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Archive for the ‘Wine’ Category

paella party

My friend Sharyn, of Still Life with Whisk, had been turning over the idea attempting the perfect paella, until it became a passion.  (ok, why is alliteration so tempting with the letter p?) So, we decided to get together and make a big Spanish-themed feast.  While Sharyn went shellfish shopping, I went to the wine store for a nice bottle of cava, some Albariño, (and some Tempranillo in case anyone wanted red).  Gus also popped a bottle of this dessert wine in my box, explaining that he was giving them away because “it’s an odd little wine.” We all thought it went pretty well with the tart orange olive oil cake I made for the occasion.

Wine and appetizer shopping done, I proceeded to make the cake, with Jack’s help.  Traditionally, this cake is made with preserved oranges, but the Saveur recipe provides a great shortcut for this ingredient that most American pantries lack: successive boilings.

The cake came out beautifully.  It’s meant to have an orange-syrup glaze, and a sprinkling of chunky sea salt.  We didn’t have confectioner’s sugar, and went without the added sweetness, which resulted in a restrained, fruit-dense crumb with a delicate breadiness.  I’ll make it again.

We started with tapas: manchego with slices of dried Turkish figs, marinated white asparagus and peppers, thinly sliced cured ham that deepened in flavor when smooshed into bread, and lupini tossed in harissa and lemon juice.  Not all Spanish, but all uncommon and delicious.

Eventually, we got started on the paella, cooking it with ambition on the grill.

The final picture doesn’t do it justice, taken as it was in a dark kitchen, but the meal was delicious. Saffron and seafood, sausage and spices, and plenty of riso, riso, and vino.

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It takes a long time, because day-to-day life doesn’t stop and wait for you to finish.  Gradually, though, we’re making this place comfy inside and out.  While Peter’s been off winning prizes and giving readings these past two weekends, Jack and I have been giving our yard some love.  We’ve raked pine needles into big heaps that his dump truck then unloads under bushes and trees.  We’ve bought pumpkins and goofy gourds and mums for the front stoop. We’ve swept the deck and hung up a hummingbird feeder. And we planted a little garden.  It looks like dirt surrounded by stones, but if you look very, very closely, you’ll see a hint of green: lettuce, cilantro, and thyme seedlings along with some still-young basil and rosemary.

The streak of 90-degree days and 70-degree nights finally broke, and I actually had to break out the down comforter.  I love fall.  Suddenly, some activities I enjoy are now tolerable again: baking, puttering around outside, riding my bike to campus, sipping a glass of wine on the deck before dinner.

I think I’ll make calzones.  It’s nice to have a moment in the middle of the day to sink my hands into a tub of flour and for a few minutes just stare, and knead.

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My dissertation, that is, is done.  Sadly, so is our packing.

We’ve been saying goodbyes to good good friends here in Rome, and will leave on Thursday.  It’s an anticipated sadness and loss, so it’s one that ebbs and flows, comes and goes at unexpected moments.  Life goes on, too, as do the food and wine discoveries. Why did it take 9 months for me to learn about this vino vivace I’m sipping right now?  Monsupello, an off-white slightly fizzy wine made with Pinot Nero grapes (skins taken out), from the Pavia region in the north of Italy.  The reason I didn’t know about it sooner is that Jeannie and Valeria, friends and moms of Jack’s friends, discovered it at our local enoteca—wine shop—and bought it all up.  But with the new season, new caseloads have come in, and we’re all drinking it.  I had it first on Jeannie’s balcony in Trastevere while Jack and Nico “went fishing” with coat hangers over the edge.  Then I had it two nights later at Valeria & Andreas’ apartment.  Two Roman veterinarians, they told us about their dreams of opening a restaurant in London or Berlin that serves good basic Roman cuisine.

Late, too, I found out about Necci, a wonderful little cafe that does everything from breakfast pastries to toy-swaps for the kids with aperitivi for the parents.  Jeannie, Sarah, and I went to Pigneto, a Roman neighborhood outside of the city center, last week, on a mission to taste the artisanal cornetti (Italian croissants).  The chef, a British guy named Ben, is one of those admirable chefs who uses only local and seasonal ingredients and who is reviving old ways of making things.  Jeannie and I had chocolate cornetti and agreed that they were the best we’d tasted in years.  Light crunch to the pastry flakes—dark, warm chocolate within.

Necci is a fun place with great deck seating, kid-friendliness, a sense of humor, and delicious food.  Some pictures.

Jeannie & Sarah

banana flush pull

After a long, leisurely hour and two cappuccini at Necci, we walked down a central neighborhood street that has an open air market during the morning.  I bought a melon, a bagful of cherries, and susine plums.

Then we wandered with our fruit-heavy bags back to Sarah’s car, stopping in little shops along the way.  One of them was a funky second-hand store, with everything from a vintage Singer sewing machine—from the 1910s—to Pokemon cards.  Now, if I had known then what I know now, I would have bought a huge handful of those cards.  For the past few days of goodbyes Jack has been cathecting all of his mixed emotions onto his carte di Pokemon.  I buy a pack for him (and they’re exploitatively expensive!) and he gives them all away as regali.  Or his more cunning friends convince him to trade 4 for 1.  I tell him I won’t buy him anymore, and he cries and says he doesn’t want to go to school or see his friends again.  I say, “I know you’re sad that we’re leaving. Let’s talk about what you like about Rome” and he’ll say, “I like the buses and the carte di Pokemon.”  It’s been a sad time for him, because he’s had such a wonderful year.  He learned Italian and finally feels comfortable with his Italian friends and teachers. He loves his school.  He loves life here at the Academy where there are always friends available right next door. So he channels his emotions into the things he can grasp at and consume until we go away (friends are too complicated for these operations): Gormiti (little Italian elemental action figures), Pokemon cards (which, he doesn’t know, are everywhere), and ciambellini (the mini doughnuts they make at the Kosher cafe we stop in almost every morning before school).  We all do it.  I’m drinking more coffee because I know I won’t taste coffee like this in the New World.  I’m putting one more slice of mozzarella on my plate because it might be my last for years. I’m getting a cup of pistachio gelato even if Jack doesn’t want any.  We’re trying to squeeze in one more coffee-date, playdate, late-night conversation with the wonderful friends we’ve made here.  And I’m trying to drink in the views and sounds of Rome so that I won’t forget any of it, so that it won’t become muted and hazy when we get back to “real life.”

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This one, led again by Pina Pasquantonio, the administrator here at the Academy and a sommelier, took us up several levels from the last one.  We got to taste what I’ve only ever read about, and never expected to taste: “Super Tuscans.”

We began, again, with a spumante: Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvée Anna Maria Clementi, 2002, named by the current owner for his mother, who founded Ca’ del Bosco, and containing a blend of chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot noir.  Having spent about six years in the bottle, it was zingy with minerals, fresh and chewy at once, and mouth-cleansing with its vibrant little bubbles.

After a bit of bread with Pina’s homemade olive oil, we moved onto a dense white: Gravner Ribolla Anfora 2004.  Pina led into this wine with its story—which is also the story of its winemaker Francesco Gravner.  He had a successful high-production winery, and was making a nice income, but was dissatisfied.  He went on a research trip to Georgia, where he tasted the local wine made in clay amphorae, the way the Greeks and Romans used to do it.  He came back to his winery in the northeastern Italian Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, and began making wine in small batches, with only the best grapes, with the amphora method.  The grapes are gently pressed with an ancient press, and the juice drips through a screen into the amphorae which are lined with beeswax and buried up to their necks in earth.  The juice ferments for seven months underground, and is then decanted into large oak casks and aged for 36 months.  Gravner only decants the wine into bottles during a waning moon, when the planets are properly aligned.  This biodynamism comes through in the bouquet and flavor of this wine, which are vegetal, leathery, and earthy in the most interesting way.  The color of the wine was a gold verging on amber, like a dessert wine, but it was bone dry.

five stunning wines

The next wine, which Leonard exclaimed was “a legendary, rare wine!” was my favorite, but I’ll never be able to buy a bottle because of what is referred to as a prohibitive pricetag: €120.  This was the “Super Tuscan” L’Apparita 2004 by Castello di Ama, made from 100% merlot.  This is a wine that has me bowing down in worship before this much-used, much-maligned grape.  Its color was like a ruby, its bouquet full of leather, dark chocolate, earth, bread baking, sweat, spice, and wood—”sandalwood,” said Pina.  The taste created different sensations all over the mouth, but what made me close my eyes was the anise that lingered in a long, delicate line.

While we sipped and swirled in awed silence, Gianni, Pina’s partner in life and wine, poured out little sips of the two final wines: Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia 2005 and 2006, Bordeaux-blend Super Tuscans.  They were both completely their own wines.  The 2005 was nuttier, both were complex, but Pina seemed most inspired by the 2006, in which she smelled pine and salty sea spray.

Wow, what a night.

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dolci & vini

Sweets and wines.  That seems to be the theme of the weekend, starting yesterday morning when Jack and I made an errand-packed trip to Dolci Desideri to soak up the scene as well as the coffee and treats.  A happy crowd always packs the small space in front of the counter, but the orders flow in and out with amazing rapidity and ease.  If it weren’t for the friendliness of the 3 people on the breakfast crew, you’d think they must be highly tuned robots.  I worked in coffee shops and at restaurants for many years, and remember the way meeting the meal-time rush becomes an experience of purely bodily memory, in which the paces and spaces between the plates and esspresso machine and dishwasher is mapped onto the mind.

Jack’s school friend Tobia was there with his Mama, Papa, and baby sister Anita, who was lapping up cappuccino foam—a passion her Papa finds “worrying.”  Tobia and Jack sat next to each other on the little yellow pleather couch, and giggled at each other’s sugar- and lemon-cream-smeared faces.  They asked what ciambelle were called in English, and when Jack said “doughnut,” they all started laughing.

We picked out some cookies—and early Easter “ovetti” to bring to the dinner party tonight at Jack’s friend Felix’s apartment.

In the evening, Peter and I walked across the street to the Villa Villino where Leonard Barkan and Nick Barberio were hosting a tasting party with a title: Vivat Bacchus.  Best known as an eminent art historian and literary critic famous for such groundbreaking (the pun is hard to resist) works as Unearthing the Past, Leonard is also an oenophile and wine writer for Gambero Rosso.  He and Nick, a photographer with an eye for everyday ironies, are also incredibly generous.  They invited the whole community, and served 20 different wines from 5 of the major Italian wine making regions.  Leonard had prepared a list of all the wines, and set them up on the marble counter according to region and varietal.  (Thank you, friends!)

I’ve learned so much about Italian wines over the past few months, and now feel less bewildered and apt to choose something with a well-known name.  I tasted 5 wines from 3 regions.  I’ve always preferred the crisp mineraliness of Alsatian wines in whites, so I liked the two wines I tried from the Alto Adige: a floral Gewurztraminer (Walch 2008) and a Moscato Giallo/Goldmuskateller (Rottensteiner 2008). The latter was full of apricots and was both light and dense at once.  I also had just a sip of a Tocai, Livio Felluga 2008 that was also like delicious stone fruits but dry and crisp.

There were all kinds of goodies to eat between sips, and I stuck to the marinated olives and two kinds of pecorino—one cream-colored and sharp, and the other deep yellow-orange and dotted with black peppercorns.  That was delicious—and made a nice bridge to the first red I tried, a 2006 Barbera d’Alba called Tre Pile from Aldo Conterno, my favorite wine of the night.  From there (and over the course of two hours) I moved to the most full-bodied red, a Nebbiolo d’Alba: Rocca Albino 2007.  I like wines that can hold their contradictions without neutralizing them—like those whites I mentioned, and like this one, which was both lush and stiff at the same time. I guess wine writers call that “structured.”  And that’s about right.  The Barbera and Nebbiolo I tried had architectural aspects.

This is an appropriate style, in a place where you can’t help but be steeped in the appreciation of architecture, and where buildings are strong and durable, and yet elegant and soaring at the same time.   For example… the Tempietto:

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Two incredible events punctuated this week: a wine tasting led by sommelier Pina Pasquantonio, and snow in Rome, which hasn’t happened since 1986.

The snow was thrilling!  A group from the Academy walked down to the Pantheon, to see the rare sight of snowflakes falling through the oculus.  I took Jack to school, where the children were jumping and dancing and shrieking about the neve.

The wine tasting, very nearly as thrilling, was a rare opportunity as well.  Most days, we know Pina as the most important administrator at the American Academy.  But she is also a certified sommelier, and in this role she is in her element.

Pina & Gianni, also a sommelier

The tasting began with a crash course in the geography and most important varietals of Italian wine.  Italy has the most grape varietals of any country in the world, and of the 850 or so, 350 have a special status. Could this be one reason wine-lovers trained in varietal-focused American wines find Italian wine-shopping so daunting?

We started with a spumante produced in the metodo classico, which means that the second fermentation occurs in the bottle, and not in a huge steel vat.  This wine, like all of the others we tasted, was a wonderful sense-experience.  Pina pointed out the bubbles, which were tiny and few, a sign of high quality.  She instructed us to taste, and then to eat a piece of bread with olive oil—made from her own olive trees—and then to taste again to experience the palate cleansing effect of this effervescent minerally wine. (This was Bellavista Gran Cuvée Pas Opere Franciacorta 2003 from Lombardia.)

Next, we tasted a wine that was recently rated one of the top 100 wines in the world by Wine Spectator: Jermann, Vintage Tunina 2007 from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a blend of Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Malvasia Istriana, Picolit, and Ribolla Gialla.  It was probably the most complex, interesting, and best white wine I’ve ever had.

These were followed by an incredible red that first silenced everyone and then inspired murmurs of sensuous pleasure—Nino Negri, Sfursat di Valtellina Cinque Stelle 2005, a Nebbiolo from Lombardia—and a dessert wine that awed us again with its amber glow and its multifaceted sweetness.  This was the Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryé 2008, which Pina exclaimed smelled exactly like Sicily.

(Looking back at my photos, I realize that once the wines were poured, I was too busy to remember my camera.)

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This distinction, between red and white, is an important and ubiquitous one in Roman society.  Well, at least when it comes to snacks and drinks and—if you’re talking to children—dinner.  There’s, of course, red or white wine.  (But these are just the most basic distinctions.  In addition to the great array of differences based on geography and terroir, there’s also the difference of fizz. But fizz, we’ve found, covers the spectra of bianco through rosato to rosso, and of seca to dolce.  In other words, it’s possible, and a pleasure, to find a dry fizzy pink wine and a sweet fizzy red wine.)

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I thought moving to Italy would expand my son’s diet into the far reaches of foreign flavors and textures.  He already liked olives and peppers.  We seemed to be on the right track.  But for some reason, living in Rome has contracted his taste.  His favorite choice, when it comes to dinner, is pasta bianca or pasta rossa.  And usually, he’ll choose the bianca: pasta with olive oil and grated parmesan.  He seems to have given up green things, which drives me nuts, because there are so many more wonderful green things here than there have been anywhere else he’s lived—except Berkeley, where he lived when he was just cutting teeth.  Green leaves with cheese, green leaves with nuts, green leaves with sweet onions, green leaves with grains, gazillions of great greens!  He won’t have any of it.

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The third important category of the rossa/bianca divide is pizza.

Pizza rossa is a thin, tasty crust spread with savory tomato sauce; each good forno will have its own sauce, some more salty or herbaceous than others.  Pizza bianca is a bubbly pizza crust topped simply with olive oil and salt.  Again, each forno’s dough has its own taste and consistency, and is topped with more or less salt.  You can also order pizza bianca morbida (soft) or dura (hard-crunchy). My favorite place to buy both is Panificio Beti, in our neighborhood.  The lines are always long, and the family behind the counter always bustling and full of banter.

These Roman basics serve as snacks or sides at any time of the day.  Italian life is riddled with rules, but, as far as I can tell, pizza rossa and bianca exist in a looser realm.  As a rule, Italians don’t eat on the run the way Americans do.  Even to-go coffee is a very rare sight.  But pizza rossa can be eaten with dignity while one is walking along the sidewalk.  The pizzeria guy will cut a piece in half, slap the parts together sauce-side-in, and wrap the bottom half in a piece of paper—a process that takes about a second and a half—so the snack is ready to eat as soon as it passes from his hand to yours.  I’ve seen people eat it for breakfast, for elevenses with beer,  for a late afternoon snack, and for dinner.

Last night, still satiated from the big Saturday Academy lunch, we had salad, pizza rossa, and vino rosso, for dinner.  Jack had the white ribs of the lettuce, pizza bianca, and milk.  I wish he’d broaden his taste at least to complete the color combo of the Italian flag.

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On a blue moon!

Was there an eclipse, too?  Some thought they saw a shadow on the moon. Or maybe it was just an edge of one of those fast flying clouds.

Romans brought in the new year with a week of crack bang boom, at all hours of the day and night.  Boy, do they love fireworks!

Last night, it rained in gusty downpours, and the fireworks competed not only with fog and water but also with thunder and lightning.

Thunder sounds different here than it does anywhere else I’ve lived—as if it’s banging around in a bowl, as if its rumbles bounce off of the Apennines and then bounce hollowly off of the rooftops of Rome with deflected force.  It sounds more like fireworks than like the sky breaking.

The other booms last night were the prosecco corks popping!  Buon anno!

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The day after Christmas: rain, cleaning up all done, children melting down, boredom, no hot water for a cathartic shower (again! really! what’s up with that?)….

For the fifth time today, Jack whined, “Mommy, I’m hungry.”  I looked around the kitchen—not much there.  Then I remembered the orange trees.  Let’s go pick an orange to eat!  Jack was ready for any kind of outing, so we put on our rain boots and rain coats and hoods, and walked out to the tree, which, from a distance, seemed to have no more fruit.  But when we got up close, and I crouched down to Jack’s height, I saw the clusters of ripening, reddening Tarocco oranges—the common Italian variety of what we call “blood orange.”  The pulp is not as red as that of its Spanish cousin, Sanguinello, and the fruit not as large as the most common variety in the U.S., Navel.  Threads of read are shot through the center of the deep orange fruit, and the juice is deliciously sweet.

Because of the structure, with little mini-sections in the center, I decided to juice it instead of peeling it and parting it and wasting the juice in the process.  Jack guzzled a cupful in seconds.  And then, within seconds, he was gone, having just received an invitation shouted up through the open window from the driveway below to come down to Lulu’s for hot cocoa.

I juiced the other orange we’d picked, poured it into wine glasses, and topped it off with the prosecco left in the fridge.  Wow!

You may remember my post on fruit/sparkling wine cocktails.  Now there’s a new one to add, and I’ll have to say, it definitely wins out over the Puccini and the Mimosa.

(Note to others in the AAR community: I only took a few. Really!  If you go too, leave some hanging to ripen, so the RSFP staff can make us the traditional Sicilian salad of Tarocco orange, sliced fennel, olive oil, and parsley… or so that Alessandro can mix up some perfected epitome of sparkling citrus cocktail, as he’s been known to do.)

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Of activity, that is.  (The real flurries are more like blizzards, falling on friends and relatives all up and down the east coast.)

But life here has been moving so fast, and what do I have to show for it? No photos of food, anyway.  The food has disappeared before the camera reached it.  Friday night they served latkes with dinner, and many of us ate three or more.  They were just so good!  Crispy crunchy on the outside, soft and hot on the inside, potato goodness throughout.  Our Saturday lunch was another bonanza of flavors.  The risotto, in particular, was impossibly delicious.  Lemony, smooth, perfectly toothsome.  That evening, yesterday, we hosted a pizza party.  Twenty or so friends filled our living room, bringing beer, wine, chocolate, good stories and loud laughs, and I somehow managed to keep serving hot pizza in defiance of the size of our oven.

(I’ve actually done some roasting, baking, and pizza making in it.  My grandma used just a toaster oven for years….)

The pizza came from our local favorite, Pizzeria da Simone.  People are constantly coming in and out of this pizzeria on Via Carini, at all hours of the day.  Pizza rossa for breakfast?  No problem.  We got a whole range of toppings last night: zucchini blossoms and anchovies, sausage with cheese, sausage with mushrooms, spicy sausage with tomato sauce, mushrooms with tomato sauce, prosciutto with cheese, mortadella with artichoke hearts.  It was all devoured before I thought to take a picture.  I love Roman style pizza.  The crust is like what we’d call flatbread, but isn’t completely flat, and the toppings are combined in moderate twosomes or threesomes.  None of this deep dish everything nonsense.  (How will we ever reacclimate?)

This morning, Peter and I, along with Ramie, Rena, and Lisa, ran the 10K “Christmas Run” in Villa Pamphili.  The scene was a fascinating cultural tableau.  We were some of the only Americans in the crowd of 400.  The race was set to begin at 9:30, but the organizers and pace-setters lingered in the cafe adjacent to the “Punto Jogging” for an extra 15 minutes of leisurely cappuccino sipping.  Finally, after we had been jumping up and down in the 28-degree air (that’s Farhenheit!) waiting, the pace-setters, who wore color-coded balloons, took their places and the race got off to a silly, stumbling, good-hearted start.  Some of the runners, being typical Italians, talked the whole while.  Except on the uphills.   The course, like the balloon-following, was whimsical, winding through forest on narrow, muddy trails, and up grassy hillsides sparkling with frost, past fountains and the chestnut-lined avenue on this awesome piece of land that until recently was a massive chunk of private property on one of the prettiest hills in Rome.  I ended up running in a pack of middle-aged men, who were yelling and laughing to each other the whole time, (Ciao, bello!  Buon Natale!  Attenzione! along with much commentary on the mud puddles) and one other woman, who wore a set of red antlers.  Some people were dressed up as Babbo Natale (that’s Santa to you) and many wore the elf hats they gave us at registration.  It was a fun-run with decidedly Italian inflections of the good life: the cafe at the finish was mobbed with sweaty people sipping espresso, talking loudly, and gesticulating heartily.  The men wore tights, and the women’s black eyeliner was unmussed.

Back home, Peter and I polished off the leftover pizza, and I cooked some pasta for these elves:

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