Read an Excerpt
Canal House Cooking
Volume No. 8
By Melissa Hamilton, Christopher Hirsheimer, Mango True
Canal HouseCopyright © 2013 Christopher Hirsheimer & Melissa Hamilton
All rights reserved.
Vini & The Italian Bitters
My life as a Sangiovese peddler began with a cocktail napkin I found crumpled in the pocket of my jeans, at the end of a trip to Tuscany. On it, in my best tipsy handwriting, I'd written, "Cheap organic Chianti for pizza!" There may have been multiple exclamation points. I'm pretty sure there was lots of underlining in heavy ink. I considered this a truly great idea. It became the credo for what was to become Piedmont Wine Imports.
I don't think you can learn about a wine—or a person—and their land and food and culture from across an ocean. The wine makers I meet and the conversations we have in fields, on farms, and at tables are my education. Late in the summer of 2011, Ben Davies (my friend and now one of my Piedmont partners) and I went to Europe in search of Sangioveses. For several weeks in Tuscany, we rented a ramshackle 18th-century palazzo near Rufina, minimally maintained by a Florentine academic and his aristocratic partner. The crumbling structure and scattered outbuildings covered a hilltop surrounded by olive trees, but there was no olive oil for us to use on the property! There was wine, though. We did our best to drain the owners' stockpile of Sangiovese in retribution for the lack of oil.
One cool morning, Ben and I headed out for a run up a rutted dirt road through the vine-covered hills, gasping past churches and Lamborghini tractors, our penance for a exuberantly bacchanalian evening. We must have looked ridiculous to the clusters of American WWOOFers—volunteers in the global WWOOF organic-farm program—and their Albanian overseers deep in legitimate toil during the waning days of harvest. As a stalling tactic while we were catching our breath during a nasty ascent, Ben said, "Tell me, why aren't we importing this wonderful wine we are drinking every night?" I had no answer besides the fact that I had never imported anything before—but why didn't we?
That night we heated the kitchen's ancient bread oven to volcanic temperatures using piles of ripped-up, gnarled old grape vines as fuel. Over wood-fired porcini and Margherita pizzas, Ben convinced me to abandon twelve successful years in the retail wine business, and our little importing company was born. We washed down the terror and excitement of new ideas with bottles of biodynamic Sangiovese from Rufina, a wine that tasted ageless and inextricably part of the land. Sangiovese is the least respected great red wine grape in Italy, probably the world. It is Italy's most widely planted red grape and is the raw material for many of the country's greatest wines, including Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico Riserva, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Meticulously farmed Sangiovese resonates. Across central Italy, its ancestral home, it grows with memory-making character. But it is also among the cheapest of wines, sold in bulk to large industrial bottlers. These wines are never allowed to develop. They end up muted—imposters, zombies. Their lifelessness is unsettling, speaking of sick agriculture and mechanized abuse.
The divided identity of Sangiovese is compelling. The grape is not academic or rarified: This is wine for everyone, and has been for centuries. It is a fundamental component of Italian gastronomy. In Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, it is the base of food traditions, a dominant flavor that has influenced the development of regional cooking—pretty but not frail, with suggestions of red cherry and thorns, herb, bramble, and meat. This multinote aromatic profile and appropriate levels of acidity make Sangiovese comfortable in the company of a wide range of foods. When diligently farmed, decently made, and priced affordably, these are wines for daily drinking with pizzas, pastas, and panini, simply prepared foods that normal people actually eat.
The wine community can veer toward rare and cloistered bottles. I think this is a mistake, because the curiosities they fetishize most people can't find and don't drink. I care about wine that matters to people who like good food and wine but have other things going on in their lives and can't spend vital hours tracking down oddities. In much of Italy, that essential daily wine is Sangiovese, as much a mealtime staple as cheese or pasta. Back home in North Carolina, I always have at minimum a case of solid, basic Chianti in my pantry, between the bottles of olive oil and bags of cannellini beans, ready for my next pizza. For Italians, wine is inextricably connected to food, and it shouldn't be hard to speak that culinary language using our own larders—American, with a Tuscan accent. A map drawn by the author to keep his 5-year-old daughter occupied on a long summer day.
Jay Murrie founded Piedmont Wine Imports in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has travelled the world in search of good wines and here he focuses on a favorite, Sangiovese. He is one of the smartest wine guys we know.
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We asked Jay Murrie, Piedment Wine Imports, to tell us a little about the Sangiovese grape and some of his favorite wines. He chose a few from his own collection and some from fellow importers. Here are his thoughts and tasting notes.
Caparsa, "Caparsino", Chianti Classico Riserva Docg, Rada in Chianti, Tuscany, 2008, Piedmont Wine Imports
95% Sangiovese. Caparsino is in a league of its own. This certified organic, one-man estate makes compelling wine from old vines in the heart of Chianti Classico, with very little manipulation or modern technology. The richness and acidity of Caparsino are fundamental elements necessary for the wine to age. It's the best Sangiovese in my cellar. It is a perfect balance of wild aromatics, above average ripeness and archetypal Chianti tannin/acid structure. It's very close to a perfect wine, and I fail to understand how anyone could not like it. Also certified organic by CCCB. Paolo Cianferoni says he makes this wine in a style "to drink a lot of." He also suggests serving it with meat and potatoes, and a little olive oil. Where did I put that bistecca alla fiorentina?
Fattoria Castellina, Chianti Montalbano Docg, Capria e Limite, Tuscany, 2010, Piedmont Wine Imports
100% Sangiovese. Fattoria Castellina Chianti Montalbano is certified biodynamic. It is from higher vineyards (250 meters above sea level), closer to the Mediterranean. If Rosso di Caparsa is a wilder take on Chianti Classico, this is Chianti looking at the New World. I love how open and accessible the wine is. Intense, forward, dark berry aromas, some wild herby notes, this is the wine I take to friends who love American Zinfandels and need to be gently led back to Old World wine. The high-toned high-acid thing (that I love) common in Chianti is absent from this red, making it more suited to Korean barbecue than any other Chianti I've tried.
Fattoria Corzano E Paterno, "Terre Do Corzano" Docg, San Pancrazio, Chianti, Tuscany, 2009, Piedmont Wine Imports
90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo. Certified organic. This wine has real density of flavor, I feel like I have to unpack layers of earth, smoke, sage/rosemary and then, after some significant aeration, the classic Sangiovese red fruit starts to take over. The wine is so good the next day. I need to remember to age a few bottles for 5 years. They served tagliatelle when we drank Terre di Corzano at the winery in January, and it was a perfect pairing.
Fatorria Cerreto Libri, Chianti Rufina Docg, Pontassieve, Tuscany, 2005, Louis/Dressner
90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo. Is this just a sentimental favorite? We were staying at Cerreto Libri and jogging through their vineyards when Ben Davies convinced me to start a wine-importing business. When we returned to North Carolina, I bought a case of Cerreto Libri. The wine has so much personality! I think this is the kind of wine most people gravitate toward as the years pass. It is not flashy, slick, or squeaky clean, but it's alive. I like spending time with it. It tastes fully formed, and when I let myself drink what I really want (as opposed to following some wine tangent I may be on), I end up with a bottle of it in my hand.
Montevertine, "Pian Del Ciampolo", Rosso Di Toscano, IGT, Radda In Chianti, Tuscany, 2010, Neal Rosenthal
90% Sangiovese, 5% Canaiolo, 5% Colorino. My love for Sangiovese started with Montevertine. In my grad school days Megan (then girlfriend, now wife) and I would scrape together cash to buy a couple bottles of each vintage of the estate's top wine, "Le Pergole Torte". It totally redefined Sangiovese for me. For a span of years it was my favorite wine. Eventually, happily, I discovered Pian del Ciampolo, a "little" wine from Montevertine that sits more comfortably on the table at a pizzeria. Pian del Ciampolo is made like an estate's top wine: harvested by hand, moved in the cellar by gravity (not using pumps) and aged for up to 18 months in big Slovenian barrels before being sold. It is pretty serious: meaty, with plenty of earthy dark fruit to dig into, but you can dig in now, while Le Pergole Torte sits and gathers dust.
Montesecondo, Rosso, San Casiano, Tuscany, 2010, Louis/Dressner
95% Sangiovese, 5% Canaiolo. Silvio Messana is universally loved by his Tuscan peers. Every estate owner I visit speaks of him as a kind, articulate leader, a man pointing us toward a better way to make Sangiovese. I can't believe how fresh it tastes. No leather, just berries—a light, really charming wine.
These days, all sorts of nontraditional Chianti grapes—including Merlot, Cabernet, and other non-indigenous types—as well as barrique treatments, are allowed for DOCG Chianti Classico. Today a wine made just using Sangiovese and Canaiolo grapes grown in Chianti Classico soils and vinified in the method of older Chianti traditions (tank or large Slovenian oak barrels) is deemed "atypical" and is being denied the right to use the Chianti or Chianti Classico name. This is the state of the bureaucracy's influence on the denominazioni in Italy. The idea of the DOCG's identity is being reshaped into a new market-based ideal of its "typicity" that has no bearing on the region's traditions.
PROSECCO & APEROL
The Italians are masters at distilling herbal, citrus, and vegetal flavors into intensely colorful bitters and liqueurs (and cleverly bottling them with the best labels in the business!). Balanced with a little sweetness, these odd flavors, typically low in alcohol, are used to make the classic Italian aperitifs (the Negroni and Americano are the best known of the group). Like any good herbal concoction, they aid and stimulate the appetite—just the job of an aperitif. Aperol has a bittersweet orange flavor. We like the way its bitterness balances with the slight sweetness of prosecco.
When we're getting ready to serve this cocktail, we rinse our fluted glasses and stick them straight into the freezer to get frosty cold. Pour 1½ ounces Aperol into a well-chilled flute and top it off with bone-cold prosecco. Cincin!—makes 1
ITALIAN DARK & STORMY
We have a fondness for making up and using nicknames. They're mostly endearing (though some can only be repeated in our own company) and they make us smile. This cocktail has one: Marcello Mastroianni. Every time we serve these, we feel like we're getting our Sophia Loren on and drinking in the good life.
Fill a short, pretty glass with ice cubes. Add 1½ ounces Ramazzotti and top it off with ginger ale. Squeeze in the juice from a fat wedge of lemon and add the lemon wedge. Cento di questi giorni!—makes 1
From an American's perspective, Cynar is probably the oddest of all the Italian bitters—it's artichoke-based.
We drink it to our health like this: Fill a short glass with ice cubes. Rub the rim of the glass with a quartered lime. Pour 2 ounces Cynar into the glass and top it off with tonic water. Add a wide strip of lime zest. Squeeze the juice from the lime into the drink, discarding the wedge. Give the drink a quick stir.—makes 1
Until I actually lived there, my imaginings about eating in Italy on a summer's day went something like this: There would be a long wooden table under an arbor with dappled sunlight filtering through bright green leaves. We would eat great bowls of pasta and pass around platters of sheep's milk cheese, cured meats, and thickly sliced country bread. We would pour wine into each other's glasses and olive oil onto tomatoes still warm from the garden, sprinkled with sea salt and basil leaves.
I was mostly right about the food and the conviviality (somehow it's as easy to cook for ten in Italy as it is to cook for one). But I had the setting all wrong. What I had forgotten to imagine was the heat: the oppressive, sticky reality of the Mediterranean sun at its most harvest-ripeningly, sea-shimmeringly powerful. Italy in August is not entirely unlike Italy in February, both have weather so fierce and at times inhospitable that at least part of the day is better spent safely indoors, withdrawn from the elements.
In the summer, this includes lunchtime unless, I have discovered, you are British. For so sun-deprived are you that you will delight in taking your lunch under a blinding midday sun, preferably without a hint of shade, merrily eating and drinking while your peachy skin tans Englishly, which is to say, to a most alarming shade of red.
Italians tend to find this version of summer lunch unnecessarily arduous. The wine goes straight to one's head. Colors are all too bright, and subtle flavors are drowned out by the heat. "There are times to work on one's tan, and lunchtime is not one of them," an Italian would say.
When I first moved to Italy nearly twenty years ago, I had to reshape my habits and learn to cook and eat in stupefying heat for days on end. It didn't matter that my then husband was Italian and well versed in summer survival tactics. I was from California, where when the sun would shine too much, we simply turned on the air conditioning. But our old Tuscan farmhouse had no such modern convenience. Nor did it have screens on the windows, through which all manner of living creature came and went with temerity, including fireflies, on one terrifying occasion a pair of bats, but mostly bloodthirsty hordes of mosquitoes. I had never lived so close to the elements.
The house did, however, have working shutters, or le persiane as they are called in Italy. Ours were wooden and painted a dark, ashy green. And they were paragons of functionality: double-jointed contraptions that not only swung open sideways but also outwards like a visor, so we could see out but the sun couldn't see in.
Le persiane, I eventually learned, were key to summer happiness, along with the billowing mosquito nets we draped over our beds, and a daily regimen of that most wondrous of Mediterranean customs: the siesta. We did all that we could to help the house breathe out hot air and take in long slow inhalations of cool air throughout the night. The opening and closing of windows and shutters punctuated our days like church bells: opened at sunset when the day's relentless heat began to lift (though not right at dusk, which was mosquito witching hour); and closed in the earliest hours of the morning, windows first, shutters just before the sun hit them.
In summer, eating had its own rhythm too, like le persiane. Breakfast, never a grand affair, is even less so—coffee, toast, yogurt, and fruit at most—but delightful to eat outdoors under a fresh morning sky. By lunchtime the shuttered house becomes a refuge—a haven of cool, dim rooms where you walk barefoot over smooth terra cotta floors and make simple, delicious meals of things that don't need to be cooked: Mozzarella, tomato, and basil; prosciutto and melon; salads made from day-old bread torn into pieces with olive oil, red onion, cucumber, and, yes, more tomatoes and basil.
Excerpted from Canal House Cooking by Melissa Hamilton, Christopher Hirsheimer, Mango True. Copyright © 2013 Christopher Hirsheimer & Melissa Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Canal House.
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