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.
Not even the grape harvest could escape the curse of COVID-19 as most of the seasonal workers who pick the grapes come from countries that have been blacklisted. Italy is seeing a rising number of infections originating from arrivals from abroad and has blocked the entry of five thousand workers from Eastern Europe. I have also heard there is a shortage of glass bottles and corks imported from China. They are predicting a small harvest this September on top of the challenge of a struggling export market. The idea of vouchers has been floated to allow Italian students and restaurateurs (no joke!) who are out of work to come help with the harvest to earn money that could be spent in the community to help kickstart the economy.
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,