Comment: Where is the Chianti?   Leave a comment

A map of the Chianti region courtesy Wikipedia.

We’ve all seen maps that are intentionally distorted in a way that countries’ sizes reflect, proportionally, their production or consumption of a certain product. For instance a map of Europe distorted to show per capita beer consumption might make tiny Belgium a new empire, while Italy would shrink down to the size of Slovenia in comparison. Following this logic, imagine now the size of the Chianti area in Italy relative to the rest of Italy. Going by the popularity of the eponymous wine, the use of the name in entrees (e.g. Summer Chianti Pasta) at Italian restaurants abroad, and the travel guides devoted to it, it would seem that the Chianti occupies a large relative part of the foreign imagination-ing of Italy.

One would assume, then, that defining where Chianti is would be easy. Au contraire. The earliest mention of geographic zone called Chianti is in 1250; Florence has divided its territory into “leagues” for defensive purposes, and had created the “Lega del Chianti. It included Radda, Gaiole, and Castellina. This area, all inside of the province of Siena now, is relatively small compared to the zone that we know as “the Chianti” today. The league was transformed later into the province of Chianti, which was extended in 1717 by Cosimo III de’ Medici up to (but not including the municipalities of Greve and Panzano). Chianti ceased to exist as an administrative district, however, when Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo divided the territory up in municipalities in 1774.

Since then has not been an administrative zone: it sprawls across three Italian provinces (Siena, Arezzo, and Florence), has no discernable geographic borders (yes, vaguely it’s in the Chianti hills), and the only legal definition of the boundaries of this imagined space are those drawn up to define the doc wine production area. Even then the borders seem a little hazy, as one can see from the Fascist-era law that governs the area: “From this point the border follows the Ambra Stream and one of its unnamed tributaries to the Ciarpella Farmhouse, then the mule path that goes to the Casa al Frate Farmhouse. From here it follows an imaginary line to the village of Ombrone (298 meters above sea level). It then follows a mule path, going up to 257 meters above sea level, where is runs into a dirt road, which comes out onto the road to Castelnuovo Berardenga. It goes up that road to reach an elevation 354 meters above sea level. From here it follows a ditch…”

Some towns which were not included in the original medieval document cited above even added, in the 1970s, the suffix “in Chianti” to the legal names of the municipalities. Panzano and Greve became “Panzano in Chianti” and “Greve in Chianti.” This strange history of a now-imaginary region leads us logically to several questions: Do lines so arbitrarily (and, historically speaking, relatively recently) drawn really tell us about the identity of a wine? Why does a region that’s not even a region carry so much emotional weight, especially with foreigners?  ZN

Posted January 26, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: Where is the Chianti?   Leave a comment

A map of the Chianti region divided by DOC wine production zones, courtesy Wikipedia.

We’ve all seen maps that are intentionally distorted in a way that countries’ sizes reflect, proportionally, their production or consumption of a certain product. For instance a map of Europe distorted to show per capita beer consumption might make tiny Belgium a new empire, while Italy would shrink down to the size of Slovenia in comparison. Following this logic, imagine now the size of the Chianti area in Italy relative to the rest of Italy. Going by the popularity of the eponymous wine, the use of the name in entrees (e.g. Summer Chianti Pasta) at Italian restaurants abroad, and the travel guides devoted to it, it would seem that the Chianti occupies a large relative part of the foreign imagination-ing of Italy.

One would assume, then, that defining where Chianti is would be easy. Au contraire. The earliest mention of geographic zone called Chianti is in 1250; Florence has divided its territory into “leagues” for defensive purposes, and had created the “Lega del Chianti. It included Radda, Gaiole, and Castellina. This area, all inside of the province of Siena now, is relatively small compared to the zone that we know as “the Chianti” today. The league was transformed later into the province of Chianti, which was extended in 1717 by Cosimo III de’ Medici up to (but not including the municipalities of Greve and Panzano). Chianti ceased to exist as an administrative district, however, when Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo divided the territory up in municipalities in 1774.

Since then has not been an administrative zone: it sprawls across three Italian provinces (Siena, Arezzo, and Florence), has no discernable geographic borders (yes, vaguely it’s in the Chianti hills), and the only legal definition of the boundaries of this imagined space are those drawn up to define the doc wine production area. Even then the borders seem a little hazy, as one can see from the Fascist-era law that governs the area: “From this point the border follows the Ambra Stream and one of its unnamed tributaries to the Ciarpella Farmhouse, then the mule path that goes to the Casa al Frate Farmhouse. From here it follows an imaginary line to the village of Ombrone (298 meters above sea level). It then follows a mule path, going up to 257 meters above sea level, where is runs into a dirt road, which comes out onto the road to Castelnuovo Berardenga. It goes up that road to reach an elevation 354 meters above sea level. From here it follows a ditch…”

Some towns which were not included in the original medieval document cited above even added, in the 1970s, the suffix “in Chianti” to the legal names of the municipalities. Panzano and Greve became “Panzano in Chianti” and “Greve in Chianti.” This strange history of a now-imaginary region leads us logically to several questions: Do lines so arbitrarily (and, historically speaking, relatively recently) drawn really tell us about the identity of a wine? Why does a region that’s not even a region carry so much emotional weight, especially with foreigners?  ZN

Posted January 26, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: Il lampascione   Leave a comment

Though they go by a long list of dialectical names, the plant whose Latin name is Muscari comosum is called “il lampascione” in standard Italian. It is a wild plant that grows in most of Italy but is used mainly in the southern Italian regions of Apulia and Basilicata. A member of the Lily family, the plant has a olive-sized, light purple bulb that looks  and tastes like a small, slightly bitter onion. The bulbs are gathered, cleaned, soaked in water to take away some of their bitterness, then cooked and packed in oil (often with herbs or hot pepper). The lampascione is an ideal example of a wild plant that was probably first eaten out of necessity and now a part of the Italian “cool cuisine.”

 

Posted January 25, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: Funghi Selling near Pistoia c. 1890   Leave a comment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following was written by an English resident of a small Appenine village after observing his contadini neighbours sell funghi to travelling salesmen. SY

The dampness of the rains coming in the warm season, has produced a most prolific crop of mushrooms. The people of the Nook and of Piteglio are making fortunes, according to the mountain idea of riches. I was told that at Piteglio the joint profits of this year have been several thousand francs. The mushroom season just comes in between the wheat harvest and the chestnut gathering, and if the season be good, it is nearly as profitable as the other crops. Whilst the men are threshing corn on the aias, or digging up the ground with the huge adze which does duty for a plough, the women, girls, and boys get up at sunrise, and wander about the chestnut woods in search of funghi.

If you wonder at the strangeness of their garments, know that it is considered lucky to wear one’s clothes inside out on a mushroom excursion. The contents of their baskets on their return would also astonish you considerably, for the Italian edible mushrooms are many, and brilliantly coloured; they, however, reject our English edible species as a toadstool, and we were threatened with dire disasters when we persisted in cooking some fine specimens. The favourite kind here is the Ceppattello, a large brown fungus, with a greenish white spongy substance beneath. The largest specimens are cut up (stalk and all) by housewives, and after being dried in the sun for some days, are put into paper bags and preserved dry for winter use; the little button-shaped ones, called sometimes ‘porcini’, are chosen as the best to preserve under oil, after having been put into boiling vinegar and then dried. They make a very good condiment to eat with the lesso (bouilli), or with cold meat.

Another very savoury mushroom is the ovolo, a large handsome fungus, orange red above, prim rose yellow beneath. It is called ovolo, or eggshaped, because it comes up in an oval form covered with a thick white film, through which the yellow part rises and expands, the white film being transformed into a frill round the stalk. Then there are certain carmine red flat-topped funghi, with yellow rays beneath, called by the mountaineers famiglioli, and the claviari, which look like branches of coralline; the grifole, a mass of fan- shaped fungus, of a dark or grey colour; this is so hard that it is not eatable unless it is first boiled and then baked. But the species which most suggests poison to our English minds, are large yellow masses of soft substance, called also grifole, or more correctly poliporo, some of which are yellow of the most brilliant colour, and others which the peasants call lingua di castagno (chestnut tongues), of a bright carmine. All the last four species grow on chestnut or oak trees, springing from the bark.

The mushroom merchants are doing a brisk business this year. They come round to all the villages and hamlets every morning, and buy up all they can get, piling them on a large cart in flat baskets one on the other, to sell to the wholesale dealers. When only one merchant arrives he makes his own price, and it is a hard bargain for the villagers, who only get about four or five centesimi (less than a halfpenny) per lb. This morning an impromptu market is established on the aia of Pietro, and a most amusing scene it is. About twenty women from neighbouring hamlets stand about, each guarding her baskets of funghi, and oh! good luck! two rival merchants. There is the usual keen-eyed man from San Marcello, and a care-for-nought style of youth who has come down from Prunetta to do a little business. This fellow has black eyes and a mass of ugly black hair, which requires much shaking and thrusting back under his hat. He wears a pink shirt and blue tie, and smokes a meerschaum pipe which does not at all interfere with the freedom of his speech, for he talks incessantly.

There is fierce bidding between them, the young purchaser recklessly promising more than his rival, till he had raised the offers from four centesimi a lb to six-and-a-half. Here the elder man prudently retired from the contest, saying that he could not get that back for them in Florence. Accordingly all the women flocked eagerly to the youth from Prunetta, who began weighing their baskets very willingly on his steel-yard, which these itinerant buyers carry about with them. He would willingly cheat them in the payment, but is kept to his bargain by his rival, who, having no purchases, stands by to see fair play.

A brisk trade continues till the elder man shoulders his scale and departs, when lo! what a Babel ensues. ‘Now hark ye, donne’ cries the buyer, ‘these are not real prices, you know. I only paid high to keep him out of it,’ pointing to the departing rival, ‘but the market price is five centesimi, and not one more cent will I pay.’

Great excitement ensues. All the women lift up their voices shrilly, and the appellations they bestow on him are not remarkable for politeness; they surround him in a crowd, shaking their fists in his face, till he retreats to the wall, where he takes off his hat, and, pushing back his curls, awaits the lulling of the storm.

‘It is not fair; you cannot bargain for one price and pay another; you paid Enrichetta six-and-a-half a lb and you shall pay me the same,’ exclaimed a stout angry woman. ‘I shall go to Piteglio with mine, and you shan’t have an ounce of them. I would rather give them to an honest man than sell them to you.’

And up goes a large basket on the frizzled head of a red-haired girl, but it comes down again on her friends reminding her that she will only get four-and-a-half centesimi there, and have all the trouble of carrying them a mile. ‘Then I’ll sell them to the other man, he offered five-and-a-half.’

She rushes off, followed by two or three others calling, ‘O Giorgio, come back! Come back!’

Giorgio, who had not really gone away, strolls back in an unconcerned manner, and coolly inquires, ‘What is up?’

‘That birbone won’t give more than five centesimi now, so we will let you have them at five-and-a-half.’

‘Ah!’ says he, ‘but I am not going to give more than five either.’ Sig. Giorgio was a student of human nature, and seeing that the women were too angry with his rival to deal at any price, he knew he might make his own tariff now.

‘Oh! That’s too bad, you offered five-and-a-half just now,’ cried our nice little Matilde. ‘Just so, but you would not deal; now he has changed his mind, and so have I,’ and the mushroom merchant laughs sardonically.

In despair the women consult together. ‘Shall we go to Piteglio? perhaps the man from Pistoia is there,’ asks one.

‘No, he isn’t; there is only Luigi il Pazzo buying there to-day.’

‘Besides,’ adds a third, ‘he only pays five centesimi, and we should have all the walk besides’.

‘My basket is heavy, I shall lighten it here,’ laughs the red-haired girl, showing all her white teeth. The others follow her example, and the remaining stock is weighed and haggled over to the very last ounce of yellow ovoli, but the merchant is very much at a loss for small change to pay his many clients. So little accustomed is he to any but the very dirtiest of paper money, that when I changed a five-franc note into bright new silver half-francs, he looked quite incredulous, and asked whether they were good!

We were told by one of the women that the people of Piteglio a village in which there is neither butcher nor baker have this year gained several thousand francs by their mushrooms, the joint gathering of thevillage being nearly 3,000 lbs a day.

It is a blessed provision of Providence that in these regions, where, by reason of the mountainous nature of the land, agriculture is both difficult and unproductive, that the chief means of sustenance are drawn from nature alone, and man only has to gather. The chestnuts supply him with food for the whole winter, the woods and hedges give into his hands mushrooms, bilberries, and raspberries enough to make up the fewfrancs which are necessary for his clothing.

Posted January 24, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: Roman sugar?   Leave a comment

For some reason that may have to do with a worn-out rubber gasket on my moka, my coffee was particularly bitter this morning. The obvious decision was to add a little sugar, which I carefully poured directly from the box. Usually we fill a small sugar dispenser but it wasn’t handy; this meant that for the first time I noticed the words on the sugar box: “Zucchero Terre Antiche” [Sugar Ancient Lands]. This was the name of the sugar and the producer, I discovered. The box had a simple design, with a map of central Italy on it with the names of the cities on it. In Latin.

Florentia, Saena, Perusia, Assisium, Arretium. It seemed like an attempt at connecting this sugar in some vague culinary way to Roman times, a gimmick that is par for the course here in Italy for just about any tradition. The box’s “subtitle,” Dolce storia quotidiana, (Sweet daily history) suggested the same. Sidney Mintz, the authority on the subject of sugar, says that while likely known to Romans of the first century c.e., “[t]he Arab expansion westward marked a turning point in the European experience of sugar.” A peek at the company’s website made their intentions a little less murky: they gave a decent thumbnail sketch of the history of making sugar from sugar beets, then linked to this to their production facilities, all in the “ancient lands” of central Italy. I couldn’t decide what importance to give to this, but they made explicit, both on their box and on their site, that they did not use GMO sugar beets, but rather varieties developed in Central Italy.

Posted January 23, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

Source: Old Market in Florence 1884   Leave a comment

The following was written 1884 in a vist by an Englishman mere months before Florence’s Old Market (that dated back to Roman times) was demolished.

But now to glance at the aspect of the place as a market. Could anything be more picturesque than the antique old gabled roofs, and the stalls beneath them with yellow awnings, which seem to absorb the sunlight, and yet shadow the piles of vegetables and baskets of fruit of every hue under the sun? Why, the very cabbages ring the changes on all the reds, yellows, and greens almost to blue-black! then the crimson and orange strings of capsicums festooned across the heaps of scarlet tomatoes, the rich purple of the pear-shaped petronciani, and the mingled hues of the pomegranate, make the greengrocer’s stall under the yellow shadow a feast of colour as well as a study of life.

Though we see all our old English friends of the vegetable kingdom, yet there are so many unknown herbs that we wonder what they are, and whether they are good for food. Here comes a poor tottering old woman, and putting down a bit of copper as big as a farthing asks for ‘two centesimi of radicchio’ the leaves of the garden chicory. She spends a like coin on a crust of bread at a baker’s, and there is her breakfast complete bread and salad for less than a penny.

There is a pert serving-maid, looking very pretty under her black lace veil; she spends several minutes bargaining for some lentils, and at length goes off with a parcel of those little brown seeds, of which she will make a puree to garnish the grand joint at her master’s dinner table. This esteemed dish is a zampone, a pig’s leg, bound and stuffed with meat, like a Bologna sausage, and smothered under a brown mash of lentils. But what is that keen-eyed man-cook buying? Certain pear-shaped shining vegetables of a rich purple colour. Such things were never eaten in old England. They are called petronciani, and are the fruit of the Solanum insanum or ‘mad apples’. They are first boiled till tender, then cut into slices, dipped in egg, and fried.

A sharp-faced old servant comes up, throws a quick glance round the stall, and muttering, ‘What, no gobbi, today? I shall have to go back to Menica after all’, and away she hurries. What are gobbi, do you suppose? They are a favourite vegetable in Italy, and are nothing but the stalks of the artichoke, tied up in bundles like celery. They may be eaten boiled, and served with melted butter, or cut into pieces, and fried in eggs and bread crumbs; and are excellent either way, the taste being something between celery and seakale.

Another favourite Italian vegetable consists of the knots of young leaves on the stalks of the fennel; but the flavour is too strong to suit an English taste. There are also some very small kinds of vegetable marrow, about as large as apples, which are very good.

Here comes another purchaser, who asks for ceci, and goes away with a pocket of round, yellow seeds, like over-grown peas, which were taken wet from a barrel of salt water, The plant which produces them is the Cicer Arietinum (English ram’s head, or chick pea). A very good soup maigre is made from them; but if your olfactory organs are delicate, it will be advisable not to assist at the cooking of them, for they emit a strong odour, like salt cod. The Italians live largely on leguminous plants; the numbers of different beans they use is quite remarkable; they vary in colour from the white haricot to dark red, and even dark brown species. If a working man can get a few beans, either hot or cold, with oil and vinegar, he is quite content to dine without meat ; and if a few of the greenish yellow funghi are added, he thinks it a meal fit for a king.

But what is this man calling as he conies slowly up the crowded market-street, shouting ‘Salati, salati’ (salted)? A little boy hearing the cry begins to sing ‘Son salati i miei lupini, Son salati dalla dama’. ‘My lupins are salted by my true love’ and he pulls a minute brown coin out of his pocket, and quickly exchanges it for the large flat, yellow lupin seeds, which the man has in a flat, wooden tub. There is scarcely a street corner in Florence at which you will not see the inevitable vendor of lupins, who is largely patronized by the working classes. The lupins are eaten after being kept in brine, but they are not cooked.

In the matter of salad, Italian tastes are as wide as in leguminous vegetables. They eat chicory and sorrel leaves, basil leaves, lettuce, endives, beetroot, dandelion, and cold cabbage. And a favourite salad is a grassylooking plant, which they call barba di cappuccini (or Capucino’s beard), known in England as ‘buck’s horn’, ‘goat’s beard’, or ‘star of the earth’. The Italians have classical authority for eating this, for Dioscorides said in his time that the plantago coronopus was eaten cooked; the only difference is, that the moderns do not trouble to cook it.

The fruit stall, which is often distinct from the vegetable seller’s, contains quite as many specimens which are strange to English eyes. Side by side with yellow apricots lies the cactus fruit, or prickly pear. Be sure that you don’t attempt to eat it, or even to touch it, without a knife, for the harmless little brown spots which dot its ruddy surface are each composed of a thousand invisible thorns which have a knack of entering the skin on the smallest provocation. The correct manner of eating a prickly pear is to cut off the two ends, then cut down the outer rind, and laying it open, take out the inner pulp.

Here are two baskets full of russet brown fruits; one familiar enough is the common medlar, but the other is shaped like a pear. It is the fruit of the pyrus sorbus (service tree). When fresh, they look like bright coloured pears; we were shown large bunches of them hung up in the shop, but they are only good to eat when mellowed by keeping till brown as a ripe medlar, and have a much richer flavour than that fruit.

A basket of red, velvety-looking berries, similar to strawberries, only rounder, next attracts us; they are arbutus berries, and when quite ripe are really very good to eat. The children are fond of another wild fruit, called giuggiole (jujube tree). They are glossy brown berries, with a soft, green pulp within. The oval red berries of the ‘cornel cherry’ are also greatly appreciated by children. The Romans also knew this cherry, but they grew it chiefly for the wood, from which their lances and arrows were made. But the most cooling and delicious fruit of all is the Japanese nespolo, a yellow medlar, with a delicious acid taste; they come in as soon as the warm weather begins, and are the favourite refresheners until the water-melon takes their place.

There are also different nuts eaten here. Besides walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts (which make a dozen different kinds of foods), we have the pinoli and the noce di Brasil. Pinoli are the little kernels of the cone of the stone pine. They are remarkably good in flavour, having a slight aromatic taste. They are obtained by placing the pine cone in an oven, when the heat causes the scales to open, and the nuts are easily shaken out and cracked with a hammer. The Brasil nut is a curious little pair of twin yellow berries in a brownish husk; the flavour is rich and aromatic.

A walk through the Italian market will certainly produce the thought that the English might vary and economize their food much more than they do. At those old cook-shops, in which the Florentines of three or four centuries ago were wont to dine, and where the ancient plates and dishes they used are preserved on shelves on the walls, one sees the most curious processes of cooking. Over the fire a large wheel revolves, on which are trussed rows of fowls, thrushes, and larks, the latter alternated with bits of bread, pork, and sage leaves. In the frying-pans are savoury messes of yellow polenta, made from the maizeflour, frying in oil, and of brown migliaccio, a cake of chestnut flour, and piles of nicely cooked fritto, the materials for which are endless, ranging the vegetable and animal kingdom.

As for economy, we might learn a great deal from a Florentine cook. For instance, when we truss a fowl, we make no use of the liver, except by displaying it under the wing. As for the cock’s comb, and other appendages to the head and neck of chanticleer, we consider them refuse. Not so the Italian; he calls them regalia, cuts them up and stews them with the liver in luscious gravy, and makes one of the most stylish entries for a dinner party, either by filling a vol-au-vent with them, or in a shape of stewed rice, called risotto con regalia. A fowl will, in the poulterer’s hands, serve several customers, for marketing is done on the infinitesimal system. The two bits off the breast are bought separately as a dish for an invalid or a fricassee for an entree. Then the carcass is sold for roasting or making soup, the legs and neck are purchased for a few centesimi by the poor, and the combs and livers go to the tables of the rich as regalia.

The fish market presents equally curious specimens of food. The sepia, or cuttle fish, is much liked, and you see its long arms, with their curious rows of circular disks, lying about in all directions. You will never find a mackerel; and if a salmon be visible, it has been imported for the benefit of some English Midas, at ten francs the Tuscan pound of twelve ounces. But there are large-headed, three-sided fish called naselli, which are as good as whiting, and a large kind of cod called palombo. Lobsters, as we know them, do not appear, but there are huge crawfish, larger than any lobster, and looking like magnified shrimps. It is a fashion to fry the very small shrimps in their shells, and eat them crisp and entire. Frogs’ legs also make a very delicate dish of fritto. Indeed, what will not an Italian make delicious in a fry? A dish of dainty morsels, fried in butter, of a pale brown, is placed before you, and its contents will prove a perfect riddle. Probably there will be melon flowers, bits of every vegetable imaginable, celery, morsels of calves’ brain and marrow, tiny lamb chops, sweetbreads, liver, artichoke, bits of fennel, &c., &c. Nothing comes amiss to the frying-pan when fritto misto is required. But our marketing is over; we have got back to the kitchen, so we will leave the cook to her mysteries.

Comment: phylloxera with some reference to Italy   Leave a comment

Phylloxera with some reference to Italy by Max Milihan

(i) The Disaster

An aphid typically called phylloxera vastatrix, the devastator, silently made a voyage from the New to the Old World and swept through Europe in the second half of the 19th century. In its trail it left shriveled, fruitless vines on desolate vineyards with confused proprietors in a region of the world that relied heavily upon wine. For the first years the phylloxera remained a misunderstood scourge and for several years afterward an unstoppable enemy. Wine production in France fell 72% in 14 years and put many small, individually owned vineyards out of business (Oxford Companion to Wine). With the combined work of entomologists, biologists, viticulture societies and governments it was overcome in Europe but remains a threat to vineyards across the world today. According again to the Oxford Companion to Wine, ‘about 85 per cent of all the world’s vineyards were estimated in 1990 to be grafted onto rootstocks presumed to be resistant to phylloxera’.

The phylloxera proved difficult to understand because of its odd life cycles and its adaptable nature. The first stage hatches from eggs laid ‘in the previous autumn at the foot of the vine, where it has passed the winter, a very small insect, which travels underground to the end of the most delicate roots, and there nourishes itself by sucking the sap from the vine’ (Jemina 5). This form injects poison into the roots in order to feed on the sap of the roots and begins a colony, producing thousands of offspring. The poison injected opens a permanent canal for the insect to continually feed on the sap of the roots and prevents them from closing and healing. ‘The Phylloxera on the extremities of the roots produces a special and very characteristic kind of swelling which continues to change, or rather to rot, and the vine no longer able to nourish itself, dies’ (Jemina 7). In addition to the form of the phylloxera that feeds on roots, several other forms of the insect have adapted to serve various purposes, such as laying eggs on the underside of the leaves themselves or flying from one plant to another and reproducing. Their procreation is prodigious; botanists and entomologists estimate that millions of the aphids could be produced in one season. In this manner the tiny insects are able to multiply and consume entire vineyards, moving to the next healthy plant after its victim is depleted (Campbell 74).

Early attempts at wine production in the New World by French emigrants had met with disaster. These entrepreneurs brought with them from France their grape vines of the European vitis vinifera variety which had proven to be very effective at producing wine in the Old World (Oxford Companion to Wine). For reasons unknown to them at the time, their experimental vineyards shriveled and died; climate was assumed to be the cause when, in fact, the tiny phylloxera was most likely the reason for the failures (Oxford Companion to Wine). Grape vines native to the New World were able to flourish but produced flavors and aromas that offended the European palette accustomed to the grapes produced by their own vitis vinifera. ‘Attempts to cultivate the European vines were fruitless … but Yankee character is to persevere and native vines were cultivated with great success’ (Campbell 38). Some areas of the continent were able to successfully cultivate the native vines, such as vitis labrusca, vitis aestivalis, vitis rupestris and vitis riparia, and produce wines acceptable to some Americans and a few Europeans while others, most notably California, cultivated vitis vinifera before the phylloxera made their way across the continent.

During the mid-19th century there existed a strong interest in botany, especially in upper-class Victorian England. During the 1850s and 1860s, an American vine called the Isabella proved to be very popular as ornamental decoration in gardens and was shipped en masse into Europe from the United States (Campbell 25). Grape vines had been transferred for years without harm to the environment but, with the invention of a glass box called the Ward Transportation Case in 1835, which kept plants growing on their journey overseas, the parasites feeding on the vines were able to survive the voyage (Campbell 28). Another theory proposes that steam ships made the ocean crossing faster which allowed the aphids to survive the voyage. ‘If [vines] had been infected with aphids, they would have died by the time the long sea voyage was completed. But steamships carried the plants far more quickly and the railway reduced the time of the inland voyage’ (Campbell 108). These vines were rarely used for wine production but they were cultivated in large gardens with nearby vineyards. In this manner, the phylloxera were innocuously introduced to Europe.

(ii) Identification

Due to the life cycle of the phylloxera and their initially slow but exponential spread, the effects of their presence were not observed for several years. The insect was identified as early as 1863 by an entomologist at Oxford named J.O. Westwood after he received samples of the insect from a London suburb (Oxford Companion to Wine), but its effects on native European vines was still unknown. That same year several vineyards in the Rhone region of France were infected but the cause was not apparent until several years later. One of the first documented devastations of vines was written by a French customs inspector, David de Pénanrun, in 1867 who described ‘something wrong with his vines. Leaves were turning brown and falling early. The affliction seemed to spread outwards in a circle’ (Campbell 45). The same year, a veterinarian, Monsieur Delorme, wrote of ‘a small proprietor at Saint-Martin-de-Crau [noticing] leaves on a number of vines turning rapidly from green to red. Within a month ‘most of the vines were already withered and beginning to dry out’’ (Campbell 46).

The phylloxera were not immediately identified as the culprit because ‘when roots had been dug up on dead and dying vines in Floirac scarcely any phylloxera were found’ (Campbell 101). Their life cycle and feeding cycles allow them to move to healthy plants as infected plants are dying. When they were noticed, some speculated that they were a result of the disease, not the cause, and blamed the vine failures on too much rain. Phylloxera reproduce in large quantities during the summer seasons and their winged form allows them to move from plant to plant which resulted in a very rapid spread through Europe. In the years following the first infestations, many surrounding vineyards rotted and the effects sprung up elsewhere in Europe as well, although the main concentration was in France.

In the years following the first reports of vineyard devastation, vineyard owners and agricultural societies reacted quickly to identify the cause and spare their own harvests. The most historically significant push was the creation of the Commission to Combat the New Vine Malady by the Vaucluse Agricultural Society. This society included landowners, horticulturalists, entomologists and and Jules Émile Planchon, the head of the Department of Botanical Sciences at Montpellier University (Campbell 48). They quickly investigated fields with both living and withered vines where Planchon inspected a slowly dying vine;

A happy pickaxe blow unearthed some roots on which I could see with the naked eye some yellowish spots. A magnifying glass revealed them to be clumps of insects… from this moment, a fact of capital importance was established. It was that an almost invisible insect, shying away underground and multiplying there by myriads of individuals, could bring about the exhaustion of even the strongest vine. (Campbell 50)

Despite this discovery, arguments continued to storm over the true cause of the devastation. ‘The greatly respected Henri Marés … declared it was ‘the severe cold that had continued unbroken last winter that is responsible for the deplorable condition of the vines’ (Campbell 51). The following year Planchon, the entomologist Louis Vialla and Jules Lichtenstein were dispatched by the Agricultural Society of France to continue investigation of the aphid; that summer they received correspondence from the State Entomologist of Missouri, Charles Riley. He wrote that the aphids found by Planchon were in fact the same ones that had been studied in the United States, but that they had not had such a disastrous effect on the vines there (Campbell 68). The scientists had found the cause of the devastation and theorized that it came from America, but no cure was yet in sight. The French Commission on the Phylloxera accepted Planchon’s theories and offered a reward of 20,000 francs to whoever could find a cure for the attacks of the aphid (Campbell 80).

(iii) The Fight Back

A French botanist named Léo Laliman who had both American and European vines in his garden reported to the Agricultural Society of France that the American vines had withstood the phylloxera invasion while the European vines had perished (Campbell 71). He proposed a process called ‘grafting’ vineyards ought to fuse the vines of the European vitis vinifera with the roots of the phylloxera-resistant, vitis varieties from America. This process did not combine the genetics of the two plants but rather formed a compound plant; European vines on American roots. Riley, the State Entomologist of Missouri, confirmed that the phylloxera were not fatal to American vines.

We thus see that no vine, whether native or foreign, is exempt from the attacks of the root-louse. On our native vines however when conditions are normal, the disease seems to remain in a mild state and it is only with foreign kinds and with a few of the natives … that it takes on the more acute form. (Campbell 86)

In her account of the phylloxera infestation Christy Campbell remarks that ‘leaf-galling is not fatal to the vine; nor, on American species, are the root predations. Over millennia of evolution wild vines developed ways to keep the attacker at bay … European vine-roots had and have no such defences’ (Campbell 77).

American resistance had been established but few took note of Laliman’s grafting proposal; grafting was not immediately used as many believed that it would reduce the quality of the grapes produced. Many potential remedies were tested to no avail; Riley remarked that ‘all insecticides are useless’ (Campbell 124). It was not until 1876 that Jean-Henri Fabre reported on his vineyards of ‘grafted Aramons on American varieties’; he said that ‘[the grafted vines] produced no alteration in the quality of taste of the wine nor had any influence on the [resistant] constitution of the roots’ (Campbell 154).That same year Planchon advocated the same thing. ‘While the power of the rootstock directly influences the development of the transplant, the rootstock does not transmit the particular taste which it would have in its own grapes’ (Campbell 160).

Despite rare successes from experimental vineyards grafted onto American rootstock, many still believed that insecticides would be the cure. As such, the French government briefly implemented a ban on the importation of American vines that would prove only to delay the eventual remedy. Lichtenstein, one of the members of the phylloxera investigation, published statements urging the expanded use of grafts. He wrote that ‘the wines of France will live again, reborn on the resistant rootstocks of America’ (Campbell 195).

Campbell describes how ‘slowly, slowly, reconstitution [grafting] took place. When the Beaujolais was officially declared phylloxerated in 1880, the import of alien vines became legal’. According to the French Ministry of Agriculture, about a third of France’s vineyards had been transplanted onto grafted or hybridized vines (Campbell 235).

After twenty years of anguish and effort the vineyards of [southern France] had been put together again. The costs had been great, debts were pressing, but by the mid-1890s the reconstituted vineyards were producing a flood of wine for which there seemed to be no end of thirst. (Campbell 247)

Even into the 1920s there were still un-grafted vineyards surviving on expensive chemical defenses. Today still there are vineyards in Australia, South America, the Middle East and scattered islands that survive on ungrafted vines because of soil conditions or strict controls preventing the movement of phylloxera. But, as noted before, it is estimated that 85% of the world’s vineyards are planted on grafted rootstocks (Oxford Companion to Wine).

(iv) The Battle in Italy

Although the effects of the phylloxera crisis were felt the most in France, it affected much of Western Europe. Professor Battista Grassi estimated that only about 10% of the country’s vines were infected by 1912; ‘the reason for its slow spread was the comparatively isolated nature of Italian vineyards and the habit of growing many vines through trees’ (Ordish 172). The first report of phylloxera in Italy was near Lake Como, but the regions struck hardest were Sicily and Calabria. In a New York Times article published November 8th, 1895 the Italian Consul estimated that lost wages in Sicily in the early 1890s totaled over thirty million dollars (‘Phylloxera Ravages Italy’). Many vineyard owners actually saw the infestation in France as an economic opportunity to export their own wines. In fact, in 1909 five million hectoliters of Italian wine exports to France made up about 10% of the wine consumed by the French (Campbell 249).

As the infestation struck Italy later on and much more slowly, its eradication was much more easily addressed in Italy than in France. Italy, along with many other European countries, enacted a temporary ban on plants that might carry the phylloxera into their vineyards. Vineyards found infected early on were burned at the expense of the state in order to slow the spread (Ordish 173). Although the burning of infected vineyards benefited the Italian wine industry as a whole, there were negative reactions from the owners and workers; in August of 1893 the New York Times reported that ‘the Minister of Agriculture … recently ordered the destruction of vineyards covering a large area in the Province of Novara. The peasants, losing employment through these steps, began to riot. Many were injured in conflicts with the police, and a large number were arrested’ (‘Italian Peasants Rioting’). Once grafting was accepted as a solution the ban on imported vines was lifted in order to supply Italian vineyards with resistant rootstocks subsidized by the government. In fact, another New York Times article published February 2, 1892 indicates that ‘the Italian Minister of Agriculture has for a number of years distributed large quantities of American grape vines among the farmers’ and that ‘from the island of Sicily alone the Minister has received demands for twenty six million rootstocks’ (‘American Vines in Italy’). The government supplied American cuttings and seeds, along with subsidies to farmers planting New World vines (Ordish 173). The Turin Phylloxera Council published their notes from an 1880 meeting, remarking that ‘we, knowing the danger, shall be able in great part to avoid it … Italy having to fight against Phylloxera finds herself in a more favourable position, being abundantly supplied with American vines, which are known to resist the disease’ (Jemina 3). As a result of the later introduction, slower spread and governmental subsidies, Italy’s vineyards were damaged far less than those of France.

‘AMERICAN VINES IN ITALY’ Editorial. New York Times 2 Feb. 1892. The New York Times. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FB0D15FC355D15738DDDAB0894DA405B8285F0D3&gt;.

Campbell, Christy. Phylloxera: How Wine Was Saved for the World. London: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.

‘Italian Peasants Rioting’ Editorial. New York Times 4 Aug. 1893. The New York Times. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F50D13F93F5A1A738DDDAD0894D0405B8385F0D3&gt;.

Italy. The Turin Phylloxera Council. The Turin Phylloxera Council: Ideas as to the Phylloxera and Rules for Watching the Vineyards. By Jemina. Turin, 1887. John Rylands University Library. Web. 7 Dec. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/60231304&gt;.

Ordish, George. The Great Wine Blight. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987. Print.

‘PHYLLOXERA RAVAGES ITALY’ Editorial. New York Times 08 Nov. 1895. The New York Times. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FB0A15FE355911738DDDA10894D9415B8585F0D3&gt;.

Robinson, Jancis. The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Posted January 21, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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