dell’Acate’s wines and was so glad to see the winery get the attention it deserves. The Cerasuolo di Vittoria is one of my favorite Sicilian wines — regardless of price.

Now more than ever, Italian wines represent the greatest value for their quality on the market today. I don’t know why Eric second-guessed himself, wondering out loud if “Italian wine buffs will easily cite omissions.” In my view, his picks are right on the money and the price is right.

Back in the blogosphere, Italian Wine Guy continues to blow my mind with how he pushes the envelope of wine blogging. I really dug his use of images from the Pasolini 1961 classic Accattone, set in the tough neighborhoods of Rome (that’s star Franco Citti, above), one of my favorite films of all time. His introspective “Beatrice interviews” offer unique perspective and insight into the world of Italian wine.

I just couldn’t resist Simona’s culinary anamorphism in this post on a traditional dish of her native Umbria, torciglione (above). Whether chopped liver in the form of the Twin Towers (2nd Ave. Deli) or a Renaissance-era depiction of the tower of Cremona to commemorate a noble wedding (Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti, 1441), I am a sucker for food fashioned to resemble something else.

I can’t read Vinograf’s blog (it’s written in Czech) but I often find myself staring aimlessly at it. I know its author and I share an affinity for some of the same wines and it’s one of the most visually interesting blogs in my GoogleReader.

Buona lettura (or buona visione, as the case may be)!


I soliti ignoti and blogs I’ve been reading lately

December 5, 2008

My friend and co-editor of VinoWire, Franco Ziliani, has posted recently on the Wine Spectator‘s Top 100 List (my translation is posted at VinoWire) and James Suckling’s top Piedmont picks (in Italian). Franco points out rightly: it’s simply appalling that Giacomino (Lil’ James) Suckling and the Wine Spectator elide an entire swath of traditionalist wines and even include wines virtually unknown to Italians and their palates. After all, aren’t they the Italians’ wines first and foremost? If you want a list of Nebbiolo not to get me for Christmas, read Suckling’s article (to be published on December 15). His wines are the soliti ignoti, the usual suspects, that appear on his list every year and he arrogantly ignores the wines that have historically defined the region. (See IWG’s post.)

Over at Montalcino Report, winemaker Alessandro Bindocci has published some interesting posts about olive oil made from depitted drupes and “integrated farming.”

Ever the devoted fan, I always love to read Simona Carini’s excellent blog Briciole. And I owe Simona a thanks for the help she’s been giving me with the desserts in a translation I’m doing for Oronzo Editions.

Alice Feiring posted this conflicted take on the California Conundrum.

Tracie B just posted this irresistibly delicious piece on pasta e fagioli (but, then again, I might be a bit biased when it comes to her cooking).

And on a totally unrelated note, I’m in the Marines Too! reminds me that we are a country at war and that world conflicts affect the lives and hearts of the people who live in my hometown.

*****

Even if you don’t understand Italian, watch this clip from Monicelli’s 1958 classic, I soliti ignoti (literally, the usual unknowns or the usual suspects but released in English as Big Deal on Madonna Street). Totò’s performance is brilliant…


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