Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Porcini Carpaccio

Filed under: The Ongoing Mushroom and Wine Pairing Experiment

Wine: homemade Primitivo
Food: porcini carpaccio, mixed-mushroom fonduta, brick oven-roasted mushrooms, breaded mushrooms, and pizza with porcini mushrooms and bufala mozzarella

I experienced a mushroom smorgasbord, the likes of which I’d never even conceived of, at a restaurant in the town of San Donaci--the village where Candido Winery is located. It was the perfect next installment for the mushroom experiment. We paired a house-made Primitivo, which held up very well with the mushrooms, maintaining its fruit and silky mouthfeel throughout the meal. I look forward to testing more Primitivos and Zinfandels, because the grape often displays the very characteristics that mushrooms usually assault. Umami in mushrooms is known to mask aromas and elevate wine textures such as acidity, tannins, and bitterness. Primitivos made in Puglia have big, jammy noses--sometimes too fruit-forward--making them difficult to dent. Further, Puglia’s Primitivos are rarely on the dry side, making bitterness and acidity unlikely.

We began with the Italian version of fondue, called fonduta. Two steaming, bubbling clay pots of cheeses with mushrooms arrived, the tops of the cheeses broiled a crusty brown. Unlike fondue, fonduta is not meant to be eaten with bread, and gooey slices of cheese (more like spoonfuls) were cut out and served on plates to be eaten with a knife and fork.

Next was something beyond belief. The restaurant owner had set up a proud display in the center of the restaurant for five humungous porcini mushrooms (only three after we left!), freshly procured from the north of Italy. It was a surprise for the diners as much as for the owners, who said that they had them seemingly randomly delivered to their doorstep in the middle of winter. The mushrooms’ papers were proudly displayed beside them. It was my first time seeing the bulbous porcini in person, and they were stunningly large. Of course, eating them raw was something else.

Served on top of thickly sliced beef carpaccio, the porcini were the most flavorful mushrooms I’d ever eaten. Whether cooked or not, the powerful porcini flavor is apparent. I’m not a big fan of beef carpaccio, but when something works, it works.

Next came two scalding pans of brick oven roasted mushroom. One pan held breaded mushrooms, the other plain. These two dishes were underwhelming and I found myself chewing on dirt a few times. But what’s a little grit besides proof that what we were eating was authentic?

Finally, we ended with porcini and bufala mozzarella pizzas. The chef twirled the dough in the air while making them--even smacking it off the 20-foot ceiling a couple times--which isn’t my style, but the flavors were there.

To continue with the experiment, I'm testing Botrugno Winery's Primitivo with papardelle and wild, local mushrooms tonight. So far, it's a good pairing.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chewy Nose: An Outstanding Primitivo di Manduria

A Review of Attanasio Winery’s 2007 Primitivo di Manduria DOC

I take great pleasure in walking into the pragmatic wine stores of Puglia and asking What’s the best Primitivo? Puglia being one of the largest wine-producing regions in the world, there are plenty of Primitivos to choose from (though 80% of all Puglia grapes are Negroamaro). After tasting so many, it's a pleasure to find a new one.

The Attanasio Winery in the town of Manduria produces only three wines and all three are 100% Primitivo. Two of their wines are “dolce” or sweet wines, leaving their “Primitivo di Manduria DOC” to accompany meals. The wine was recently recommended to me as the best Primitivo around and its price of 15-20 euro a bottle reflects this standing (when you can buy incredible Primitivos made by Racemi Winery or Consorzio Produttori for 7 euro, this jump in price means something).

I was very impressed by it: Kristin and I almost drank the entire bottle with only the cheese course.

It begins with a chewy nose (haha) of date, caramel, and dried fig. The first sip reveals quite a character, but he’s smooth and stable. The big flavors of hot spices and fig jam are withdrawn by tannins, which give the wine a firm structure and leave the mouth feeling clean. In other words, the wine seems capable of being sweet at first, but then the tannins suck it away. It’s medium bodied with a medium finish.

More eloquent than elegant, this wine’s passion for rhetoric makes it one of the best examples of Puglia’s terroir that I know (remember when I was writing about that, all the back in May). Puglia loves to make sweet wine, and the locals enjoy drinking sweet wine before, during, and after meals. This does not suit my American palate. But this wine does a magnificent job of being delicious while being well-structured. Its drinkability = the eat-ability of a bagel with cream cheese and jam. Or Kristin's incredible lasagna, made with homemade pasta.

One last note: Kristin and I have been reflecting on the fact that Pugliese Primitivos focus on ripe jam and silky mouthfeel while California Zinfadels are often jammy and SPICY. The Attanasio provides the spice flavor profile.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Fake Barolo

A few weeks before Christmas, I was at my neighborhood butcher and spied a 1999 Barolo on the shelf among the usual characters (Primitivo and Negroamaro) with a 20 euro price tag. The price seemed mad, so I asked the guys behind the counter about the wine and the conditions under which it had been stored. They said all the right things.

Kristin and I opened the wine a few nights ago to have with a roast chicken. The chicken itself was pure perfection; accompanied by a medley of local artichokes, potatoes, onions, and crimini mushrooms, which we cooked in the pan with the chicken so that the vegetables were swimming in the juices. We’d stuffed the chicken with a mixture of celery, onion, whole rosemary sprigs, and sliced apple to keep it moist, and the it did the trick (comment or email for the complete recipe, which is surprisingly simple to execute). The flavor of the meat itself was a prize and I thank the Italian countryside and the Italian people for maintaining high standards for raising poultry.

It was a year ago that I drank my first ancient, well-aged wine: 1998 St. Emillion by Chateau Simard. Then, in March I drank a 1999 Barolo created by Elvio Cogno Winery. These wines are still wines of fable though I have had the lucky opportunity to drink one or two. Old wine is what it’s all about, right? especially when made with the noble Nebbiolo grape, as is Barolo.

But the 1999 Roccabruna Barolo didn’t do the trick. It was too obvious and too uninspired. It didn’t taste of age or have the majestic finesse that the Elvio Cogno did. It smelled and tasted strongly of fennel and lacked structure. Had the wine turned? No, it most definitely had not.

I find this sad and surprising. I didn’t think that a 10-year-old Barolo could be bad. That the Italian wine industry has recently lost face due to underhanded practices in making Brunello di Montalcino did not make me feel any better: Was my Barolo also the result of winemaking that focused on quantity not quality? Were there grapes in the wine other than Nebbiolo? After a bit of internet research, I couldn’t find any information on the winery. In fact, I’m not even sure of the name of the winery. The only facts on the label are Roccabruna, DOCG, 1999 Harvest, and that the wine was bottled in the town of Verduno.

Whether or not the wine lacked the holy-crap-this-is-good element because of poor winemaking techniques or criminal winemaking techniques doesn’t change anything: Once I forgot about trying to taste an old Barolo and simply let the wine accompany the delicious meal, it played its part as an essential component of a good meal. However, the right wine would have made it a great meal.

I think that it’s our (my) questioning of Italian winemaking that speaks loudest here. The seed of doubt has been planted by underhanded winemakers and the word has been spread by concerned wine writers…

For now, I will return to the 5-15 euro wines of Pugliese winemakers I know and I trust: Apollonio, Attanasio, Azienda Monaci, Botrugno, Candido, Cantele, Consorzio Produtori i Vini, Leone de Castris, Mocavero, Pirro Varone, Racemi, Taurino, Tenuta Rubino, Torrevento, Valle Dell’Asso, and Vecchia Torre.

I know I’ve forgotten some, but the people at these wineries in particular come to mind.

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