Fake news carbonara: debunking the “Carbonari” myth

Earlier this week, I was a presenter at the Taste of Italy trade fair and festival in Houston.

The marquee event of the festival was a seminar on carbonara, including a talk on the origins of the history of the dish by me and my colleague Chris Reid, a food writer for the Houston Chronicle and the author of numerous articles on the dish, its recipe, and its history. I, too, have authored a number of posts where I have published my research on carbonara.

When it came time to take questions and comments from the audience, an Italian woman raised her hand and I gave her the microphone.

“I have a doctorate in Italian literature,” she said, addressing my colleague Chris and me. “And everything you have said about carbonara is false.”

She then proceeded to give us a lecture on how the true origins of the dish lie not in post-Second World War Rome and the era of Italy’s reconstruction, when products like dried pasta first became readily available to Italians. Instead, she said as she admonished us, the dish was invented and favored by the Carbonari, the secretive Italian revolutionaries from the 1800s (see the Wikipedia entry here).

After they would engage in acts of insurrection in the cities, she said, they would return to their hiding places in the hills and mountains where they would prepare spaghetti alla carbonara. And that, she told us confidently, is the true origin of the dish.

Never mind that the earliest mentions of any dish named carbonara appear only in the 1950s (the Grande dizionario della lingua italiana, the Italian Oxford English Dictionary, dates the first mention of a dish known as carbonara as 1951 and my colleague Chris has discovered a mention in La Stampa in 1950).

Never mind that none of the landmark cookery books of the 19th century mention carbonara. In fact, there is no mention in Artusi or Cavalcanti, both of whom first published their first books after the era of the Carbonari (1800-1830).

Never mind that Italian diets outside of Campania didn’t incorporate long noodle or die-cut pasta before the second post-war era: anyone familiar with the work of Italian food historian Massimo Montanari can attest to this.

No siree. Despite the fact that she had just attended a lecture by two established food writers and food historians, she felt compelled to let us know what idiots we were.

It’s time for this travesty of culinary ignorance to come to end once and for all.

Thanks for reading.

This post is a preview of one of the topics I’ll be covering later this year in my seminar on food writing for the Master’s in Food Culture at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy.

In Austin, Texas the good food, wine, and music just keep flowin’…

Over the last week, I visited Austin twice for work and for fun. Here are some highlights from my trips to the River City, where the good food, wine, and music just keep flowin’…

The meal I had at Lenoir with colleagues was one of the best and most original I’ve had this year. The food was thoughtful and fun yet wholesome, nuanced, and balanced, and the ambiance was magical with its old-time Americana feel.

The wine list was also spot on, with lots of natural selections, and I loved their new outdoor wine bar with its ancient oak trees. Super cool…

We all swooned over the cocktail program at Half Step in the historic Rainey Street district near downtown.

We were there with my friend Bryan Poff, who knows the owners: they hooked us up with a tour of their ice house where they “cook” and cut their own ice. Honestly, I didn’t know about the whole house-cooked ice thing. It’s got to be clear and it’s got to melt slow. Literally cool…

Stiles Switch, right by our old house, is still my go-to for classic bbq.

It’s one of the few places that remains open late (by ‘cue standards) and it serves beer, which is awesome. Smoking cool…

There’s always a lot of great shows happening in the “Live Music Capital of the World.” But whenever I visit with out-of-town friends, I try to make it to a Dale Watson set.

It was all happening at the classic Texas dance hall the Broken Spoke on Saturday (one of the last old-school dance halls left in the state). Groovy cool…

I was really stoked to learn that my friend Matt Berendt (left) will soon be opening the fourth location for his mega-successful wine program at the Grove Wine Bar. I met up and tasted with him and Grove sommelier Graham Douglass (right) at the West 6th location in downtown.

I’ve always thought that Matt should write a textbook on how to run a wine list. And I’ve always been inspired by an adage of his that I often use when I lead tastings and seminars: trust the wine, not the story. So true and so truly cool…

What’s not to love at Vera Cruz All Natural taqueria truck on Cesar Chavez? It takes them like 30 minutes to make a breakfast taco, even when it’s not busy. But it’s so worth it. I’m never one to believe the hype but in this case it’s well deserved. Real-deal cool…

And dulcis in fundo, last but not least, we grabbed some gelato at Dolce Neve on South First before we headed out last week. I hear that the nice folks there will soon be opening a place in Houston. I love their whole schtick and the gelato is purely delicious.

Excuse the pun but… utterly cool…

Heartfelt thanks to Jaime de Leon for putting together a superb group of sommeliers at Taste of Italy Houston

Words simply don’t suffice in thanking Houston wine professional Jaime de Leon for putting together such a superb group of sommeliers yesterday at the Taste of Italy festival.

I couldn’t have been prouder to co-present a Vinitaly tasting of top wines from Valpolicella (one of the five tastings I presented yesterday) with my good friend Elise Vandenberg and Vinitaly International managing director Stevie Kim.

And Jaime and his team delivered the top-notch wine service that this excellent flight of wines deserved. And they showed not only what a talented group of wine professionals we have here in my adoptive city and state, but also what a warm and close-knit wine community that has flourished here in recent years.

Thank you, Jaime, and thanks to your team. What a great day for Italian wine in Houston!

The only downside to being a presenter at this type of event is that it’s hard to get good photos.

That’s a snap, above, from the “New Wave White Wine” tasting that David Lynch (center), Jaime (foreground), and another good friend of mine, Thomas Moësse (another one of our city’s leading wine pros), and I presented yesterday morning.

Thank you, David, for coming out to check out our wine scene here. And thank you, Thomas, for being part of the panel.

And of course, it was wonderful to see Stevie in Texas and work with her team.

Warm thanks also go out to Maya Wakita, my counterpart on the Vinitaly team. It was really fun working with you.

To everyone who helped to make yesterday such a seamless event (Alessia, Maurizio, Carlo, Elena, Federica, Alessandra, Christina, Nathan, Sean, and so many more) and to everyone from Houston who came out to taste with us, thank you, as well: it was one of those days that reminded me how lucky I am to do what I do for a living and how blessed I am to be part of the Texas wine community.

See you next year at Taste of Italy Houston!

Why doesn’t my blog ever get nominated for any awards? (Believe it or not, it has: #cucinablogaward.)

corriere-della-sera-blog-awards-wine-foodWhen I started wine blogging back in July of 2006, my site was an html-driven journal of my tasting notes and some crude photos (shot on floppy disk!) of memorable dishes and wines. A tour that summer in France with my band Nous Non Plus and the meals that came with it were just the thing to get it all going. And my life as an aspiring food and wine writer in New York provided plenty of materia prima.

Then something remarkable happened: someone Googled me and found my blog. And it just so happened that person who had typed my name into the Google was a writer for the New York Times. The next thing I knew, my name appeared in the paper along with a quote about Lambrusco. It was then that I realized that I had inadvertently joined a vibrant and growing virtual community of food, wine, and spirits bloggers.

Since that time, the blog — which I continue to update 4-5 times a week — has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, both personally and professionally.

It’s thanks to the blog that I met Tracie P (we met online by commenting on each other’s blogs). It’s thanks to the blog that I’ve developed a network of friends and colleagues across the U.S., Europe, Australia, and even Asia. But most importantly to me, it’s thanks to the blog that I have kept a detailed diary of my life, my thoughts, my feelings, my fears and hopes, my joys and disappointments, for more than 10 years now.

Over the years, I’ve watched (with envy, I’ll admit) as many of my peers and blogging colleagues have won countless awards and prizes for their writing. But even after more than a decade, I’ve never won anything (I was once nominated for a Wine Blogger badge but that was about as far as I got).

But maybe, just maybe, my luck is about to change: it was with great pride (I won’t deny) that I learned that my blog has been nominated for a Corriere della Sera Cucina Blog Award. If you’re not familiar with the Corriere, it’s one of Italy’s leading national dailies and its food and wine blog is one of Italy’s most popular.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to join such high-profile company: the excellent blogs Punch and Two for the Bar are also nominated in the category.

I’ll be following the selection process closely, as you can imagine. But even if I don’t win, this nomination means the world to me. Beyond documenting my own life in wine, food, and love, my blog’s mission has always been that of giving an English-language voice to the Italian farmers, food producers, winemakers, and food and wine writers whom I follow. The nomination leads me to believe that someone, somewhere out there, is listening to that voice.

Please keep your fingers crossed for me and check out the other nominees here.

All the odds are in my favor
Something’s bound to begin,
It’s got to happen, happen sometime
Maybe this time,
Maybe this time, I’ll win.

Texas lawmaker calls ban on out-of-state wine sales “ridiculously anti-competitive” and a violation of Texans’ rights as consumers

matt-rinaldi-texasFor years, I have argued — here on my blog and in the Houston Press — that the Texas ban on out-of-state wine sales runs counter to Republican and red-state values and ideals.

No one needs me to tell them how Texan Republicans stand for fewer regulations, less government interference, and more liberal free trade policies that make the state a great home for businesses — small and large.

Yet when it comes to how wine is imported, distributed, sold, and shipped in the state of Texas, my state’s government has imposed some of the most restrictive laws in the nation.

When I read last week about a new bill that would lift the out-of-state ban on industry advocate Tom Wark’s blog last week, I immediately called the office of Texas state representative Matt Rinaldi (above), the author of the bill, and requested an appointment to interview him for my wine column for the Houston Press.

I met with him yesterday in his office in the state capitol: here’s the link to my article this morning for the paper.

It’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around the incongruity between the Texans’ love of freedom and the way wine, beer, and spirits are sold in our state. The bottom line is that the Texas wholesalers lobby has historically shaped shipping and sales regulations to suit their love of profit. Texan wine lovers are among the victims of their greed and their unscrupulous methods in driving out competition. And more importantly, their unbridled love of money continues to stifle wine culture in this state.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered leading wine professionals — not to mention aspiring wine professionals — who simply don’t have access to some of the world’s most iconic wines because they are unavailable in Texas. I remember meeting two Master Sommelier candidates at the airport in Austin as they were traveling to San Francisco to taste in a liberal wine market (liberal in terms of regulation) where they would have a much wider range of wines available to them. It’s enough to make a Texan eat her hat.

Texans, said Rinaldi when we met yesterday in Austin, “should be given the freedom to do what makes them happy as long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of anyone else.”

To borrow Wark’s phrase, HALLELUJAH! Click here to read the interview in the Houston Press.

“Some of my best friends are Jewish” in Trump America

rubenstein-jewish-community-center-houstonAbove: the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston, not far from where we live.

“[Bomb] threats, which turned out to be unfounded, were reported all over the Eastern United States on Monday [January 9, 2017], at as many as 16 Jewish community facilities” (New York Times).

“There were as many as 27 bomb threats on Wednesday [January 18, 2017] at Jewish centers in 17 states, according to the J.C.C. Association of North America” (New York Times).

“Ivanka Trump took to Twitter to call for religious tolerance following the latest wave of bomb threats that were made against 11 Jewish community centers Monday [February 20, 2017]” (FoxNews).

Tracie P and I learned about this third, most recent wave of coordinated bomb threats not from Fox or the New York Times. It came to our attention because Tracie was on the way to the super market where we regularly shop in our southwest Houston neighborhood, which happens to be in one of the city’s heavily Jewish areas, Westbury. The Rubenstein Jewish Community Center is on her route to the store and its members were among the victims of these orchestrated acts of terror.

It was only after his daughter posted her tweet on February 20 that President Trump acknowledged that there has been a rise of anti-Semitic episodes and terror in recent months.

As late as February 15, 2017, when asked to comment on the rise of open anti-Semitism in the U.S. at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Trump answered as follows:

“Well, I just want to say that we are very honored by the victory that we had — 306 Electoral College votes. We were not supposed to crack 220. You know that, right? There was no way to 221, but then they said there’s no way to 270. And there’s tremendous enthusiasm out there.”

Don’t believe me? Read a transcript of the conference on WhiteHouse.gov.

As late as February 16, 2017, when asked by a reporter about the rise of open anti-Semitism in the U.S., President Trump told the journalist that it was “an insulting question” and never answered the question. Don’t believe me? Watch the clip from C-Span. (Trump’s insensitivity and evasion of the question were made even more mind-boggling by the fact that the reporter asking the question was an orthodox Jew.)

Then, on Tuesday, February 21, 2017, President Trump addressed the issue directly for the first time when he told NBC News, “I will tell you that anti-Semitism is horrible, and it’s going to stop and it has to stop.”

“This felt like something of a reset,” noted a FoxNews reporter, “for a president who has been battered by negative headlines and management missteps during his first month in office.”

Until the February 21 statement, Trump had repeatedly avoided answering questions about the rise of open anti-Semitism by invoking his Jewish family members and Jewish friends.

In the February 15 news conference, he noted that “as far as people — Jewish people — so many friends, a daughter who happens to be here right now, a son-in-law, and three beautiful grandchildren.”

I don’t think that the president is anti-Semitic in his heart. After all, he’s a New Yorker: he was famously mentored by a gay Jewish man and has many famous Jewish friends, not to mention the fact that his daughter married into one of New York’s leading Jewish families and that she had converted to Judaism before their marriage.

And I am not going to speculate as to why he hasn’t robustly and wholeheartedly condemned anti-Semitism until now.

But I believe that as a role model for all Americans, his insistence on avoiding the question of anti-Semitism in our nation is abominable and dangerous.

I fear that his avoidance of the question might be interpreted by some Americans as acquiescence. And I’m not the only member of the Jewish community in America who is deeply troubled by his seeming reluctance to face the issue and speak out.

Having Jewish business associates, Jewish friends, and Jewish family members doesn’t absolve any honest American — let alone the president! — from standing up and speaking out against hatred.

Some of my best friends are Jews, too. I know they’ll be glad, like me, to see that President Trump is finally doing the right thing. What took you so long, Mr. President? What took you so long, friend?

Asti Secco, AstiSecco, Astisecco, Prosecco: Italian wine heading toward an identity crisis

asti-secco-astiseccoAbove: Gianni Martini, owner of the Sant’Orsola winery group (image via Dario Ujetto and the Eat Piemonte blog).

“A rose is a rose is a rose,” wrote Gertrude Stein famously. It was just one of the many expressions of her fascination with repetition and the way it shaped the “meaning of meaning” as some have put it.

Last Saturday, speaking at a wine industry event hosted by the Mirafiore Foundation in Piedmont, Italy’s agriculture ministry Maurizio Martina told the audience that “it’s very likely that the Asti Secco project will move forward. The ministry’s technical committee has approved the appellation regulations for the new DOC and they will now be presented to [Italy’s] national wine commission.”

He was referring to the creation of Asti Secco (Dry Asti), a dry wine made from Moscato grapes grown in Asti province in Piedmont.

The commission will vote on whether or not to approve the new appellation next month and if approved, production of Asti Secco could begin as early as May of this year according to a report published this week by the Italian national daily La Stampa.

Typically, historically, and traditionally, Moscato d’Asti has been used to make a sweet, gently sparkling wine with low alcohol content. If approved, the new appellation rules would allow producers to make a dry version of Moscato d’Asti (secco means dry in Italian). The break from tradition would represent a radical departure from the way Moscato d’Asti is perceived in world markets.

Some industry observers and Prosecco grower groups have complained that the architects of the new appellation are trying to create confusion in the sparkling wine market place. They contend that the name Asti Secco will confuse Prosecco consumers because of the similarity of the designations.

In a Facebook post this week, UniSG professor of agricultural law Michele Antonio Fino asked his readers: “Can you see the space between Asti and Secco [in the image above]? And more importantly, can you see the good faith?”

Some have alleged that the creation of this new appellation is a brazen attempt to exploit “Italian sounding” branding infringement.

The term “Italian sounding” is used by the Italian government for what is known in the food and beverage industry as “foreign sounding” marketing strategies.

Have you ever had an “Asiago Ranch Chicken Club” from the Wendy’s fast food chain in the U.S.? It’s a textbook example of “foreign sounding” (and misleading) branding.

The Italian government estimates that “Italian sounding” products generate roughly 54 billion euros in sales each year.

Some Italian wine trade observers are alarmed that if approved, the Asti Secco appellation would represent an “Italian sounding” campaign implemented by Italians. The victims, as it were, of this misleading marketing strategy would be their fellow Italians, namely Prosecco producers, they point out.

It’s not yet clear what guidelines would be put in place for how the designation “Asti Secco” will appear in labeling. But it is clear, at least to some, that the potential marketplace confusion would harm the Prosecco “brand.”

Asti Secco is AstiSecco is Astisecco is Prosecco…

I’ll be following developments closely and will report back. And I’ll be covering this issue in my seminars this year for the UniSG Master’s in Wine Culture program.

Thanks for reading and buon weekend!

The Three Musketeers of Franciacorta buck the system and shake the status quo

best-mexican-restaurant-houstonAbove: three of my closest friends and some of the most talented winemakers I know, from left, Andrea Rudelli, Nico Danesi, and Giovanni Arcari. Photo taken in Houston at La Mexicana.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my cherished friendship with winemakers Giovanni Arcari and Nico Danesi and my new partnership with the Arcari + Danesi winery and the SoloUva (Just Grapes) project. But Giovanni and Nico are just two of Franciacorta’s Three Musketeers: the other is another good friend, winemaker Andrea Rudelli (who shares my passion for guitar playing and rock music).

While Giovanni and Nico manage their group’s vineyard on Montorfano (Mt. Orfano) in the southern edge of the Franciacorta appellation, Andrea oversees the group’s vineyard in Adro township, smack-dab in the center, just below Lake Iseo, the appellation’s defining geographical feature.

While fruit from the Montorfano vineyard is used to produce the Arcari + Danesi line, Andrea’s Chardonnay vines, which are more than 30 years old, are employed in the production of the group’s SoloUva label. The Arcari + Danesi wines are the group’s higher tier, while SoloUva, made from 100 percent Chardonnay, is made in a fresh and approachable style. All the wines are produced today using the SoloUva method, whereby no cane (or beet) sugar is used to provoke the second fermentation or to top the wines off at disgorgement (the dosage). Instead, reserved grape must is used. Hence, the name SoloUva or “just grapes.”

When I call the trio the Three Musketeers of Franciacorta, the metaphor is by no means facile or gratuitous. Together, the three winemakers have bucked the Franciacorta system. And they’ve ruffled more than one feather in the process. They developed the SoloUva method themselves and they were the first in the appellation to make wines using this process. But they also gave birth to the “grower Franciacorta” movement: not only did they encourage other small estates to stop selling their grapes to the négociant houses in Franciacorta when they initially launched their consulting business over a decade ago, but they also led the way by example when they started bottling their own “estate-grown” fruit.

Franciacorta is an appellation shaped primarily by large wineries, owned by a handful of powerful families. For many of those families, grape growing and winemaking aren’t the primary sources of their income. Industry is. Together, Andrea, Giovanni, and Nico have led the new wave of young Franciacorta producers who grow, bottle, and market their wines themselves — as their primary income stream.

That’s not to say that the big wineries don’t make fantastic wine. Many of them do. (Pour me a drink and I’ll tell you my favorites.) But like Dumas’ Musketeers, the SoloUva team has challenged the monarchic status quo. And Giovanni, through his excellent blog, Terra Uomo Cielo (Earth, [Hu]man, Sky), has shed light on the way the current appellation system favors the big gals and — how can I say this gently? — hinders the smaller potatoes.

So if these guys really are the Three Musketeers of Franciacorta, does that make me d’Artagnan? Sorry, Giovanni. I know you wanted to be d’Artagnan. But remember: united, the four of us will face l’Éminence rouge!

If you’re in Southern California this weekend, come taste with me and Giovanni in San Diego on Saturday (details below). And I have great news to share with my fellow Texans: the group will soon have a Texas importer and Giovanni and I will be showing the wines in Austin and Houston next week. Just let me know if you’d like to taste with us.

SoloUva tasting with
winemaker Giovanni Arcari
(and me)
Saturday, February 25
4:00-6:00 p.m.
@ Jaynes Gastropub (San Diego)
$25 per person
includes light bites by Jaynes

Jaynes Gastropub
4677 30th St.
San Diego CA 92116
(619) 563-1011
Google map

Registration not required but please shoot me an RSVP email
to let me know that you are coming so that we can get a headcount.


“Bubbles vs. bullshit” and the saddest form of wine writing

morainic-subsoils-proseccoThis week, I found myself writing a — how else to put it? — lugubrious post for a client of mine in Prosecco country.

My post was a bullet-point summary and overview of a lengthy Italian-language blog post by an Italian writer who specializes in agricultural journalism and marketing. In his post he countered claims that residents of Treviso province have a higher rate of cancer than in other parts of the Veneto region and Italy because of higher exposure to chemicals used in grape growing.

His post was titled “Bolle contro balle: il Prosecco tra allarmismi e verità dei numeri”: “Bubbles vs. Bullshit: Prosecco, alarmism, and truth in numbers.”

Late last year, the tabloid-style news show “Report,” which is produced by one of Italy’s nationalized networks, aired a controversial segment on Prosecco growers and their use of chemical sprays in the vineyards. In the segment, the producers allege that residents of Treviso province are regularly exposed to air-borne pesticides and herbicides because of aggressive spraying by growers. As the market for Prosecco has grown in recent years and more and more farmland has been planted to vine, they claim, cases of cancer have also grown.

Whether or not the claims are true, the show was a textbook example of tabloid journalism. Just have a look at the clip here: even English-language readers will recognize the hallmarks of the tabloid style.

The episode brought to mind the infamous Velenitaly scandal from 2008. (The epithet Velenitaly is a portmanteau of veleno, meaning poison, and Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine trade fair held in Verona.) A writer for the popular Italian magazine L’Espresso falsely claimed that there was widespread use of toxic and highly dangerous chemicals in the production of Italian wine. His allegations were later proved unfounded.

Because of my personal connection to Prosecco country (I lived and worked there for many years), I have followed the grassroots campaign to raise awareness of pesticide and herbicide use in Treviso province for many years now. I subscribe, for example, to Gianluigi Salvador’s email newsletter: he is a World Wide Fund for Nature delegate in the Veneto and he writes regularly about environmental degradation in the province.

From personal experience over many years, I’ve seen the Prosecco landscape change radically as the demand for Prosecco throughout the world has grown significantly (when I first traveled in Prosecco country playing music in the late 1980s, few in America knew what Prosecco was; today it is ubiquitous in my country). There’s no doubt that there is something wrong when people are liberally spraying vineyards that lie adjacent to schools and homes (I’ve seen that, too). But I have yet to see anyone who has hard data to support the claim that there is a higher incidence of cancer in the province because of increased spraying and use of pesticides and herbicides.

By no means am I an expert in the field and I’m not saying that there isn’t a correlation (my gut tells me that there is).

The one thing I know for sure is that “tabloid wine writing” is probably the saddest form of oenography. And it’s one of the topics I’ll be covering in my seminars later this year at UniSG in the Master’s in Wine Culture program.

Thanks for reading…