Monthly Archives: March 2013

Pasta alla Norma: Finding a Good Grocer is Like Finding a Good Friend

Pasta alla Norma

4 Servings

I usually welcome the spring season by cooking pasta alla norma. The reason? Spring brings fresh tomatoes, which are key to the success of this dish. If I close my eyes and dig into my childhood memories, I can still smell the aroma of fresh tomatoes and onions simmering on the stove of my grandmother’s house in Sicily. Actually, this is one of the very few happy memories I have about my vacations in Sicily due to the very… (how do I put this?)… rocky relationship between my grandmother and my mom.

Anyway, whenever I go on a “hunt” for the right ingredients for this recipe, it is one of those moments I miss my country and, especially, my grocer the most. The place where I live is a supermarket kingdom: everything is beautifully displayed in these endless aisles but, when you approach the people who work there and start asking questions about a particular produce you are looking for, they look at you in astonishment. No, it’s not my accent… I’m pretty sure about that. 😉 The point is they have no idea what I am talking about. Such a different experience compared to the great feeling I had when I put my
foot into my grocery store in Italy in contemplation of the wonders expecting me.

Let me be honest here. I truly believe that finding the perfect grocer, as well as finding the perfect butcher, is like finding a good friend. Let me explain my metaphor a little more in detail, will you?

You are looking for someone you can totally trust and that is going to give you the best he can offer. It’s not an easy quest and, inevitably, you will encounter a few disappointments down the road but what a fulfilling feeling when you realize that you have found the one. He starts smiling at you when he sees you coming down the street and when you explain him what you are planning on cooking, he knows exactly what you need. Most of the time, he is even a better cook than you are, so he shares tips and cooking skills with you, little secrets that you are going to treasure forever. He goes out of his way to pamper you and make you happy to make sure that you come back over and over and the friendship endures. Do you see my point now?

I still remember the first time I decided to try out this recipe not long ago in Italy. With the list of ingredients based on my dad’s memory, I went to my grocer. I had no idea what to pick but, of course, he came to my rescue and told me that I needed “sauce tomatoes”, i.e., tomatoes that are so juicy and flavorful that not using them to make a sauce would be tantamount to a crime. Then he directed me toward the right type of eggplant to be used and, finally, he made me try this divine ricotta salata coming directly from his trusted farmer. When I came back home and the tomatoes on the stove started spreading their
aroma all over, I was taken back in time to a vacation at my grandmother’s house in an instant and I took a fidelity oath to him. Something like “until death do us part” but less dramatic and permanent! 😉

Enough with the chit chat. This pasta dish originates in the Sicilian city of Catania and, allegedly, it was named after “Norma”, an opera by famous composer Vincenzo Bellini. The ingredients are few: tomato sauce, fried eggplants, basil and grated ricotta salata (a hard, saltier and drier version of ricotta). The tomato sauce takes about three hours to make, so if you are in hurry to put a meal on the table, maybe this is not the right dish. Everybody knows that perfection takes time and the taste of this pasta is heaven.

Pasta alla NormaIngredients:

1 eggplant
6 lb, fresh tomatoes
half, red onion
10 leaves, fresh basil
1 cup, extravirgin olive oil
1 cup, grated ricotta salata
1 lb rigatoni
salt

Directions:

Cut the eggplant into slices (about 3/4 inch thick). In order to remove the excess water from the eggplant slices, place a big colander on a plate, put some sliced eggplants in the colander and salt them. Put another layer of slices on top and salt them. Keep going until all the slices have been layered and salted. Then place a plate on top of the eggplant slices in the colander and put some kind of weight on top of the plate (I usually use peeled tomato cans). Let the slices rest for a couple of hours.

In the meanwhile, remove the stem ends of the tomatoes, cut them in halves and cut each half in 4 quarters. Cut the onion into slices.

In a large non-stick pot, put the tomatoes, the onions and some basil leaves, put some salt (to taste) and cook on a low heat for about three hours, stirring often, or until you obtain a sort of tomato mixture (the water from the tomatoes must almost completely evaporate).

Dice up the eggplant slices. In a non-stick skillet, pour 3/4 cup of olive oil and fry the eggplant cubes. When the cubes are soft and brown, remove them from the olive oil and place them on an oil-absorbing paper tissue.

Run the tomato mixture into a food mill, place the tomato sauce back on the low heat, put the eggplant cubes and the rest of the basil leaves into the sauce and simmer for about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and pour the rest of the olive oil on the sauce.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, add the rigatoni and cook until al dente, stirring occasionally. Drain the rigatoni and toss them to coat with 3/4 of the sauce.

Put the rigatoni into the serving plates, pour some of the remaining sauce on top of them and dust each dish with the grated ricotta salata. Serve right away and enjoy!

I wish you all a very Happy Easter!

Pasta alla Norma

Sicilian-Style Stracotto – Recommended Wine Pairing

Donnafugata, "Tancredi" Sicilia IGTA while back Francesca posted the mouth-watering recipe for a Sicilian-style stracotto: it is finally time to find a good wine pairing for her dish. Based on its ingredients and preparation, we can identify the main organoleptic qualities of this dish as latent sweetness, latent sourness and juiciness; it is also a structured dish.

In light of the ISA wine pairing criteria that we have discussed on a previous post, we can therefore conclude that the wine we should pick to complement Francesca’s dish should have good acidity, smoothness, well defined (but not aggressive) tannins and/or good ABV, and should be a full-bodied wine.

Based on the above characteristics and the geography of Francesca’s dish, I would pair the stracotto with a good Nero d’Avola. Before we get to the actual recommendations, however, let’s just take a quick look about this grape variety.

Planeta, Noto Nero d'Avola "Santa Cecilia" DOCNero d’Avola is a black-berried grape variety that is widely grown in Sicily and that, apparently, was first brought there by Greek migrants during the Greek colonization of Southern Italy (so-called “Magna Graecia”) in the VI century BC. This makes Nero d’Avola essentially an indigenous grape variety to the region of Sicily, where it has been cultivated for centuries (the first official descriptions date back to the end of the XVII century) and where it is also known as “Calabrese” – not because it came from Calabria, but because that name is thought to be a contraction of two words (“Calea” and “Aulisi”) which, in the Sicilian dialect, mean “grape from Avola” (Avola is the name of a Sicilian town).

Nero d’Avola makes wines that are generally deeply colored, full-bodied, distinctly tannic and with good aging potential. The use of Nero d’Avola grapes is permitted both in the only DOCG appellation of Sicily (Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, a blend in which Nero d’Avola can be used between 50 and 70% in combination with Frappato grapes) and in several of the Sicilian DOC appellations, where it can be used to make varietal wines or in the context of blends. However, many of the best Nero d’Avola wines around are marketed under the more loosely regulated Sicilia IGT appellation, which affords serious producers more flexibility in experimenting and creating excellent wines out of Nero d’Avola grapes, especially by blending them with international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah to tame certain aggressive traits that varietal Nero d’Avola wines sometimes exhibit. (Information on the grape variety, cit. Wine Grapes, by Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz, HarperCollins 2012)

Morgante, "Don Antonio" Sicilia IGTIn terms of specific recommendations, in my view these are among the best Nero d’Avola-based wines around for their quality/price ratios:

Donnafugata, “Tancredi” Sicilia IGT (a blend of Nero d’Avola, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat and other grape varieties, with aromas of roses, cherries, leather, tobacco, chocolate – a density of 4,500 to 6,000 vines/HA is another very good feature worth pointing out)

Donnafugata, Contessa Entellina “Mille e Una Notte” DOC (a wonderful blend of Nero d’Avola, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, which can be considered the “bigger brother” of the Tancredi – it is more expensive but delightful, with a bouquet of plum, blackberry, black cherry, pepper, cocoa, vanilla, tobacco and cinnamon; a great wine)

Cusumano, "Noa" Sicilia IGTPlaneta, Noto Nero d’Avola “Santa Cecilia” DOC (100% Nero d’Avola, with aromas of wild cherries, plums, blackberries, licorice, cocoa, graphite – kudos to the owners who obtained a very good density of 5,000 vines/HA)

Morgante, “Don Antonio” Sicilia IGT (100% Nero d’Avola, with aromas of potpourri, ripe red fruit, licorice, leather, chocolate and minerals)

Cusumano, “Noa’” Sicilia IGT (a blend of 40% Nero d’Avola, 30% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, with complex scents of violets, red fruit, sandalwood, leather, chocolate – even in this case, we want to acknowledge a producer who attained a commendable density of 5,000 vines/HA)

Feudo Maccari, "Saia" Sicilia IGTFeudo Maccari, “Saia” Sicilia IGT (100% Nero d’Avola, with scents of violets, herbs, wild cherry, pepper, juniper berries and leather, slightly toasty – once again, a special note of commendation to the owners who invested the energy and the resources to achieve an excellent density of over 5,500 vines/HA)

Tasca d’Almerita, Contea di Sclafani “Rosso del Conte” DOC (a blend of Nero d’Avola, Perricone and other permitted varieties, with aromas of violets, blackberry, plum jam, black pepper, tobacco and licorice)

That’s all for today: have you tried any of the above wines? If so, did you enjoy what you drank?

A Horizontal Tasting of Eight 2008 French Pinot Noirs

StefanoIn January I was in Milan and I attended another wine tasting event organized by the local chapter of the Italian Sommelier Association: whenever I can, I participate in these events because they are very well organized and the association often signs up producers or interesting personalities in the wine world, which make these gatherings entertaining and always educational.

This time the event revolved around an international grape variety and a wine that is the bread and butter of fellow wine blogger Jeff, AKA the drunken cyclist: if you know Jeff and follow his excellent and entertaining wine blog (and if you do not, I think you should) you know that I refer to Pinot Noir, a wine/grape variety of which Jeff is definitely an expert. On the contrary, I am no expert of Pinot Noir, although I like good Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, the US and Italy (Alto Adige) and I particularly like the grape variety in the context of a good Champagne or Classic Method sparkling wine such as a good Franciacorta. If Jeff reads this post, he may weigh in and share his thoughts on the subject.

Anyway, the guest of the event was Prof. Moio, an Italian agronomy professor who spent a few years in Burgundy (admittedly the “purest” region in the world for growing Pinot Noir) to research Pinot Noir and particularly its varietal (or primary) aromas and its fermentation and aging (AKA secondary and tertiary) aromas as well as their perception by the human brain from a chemical standpoint. It goes without saying that, considering the area in which it was performed, no research would ever be complete without a fair share of practical testing in the field! 😉

Jokes aside, he presented the findings of his chemical research which, leaving aside some very technical stuff, were pretty interesting. I will pass on just a few points that I found noteworthy (you will notice a few technical wine terms – if in doubt, please check out our Wine Glossary):

  • As you may know, the main part in a grape berry where primary aromas reside is the skin (hence some white wine producers nowadays make their whites undergo a short maceration phase so as to maximize the extraction of terpenes, the molecules that are mainly responsible for the varietal aromas of wine)
  • The research conducted by Prof. Moio isolated four molecules that are present in the skins of Pinot Noir grape berries and are responsible for the main varietal aromas of Pinot Noir: these molecules release scents reminiscent of cherries and red berries
  • The release of the aromatic molecules of wine (a specific type of esters is one of the main carriers of aromas) is faster in wines with lesser structure and conversely slower in more structured wines that have a greater dry extract: this is the chemical reason why Grands Crus (which tend to be more structured and therefore release aromas at a slower pace) tend to have a longer finish than generally less concentrated Appellations Communales
  • The human brain categorizes those molecules that carry one single scent (for instance, pineapple) associating them with a sort of “image” to be able to recognize that same scent on future occasions; however, when different molecules carrying different scents (for instance, pineapple and peach) are present at the same time (as is often the case in wine) then one of two things may happen: either the brain tells the two different scents apart correctly and associates them to the correct “mental images” or it combines the two scents together generating a third and different “mental image” (say, apricot) – according to Prof. Moio, this is why different people who sniff the same glass of wine may have different perceptions of its aromas.

But enough chemistry now, and let’s move on to the best part of the event, that was obviously the wine tasting part! What we did was a horizontal tasting of eight different Pinot Noirs of the 2008 vintage, all of which came from the Cote d’Or (the best area in Burgundy for growing Pinot Noir) and specifically four of them came from Cote de Nuits (the northern part of Cote d’Or) and the other four from Cote de Beaune (the southern part of Cote d’Or).

Clearly, this tasting had no scientific meaning, especially because different winemaking styles (and therefore the secondary and tertiary aromas that derive from the winemakers’ choices) influenced the final bouquets of the wines that we got to sample. However, it was a nice way to introduce us to certain producers and appellations and to show us a sample of Pinot Noirs coming from the two subzones of the best area in France (and admittedly the world) for that kind of wine.

Jumping to the, like I said, non-scientific conclusions of our tasting experience, it was apparent from the limited sample we got to try that, among the eight wines that we tasted, Pinot Noirs made in Cote de Beaune tended to retain more distinctly the varietal aromas of Pinot Noir compared to the wines made in Cote de Nuits where secondary/tertiary aromas of fur tended to be more evident and sometimes to overwhelm the delicate red berry varietal aromas. My personal ratings of the eight wines I tasted that night seem to by and large confirm that conclusion as the Cote de Beaune wines generally fared a little better than the Cote de Nuits ones.

Just for clarity, I am by no means implying that therefore Cote de Beaune Pinot Noirs are better than Cote de Nuits Pinot Noirs (where 24 out of 25 of the Grands Crus can be found): all I am saying is that, among those 8 wines that I tasted, I happened to personally like the Cote de Beaune Pinot Noirs a little better than their Cote de Nuits counterparts (although, as you will see, I liked the Gevrey-Chambertin Pinot Noir of the Cote de Nuits quite a bit).

To finish up this long post, these are my favorite wines among the eight 2008 Pinot Noirs that we tasted (along with their approximate prices in the US):

1. Volnay, Domaine Marquis d’Angerville (Cote de Beaune) ~ $70

By far the best of the eight, at least to me, with aromas of blackcurrant, red berries, cherry, and hints of tobacco and fur. In the mouth it had good structure and it was smooth and tannic, perfectly balanced and with a long finish. Outstanding Outstanding

2. Aloxe-Corton, Domaine Tollot-Beaut “Les Vercots” Premier Cru (Cote de Beaune) ~$50

Nice bouquet of blackcurrant, red berries, licorice, hints of menthol. In the mouth it had good structure and concentration and it was noticeably tannic. Very Good Very Good

3. Gevrey-Chambertin, Domaine Trapet Pere et Fils (Cote de Nuits) ~$55

Nose of blackcurrant, redcurrant, fur, soil, tobacco, violet. Tannic and balanced in the mouth. Very Good Very Good

4. Chambolle-Musigny, Domaine Bruno Clair “Les Veroilles” (Cote de Nuits) ~$90

In the nose this wine started very subdued and it took a while for it to open up nicely into a bouquet of blackcurrant, red berries, violet, slight hint of fur. In the mouth it had plenty of structure and concentration, along with tannins that still felt quite aggressive, suggesting that it would be best left aging a while longer. Good Good

5. Chassagne-Montrachet, Domaine Bruno Colin “La Maltroie” Premier Cru (Cote de Beaune) ~$75

The nose of this wine did not convince me completely, as tertiary aromas of oak and tobacco were predominant and tended to overwhelm the primary aromas of red berries. In the mouth, however, it proved to be a solid wine, smooth, tannic and with a long finish. Good Good

I will not mention the remaining three wines we tasted as honestly I was unimpressed and I would not recommend buying them.

Have you had a chance to try any of the Pinot Noirs mentioned above? If you did, what do you think about them?

Gambero Rosso's Tre Bicchieri NYC 2013: The Top of the Crop

With some delay, I finally got to sit down and write my report about the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri 2013 Italian wine fair that took place in New York City on February 15.

As was the case for the Vinitaly/Slow Wine NYC 2013 event, I have attended the Tre Bicchieri event with fellow wine blogger and friend Anatoli who authors the excellent Talk-A-Vino wine blog, a blog that you should definitely follow if you don’t already and are into wine. Doing the walk around with Anatoli was as usual a lot of fun and very helpful and stimulating in terms of sharing views and comparing notes about the wines we tried out. Anatoli has tons of knowledge about wine and is a pleasure to talk to and learn from. You can (and in my view you should) read Anatoli’s take of the Tre Bicchieri NYC event on his blog, where he published an excellent and very thorough post about it, complete with pictures of the fair!

Regarding the logistics of the event, the check in process was smooth and quick, thanks to the mandatory online pre-registration. The premises where the event took place (the Metropolitan Pavillion in Chelsea, NYC) were perfectly adequate for the fair which, with over 170 producers showcasing their wines, was a pretty big one. While it was helpful that the organizers provided everyone with a booklet with the names of each producer and exhibited wine and a progressive number for each, the layout of the event was unfortunately quite messy.

The wineries were not organized on a region-by-region basis, as would seem to make the most sense. Rather, they were organized by importer, which in my view is not helpful as importers may (and most of the time do) represent several different producers from completely different regions and with different styles. To make things worse, the physical layout of the tasting tables was such that, even by following the numerical progression of the booklet, from 1 to 173, whenever a row ended, it proved very difficult to understand where the next table number would be, which made our navigation of the event quite frustrating. The logistics of the Slow Wine part of the Vinitaly/Slow Wine NYC 2013 event were vastly preferable.

But let’s now get down the actual wine tasting experience. As was the case for the Vinitaly/Slow Wine NYC 2013 event, I will list below what in my view was the absolute top of the crop among the many great wines that I got to taste and, in an effort not to drive you insane, I will group them by region contrary to what the organizers did! 😉 It goes without saying that the list below is far from being complete, because (i) clearly we did not get to try out all of the 173 wines on display; (ii) certain of the wines that Anatoli and I were targeting were no longer available by the time we got to the relevant tasting table; and (iii) I made an effort to be extremely selective in my choices below in order to keep this post to a manageable length, so by all means there were many more very good wines that I tasted but did not “make the cut” to be mentioned on this post.

1. ALTO ADIGE

– Abbazia di NovacellaAlto Adige Valle Isarco Sylvaner “Praepositus” 2011: an elegant bouquet of pear, apple, peach and citrus graces this pleasant and tasty medium-bodied white: Very Good Very Good

2. TRENTINO

– FerrariTrento Extra Brut Perle’ Nero 2006: this fabulous, creamy Classic Method Blanc de Noirs is 100% Pinot Noir, ages 72 months on its lees and displays complex aromas of red berries, pineapple, citrus, toast and hazelnut: Outstanding Outstanding

– FerrariTrento Brut “Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore” 2002: just the opposite of the previous one, this phenomenal Classic Method Blanc de Blancs is 100% Chardonnay, ages 10 years (!) on its lees and blesses the taster with complex aromas of butter, vanilla, toast, citrus, apple, pineapple… WOW: Spectacular Spectacular (the only problem is its astronomical price tag!)

3. FRIULI

– La TunellaColli Orientali del Friuli Ribolla Gialla “RJgialla” 2011: a wonderful, super-pleasant, fresh medium-bodied white made of 100% Ribolla Gialla (a grape variety indigenous to Friuli) with an elegant bouquet of apple, Mirabelle plum, peach and white flowers: Outstanding Outstanding

– LivonCollio Friulano “Manditocai” 2010: a solid 100% Friulano (AKA Tocai) white wine with nice aromas of butter, tropical fruit, citrus and minerals: Very Good Very Good

4. PIEMONTE

– ChiarloBarbera d’Asti Superiore “Nizza La Court” 2009: a very good, smooth Barbera with aromas of raspberry, spirited cherry and rose: Very Good Very Good

– Elvio CognoBarolo “Vigna Elena” Riserva 2006: an excellent Barolo with a complex bouquet of violet, cherry, raspberry and licorice: Very Good Very Good but will benefit from a few extra years of aging to finish taming its tannic strength

– Le PianeBoca 2008: a great 85% Nebbiolo, 15% Vespolina full-bodied red, smooth and yet with tannic strength, offering complex aromas of berries, plum, violet, black pepper and minerals: Very Good Very Good

– Baudana/VajraBarolo “Baudana” 2004: OMG, this was a fabulous treat “off the list”, that the very kind representative of the producer treated Anatoli and me to – it was the typical example of the reason why you want to buy a good Barolo and then forget about it for many years and eventually enjoy it in all its divine expressiveness: a complex nose of cherry, plum, blackberry and coffee complements supple tannins and plenty of structure: Spectacular Spectacular

– Baudana/VajraBarolo “Cerretta” 2008: this younger vintage from a different “clos” presented a relatively subdued nose of licorice, leather and black pepper, while in the mouth it was smooth and had already fairly gentle tannins: Very Good Very Good but will need more years of aging to be at its top

5. LOMBARDIA

– BerlucchiFranciacorta “Cellarius” Brut 2008: with 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 30 months of aging on its lees, this Classic Method sparkler is one of my favorite Franciacorta’s for its QPR, although I have to say the 2008 vintage appears more constrained compared to the excellent 2006 and 2007, but still plenty good – the only problem is that for some reason this wine is not imported in the US yet, but I will give you a tip: if you happen to travel to the US from the Milan Malpensa airport, you can buy the Cellarius in the duty free zone right after clearing the security check area: definitely worth a stop if you ask me! – Anyway, the Cellarius has elegant aromas of citrus, apple, bread crust and minerals, a lively acidity and a fine and long-lasting perlageVery Good Very Good

– Ca’ del BoscoFranciacorta Extra Brut Rose’ Cuvee “Annamaria Clementi” 2004: WOW, if at the Vinitaly/Slow Wine NYC 2013 event Anatoli and I had already enjoyed (and let me add fallen in love with) the fabulous white version of this top of the line Classic Method sparkling wine label of the Ca’ del Bosco winery (which in Italy retails at about €80 a pop), the Tre Bicchieri event gave us the opportunity to also taste the Rose’ version of it, which moves up the price tag of this phenomenal sparkler to a whopping €140 a bottle! With 100% Pinot Noir and 7 years on its lees, this wonderful wine exhibits a complex bouquet of pastry, hazelnuts, chocolate, coffee and minerals complemented by a fresh, tasty and structured mouth feel: Spectacular Spectacular

– Mamete PrevostiniValtellina Superiore Riserva 2009: there is very good value in this 100% Chiavennasca (AKA Nebbiolo) red, with a nice nose of cherry, raspberry, coffee and cocoa, as well as already gentle tannins: Very Good Very Good

6. VENETO

MasiAmarone della Valpolicella Classico “Mazzano” 2006: definitely not an inexpensive Amarone, but in my view Masi never lets down with an excellent top of the line label with a complex bouquet of black cherry, blackberry, vanilla, leather, licorice and chocolate as well as plenty of structure and warmth in the mouth and noticeable but supple tannins: Outstanding Outstanding

– Viticoltori SperiAmarone della Valpolicella Classico “Vigneto Monte Sant’Urbano” 2008: a very good Amarone with a decent QPR and subtle aromas of wild berries, soil and coffee; in the mouth, plenty of structure coupled with gentle but noticeable tannins and a long finish: Very Good Very Good

7. LIGURIA

– Cantine LunaeColli di Luni Vermentino “Cavagino” 2011: a very good Vermentino that is partly fermented in barrique casks  and has pleasant aromas of apricot, peach, hazelnut and mint: Outstanding Outstanding

8. TOSCANA

– Poggio di SottoBrunello di Montalcino 2007: a wonderful Brunello with a hefty price tag, but an elegant bouquet of red berries, plum, herbs, soil and licorice, for a wine that feels warm and with noticeable but already gentle tannins in the mouth: Spectacular Spectacular

– Tenuta dell’OrnellaiaBolgheri Superiore Ornellaia 2009: a typical Bordeaux-style blend for this vintage of one of the archetypical Super Tuscans, with 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 21% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot – in spite of its elegant nose of wild berries, herbs, black pepper and minerals, I think opening a bottle of so fantastic a wine so early in its life is almost a sin, as it is somewhat like driving a Ferrari only in first gear… The tannins are still young and need time to harmoniously integrate: should you spend the small fortune necessary to buy a bottle of this great wine, store it properly in your cellar and leave it there for several years before drinking it, it will pay you back big time: Outstanding Outstanding

9. MARCHE 

– Fazi BattagliaVerdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico “San Sisto” Riserva 2009: an excellent Verdicchio with a complex bouquet of citrus, peach, pineapple, almond and minerals, smooth and tasty in the mouth and with a long finish: Outstanding Outstanding

10. UMBRIA

– Castello della Sala“Cervaro della Sala” 2010: a blend of 90% Chardonnay and 10% Grechetto aged in barrique casks for 6 months for this excellent, smooth wine with fine aromas of citrus, pineapple, butter, honey and hazelnut: Outstanding Outstanding

– TabarriniSagrantino di Montefalco “Campo alla Cerqua” 2008: a wonderful Sagrantino with fine aromas of rose, violet, plum, soil, licorice and black pepper, which in the mouth is full-bodied, warm and with noticeable but supple tannins: Outstanding Outstanding

11. ABRUZZO

– Torre dei BeatiMontepulciano d’Abruzzo “Cocciapazza” 2009: an excellent Montepulciano with aromas of cherry, wild berries, chocolate and licorice, which in the mouth is warm and has substantial but smooth tannins and plenty of structure: Very Good Very Good

12. CAMPANIA

– Marisa CuomoCosta d’Amalfi Furore Bianco Fiorduva 2010: well, I think I have said enough about the Fiorduva in my recent wine review – with a fine bouquet of peach, apricot and Mirabelle plum, it is balanced and has a long finish, although it would benefit from one or two more years of aging before enjoying it: Outstanding Outstanding

– MastroberardinoTaurasi “Radici” 2008: a great 100% Aglianico wine with an excellent QPR and fine aromas of blackberry, blueberry, soil and black pepper; it is warm in the mouth and has abundant yet gentle tannins: Outstanding Outstanding

13. BASILICATA

– BasiliscoAglianico del Vulture “Basilisco” 2009: a fantastic Aglianico del Vulture  with a fine bouquet of cherry, herbs, soil, minerals and oaky notes, along with noticeable but gentle tannins in a full-bodied structure: Outstanding Outstanding

14. SICILIA

– Cusumano“Noa'” 2010: a blend of 40% Nero d’Avola, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot for an immediately enjoyable wine with aromas of rose, blackberry, black cherry, blueberry, graphite and cocoa, good structure and supple tannins: Very Good Very Good

– DonnafugataContessa Entellina Rosso “Mille e Una Notte” 2008: a wonderful blend of 80% Nero d’Avola, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah that results in an inky wine with a fine nose of plum, spirited cherry, sweet tobacco and vanilla, plenty of structure and gentle tannins: Very Good Very Good

– DonnafugataPassito di Pantelleria “Ben Rye'” 2010: WOW, this 100% Zibibbo (AKA Moscato d’Alessandria) gem is one of my favorite dessert wines (I plan to post a full review of it later this year), always dependable and seducing, with a bouquet that goes beyond your wildest dreams with aromas of dried apricot, honey, herbs and saffron, plenty of acidity and tastiness to counter its sweetness in an enviable balance that will keep you sipping and sipping and sipping…: Spectacular Spectacular

– Firriato“Ribeca” 2010: a solid 100% Perricone (an indigenous black-berried variety) full-bodied red wine with fine aromas of cherries, red berries, herbs, soil and chocolate, as well as gentle tannins: Very Good Very Good

– GraciEtna Bianco “Quota 600” 2010: a fine 70% Carricante, 30% Catarratto volcanic white wine with a pleasant bouquet of apricot, herbs and minerals complementing a fresh, smooth and tasty mouth feel: Very Good Very Good

15. SARDEGNA

– Cantina di SantadiCarignano del Sulcis “Rocca Rubia” Riserva 2009: a fine 100% Carignano red wine with interesting aromas of raspberry, cocoa, graphite and fur that is warm, mineral and tannic in the mouth: Very Good Very Good

A catering event and Nemo: what more could you ask for?

A client's 50th birthday party catered by Flora's Table

Tomato BruschettaDo you remember Nemo? No, not the adorable clownfish from the famous Disney movie but the major blizzard (with record amount of snowfall) that hit certain areas of the East Coast (including ours!) the second weekend of February?

Well, needless to say, that weekend, we were supposed to cater a dinner party for 22 guests in Fairfield County, Connecticut… The occasion? The 50th birthday of the husband of the hostess. Everything had to be perfect and the planning was going really smoothly until we saw the weather forecast at the beginning of that week. It was national alert all over the news and the governors of the States and the mayors of the towns on Nemo’s way were urging people to get ready to face the storm and, above all, to stay home. Not exactly the ideal situation to host a party…

Penne alla VodkaYou can only imagine all the phone calls, emails, text messages (along with the emotional distress) that my client and I exchanged before, during and after the storm! Many important decisions had to be made in a short timeframe. To make a long story short, willingness and collaboration made it possible to have the party on Sunday night and everybody seemed to have a really great time!

Now that Spring is around the corner (hopefully at least… it’s been such a long and cold winter!) and Nemo is just a memory, I thought I would share with you photographs of some of the food that we served at that birthday party. Of course, these pictures have not been taken during the actual party because it would not have been appropriate for us to take pictures while on a job, but this is some of the food that got served.

Hope you enjoy it as much as our client and her guests did!  🙂

Francesca's Chicken MarsalaFrancesca's Tiramisu

Ladurée: a world of beauty beyond macarons

Stuff We Like!

This is my first post of our new column so I decided to start in style.

Ladurée… the echo of this brand is called luxury. Of course, I’m talking about the worldwide known French pâtisserie maison founded by the miller, Louis Ernest Ladurée, in Paris at the end of the 19th century. I’m sure all of you are more than familiar with les macarons, Ladurée’s most famous creation: those small, round mini cakes, crisp on the outside, with a smooth filling in the middle, that can satisfy even the more sophisticated palate. When you buy a box of those sweet masterpieces, you are buying much more than dessert. You are buying an icon. Let me tell you a story to prove my point.

As Sophia from the Golden Girls (the famous American sitcom of the ’80s) would say, picture it: London, a few years ago. I was with one of my clients. He was the perfect incarnation of the type of clients I was dealing with back then: highly educated, rich (which didn’t necessarily mean sophisticated), exclusively capable of talking about money and dreaming about more money and totally used to getting whatever he wanted whenever he wanted to. He had been invited to a dinner party by the wife of a gentleman he was anxious to make a deal with and he was determined to impress the hostess. Sure, he could have brought an expensive bottle of wine or champagne but, let’s be honest, this is a gift that would be more appropriate for a host rather than a hostess and he was a huge believer in the saying that “behind every successful man there is always a woman”. Can you prove him wrong? 😉

Anyway, he dragged me into one of the Ladurée stores in London where we waited for quite a while (it was Friday late afternoon and the store was very busy) before reaching the most beautiful and chic pastry counter I have ever seen. Obviously, my client knew exactly what he wanted (those kind of men always know what they want!) He picked a huge green box, gorgeously decorated, and selected the macarons that would determine his destiny, flavor by flavor. As we were leaving the store, I noticed that the people with the unmistakable Ladurée green bag were as thrilled as those people who carry the equally unmistakable Tiffany’s blue bag. Their face was saying “I bought something very, very special and I feel great about it”. Needless to say, a few days later my client called me to tell me that he had made the deal and it was time to get to work.

Display of Ladurée books

What I didn’t know back then is that Ladurée is much more than macarons. Beside the legendary sweets (cakes, pastries and chocolates), they have the cutest shopping bags, one of the most elegant beauty collections, a candle collection to die for, a home fragrance collection I can’t wait to try and… books. Well, Ladurée books are really the subject matter of this post. I know it took me quite a while to get to the point, but here we are.

Ladurée books are not regular books. When you see the marvelous powder pastel boxes these books come in, you know that you are in for something special. You stand there in astonishment and just the boxes can send shivers down your spine. 🙂 Then you open the boxes and, through the tissue paper that wraps all Ladurée books, you sense the luxury and the richness of the covers. When you finally pull yourself together, get the books in your hands and start flipping through them, you are instantly in heaven.

The two must-have Ladurée recipe books are Sucré (Dolce in the Italian version) and Salé (Savory in the English version).

Ladurée's Sucré and Salé

Sucré unveils the pastry secrets of Ladurée Chef Pâtissier, Philippe Andrieu, from the financiers to the rose cream bigné, the crème brûlée, the éclairs and… les macaronsbien sûr, in all their flavors: incredible recipes presented with an impeccable food styling and exquisite photography. The book also contains the indispensable basic pastry recipes, i.e., those recipes that any baker or pastry chef should perfectly master before daring call themselves as such.

Salé is the cooking gem of Ladurée Chef de Cuisine Michel Lerouet and the natural evolution of Sucré because most of the recipes represent the perfect marriage of sweet and savory in the French gastronomy. The book is divided by occasion: brunch, picnic, lunch, formal and informal dinner. Every occasion is an apotheosis of colors and flavors, from sandwiches to salads, soups, eggs, as well as meat, fish and seafood appetizers and main courses, all immortalized by lovely photographs. Not to mention that lots of the recipes are accompanied by tips of Monsieur le Chef, which is something that makes those recipes even more precious.

If Sucré and Salé are books that I think every cook on the planet should own ;-), l’Art de recevoir is a book that anyone, I repeat, anyone should have unless, of course, they live on a deserted island! Once again the book is divided by occasion: ten moments of the day (from breakfasts to family lunches, picnics, afternoon teas, buffet dinners and formal dinners) for which la Maison offers menu ideas and stylish recipes (with the essential chef’s tips), advice and suggestions on how to create elegant table settings and decorations as well as flower arrangements and, last but certainly not least, mini-lessons of savoir-faire. Every page of this book exudes French elegance and style. The china, the glassware, the silverware, the tablecloths, every decorative object used in the settings are stunning and captured by gorgeous photographs. As the book says, “Très chic, Très Ladurée“.

Ladurée's L'Art de recevoir

I suggest you put l’Art de recevoir on your wish list keeping also in mind that this book is the perfect gift for anyone, including those not so crazy about cooking, because everyone aspires to be the perfect host or the perfect hostess and I think no one can resist Ladurée’s allure.

Unfortunately for my American friends, the one and only Ladurée store in the United States is in New York – where else could it be? 😉 However, if you do not live in the city that never sleeps or close by, do not despair: you can still buy these wonders online on amazon. On the other hand, if you live in the City or you happen to be there, make sure to make time to stop by their store on Madison Avenue (again, where else could Ladurée’s store be but the most chic of Manhattan’s Avenues?) because when you push the door it’s like teleportation: in an instant you’ll find yourself in Paris! Is there anything better than that?

À bientôt, mes amis!

PS: do you like my new flower glasses icon for this column? Isn’t that gorgeous? This new icon as well as all the illustrations on Flora’s Table are the artwork of our super talented friend, Alexandra Dichne. Alexandra is in the process of finalizing her soon-to-be launched blog. Of course, I will write a post about it as soon as her blog goes live, so stay tuned!

Wine Review: Oasi degli Angeli, "Kurni" Marche Rosso IGT 2008

A few nights ago, I was in Milan (Italy) and I went to dinner with a friend of mine to an excellent restaurant that I will review in a future post.

Beside eating wonderfully, my friend and I decided to treat ourselves to a very special Italian red wine that I had noticed on the wine list, had never had before but had heard and read excellent things about: the fabled, divisive, extremely rare to find Oasi degli Angeli, “Kurni” Marche Rosso IGT ($100) from the Marche region.

The Bottom Line

Overall, the Kurni is a great wine and a very special one, one which in my view does not leave whoever is fortunate enough to get to taste it indifferent: it is a wine that forces you to pick a side, either you like its style or you do not. Personally, I liked it a lot, I am glad I got to enjoy it and I found it a pleasure to drink, worth seeking out if you come across it and want to treat yourself to something really special.

Rating: Spectacular and Special Spectacular – $$$$$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

About the Estate

A few words about Kurni and the vineyards it comes from: it is a wine made of 100% Montepulciano grapes harvested from about 10 hectares only of Montepulciano grapevines trained as free-standing plants (according to the bush vine training or “alberello” style) with an average age of 65 years and an astounding density of up to 22,000 vines/HA(!) which allow an annual production of just about 6,000 bottles. The Kurni ages for 20 months in new oak barrique barrels.

About the Grape

Before we continue, let’s focus for a moment on the Montepulciano grape variety. First off, let’s dispel a possible source of confusion: although the name refers to the Montepulciano area near Siena (Tuscany), the Montepulciano grape variety is an Italian indigenous variety that originates from the Abruzzo region.  Consequently, it is important NOT to confuse Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG (which is a Tuscan appellation whose wines must be made of 70% or more Sangiovese grapes) with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane DOCG (which are two appellations from Abruzzo whose wines are required to be made out of at least, respectively, 85% or 90% Montepulciano grapes).

Montepulciano is a grape variety that is widely planted across central Italy (about 30,000 HA), especially in the regions of Abruzzo, Marche and Molise. Beside Italy, it is also grown in California, Australia and New Zealand. It is a grape variety that results in deeply colored wines with robust tannins, that are often used in blends. On account of the wide diffusion of Montepulciano grapes, the quality levels of the wines made out of them varies considerably – hence, caveat emptor: you need to know which producers to trust and buy from. (Note: information on the grape variety taken from Wine Grapes, by Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz, Allen Lane 2012)

Our Detailed Review

But let’s get back to the wine that we are going to review in this post. Retailing in the US at about $100 a pop, the Kurni is by no means an inexpensive wine, nor is it an easy to find one, but let me say it up front in my view it is one that is worth the investment if you come across it and have the inclination to “invest” that kind of money in a bottle of wine. But let’s get down to it using a simplified version of the ISA wine tasting protocol that we described in a previous post: should you have doubts as to any of the terms used below please refer to that post for a refresher.

First off, the bottle of Kurni we had was a 2008 vintage with a whopping 15% VOL ABV, so it is no wine for the faint of heart. 😉

In the glass, the wine was ruby red and (as you may expect) thick.

The nose was intense and fine, with complex aromas of ripe cherries, raspberries, plums, roses, vanilla, sweet tobacco, licorice and cocoa.

In the mouth the wine is between dry and medium-dry (see more on this below), definitely warm and super silky smooth; fresh, with tame but very present tannins and quite tasty. The wine is full-bodied and balanced (although certainly leaning toward the “softness” side), intense in the mouth (you truly have to taste it to believe this: its concentration is incredible, it is just like an explosion of ripe, sweet red fruits and cherry jam in your mouth!), fine with corresponding mouth flavors and a long finish; its evolutionary state is ready (which means that you can certainly drink it now, but it will get even better with a few more years under the belt – if you can wait!)

As a side note to the tasting, I think it is important to underscore that a notable characteristic of a relatively young vintage of this wine (such as 2008) is the discernible mouth feel of latent sweetness of the Kurni, which (as indicated in the tasting notes) places it somewhere in between a dry a semi-dry wine. In the Italian wine aficionado world, there have been endless discussions as to whether this latent sweetness is due to fairly high residual sugar levels or instead the significant extent of smoothness and explosive fruit flavors of the wine.

In an interview, Kurni’s enologist defined his wine as a dry wine, therefore supporting the latter of the above two theories. Also, vertical tastings of several vintages of Kurni have reportedly confirmed this interpretation in that older vintages would taste drier than younger vintages (which would not be possible if the wine’s latent sweetness were due to higher residual sugars). Having said that, I think it would be helpful if Oasi degli Angeli made the official residual sugar level of the Kurni publicly available (I have not been able to find this information anywhere online), as this could put an end to the debate.

Oh, and by the way: should you not trust my opinion – would you? really? 😉 the Kurni 2008 was awarded the top rating by both the ISA Duemila Vini wine guide (5 bunches) and the Gambero Rosso wine guide (3 glasses).

If you have had a bottle of Kurni before, let me know which side you are on! 🙂

Frittata Primavera and the Impossibility to Flip

FrittataAh! Frittata. Universally acknowledged as a very rustic and easy to make dish.

Let’s talk about its rusticity first. I have no recollection of any restaurant in Italy that has a frittata on its menu. That’s because it is the quintessential homemade food, not sophisticated enough to be worthy of a restaurant. Nor have I ever eaten frittata in any of the fancy households and parties I used to get invited to in Rome or Milan. Simply not chic enough. But believe me when I tell you that no one, I repeat, no one can resist a good frittata.  🙂 Let me tell you a story to prove my point.

Since I was 21, I have been spending my summers at my parents’ beach house on a fairly glam stretch of coast on the island of Sardinia. Usually, before we go to the beach, my mother packs lunch boxes with incredible treats for the whole family and a frittata is always included. We consider my mom the queen of frittata and her grandchildren are crazy about this dish. When lunch time comes, the sleek ladies under the umbrellas start eating their flavorless salads (yup, Italian women tend to be all about looking thin and fabulous) while my mother start pulling out her “rustic food wonders” including her legendary frittata.

At which point, first we get a nasty look from the ladies that says “look at those peasants!” but then the smell of frittata spreads around and the upscale offspring from the other umbrellas – chased by their nannies – start getting closer like bear cubs attracted to honey. My mother, who is a woman from the south and, therefore, very hospitable, starts handing frittata bits to everyone and, at this point, the ladies, who are the loving mothers of the kids surrounding us, have no choice but to approach and thank us. And then… the frittata does its trick: a minute later, I can see their bejeweled fingers (the reason why women go to the beach wearing jewels like a madonna in a procession simply escapes me!) with their perfect manicure reaching for the frittata and the only thing my head is hearing is that famous music from Steven Spielberg’s movie “Jaws” that is played when the shark is getting close to its victim. 😀

Bottom line, everyone loves frittata and I truly believe that it can be served as an appetizer at any party, even the fanciest, if it is properly dressed up. 😉

Let’s now tackle the concept that frittata is easy to make. Maybe it is for the other human beings, but for me it is a nightmare. I select the ingredients, I beat the eggs, I pour the egg mixture in the skillet and I let the first side of the frittata cook the way my mother showed me only about a thousand times. Everything seems to go awfully well until it is time to flip the frittata to cook the other side. Et voila’! Depending on where I decide to play the flipping game, my frittata inevitably ends up either on the floor, the sink or the stove 🙁 I simply cannot do it!

I noticed that lots of cooks and chefs start cooking their frittata on the stove and then continue the cooking process in the oven. Well, in Italy, we do not cook it that way… we flip it and, to be honest with you, I was not ready to settle for the oven option.

Since in my past professional life, I was, among other things, a problem solver, I have now been determined to find a solution to my flipping incapability. After a little research, Williams Sonoma came to the rescue. They carry a fabulous nonstick pan with interlocking handles that lets you flip a frittata very easily without using a plate and, more importantly, without having your frittata splashed all over the kitchen.

FrittataIf you want to know more about this innovative piece, check it out on Williams Sonoma’s Web site. As you will notice, it is a little bit pricey but you can always do what I do when I buy something expensive… I keep repeating myself “because you are worth it”! (no, unfortunately, I’m not a l’Oreal testimonial but I’m firmly convinced of that! 😉 )

A few more words before we talk about recipe and method. The gorgeous frittata that you see in the pictures has been flipped in the traditional way, i.e., using a regular skillet and a plate. Did I do it? Of course, not! My mother did. I will describe the way she does it (I’m great at the theory part!) because my mother always taught me that a cook should be able to cook anything from scratch with the only help of basic tools. So just give it a try, if you feel like it. You can always do what I did… resort to technology because if it is true that I treasure my mother teachings I’m also a huge believer that technology is there to make our life easier. 🙂

Ingredients:

1 cup, cut green beans
1 and 1/2 cup, peas
1/4 cup, chopped onion
8 grape tomatoes
2 potatoes
Half of 1/4 cup, extravirgin olive oil
12 eggs
1/2 cup, grated parmigiano cheese
Salt
Ground black pepper

Directions: 

Cut the tomatoes in half and the potatoes into small bits.

In a non-stick medium skillet, put the olive oil, the beans, the peas, the onion, the tomatoes and the potatoes. Add some salt (to taste), toss to coat and start cooking on a very low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked.

Meanwhile, put the eggs, the parmigiano cheese, some salt and pepper (to taste) in a bowl and whisk it until you obtain a smooth mixture. When the vegetables are cooked, pour the egg mixture in the skillet. Let it cook for 2/3 minutes and, with the help of a fork, every time the edges of the egg mixture solidify, push them back toward the inside of the frittata so that new raw egg mixture gets in contact with the skillet and solidifies. When the egg mixture is set at the bottom and begins to firm up at the top, move the skillet over the sink (in my experience, it is the easiest to clean if things go wrong), put a plate over the skillet, flip the frittata onto the plate and slide the flipped frittata back into the skillet. Cook a few more minutes et voila’!

May the force be with you and happy flipping! 🙂

Chicken and Sausage Paella – Recommended Wine Pairing

StefanoA few days ago, Suzanne over at apuginthekitchen (a great food and cooking blog that you should definitely check out if you have not done so already) has been kind enough to ask me to partner with her by contributing a wine pairing that would go well with her delicious chicken and sausage paella recipe that she recently published in her blog: needless to say, I have been excited about Suzanne’s idea and took her up on her offer.

So, here are my wine pairing recommendations for Suzanne’s delicious paella, that you can also find on Suzanne’s blog: the wines that we are going to pick need to have good acidity, a good extent of smoothness, quite intense nose-mouth flavors and decent structure, as in a medium to full bodied wine. The reason why these characteristics (and not others) are desirable to achieve a pleasant food-wine pairing is the result of the application of the wine pairing criteria codified by the Italian Sommellier Association, which I have discussed in a previous post.

Based on the above guidelines, I am going to recommend two wines that I have recently tasted at the Vinitaly/Slow Wine trade fair in New York: they both possess the desired characteristics to be good companions to Suzanne’s paella and they both have particularly impressed me when I tasted them.

Clearly, these two wines are by no means the only ones that go well with Suzanne’s paella! However, on the one hand their descriptions, coupled with the general guidelines provided above, should point you in the right direction should you wish to consider different alternatives and, on the other hand, if you are going to give either or both of these wines a try, they might introduce some of you to two Italian wines that are maybe not so “mainstream” or widely known in the US market and that yet are excellent and showcase the treasure chest of indigenous grape varieties that constitute the backbone of centuries of Italy’s wine culture.

So, let’s now take a look at my tasting notes for the two recommended wines that you may choose to enjoy with Suzanne’s delicious paella dish.

Option 1: Soave Classico, from the Veneto region

Pieropan, Soave Classico “Calvarino” 2010 DOC: a very good Soave made of a blend of 70% Garganega and 30% Trebbiano di Soave grapes which literally hits you in the nose with an exhuberant minerality and aromas of apple, citrus and white flowers; in the mouth a lively acidity and distinct minerality are balanced by a good extent of smoothness – long finish. ABV: 12.5% VOL. If interested, here is the winery’s technical sheet for this wine. Retails in the US for about $28.

Grape varieties’ quick facts: Garganega is a grape variety that is indigenous to the Veneto region, where it has been cultivated since at least the XIII century. Wines made of Garganega grapes are generally acidic and spicy. For more information about the Trebbiano di Soave grape variety, please scroll down to the quick facts about Verdicchio in option 2 below.

Option 2: Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, from the Marche region

Marotti Campi, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico “Salmariano” Riserva 2009 DOC: a very good varietal wine made of 100% Verdicchio grapes, with a nice bouquet of white flowers, peach, citrus and minerals; good acidity and a long finish. ABV: 14% VOL. If interested, here is the winery’s technical sheet for this wine. Retails in the US for about $20.

Grape variety’s quick facts: Verdicchio grapes are also known as Verdicchio Bianco, a grape variety which, although it has been cultivated in the Marche region since the XVI century, was said to originate from Veneto. It is interesting to notice that DNA profiling has confirmed this theory, indicating that Verdicchio as a grape variety is identical to Trebbiano di Soave, a grape variety that is widely planted in Veneto and that we have just come across describing the wine in option 1. Verdicchio wines tend to have marked acidity and good structure.

(Note: information on the grape varieties, cit. Wine Grapes, by Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz, HarperCollins 2012).

As always, if you get to try either one of the above wines, let me know how you liked them!