Thursday, January 31, 2013

Water from the Same Well

I’m sitting in a full capacity plane, with the passenger in front of me as fully reclined as he can be. I have turned the air vent on full blast and pointed it at his balding grey head. Behind me the passenger is a regular Ricky Riccardo, bongo-bongoing his tray table to some long forgotten beat of youth. I am a magnet for bad behavior on an airplane. But the most offensive gesture is coming from the seat to my left. The woman next to me has ordered a glass of red wine. She gazes at the label as she pours every last drop, every molecule of it, into her high density plastic tumbler. The red wine is death-star purple in color. The putrid stench emanating from it reminds me of a cheap balsamic vinegar which has been laced with ascorbic acid and Welch’s grape consecrate. It makes me want to puke. She caresses the bottle, reads every word on the label, decodes the UPC number. And then goes back to her romance novel.

Every so often someone asks me what my favorite Italian restaurant is in my home town. While I have friends who own Italian restaurants, they would fail if they relied on people like me to keep them in business. I am glad to offer suggestions on wines for their menu, but we both know they don’t need me as much as I need them. But people still press me for my favorite places.

I answer that I am more often out of town and could tell them about places I have enjoyed in San Francisco, or New York, or St Louis, or Austin, but that would seem like a cop out. Or worse, bragging.

No, where I remember the great experiences have been concentrated in Italian kitchens. But not in restaurants. In homes.

My cousin Elvira’s fire-driven kitchen in Calabria, where she took her own home grown eggplants and taught me how to make our family recipe even more delicious.

The kitchen at Selvapiana, in Rufina, where the chicken and the rosemary and the olive oil, from the nearby trees, I still remember after almost 30 years.

The small kitchen on the edge of a ridge, in Barbaresco, where the mother and daughter made us homemade noodles and carne cruda and simple fresh lovely, aromatic food that went well with the Nebbiolo with the picture of the dog’s face on the label.

Or the family in Strevi who waited for us to come to finally visit them and shared with us their spare white truffle over a simple plate of pasta and butter.

The meal I had near Volterra, where I met my new cousins, and they cooked just like my grandmother did, because they all learned to cook in the same place, pulling their water from from the same well.

Over and over, it has been the meals we have had in someone’s home; those are the best Italian restaurants I have ever been to.

All respect for the many meals I have had in some of the great restaurants in Italy, and while I cannot lay claim to having experienced all the great places or even most of the ones folks in the know claim are the best, my little time under the sun has yielded many rewards.

Is there any better meal than one can have sitting in a room with people who make their own bread, cheese and wine? Not for me. But I am a simple pleasures kind of guy.

The meal we had in Palermo, in the house of a family who had lived in the same house for over 600 years, with recipes handed down from the Arabs, the Spaniards, the Normans, where could one find that in a restaurant? And with the wines from their family vineyards, matched and suited to the personality of the food served? Restaurants aren’t museums – these things are not found in restaurants.

Again, all due respect to those places I have enjoyed in the Marche, in Abruzzo, in Apulia, in Piemonte and Tuscany. The memories I have of eating in Basilicata cooked by sisters from freshly harvested vegetables, eggs poached from their chickens, rabbits caught by their husbands, and wheat grown in the nearby hills for the bread and the pasta. Nothing like it. And then to have it with Aglianico grown and made on the estate.

Or the little family near Siena whose family has been there for ages, grilling their thick steaks and roasting potatoes, with field greens, not the wilted puny, anemic kind one finds in little bags at the grocery, but stout, firm, spicy, sensual greens, laced with their peppery oil and their firm and bracing vinegar. Topped with the wine their grandfather made, in little cups, golden sunshine from their family vat, their heart, their souls, their bounty.

These, and many more times than I can remember, are the times and the experiences that have shaped my idea of delicious. It isn’t something measured into a bowl and mixed inside a robot coupe. It is something from the cup of the hands, the sizing up from an eye, the taste of a tongue passed down from generation to generation, that had made its way into my life and shaped the way I think about food and wine of Italy. It is the missing ingredient, flavored with a pinch of passion and a touch of heart.

written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Wine Curmudgeon said...

Ah yes, the joy of traveling season as it begins today. At least the woman was drinking wine. That's one small blessing.

Marco Trapanese said...


michelecolline said...

Planes serve wine in bottles! These days it seems to be all Tetra-Pak.

Plus, you're making me homesick.

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