Friday, November 25, 2016

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Green Gold


     It was beginning to look like we were jinxed.  As a reminder, one of our main objectives in coming to Italy in the Autumn was to witness, and perhaps even participate in, the vintage and the olive harvest and processing of olive oil.  But the cards have seemed to be stacked against us.  

     First we discovered that the summer weather here had been atrocious and that the grape and olive crops were severely stunted as a result.  So much so that our hosts, the Astones, decided not even to harvest the grapes but to buy from a purveyor in Puglia instead.  Well, that was a disappointment, but of course we understand.  Rolando and Filo are in their seventies, still vigorous, but no spring chickens, and the work is intense at the best of times.  Fortunately Rolando set me up with two of his brothers and I managed to help with a home-winemaking operation with Ciccio and Francesco.  Then Fernando kindly connected us with a friend, Carlo Polito, who owns a local commercial vineyard and winery, and we had a blast pretending to help with the harvest and vintage of some of their Aglianico.  Please refer to a previous blog.  And then, there was always the olive harvest, right?

    Well, not so much.  The Astone’s olive crop is even punier than the grape crop, and clambering up ladders into trees for little or no reward is a fool’s errand, especially for us oldsters.  Worse yet, the olive crop has been dismal almost everywhere in the Cilento, and lots of small orchardists are throwing up their hands and waiting for next year.  Olives are naturally biennial producers anyway—they’ll produce a bumper crop one year and a much smaller one the next while they store up energy—but this year has been a real fluke.  Fernando called our mutual friend, Roberto Volpe, up on the slopes of Monte della Stella at San Mauro to see when he was harvesting and Roberto delivered the shocking news that the total production for the year at his co-op frantoio (olive oil processing plant) was 50 liters.  Not 50 liters of Roberto’s oil, you understand.  Fifty measly liters for the whole community!

   Fernando is nothing if not persistent, and he sent out queries far and wide, and, mirabile dictu, not only did he find a zone over on the foothills of the beautiful Monti Alburni that has had a wonderful crop, but he discovered that our friend Antonino Mennella would be processing periodically for the next two weeks.  And Antonino makes, hands down, the best oil in the Cilento and one of the best in the world!

     A quick refresher course from an earlier blog:  the ancient Romans had a special mechanism on their olive mills that allowed them to completely macerate the flesh and skins of the olives to release that precious nectar without crushing the pits, which contain intensely bitter tannins and glucosides.  The old Roman system was pretty much ditched in late antiquity, but about 15 years ago, a small number of adventurous processors began experimenting with special mills that accomplish the same end using ultra-modern technology.  And discovered that Roman-style oil, called denocciolato, is a superior product!  Not dramatically so, but noticeably so, even by someone like me with a pretty mediocre palate.  So two years ago we went to see one such producer, Antonino Mennella, at the Azienda Agricola Madonna dell’Ulive over in Serre, a gorgeous little Medieval village perched at the foot of the Alburnis.  Antonino generously showed us his operation and explained the process, but of course this was in June, and olive processing, like the vintage, is a one-off thing.  And so, we could imagine the process, but not see it.
Azienda Agricola Madonna dell'Ulive

The Santuaria from which the business takes its name

Twin trunks of a common tree, 2000 years old

     Until yesterday.  Wow, was it worth the wait!  We arrived at the frantoio about 5pm and were warmly greeted by Antonino and offered espresso while we waited for a load of olives to arrive.  Meanwhile, we took a stroll through part of the orchard, where Antonino explained that we were probably looking at one of the earliest sites for cultivation of olives in all of Italy.  From Serre you look down the Calore and Sele River valleys for a good 25 kilometers, all the way to the coast and the famous Greek colony of Poseidonia, later Roman Paestum.  Here in Serre,  just above the Sele Plain, with a beautiful western aspect, was ideal territory for the olives Greeks had been cultivating in the mother country for at least 700 years before Poseidonia was established in 600 BCE.  Antonino showed us a number of pairs of trees and explained that these were not really two separate trees but in fact dual trunks from a single root system.  Olive trees can be killed back to the ground by fluke freezes, but their roots are almost indestructible, and, like redwoods and sequoias, they will generate new sprouts from the cambium of seemingly dead trunks, sprouts that often will eventually coalesce to form one giant trunk.  Or not, as in the case of our twinsies.  Which, it turns out, are probably the regenerated parts of trees at least 2,000 years old.

     The olives arrived, hauled in a large trailer, hitched to a standard car and wrangled by two young men who assist Antonino at the frantoio.  These were gorgeous olives:  fat little porkers in a range of hues from intensely yellow green to pink to violet to purple to almost jet black, and ranging in length from 3/4” to 1”.  Antonino explained that the variation in color is a good thing, since the green olives are the most intensely flavored but have the least oil, while the darker berries have subtler, rounder flavors and much more oil.  So in mechanical harvesting, olive growers look for that perfect ‘sweet spot’ between quality and quantity and let each little berry contribute its voice to the glorious oratorio which is intensely flavored olive oil.

    The load consisted of 6 large crates, roughly 4’ X 5’, and we learned that this represented some 1,000 kilograms of berries, a bit over a ton.  Ernesto, one of the ragazzi, quickly manned a small forklift and expertly carried one of these crates to the waiting hopper of the cleaner/crusher, located in a covered portico before the frantoio.  This was an amazing piece of technology.  The hopper feeds the berries onto an escalator conveyor, at the top of which a powerful fan blows foliage and dust off the olives and out through a long vent pipe to a composting pile.  Then the berries are blasted with cold water to clean them and conveyed horizontally before two powerful fans which dry them completely.  Antonino explained that it is absolutely essential to highest quality oil that the berries be processed in cold water and then completely dried to achieve the intense aroma of great oil.  Commercial producers, on the other hand, wash their berries in hot water and macerate them wet, which strips them of most of their aroma.  At the end of the conveyor,  our other ragazzo, Paulo, manually plucked out defective olives before they were delivered to the crusher.  The hopper of the machine was large enough to contain one crate, and as each was nearly completed, Ernesto brought another and carefully tilted it in.
A ton of olives is delivered

Ernesto loading the hopper

leaves and stems removed

    Meanwhile, the crushed olives were delivered via a large plastic hose into the laboratorio of the frantoio, with tiled floors and even tiled walls up to about 6’, and an array of stainless steel vats and apparatus, all so that spotless cleanliness can be maintained.  In the laboratorio the crushed olives went into one of two large mills, but in this case not the stone roller mills that are traditional, but a cylindrical vat containing a rotating, helical paddle which breaks down the flesh of the olives and more or less completely macerates it into an almost uniform paste, allowing the liquid element in the olive flesh to escape from the berries’ cells.  This paste is then pumped through a closed pipe, not to a press, but to the horizontal centrifuge, which can be calibrated so that elements in the paste with different densities can be extracted differentially.  First out are the solids, which fall into a hopper behind the centrifuge and are pushed by an augur outside to be composted and used as fertilizer.  Next out is the watery element which contains the bitter glucosides which make unprocessed olives inedible.  And lastly, that gorgeous, chartreuse nectar began to slowly ooze from a stainless pipe at the front of the centrifuge and pour through a cloth filter into waiting receptacles.  As these filled, the pipe was rotated to another and the precious oil decanted into a 200-liter stainless canister.  Antonino explained that this 2,200 lb. load of olives would yield about 100 liters of oil.  The oil would rest in the canister overnight to allow suspended solids to precipitate and then be sent through a filtration system to remove remaining solids and any remaining water.  Then the oil would be decanted into stainless storage vats, hermetically sealed, and the ullage purged of air with inert nitrogen to maintain the quality of the oil.  He noted that the oil can easily be stored for two years and maintain its organoleptic qualities, but that the polyphenols and antioxidants which make olive oil so healthful will slowly degrade.
Berries move up the conveyor to be cleaned and sorted

Paolo culling defective berries

The crusher

Ultra-modern mills

     Antonino showed me a large bank of gauges and explained that the frangitore, as the macerator mill is called, can be adjusted for various levels of quality.  The finer the paste is macerated, the more oil is extracted, of course, but also the more of the volatile esters and polyphenols that produce those heady aromas we were smelling would be lost.  And, of course, if the fractioning was very great at all, the more the pits would be crushed.  All of Antonino’s oils are top-quality, but he produces four grades even here, and today we were producing Itrano.  I noticed several canisters which were marked as Persano as well.
Macerated 'paste' is delivered to the centrifuge

The centrifuge extracts elements of the paste

Antonino controls the quality of the oil

Out flows liquid gold

Paolo decants new oil into a canister

   How can I describe the intensity of the aromas we were smelling in this frantoio?  They pervaded the whole building. Speaking of oratorio, it was like a chorus of scents had been trapped in prison for a whole growing season and, released from bondage, had spontaneously burst into song.  But not just any song; think "Hallelujah Chorus." The smell was delicious, incredible, almost intoxicating.  That is because those same esters and polyphenols are extremely volatile, and they were floating on the air of the room right to our nostrils.  But exposure to air for any length of time strips oil of most of its aroma.  Antonino explained that it is very important that the processing go as quickly as possible for this reason, and I was stunned by the efficiency of the operation; by my reckoning, Madonna dell’Ulive processed over a ton of olives in a bit over two hours.  Now think about even 50 years ago, when raw olives often sat for days in warehouses, turning to a putrid brown mush before being processed, then milled for hours between stones and pressed using simple lever presses.  Then the oil and aqueous element would be allowed to slowly separate themselves over several hours. The whole process could take days.  No wonder so much oil from the middle of the last century was intensely acidic, rancid and almost inedible.  These are glorious days for lovers of fine oil!

      Antonino cut open two whole berries, one green and one deep purple, and had us take a sniff.  The green had intense notes of green tomatoes and fresh-cut grass.  The mature berry had far more subtle notes of licorice and red peppers.  Then Antonino brought out small plastic cups to sample the unfiltered oil. He showed us how to roll the cups to release the aroma, just as in wine tasting, how to 'taste' with our noses first, and then how to ‘swoosh’ the oil into our mouths to aerate it and release the aromas and flavors.  The aromas were a wonderful combination of those we had smelled in the whole berries and many more besides which I cannot even pretend to be able to identify.  I just know this oil has all the complexity of a great wine.  The taste was incredibly peppery—Red and Fernando actually had a bit of a coughing fit—as well as slightly bitter from the unfiltered solids.  That and what I can only describe as intensely ‘olivy’ .  Like Colavita on steroids.
Tasting new oil

Large vats of oil in storage

      Antonino was kind enough to gift us with a half liter of Itrano, and one way or another we are going to wangle that boy home.  But if customs grabs it back in the States next week, I will not despair.  Antonino’s oil is available on-line from a great purveyor of artisinal foods called Olio2go, in Richmond, Virginia.  And I have inside information that there will be a consignment available there in the next few weeks.  Better yet, do us both a favor and order it all up before I get home.  We all need to support people like Antonino who have chosen to dedicate themselves to excellence rather than mediocrity.

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Christ-haunted Lanscape

     Thursday we made our first visit to one of the most unusual, evocative, and haunting towns we have seen in 21 years of travel in this endlessly fascinating country.  A place that can only be described as terrible in its beauty.

     Matera, Basilicata is one of the dozens of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Italy, the capital of the Province of Matera and one of the two major towns in Basilicata.  The town is splayed out along the top of a plateau above the Bassento River Valley, and is quite scenic in its own right, with its Byzantine basilicas, its palazzi, and its Medieval city scrambling up the side of a steep slope.  The town shows signs of Roman occupation, and some think the name, originally Mateola, is a deformation of the name of the Roman consul Lucius Metellus. It was dominated in turn by Byzantines, Lombards, Normans, and a half dozen other overlords.  But the part of the town which gives it its world heritage status is the Città Sotterranea, the subterranean city.  That part is governed by the geography of the site; the Gravina River has furrowed a deep ravine through the middle of the plateau before punching its way through the western side and debouching into the Bassento.  And all along the edges of the ravine are caverns and grottoes in the limestone layers.  And these and many others created by the hand of man have provided habitation for humans since the Paleolithic.

Perched on the lip of a ravine

The Gravina gorge

The Medieval city

     These rock-cut dwellings are known simply as Sassi, ‘Stones’, but that hardly tells the tale.  The Sassi of Matera housed a prehistoric troglodytic settlement thought to be among the first human settlements in all of Italy.  A community of cave men, in other words.  And there is a continuous pattern of settlement here, apparently for at least 35,000 years.  Many of the more recent houses are little more than caves as well, but many others have been laboriously hewn from the limestone into proper walls, ceilings, floors, and rooms.  In some areas, whole rock-cut streets and rows of dwellings can be visited.  This area takes its name, “La Gravina,” from the river.

    Elsewhere we clambered up to a knob detached from the main range of stone, one used by the Lombards to build a castle, half rock-hewn and half masonry.  On one side of the crag is the Chiesa di San Pietro Caveoso, “Cave-made Church of Saint Peter” one of no fewer than seven so-called rupestrian churches in the town, that is, churches wholly contained in or carved into a cavern.  These churches are a common feature of Paleo-Christianity in Basilicata, Puglia, and our Cilentan part of Campania.  For example, the cavern at Olevano sul Tusciano, about 30 km north of here, has no fewer than four little chapels, not excavated into, but constructed within, this huge cavern, complete with walls and even roofs!  San Pietro is almost totally natural, which for me adds to its evocative atmosphere, and on several plastered walls are the scant remains of once-beautiful Byzantine frescoes.

The Castle and Chiesa di San Pietro Caveoso

     We ambled down one of the main streets in La Gravina, ascending and descending stairways as the lanes zigged and zagged their way along the side of the cliff. Many of the chambers were long since abandoned, sad reminders of an even sadder past, but many have been refurbished as shops and art studios.  One large dwelling has been refurnished as a tourist site, one which we thoroughly enjoyed.  You enter a large living area, walls squared out and plastered so that, except for the absence of windows, you might well imagine yourself in a stone-built cottage.  At the far end is a sleeping area for Mama and Papa and a trundle crib for bebe.  Entering a second chamber, you find the bed of the children and, to one side, a simple kitchen with open hearth and a crude flue vented to the outside.  Passing through the living area, you enter the stables where the livestock was housed in winter and agricultural implements stored.  Descending a long flight of rock-cut stairs, you enter the cantina, with a pedestal to the south for ranges of the huge terra cotta ziri in which were stored wine and olive oil.  On the right is another pedestal, but this one constituting the treading vat and press bed for making the wine and oil to be stored in the ziri.
La Gravina

The pantry of the troglodytic house

Bedroom for children
Bedroom for Mama and Papa

The kitchen

The pantry

Rock-cut stairway

The cantina

    We retraced our steps and entered to the north the household pantry, where other foodstuffs would have been stored.  No sign of a latrine or running water.  Waste disposal will have been in chamber pots and then the old heave-ho, and waste will have washed slowly down the slope into the river,  Meanwhile, water was laboriously brought from that same river, some 1 1/2 kilometers down a simple footpath.  Electricity, even in the middle of the twentieth century, was a distant dream. Obviously, we are speaking of some very primitive living conditions.  In fact, when Carlo Levi wrote his famous book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, detailing the desperately poor, superstition-riddled lives of backward peasants in the Basilicata, and with its intimations that this region was so forlorn it was beyond redemption even by Christ, he tells us he used La Gravina as inspiration for his fictional town.  And, cynic though I am, it’s hard not to feel the disconcerting echoes of human suffering that the site evokes.  In the 1950s, remaining inhabitants were forcibly removed by the State to more modern buildings farther up the slope, and the town gradually began to grow upwards along the slope and the old town abandoned.  But in the late 1980s, tourism began, and today there are B & Bs, hotels, wine bars, and dozens of vacation homes in La Gravina, and more and more people are digging out the old deeds and either selling or developing the old dwellings.

A B&B in the Gravina

      From beneath the ridge, looking up and along the ravine and shielding your eyes from the modern part of the city above, you can easily imagine you are looking at a primitive village from Biblical times if not before, and numerous Biblical films have in fact been made here, most famously Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.”  That story of human ignorance, cruelty and misery, and the distant hope of redemption, perfectly embodies the undeniable fascination of this haunted landscape.

A scene out of Biblical times

Sunday, October 16, 2016

I Love you Trulli, Trulli I do!


    Why yes, I think I have heard that a pun is the lowest form of humor.

     Last week we headed out for a giro grande, an overnighter.  Fabio has insisted for years that we need to see the town of Matera, over in Basilicata, about 2 hours southwest of here.  This is a town where the dwellings were originally carved into the limestone walls of a deep ravine along the Gravina River, one of the most evocative sites in the country and the setting for numerous movies.  More about that later.  Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Sandy had stumbled across a web site for a restaurant over on the Adriatic coast, also excavated into limestone cliffs, but in this case with vistas out over the sea.  It was only another hour or so east from Matera, so we decided to trek over and spend the night in a B&B and have dinner at this fancy place.  More about that later as well.

     Our trip over was on Thursday, and Friday morning we decided to take a more southerly route back home and stop by the little village of Alberobello, ‘Beautiful Tree,’ and then head on down to the Ionian Sea to stop by a famous archaeological site at Metaponto before heading back up the Bassento River valley and back across the mountains to home.  Now, don’t get me wrong, Matera was a knockout, as I hope Sandy’s pictures will soon convince you, but I have to say that it was awe-inspiring in its austerity, almost a moonscape.  Alberobello, on the other hand, was completely enchanting.  Just imagine you’ve stumbled into a Hobbit metropolis.  I expected to bump into Frodo or Bilbo around every corner.  And as it happened, we did indeed meet a Hobbit, every bit as cute and charming as you might imagine.  But his name was Giuseppe.

     Alberobello and the area in which it is located, called the Murgia, is famous for its houses as well, but in this case a special type of dwelling called a trulloTrulli are circular, dry-stone huts with conical roofs topped by a cute little finial.  And they dot the landscape everywhere in this area.  It’s like stepping into an alternate world.

    As at Matera, necessity was the mother of invention.  The Murgia is almost entirely karstic geologically, that is, layers of limestone riddled with fissures and caves.  And Puglia is in the rain shadow of the Apennines, so rainfall is not plentiful.  What little rainfall they get seeps right through those fissures, such that there’s really very little surface water:  no ponds, no lakes, no rivers, nada.  But the soil is fertile and the hills gentle, so perfect land for wheat and olive trees.  The solution was to dig large cisterns to store the seasonal rainfall and then use it for irrigation in the summer.  But of course digging cisterns involved excavating large amounts of stone at considerable cost in effort.  What to do with all that rock?  Use it!  Everywhere along the roads you see fields girded by beautiful, dry-stone walls.  But even then, there was rock to spare, and not much forest land in the area to provide wood, so these ingenious Pugliesi used the stone to make their typical, evocative little huts and named them trulli, from Greek τρούλος, ‘cupola’.  Originally these were temporary shelters for farm workers or storerooms for tools and crops, but they were so effective that eventually they became the standard form of housing, often a series of circular rooms, all connected and each with one of those whimsical little cones on top.

Stone walls and trulli in the countryside

Street scenes in the Zona delli Trulli

     All the stonework in the trulli is dry-laid, that is, without mortar.  Plenty of limestone here, obviously, but turning limestone into mortar requires intense heat, and, again, there’s not enough forest here to make that practicable.  So the walls are dry-laid, based on bedrock and varying in thickness from 2-7’, depending on the diameter of the room, and all slightly battered, that is, sloped inward at about a 5% angle to provide more stability.  Walls are 6-7’ in height and circular or square, though circles are the norm.  Domes are typically formed in two layers, an inner vault with voussoirs, the standard Roman form, that is, with wedge-shaped stones laid on end and capped with a keystone to lock the whole system and make it self-supporting, and then an outer ‘skin’ of limestone slabs, corbelled—with upper stones overlapping lower ones— to create the conical shape.  These are tilted down at a slight angle to shed rain.

     Inside the trulli used as homes there will be a kitchen with a flue and chimney and often a bread oven built into a niche in the stone wall, one or more bedrooms, a large stall for the animals (Yep, inside the house.  Animals provide body heat in the winter), a pantry, and a cantina for the wine and olive oil.

The conical roofs are capped by a little finial called a pinnacolo, in various shapes such as disks, balls, cones, bowls, even a table in one case, all to identify the stonemason. Inner and outer walls are whitewashed and, additionally, whitewash is also often used for a large symbol on the roof such as a cross, a cross with a heart pierced by an arrow, symbol of the local patron saint, or a large circle divided into quadrants, each bearing the letters S,D,S, or C for Sanctus Christus Sanctus Dominus, Latin for ‘Holy Christ, Holy Lord’.


Artist's shop

The mother church with its domes

    In the town of Alberobello there is a whole district full of trulli, along both sides of meandering lanes and courtyards.  A corso runs through the center, quite touristy, even in this off season, but duck into a side lane and you’re right back in Hobbit Land.  The little cottages are cool and comfy in the blistering Puglia summer, but they were murder to heat back in the day with nothing but an open fire; those stone walls and the conical ceiling just suck the heat right up.  The upshot was that the trulli, most constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were practically derelict as housing in Alberobello by the 1980s.  And then a very clever gent named Guido Antonietta bought up several dozen, fitted them out with modern kitchenettes and baths and some period furniture and began renting them out as a cheap alternative to the town’s hotels.  And made a killing.  You can predict the rest.  But the town has done a wonderful job of catering for the tourist crowd without ruining the charm of the district.  Today many trulli are shops for artisans, wine bars, restaurants, retail shops—at the top of the corso there is even a beautiful stone church with the conical domes all over the roof.


Deserted trulli

    We had a ball strolling the Zona delli Trulli, but I have to tell you, my favorite experience with them occurred before we even reached Alberobello.  When we were about 2 km north of the town and scooting down the provincial highway, we noticed on a little country lane over to the right, out among the olive groves, a little settlement of trulli.  Too cute to pass up.  Azura did a little giro and we ducked down that little lane so that Sandy could get a photo.  I pulled to the side of the road and as Sandy popped out of the car to get her shot, a cute little farmer in his 80s, decked out in his work clothes and gloves, opened a door and motioned us inside one of his trulli which he uses to house his equipment.  Yes, gentle reader, I’m going to abuse you with yet another wonderful, genial Italian who went far out his way to be hospitable to strangers.  Meet Giuseppe Argese, who lives in a four-trullo house across the lane and still works his olive groves at a right old age.  And who kindly demonstrated for us the various parts of the little trullo where farm hands used to set up house during the vintage and olive harvest, about this time of the year.  He showed us their kitchen with its chimney and flue and the place where the bread oven was originally, the bedroom area, the living area and the storeroom.  And provided us with 30 minutes of delightful conversation with one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet.  
Giussepe's storage trullo

The hearth

And sleeping quarters

With our new friend Giuseppe

     As we were leaving, Giuseppe insisted we have a picture made with him and provided his address and left strict instructions to send him copies of the photos.  You may be sure we will honor that request.  And I will have a copy of my own framed, just to remind me of my only meeting with a Hobbit.  Strictly speaking, I didn’t get a look at those hairy feet, but I know in my heart they were there.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Home Brew

Rolando and Nino unload grapes

      Earlier I mentioned that the Astones were not harvesting this year but rather had bought a large consignment of grapes with which to make their own wine.  But it seems we’re a bit jinxed this year; last Saturday we decided to head out for some exploration and didn’t return until fairly late.  The next day we saw a huge plastic tub out on the terrazza and assumed it was being cleaned in preparation for the vintage.  Nope.  It seems that Rolando is extremely particular about his regimen, and soon after we left, the must fermenting in this vat had reached the right temperature and alcohol level, and the press had proceeded.  Without the two rookies that so much wanted to see it.

But, not to worry, Rolando’s bothers, Francesco and Vincenzo, would be racking their wine Monday afternoon, and a quick phone call had us all set up to go see the process at Francesco’s house down in Agropoli.  Monday promptly at 2:30, Nino, Filomena’s brother and a dear friend, knocked on the door and we all climbed into his van and off we went to Francesco’s.  Francesco lives in an apartment complex off the Via Gaspare, on the outskirts of the town.  We exited the van and found the two brothers sitting out under a pergola in a beautiful vegetable garden.  So typical of Italians; Americans apparently think that Italians eat massive bowls of pasta and meatballs, heaped with cheese, when nothing could be further from the truth.  Most Italians over the age of 30 will gladly forgo meat for weeks on end and rarely eat pasta as a main course, but, take away their fresh fruits and vegetables, and you may have a riot on your hands.  Again and again we have seen where an Italian friend will have a small plot of land where they lovingly nurse the plethora of vegetables that love this climate so much.  Or, barring that, they will have a nonno or tio or cugino somewhere in the country who keeps them supplied with the good stuff.

Rolando's crusher/de-stemmer

Francesco's fermentation tub

Pumping the must to the aging vat

The 100 gal. stainless aging vat

     Francesco led us into the ground floor of his house, a nice workroom with tiled floors and a work counter complete with sink.  Propped up on grape crates was the same sort of tub that Rolando had, some 4’ in diamter and about as deep.  It was covered by a large tablecloth, tied tightly on both sides to keep out the fruit flies, and when we uncovered it, the smell was delicious.  Floating at the top was a large cap of grapeskins, and Francesco explained that he had crushed 550 kg of grapes of the cultivars Barbera and San Giovese.  Since these were the same grapes that Rolando had used, I suspect the brothers all went in together.  The part of the process we did not see was the crush, but Rolando had showed us the hand-cranked crusher/de-stemmer, in this case a hopper which fed grapes down between two rollers operated by a crank, rollers which allowed the crushed grapes to fall through slots at the bottom into the fermentation tub but spat the stems out the front.

    In the corner of Francesco’s cantina was a large, footed, stainless-steel vat which held 400 liters of liquid.  Francesco brought out a small, perhaps one horsepower pump with couplings for an inlet and outlet hose.  Nino hooked up a length of clear plastic hose to the pump’s inlet.  At the other end was a cylindrical screened receptacle to admit must but filter out grape solids.  This end was placed in a a large plastic tub beneath a spigot at the bottom of the fermentation vat.  Meanwhile, Vincenzo hooked up a 15’ length of what looked like garden hose to the outlet, while Francesco placed the other end in the stainless aging vat.  Thus, the must was to pour through the spigot into the plastic tub, the screened housing in the bottom of the tub would exclude the solids but suck up the must and the pump would send it by way of the outlet hose to the aging vat.

    But, as is usual in such operations, there were some glitches.  Most of the grape solids were cooperating by floating on the top of the must, as any good ‘cap’ should, but there were recalcitrants down in the must which kept clogging up the spigot and the screen of the filter.  Eventually Nino brought out a long stick with three truncated branches on one end and ran this down the inside wall of the tub to unclog the spigot.  Meanwhile Vincenzo used his hand down in the must to wipe away solids from the filter screen, fairly effective for five minutes or so, but then the screen became so clogged that the process ground to a halt.  Eventually we used a good old pasta strainer to catch solids as they exited the spigot, and about 40 minutes later, most of the must had been decanted to the aging vat.  

Vincenzo and Francesco break down the basket press to clean it

Nino helps re-assemble it

Followers and chocks are on...

and the yoke is torqued down

Nino scoops the last of the solids

Press wine

At that point the guys rolled out a basket press mounted on casters and placed it next to the tub.  Most parts of this press can be removed, and though it looked spic and span to me, the guys broke it down to its constituents and carefully cleaned the must tray, the staves of the basket, the followers, and anything else which might come in contact with the wine constituents.  Then the press was re-assembled and Nino began scooping up solids with a plastic bucket and pouring them into the basket, while Francesco and Vincenzo distributed them evenly around the central screw.  Eventually the ‘press cake’ reached nearly to the top of the basket, and Nino and Vincenzo carefully fitted two semicircular boards, called ‘followers’ around opposite sides of the screw.  Chocks were stacked on top of the followers, tic-tac-toe style, and then a metal yoke was screwed down, a metal rod was inserted into a ratchet mechanism, and Nino gradually ratcheted down the yoke and followers to exert increasing pressure on the press cake.  Interstices between the staves of the basket allowed must to flow out and drain into a circular channel at the bottom of the basket, and a lip on one side directed the must into another plastic bucket under this lip.  As the bucket filled, Francesco placed a ceramic pitcher under the lip to catch must while Vincenzo poured the buckets into the stainless vat.  Francesco explained that, just as in industrial pressing, some 70% of must could be obtained simply by crushing the grapes and allowing them to exude under their own weight.  Nino torqued down the press cake till it was compressed by about 1/3 and then Francesco told him to stop.  He explained that any more would extract too much of the bitter tannic element in the seeds and skins.  We cranked up the yoke, removed the chocks and followers and loaded the rest of the solids into the basket, Nino in the last instance using a new plastic dust pan to scoop up the last of these.  Then the process was repeated.

    Francesco offered me a plastic cup of new wine, and I will attest that it was a bit on the sweetish side but was absolutely delicious.  Francesco tells me that he obtains about 350 liters from a consignment of grapes, enough to keep the two brothers and their families supplied for a year.  The wine will age in stainless steel until March and then will be bottled.

   There’s a certain amount of historical symmetry there; the Romans also bottled in March, in this case in terra cotta jugs called amphorae which held about 6 1/2 gallons of wine.  And they celebrated this ancient ‘Beaujolais Nouveaux’ with a religious festival in honor of Jupiter, not the god of wine, but the god of weather--with any luck at all, weather of a sort to allow these gentlemen’s ancient ancestors to produce an elixir as delicious and healthful as theirs.

Cleaned, sanitized, ready for next year