Saturday, May 24, 2014

Grappa ain't (necessarily) crappa!

I have to be sincere, grappa is not a favorite drink of mine. I rarely have one even if it's customary in Italy to drink a little shot at the end of the meal to "digest" the huge meal (some places they even put grappa into coffe any time during the day - ask for a "caffè corretto" should you wanna try this).

Grappa is distilled from the pomace left over after the wine making, so the grape skins and seeds that have already given their best to the wine. Wineries in Italy are usually required to sell their skins to a distillery (to make sure no one makes grappa illegally at home). 

Distilleries may be smaller or larger, adequate or great - or anything in between. The one I visited is an artisan distillery that uses the bain marie method and the master distiller is Maurizio.

After the grape harvest and fermentation of grapes into wine, wineries will typically put the pomace into big plastic bags, seal them and send them off to the distillery that then has a few months to process it.

The pomace contains about 5-6% alcohol and by putting it into this vat and warming up the sides with bain marie the temperature rises so do the alcoholic vapours.

This vat will be closed during distillation and the vapours are collected in the little grill you see on the top and flow through a tube into a large vat at a lower temperature where the alcohol liquifies.

This process takes a few hours and the yield is around 10% in volume from the initial weight of pomace.
At this point we have an approx 35 % alcoholic solution mainly ethanol (good alcohol) and methanol (bad alcohol).

It's necessary to do a second distillation to get rid of the methanol which evaporates at a lower temperature than ethanol. So first the methanol boils off and is collected and separated and secondly the ethanol goes through the beautiful bronze distilling machine (or whatever it's called) and is collected in small tanks.

The grappa is now 80% alcohol and ready inside one of these tanks to be diluted with water to contain around 42% alcohol in the finished product. It's refrigerated down to under freezing point (around - 6 celcius) and ready to go!

The next step could be bottling which here is done by hand...

Some grappa may go on for ageing in recuperated wine barrels (the fact they've already been used for wine is beneficial and will impact the flavour the grappa. Aged grappa is typically golden in color.

So grappa is either white (non aged) or golden and distilleries will distill specific lots of pomace from specific wines or grape varietals to obtain e.g. a grappa of Sangiovese or a grappa of Brunello di Montalcino, etc. The taste varies according to what is distilled, but of course it's very subtle when we talk taste differences...

Thanks to Maurizio at Alboni Distilleria for showing me around - it's always great to meet people who are passionate and proud of what they do!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

My Gelato Scoop

In Italian gelato means "frozen" and is the word used by Italians for what we refer to in English as ice cream. In Italy you get your gelato in a gelateria - there are many sorts from the homemade to the opposite (and everything in between). So just like you want to seek out the good restaurants, you've got to seek out the good gelaterie that will make their own gelato from fresh ingredients and with their own recipes.

Do Italians do it better?
People rave about the gelato in Italy, and I should think that people are referring to the artisanal gelato and not the industrial one, even if this one perhaps has a lighter character than for example in Northern Europe where ice cream tends to be quite heavy. No matter where the industrial gelato tends to contain much more air. Artisanal gelato has a lower air content - max around 40%.

Economy & Art
Gelaterie can choose to work everything from scratch or they can buy various parts of the gelato already prepped. Some use fresh milk and cream others prefer to substitute those with butter, margarine or oils. There are basically various choices based upon economy, and then there is the art and craftsmanship of the gelataio. By looking at the ice cream vendors on the outside you won't necessarily be able to know who does what, but usually a great gelato will reveal itself.

Some things you can judge by the looks!
- Mountains of gelato in the expo? Bad sign, means lots of stabilizers in the ice cream to make it keep its form - but impressive and attractive in the display. Avoid!
- Unnatural bright colors usually means poor quality of ingredients, pumped with coloring to make up for scarce quality. Avoid!
- Sign says Gelateria artigianale - this means homemade gelato, so at least the gelato was to some degree made on site. But we still have no clue as the quality of it. Taste it!
- Notice if the gelateria is using what could be local fresh produce. Definitely taste!!
- Or do they have any particular flavors they've come up with themselves? Don't miss these!!!

Pear gelato served with Tuscan pecorino cheese - YUM!

A gelato a day keeps the doctor away!
I was recommended by the pediatrician to give the children gelato every day during the hot summer to cool them down (I guess in other countries they use air conditioning) and to give them energy - God knows, my 2 little ones need lots of energy to run around all day long!

So let's see how the stuff is made:

Here are a few places that I like (quite a lot). I'm sure the list of good gelaterie is much longer, but I haven't tried them all, yet (so let me know if you have great suggestions):

Castellina in Chianti:
L'Antica Delizia (this is where the video is from)

San Gimignano:

La Vecchia Latteria

Cantina del Gelato

Perché no?

Here is gelato master Sergio Dondoli in front of his shop in San Gimignano!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Historic food & wine tour of Florence

This week we got the chance to do our first historic food & wine walk in Florence - a new tour that we've just started from this year and one that I think is very interesting for foodies and history buffs alike. It's so fascinating to think of how people lived around 500 yrs ago before and after the discovery of the New World. What were their customs for eating and drinking?

Our guide for this tour is Molly who's lived in Italy for the past decade and is specialized in Florentine history. We met her here at Santa Maria Novella, one of the icon churches of Florence.

Molly's holding a plate designed by calligrapher Betty Soldi - check her out: The sign says "una fame da lupo" - which literally means hungry as a wolf - a typical Italian expression.

Our first stop is in the ancient pharmacy adjacent to the Church to discover the importance of the apothecaries in the past - keepers and vendors of spices, herbs, colorings and more.

The pharmacy has at least 400 yrs of history and still features some really unique products that we discover together.

We're smelling the most incredible rose water - used in the past as a soother, but maybe also to cover up for bad smells as people didn't bathe regularly? We also smell Catherine de' Medici's perfume...soooo good!

The chapel inside the pharmacy is newly opened and one of the frescoes pictures the last supper how it was imagined by a late middle age painter. Utensils on the table pictures knives and glasses, but no forks. The main course is still headed, a common practice in the middle ages in fact was to serve the animal still looking very much alive!

These digestifs were really interesting, amongst which one made with ladybirds (that we tasted and it was yummy!) Or what about a Medici family digestif with 10 herbs? Or the rose liquor?!

Cheers to ladybugs!!

Florence got its first guild of winemakers in the late 12 hundreds. Noble families started selling wines made on their countryside estates in the city through these "buche del vino" wine holes. This particular one also displays opening hrs, clearly indicating a lunch break that is still kept by shop keepers today.

Orsanmichele functioned as a wheat market in medieval times, and was subsequently turned into a church.

Here in the roof there's still a hole that contributes to its history as a wheat market - and I wish I could tell you all the info that we got from Molly here...but you'll have to do it yourself to suck it up your own way!

Then on we went to the Oratory of the Buonuomini di San Martino where you may find the frescoes of daily life in those years, something very unique.

In pest years bread was distributed from this church, and charities were collected.

Depicting the use of the Italian "fiasco" and the "caratello" barrel (today still used for vin santo)

Again a scene with foods & wine - fundamentals of life.

On we go to Bizarri, a store that's kept unchanged since the mid 18 hundreds. Here they sell "erba della paura" (herbs to cure fear) and much other curious stuff, including spices and more...

Potassium bitartrate and ascorbic, tartaric, citric acid.

Then we visit Palazzo Davanzati - the only palace in town that remains intact for visitors to see how a nobel family lived in medieval Florence. Entrance is 2 euro but worth it to see the different floors to hear Molly's many stories about these rooms.

A ceremic plate at least 500 yrs old - probably made in the nearby town of Montelupo, still famous for its ceramics today. If you want to learn more about Tuscan ceramics you can check out the school in Montelupo:

More ceramics and wall painting detail...

Then we head South on the Ponte Vecchio that used to be the bridge of the Butchers until the Medici family had that changed to gold (probably stank too much, and prestige came with the gold)...

And end up at the Tuscan Wine School with a tasting of a red wine made with the old wine making method called Governo (using dried grapes to live up fermentation when already initiated), and Vin Santo - an ancient wine of Tuscany made with the presence of oxygen and still very much enjoyed today.

The best part of our tours is always the interaction with our guests and to hear their questions - and finally, to depart as friends!

See more about this tour on our site: