Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Local Aficionado

"As a young person, you love big, rich flavors -- so you drink Barolo. In your middle age, you seek something more solid, something less obvious -- so you drink Barolo. In your wisest years, you want a wine that allows you to think about and savor the pleasures of maturity, both its maturity and your own -- so you drink Barolo."

From a great article by Tom Maresca that will likely answer many of your questions about Barolo.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Ten Year Old Barolo...1999 Elvio Cogno Barolo Vigna Elena

Perusing Alba's wine shops and their cellars filled with wines made with the Nebbiolo grape made me feel ancient and impossible. These wines are the wines of fable, similar to the ten year old Bordeaux I wrote about a couple months back, and being on their turf is like dining with a count from the 16th century. Dusty bottles and the smell of the dirt floors make the prices of these bottles seem ludicrous: Did I really just buy a 1999 Barolo – a very good year – for 36 euro?

The woman who helped me select the year proved that those in the area know their wines like they know their white truffles. First, she suggested that I purchase a 2004, which would be less expensive than older vintages, and would be perfect to drink in 2-3 years. Er... 2 or 3 years, no, I'm looking for like, 2 to 3 hours. She lead me down into the store's cellar and suggested the 1999 Elvio Cogno Barolo Vigna Elena. I asked about a 1997 of a different wine producer, but she said it was not quite as good a year for them, which I thought was admirably discerning since most winemakers and importers believe 1997 was the best year in a streak of good years from 95-2001(and the '97 also went up ten euro in price). But so, 1999 it was.

We had the wine on the balcony of our hotel with a selection of prosciutto, Barolo soaked salami, truffle honey, and a selection of local cheese. Up on the vine-covered hills that surround Alba, smoke columns rose. The grape farmers had pruned their vines and were burning the clippings. As the smoke quietly wafted around my senses, I approached a truly beautiful wine that, until this point, I’d only read about in books and magazines.

The Barolo started off quietly. The texture was satin and it had a complex flavor that simply didn’t end. It was a wine that you could taste several minutes after sipping. It had the powerful character of a Barolo wine and I did not get a strong vanilla flavor characteristic of modern, barrique aging method. The wine differed from the old Saint Emillion from Bordeaux in that it was not as austere or masculine. This Barolo was much more gentle, and would be great with Florantine Steak, but not French-styled steak with a blue cheese glaze.

The terroir of Alba and Barolo is sandy with limestone. However, the region is recognized to have several micro-geologies, making for a variety of terroirs. The Barolo tasted like it came from the Barolo region, and no other, because of it was balanced and meticulous. Growers of Nebbiolo grapes in the region only grow Nebbiolo grapes on their south-facing hills, planting less varieties, such as Dolcetto or Barbera, on the other sides. The difference between this wine and many New World wines is that it didn’t taste much like fruit. Instead, it had the complexity of flavor that made step back with appreciation and a strong sense of many flavors that I couldn’t put my finger on but which made me anxious for the next sip.

Toward the second glass, the wine was developing into its own, but it was ultimately the final glass of the night that had the most intensity of flavor. While I've drank many wines that need to breathe for extended periods, I've never had a wine like Elvio Cogno's, which grew in strength and depth with each glass.

1999 Vigna Elena Barolo
Elvio Cogno
Azienda Agricola

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Genovese Pesto, A Quick Stop For Lunch

Though it was two hours out of the way, the port of Genoa, the birthplace of pesto, called us for lunch. We dropped off our bags at the train station and set off in search of Trattoria da Maria. Though several versions of pesto predate those found in Genoa, Genoa has been the city to perfect it of hundreds of years. That basil grows very well in the Liguria region is also a key factor in Genoa's roll as the origin of pesto. (I've heard that Genoa uses parsley in their pesto, too. Can anyone verify this rumor?)

My girlfriend, Kristin, makes the best pesto I’ve ever had and she likes to make it every week at least. So going to Genoa was like going to Disneyland for her. Having had so much experience with it, I asked her to write her experience with Genovese pesto:

The pesto I make, adapted from my mom’s recipe, adapted from The Silver Palate cookbook, contains basil, walnuts (pine nuts if I feel rich, although I’ve come to prefer walnuts), a mixture of olive oil and canola oil (a matter of saving money, not taste), and parmesan—or, more often, Pecorino-Romano from Trader Joe’s. I love pesto. I toss linguine or fusilli with it and serve with a side of pesto, and heap it on top throughout the meal.

The Genovese pesto taught me a thing or two. Or at least, made me want to learn a thing or two, because I don’t actually know how they do it. The dish was called Trenette al Pesto alla Genovese. Trenette, it turns out, is just like fettucine. It was served in a bowl: a nest of trenette, naked, topped with a pile of pesto. Also in the bowl: one boiled potato and one cooked green bean. (Mattie’s bowl had three potatoes. He gave me one.) I mixed the pesto with the pasta and took my first bite. It was the best first bite of my life.

First of all, I was eating pesto in the town where it was invented, a place that had taken on mythic proportions for me. Second, it was as good as I’d hoped. Pesto has always been connected to summertime for me, eating a bowl of it on the patio on warm California nights. This pesto tasted more like summer than any other I’ve had: light, both in consistency and in flavor. This pesto had more and better olive oil than I use, and very little garlic, cheese, or nuts, as far as I could tell. It was mainly basil—delicious, fresh basil—and olive oil and salt. I am generally a proponent of excess, at least when it comes to food, and especially when it comes to pesto, but I didn’t want any more pesto than enough to coat the pasta, and even the two bites of potato and the single green bean were enough. They added something. A little texture, mainly. What I learned: Use only olive oil, and use good olive oil, and use more olive oil. A small amount of very good, real Parmaggiano. I think this pesto had walnuts, not pine nuts. Also, I need a Cuisinart that grinds things up very finely.

After lunch, we headed toward Alba, where we hiked a mile with our bags to the beautiful Hotel Langhe, where we were immediately give two cold glasses of Arneis wine, and a plate of salami and local cheese. This, among other things, is the reason I highly recommend the hotel to anyone going to Alba.

Milan’s Traditional Foods and Vino della Casa

Each city and town in Italy has it’s traditional foods, in part because Italy as we know it has only existed for 200 years. Before that, Italy was composed of several individual city states who had no intention of uniting; neither in policy or in pasta. As Elizabeth Gilbert reminds us in her book Eat, Pray, Love, it wasn’t until the 16th century that the Italian language was unified, Italian linguists using Dante’s Divine Comedy as a basis.

Milan, located in Lombardy, is surrounded by amazing wine country. Some of the main grapes in the area are Nebbiolo (used in Barbaresco, Barolo, and Brunello), Barbera, Dolcetto, Arneis, and Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains. The region is known for well-aged reds, spumante, and the incredible Moscato d’Asti dessert wine.

But, having just returned to Italy, I wanted to indulge in a particular wine: vino della casa. Each restaurant has its own, which can be any number of pleasant surprises. In Milan, it is usually Barbera, Dolcetto, or one of the delicious sparkling reds of the Oltrepo region. Served in quarter, half, and whole liters, a full liter usually coasts around 8 euro and is both a deal and a great way to taste rustic, young wines. But, perhaps it’s the novelty too...

There's another side of vino della casa: You never know what you are being served. And unfortunately, it is a well substantiated fact that some Italian restaurants have been caught putting a different wine into your glass than the one that you ordered. Yes, believe it or not, some wine bars refill fine wine bottles with less-than-fine wine. With vino della casa, there's even less regulation. But as of today, I've found that most of the vino della casa fits my standards for a table wine, and for the price, I have yet to find a good reason to complain.

Milan's traditional foods are Risotto alla Milanese and Cotoletta alla Milanese . The former is a saffron infused risotto and the second is a cut of veal that is then pounded very thin, so that it's incredibly tender, then breaded and pan fried bone-in. I tried two Risotto alla Milanese and found that both lacked a powerful presence of saffron. Really, saffron is an herb that eludes me; I do not have a clear concept of its flavor. Do you have a good description of saffron that you'd like to share?

If you'd like to hear more about Risotto alla Milanese, Chiara Assi, a writer for Naples Daily News, recently wrote a great article that you can read here.

Now that I’m finished updating Milan for a travel guide, I’m off to Genoa, the birthplace of pesto, in search of a few basil-scented secrets.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A First Sip Of Italy

Why do I love Italy? After taking a train from Zurich over the snow-covered Alps, passing through winding tunneled switchbacks that took me higher and higher along cliffs that overlook churches and rivers, running past the southern tip of Lake Como, and pulling into the Stazione Centrale in Milano, I feel that I have returned to life as it should be.

From the saffron-infused risotto to the flattened and tenderized veal cotoletta, food is food again. Simple spaghetti and tortelli have the complex textures that come with being made just hours before. Perhaps the chef has added salvia (sage) or guanciale (pig cheek), but never to superfluous extents, only to add hints of the country to our mouths.

Then there are the cured meats. I was raised a vegetarian, and I remember the first time I tried meat. I was jealous of the school kids who ate "hot lunch" and tried pepperoni pizza. From that point on, I dabbled with meat here and there, but stuck mostly to chicken, fish, and bacon. But Italy has changed everything, and that's because it respects meat in a way that America doesn't. It uses every part of an animal - not just the best cuts - and some meats, like prosciutto, are aged up to two years, commanding a presence of mind that hamburger just doesn't. You can taste this love of the animal in the meat. And so, I find myself in love with lardo, salsiccia di Genevese, and perhaps a pig's feet jelly here and there.

Then there's the wine. The insanely good, dark, leathery Barbera d'Asti I bought two nights ago for four euro (on the expensive side, I know) or the delicious, fizzy Lambrusco secco I bought yesterday for two euro. How is it that these wines rise so much in price by the time they reach America? Why would I have to pay 40-60 dollars for this same Barbera at a restaurant? Does it really cost that much to fly a bottle of wine six hours to New York?

The final component of Italy of which I will praise today is the Italian people, their customs and history. It takes a special love to perfectly replicate the same meal that your ancestors cooked two hundred, four hundred, or eight hundred years ago. It also takes a special love to share it with people from other countries, who arrive hungry, excited, and full of questions, and to share it with equal enthusiasm.

The specifics will come later. Now, I have some updating of a travel guide for Milan, and then I head to Alba, land of Nebbiolo grapes, Barolo wines, and the Slow Food movement.

How The Swiss Do Fondue

Visiting with friends in Zurich, Switzerland, Kristin and I learned all about the financial crash of the Swiss banks (which is too bad, since I was considering writing a How-to article on opening a Swiss bank account) and some of the specifics about the cheesy wonder, fondue. As our friend pulled out a giant clay fondue pot, I discovered that we'd be dipping much more than bread. Of course, you can dip anything you like in fondue, but I'd never thought of potato for some reason. Then there's the dipping of the bread into tiny glasses of Kirsch - a fruit brandy - soaking them with the powerful flavor of booze before you dip them into the cheese. Tiny pickled onions were also dipped and also delicious. My favorite idea however, was the diced onion that you rolled your cheese covered potato in as a last step before popping it into your mouth. To accompany the fondue, tiny Gherkins were also served.

It turns out that the crusty patch of cheese left at the very bottom of the pot - where the flame most directly hits - is the best part, and our hosts gave it to Kristin and I to split. Imagine the crunchy cheese that spilled over the sides of a grill cheese and slightly burned on the pan. Now multiply it by infinity.

While most of the party had white wine with the meal, I opted for some good Swiss beer instead. They even have one named after my Mom. Clean and refreshing, it almost had me yodeling. As it should have, in a country that has a minimum wage of around 18 dollars and six packs that cost nearly as much. Switzerland is a country of impressive wealth, but with the banks going into financial shock and the Swiss government's refusal to join the European Union, I wonder what will become of the land of self-reliance, good cheese, and Schnitzel "Switzerland"?

Check out these handy outdoor tables designed specifically for wine drinking. The edges of the tables are composed of slots to hold your wine glass and a bucket of ice is built into the side, and what's that... a fondue pot in the middle (click for more detail)?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Stoned and Plastered

Ahh, the differences between American English and English English never cease to amuse me. Likewise, the differences between spirits and beer. One day, feeling a bit soft, we hopped into the bar that Jack the Ripper frequented. To warm up, we ordered three hot ports and a hot whiskey. The bartender filled the glass with hot water, poked five whole cloves into a lemon wedge, then poured out most of the water and added a large shot of port. The drink had the character of a strong mulled wine.

The real treat of England is their warm, flat beer. Prejudices be gone, the brew that would make Dennis Hopper's character in Blue Velvet "fucking puke" is actually quite lovely. The first sip seems wrong - where's the fizz - but once you get used to it, the flavors are unique and delicious. The fact that it's served at room temperature only makes it go down smoother.

The Jerusalem Tavern had a long selection of unique beers and a very friendly bar lady who let me sample several before ordering. While the Grapefruit Ale, which did taste over whelmingly like grapefruit, was interesting, I stuck to the Golden Ale while the ancient sounds of London pub life flowed around me.

Celebrate the Holidays With New Washington Grape Varieties

Looking for a rare and unusual wine to sip with Christmas dinner or on New Year's Eve? It's easy to throw cash at a well-known bottl...