No Berlusconi but sadly still Barrique

Bartolo Mascarello’s famous label, “No Barrique, No Berlusconi,” a now iconic image that empowered wine as an ideological expression. Photo via Spume.

The great 20th-century novelist, poet, essayist, and politician Leonardo Sciascia employed Sicily as synecdoche for Italy in his novels Il giorno della civetta (The Day of the Owl, 1961) and A ciascuno il suo (To Each His Own, 1966). The works were parables of what he would later call the “Sicilianization” of Italy: a phenomenon whereby the Sicilian model of bureaucratic and political bankruptcy and clannish self-interest had contaminated the entire Italic peninsula as the nation first tasted the sweetness of prosperity thanks to the “economic miracle” of that decade.

Today, as I joyously read the news that Berlusconi has pledged to resign, I am reminded of Sciascia’s parables. In many ways, Berlusconi’s 17-year tenure as Italy’s leading politician is a parable of the Italian nation’s overarching abandonment of the social ideals that emerged in the period immediately after the second world war, when social and economic equality, dignity, and liberty were paramount in the hearts and minds of Italians who had suffered through the tragedy of fascist and Nazi domination. The memory of those wounds was still vibrant in 1994 when Berlusconi first took power. Today, the generation that embraced the humanist ideals of Italian post-war communism has greyed. And the greed and moral bankruptcy embodied by Berlusconi will remain as the legacy that has reshaped Italy and swept away the renaissance of Italian greatness — in design, technology, fashion, cuisine, etc. — of the decade that preceded his reign.

His tenure corresponds neatly to the tragic Californianization of the Italian wine industry that took shape in the 1990s when scores of Italian producers abandoned the values of the generation that had made wine before them.

Berlusconi may be on his way out. But, sadly, barriques are here to stay.

In the face of the European debt crisis and the social and economic turmoil that has gripped Italy (my first love) and Greece (my new love) — “Crisis in Italy Deepens, as Bond Yields Hit Record Highs,” New York Times — it’s been difficult to write about wine here on the blog.

Tonight Tracie P and I will raise a glass of traditionally vinified Nebbiolo to Italy’s future… and tomorrow I’ll pick it up again…

Civic mourning today in Genoa, crisis in Greece @Miti_Vigliero @MariaKaramitsos

Photo via

Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of victims of torrential rains in Genoa (Genova) and northwestern Italy: 6 persons died in Genoa on Friday and the city government has declared a day of civic mourning today.

The city is still under a flash flood watch, with more rains expected today and tonight.

Like many residents, writer, poet, humorist, educator, blogger Mitì Vigliero (aka Placida Signora, one of my favorite Italian-language blogs) has left the city for higher ground but she’s posting updates on the weather and emergency resources on her Twitter feed here.

Our thoughts and prayers also go out to the people of Greece, whose economy continues to be paralyzed by its government’s inability to move forward with the European Union debt deal.

I’ve been following Chicago-based Greek-American writer Maria Karamitsos’s Twitter feed for updates on the crisis.

Harvest on Santorini!

Posting in a hurry today but just had to share the above photo of Aidani grapes sent to me by winemaker Ioanna Vamvakouri of the Boutari winery on Santorini.

A gun blogger for hire, I continue to curate the Boutari blog (a project dear to my heart) and I am thrilled to post the first images of harvest on the island. (And I posted another one over on the Boutari blog.)

In September, I’ll be expanding the Greek Grape and Appellation Name Pronunciation Project and I’ll also be posting more images and stories from my June trip to Greece.

Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

Tarallucci e Vino (biscuits and wine), an attempt at documenting the proverb

From the “una faccia una razza (one face one race)” department…

Above: Generic however delicious taralli served to us in Apulia at the Radici Wines tasting.

It all started back in June when Jancis tweeted: “Best inter-wine nibble ever: taralli from Puglia.” For three days, we had been sitting next to each other tasting and scoring Southern Italian wines at the Radici Wines festival in Apulia.

It was our last day of tasting together and one of our Italian counterparts (I can’t find the tweet) quipped back, tweeting “Finiamo a tarallucci e vino,” literally, “we finish [the tasting] with [small] taralli and wine.”

The irony in this context is owed to the proverbial meaning of the expression in Italian. To end with tarallucci [an affectionate diminutive of taralli] and wine means to resolve a dispute by pretending there were no dispute to begin with. In other words, we argued, we disagreed, but let’s have some savory biscuits and wine and pretend that there is no acrimony between us.

While the saying can be applied to express the sentiment that all’s well that end’s well, it can also be used ironically to denote that I believe you’re wrong but there’s no use fighting about it. (The sentiment and expression are by no means unfamiliar to Italians or those who frequent Italy and Italians; it’s often used in Italian journalistic parlance to allude to the hypocrisy of Italian politicians.)

Above: Taralli probably share a kinship with Greek koulouri (I believe the unleavened biscuits in the photo, tasted at Boutari’s Santorini tasting room, fall in the category of koulouri in the Hellenic culinary canon).

Not much is known about the origins of the term tarallo. The Cortelazzo (Zanichelli) etymological dictionary notes that the etymology is obscure, possibly from the Latin torrere, to dry up, parch, roast, bake, scorch, burn. Some point to the Greek δάρατος (dàratos), a type of Thessalian bread.

I have yet to find any reliable source that addresses the origins of the expression tarallucci e vino but the tarallo’s significance as a gesture of hospitality clearly emerges in 19th century literature. It was one of the earliest street foods of pre- and post-Risorgimento Southern Italy (Pitré, Biblioteca delle tradizioni popolari siciliane, 1883) and was presented by and to travelers when they arrived. In The Bagel: the surprising history of a modest bread (Yale 2008), Maria Balińska suggests that the tarallo may be the predecessor of the bagel.

Above: Jancis and the rest of our group paired sweet taralli and spicy Sicilian chocolate with aged Primitivo at the Pichierri winery in Sava (Taranto, Apulia).

Browsing the Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, I read that the Greek δάρατος (dàratos) was a type of unleavened bread “offered at marriage and registration ceremonies” in Hellenic Greece. And I cannot help but wonder if the tarallo’s circular, adjoined shape does not belie its use as a symbol of friendship (Balińska addresses the Italian ciambella, a similarly round unleavened bread, its relation to the bagel, and the ancient custom of presenting it to one’s host). There’s no doubt that the tarallo travels well and is easy to preserve (in Campania taralli are made with shortening and are often adorned with almonds; in Apulia, they are made with olive oil and adorned with fennel seeds).

If anyone has any insights to share, I’d greatly appreciate them. As a devout philologist, I will not rest until I get to the bottom of this conundrum and we will genuinely be able to conclude a tarallucci e vino.

Thanks for reading!

The best meal in Greece, the most beautiful Greek woman, and the CORRECT pronunciation of Xinomavro

Many great meals were thoroughly relished by a wine blogger last week in Greece but the one that he cannot stop thinking and dreaming about was a dinner prepared by Maria Constandakis, who — together with her husband and agronomist Yannis — oversee the Boutari winery in Crete.

The meal began with a Cretan dakos, a wholewheat rusk, a bit larger but similar to the frisa of Apulia, where they top it with diced mozzarella, tomatoes, and tuna. Here, tradition calls for fresh tomato purée and crumbled feta. And while the Apulians gently soak their frisa before dressing it, the Cretans use the water naturally purged by the tomato when it is tossed with the salty cheese.

Next came the classic Greek zucchini “meatballs,” the kolokithokeftedes. The wine blogger had experienced this dish before but in his own words, “to have Maria’s, made from zucchini she grew herself in the winery’s garden, is a game-changer.”

The next morning, said wine blogger photographed Maria’s zucchini.

When you travel in Greece during summer, horiatiki — the classic village or summer salad — is served at nearly every meal. But there was something different about Maria’s. Upon further inquiry, the blogger discovered that Maria included freshly torn glistrida or purlane in her salad, also grown in her garden.

Still used as an effective folk remedy for certain ailments of the mouth, purlane grows wild in Greece (the blogger even found it along the sidewalks of one of the small towns he visited in Northern Greece). Like nettles, it slightly stings the tongue and according to legend, those who consume it are prone to loquaciousness. (Said blogger has never been accused of being long-winded! But true to legend, he stayed up late into the night discussing philosophy and politics with his companions over many glasses of raki.)

The pièce de résistance, however, was Maria’s slow-roasted lamb. Even though, technically, the meat had not been smoked, the effect was the same: the bones were so tender that that crumbled gently in the blogger’s mouth, rewarding him with their sweet marrow.

Said blogger is rarely said to eat dessert but there was no way for him to resist Maria’s yogurt topped with cherries she had stewed herself.

Said blogger enjoyed many great meals in Greece but none came close to that prepared by Maria.

In other news…

In the days that followed, said blogger, an accomplished linguist, learned that he had been incorrectly pronouncing the name of the most noble red grape variety in Greece, Xinomavro.

Click here to listen to the correct pronunciation.

Greek grape name pronunciation project and my Greek artichoke flower

Fortune smiled on me today when it delivered me at the doorstep of Roxani Matsa (above), the most super cool lady and winemaker in the Attica appellation just outside of Athens. She took me on a tour of her garden and her vineyards, insisting that I stop to smell the artichoke flowers…

We chatted about winemaking and films as we sat outside her home and winery, sipping frappè coffees (ubiquitous here in Greece), munching on pastries, and leafing through photo albums.

Before I headed out to Mantinia in the Peloponnese, she graciously recited some Greek grape and appellations for the fresh-off-the-presses Greek Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project, which I launched yesterday at the Boutari Social Media Project blog.

There’s so much more to tell and so many more photos and videos to post from my trip. But now it’s time to relax and get some sight-seeing in before I head back home with the armadillo.

I’ll be taking the next few days off from blogging but will pick up again early next week where I left off…

Thanks so much, to everyone, for the kind words here, on the Twitter, and on the Facebook about the review of Sotto and my wine list there in Los Angeles. They mean the world to me. :)

See you next week!

Daybreak in Crete, the almond tree, and the future of the Western World

The scene at the Santorini airport yesterday was maddening: Italian, Irish, French, Japanese, Korean tourists all trying to leave the island, as strikes and an uncertain future loomed. Somehow my handlers managed to usher me through the pandemonium on to a small propeller plane. And when I awoke with the Cretan sunrise this morning surrounded by vineyards, the stinking reality still hadn’t sunk in: as my New York Times mobile feed reports on this gorgeous Wednesday, which finds me a stone’s throw from the town where modern Greek philosopher Kazantzakis was born on the island of Crete, the future of the European Union — and perhaps the financial security of the entire Western World — rests upon Greek lawmakers’s tense negotiations and the outcome of their debate over deep-reaching austerity measures. As I slumbered last night, I dreamed of Kazantzakis’s Christ. And when I awoke with the daybreak, I wondered whether or not every Greek woman, man, and child must feel the same existential burden that Christ felt as he weighed the temporal and spiritual consequences of the mission entrusted to him by his G-d.

One man I spoke to in recent days — P the stoic — observed wryly that “the Germans are invading us once again with these imposed austerity measures,” pointing out that the northerners are essentially condemning the Greeks to indentured servitude for this and the generation to come.

Another man I spoke to — S the mystic — caressed his amber and mastic komboloi and told me of seeing water squeezed from stone, a miracle he witnessed when, as a younger man, his failed wine shop had left him with suffocating debt. His faith, he said, gave him the strength to rebuild his life and provide for his family.

Today, I wish I could write about the bitter herbs that balanced the sweetness of summer tomatoes and cucumbers in the salad prepared for me last night by Maria — the matron, who, together with her husband Yannis, looks after the estate where I spent the night. I wish I could tell you how the bones of the smoked lamb were so delicate that they crumbled easily, rewarding my palate with their marrow.

But I can’t. My thoughts and spirit are consumed with world — indeed, local — events.

I will go to Kazantzakis’s almond tree and ask her, “sister, please tell me, will the child that Tracie P are bringing into the world believe that humankind has a greater purpose on this earth beyond that of consumption?”

And hopefully she will blossom and show me G-d.

Thanks for reading…

Lunch and swimming in Perivolos, Santorini

Great swimming in the Aegean and fantastic lunch at Notos in Perivolos, on the south shore of Santorini (hence the name Notos, south), with Stavros (Santorini sales manager), Petros (vineyard manager), and Marina (owner) of Boutari. Fascinating conversation ranged from Sophocles to the Venetian rule of Santorini, from the origins of the name Santorini to the relationship of Italian Vin Santo and Santorini’s Vinsanto.

Too much to relate now and so I’ll let the images tell the story. But one wonderful moment I cannot refrain from retelling.

At one point, Marina asked me about my relationship with Italy and what I studied there. I answered, “I studied philology” and was about to begin my spiel about what philology is (since most people in the U.S. aren’t familiar with this field of study). But then it dawned on me: I was speaking with Greeks and they know exactly what philology is because its name is Greek… ϕιλο (philo) λόγος (logos)… love of words. When, instead of explaining its meaning, I shared my thrill at speaking with fellow lovers of words, we raised a glass of Assyrtiko in celebration… :)

Here’s what we ate (the first photo is of bourekakia, btw).

The Caldera of Santorini breathtaking

This is the view from the hotel where we’re staying for the next two days. My Boutari colleagues explained to me that the “Caldera” of Santorini is the mouth of the ancient and still active volcano, which last erupted in 1952.

Life could be worse!

Btw, over the next 6 days, I’ll be posting as often as possible here and over at the Boutari Social Media Project blog. Stay tuned!

Avgotaraho — Greek bottarga with orange and fava bean fritter

In any other city in the world, you’d expect a restaurant named Dionysos to be another cookie-cutter tourist trap. But when the main dining terrace offers one of the world’s greatest views — the Acropolis! — I become the world’s most unabashed tourist.

You can imagine my thrill at finally viewing this magical place last night and my pleasant surprise in discovering that the food at the elegant Dionysos restaurant is excellent.

I LOVED the avgotaraho — the Greek bottarga, in this case a loaf of cured red mullet roe served over a fava bean fritter and topped with a delicate slice of orange and orange zest.

Our host, Cristina Boutari, insisted that we get the moussaka, saying that it was probably the best to be had in one of Athens’s many tourist restaurants and it was superb: the béchamel and ground lamb were light and delicately seasoned and the eggplant, while keeping its shape, literally melted in your mouth.

And with such a view, the food could have been terrible and I still would have loved it!

Today we leave by plane for Santorini… Another dream come true… Stay tuned!