May 20, 2014 § 2 Comments
As I drove into Umbria, I was stuck by the stark difference in the color palate of the landscape, from bright greens that surround Etna I had shifted to a darker more lush landscape, less arid though equally sun-filled and emanating a warmth both literally and figuratively. There is more moisture in the air, it seemed to me, and perhaps that is the inland position of Umbria, right in the center of the country. The air has a pleasant fertile smell, a little like a greenhouse.
I arrived at the vineyard, set just a few kilometers south of the city center, on a warm, sun-filled morning, having stayed in Montefalco the night before. If you have the opportunity to stay in this tiny hilltop village, I highly recommend that you do. It is heaven. The small stone square that is the town center is always a little busy with locals moving through and saying hello to one another. There is a warmth here and a friendliness. The people are smiling, they embrace one another, they say hello to the travelers and to each other. They take the time to linger and just talk and connect with one another. There is a slower pace, and it is very appealing.
When I arrived at the vineyard, I was greeted by Mr. Bea himself, and he was charming and kind, though I only understood a word or two of the many that he said, but what I gathered was that Mercedes, his assistant was on her way and I should wait. I took the opportunity to piece together a couple questions in my terrible Italian, and I had to giggle as he answered them with long answers in Italian. I have no idea the secrets he may have shared with me, but I can tell you this, this man loves his work, his vineyards, and his family. He is happy. I asked if I could take a “selfie” with him and he laughed, “si, si.”
Theses are the moments that I live for, making a connection with someone that you have only known by way of the product they make. I have been drinking Paolo Bea wines now for a number of years, these are wines for special occasions, so I have already had a sense of his presence at my table, but now we are friends and when I drink his wine with friends around the table with friends and family, I will welcome him and his family to the table, too.
I will also remember the vineyard and beautiful tasting room. Paolo’s sons now run the vineyard, though he is still involved in the wine making.
And, passing the work on to the next generation is a big part of this family’s history. The Bea family has family records in this lovely hillside town dating back to 1500, and Giampiero thinks it goes even further back. When I asked a few questions about how one knows oneself within such a long and rich history of family and place, he went and retrieved copies of the town papers to show me what they looked like, and I was immediately struck by the way that the document had so clearly influenced his sense of style in terms of the labels for the bottles that he designs. Giampiero is a trained architect but now runs the vineyard and he has been designing the family labels since they began bottling for commercial sales. We sat and looked through the old labels (all of which he had painstakingly drawn by hand) as we tasted the wine, and it also became clear that this style that I see in his labels translates into the wine. It is not modern, and yet it is of this moment and this place, full of a sense of its own historicity, just like the man who I was talking to.
Giampiero also designed their new winery. It totally blends into the landscape, a modern building that is a natural extension of the land. The stone walls are 2-3 feet thick and designed to naturally keep the cellar cool and constant in temperature…it is both brilliant and beautiful, naturally and man made, balanced. And, like everything in it, including the wine, it was thoughtfully produced with an eye for aesthetic quality as well as function.
Even the mats on which they dry the grapes for there delicious passito are designed to look beautiful when they are stacked before and after their use…
and it is with this same care, thought, and precision that the wine is made, and it is so delicious. The whites are interesting, complex, full flavored, and compelling. They want food…these big whites are rugged, but not rustic, by which I mean they are like the hills from which they come. The reds, similarly, are powerful and strong, but also refined and structured. These are serious wines but also wines that bespeak a warmth and friendliness; they are compelling. Changing with each sip, they evade simple classification or description; but, they taste so good.
I am honored to have these wines in my shop and to have made these friends on my journey.
The stats, from the importer’s website, http://www.madrose.com: “The entire property encompasses 15 hectares: 5 of which are dedicated to the vineyards, 2 to olives, and the remainder to the fruits, vegetables and grains that are grown. Sagrantino is the predominant grape, covering 60% of the vineyard surface. The remaining 40% is planted to Sangiovese and Montepulciano, with a small parcel planted to several white varieties. The vineyards are cultivated organically, all grapes are harvested manually and all wines are bottled without fining or filtration. “
May 16, 2014 § Leave a comment
I have the good fortune of encountering the most interesting and kind people both when I travel and in general in my life. The trick, I have learned, is being willing to step beyond where you are comfortable. Comfort is a dangerous thing; we like it (even when it is not pleasant but just familiar), but it never surprises us.
Today, as I walked around Florence, my fortitude was challenged. I had committed myself to a shopping-free trip to Europe, but call it luck or what you will, the strap on my pocket book finally gave out. This has been my “travel bag” for several years. What a place for that to happen?! Florence is the capital of leather bags–the gods were smiling on me today. So, I set out to find just the right pocket book to replace my favorite travel bag, within a reasonable budget.
I don’t know about you, but for me, a travel bag has to work pretty hard, carry a lot, still be comfortable, attractive, day into night (you gals understand), and it has to have classic style to last a long time. Yes, this is a tall order; once again, I want beauty and function to be as one in perfect balance.
First, I walked through the leather market, but I was not impressed. Everything looks the same, and no matter what, I get the feeling that I am being hoodwinked. I want a better experience, something more authentic, but how do you find that? Well, I just keep walking, ignore tired feet, and watch for it. It is a feeling more than anything else, and I have, over time, learned to trust my instincts. Admittedly, this can take a while, so it requires patience and a commitment, you cannot give in and just get something because then the opportunity is lost.
So, I walked, and poked, and walked, and politely said, “no grazie, solo guardo, grazie mille…(smile).”
While looking, I also checked out a few wine shops (well, I am working!), and as luck would have it, there are a few of those here as well. I very happily found Galleria del Chianti, a small but formidable shop in the city center. The owner, a young attractive Italian man, greeted me and approached to see if I needed help. I explained in broken Italian that I own a shop and that his was beautiful and interesting. Seriusly, he has an awesome wine selection in a tiny shop ( I like that). He thanked me. After I looked for a bit, he asked what I liked. I said that I like all well made wines, so pick me something local, from a small producer that I have never heard of, that is delicious and not crazy expensive. He went immediately to a box that had just arrived and said, “35, okay?” before showing me the bottle. I confirmed that was reasonable, and then he turned to two other customers and explained in Italian about the wine, at some length. I understood about 25%, which is to say that the wine was very hard top get, the wine maker works independently with his family and is an older man who is very serious about his wine. The wine is a blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Trebbiano, and Malvasia, and the vines are 70 years old. There was a lot more that I missed, but it sounded great. I told him to tell me in English what he has said, he smiled and said, “it is very good, very small, and old vines.” I need to speak Italian!
I thanked him, we “friended” each other on Facebook, and I went on my merry way to resume my search, feeling even more confident now that I had made a friend and talked wine with a local shop owner! The shop can be found on Via del Corso…and worth seeking out!
As I turned the corner around Dante’s birthplace (perhaps, a sign), I spotted a small open doorway within which I could see some eye-catching leather. This is not a standard shop front, but there were a few bags within sight of the doorway. Beautiful leather was calling me….”Maria, Maria…” You get the picture, right? There were only a few bags, mostly bolts of leather rolled and stacked around what is a very small crowded work shop, where two men sat working. I looked in with some trepidation, as I said, this is uncomfortable. What is this, I wondered: a shop, a work space, an office, a portal for human slave trafficking (okay, too much tv when I was a kid and the recesses of my imagination are ridiculous)? Marco, the owner, smiled and said, “Si, come in.”
He and his employee were busy making the most beautiful bags I have seen all day, the leather is supple and lightweight but substantial. The colors vibrant, rich, and inviting. I wanted to put my face in the bag and smell it like a fine glass of cabernet, but I resisted that temptation.
Marco did not show me anything. He just motioned to me to look around, so I did. The work shop has a somewhat central desk where Marco was answering emails, and another to the back of the space, which was taken by his employee who was hand sewing the handle to the bang with a needle and thread. I did have a moment during which it occurred to me that I may not be able to afford one of these bags, so I a cautiously asked with a bag in my hands (and some hope) “quanto costo?”
To my surprise and great pleasure the bag was only 108Euros. I realize this is not cheap, but for what I was holding in my hands, it was a steal.
I had hoped for a lighter color but the shape was exactly what I wanted, beautiful and super functional. Again, with some discomfort and my terrible Italian, I asked if he had a lighter color. He thought for a moment, and then put his coat on and said he would be back in a few minutes, I should wait there. (Surely, this is when a back door would open and I would never be seen again, all because I wanted a new bag…I deserved this…ha!) He returned with what is the only bag I will ever need, and I cannot stop smiling.
We got to chatting, which I am inclined to do, and his English is of course perfect. I told him about my shops, at which point he reached into a box of wine and retrieved a bottle. “This,” he said, “is for you, to try a taste.” He handed me the bottle with a smile, so I went in for the kiss, both cheeks, “Marco, grazie mille, molto gentile.” I was gushing, but had to simply repeat these two phrases over and over again as I walked out of the work shop, repeating “ciao” every other word.
I am excited to sit down now, with a glass of this wine and switch pocket books–some of you understand the pleasure associated with that task, and this time is particularly special. Questa è Buono Mercato!
May 16, 2014 § Leave a comment
It has been impossible to keep up with all the things that I want to share with you. Beauty around every corner: visually stunning, gastronomically exciting, tactile wonders, scarves and leather on every corner, this city appeals to all of my senses.
Today, I am lunching at the Mercato Centrale, which is a beautiful open market in Florence’s city center. Built in a renovated station near the Piazzo San Lorenzo, the market offers local products from vendors on the first floow, and an open eatery upstairs….it is like my tiny shop on a sublime scale. (yes, I am a little excited). There is live music playing, a mix of folk and reggea, food options are abundant and so beautifully presented, the building a museum in its own right, and the crowd bustling and excited.
I chose Tosca Ristaurante, where the staff is welcoming and friendly, willing to patiently listen to my Italian with a smile, and offer suggestions if you ask: I chose the salmon and farro salad, which will surely be our our summer menu, and spaghetti con le cozze and a glass of vermintino. The open kitchen is so fun to sit at and just watch the activity.
“Va bene,” she asks…”Buono!”
May 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
Despite my obsession with Sicilian culture, their wines are relatively new to me. I am excited to report that the wines surprised me in both quality and in style. Like most Americans, I had thought that Sicilian wines are most often red, relatively big, and a bit rustic. That was not at all the experience that I had in Sicily last week.
It is great to learn new things, be surprised, and find new passions. The wineries I am most excited about:
Denute delle Terre Nerre & Munjebel, both from the north of Etna, where a lot of exciting wine is being made, and both well worth finding a bottle or two. Wines from this area that are fresh, fragrant, and compelling; they are well balanced, nuanced and powerful, yet not overpowering. The primary grape is in the reds is Nerello Macaslese and Norello Cappuccio. The wines remind me of Barolos and Burgundies in their character, though not flavor profile. The are surprisingly delicate for a full flavored wine with acidity that compels you to eat, and tannins that suggest ageablity.
Frank Cornelissen at Munjebel was kind enough to welcome my Dad and I for a long talk about his wines, his process, his commitment to natural wine making, and the care that he takes in producing the wines. Frank has a lot of experience in the wine business and has taken all of that knowledge and applied it to producing really interesting wines that are supremely surprising and delightful in that unique expression. His wines are not easy to understand, but I like that, and ultimately they taste really good! They are, admittedly, a little weird, but if I wanted the same experience in every glass, I would pick another job. Frank’s wines are worth seeking out and giving them your time…you will want to enjoy and contemplate.
Also from Etna, we tried a couple of whites that were wonderful. Okay, who am I kidding, we were there for ten days, we had a bunch, but I had a few that really stood out!
Vigna di Milo Carricante, Bianco, which was suggested to us by Sandro the owner of Cave Ox, a fantastic restaurant that is off the beaten path and well worth the trip. This wine was spectacular, so ban aced, fruit, savory notes, herbal qualities. It was perfect with the house antipasti–yes, another “light lunch,” but also it was great with my pasta con asperigi, which to my surprise was basically a rustic carbonara with big crispy bites of pancetta and cream, oh, yeah, and asparagus. (I love these language mistakes when they turn out this good.
Milazzo, Maria Costanza, a delightful and fresh Chardonnay from Zafferana Etna, a small community that is a gateway for travelers to see Mt Etna…see my earlier post about a light lunch for a suggestion of where to eat. I don’t know a lot about this wine, nor do I have it at the shop, but it was delicious. I think a bit of oak, though it was smoothly integrated, it was fresh, crisp, and refreshing, with a touch of salty parm on the finish.
Cancicatti, Grillo, Aquilae. This is a relatively new grape for me, and I have to say, I want more of it. It is light and fruity, a soft sweetness on the nose, like honey suckle in early summer on the cliff walk, and then on the palate it is both fruity and then savory. Great with antipasto, which I also could not get enough of:)
Our last wine excursion took as a bit more south and inland, to Lamoresco, where Filippo Rizzo and his cousin make truly remarkable wines. His property is far from anyone elses…in fact, at Cave Ox, Sandro said of Filippo that his wines are great, but he is out there, “either crazy or clever.” I don’t know the answer to that, but I can say that his wines are so damn good and he is a super nice guy. When I asked why he grows where he does, he answered simply as he looked over the horizon, “because this is where I want to be.”
He is located in the southern most corner of the province of Catania, about 450 meters above sea level. The earth is like a course sand, though it looks more clay like in color. It is arid, but still very green. His old vines are a mixture of nero d’avola, grenache and nerocapitano (frappato) for the reds, and the extremely rare vermentino corso and some roussanne for the white. All of his farming is done by hand and without the aid of any pesticides or herbicides: all natural. His process is simple…he self identifies as a farmer and believes the work of the wine happens in the field.
It was a great day! We picked asparagus that grows wild under the cultivated cactus that grows on the farm next door, we harvested some fava beans from Fillipo’s garden, and we enjoyed a dinner in his home. He made us feel like we were old friends, we talked politics, wine, food, cities, and enjoyed a great meal with his Etna Bianco and a bottle of his Mascalese, mostly nerello with a little frappato and delicious, complex, contemplative.
I need to work harder at my job, as many of these wonderful wines are available in the US; in fact, I have many of them now at the shop, but we need access to more great wines like these, naturally made and delicious.
May 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
After a grueling first day of Italian Class and a run around the city, I earned a delicious dinner, so I am out at Golden O for a pile of pasta and some wine. The staff here makes you feel so welcome, and tonight is live jazz, which is great, a loungey style piano and a funky stand up base accompanies a talented singer who is belting out some of my favorites. It is a nice environment for a single gal out for a nice dinner. And, the view across the river Arno of the Uffizi isn’t bad either. My, I live a blessed life.
As it turns out, after the insalate with prosciutto, sliced so thin that you could see through it, and artichokes cooked confit, which were possibly one of the best things I have ever eaten! I could not handle pasta, “Basta!” I threw in the towel….it was a great night:)
May 10, 2014 § 4 Comments
I have been touring around Sicily with my father for the past 10 days, and I am realizing that like wine, we too shape our identity from our place of origin. I am Stefanese, well at least in part, and now I know what that means.
I have long believed in visiting the place of origin of a wine, so it should not be a surprise that my own sense of self would work similarly, but sometimes I am a little slow on the uptake.
Over the course of our ten day trip to Sicily, we talked with a lot of people and made many friends with whom I will keep in touch. The people of Sicily are warm, inviting and so generous, willing to talk with us, to hear our story about our own history and to patiently wait while we tried to speak Italian, always complimenting, “Brava!” That feels good, even if you are fully aware of the reality that you can barely speak the language. With each person, my excitement grew. Everyone was so excited for us, genuinely expressing the importance to see where you come from. This is an idea that is so commonplace to them, and with each person, I had increasing sense of its importance.
Nearly everyone said, “Ah,” with great emphasis,”si, Santo Stefano di Camastra, si!” Then a series of other questions would follow about his name, our names. “Salvatore, Maria, you are Italian!” And, then they would wish us good luck in finding the papers we were seeking with an embrace, a kiss on each check, and a solid hand shake, followed by several salutations.
We planned our trip to Santo Stefano di Camastra at the end of our trip, only because of the convenience, but with hindsight (always) I should have gone there first. It is only after getting there, that I understand its significance, which is admittedly a bit difficult to articulate, so I will just tell you the story as it went.
After an early morning walk to welcome the summer sunshine in Chefalú, Dad and I took off for Santo Stefano di Camastra, with a mission: get Grandpa’s birth certificate. We arrived at the Municiple Office with a copy of a certificate of marriage but little else, and I have already explained that we have about ten Italian words between us, right? This was surely going to be a challenge.
There were three women working, and they began to argue about where we should be, what they could or could not do, and what we needed, most of which I could not understand. What I gathered was there was some confusion about Salvatore’s birthplace and the spelling of his last name, so one woman wanted to simply send us elsewhere, but as luck had it, her counterpart argued with her, which finally resulted in the first one giving up and handing her the papers with a shrug that suggested to me “well, you go ahead then, I am done with this.” Our hero then went to work, searching birth records…and there was a brief period of concern, but she found it!
I realize these are nearly illegible, but I was so excited that I nearly took my pants off over my head (thank you Woody Allen for this expression!)!! Seriously, I was clapping and saying “Brava, Brava! Grazie!! Sei molt gentile!!!” And, my Dad was so happy–“see, he said, see, this is where we are from!” I think he meant both, “see this,” and “si,” which is his new favorite thing to say, and “Si, Papa, I see!”
After nearly climbing over the counter to hug our new hero, we needed nourishment, pranzo! Si, andiamo!!
Two very happy Stefanese’s!!
We had met some nice gentlemen in a wine bar in Chefalú the night before, who said that we must eat lunch at Ristaurante Manueliana, so we headed down toward the water to find it.
The restaurant is simple on the outside, but it is elegant and welcoming inside, with carefully placed decorations, wine bottles, potted herbs on each table, beautiful cloth table linens, and the lovely Eliana to great you on arrival. She grasciously helped to select a delicious regional white wine for our lunch, and her selection was perfect with their local fare, she complimented my Italian, and she brought us some fresh anchovies to enjoy as we selected our lunch. Perfecto!
The menu is full of wonderful local fresh fish and vegetables, and the preparation, all done by Eliana’s husband Manuel, was excellent. Perhaps the moment was just so good, we were so excited about our success, but I think it was the best meal we had in all of Sicily (and there were a lot meals!).
I opted for Dad’s usual, fruits de mare, and it was perfect, so fresh and simple. My Dad, a bit more adventuresome than I, got the pasta with squid ink. Wow, intense in color, texture, and in flavor…not to mention if you know what it is…(that’s right, the black stuff from inside the belly of the squid:/), but it was delicious! Then, of course, a Secondi, which we now know to split: Calamari! So lightly battered and perfectly fried so as to seal the fish not to saturate it with oil. It was all so good, so satisfying, and our host so delightful, friendly, and fun. We told her our story about Grandpa Salvatore Cianciolo and Grandma Maria Galiano, and she was so excited for us.
“You are Stefanese,” she said, “Not Italiano, not Siciliano, but Stefanese!!”
All of this was music to Dad’s ears! Oh, and the cannoli–seriously, the cannoli in Sicily is just something different than the dessert of the same name at home, because of the sheep’s milk ricotta and, I suppose it sense of place! And, Eliana’s desserts were exceptional!
Mille Grazie, Eliana, mia sorella, we will see you again in Santo Stefano di Camastra!
And, for all of you reading this, buy a plane ticket just for the meal at Manueliana’s, and tell our people we say Ciao!
May 5, 2014 § Leave a comment
Dad and I decided to drive up to see Etna yesterday, as it seems a thing to see when visiting the area. Along the way we found Zafferana Etna. It is a charming village with a sizable centro, some nice shops, a handful of restaurants, and a beautiful church (these are abundant here, but you already knew that).
It was Sunday afternoon, and there was a lively festival in the town square. Being lunch time, and yes, it is always time for a least a little bite here, we stopped into the restaurant on the square to enjoy a light lunch. It was critical to go light because we had already made a reservation to return to Trattoria di Nino at 8pm and we were not going to miss that.
I used all my best Italian, la sua raccomandazione qualcosa de piccolo, and I repeated piccolo and smiled. She suggested the Bacco Anitipasti, a selection of regional cheeses, meats, olives, and a few vegetables. Ok? ok! ok? Si? ok! several exchanges of okay, and si small, she insisted. Okay, Dad and I agreed and ordered some local Chardonnay to enjoy with our piccolo pranzo. In this moment, I was feeling so proud of myself for using my Italian words and for showing a little restraint at just one meal. Well, that pride may have been a little in haste.
The dishes just kept coming! Cheeses, cured ham, mushrooms sautéed, stuffed eggplant, caponata, stuffed mushrooms, fried ricotta balls (oh my!), stuffed fried bread (a regional specialty, and quite amazing), zucchini at least three different ways, an onion salad with walnuts (not my favorite, but interesting), and of course bread…we laughed until we had tears, and ate until we were stuffed.
These are experiments, and some go better than others…we left smiling!
The restaurant is at the far end of the piazza near the fountain in town, called Il Castello di Bacco, and I highly recommend their hours antipasti for two;)