I spent an afternoon this week at Taste of Italy, an event in Geneva that brought in two dozen premium food suppliers from Italy, a kind of matchmaking fair for wholesalers, retailers and the restaurant business.
My idea was to learn more about Italian regional products in order to better understand Italian wines.
Wine and food don’t simply go together; where you have good terroir wines you always have local foods that fit, and vice versa. France is one very good example of this, but I am inching over to the side of the Italians who say good food and wine from Italy can’t be beat.
Good food can teach us much about wine because we’re obliged to pay close attention to our senses to understand why some pairings work and others don’t, what the nose and mouth of a given wine really are like. My list of combinations to try is growing longer and longer. A pleasant challenge lies ahead.
From Monday’s notebook:
Of pigs and lard and sausage
Lard: time to re-discover the beauty and goodness of this food item
My mother used lard for basting when I was a child in Iowa, which at that point had more hogs than people (perhaps still does). She continued to insist on its value in the kitchen even when lard became a nasty word in a more weight-conscious world.
Pigs raised in fine cuisine regions are another matter. And black pigs, like the Iberian pig in Spain and the Nebrodi black pig of Sicily, provide the ultimate in flavour in sausages and dried meats. They are closer to wild pigs than their larger white cousins and they take longer to put on weight. Kin to these delicacies are those made in northern Italy from the black pig of Parma. I sampled some beautiful meat from Salumificio Pedrazzoli and Isaf Salumi.
But my favourite was melt-in-mouth lard from Marchisio Salumificio south of Torino, presented here as a delicacy made with a lacing of lightly salted herbs (sage, rosemary, parsley), no chemicals or preservatives. Served slivered as an aperitif with other finely sliced dried meats or wrapped around a filet before cooking. A lively discussion about what wine would do it justice and vice versa took us from reds (maybe) to a late harvest wine. I came home with lard; I’ll let you know once I try it with different wines.
Cheeses of Italy
I could taste only a handful, but my favourites were: Fontina from the Haut Val D’Ayas just over the border in Val d’Aosta, and a spicy Pecorino from the Casera di Martinelli in Almè, near Bergamo, although the whole lineup of wine/spirits cheeses by Gigi, from Da Gigi, northwest of Bergamo, was impressive.
Naples savory snacks
Breadsticks seem simple enough until you have some that leave the competition way behind. Malafronte Ciro in Gragnano, near Naples, makes fantastic breadsticks from various grains – I loved the spelt ones – with several flavourings. After nibbling on a few samples I mentioned that they would be perfect with a glass of wine and out came an information sheet about Gragnano wine, a famous sparkling red from the region.
Panettone’s date with dates
I love panettone with dried fruits, but the sourdough one that I sampled, made with Egyptian figs, should be a Hollywood star. What class! Fraccaro, northwest of Venice, likes to point out that its panettone is Slow Food certified.
The slippery surface of olive oils
I had a tour of a wonderful olive oil producer’s place in Montecucco in southern Tuscany last month, where we discussed which regions in Italy produce the best oils. Getting an unbiased opinion from an Italian on this subject is well-nigh impossible, so this week I heard from a southerner that Puglia clearly has the best, and from a producer at the fair in Geneva that their oils, from the small family operation in Sabina near Rome, are the best. The ones I tasted were fruity and aromatic and certainly very good.
The only solution is to keep tasting and comparing.
Coffee, caffeine, to sugar or not
Great news for anyone who isn’t a coffee expert but loves the stuff (me): espresso has less caffeine than larger coffees, a caffè americano, for example, where the coffee is not so much diluted as it spends more time in contact with the water – similar to steeping your tea longer. This was the explanation I was given by the man from Artisanal Italian Food in Geneva, who insisted I try 2 espressos: one with and the other without sugar. Both were excellent, the result, he explained of their approach to blending, where they always test both versions to get the blend exactly right. I am convinced – both were very drinkable.
Salty or sweet, jam is a treat
I almost missed this stand, because jam isn’t what comes to mind when I think of wine, but what a mistake that would have been. Mes Confitures, south of Mantua, makes extraordinary jams, 2 lines of salty or sweet, as they describe them. The salty ones can be served with meat or fish, but they are primarily designed to be served as part of an aperitif plate with cheeses and cold cuts. A tiny spoonful of these magical, unusual blends opens sensory doors that made me long to try them with various wines. Three of my favourites were very different, a beetroot and coffee jam, one from beetroot with capers and anchovies, and another from candied mandarins.