Our Italian Travels
Jetlag and small delays become irrelevant when faced with the challenge of an Icelandic volcano as a travel barrier. So, we experienced feelings of great relief when our plane made the final approach to Milan airport. This was possibly heightened by the hands clasped in fervent prayer by a woman in her late 70s from Naples who, with her 88-year old sister, were my row companions during the flight. And no, they were not at all 'elderly' - the 88-year old swept the young airport assistant aside with a derisive turn of her hand when he dared to offer her the use of a wheelchair. He would have received a friendlier reception from me!
SOME OF OUR ITALIAN SUPPLIERS...
Even the rental car was waiting, so we set off in the direction of our pesto maker in Liguria. It had been a few years between visits, but the basil is still from the western hills (VERY distinctive flavour) and the Parmigiano-Reggiano, Italian pinenuts, salt and cashew nuts (the latter to lend sweetness instead of whey or sugar) are all the same high quality we know you enjoy (rated top in Annabelle White's 'Food Detective' in Feb).
The following day we headed towards a weekend in Barolo, Piedmont, to check the quality of the latest wine releases and the consistency of our old favourite restaurant: Ristorante La Cantinetta, run by brothers Maurilio and Paolo.
Of course the wine side was purely business - we had decided to add to our tiny collection of Piedmontese wine. Think Barolo, 'the wine of kings and the king of wine' as they say - and this required research.
Visits to a few winemakers lead us to select two new suppliers from this exalted region. As well as their Barolo, we also enjoyed some very quaffable Barbera d'Alba, Nebbiolo and Dolcetto. The latter was described to us as a wine to enjoy with pasta. These wonderful new wines will be on our shelves soon.
The Rocca family, another operation headed by father and son, proved to have quite some prowess with a wood-fired oven which also overlooked their beautiful vineyard. Extremely good bread and pizza augmented their highly rated wine. Barolo has a restorative tranquility reinforced by the endless view of rows of grapes stretching as far as the eye can see. Perhaps that is the x-factor in the wine? Only further research would tell.
La Cantinetta, we have written about before - and again the food surpassed memory. For a mere 30 euro ($60) you can enjoy a superb degustation - accompanied by some incredible wine (extra). Make sure you leave room for the knockout silky pannacotta, which is unequalled in our experience so far. Simple but comfortable accommodation can be found three steps away, across the road at Vicolo del Pozzo. A bed with a view, is just around the corner at La Giolitta.
Another day, another town, and so we went to visit - after a gap of some years - Claudio Stefani, at our balsamic supplier Giusti. They are located in Modena, home also to Ferrari, Maserati and other elite car brands.
Seventeen generations on, this family have the most incredible selection of ancient barrels in which they age their precious vinegar, which (unlike many of the legal but industrial versions) remain true to their origins. They also do not indulge in any of the misleading attributions of age on their bottles which is a lure for the unwary. Because of this practice the 'Consortium of Balsamic' is now seizing in stores throughout Italy - much to the upset of the many companies who use it as a false marketing tool.
Pavarotti, also from Modena, was a notable Giusti client and so it was only fitting that we were taken to Europa 92, the restaurant on his property. Again a veritable feast of the traditional food of the region of Emilia Romagna awaited. A rather elegant display case at the restaurant, showcases the Giusti line remarkably well. What an advertisement!
Research at this point took an even richer turn as we tried a line-up of the cured meats of the region (the richness of lardo is cut by the addition of mostarda!), at least three types of pasta (not light eating with rich meat and cheese) and a dessert trolley which could have stocked a small shop (no wonder the Maestro had a generous waistline - as we also have now).
A visit to the newish premises of the Guisti acetaia followed the next day, and was accompanied by a barrel tasting of many different ages of their precious product. With all the pleasure of a balsamic you can trust, as well as enjoy. The age of the barrels has a huge influence on the final product and it is easy to see why Giusti stands at the top of the balsamic world. No stainless steel here.
Giusti are in the process of setting up to welcome interested visitors to the acetaia - and next door you can find not only a bed and breakfast operation run by two mothers and their daughters, but also another simple but fine restaurant - where you really can't go past the mini polpette (meatballs) to name but one delicious dish!
A stop at Salumificio Pedrazzoli in San Giovanni del Dosso, our Italian smallgoods supplier, was next where Elisa Pedrazzoli (3rd generation) showed us their production and curing rooms. They are unusual as they only use GSP (Gran Suino Padano) which means their pigs are only Italian. The cost is 30% more than using pigs of other origins and they actually 'grow their own' as we saw from an afternoon visit to their farm with Emmanuele, her brother.
The recipe for the superior flavour and quality of Pedrazzoli salami is simple: top quality 'own brand' pork meat (they even make their own feed from whole cereals which is also unusual), good salt, herbs and natural ageing ('flavours' or 'aromi' on a meat label can also include unstated chemicals apparently). Such a natural approach requires a lot of monitoring of stability and time - the commercial approach of other imported Italian small goods here is much easier and cheaper to achieve. Lunch was nearby at the Osteria del Maiale. A very funky little place in a small nearby town, operated by the family where Pedrazzoli-cured meats were accompanied by homemade mostarda, warm gnoccho and tagelle, little pillows and rounds of puffed bread we'd also enjoyed in Modena, this time served warm in a paper bag with the top rolled back - very cute. At this point we politely refused the rest of the proffered menu and pleaded for a salad. Delicious.
Onward to Nesente near Verona, and a visit to Frantoio Salvagno, with whom we have had a long relationship as they are one of our original suppliers. This is a very attractive frantoio. Elena, Giovanni's wife, is responsible for a range of very pretty flowering plants whose blooms catch your eye, as you drive through the gate. They live above the frantoio and have a small shop attached where they sell not only their oil but also a range of skincare they have produced using it. The packaging is simple but the quality is high as some of you who have tried the small amount of handcream we have imported will attest.
Giovanni, his wife Elena and two daughters Cristina and Francesca are at the heart of this artisanal olive oil operation, which is supplied by their own trees and also those of local farmers who can, if they choose, also bring their olives to be pressed and have their own name on the Salvagno label.
Giovanni is well respected in the olive world internationally these days and one of the secrets behind his fantastic oil is that he has invented a modern version of the stonewheel which he feels, with his local varieties, leads to a better end product. So his olives are actually still stoneground before being pressed for oil. His oil is always balanced and non-aggressive in style and has long been extremely popular in our range.
You will also know his olives - some cured in brine, some pitted and cured in his olive oil - and his delicious olive paste which we also stock.
Verona is a cultured, elegant city and we enjoyed sitting in the heart of it in Piazza Erbe sipping along with many locals and tourists, an aperitif called 'Aperol Spritz', a pretty orange blend of Aperol and Prosecco enjoyed in a huge red wine glass with one or two slices of orange and ice. People seem to manage to drink here in a civilized fashion enjoying the company of elegantly attired friends, eating as they go or breaking off to eat nearby and return later and as the evening progresses the crowd grows. The Salvagno family are obviously well known and liked, judging by the number of people we were introduced to.
Cristina's husband is the owner one of the smart bar/ristorante 'Caffe Mazzanti' along the strip and we were interested to see that he uses Valrhona chocolate on his menu. 'The best!' he assured us. We told him New Zealand was not so unsophisticated in this area either...
Other food we enjoyed on our short visit included polenta (a staple here) with quail and porcini, bollito misto with 'piera' a local Veronese sauce with a grated bread base mixed with stock and Parmigiano Reggiano, and of course risotto with Vialone Nano rice and one of Italy's landmark wines - Amarone. Fresh red prawns and scampi from Sicily drizzled with Salvagno oil also featured on the menu.
Then to Spoleto for a night, another ancient town rich in history, this time with magnificent views, and the following day on to Calabria to see Callipo, our tuna supplier.
After an eight-hour drive with a GPS which on occasion tried to have us turning right in tunnels and had no idea of the location we typed in, a petrol station stop where the guy was offering 10 euro less change than he should have been, and the sight of the odd burnt out car on the roadside, we stopped and approached a local for directions. He shrugged and directed us to his friend - an older man with a red stone earring in his ear, big toothless grin and only three fingers on each hand. He then whistled up another guy and indicated to us to follow them. They hopped into a small battered car and drove us miles into the country along gravel roads - and yes, at times we did wonder were we were going! But finally we arrived at our destination: a country resort in the middle of nowhere - owned by Callipo. Phew!
As it turns out the Calabrians are very hospitable and make not only delicious tuna, but also gelato and some very fine wine. They just drive like bandits - very fast, often in the middle of the road, and sometimes straight towards you.
Callipo is a fourth generation processor of yellowfin tuna and their employees are fiercely proud of the family they work for and the quality of their product. There is a small store on the immaculate site and it was tempting to photograph the nun we saw exiting, Callipo bag in hand.
Nowadays a lot of 'Italian' tuna is actually fished and processed in Thailand so is more about price than quality. This is not the case at Callipo where everything is meticulously processed on site and strictly monitored and analysed at every stage. The tuna is fished in a 'dolphin-safe' manner. The huge fish is handcut, bled, cooked and then cooled slowly at fridge temperature. It is trimmed and sorted by hand and densely packed (everything is doubly cleaned and checked by both machine and person) into jars (larger pieces) or tins and matured for a least a month before release. The olive oil they use is from Abruzzo, the sea salt from Trapani (which is why their tuna in brine is so nice too). All the tuna we have is from fillets (a lot of skilled handwork here) and the off cuts are put into a second label. In fact their tuna is even better with age and apparently good (if not better) for years past the official expiry date. It is always moist and delicious and now we know why.