Vino - Flavors of the Harvest
There are few things that unite all Italians like the harvest of grapes. The decision of when is the right time to begin harvesting is determined by the ripeness of the grape and the state of the weather – usually in August for whites and September/October for the reds. This is the time for annual wine festivals, tours, and tastings in every grape growing region of Italy.
This week’s menu celebrates the grape and its juice both in the glass and in savory authentic recipes.
Wineries have had a lot to deal with this past year. Spring frost, summer hail storms, record high temperatures and drought have added to Italy's grape harvest problems. There were scorching hot temperatures this summer with ground readings superseding 135 degrees Fahrenheit! The problems were compounded by the increased presence of pesky deer and cinghiale who were attracted to the succulent ripening grapes on the vine in search of water. But, as we know, the Italians are resourceful and, although production is reduced, they are predicting an excellent year. Italy's wine industry took a major blow last year as it emerged as Europe's pandemic epicenter. In addition, it was difficult for the tens of thousands of farm workers from Africa and Eastern Europe who come every year to harvest to enter the country during lockdown. The silver lining of this horrible year has been that more Italians were eating at home and breaking out the expensive bottles they may have been saving for that special occasion.
There are few things that unite all Italians like the harvest of grapes. The decision of when is the right time to begin harvesting is determined by the ripeness of the grape and the state of the weather – usually in August for whites and September/October for the reds. This is the time for annual wine festivals, tours, and tastings in every grape growing region of Italy. It is a wonderful way to learn about food traditions and local cultures.
The atmosphere in a working winery is something unique and to be experienced. When I lived in Italy, we would visit a local winery to taste and choose the Chianti we would use at the Trattoria as our house wine that year. Almost all the wine we served during the year was vino sciolto (meaning “loose” or unbottled) as our “vino della casa,” house wine, so this was an important purchase. After the arduous task (!) of tasting from several botti (large chestnut barrels), we would make our decision. The wine was then transferred to large damigiane that were stacked and trucked to our cantina under the restaurant. As we needed the wine, a ritual ensued. First, we would remove the oil floating at the top of the damigiana used to “seal” the wine and prevent its oxidation. A handful of “stoppa” (finely combed linen fibers,) was inserted into its neck to soak up the oil. Next, a syphon was inserted, and we filled the fiaschi (straw-covered bottles) to be brought to the table. The wine was young and light and always a delicious example of local artisan wine making.
Grapes and their juice are the stars of our menu this week. Spaghetti Ubriachi is an unusual pasta cooked in and sauced with red wine, sausage, evoo and parmesan (not to worry – the alcohol is burned off in the process leaving a beautiful violet color.)
I can still remember the first time I tasted Roast Beef alle Erbe. It is seasoned with garlic and tied-up with branches of rosemary. It is roasted in red wine, where, through the reduction process, its full flavor and aroma are released.
Misticanza di Stagione is a palate-cleansing salad of mixed Italian greens, roasted grapes, toasted farro and parmesan shavings.
Schiacciata all’Uva is the quintessential autumn grape sweet bread found in every Tuscan bakery this time of year. It is the taste you look forward to all year but can only enjoy during the short harvest season. It is commonly used with wine grapes, usually canaroli. The crisp skins and crunchy seeds add the perfect texture. Since our local wineries have already harvested their grapes, I am using small black gumdrop grapes with the addition of anise seed and chopped walnuts.
Making wine, of course, goes back centuries, but in this time of COVID an interesting marketing method has been revived in Florence. During the Renaissance, aristocrat families devised a method of selling wine from their vineyards directly to city consumers, eliminating the middleman and hefty taxes. They embedded small “porticciole,” wine windows, in the sides of their city palazzos. Often decorated with small wooden doors, the openings are just big enough to stick one’s arm through with a glass of wine in hand. Interestingly, wine windows may have played a role in preventing the spread of the bubonic plague in the 1630s. Today they are being used by Florentine restaurants to serve wine, Aperol spritz, espresso and even gelato uniquely and safely.
Curious, isn’t it, how history continues to repeat itself? Knowing this, I believe, makes it even more important to embrace and maintain these traditions and authentic recipes.
Cin-Cin e Alla Salute,