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The Night of the Falling Stars

Calici di Stelle — Chalices of Stars — now in its 14th year is fast becoming a wine tasting tradition in Italy. In most localities it is held on August 10. That’s the “official” date for the most abundant period of the Perseids meteor shower.

The date itself is legendary throughout Italy as the feast day of San Lorenzo. They say the stars that “fall” on La Notte di San Lorenzo are the saint’s tears. Other legends tell us that they are tears shed at his burial, or, in the Veneto, the burning charcoal from his martyrdom falling from the sky.

San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo purportedly spirited away the Holy Grail for safe keeping in his youth. Later, in 258 AD, he was martyred when he presented Rome’s poor and sick instead of gold and silver to the prefect who had demanded of Lorenzo all the church’s treasures. Sentenced to being slow-roasted alive on a grill, it is said that he joked “I am done on this side — turn me over,” earning him the honor of being designated the patron saint of cooks and chefs. So, in a dark way, it seems entirely appropriate that the 300 Italian cities in the association Città del Vino will have as their focus Wednesday night their regional wine and food.

Morro d’Alba

In 2005 we were fortunate enough to quite literally stumble upon the Calici di Stelle celebration in Morro d’Alba, a small Le Marche hilltown of less than 2,000 people that is the center of the small growing region for the indigenous Lacrima di Morro d’Alba grape. We had come to Italy for the summer looking for traditionally styled wine to import back to the states, and were tasting our way up the Adriatic coast before moving inland to Matelica and ultimately Umbria. That we were in Morro d’Alba on August 10 was pure kismet.

The castle that topped the medieval walls of the city had been transformed that evening from cold stone into a warm and fuzzy venue. In exchange for a few euros we were given a glass, a plate, and free rein to start grazing. Tables of locally produced bread, sausage, cheese, honey, and wine lined la scarpa, the stone portico surrounding the castle. The sound of music drifting through the passageway finally drew us inside to the piazza where a sound system pumped out a somewhat tinny delivery of classical music. Children played in the adjacent park while their parents and grandparents talked and ate at the carefully arranged tables. The music of their conversation — their chiacchierare — blended perfectly with the piped music and the liquid music in my glass. Finally, reluctantly, I turned back to the passageway. I gazed through the arrow slits and across the valleys below dotted here and there with farm lights, and at the thin glowing line on the horizon that separated the heavens from the Adriatic. Looking up, I saw the stars of San Lorenzo begin to silently zip across the sky.

Cin-cin!

Morro d’Alba holds its Calici di Stelle again tomorrow night. Also, the new Cesanese del Piglio DOCG region will host its first Calici di Stelle followed by two more days of walking wine tasting through the old town of Serrone, music, and even a five-day horse trip through the countryside following ancient sheepherding trails. They definitely know how to party in Serrone!

It’s too late for me to hop a plane to Italy in time for Calici di Stelle this year. But I’ll be there in heart and spirit. I’ll raise a toast to the east as the stars start to fall here in Northern California. Cin-cin! Nazzereno, Vico, and Valentina Vicari; Cin-cin! Vittorio and Mirto Badiali in Morro d’Alba.  Cin-cin! Giovanni and Armando Terenzi in Piglio. Cin-cin! to all the Italian producers who continue to protect the heritage grapes of their regions.

P.S. The astronomical event is the catalyst for a brilliant Italian movie that uses the dreaminess of the night-time spectacle to launch a semi-autobiographical tale of the struggles of a World War II Tuscan village and the toll the war took on neighbors and family. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s 1982 darkly comedic romp through modern Italian history, La Notte di San Lorenzo (The Night of the Shooting Stars) is now on DVD from amazon.com:  http://amzn.to/o3K85P

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Everything I learned about food I learned from a two-year-old

Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love?) had it right — at least the part set in Rome — Italians love to eat. Food is gotten fresh daily, shoppers filling their baskets as quickly as the clerks restock the shelves. Businessmen order their lunches “off the menu” the way they want it —the lunches a long and leisurely break from their hectic day. Restaurants are packed well into the night long after the time most U.S. restaurants close. Yes, Italy is famous for its love of food —fresh food. Still, it was my grandson’s first visit to the U.S. that really brought that all home.

Our son married a Roman woman and he and his young family live in Rome. I was stunned on our first visits after our grandson’s birth to see the care and love that went into feeding him. Every morning my daughter-in-law would go to the local market — what we would call a “farmers” market —for food for his lunch, and every afternoon she’d go again. She used a three-tiered pot. Broth with baby noodles cooked in the bottom pot. Two steamers rested on top of it, the first with fresh vegetables, the second with a small piece of fresh veal, chicken breast, or a premium cut of meat. When everything was ready, they were mixed together, pureed, and poured into a baby bottle with an extra large hole cut into the nipple. This process was repeated for the evening meal with a different selection of vegetables and meat.

The morning after they arrived in our home for that first U.S. visit, my grandson, by now almost two, wandered sleepily into the kitchen.

“Mamma,” he implored quietly, “Ho fame.” I’m hungry. He sat on the little kitchen stool, gazing dreamily into the distance. “An egg, perhaps,” I watched him looking intently skyward, imagining the perfect breakfast. “With a little olive oil… and parmigiano. And afterward, some fruit — strawberries.”

A simple menu, but one filled with promise for this toddler! He knew exactly what he wanted; true, not so different from most two-year-olds. But already he had a basic understanding of the nuances of blending flavors. Already he had a vocabulary for preparing food. Food doesn’t permeate the Italian culture; it is their culture.

As I watched my daughter-in-law prepare the simple repast my grandson had requested, I saw the love in her heart pass through her busy fingers into her child’s food. Perhaps this was the rest of the answer to my unspoken question. Food is the perfect blending of flavors and texture; food is the pause in the busyness of the day; but most importantly, food is love. Yes, Eat, Pray, Love.

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Vinitaly launches special blend of indigenous grapes to celebrate 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification

Aglianico del Vulture, indigenous to Basilicata, a region of Italy perhaps better known as the ancient Magna Graecia. The grape is thought to have been brought over by the greeks in the 7th century BC

One red wine, one white wine — UNA Rosso and UNO Bianco: each a blend of one indigenous grape from each of Italy’s 20 regions to celebrate the unification of the Italian state under Garibaldi in 1861. A perfectly Italian idea! Romantic, whimsical, celebratory. How the wines will taste is anyone’s guess since the wines are not for sale, but will be used only at official Vinitaly and Italian state commemorative functions. Still, the idea is captivating. Although there appear to be some obvious oversights (Nebbiolo, Corvina, Greco di Tufo, Pecorino, Piedirosso, Lagrein, and  2,000 other indigenous Italian grape varieties),  I would guess these were to enhance the ultimate flavor of the wine. Anyway, making  a wine blended from over several thousand different grape varieties would be a daunting task at best!

The wines were created by Assoenologi, the Italian Association of Enologists and Enotechnologists from native grapes chosen by 20 regional agricultural and viticultural advisors.  Only 6800 bottles (567 cases) were produced. The 20 red grapes and their region of origin used in the UNA Vino Rosso are:
Valle d’Aosta: Petit rouge
Piedmont: Barbera
Lombardi: Croatina
Liguria: Rossese di Dolceacqua
Veneto: Raboso
Trentino Alto Adige: Teroldego
Friuli Venezia Giulia: Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso
Emilia Romagna: Sangiovese
Tuscany: Sangiovese
Lazio: Cesanese di Affile
Umbria: Sagrantino
Le Marches: Lacrima
Abruzzo: Montepulciano
Molise: Tintilia Puglia: Negroamaro
Campania: Aglianico
Basilicata: Aglianico del Vulture
Calabria: Gaglioppo
Sicily: Nero d’Avola
Sardinia: Carignano

Grapes of UNA Bianco are:
Valle d’Aosta: Priè Blanc
Piedmont: Cortese
Liguria: Vermentino
Lombardy: Trebbiano di Lugana
Veneto: Garganega
Trentino Alto Adige: Weissburgunder
Friuli Venezia Giulia: Friulano
Emilia Romagna: Pignoletto
Tuscany: Vernaccia di San Gimignano
Umbria: Grechetto
Lazio: Malvasia
Le Marches: Verdicchio
Abruzzo: Trebbiano
Molise: Falanghina
Puglia: Fiano
Campania: Fiano
Basilicata: Greco
Calabria: Greco Bianco
Sicily: Grillo

Sardinia: Vermentino

Grapes shown trellised in “the old way” on fruit or olive trees, a take on the ancient Roman phalanx system of trellising tho many believe this to have been the earliest model.

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Autochthonous (o•tok’ tho•nus): a new word for the wine lexicon

Autochthonous. An odd word with which to start a blog. There are people wiser than I who have tried to convince me to use one of its synonyms instead, like indigenous, or native. But no other word rings as true when I try to describe wines made from the slow grapes of southern Europe.

The beat-up Webster dictionary from my grammar school days says autochthonous derives from the word autochthon — One sprung from the ground which he inhabits; an aborigine; a native. This describes perfectly, for instance, my sense of the Spanish wine made from the ancient garnacha or grenache grape, once thought to be indigenous to Spain but recent discoveries point to it being  autochthonous to Sardinia. Or of the ancient Italian grape aglianico that emigrated from Greece some say over 8,000 years ago.

Ancient caves throughout Basilicata in southern Italy are still used to finish the local aglianico wine.

Wines produced from unique grapes are often lost in a marketplace dominated by the classic grapes: chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and, in California, zinfandel. Often these slow wines are primarily crafted in old-world styles utilizing traditional winemaking techniques with little or no manipulation and the judicious use of wood. They are typically very clean wines although they often carry a wonderful touch of rustico. They are also food-friendly wines. In fact, they are food wines, period. Made to marry foods of their regions, “Old World” wines may not be at their best as stand-alone wines in competitions or at wine bars.

Okay. The disclaimer. My family owns Salvia Bianca Imports, a small California-based import company specializing in autochthonous varietals of southern and central Italy. There’s that word again! Since I am familiar with these regions, some of the wines I will be talking about in the months to come you can find on our web site, http://www.salviabiancacom. But the diversity of autochthonous grapes is astonishing — many are either too regional and overlooked for export, or they are native to regions outside our niche.

To those who continue to urge me to use the words “native” or “indigenous” instead of the mouthful “autochthonous” I must insist that neither conveys the depth of meaning nor the intense historicity of these grapes as well as the word autochthonous does. So get used to it! Just remember to forget to pronounce the “ch’s” and “th’s.” Or say it as they do in Italy, autoctono (ow • tock • toe • noe). After all, everything always seems to sound better in Italian.

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