Italians can’t come to the U.S. So we’re bringing them to you via Zoom. Taste with me in Houston next week.

best lambruscoDespite our hopes that Italian winemakers would be able to join us in the U.S. this fall, Europeans are still banned from coming to the U.S. by the Biden administration. They can come here if they quarantine in certain countries for two weeks before arriving. But they can’t come directly from the EU.

When I was in Italy teaching at Slow Food U. in August, my Italian counterparts were optimistically expecting the ban to be lifted. Slow Wine had its tour planned for the U.S. in October, editor-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio told me over dinner at his house. Villa Sandi’s export director Flavio Geretto, another good friend, was gearing up for the Gambero Rosso tastings also scheduled for October (he was even planning on bringing his son to attend a concert in Houston!).

Italian winemakers had hoped to boost sales with in situ visits during the last and historically most lucrative quarter of the calendar year (“OND” or Octobero-November-December, as it is known in the trade). But all plans and hopes have been dashed by the continued prohibition.

And that’s why we’re bringing the Italians to you.

Next Wednesday in Houston, I’ll be hosting a hybrid virtual/in-person wine dinner with one of my dearest and closest friends, Alicia Lini. She will be joining our group of guests in the dining room at Roma restaurant, where I write the wine list, via Zoom. And other guests will be also be joining via Zoom from their own dining rooms (they will pick up the food and wine beforehand).

For those interested in attending, see the menu and details here. Roma’s kitchen is doing a wonderful seafood — yes, seafood! — menu to pair with Alicia’s white, rosé, and red Lambrusco. It’s going to be super fun. I hope you can join us. Thanks for your support and buon weekend.

Avocados, once a darling of Italy’s foodie scene, now stigmatized. And not for the reason you may suspect.

aguacateTraveling to Italy after a more than 18-month hiatus was like a trip to the future. Even though you could follow news and trends through social and mainstream media from afar, there were bound to be evolving mores that even the eagle-eyed Italophile would miss.

And by mores, I don’t just mean the normative conventions and attitudes embodying the fundamental moral values of a particular society (Oxford English Dictionary). I also intend the behavioral and physiological (as opposed to morphological) characteristics of a group… of the same kind living in a particular habitat. (Also via the OED. The former is the more common locution.)

Looking back through my travelog entries, the first mention of tasting avocado in Europe took shape not in Italy but in Greece. The island of Santorini in 2011, to be exact, 10 years ago. It was at a beach resort where chilled shredded crab was served atop a creamy dollop of avocado fruit that had been redistributed in the fruit’s exocarp.

In the years that followed, the avocado would begin to make intermittent appearances in my gastronomic expeditions, usually as an exotic fruit served in a savory context. Those fruits came mostly from Israel. And even though many of my Italian friends and colleagues had come to know the culinary pleasures of the aguacate through their travels in the Americas, they generally had not yet gained complete facility in the art of ripening the mesocarp.

But by late 2018, the avocado seemed to have firmly established itself in the Italian canon coquinario.

I’ll never forget sitting down to lunch at a Michelin-style restaurant on Lake Garda, the guest of a top Garda winemaker, and being served a salmon tartare arranged on a bed of perfectly ripened and diced avocado.

“Do you like avocado?” asked said winemaker entirely clueless to the fact that I grew up in Southern California where avocados literally grow in your backyard and where the assemblage of Mexican and California nouvelle cuisines could hardly exist with out its sine qua non love for the fruit.

It struck me that she was convinced (although not the brightest tool in the shed) that she was turning me on to something I probably had never tasted.

But by the time I finally got back to Italy in July 2021, after an absence of more than a year and half, avocados had all but been banned from the Italian überhipster foodie’s diet. Surprised by this lacuna, I asked my Italian friends where the once ubiquitous ahuacatl had absconded.

Indignant at the query, they answered by questioning my devotion to environmental causes. Didn’t I care about the deforestation of the Amazon? Didn’t I care about the planet? They wouldn’t be caught dead eating an avocado, they told me.

A little bit of digging led to my discovery of a series of articles that appeared toward the end of 2020.

“Do you know how much forest you just ate? It’s time to reflect and do something about it,” was the title of one such piece published by the Huffington Post (Italy).

“If we continue to serve products that are not ‘farm to table,’ like avocados,” it reads (translation mine), “we are endangering the monarch butterfly. Avocado groves are widely to blame for deforestation in Central America and they are putting water reserves at risk.”

“Avocado mania is endangering the beautiful monarch butterfly,” reads another.

“‘Made in Europe’ avocados have a smaller impact on the environment than those imported from other continents. But they are straining water resources in southern Portugal and Spain,” reads yet another.

The question of the environmental impact of “avocado mania” isn’t new. A number of foodie-focused blog posts, including this one by a prominent Italian food blog, from 2016 and 2017 questioned the sustainability of “avocado toast” (toast di avocado, the Italian locution).

But the proverbial drop that made the glass overflow seems to be the media attention devoted to “avocado mania” in late 2020.

Over the more than three decades that I’ve been traveling to Italy, I’ve always been impressed by Italians’ sense that environmental responsibility is a civic duty — something I rarely see in the U.S. I’ll never forget the impossible-to-miss battery recycling bins that dotted corners of residential neighborhoods during my first visits to the country in the late 1980s. I’ll never forget the way a friend’s 70-year-old parent recycled cardboard milk cartons as trash receptacles. Ne’er a plastic bag sullied their kitchen.

It’s hard to imagine a Texan or Californian world without avocados. From the chunky guacamole of my native San Diego or the creamy guacamole of my adoptive Houston, the avocado is at the center of our family’s dietary universe. But the avocado mania of my Italian comrades is now passé. And maybe, well actually, most definitely, that’s a good thing.

Image via Shelli Friedberg’s Flickr (Creative Commons).

Getting your covid test in Italy before returning to the U.S. Notes from both sides of the Atlantic.

The covid testing kiosk in the arrivals area at Malpensa airport in Milan.

As soon as friends and colleagues started to notice that I was heading back to Italy, I started to receive messages about covid travel protocols here in the U.S. and on the other side of the Atlantic.

Here’s what I can tell you about my recent experience during my July 18-August 6 trip (my first in more than eighteen months, a long stretch for someone who regularly makes six or more trips to his spiritual homeland each year).

Nota bene: this is not professional advice or official information on what is required. I highly recommend visiting the U.S. Rome embassy website’s covid page for authoritative information. I also recommend signing up for the embassy’s newsletter and reading their updates before and during your trip.

Before leaving in July, it wasn’t clear to me whether I just needed my CDC vaccine card (I’m fully vaccinated, for the record) or whether a covid negative test result was required as well. I used the United Airlines “travel center” to upload both a negative test result and my CDC card. The covid test had to be administered no sooner than 72 hours before my departure. I did mine the day before.

When I arrived at Malpensa airport in Milan, all non-EU passengers were asked to share the documentation with officials before we got to the passport control. As soon as I pulled my CDC card out of its case, he waved me on. He didn’t ask for identification nor did he examine my documentation. That was it. Next stop was the passport control and after an official stamped mine, I was on my way to the rental car pick up.

I got my pre-flight covid test at a drive-in (not drive-through) outpost not far from the airport.

Again, this is not official information or professional advice. Please look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel requirement page. Here’s what it says: “If you plan to travel internationally, you will need to get tested no more than 3 days before you travel by air into the United States (US) and show your negative result to the airline before you board your flight.”

It’s my understanding that even vaccinated travelers need to show a negative result. There are some exceptions. See the CDC site for details.

According to my UniSG students — I was teaching at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Piedmont — there was easy-access testing in Bra, the nearby city where most of the students and visiting professors like me stay. And from what I observed while in Italy, there are plenty of options for testing, although it seemed that you in many cases, you either had to call (which might be a problem for travelers who don’t speak Italian) or visit in person to get an appointment.

I was planning on staying at a hotel at the airport the night before my departure. It was easy to find multiple testing “drive-through” testing sites in the area where you could register online. I got my test at the one in the photo above. I had registered online a few days before and was able to print out all the required documents.

It wasn’t a “drive-through” in the American sense but rather a “drive-in” where you parked and someone came out to your car to administer the test. I waited for about 15 minutes before they brought me the result. The health professional who gave me the test had lived in the U.S. and he spoke English to me as soon as he saw my passport. He created a English-language version of my test results (which was super cool of him).

As soon as I arrived at the airport, I uploaded my result using the United Airlines app on my phone (via their Travel Center). I received a text about 10 minutes later informing me that it was approved. And that was it.

At the airport, there were at least two options for getting tested on the spot. One was in the arrivals area (the first photo in this post). The other was in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel (above).

I checked online to see available for the one located in the arrivals area. At roughly 7 a.m., it showed the first availability at 8:33 a.m. As I was walking by the kiosk, a young American asked, in English, what time they opened. 8:30 a.m., said the health professional who was preparing to open the testing spot.

I didn’t look at availability for the other testing center.

The Duomo in Milan on Friday, August 6, the day before I left Italy and returned the U.S.

If you don’t speak English, I highly recommend checking with the front desk or concierge at your hotel. From what I observed, there was no shortage of options. And I imagine that many hospitality professionals can point you English-friendly testing spots.

Traveling, especially right now, can be stressful when you don’t speak the home country’s language. From what I saw and heard from other travelers, there were myriad options. Getting a test was relatively easy for everyone I spoke to.

Get vaccinated, wear a mask, and travel safe!

At the Slow Food University, the meglio gioventù. A last dispatch from Piedmont.

Above: some of the 2021 wine communications and food communications students in the graduate program at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy.

Things are a little different here in Pollenzo in Piedmont, Italy, where I’ve been a communications instructor in the graduate program for the last six years. Of course, they didn’t bring me over last year for reasons that we all know all too well.

This year, for the first time since I began teaching here in 2016, in-person attendance is no longer required and many of my 30+ students follow from home. The photo above was snapped yesterday in one of the largest classrooms on campus: the extra space allows the students to distance if they prefer.

Masks are mandatory for the staff like me. I wear mine religiously. The students, nearly all of them fully vaccinated as far as I know, generally do not wear them. (I’m fully vaccinated as well, for the record.) After teaching for nearly three weeks with mask on, I have even more respect for teachers in the U.S. and everywhere: in ways I didn’t expect, it’s extremely challenging to lecture for three hours straight with a mask on. Luckily, every classroom is outfitted with a microphone and a public address system that mitigates the need for volume.

Despite all the new-normals of campus life, the experience has reminded me of why we do this in the first place: the students and their journey in discovering and exploring what they want to do when they grow up. For all the homesickness and the hassles of being away from Houston for such a long stretch, the immense reward is the bright light that appears in their eyes as their curiosity is sparked and sometimes satiated.

I wish that everyone could have been in the classroom when my wine communications students and I re-watched some of our wine industry colleagues’ powerful Instagram videos from 2020 calling for social changes in our trade. It was our last hour of class together (although they also attend my food communications lectures).

The discussion that followed not only gave me hope that our work will make the world a better place to eat, as one of my students put it during my first year teaching here in Roero. It also filled me with joy to remember that the students always seem to have an innate sense that compels them to infuse their professional lives with activism — whether combatting climate change, food inequality, or discrimination.

Like Pasolini’s Casarsans, they are the meglio gioventù — the best of youth. And they are what makes this whole crazy world of food and wine all worthwhile.

Your part has ended in light
and I have no darkness in me
to hold your shadow.

Pier Paolo Pasolini
1954

Italy, here I come! Heading back to teach at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont.

The news is still sinking in.

It was just a few short weeks ago that it didn’t seem possible: quarantine requirements for vaccinated U.S. travelers have now been lifted and the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont has just booked my flights for three weeks of seminars beginning mid-July.

After nearly 18 months since my last trip to my spiritual homeland — the country, people, and places that have shaped my academic and professional careers — I’m finally going back to Italy!

That’s a photo (above) of the university’s main campus in the village of Pollenzo, the site of a castle and former farm once owned by the Italian royal family. There is also an excavated Roman arena and settlement there. It’s pretty cool to check out.

As I have for the last five years, except for 2020, I’ll be teaching wine and food communication to students in the graduate program there. The overarching theme of my seminars this year is going to be “organic vs. optimized content,” a conundrum that seems to flummox so many young people who are trying to carve their paths in wine and food media today.

We’ll also be doing case studies about the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements and their impact on food and wine writing (it’s incredible to think about all that’s happened over the last year and half!). We’ll also be doing an overview of wine and food writing history and we’ll take a look at how content creators became even more creative during the pandemic, making use of technology in unexpected and surprisingly useful ways that continue to affect how we talk about and perceive wine and food.

I hope to get to spend some time away from campus during my weekends. But I’ll be spending most of my time between Pollenzo where the teaching happens and the small, nearby city of Bra where I’ll be staying.

If you happen to be in Roero or Langa the last two weeks of July or the first week of August, please let me know and let’s taste! I’m super serious about that. There will be many servings of vitello tonnato that I need to share! Seriously, hit me up. That’s the vitello tonnato (below) at Local, Slow Food’s excellent shop and casual restaurant in downtown Bra.

Wish me luck, wish me speed!

Italy, my love, the alma mater that has nourished and inspired me for a lifetime, here I come… back.

The world’s first sommelier was a woman.

The goddess Hebe as portrayed by the 19th-century Franco-German painter Louis Fischer (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons). In paintings and sculptures from that era, she is often seen serving wine to her father Zeus, who appears in the form of an eagle.

Bacchus is the ancient figure that most point to when they speak of the “god of wine.”

But when we dig a little bit deeper, we find that the first deity associated with wine and — more significantly — wine service was Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera.

I was reminded of Hebe when I was browsing recently through the “Barbarous Odes” of Giosuè Carducci, the 19th-century Italian poet and first Italian Nobel laureate.

(The odes were written in Italian using ancient Greek meter. That’s why Carducci ironically called them “barbarous”: they would sound outlandish or “foreign” to the ancient Greeks if they could hear them. Prosody in Carducci was a focus during my graduate student years.)

In his ode “Ideale” (“Ideal”), Hebe and the ambrosia she pours are an allegory for the revival of classical learning of his time.

Inspired by the image of the proto-sommelier, who poured wine for the gods, I have translated the first four stanzas here.

Happy Friday and happy reading!

Oh Hebe, wrap me in the aroma of ambrosia flowing from your cup and make me drunk with the ancient knowledge! Renew me in your soft glow!

*****

“Ideal”
an excerpt

As the serene aroma of ambrosia
Wraps itself around me, flowing from your cup,
Oh Hebe, with the gait of a goddess,
You glide by smiling all the while.

Neither the shadow of time nor the icy
Cures are what I feel on my head. I feel,
Oh Hebe, the serene Hellenic
Life flow through my veins.

And the ruined days, fallen from the slope
Of the sorrowful time, have arisen anew.
Oh Hebe, they are yearnful to
Be renewed in your soft glow.

And the new years gladly pull
My face out of the fog.
Oh Hebe, your rising, trembling,
Ruby splendor greets them!

Italian parliament poised to approve bill that would create an “Italian organic” brand and “organic districts.”

Above: over the last decade, organically branded food shops, like this ice cream shop and café, have flourished across Italy.

In late May, the Italian senate approved a sweeping bill that would create a new “Italian organic” brand, officially recognized “organic districts,” and sweeping subsidies for research, development, and monitoring of organic farming practices. The bill would also integrate the organic farming supply chain through government oversight.

The legislation, which is widely expected to be approved by the Italian chamber of deputies, was adopted with one vote in opposition and one abstention.

One point of contention was a brief and arguably vague line in the proposed legislation that would elevate the status of biodynamic agriculture, “putting it on a par with” organic agriculture.

Biodynamic farming’s embrace of spirituality and mysticism, say critics, including Italian senator for life Elena Cattaneo, who delivered an impassioned speech on the senate floor before the vote, make it a discipline not based on science.

Cattaneo, the only senator to vote against the legislation, lobbied unsuccessfully to amend the line about biodynamic agriculture. Her failed efforts were called a “resounding defeat” by the mainstream Italian media. In her address to her colleagues, Cattaneo, known for her groundbreaking work in stem cell research, called organic farming a “niche sector,” noting that it represents a small fraction of Italy’s farmland. She also pointed out that it would provide subsidies to fallow pastures where no food is produced.

The bill, she said, “offers no guarantee of greater health benefits or greater nutritional value” for Italian citizens.

In 2019, when the bill was first debated in the Italian parliament, Cattaneo called organic farming “a beautiful but impossible fairytale.” She and nearly 400 other Italian scientists signed an open letter to the Italian parliament in which they opposed the then nascent legislation.

“In order to justify pricing often double [that of conventionally farmed products],” she said at the time,

    we have been told that organic farming is the only way to save the world and help us to live longer and better. It’s an illusion. There is no scientific proof to confirm this. In fact, the opposite is true: analysis reveals that organic products are not qualitatively better and that large-scale organic farming is unsustainable inasmuch as it produces up to 50 percent less when it comes to top agricultural products. Large-scale organic farming would require twice as much land. In order to convert the world to organic farming, we would have to use hundreds of millions of hectares of currently fallow land, including forests and prairies.

Supporters of the bill see it as part of a wider EU initiative, known as “Farm to Fork,” to safeguard natural resources, to protect the environment, and to create a more robust organic farming supply chain across member states.

“We are extremely pleased that the senate has approved the bill,” said Maria Grazia Mammuccini, president of FedBio, a trade association that has lobbied aggressively for the creation of the “Italian organic” brand. “We have been waiting for this for more than 15 years. This much awaited legislation is finally moving forward.”

Cecilia Mangini’s lost films resonate powerfully today. Don’t miss the opportunity to stream them.

Above: Italian filmmaker Cecilia Mangini in Rome in 2020. She died in January of this year. Her films are now being rediscovered by a new generation of cinephiles (image via Wikipedia Creative Commons).

Honestly, until my good friend Ben Shapiro (a noted filmmaker himself) brought them to my attention, I was unaware of Italian director Cecilia Mangini’s wonderful pseudo-documentaries, which have recently been rediscovered, restored, and are now being streamed for free by Another Screen.

Her oneiric and highly lyrical depiction of the Italian proletariat (omg, did I just out myself as a Marxist?) in the 1950s and 1960s resonates powerfully today as the pandemic has drawn a stark line and divide between the world’s disenfranchised and the management class.

(A few days ago, a Galveston woman had to be escorted out of a bank after she refused to wear a mask despite the business’ requirement that patrons wear a mask. A police officer was tasked with getting her out of the bank in what became a tragicomic scene. Some will see a parallel between the police officer and the southern Italian Carabinieri who had to face off with bourgeois protesters in 1960s Italy. Pasolini, a Mangini collaborator, wrote extensively about them at the time.)

I highly recommend checking out the link on the Other Screen site. It makes for great viewing and I believe it’s free only until Monday (I also encourage you to donate to Another Screen to support their efforts in preserving film archives).

See this Times profile of Mangini from last year (how did I miss this?).

Buona visione. Enjoy the films. You won’t regret it.

The Pope’s vino: Vatican will produce estate-grown wine. Vineyards to be planted this spring.

Above: the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo in Castel Gandolfo township outside of Rome (image via Adobe Stock).

According to a post published Friday by the Italian wine industry news portal WineNews.it, the Vatican will plant two hectares to vine this spring on its Castel Gandolfo estate outside Rome, the Pope’s official summer residence.

Although the grape varieties remain unknown, the project will be overseen by top Italian enologist Riccardo Cotarella, one of Italy’s most prolific winemakers and one of the country’s earliest “flying winemakers.”

This is the first time that the Vatican will grow grapes on one of its estates for the production of its own wine, write the authors of the report. The wine won’t be available for sale, they note, but it will be used for sacramental purposes and will be given as gifts.

As Italy lifts dine-in restrictions, restaurant owners (and winemakers) see glimmer of hope.

Above: a classic Italian trattoria in Florence (image via Adobe Stock).

“Let me call you later,” wrote an Italian winemaker in a text message around 1:30 p.m. Italian time today. “I’m eating lunch in a restaurant for the first time since dining rooms were closed three months ago.”

In all but five Italian regions, restaurants were allowed to open again today, Monday, February 1. In some cases, like Lombardy in Northern Italy where said winemaker lives, dine-in service has been prohibited (intermittently depending on the city and/or province) for the last there months and beyond. And take-away service was only allowed until 6 p.m.

Restaurateurs and café owners will still be required to close their dining rooms at 6 p.m. nightly, although they will be able to continue take-away until 10 p.m. and home delivery service is allowed 24 hours a day where available.

The re-openings are welcome news to restaurant owners, winemakers and grape growers, and brewers alike. Especially in the case of small-scale wineries, independent regional restaurants are a primary outlet for sales. The lifting of restrictions will undoubtedly lead to a much-needed boost in orders. Restrictions on tasting rooms and independent wine shops, some of which are still in place, have also slowed recovery for winemakers.

With most of Italy now under “yellow zone” restrictions,

– customers can consume food and beverages inside from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m.;
– take-away food and beverages may be sold from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m.;
– restaurants may still fulfill take-away orders from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m.;
– but beverage take-away from cafés (without restaurant service) and wine shops is prohibited after 6 p.m;
– delivery service is allowed 24 hours a day.

“I walked into the restaurant,” said the winemaker, who was seated in a dining room together with the family of his business partner, “and I told them to make me whatever they wanted. Anything. I just wanted to sit down and enjoy my meal without thinking about anything else.”