An allusion to Boccaccio in my post today for the Houston Press (on water and wine) was irresistible: citing the third novella, eighth day of the Decameron, I used a mention of wine in his description of Bengodi (the land of plenty) as an illustration of how water was commonly blended into wine in the middle ages. In the text, he describes a Vernaccia so good that no water was added to it.
Calandrino heard what passed between them, and witting that ’twas no secret, after a while got up, and joined them, to Maso’s no small delight. He therefore continued his discourse, and being asked by Calandrino, where these stones of such rare virtues were to be found, made answer: “Chiefly in Berlinzone, in the land of the Basques. The district is called Bengodi, and there they bind the vines with sausages, and a denier will buy a goose and a gosling into the bargain; and on a mountain, all of grated Parmesan cheese, dwell folk that do nought else but make macaroni and raviuoli, and boil them in capon’s broth, and then throw them down to be scrambled for; and hard by flows a rivulet of Vernaccia, the best that ever was drunk, and never a drop of water therein…”
The fact that he points out that never a drop of water was found in the wine is an indication that wine to which water wasn’t added was considered superior in quality.
There are so many wonderful mentions of wine in the Decamaron: ahimè, if I didn’t have to make a living, I could collate them into a neat little book with a critical apparatus (a little philological speak there for you).
In the meantime, any excuse to revisit Boccaccio is a good one!
The tale is one of my favorites and is a great (and funny) read: English and Italian.
Above: “Decameron” by Waterhouse (1916). The countryside outside the city of Fiesole served as diegetic backdrop in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Fiesole lies in the hills above Florence.
If you’ve visited my blog before, you probably have already tasted Coenobium, a wine raised by Cistercian sisters in the Province of Viterbo and vinified by natural winemaker and co-founder of Vini Veri, one of Italy’s leading natural wine movements, Giampiero Bea. Most Italophile wine lovers have heard the tale of this wine many times before.
But when I posted about it today over at the Houston Press food and wine blog, I couldn’t resist making an allusion to Boccaccio’s Decameron, Third Day, Novella 1, “Masetto da Lamporecchio [who] feigns to be dumb, and obtains a gardener’s place at a convent of women, who with one accord make haste to lie with him.”
The funny, sexy tale is one of those depicted by Pasolini in his 1971 filmic version of the Decameron (which we watched the other night) and I’m always looking for excuses to talk about literature when writing about wine.
Fairest ladies, not a few there are both of men and of women, who are so foolish as blindly to believe that, so soon as a young woman has been veiled in white and cowled in black, she ceases to be a woman, and is no more subject to the cravings proper to her sex, than if, in assuming the garb and profession of a nun, she had put on the nature of a stone: and if, perchance, they hear of aught that is counter to this their faith, they are no less vehement in their censure than if some most heinous and unnatural crime had been committed; neither bethinking them of themselves, whom unrestricted liberty avails not to satisfy, nor making due allowance for the prepotent forces of idleness and solitude. And likewise not a few there are that blindly believe that, what with the hoe and the spade and coarse fare and hardship, the carnal propensities are utterly eradicated from the tillers of the soil, and therewith all nimbleness of wit and understanding. But how gross is the error of such as so suppose, I, on whom the queen has laid her commands, am minded, without deviating from the theme prescribed by her, to make manifest to you by a little story…
It takes a lot of courage to be so honest about the vintage but it also gives Italian wine enthusiasts an entirely new perspective into the vegetative cycle. It will be fascinating to taste the wines when they are released and compare our tasting notes with their documentation of the vintage.
Above: Basil was prized for its healing properties for external wounds in the Middle Ages. The image of basil (note the presence of a woman and man) on the verso (left) is taken from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, in this case Codex Latinus 9333 from the Bibliothèque de France in Paris (click here to view a larger version). It was also a symbol of hate (read on).
I never imagined that my post the other day on Fake Pesto would lead to such a long comment thread here at the blog and over in the Facebook feed.
Here at the blog, Hande pointed out rightly that pesto, literally pestle, denotes the dressing for pasta made of ground basil, cheese, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil. I was surprised to learn that the Genoese Pesto Consortium’s officially sanctioned recipe allows for walnuts (as a substitute for pine nuts) and Parmigiano Reggiano along with (the more traditional, in my view) Pecorino. As per Hande’s comment, when I wrote that pesto is traditionally served with boiled potatoes and green beans, I should have noted that the dish is properly called pesto avvantaggiato, literally, enriched pesto, whereby trenette or trofie (noodles) are tossed with the pesto, the boiled potatoes and green beans, and some of the cooking water from the vegetables. Thanks again, Hande, for keeping me on my toes!
But when friend Leslie noted (over in the Facebook thread of the post) that basil is an anti-depressant, I began to think about one of my favorite novelle from Boccaccio’s Decameron, the Tale of Lisabetta da Messina.
Lisabetta’s brothers slay her lover: he appears to her in a dream, and shews her where he is buried: she privily disinters the head, and sets it in a pot of basil, whereon she daily weeps a great while. The pot being taken from her by her brothers, she dies not long after.
And so, saddest of women, knowing that she might not bewail him there, she would gladly, if she could, have carried away the body and given it more honourable sepulture elsewhere; but as she might not so do, she took a knife, and, as best she could, severed the head from the trunk, and wrapped it in a napkin and laid it in the lap of her maid; and having covered the rest of the corpse with earth, she left the spot, having been seen by none, and went home. There she shut herself up in her room with the head, and kissed it a thousand times in every part, and wept long and bitterly over it, till she had bathed it in her tears. She then wrapped it in a piece of fine cloth, and set it in a large and beautiful pot of the sort in which marjoram or basil is planted, and covered it with earth, and therein planted some roots of the goodliest basil of Salerno, and drenched them only with her tears, or water perfumed with roses or orange-blossoms. And ’twas her wont ever to sit beside this pot, and, all her soul one yearning, to pore upon it, as that which enshrined her Lorenzo, and when long time she had so done, she would bend over it, and weep a great while, until the basil was quite bathed in her tears.
Fostered with such constant, unremitting care, and nourished by the richness given to the soil by the decaying head that lay therein, the basil burgeoned out in exceeding great beauty and fragrance.
There is so much I’d love to share about this truly fascinating (at least to me) story and the role that basil plays in it. Boccaccio’s Decameron has so many wonderful references to food and wine in it. (Read the entire tale in English here.) But, ahimè, professional duties call… I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
In the meantime, here’s a scene from Pasolini’s version of the tale:
Above, from left clockwise: “I have to stay outside,” “You’re poor? It’s YOUR damn problem,” “We are voting for Berlusconi” (they’re dressed as Freemasons), and “this car has been de-Berlusconi-ized” (a play on denuclearized). These stickers were printed by Cuore (a magazine supplement to the leftist daily L’Unità) in the early 1990s during Berlusconi’s first campaign to become Prime Minister.
When I first traveled to Italy in 1987 for my junior year abroad as part of the University of California and Università di Padova exchange program, Italy and the outlook of Italians seemed much different than it does today. When I attended my first academic year there (and there would many years to follow, later at the Scuola Normal Superiore in Pisa, study at the Vatican Library, three summers in the Dolomite Alps where I earned my keep playing cover tunes, and summers in Montalcino where I first began to appreciate wine), the Italian Socialist Party still dominated Italian politics. In spite of the inconveniences posed by the legendarily lethargic Italian bureaucracy, health care was free for all (that first year, I badly sprained my ankle playing basketball and was amazed when I wasn’t even presented a bill at the emergency room) and a year’s tuition at the university cost roughly 300,000 lire, about $250 at the time (in 1989 I returned to Italy and re-enrolled at the Università di Padova).
Above: My junior year dorm room at Monte Cengio where I roomed with Steve Muench. We’re still close friends today (scroll to the bottom of this post).
That was before the Mani pulite investigation and the subsequent Tangentopoli scandal that brought the Socialists to their knees. And it was before the rise of Italy’s richest man Silvio Berlusconi as the most powerful politician to emerge in post-war Italy. Berlusconi famously told journalist and historian Enzo Biagi (think of him as our Walter Cronkite) that he entered politics because existing laws did not allow him to make even more money. If the law doesn’t allow me to grow richer, he decided one day, I’ll just rewrite the law.
Today in Italy, vigilante posses comb the streets at night harassing immigrants; doctors have been asked to report illegal immigrants (extra-communitarians, as they are called) to authorities when they request medical care; there have been cases where emergency health workers have allowed immigrants to die at the scene of accidents by delaying medical attention; Berlusconi’s agricultural minister has asked Italians to boycott Chinese restaurants; and Lucca has outlawed “ethnic” food in its center… The list goes on and on.
It’s a different Italy than the one first encountered by a bright-eyed U.C.L.A. junior who had a knack for languages in 1987.
Above: The last summer I played at the Birreria di Pedavena, my band and I stayed in the mountain pass village of Croce d’Aune.
I recently found the stickers and the photos in a shoebox that arrived last week in Austin from a storage space in Manhattan. They brought back memories of a time when the outlook of most Italians I knew didn’t seem rosy but was certainly instilled with a resilient humanitarian and humanist spirit. That attitude endures among most of the Italians I know but a dark cultural hegemony has taken hold there in the Berlusconi age.
Yesterday, an article in The New York Times reported how Berlusconi forced the resignation of the editor of the Italian Bishops’s Conference daily newspaper. He did so by publishing front page features in his own newspaper detailing the editor’s rumored sexual preferences. He did so because the editor had written an editorial about Berlusconi’s widely publicized (and in many instance self-propagandized) lasciviousness.
The event was organized in collaboration with the Township of Fiesole to celebrate the wine that received 98/100 from Wine Spectator, the highest score awarded to any Tuscan wine. This score has made Fiesole a full-fledged member on the map of the great wines of Italy and the world.
My post last week generated an unexpected and welcomed thread of comments and I am thankful to everyone for taking the time to weigh in.
In the light of Fiesole’s celebration (sponsored by the city government), it would seem that not all Italians are offended by our ratings and rankings (at least the ones that receive top scores).
For the record, Testamatta is made using indigenous Tuscan grapes: Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and Colorino.