Taste 4 Lambruscos with me in Los Angeles
with Emilian bites by Chef Steve Samson
Please call (213) 749-1099 to reserve.
Above: image via the Italian Communist Party’s Reggio Emilia Facebook page. Reggio Emilia is in the heart of Lambrusco and Parmigiano Reggiano country.
On Tuesday of this week, I shocked a few people (all friends, thank goodness) at my Lambrusco tasting in Houston when I spoke about Lambrusco’s relationship with historic Communism and Marxism.
The thesis of my talk was what I call the Lambrusco paradox.
Emilia is home to some of the world’s most celebrated, coveted, and costly food products: Prosciutto di Parma, Culatello, Zampone, Parmigiano Reggiano, and aged balsamic vinegars.
A 100ml bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena will set you back nearly $830 at Walmart in the U.S., for example.
At my local gourmet market in Houston, to cite a more mundane example, 12-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano costs $21 a pound!
The Via Emilia corridor — Modena, Reggio Emilia, and Parma townships — is home to some of the most famous gastronomy in the world.
But the only wine that the Emilians serve with their food products is an inexpensive, humble, and monodimensional wine made from a grape that is so tannic and bitter that you have to add sugar to it to make it drinkable — Lambrusco.
I spent a considerable amount of time in Emilia when I was in graduate school, first when I taught American students in Modena and then later when I was writing my dissertation and living cheaply on the outskirts of Reggio Emilia. My connection to Emilia runs even deeper thanks to my 30-year friendship with Chef Steve Samson, owner of and chef behind Rossoblu in Los Angeles where I co-author the wine list. He grew up spending summers at his mom’s house in Bologna (and Rossoblu is his first restaurant devoted to his family’s culinary heritage; his dad, from Brooklyn, studied medicine in Bologna in the 60s and married Steve’s mom, who grew up there).
I can tell you from personal experience that Emilians rarely drink any other wine than Lambrusco with their traditional dishes. And the only wine that they recommend pairing with their top food products is Lambrusco: not Nebbiolo, not Sangiovese, not Aglianico… It’s Lambrusco, period, end of report.
I’ll never forget bringing back a six-pack of Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany to Modena and having my Emilian friends look at me like I was crazy. Why would we drink anything else besides Lambrusco with our cuisine? they asked me rhetorically.
So what is the origin of this disconnect, this conundrum? Why don’t the Emilians — from the entitled to the middle and working classes — reach for a “Super Emilian” to pair with their famous delicacies?
I believe that the answer lies in part with their region’s historic embrace of communism and Marxism.
In the decades that followed Italy’s reconstruction and historic “economic miracle,” politics and policy in Emilia were dominated by the Italian Communist Party — from the local to the regional level. The overwhelming majority of mayors, municipal council, and regional committee members were members of the Italian Communist Party. And that trend continued until the second half of the 1990s when the Tangentopoli (Bribesville) scandal marked the beginning of the end of relevance for the socialist and communist parties in Italy.
Evidence of that legacy is the fact that throughout Emilia you will find streets named after Marx and Lenin and St. Petersburg.
It was no surprise to me when I discovered that one of the wines I presented the other night in Houston comes from a winery located on Via Carlo Marx in a small village in Reggio Emilia province (the image below of Via Carlo Marx in Bologna, Emilia’s capital city, comes from Wikimapia.org).
Communism was always deliciously palatable in Emilia: in the years that followed Italy’s reconstruction, Emilia quickly emerged as one of the country’s richest regions thanks in no small part to the food industry there. After all, the Via Emilia corridor runs parallel to the Po River, the heart of Italy’s agricultural epicenter (akin to California’s San Joaquin Valley or the Loire Valley in France).
It’s easy to be a communist and a Marxist in a region where there is plenty of Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano for everyone.
But there’s no space in a Marxist realm for elitist wines. Not only is the Po River Valley a place where the humidity and heat make it nearly impossible to produce fine wines, it’s also a place where no one really cares about fine wines (except when it comes to restaurants that cater to tourists).
Over the last 20 years, the hard right has risen in Emilia (and throughout northern Italy) and in most cases has wrested power from the Italian Communist Party.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that Marxist spirit and ethos continue to shape the Emilian’s love for and devotion to their humble Lambrusco, a proletarian wine that pairs brilliantly with their “queens” and “kings” of food products.
There’s a lot more to this than space and time allow for here (and I’ll expand on it in upcoming posts; I’ll also write about the origins of Lambrusco and why it’s the wine that it is today).
But in the meantime, I hope you’ll come out to taste with me week after next in downtown Los Angeles: I promise not to talk (too much) about Karl Marx!
In case you didn’t get the allusion in the title of this post, it comes from Gadda’s extraordinary book, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana.