sabato 13 ottobre 2012

Lacryma Christi: the Wine of Mount Vesuvius

(Per leggere la versione italiana, vedi il seguente post.)

Not all Italian-Americans are interested in connecting with their Italian roots.  Many are perfectly happy with “The Godfather” and Frank Sinatra and spaghetti and meatballs and jug wine.

But what is “jug wine,” and how do I describe it to someone who lives in a wine region?   And all of Italy is a wine region.

In America, we have wine that is sold in large, four-litre glass bottles, with metal twist-off caps.  This inexpensive but repulsive liquid has a taste that would be unfamiliar to an Italian.

One of the most striking culinary differences between America and Italy is that, in America, when you go to a pizzeria or restaurant and ask for the “house wine,” you get the above-described jug wine.  In Italy, you instead get the wine from that town – fresh, delicious local wine that perfectly matches the fresh, delicious local ingredients on your plate.

Neapolitan wines are not very well-known in America.  We have Tuscan wines in profusion.  They are overpriced and overrated, and they go badly with Southern Italian cuisine.  I was determined to try something from the Vesuvius region. 

The local liquor store had only one Vesuvian bottle: a Falaghina by the esteemed wine producer from Avellino, Feudi di San Gregorio.  I was stunned by the taste of this wonderful wine.  It had a fruity flavor but was dry at the same time.  Certain historians think that Falanghina was descended from the famous Falernian wine (vinum Falernum) from the Roman era.

I immediately wanted to try Feudi di San Gregorio’s red wines.  And there was no doubt which one I wanted to try first. The wine mentioned by Dumas, by Voltaire, by Marlowe, by Hawthorne, and by the prince in “Three Coins in the Fountain.” Lacryma Christi, the tears of Christ. 

Lacryma Christi is a mythical wine – literally.  There are various myths associated with this wine.  The Roman poet Martial wrote:“Haec iuga quam Nysae colles plus Bacchus amavit.” (“Bacchus loved these hills more than his native hills of Nysa.”) According to another myth, “Recognizing in the Gulf of Naples a strip of sky torn by Lucifer during his fall into the Underworld, God wept; and where his divine tears fell, arose the vines of Lacryma Christi.” Still another myth tells us that, one day, Christ visited a redeemed hermit and before, taking leave of him, transformed his undrinkable beverage into excellent wine.

I searched several stores and could not find Feudi Lacryma Christi.  But I could not afford to order a case.  (In America, Feudi’s wines cost $18 a bottle.) I begged several friends to be partners with me in the acquisition of a case.  We ordered it.  I took a bottle.  I opened it.  I poured it into my glass.  And only at that moment did I see that the wine was white. Feudi uses dark bottles for all of their wines, white or red.  Nothing on the box or bottle had indicated a white wine.

Not that the wine wasn’t magnificent.  I mean, the bottle was open; I couldn’t send it back ...

I explained the situation to my “partners.” And the wine store was gracious enough to replace the case.

The 18th of July, 2012, was a historic day: the first time in my life that I tasted Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio!  This was the flavor that I remembered from the region of Mt. Vesuvius.  Problem was: I had to make something to eat with it, lest the wine overtake me completely!

With this powerful wine, the sauce had to be red and meaty.  But I had nothing prepared.  The water was boiling.  And as the saying goes, “The pasta never waits for the sauce.”

I grabbed ingredients with great haste.  I had a yellow summer squash from a farm stand.  I had a Beretta hot soppressata (9 oz.).  Quickly I filled the food processor with the squash, some soppressata, 28 oz. of canned plum tomatoes, 1 small onion, and 2 cloves of garlic. With a rubber spatula I transferred this heavenly mixture into the pan, which was already hot and oiled.  I cooked it for about 15 minutes, ladling in cooking liquid as necessary.  At the end, I added some garden basil.

The squash with the soppressata was an almost magical contrast.  The squash was sweet and light; the soppressata was piccante and, of course, meaty. Both the taste and the texture were phenomenal!

This improvised recipe (which I have named “Spaghetti Chiaroscuro”) was a great success.  And with the wine ...

(Note: Depending on the fat content of the soppressata, the addition of oil might not be necessary.  )
Later, I read more about Feudi and its founder, Enzo Ercolino. Dr. Ercolino was as much a philosopher as he was a wine maker. Today the firm is under the direction of Francesco Domini. There can be no question that Feudi di San Gregorio is the finest wine producer in Avellino and one of the finest – perhaps the finest – in the entire region of Campania.

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