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Cleaning out the cupboard
Ever since I started writing Pane al Vino almost two years
ago, it seems like I've continually had a few column ideas
bouncing around in my head. Some lost their appeal over
time, and some of them developed into full-fledged
columns that readers have over the months seen in print
on these pages.
And then there are some that did neither -- remaining
nascent seeds of ideas that would neither shrivel away
nor bloom into something worth discussing for a full 750
or so words.
For reasons I'll come back to momentarily, this month's
column is a great opportunity to briefly visit some of these
ideas, in what amounts to a series of one-paragraph
So here's to cleaning out the cupboard of the column
ideas and random thoughts I've been cultivating lately.
If you've ever had real balsamic vinegar, the watery liquid in bottles on most supermarket shelves just won't do. The real stuff --
usually aged for at least a dozen years and sometimes as for long as a hundred -- is syrupy in texture, very dark in color, and it
can cost a small fortune. But what a taste! Layers of flavor that are somehow sweet and sour at the same time: the taste from a
single drop will linger in the mouth for minutes. Balsamic vinegar differs from other vinegars in part because it starts out as
unfermented grape must rather than wine or fruit juice, but the real magic happens in the barrel as the juice ages and each year
seems to add another layer of complexity.
Look for the words "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena" or "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia" -- Modena and
Reggio Emilia are two villages northwest of Bologna -- to make sure you are getting the good stuff. If one of these pricey but
worthwhile bottles is out of your price range, here's a trick I learned from a chef friend that many restaurants use to improve less
expensive vinegar: melt 1 teaspoon of dark brown sugar into a cup of cheap Balsamic. If it's used for cooking, the result -- while
not the same as a 40-year-old bottle of real Balsamic -- is much better than the 5-euro bottle you innocently brought home from
Twist top caps
There's an image problem with twist-off tops -- no poem ever waxed lyrical about the romantic nature of screwing the top off a
bottle while sitting in front of the fireplace. But at the Vinitaly wine fair I found a small handful of Italian producers are trying out the
metal closures and I hope more will try it over the coming years. A tradition-bound wine producing country like Italy will always be
slow to adopt new things, but a trip I took to New Zealand last year (where these modern enclosures are embraced) convinced
me of the delights of a wine that was fruity and fresh and clean every time (I'm not talking about cheap jug wines that use metal
tops but rather serious wine makers who have chosen to abandon corks). Though I think only 1 bottle in 50 is truly ruined by cork
seals, probably a dozen more are subtly affected by a musty taste or other contamination coming from the organic cork material.
Add to the fact that metal tops are cheaper, they never deteriorate, and can be opened without special tools, and it seems a
matter of time until they become wide spread, even here in the Bel Paese.
The origins of this delicious Roman pasta sauce are a
delightful mystery. There are several variations of the recipe,
but they all include eggs, black pepper, pig's jowl, and
pecorino cheese -- less certain is when and where it was
invented. The name comes from the word "carbone" (Italian
for "coal"), which leads many people to speculate that it was
popular among charcoal makers or coal miners or that the
correct variation features pancetta or guanciale -- the jowl --
that's been cooked to a charcoal-like crisp over an open fire.
Others say it was originally a dish enjoyed by the Carabinieri,
Italy's famous paramilitary police force. But the most likely
story is that it was invented to satisfy U.S. troops stationed in
Italy after World War II, combining the bacon and eggs of the
traditional American breakfast with Italy's own spaghetti -- an
argument backed up by the fact that the recipe doesn't appear
in any pre-war cook books. Whatever the origin, it's now a
simple classic of Italian cuisine, perfect for the first cool days
of September as summer sputters to an end.
Moscato d'Alba or d'Asti
I've always considered fizzy Moscato one of the under appreciated jewels of the Italian wine pantheon. I've never served it to
anyone who didn't appreciate its cool and delicate sweetness, refreshing taste, and palate-cleansing bubbles. With low alcohol,
it's a great stand-alone drink for those who don't want to get tipsy, but it is best as after dinner fare, either alone or with light or
creamy deserts or fresh fruit. Best of all, it's inexpensive: I've found decent bottles for under 4 euro, and even the best bottles can
cost less than 15 from the wine shop (a bit more on restaurant wine lists). If this description sounds off, you've probably tasted
the cloying and syrupy gold-colored Moscatos from southern Italy that bare little resemblance to their straw-colored northern
Pane al Vino
And so the cupboard is bare, which is appropriate as this is the last edition of Pane al Vino in The American. Although the last
couple of years have been fun and challenging, circumstances and priorities for both writers and publications change over time.
My sincerest of thanks to everyone who has written in with a question, comment, or a note of support, as well as to those who
have simply enjoyed these monthly missives of mine. I hope it's been as fun reading Pane al Vino as it has been writing it.
— Eric J. Lyman's email address is email@example.com. Write to him with comments, suggestions, and column
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Balsamic vinegar aged in barrels for as long as a hundred years.