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Part One: The Golf Ball.

01/25/2010

olive picker crying

‘What else am I supposed to do’, he says, his voice angry and cracking. ‘You expect me to sit in front of some cafe with a bunch of the boys and await my own death? Is that what you want?’ He rattles the back of his hand at me, in the tell-tale Italian way. As the tears spill down his cheeks, I swallow hard and reach down into my pocket, turning the tiny digital recorder into the ‘off’ position. I spin my camera around onto my back and close my notepad. I put the cap back on the pen. Our eyes connect, and it’s such a moment of intense intimacy that it triggers my flight response: I want to turn away, or even run. And there it is again, the golf ball. Lately, it won’t seem to go away, no matter how hard I try.

I’m starting to wonder if it’s my fault that he’s upset, that this is the fourth time today I’ve had some old man in tears. I’ve seen anger too, and profound frustration, the kind that borders on the suicidal. And all of this has come about from the same question, a question that I thought was so innocuous that no one would really think to answer it, that no one would take me seriously. My question has been this: How long have you been working these olive fields?

olives in handsI saw it earlier today too when I pulled over and leaned my bicycle on an old stone wall, not far from a group of men all laying nets on the ground. ‘What else do we know’, one finally asked as he pulled a swath of cloth from his pocket to wipe his flooding eyes.

And I saw it even earlier still when I asked a man on a tractor. We talked for half an hour before it occurred to me that I was holding him up. ‘I’m not in any rush’, he said, and then he started asking me silly, small-talk questions, the kind of questions you ask when you want to prolong a conversation, so you don’t have to return to the thing you were doing before. Even at 10.am I could smell the grappa on his breath. His smooth forehead, yet heavy lines around his mouth and eyes told me that he spent the last 60 years smiling, yet he never once smiled as we spoke. ‘This used to be favourite part of the year’, he said, implying that now, it was anything but. We said goodbye and he pulled up to an empty intersection and just sat there for four minutes, his shoulders shaking. No cars passed. My own eyes began to fill. Eventually he popped his tractor into gear and slogged on, to the mill, I hoped. But it just stuck in my throat again, that sandy golf ball that won’t seem to go away lately.

olive nets This is not the story of a type of people that we may be tempted to call ‘peasants’. These people don’t whistle on their way to work, any more than you do. The thing is, is that if you live here and speak their language, these people have names, mortgages, colour televisions and children that live up north. They catch colds. They cut coupons. They’re people like you and me, so I want to resist the notion that they’re any happier over bad situations, any more than you or I would be. Why am I telling you this? Because ever time you buy a litre of olive oil, you become involved in all of this, whether you know it or not. And the odds are good that you’re being swindled. You’d be mad if you knew.

The price of olives in Italy has fallen so low that it often no longer makes any sense to pick them. Those that still do often feel embarrassed, ashamed that they have nothing better to do with their time. They feel that they need to explain themselves and many stories start with, ‘Well, when Margherita died’, or, ‘When my children moved away I was very alone but I just kept picking each year’. ‘I don’t know anything else’. And olives in Puglia are not just another crop. They’re everything. The olive is to Puglia what the cow is to Normandy, Ireland or Texas, what the soy bean is to China, what petrol is to the Middle East. And life here is changing fast.

sly walking from olive tree

Part 2: Let’s Not Forget That Giorgio Smells Sulpher.

01/25/2010

io lavorando nei campi

Every so often I’m interviewed in the regional newspapers, mostly, I think, because of all the talks I give on the local olive oil, and for my constant stance that we should be raising the quality but not at the expense of changing our local style. Journalists find this fascinating, for some reason, and I’ve discussed it with them in so many times that I eventually came up with a memory aid for the stages of making olive oil in Italy. Let’s Forget Giorgio Smells Sulfur. It’s not pretty, but it works. I know what you’re thinking: It’s shocking that I ever even made it through school.

Making olive oil, is a lot like making wine (See important note below). It’s actually a LOT like making wine, in that it’s a simple process, but really easy to mess up. Like wine, those that make oil need to master a series of small steps, each based on a local culture, a local world view and even the individual personality of the producer. Which olives to plant? How close should the trees be to one another? How big should they be allowed to grow? If and when you prune them, how, exactly, and how much? When are you going to pick, that is, at which level of ripeness? And HOW are you going to pick them, once you’ve decided they’re ready? And like wine again, locale tends to dictate tendency, to the point that oils from certain parts of the Mediterranean TEND to taste like other oils from that same zone.

olive nel manoLet’s Forget that Giorgio Smells Sulfur starts with L, or il Lavaggio. Unlike grapes, olives need a good washing, where there is no danger of washing away any important skin mold, nor diluting the must. Rocks, insects, leaves, branches and buckets and boatloads of dirt are rinsed away, leaving behind nice shiny fruit, in various colours. Why the various colours? Because different species ripen differently, and when you pick, exactly, is part of the ‘local style’. Even washing can be skipped, as it is in parts of Greece where there isn’t enough water come winter. (Remember that olives are most often harvested in winter, even if quality producers are harvesting earlier and earlier, pressing less ripe fruit with the intention of producing la pizzica, or ‘the bite’ in the back of the throat, a very,very sought after characteristic). But go ahead and take an imaginary look down at the discharge water and remember where birds and insects do their morning reading. I’d consider this step a must in our batch, even when pesticides aren’t in question. (Ever notice those plastic bottles swinging from some olives trees your last trip to Italy? There markers for shepherds, indicating which trees have been treated, and which are safe for his flock). So what’s to avoid with the washing? That the water begins to ferment on the olives, creating both heat and pickled flavours.

le ruote del frantoio‘Forget’ is ‘frangitura’, or ‘the rupturing’, where ‘frantoio’ comes from, the Italian word for ‘mill’ (in Puglia they are called lu trappitu, and historically they were often underground). The cleaned olives are smashed, most often under giant stone wheels. Even if you don’t come from an olive culture, you can close your eyes and see the wheels, just the same. There are three principal elements to an olive and rupturing them is the best way to separate them out.

The pungent smell of the baking of bread in wood-fired oven, a thick, thick cut of beef sizzling on a grill, a really good red wine in the perfect glass, this is what heaven must smell like, and in this step of the production, this is what the air is like in the mill, the smell of fresh olives almost jarring. If you could bottle this fragrance, you’d probably call your perfume, LUST!, and both sexes would buy it. This what olive oil must smell like…. If YOU were the bruschetta. Your knees quake. You’ll be tempted to rush out and buy a loaf of crusty bread, just to go with what’s in the air. You don’t forget smells like this. Those that don’t speak Italian will find this charming too: the black pap is now called ‘la pasta’.

La ‘Gramolatura’, or the ‘mixing’,or ‘grating’ is ‘Giorgio’ and I best like to describe him as tossing a pile of refrigerator magnets onto a roulette wheel: if you rolled them around long enough, you’d get all the magnets to all line up together, based on the positive and negative charges. Only with olives, it’s that nature likes similar liquids to form droplets. And that’s what happens. Water goes with water. Oil with oil. Yes, ‘gremulata’ comes from the same base word, although through the French. A step to screw up? Allowing the friction to generate heat.

i fiscoli ‘Smells’, is ‘spremuta’, a word every visitor to an Italian bar will instantly recognise, even if this time it’s not oranges for orange juice. Spremuta is the ‘pressing’, the ‘expressing’, the ‘squeezing’. It’s when the two liquids are separated from the solid, which is left behind, and will very likely sold off and turned into a lower grade oil by someone else. It’s called la sansa, and believe it or not, a lot of the Mediterranean uses special home furnaces based on the stuff. ‘La Spremuta’ is now a controversial step, no longer practiced as widely as it used to be.

But imagine a circular jute doormat. A layer of ‘pasta’. Doormat. Pasta. Until you have what cider makers call a ‘cake’, a veritable column of olivey goodness. Now add pressure. A lot of it. And the juices just run. I’ve been involved in the olive oil making process all over Italy, Spain and a tiny bit in France and I never find this part as anything less than magical.

I personally tend to clap like a five year old and say, ‘Oh Boy, Oh Boy, Oh Boy’! I can often be seen ‘Cabbage Patching’ around the machines, with or without the White Man’s Overbite. Even the most seasoned farmers tend to smile shy grins as the yellow-green trickle turns to a turrent . You remember the nipping-cold fields, all the sniffles, your frigid fingers, the aching, sore backs, and then, maybe like they say about child-birth, you forget it all for what comes out of that tube.

Not that it’s done. It still needs to be, ‘Sulfur’, ‘Separazione’, or Separated. You can do this one of many ways but now days it often involves a centrifuge. The faster the dark and nasty water is separated from the fruity oil, the better. You can pump this down a drain or back over the fields, depending on the local culture. What remains, my friends, is pure gold.

olio uscendo Only it’s not really gold. It’s electric yellow. It’s sonic green. It’s the colour of anti-freeze. Or Gatorade. Or those plastic glow-sticks used at campgrounds and night clubs. It’s now olive oil, and depending on strength of the crop and your processing of it, it’s one of several grades. You find out that by chemically testing, and if we made our imaginary olive oil in Europe, then tasting too.

And here is where things turn as murky as the vegetal water. From the time our imaginary oil leaves the tube until the time it hits a consumer’s table, there are an awful lot of shenanigans that are going to happen to it, statistically, on a scale virtually unseen in any other product. If they did this to our wine, we’d have journalists out there in minutes, police officers in hours and the place would be closed the same day. Yet, this isn’t a single producer but a massive industry. Most likely you have these products in your kitchen right now.

Chris Butler, my friend and co-host of this year’s Olive week in June, always says, ‘I couldn’t even MAKE oil for that price”, when hearing what our students pay for olive oil at large chains in Australia, Northern Europe and North America. What’s implied, are the shenanigans. Someone is cheating along the line. We’re being swindled.

On Tuesday February 12th, in our next newsletter, the final installment, we’ll discuss olive oil quality and what it should mean to you. We’ll teach you how to become a better consumer, how to spend your money more wisely. But for those that are truly passionate about their food, wine and of course, olive oil, we still have space in our class in June, held at the castle. Click here to learn more: Calendar.

Notes: Not everyone thinks that olive oil is like wine, especially Chris, who has a profound knowledge of the subject, borne from years of consulting on more continents than I could point to on a map, working with everything olive-related, from grove selection to teaching Tuscans themselves to prune their own trees. Here is his take on the similarities between wine and oil: ‘ I strenuously disagree that making olive oil can be liked to making wine and, in fact, I stress the difference in all the lectures I do. The making of olive oil is merely and totally the mechanical separation of the oil from the pulp and vegetal water and requires no other human intervention other than attempting to maintain this initial integrity through prompt and adequate storage. The oil maker works on the knowledge that enzymic degradation has begun and the oil’s future is numbered even prior to extraction.’ Our differing opinions on the metaphor of the simularlities with wine making come from the fact that we have such different audiences, his professional olive oil producers that want to improve their quality, mine, serious homecooks that are approaching the subject for the first time. By the way, not only does Chris really does know his field, but he’s also a lot of fun, forever on my short list of favourite dinner companions, as he truly loves food and wine and olive oil, on the same level that I do.


io nel albero

Part Three: Bananas, Coffee and chocolate.

01/25/2010

da bacile, la strada, inverno

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on olive oil quality. And I’ve been talking first-hand with producers, marketers and those that make oil for their own consumption. It’s a lot of information to absorb.

It’s so big that you could spend your life studying olive oil quality (I have friends that are doing just that). It’s such a massive subject in fact that I had problems keeping this newsletter under seven pages, just the text. Then last night I deleted it all and decided to go in a different direction, fixating rather on what I would have liked to know if I were not a food-person living in olive land.

I decided to ask: What’s the skinny? What does it mean to you? How can you be assured you’re not getting ripped off? How can we use our buying power to improve the culinary world rather than further eroding it? What’s the real take away? These came to the forefront last night at 3 a.m. as I rewrote the newsletter, the wind howling through the green Persian shutters of my school’s library.

I sat in the dark, laptop on my legs, creating a few files. I then cut and pasted it all into a few basic factoid-like nuggets, leaving behind the magazine, newspaper and blog rants, the lectures notes (both my own, and Chris Butler’s) and the pages and pages of European legal journals. Those interested in further can find it all though, most it even online.

But for those that want the shorter version, here is what I know:

1)

Few industries are as corrupt, virtually all of it on the top-end. Massive, massive tankers are routinely filled with low quality olive or non-olive oils and sold to the large corporations that we all know (I’d tell you the names but they’d sue me out of existence and besides, you already know them, they live on your supermarket shelves). Adulterating olive oil is as big as the narcotics trade. The incoming olive and other various oils are blended by the large firms, bottled and shipped to your grocery store. To buy a bottle of these oils, we as consumers are playing a significant role. It’s no less significant a role than buying canned tuna that was harvested in a way that kills dolphins. Or coffee or tea in a way that destroys rural farms and villages. Consumer awareness is everything.

3)

These large multinationals (the ones with the pretty labels of those same 30 tiny trees lining the walls of Lucca), buy up all sorts of oil from various parts of the Mediterranean, providing that the locals never label it as oil from that place, effectively squashing the development of local, quality-minded producers. Take a moment and think about how wine works, the more specific the person or place, the higher the quality. What propels Chateau Snooty-Pants is reputation. On the other end, jug wines announce only a state or country, and few of us are eager to drink a lot of jug wine when better is on offer. Everyone loses on such a concept, EXCEPT the multi-nationals: growers can’t feed their families, you’ll never be able to taste what high-quality Turkish, Tunisian or Croatian oil tastes like, and those that grow high quality oil in Italy can’t compete with cheap, low-quality imports. I’m not about protecting Italian jobs. But I am against the bait and switch at the consumer’s expense. For the record, buying oil labeled as Italian and buying Italian oil is not the same thing.

4)

Judging the over-all quality of real, unadulterated olive oil is partially subjective, but mostly… not. ‘Extra virgin’ is an archaic term, when oil was decanted naturally. It no longer really applies and many serious producers now prefer ‘Premium’ in it’s stead. Today, both refer to oil with less than 0.8% oleic acid. This is qualifiable. It’s a simple test that in ten minutes you could train a monkey to do (I mastered it in just under an hour). The lower the acid, the more a producer can expect to charge. No one argues this. As my friend Chris Butler points out though, don’t confuse ‘quality’ with ‘standard’, which is really just another way to say ‘the minimal level of acceptance’. The second part of ‘Extra virgin’ or ‘Premium’ is ‘free of defects’, which means free of extra flavours not normally thought of as good qualities, such as mold, soap, wet cardboard, etc. As with all tastes, this part is more subjective, the way some believe that proper Sauvignon Blanc should smell of cat pee or that parts of Spain prefer their tripe to smell a bit like you-know-what. Yesterday I asked a olive farmer friend of mine about this: he did away with any thoughts of subjectivity regarding judging quality olive oil, saying only, ‘In farming, things only stink when something isn’t right’.

What to do about it?

Easy. You’re already doing it with other foods. You just need to treat olive oil the same way you would as something from a farmer’s market. In short, you need to cut out all the middle men. Here’s how.

1) Most of the scandals involve large multinational companies, the kind that live on your olive oil shelf in your local supermarket. Scan the shelves and these are the ones to avoid. No little producer that puts his or her name and address on the label would adulterate their oil, as their reputation is all they have. Be skeptical of anyone big enough to have a marketing department. Ideally, you’d visit an olive producing region, taste their oils and choose one you like. Make a human contact. Arrange for the producer to ship to you directly. Yes, the shipping will cost more because of the small order, but the savings on the back end will be so significant as to be worth it. Other tips include buying a bottle from the producer and taking it home with you but then ordering oil in five liter cans, lighter and more break-resistant that bottles (and you’ll already have one to refill left over from the trip anyway). Send a thank you card upon acceptance of the oil and tell them you’d like to order again next year. And if you’re happy, then do. The fact that you’re subscribed to the newsletter probably means that you’re already aware of the beauty of meeting the folks that produce your food. If you won’t be travelling in an olive region anytime soon, talk to a friend that will be. But that’s about as far away as you want to go, two generations.

2) Learn to hear ‘Ware’ ‘House’ ‘Club’ as three words that virtually guarantee the scams will continue (as long as there is an enormous, price-driven, under-informed buying pool, this is not going away anytime soon). Be willing to pay more, but only if that money goes directly to the producer.

3) Host an olive oil party, where folks bring a bottle (ask some to bring some hand-made oil and others to bring supermarket oil). Taste blind, preferably in small glasses, coloured blue if at all possible (the greenness forms opinions but is not a good indicator of freshness, fruitiness, etc., and blue masks the colour). You can find tasting notes online. We do this at the school a lot and it’s shocking how a favourite quickly stops being so when tasted against others. Don’t be intimated or slow down conversation by talking about how little you know. Taste. Really, really taste. You’re ahead of the game more than you think. Southern Europeans tend to be horrible comparative tasters as they tend more towards place-based chauvinism and social inertia (‘I don’t have to taste others, I know ours is best’). New Worlders tend to be remarkably good at not only noting differences but stating preferences.

And that is more or less it. I buy my oil from the same people that make it, and occassionally I make it myself. It’s always one of the proudest things on my table and it enriches my life considerably, that I’m that close to the source. In the end, it’s up to each of us.

Santa Cesarea

01/20/2010
I recently rode my bicycle to Santa Cesarea Terme, a stunningly beautiful village on the Adriatic coast, about 50 kilometres south-east of my home in Lecce. Unpacking my bags from the bike in order to check into a small family-run pensione, I called out across the street to a man setting up a few outdoor tables, ‘One for dinner, chill me your favourite local white. A fiano if you have it’. Not an hour later I was checked in, unpacked, showered and half way into a plate of the cavatelli and clams, the fiano going down far, far easier than it should have. Next was a grilled sea bass longer than my forearm, served with toasty little nuggets of roasted potatoes, so crunchy as to drown out the voice of Mina coming through the crackling speakers. I was in bed before 10 p.m., having limped up the hotel stairs a lot like John Wayne.

These are the pictures I took the next morning, over the course of about 20 minutes, just after the hour of six am. My legs were still stiff but I never recall a more beautiful morning, the entire town smelling of fresh baked cornetti, rich, foaming milk and the way we roast espresso down here, when the flavours leave coffee and start to head towards that of bitter chocolate.

I stepped down to the shore and watched the fisherman for an hour: I ripped and ate from the white paper bag, which was rendered shiny and translucent in spots by the fresh, buttery pastry.

I’m often asked what is that I like so much about Southern Italy, when other parts of Italy are more famous and tourist-ready. As I rolled around the torn pieces of cornetto in my mouth and smelled the nubby little cigars of the nearby fisherman, the smell of the briny sea, the sounds of a puttering Ape, remembering the dinner I had the night before, I thought this: If you have to ask, you’ve probably never been here.

The Law and How to Live with It: Palermo to Alcamo.

01/18/2010

I had noticed that the helicopter marked Polizia was flying low, and that I was zooming pretty fast. I’d also noticed that traffic was honking at me, in ways they usually don’t. Then there was a police car behind me. And another. Then one in front of me. There were sirens and before I knew it, I was on the side of the road, handing over my documents, my eyes still stinging from the wind, my heart pounding from all the police attention, and the fact that one cop actually unfastened the thin white leather strap on his pistol as he walked toward me.

Would you like to make a declaration, asked the police officer. You know, as Italian law dictates that everyone that is arrested can make a statement.

Arrested? I was lost, but clearly not doing anything intentionally wrong, right?

He flipped through my passport yet again as they all scanned my bicycle and my packs sitting on the gravel like a lumpy archipelago along side the road, the traffic flying by so fast that each passing car caused us each to shake and wobble at exactly the same intervals, sort of like watching the pieces move if you wiggled the base of a board game.

And although it took over two hours, here is the condensed version of conversation, all yelled over the roar of traffic:

Cop one: You can’t be on this road on a bicycle, you’ll get killed.

Me: Yeah, I see that now. I was trying to get on the auto-strada 113

Cop one: Yeah, you should have taken that one.

Me: I tried to but they are not marked. The maps aren’t clear. And there are no signs.

Cop one: Yeah, you should have read the signs. Why are you travelling by bike so far?

Me: There aren’t any signs. Last year I rode even further. Trieste to Lecce.

Cop one: Really? Well, either way. You shouldn’t be on this road with a bike. You could get killed.

Me: I see that now. I thought I was on the 113. I’m travelling the entire South of Italy to get a better understanding of the wines here in the south. And there aren’t any signs on many of the roads.

Cop one: Yeah, how come you didn’t take the 113? You could have gotten killed on this one. So are you staying in hotels or in a sleeping bag?

Me: Hotels. Eating in a lot of nice restaurants too.

Cop One: Really? My brother owns a restaurant near here. In the future, you should read the signs. You could get killed on a road like this one.

The simple fact that I was spotted by the police helicopter, dictated that I had to be given a ticket. I was fined, held for a few hours on the side of the road, chatted with the entire time, joked with and then given a police escort not only off the road, but actually up to, taken inside, and presented to the proprietor of the best local restaurant, Da Pino in the small town of Capaci. We all shook hands and then each officer took turns playfully hitting the top of my helmet, taking my business cards and planning tentative trips to Lecce to visit the wine school. They recapped, yet again, saying that I shouldn’t have been on the road, that it was dangerous to be such a road, that I could have been killed, then we all shook hands again and each car churned gravel onto the open road. And just in case you’re wondering, I had the fish. 


Sly with his new found friends.....

Puglia. La Vera Burrata Andriese

01/18/2010

Long before I crossed over into Puglia I had started making phone calls to well-connected food friends, asking about la Burrata di Andria. One name kept coming up, the producer that tops everyone’s list.

A few more phone calls later I found myself in the back of a caseificio, a cheese-maker’s work shop, where four generations work together in perfect silence.

To say that fresh cheese is made of just milk, salt and rennet is a bit misleading, the way you might say that fine porcelain is just made from fired earth.

Milk is heated, rennet from a veal’s stomach is used to coagulate it and salt is there to give it flavour. This is basic cheese-making and up to this point, it’s the same with every cheese maker I’ve ever visited, which by now must be in the hundreds.

But if you stretch the curd, you can begin to make pasta filata cheeses, or stretch curd cheeses, such as these cute, happy little provole.

La provola, o la scamorza as it’s most often called where I live in the Salento, is widely-consumed, both as it is- at the table- or altered by heat in the kitchen. Grill one of the smoked versions and you’ll think you died and gone to heaven. Sprinkle it with a little sea salt and a dash of bitter, extra virgin ogliarola and you’ll have one of best three-ingredient dishes in all of Italy, a nation famous for our three-ingredient dishes.

The most famous fresh cheese in Italy is fior di latte, although you the reader most likely know it as mozzarella. Here though, mozzarella used to be made from the milk of the Asian water buffalo, as the animal gives milk with a higher fat content. Fior di latte was the version made from cow’s milk. The line has been blurred nowadays, and court cases have been won and lost on both sides.

I asked Domenico to walk me through the making of the most sought after fresh cheese in the entire South of Italy, La Burrata di Andria.

It was one of those moments, when you realise you’re seeing something that wouldn’t be easy to repeat: The son showing me how to make one, the father narrating the cheese’s history.

For a brief moment, I was living inside a documentary.

Francesco explained that burrata doesn’t go that far back, roughly 100 years, and that it was started in the country farm houses nearby. ‘It was a poor person’s cheese’ he said, ‘with strong cultural prejudices, probably because the cheese was formed with human breath’.

Fresh cheese is stretched and formed into a ball.

Francesco shows me a ball of handmade butter, which may have been the original filling for the first burrate, as the name would seem to imply (burro means ‘butter’). Like all cheese makers I’ve ever met, his hands were waterlogged to the point of looking painful, an image you can’t really ever shake off.

First a bubble is formed using a jet of air. Then, using a special nozzle, la burrata is filled with water, just like a balloon.

At this point, you could easily mistake it for a cuttlefish. Maybe even a squid.

Cream and ‘rags’ of cheese are mixed together until they form an almost egg-drop consistency. This is the filling.

The filling goes into the little satchel and tied closed. ‘How long will this keep like this’, I asked Domenico. He placed the little drunken-snowman-of-a -shape on the stainless steel counter as if it were his first. ‘I guess it could last 3 or 4 days but I don’t think they ever do’. And indeed at the school, that is way we treat them as well, as perishable as fresh bread.

Before I realised it they had filled several bags of fresh cheese and had loaded my arms with them, my mention of bike travel never seeming to register.

As I scratched my last notes in my book I watched as the father and sons continued to talk about the cheese, clearly in a way they never had before.

I wish I could say that I ate their burrate on the side of some mountain over looking some silvery lake speckled with bobbing birds but it didn’t happen that way. It was an impromptu picnic. In a tiny park. Wine from the bottle. Fresh bread torn rather than cut. An old worn dishtowel on my lap. A bent fork that had recently spent time repairing a bike.

I wish I could say that I appreciated the cheese for its artisanal merits, for its hand-made-ness, as it were. But it didn’t happen that way.

If you would have passed in your car you would have seen a man in dirty bicycle clothing, sitting on a park bench, eating from saddle bags, a bottle of wine at his heel, his forehead sandy with evaporated salt.

That would be outside though, looking in. For me, it was the first time in a month that I had filled my mouth with the flavours of home, my eyes spilling as I ate.

I’m nearing the Salento. It won’t be long now.

Vulture: Have you Heard? Barolo is the Aglianico of the North.

01/18/2010

You only have to mention Aglianico del Vulture and my mouth begins to water. And I’m not alone.

It’s such an impressive wine that each year as I plan my bicycle trip, the mountain of Vulture -and the cities that around it- sizzle in my brain when I lay open the maps.


The region has been famous for wine since Pre-Christian times, when the Greeks brought a grape to Italy that came to be called simply the ‘Greek’ one. But in Greek. So, ‘Hellenistic’. And then, over time, the name slowly changed in the mouths of each new wave of invaders, leaving it ‘Aglianico’.

If you believe the history books, it made their mouths water as well.

Even today, the caves cut into the sides of the hills are used to make wine: Riding past, it’s the unmistakable smell of red wine on cold rocks.

And this year, as I planned, one name kept topping my list of places to visit: Elena Fucci.

I expected her to be in her 50′s, serious, maybe even snobby.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I was already in the cantina when she arrived, a tiny, young, well-dressed woman who was eager to hear my story before she told me her own.

She took me out into her fields and pointed the vine age of various sites and how that would affect her wine, once blended.

Squinting in the noon-day sun, she pointed to her competitors’ fields. There was x. Over there was y.

It could have been Bordeaux. The amount of serious, world-class wine makers nearly sitting on top of one another was dizzying.

Her current cantina was a standard issue ‘Vulture’. So humble that you wonder where all the good wine comes from.

Her fields though, are stunningly beautiful the way so much wine country is. So beautiful in fact that you can begin to see the perceived link between making wine, and nobility.

A ginger-red fox trotted across the path in front of us as we walked: Elena never broke from her concentration in answering my question. She graduated in Wine Science from Pisa, and then returned to Vulture to improve her family’s wine. Staggering in her knowledge of wine, she is justifiably passionate about Agliancio and its growing zone. From pointing to changes in the soil, to the budding leaves to the smells in the air, you could not find a better representative for the New South Of Italy. Accomplished. Extraordinarily well-informed. Passionate. Eager to engage the outside world about the cultural and culinary wealth of Southern Italy.

‘What would you tell those that drink Italian wine but have never tried an Aglianico di Vulture’, I asked.

‘Try my wine’, she said. ‘Just once. One sip and you’ll convinced that these are some of the best wines in the world’.

As she spoke the words, her voice was free of the braggadocio you often hear in wine makers. It was the voice of pure conviction.

She walked me through the new cantina she and her father were building.

‘Here, this will be the tasting room’, she said, her eyes bigger than the simple raw cement base would merit. ‘Here is where we’ll barrel-age our wine’, pointing to a trickle of water in mud. She was showing me the new cantina still under self-funded construction but in her mind the building already there, so strong her conviction.

We said good-bye and kissed and I continued on, reeling from the incredible natural beauty of Basilicata. I thought about her as I rode off. Like the wines of Vulture themselves, Elena stands out as headstrong and disciplined, in a land of stunning natural beauty.

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