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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. <;.

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. <;.

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. <;.

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. <;.

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

Posted January 21, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: Irish Times articles on Italian food in the north   Leave a comment

The following article appeared in the Irish Times 24 Dec 2010: the original can be found here in this excellent piece by Ken Doherty. SY

It is sometimes said that a good year for wine is a bad year for truffles. Something to do with a sufficient amount of rain satisfying the grape but sadly not enough to yield a crop of truffles. As we strolled around the pretty cobbled streets of Alba in northwest Italy – the go-to town for the truffle-nut – it looked like a bumper year for the musty fungal.

The town was overcome with truffle triumphalism. Every other shop window was festooned with the real thing or jokey simulacrums to excite the tourists. Having only tasted black truffles, and this being the truffle season, it was the pungency of its white relation that we were after. It started with a plan. The family, two adults and a baby, would, on a tour of the fertile north of Italy, make their way to the food and wine rich trinity of Gavi, Asti and Alba. Setting off from our base at a wonderful agriturismo (countryside BB), we would gobble as much of the region’s culinary specialities as we could.

As the bus rumbled its way up the narrow roads towards the village of Gavi in Piemonte, we sensed a treat in store. Gavi doesn’t just rely on its spectacular setting to woo you in. Its sumptuous vistas are a close second to its main draw. People make the pilgrimage to this tiny hamlet to experience its famous sweet and acidic white wines. We came for both.

Most of its wineries are just outside the town and, since we were car-free and baby-tied, we explored its medieval centre on foot. Its compact and charmingly dilapidated streets and buildings were quiet by late afternoon. On its main drag we stumbled into Antico Caffe Del Moro, pasticceria-bar-canteen-ice cream parlour and breast feeding refuge all rolled into one. We quickly fell prey to the proprietor’s big-hearted welcome and were given an introductory lesson to the intricacies of viniculture in Gavi.

After a quick feed from her mammy, all this nattering had a soporific effect on the baby. We were afforded a few tastings of what the Gavi vintage (from the Cortese grape) and its regional wines had to offer. This braced us for one of the many decent walks around the town.

Asti was different. It bristles with a more rugged atmosphere, especially during the twice weekly outdoor market days. Traders set up stall every Wednesday and Saturday in Campo del Palio but disappear by late afternoon. When we arrived at noon it was in full flow.

Amid all the cheaply-made threads and kitchen paraphernalia there is a wonderful food market that spoke of the season we were in. Stalls heaving with knobbly mushrooms, voluptuous squash and sultry plums made our bellies rumble.

The banter between stall holders and customers was imbued with typical Italian feeling – wildly gestating hands performing in the narrowest personal space possible. And for those who like to overturn historical myths and inaccuracies, the square is spiked with significance. Every September it hosts a bareback horse race similar to the famous Palio in Siena, Tuscany. But wait. In Asti, they claim their race is at least 300 years older!

Alba has the confident air of a regional capital. Situated in the rolling hills of the Langhe, it’s hemmed in by the vineyards that produce the famous Barolo, Barbera and Barbaresco wines. From the bus stop it’s only a short walk to the old town. We noticed that if your appetite wasn’t sated by wine and truffles, you could always undergo some retail therapy in its many expensive designer boutiques.

It was getting late and we were the ones who might need clinical gastronomic therapy if we didn’t see some truffle action soon. We skipped into Vincafe on Via Vittorio Emanuele and were not disappointed. The place was buzzing.

We started with some silky lardo (pure cured pork fat) that sweetly lined our stomachs for what was to come. I swear I could hear the drums roll as our truffle dishes made their way from the kitchen. Both dishes, baked eggs ( cocotte con tartufo bianco ) and pasta ( tagliarini con tartufo ) were decorated with wisps of white truffle. The price did make the eyes water but what the hell, I now understand why a lot of chefs choose it as a death row last meal.

Gavi, Asti and Alba are repositories of all that is good about Italy. Fantastic food, unforgettable scenery and a genuinely warm welcome. So make your way to this part of the peninsula, hardly undiscovered, but a region steeped in such significant culinary lore it can only be a gift that keeps on giving.

Posted January 19, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: thoughts on Italian food safety   Leave a comment

The following is the beginning of a fascinating article by Laurel Curran on Italian food safety that can be found here.

‘When you think of Italian food, the first dishes that come to mind are probably pizza and pasta.  I am here to tell you that’s not just your imagination. Those carb-saturated items make up the majority of a typical Italian’s diet (plus gelato, of course). It took about five weeks for my body to adjust from my Pacific Northwest diet of seafood, granola and vegetables to one consisting almost entirely of these items. After four months living in Rome, I have decided that Italians love carbohydrates even more than Americans do.This is interesting when one considers the fact that there are virtually zero obese Italians. Not only do they know how to make carbs unbelievably tasty, they know how to eat them right.  Maybe it’s because they don’t serve butter with their bread, maybe it’s because their pasta portions are the size of something off an American kids’ menu and maybe it’s because they walk everywhere.  Whatever the reason, Italians have food figured out.When it comes to food safety they also fare quite well.  Italy suffers far fewer foodborne illness outbreaks per capita than the United States.  There have been only a handful in the past decade. Most have been at hotel and resort restaurants, and none have affected more than 60 people. There are no food safety law firms in Italy for a reason.  When I asked my neighborhood shopkeeper about this he suggested that the food he sells is safe because the EU became hyper-vigilant after the Mad Cow disease outbreak in 2001.  He’s right; the EU has some very stringent laws protecting European consumers [continues]

Posted January 17, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: how old is the Marco Polo myth?   Leave a comment

We have looked previously at Marco Polo’s writing, which shows emphatically that he did not bring pasta from China to Italy. We have looked too at two twentieth century sources that suggest that he did: an advertising campaign and a film.

But how old is the Marco Polo myth? There follows an extract from one of the first Italian cook books in English by Dorothy Daly (1900) who published with Spring in the UK.

And why, so far, no word of pasta, that ever present, ubiquitous Italian dish? For the reason that Pasta, whatever it may be to-day, is said not originally to have been a native of the country, but is alleged to be one of the many wonders brought home by the 13th century explorer, Marco Polo, from his travels in China. Nevertheless, although Pasta, in its many shapes and forms, may not have started off as a true native of Italy, to-day it seems as much a part of the country as an operatic tenor, and anyone wanting to present a truly Italian meal must perforce learn a few of the ways of preparing and cooking Pasta…

The myth seems to be well established here, which begs the question: where and when did it originate? Was it an American or even a British invention? SY

Posted January 13, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: Salone del Gusto   Leave a comment

Salone del Gusto by Gabriella Paiella

On Friday, October 22nd 2010, four friends and I made our way up north for Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre. The trip was initially up-in-the air as we had only managed to secure a spot at a hostel on the outskirts of Torino a few days before – the city had been booked up for the event since July. Bright and early the next morning, we caffeinated and began the brisk forty-minute walk to the old Fiat factory where the event has been held for several years. The festival was a clear economic boost to the city of Torino and signs everywhere advertised the Salone del Gusto and pointed tourists in the correct direction.

The first people we encountered at the fringes of the factory grounds were animal rights protesters brandishing gruesome signs of slaughtered animals with statistics of how many animals had been murdered for Salone del Gusto. We avoided them as best as we could and made our way to the line, which was organized and moved forward quickly despite the extraordinary numbers of people. Because we were all under 23, we could get access to the festival for the student rate of 12 euro each.

The theme of the Salone this year was ‘Food + Places: a new geography for Planet Earth’.  Upon entering, we found ourselves in a spacious, and well-lit main room with the atmosphere of an IKEA store. Indeed, every booth on this floor was advertising possible eco-friendly solutions to food packaging. Aside from a few curious visitors, most people avoided this first room in favor of the food fair itself – which was packed to the brim.

Salone was split up into several sections. First and foremost was ‘Italy’, – divided up like a grid according to region. We tried almost everything, including lenticchie from Umbria, peperonata from Piedmont, and cannoli from Sicily. It also seemed as if every other stand was sampling some sort of olive oil and bread. My traveling companions and I were surprised (and pleased), by the overwhelming amount of artisanal beer from Italy. All of the producers were extremely friendly and took the time to answer any questions we had for them about their products.

The international section was comprised of representative producers from everywhere from America to Azerbijan. In the middle of all of the food stalls were tables manned by indigenous representatives from Latin America and Africa. Many of them had spoken at Terra Madre and were selling handicrafts and distributing fliers about the current state of agriculture and small farms in their home countries.

There were also more specific novelty areas – such as the  ‘Cocktail Bar,’ ‘Enoteca,’ and ‘Street Food’ area, though those were both significantly less crowded than the other sections. This was most likely due to the fact that visitors had to pay extra to access them.

The demographics of the crowd were incredibly mixed. Every once in a while, a Native American farmer in indigenous dress would pop through the fair grounds with their Terra Madre delegate badge on. At the same time, there were several hundred well-dressed Italians teetering around in high heels and purchasing bags of wine and olive oil – making me wonder if they actually ever thought twice about the ideology of Slow Food. The stark difference between the two groups was interesting.

I was also surprised to see Autogrill and Coop stands scattered amongst the other stands. I knew that the Coop supermarkets had initially started as small cooperative movements on the left, but they have certainly strayed far from that model. Autogrill, meanwhile, seems to exemplify the very nature of fast food.

Even when we left Salone del Gusto and headed back to our hostel, we still felt as if we were in that general atmosphere. Everyone staying with us was in the city for the same reasons we were. For example, I met a girl from North Carolina studying abroad in Dijon and compiling an independent research project on organic food regulations. Another one of my roommates graduated from the college that I’m attending right now ten years ago; she was in Torino visiting her sister who acts as a liaison between farmers and farmer’s market organizers. One girl had graduated college in the States and moved to Rwanda to help AIDS victims set up small, microfinance farming operations. Additionally, we met two chefs: one from Lecce who had previously traveled around Europe acting out in “Chef’s Theater” plays. The other was a Brazilian who was hopping around Europe and getting by working at restaurants all over the continent.

As we all stayed up that night talking, I realized that there was a strong and diverse community of people dedicated to bettering the global food system.

Posted January 11, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: Montefiascone and the Bishop   Leave a comment

There is a well known ‘food myth’ about Montefiascone wine and a German bishop. The following account is taken from Edward R. Emerson, Story of the Vine (Knickerbocker Press 1902). It would be interesting to see how much older the tale is.

As the story goes… a German bishop named Defoucris, who travelled a great deal, and had acquired in his many journeys a discriminating fondness for wine. His valet bibulous bishop. was also an excellent judge, and the bishop, in order to ascertain the quality of the wine at the places where he was to stop, would send the valet on ahead that he might test it and write under the bush the word ‘est’ if it was good, and ‘est est’ if it was fine. On the other hand, if it was poor the valet was to leave a blank under the bush; at such places the bishop refused to drink.

The bush is a bunch of evergreen hung over the doorway to tell travellers ‘here wine is sold’. It has been used from time immemorial, and it is from its use that the saying ‘Good wine needs no bush’ has arisen, several of our noted authorities notwithstanding. At last the valet, arriving at Monte Fiascone, found there a place where he could write ‘est est’. In due time the bishop arrived, and was so pleased with the wine that he immediately proceeded to get drunk on it, and remained in that condition until he died.

The legend was either given in an incomplete form or it has since developed. This is extracted from the Italian Wikipedia inDecember 2010.

Il nome di questo vino deriva da una leggenda. Nell’anno 1111 Enrico V di Germania stava raggiungendo Roma con il suo esercito per ricevere dal papa Pasquale II la corona di Imperatore del Sacro Romano Impero. Al suo seguito si trovava anche un vescovo, Johannes Defuk, intenditore di vini. Per soddisfare questa sua passione alla scoperta di nuovi sapori, il vescovo mandava il suo coppiere Martino in avanscoperta, con l’incarico di precederlo lungo la via per Roma, per assaggiare e scegliere i vini migliori. I due avevano concordato un segnale in codice: qualora Martino avesse trovato del buon vino, avrebbe dovuto scrivere est, ovvero ‘c’è’ vicino alla porta della locanda, e, se il vino era molto buono, doveva scrivere est est. Il servo, una volta giunto a Montefiascone e assaggiato il vino locale, non poté in altro modo comunicare la qualità eccezionale di quel vino, decise di ripetere per tre volte il segnale convenuto e di rafforzare il messaggio con ben sei punti esclamativi: Est! Est!! Est!!! Il vescovo, arrivato in paese, condivise il giudizio del suo coppiere e prolungò la sua permanenza a Montefiascone per tre giorni. Addirittura, al termine della missione imperiale vi tornò, fermandosi fino al giorno della sua morte (avvenuta, pare, per un eccesso di bevute). Venne sepolto nella chiesa di San Flaviano, dove ancora si può leggere, sulla lapide in peperino grigio, l’iscrizione: ‘Per il troppo EST! qui giace morto il mio signore Johannes Defuk’. In riconoscenza dell’ospitalità il vescovo lasciò alla cittadinanza di Montefiascone un’eredità di 24.000 scudi, a condizione che ad ogni anniversario della sua morte una botticella di vino venisse versata sul sepolcro, tradizione che venne ripetuta per diversi secoli. Al vescovo è ancora dedicato un corteo storico con personaggi in costume d’epoca, che fanno rivivere questa leggenda.


Posted December 27, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: Calabrian Christmas in the States   Leave a comment

The following is the beginning of a fascinating article by Maria Desiderata Montana that can be found here.  Maria has her own website on the San Diego food scene that is well worth a look. SY

Growing up in a large Italian family, I learned how to respect tradition and embrace family ties through cooking. I think my passion for cooking started when I was 7 years old, waking up early Christmas Eve morning to make homemade ravioli for our big Christmas dinner. When I say early, I mean the crack of dawn. You see, my mother couldn’t rest until the ravioli was finished. It was as if she, a perfectionist by nature, just couldn’t wait to see how beautiful they would turn out. While the rest of the house was quiet, my mom would play soft Italian music really low and share her childhood stories, as my sister and I helped roll out the pasta dough. Forget about the men in my family ever helping in the kitchen. Our Italian tradition was that the cooking was for the women only [continues]

Comment: Olive oil and the Mediterranean Diet   Leave a comment

In the November 2010 edition of the Italian State Railway’s magazine La Freccia (distributed onboard its luxury high-speed trains), one could find an article entitled “Le vie dell’olio” (“The Oil Routes” was the best, albeit still awkward, translation I could come up with). The article offered production background and geographic indications for the peninsula’s best olive oil, giving some specific mills to visit in each of the main olive oil producing regions.

As if we’ve never heard it before, the article sounded the tired trumpet to the tune of the Mediterranean Diet:”one of the fundamental products of the Mediterranean Diet, apart from being a food, olive oil has been used over the course of the history for medicinal purposes, for skin care and personal hygiene, for lighting and as a form of currency.” Telling the fact that only this paragraph was translated into English (the rest of the Italian text remained silent for anglophones).

I have to confess that my skepticism about the “Mediterranean Diet,” reinforced by reading Patricia Crotty’s article on the subject, is developing into a healthy suspicion. While I love olive oil, and I agree that it seems more nutritious than some other fats, I am wary of the idea (driven ahead as gospel by this article and many others like it) that the MD is actually some sort of artifact of a simple life of long ago. Olive oil was until very recently (read: the the early twentieth century) a luxury item inaccessible to most Italians. To take a simple example, the average Umbrian peasant diet of the late nineteenth century was based on polenta, a limited range of garden vegetables, and (twice a year!) meat. This data comes from the parliamentary inquest known as the Inchiesta Jacini, carried out between 1881 and 1886.

Jacini found that for the Umbrian peasant, the average number of grams of fat per day was between 20 and 30 (roughly a tablespoon). We can put aside the fact that likely all of those grams were fat from pigs: assuming that even half of that fat was from the luxury food olive oil, we can estimate that in a year the average Umbrian peasant ate between 3,650 and 5,475 grams of fat. Assuming olive oil has a mass of about 970 grams per liter, we get a total yearly consumption of between 3.8 and 5.6 liters. My mother, a 68 year old woman of Irish-German stock who has only just recently begun to use olive oil in her cooking, uses about a bottle (750mL) every two months, for a total annual consumption of 4.5 liters. How fundamental, then, can olive oil have been to the diet of the vast majority of poor Italians (and, by extension, poor Europeans) in centuries past?  (Gian Paolo Collacciani, “Le vie dell’olio,” La Freccia, Anno II, Numero 10, November 2010)  ZN

Comment: Ordish on phylloxera in Italy   Leave a comment

The spread of phylloxera – the vine-destroying American aphid – through Italy in the late nineteenth century has often been described in print but only rarely in English. The following is the most extensive passage in that language known to this author and comes from George Ordish’s The Great Wine Blight (Sidgwick and Jackson 1987), 172-175.

‘Though the phylloxera was probably present in Italy in 1870 it does not appear to have been recognised until 1875 or to have become at all general until 1879, when it was found at Lecco and Agrate, Milan Province. The reason for its slow spread was the comparatively isolated nature of Italian vineyards and the habit of growing many vines through trees on long extension shoots. Such plants tend to have deep roots in firmly pressed ground. There is thus no opportunity for the aphids to enter through cracks in the soil and attack the roots.

At first the Italians saw the phylloxera in France as a great opportunity for them. ‘L’Italian può diventare la prima cantina d’Europa’. Sempé found their statistics difficult. He says:  ‘…they are no shining example of fixity and permit all sorts of conclusions to be drawn from them, allowing the viticultural papers on the others side of the Alps great opportunities to make some very strange calculations.’ And later he refers to their bizarreries and the contradictions in them.

The usual course was followed, it being realized finally that American roots were the answer. At first it left the provision of the new plants to private enterprise and to some wine-growers’ organisations, but later some government control became essential (Royal Decree of 4th March 1888 (3rd series), unifying the decrees of 24th May 1874) to overcome the ignorance and fraud prevalent at that time.

Vignerons were in great haste to ‘reconstitute’ their vineyards and the ‘wood-merchants’ prospered, ‘for the wretched purchaser is not in a position to complain very much until two or three years have passed, if he has been supplied with fraudulent or unsuitable material. Many a bundle of ‘first-class American wood’’ in passing from hand to hand changed its variety as many times, now being 420A, now 3309, now 41B, according to local preference’. The State encouraged viticultural associations  (consorzi) which were easily formed in the north, if they did not already exist, but had to be pushed in the south, and came to exercise more and more control over the sale of rootstocks.

Trained teams were sent out to destroy foci and frequently met with considerable resistance, as in the Côte d’Or, France. The Government bore half the cost of these measures, mostly abandoned during the First World War, which gave the pest a chance to spread. At the end of the war the appalling results of some of the early ‘reconstitution’ plantings were but too obvious, and energetic steps were taken to regularize the nursery business (Law No. 1363, 26 September 1920). A feature of the earlier campaign was the establishment of a nursery on the island of Monte-Cristo where half a million genuine American plants, true to name and free from phylloxera, were raised and distributed free throughout Tuscany. The Government distributed free cuttings of Americans, particularly York-Madeira, and 120 k. of American vine seed and gave subsidies to growers who would establish vineyards with this material.

The Italians produced a number of distinguished phylloxera specialists, such as the famous Professor Battista Grassi, who published an exhaustive study of the genus (thus including other species of Phylloxera, such as quercus) in 1912. Even at this late date the infestation was not large. Grassi estimated that out of 4.5 million ha. of vines in Italy just under 4 million were still unattacked. But he also points out that this is no reason for complacency. The member of the Chamber of Deputies who maintained that there was no need to worry about or to vote funds for phylloxera defence because France had been attacked and had overcome the pest by means of American vines, said Grassi, forgot to mention the trifling fact that it cost their neighbour11 million thousand francs! One did not have to be a prophet, or the son of a prophet, to predict that if steps were not taken the phylloxera would not stop until it had destroyed every vinifera in Europe.

In addition to being a great scientist Grassi was a remarkably practical man with an ability to put across his ideas in striking terms. He laid down a successful Italian policy. In 1908 he pointed out that the country did not have the money to destroy the phylloxera; no minister dared ask for the sums needed, which would be at least 100 million lire a year, when the total vote was but 1.5 million, the same sum now with 600,000 ha. attacked as when there were 60. Here he quoted an old saying: ‘The cake is always the same size and all we get is smaller slices of it.’ Even the great German ‘success’ in Alsace, where they spent a million marks in destruction of foci was all talk. A recent inspection showed Alsace to be infected in spit of the million spent. It was too late to destroy foci one by one because that would not stop the pest spreading. What was needed for people to know the pest and to delay its attack whilst reconstituting on American roots. The pest was spread by rooted cuttings and plants and never by bare cuttings. The legislation prohibiting  the movement of all vines should be repealed and applied only to plants and roots. By allowing the innocuous cuttings to move freely one would avoid the temptation at present existing of smuggling roots around the country and thus spreading the pest. Grassi’s hearers were not to think that he was advocating a ‘free phyloxera in a free Italy’ (a reference to Cavour’s slogan, ‘a free state in a free Italy’) but just common sense. His policy was adopted in essence and, as noted above, considerable control was exercised over nurseries.’


Posted December 14, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: Heaven and Hell in Big Night   Leave a comment

The film Big Night not only touches on important Italian food themes including immigration and good food. But it is also works from almost every angle as a work of art: acting, script, cinematography…

For the uninitiated the film is divided between two restaurants Primo and Secondo’s Paradiso and Pascal’s Italian Grotto, the first representing integrity and good cooking, the other, across the road, shameless commercialisation.

The present author has the pleasure of watching Big Night a couple of times a year with classes and his last viewing he felt that he had peeled away yet another of its many layers.

The Paradiso is always associated with white from the tablecloths to the waiter’s clothes; the Grotto with red – including red lighting within and red neon signs. The Grotto is also the route to intoxication – it is through the Grotto (Pascal’s wife) that Secondo gets his supply of illicit alcohol.

Pascal, the boss of the grotto, with his name relating to Christ’s death, is a diabolical individual who tells Secondo ‘I am anything I need to be at any time’ and who at one point chases a chef out of his kitchen while the chef is on fire!

Secondo, in their final confrontation, tells Pascal that Pascal is ‘nothing’ (classic Catholic description of evil) and that Secondo’s saintly brother Primo ‘lives in a world above you [i.e. Pascal]’. Primo, meanwhile, refers to angels in his conversation with his love Anne…

Heaven vs Hell, Paradise vs Underground Cave, White vs Red, Integrity vs Manipulation. It is crude but unlike many symbolic systems it doesn’t irritate.

Next viewing this author will be worrying about all the references to cowboys and pioneers that are still obscure. SY

Posted December 12, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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