A second earthquake devastates Emilia (remembering the Emilian Renaissance)

Above: The Duomo in Mirandola had withstood the earthquake of May 20 but crumbled this morning in a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. Photo by Cris Provenzano via Instagram.

According to the reports I’ve been seeing this morning in the Italian news feed, there were at least 39 tremors in the region of Emilia this morning beginning at around 9 a.m. At 11:24 a.m., a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck in the town of Mirandola (which lies at the center of a triangle formed by Ferrara, Modena, and Mantua).

The New York Times reports that at least eight persons died this morning. Thousands of people have been left homeless and scores of factories have collapsed or been closed because of structural damage.

Photo via AGI.it.

In an uncanny twist of fate, the township of Mirandola had planned a town hall meeting this evening with earthquake experts who had hoped to calm local residents (the Mirandola township has a great website, btw, an indication of the industriousness and uprightness of the people who live there).

Of all of Italy’s regions, Emilia and its beauty are perhaps the most challenging for foreigners to understand. Emilia is a land of intellectual and sensual pleasures and partly because it is not a producer of fine wine (aside from a few exceptions like La Stoppa in the province of Piacenza), most enogastronomic travelers tend to gloss over its cultural patrimony after they’ve dined at one of the regions many culinary meccas. (My favorites are Trattoria Bianca in Modena and Ristorante Canossa in Reggio Emilia.)

Whereas the Venetian and Florentine Renaissances produced iconic works of figurative art that continue to attract tides of tourists each year, the Emilia Renaissance delivered the great epic poems of the sixteenth century (think Ariosto and Tasso), wildly popular intellectual hits of their day but sadly forgotten in comparative literature curricula today in Anglophone countries.

To contemplate [historic] Humanism without one of its greatest voices, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (whose family hailed from the town where the epicenter of today’s earthquake occurred) would be to disregard one of the greatest chapters in humankind’s intellectual development.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Emilia…

Do Bianchi and please try not to curse (if possible)

Before heading to the first-ever meeting of the Unione dei Viticoltori Autentici in Gambellara (Vicenza), Alfonso and I stopped at our favorite bar in the village, the Trattoria al Passaggio for do bianchi — two little glasses of white wine.

If you’ve ever lived in the Veneto, you know that using the name of the Lord in vain is kind of like getting out of bed and going to work each morning. You may not want to, but you just have to.

I asked the owner if the sign below worked: “If possible, we ask that you do not curse [blasphemy].” He said it did…

There’s a long tradition of blasphemy in the Veneto, stretching back to the Venetian Republic’s historic political opposition to the Vatican. Today, although avoided in polite circles, blasphemy is used there — in some extreme cases — the same way American speakers of English might use a “crutch” expression like, you know.

Of course, the ancient notion of “cursing the gods” stretch back to antiquity and beyond. And every Italian region I’ve visited has its own colorful variations of blasphemy — always avoided like the plague in polite society.

I loved the qualifier of the owner’s admonition: if possible…

Probably not the case in a “company town” where the company in question happens to be Zonin…

A Puritanical Italy: has it come to this?

Above: On our last trip to Italy, this image — a winemaker’s daughter chasing a cat through a field — fascinated me. The cat, hoping to receive a treat, wouldn’t let the girl pick it up. But it never strayed farther than arm’s reach. She was a Pasolinian allegory of purity and innocence, the cat her serpent leading her to edge of the field where she would ultimately move beyond the farm’s borders toward the impurity of urban living and the pressures of modern society.

When we travel to Italy, Tracie P and I are very fortunate to find a host of characters gladful to share the flavors and aromas of the garden of Europe, the fair country, ancient Enotria and Esperya — the land of the setting sun, as the Greeks called it, the “Evening Land.” Blessed with a mastery of the language and endowed with years of experience there, we move seamlessly from the quartermaster of Marco Polo to the trinciante — the carver — of the osteria whom we bribe with veteran smiles and harmless guile, blank verse and syncopated song.

Don’t get me wrong: although we thoroughly enjoy every moment of it, those of you who follow (and have followed recently) along here on the blog know that we are keenly and acutely aware of how food and wine as text — as discourse — are just one red thread interwoven into the fabric of this ancient and fascinating nation.

Above: Most middle-class families by their daily wine at supermarkets or at dispensaries like this one in Favaro Veneto in the terra firma of Venice.

However joy-filled and wondrous our trips seem, we never lose touch with the challenges and ills that Italians and Europeans face every day, particularly in a world where the Italian state provides less and less for the middle-class Italian, while placing more and more pressures on her/him in finding and practicing civic and national pride and ownership.

I’m deeply saddened to report (for those of you who haven’t followed the meager coverage by The New York Times) that Italian society is on the cusp of a startlingly profound peripeteia. In bizarre twist of cultural roles, Italian prosecutors are on the verge of taking down Dr. Evil himself, Silvio Berlusconi… but not by means of legal action addressing his self-serving mediatic tyranny and corruption… He will be taken out, instead, through the application of a puritanical denouement.

In early April (it was announced while I was still there last week), he will be tried for paying a minor for sex.

Above: My last night in Italy, this time around, I shared a pizza and a beer with a colleague and friend (who happens to be a Berlusconi supporter). The pizza was decent but forgettable. Sometimes a pizza is just pizza.

Prostitution is legal in Italy, although organized prostitution is not. And even though the legal age of consent there is 14 years of age, it is illegal to pay for sex with a minor (under 18 years of age).

Believe me: although I am not Italian and have no civic stake in Italian society other than my personal interest in Italy and the many friends I have there, I am thrilled to see Berlusconi go (and I sincerely hope this is the final nail in his political coffin). His racist remarks about Obama or his belief that “Mussolini didn’t send anyone to concentration camps… he just sent them on vacation” provide ample reason to despise him. But the manufactured consent he has generated through his control of television and newspapers, orchestrated solely in the view of his open desire to become richer through the manipulation of Italian legislation (he stated so very clearly in a now infamous interview with historian Enzo Biagi, Italy’s Walter Cronkite), offer us indisputable evidence of what a menace he is to Italian, European, and Western Civilization. Good riddance, I say.

Above: Tracie P and I use all kind of electronic media to communicate when we’re in Italy but we still love postcards.

“Since when did the Italians become puritanical?” That’s what my bandmate Verena asked rhetorically in an email thread the other day. In fact, as Verena knows well, the Italians haven’t become puritanical. Indeed, one of the things I love and cherish about Italy is the fact one is not constrained by the yoke of bourgeois and Victorian attitudes there.

But it has come to this: short of taking to the streets and squares the way the Egyptians have done, Italy must resort to a Republican-inspired puritanical Bill Clinton-era tactic to oust the country richest and most despicable man from its most powerful office.

Above: If you look carefully at the wrought-iron adornment of this well (near Buttrio in Friuli), you’ll see that it is made of grape bunches, leaves, and tendrils.

I hope and pray that gourmets and gourmands of English-language literature will appreciate the allusion with which I have chosen as congedo of this post, a few lines culled from D.H. Lawrence’s poem, “Grapes.”

Buona lettura, everyone, and buona domenica. Thanks for reading…

But long ago, oh, long ago
Before the rose began to simper supreme,
Before the rose of all roses, rose of the all the world, was even in bud,
Before the glaciers were gathered up in a bunch out of the unsettled seas and winds
Or else before they had been let down again, in Noah’s flood,
There was another world, a dusky, flowerless, tendrilled world
And creatures webbed and marshy,
And on the margin, men soft-footed and pristine,
Still, and sensitive, and active,
Audile, tactile sensitiveness as of a tendril which orientates and reaches out,
Reaching out and grasping by an instinct more delicate than the moon’s as she feels for the tides.

Of which world, the vine was the invisible rose,
Before petals spread before colour made its disturbance, before eyes saw too much.

Dusky are the avenues of wine,
And we must cross the frontiers, though we will not,
Of the lost, fern-scented world:
Take the fern-seed on our lips,
Close the eyes, and go
Down the tendrilled avenues of wine and the other world.

Un amico ritrovato

It was great to see Giovanni Arcari (left) and Franco Ziliani (right) last night in Valpolicella. They drove down from Brescia and Bergamo to visit with their friends from the U.S.

Italy recently adopted “zero tolerance” drunk driving legislation and enforcement. The legal limit is .015 g/dL, mass per volume of blood in the body. That means that just one glass of wine can put you over the legal limit! Compare with California where it’s .08! So Franco was their designated driver. Wine writers like Franco have be very careful: even when you spit and do not ingest any wine, the alcohol on your breath from tasting can deliver a false positive.

We all took it easy — especially since our host insisted on serving us barriqued Valpolicella… feh! — but it was great to see both of them and to spend some time with an amico ritrovato

Beauty (and ugly) in Italy

Above: A wasp feasts on newly picked Ribolla at Venica & Venica.

A quick post today, on this autumnal Monday back at my desk in Austin, comprised of photos from my trip, some of the most beautiful things I saw through my lens while in Italy. It was an incredible journey, replete with felicitous confluences, some serendipitous and delightfully unexpected, others grounded in epistemlogic contemplation and convex self-reflection.

Above: Pancetta offered to weary travelers, also at Venica.

In the days that follow, I’ll begin posting in-depth accounts of my conversations and tastings with winemakers and restaurateurs in Tuscany, the Veneto, and Friuli. I am so grateful for all the comments, emails, Twitter mentions, and Facebook notes encouraging me and sharing insights into what I photographed, smelled, tasted, drank, and masticated over the course of the nearly three-week trip. And I am especially thankful for the incredible hospitality and generosity of spirit of my (literally) myriad hosts and guides.

Above: A view from one of the dining rooms at Trattoria al Parco in Buttrio (Udine).

Immense and extreme beauty is offered to the willful traveler of the Italic peninsula: from her generous landscape to her innate and intrinsic humanity (both historical and topical), Italy continues to inspire me (and hopefully you) by revealing some of the mystery and joy of life through her topographic, aesthetic, and sensual pleasures.

Above: A view from the Abbazia di Rosazzo in the Colli Orientali del Fiuli.

While I thoroughly enjoyed her bountiful intellectual and sensorial gifts, I was however acutely aware of the seemingly insurmountable societal and cultural issues and turmoil faced by the inhabitants (Italian and otherwise) of this profoundly gorgeous land.

Above: Hay for Chianina cows near Pienza, Tuscany.

Whether it’s Berlusconi patently using one of his media outlets (in this case, Il Giornale, a top national daily) to sling mud at his rival Fini (now embroiled in a sticky familiar real-estate scandal) or the impending expulsion of Roma (following the highly controversial and contested model employed by Sarkozy), Italy and her peoples find themselves in circumstances eerily however distantly reminiscent of the “era between the two wars.” When I commented on the recent changing of the guard in the political regime of the region where she and her family make wine, one winemaker observed wryly but not inronically, “we were better off with the fascists in power than the [newly instated] separatists.”

Above: Sunset in Montalcino (Tuscany), viewed from the estate of Il Palazzone.

Perhaps it’s this precarious balance of salt and sweet that makes Italy always taste so great and greatly on our tongues. Thanks for reading…

The (de)criminalization of alcohol in Italy

Above: Italy’s agricultural minister Luca Zaia is widely recognized as having an ego the size of the world’s largest panettone. Note the signature green pocket square (a nod to his separatist, xenophobic Northern League party) and his black tie (I’ll leave the semiotic analysis to the reader but fascism is always in the eye of the beholder).

“Incredible but true: I am in agreement with Zaia!” This was the title of a Facebook note that Franco posted yesterday after the ever-patriotic (patriotic, that is, if you consider the Veneto a sovereign state) Italian agricultural minister was quoted in a magazine interview as saying that Italy’s new “zero-tolerance” drunk driving law is excessive. Currently, “0.2 grams per liter of blood” is the legal limit, making the consumption of even one glass of wine illegal if you get behind the wheel. In the interview, published in Italy’s leading consumer automotive magazine, Quattro Ruote, Zaia proposed that it should be raised to 0.5 grams so that drivers will be allowed to have 2 glasses of wine as long as the alcohol content of the wine does not exceed 11%, in other words, as minister Zaia put it, as long as drivers are not consuming “structured” wines. (In a subsequently posted FB note, Franco suggested that minister Zaia take a full-immersion sommelier course: “where,” asked Franco, throwing his hands in the virtual FB air, “does he find wines with 11% alcohol content?”)

Zaia should know something about drinking and driving: although you won’t find it in his ill-translated and prolix Wikipedia entry, the forty-something minister used to work as a nightclub bouncer, or so I have been told by someone who knows him well.

I’ve been known to indulge in some of my own Zaia bashing, but today I’ll leave it to the experts.

And not that it’s any of my business, but Zaia is right: the new legal limit, which went into effect earlier this year and has been rigorously enforced with myriad check points, has led to senseless arrests and steep fines for food and wine writers, like Andrea dal Cero who lost his license in May after attending a spumante presentation in Emilia-Romagna.

Above: Just days before the event was to be held, organizers of the Taurasi Wine Fair canceled the convention, citing recent legislation that makes it illegal to serve alcohol at public events in town squares.

Italy (like Europe in general) has been wrestling with its relationship with alcohol and in some cases, the results have been disastrous, like the recent cancellation of one of the most important wine festivals in southern Italy, the Taurasi Wine Fair. See this editorial posted at VinoWire by the author of Divino Scrivere, Luigi Metropoli.

I sure hope that Italian pols will look closely and carefully at current legislation and I’m glad that Zaia is taking this issue seriously. After all, can you imagine how many folks will lose their licenses as they roll out of Vinitaly next April? If you’ve ever been caught in the post-fair traffic of the trade show (where there are never any traffic police to guide traffic and avoid grid lock), you get the picture.