Grappa – Italy’s Favorite Digestif

grappa-at-poli-private-walking-tours-italyThe most famous, and most popular, after dinner drink in Northeastern Italy is grappa. We introduce it in many ways to our guests on our walking tours and private cycling adventures – served as a digestivo, to aid in the digestion of a wonderful meal,  or added to espresso as a caffe corretto, an ammazzacaffe, where a few ounces of grappa are served after you finish your espresso, or a resentin (little rinser), where you rinse out your espresso cup with a few drops of grappa. However you choose to enjoy it, you will find a vast variety of grappa to taste on your visit.

grappa-tasting-private-bike-toursGrappa is similar to other distilled liquors, but is unique in that it is the only spirit made from distilling the skins, pulp, seeds and stems (called vinaccia) leftover from the winemaking process. Legend has it that a Roman solider first distilled grappa in Bassano del Grappa using equipment he stole from Egypt, but this is not the case, as the distillation techniques in use then could not produce grappa. According to Ove Boudin, in his book Grappa: Italy bottled, in ancient times the royalty would drink the wine, and the poor would make their own makeshift wine by adding water to the leftovers – nothing went to waste – calling it vinello. Around 1600, the Jesuits formalized and perfected distillation techniques, making it possible to distill vinaccia, and grappa was born.

grappa-still-private-walking-tours-italyFor many years, grappa was distilled with whatever vinaccia the producers would have available. Nowadays, as with most distilled liquors, modern producers have introduced refinements to the production process, greatly improving the final quality, and resulting in many diverse varieties. Today, the use of varietal grapes and aging in casks of various types of woods allows the producers to offer magnificent grappas that reflect the  high quality and the unique nature of the original grapes. At the forefront here is Nonino, a Friuli based producer that was the first to introduce a single varietal grappa in 1973.

bassano-nardini-private-walking-tours-italyGrappa is now a name protected by the European Union. To be called grappa, the liquor must be produced in Italy, or certain parts of Switzerland or San Marino, be produced from vinaccia (also known as pomace), and fermentation and distillation must occur on  the pomace, with no added water.

bassano-grappa-private-walking-tours-italyWe visit Bassano del Grappa on our tours in Italy, and have the opportunity to visit two very well known producers that are right across the street from each other. Nardini is located at the end of the famous Ponte degli Alpini in Bassano, and is popular with the locales; you will see quite a crowd there, spilling out onto the bridge itself in the late afternoon. Poli is located here as well, and has a very interesting museum that leads you through the production process. Many small antique bottles are on display, and a ‘sniffing’ room, where you can explore the aromas of about 20 or so different grappas.

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Crostoni di Uova alla Cacciatora – Hunter’s Eggs from Tuscany

uova-alla-cacciatora-above-private-walking-tours-italy_Our touring season in Italy is fast approaching, and we’ll be returning to Tuscany on a private walking tour, as well as our Bike the Wine Roads of Tuscany cycling tour in the fall. One venue I am really looking forward to returning to is Badia e Coltibuono, a place I visited first in 2003 with Chef Jody Adams.

badia-back-private-cycling-tours-tuscany_Badia a Coltibuono (Abbey of the Good Harvest) was founded in 1051 by the Benedictine monks of the Vallombrosan Order. They planted the first vineyards in the Upper Chianti area, and eventually extended their vast land holdings to include thousands of acres. In 1810, under Napoleonic rule, the monks were forced to leave Coltibuono and the monastery was secularized.

badia-courtyard-private-walking-tours-tuscany_In 1846, Coltibuono was bought by Guido Giuntini, a Florentine banker and great grandfather of Piero Stucchi-Prinetti, the present owner. Today the estate is run by Piero’s four children. Under the guidance of Piero and now his children, the estate continues to grow and build a solid reputation both in Italy and internationally for its wines and olive oils. It also operates a lovely agriturismo, cooking school, and restaurant.

badia-garden-private-cycling-tours-tuscany_The cooking school here at Badia was begun in 1980 by mother Lorenza deMedici. She is known world-wide for her many lovely cookbooks as well as her PBS television series The De’ Medici Kitchen. Today the cooking school features Benedetta Vitali, a Florentine chef, co-founder of “Cibreo” restaurant with Fabio Picchi, and then “Zibibbo” in 1999.

Coincidentally, the Stucchi family also has cycling in their DNA. In 1874, this same family founded one of the first bicycle factories in Italy. In 1918, the career of champion cyclist Girardengo seems to be coming to an end, but “Stucchi & C” believed in Girardengo and added him to their cycling team, and the cyclist went on to win the Giro d’Italia in 1919.

uova-alla-cacciatora-close-private-walking-tours-italy_Here is a recipe from Lorenza deMedici’s cookbook “Tuscany: The Beautiful Cookbook”. It is for Crostoni di Uova alla Cacciatora, or Hunter’s Eggs. To quote “These eggs are traditionally prepared for excursions to Monte Amiata, a tall mountain with an enormous cross on its summit. The area abounds in game and wild mushrooms.” We enjoy cycling and hiking in the countryside surrounding Monte Amiata during our tours in Tuscany.

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Cycling to St. Antimo monastery at foot of Monte Amiata

I’ve adapted this recipe in one way – the original calls for the bread to be deep fried in olive oil. Delicious, but a bit too much work in the morning for me! I’ve replaced it with toasted crostoni (large crostini).

Crostoni di Uova alla Cacciatora

12 slices dried porcini mushrooms
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion
1 can diced tomatoes
dash of hot red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
6 slices coarse country bread
6 eggs

Soak the mushrooms in warm water to cover for 30 minutes. Drain and squeeze out any excess moisture; set aside.

In a saucepan over moderate heat,  warm 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onion and fry gently, stirring frequently, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes, and mushrooms. Simmer over low heat until the liquid evaporates, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toast the bread, rub with a garlic clove and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

In a large nonstick skillet over moderate heat, warm the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Break the eggs into the skillet and fry sunny side up (without turning).

Arrange the bread on a serving plate. Place an egg on each slice, season with salt and pepper and cover with the tomato sauce. Serve immediately.

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Exploring Valpolicella – Bike or Hike to A Great Glass of Amarone

valpolicella-view-private-bike-tours-italyGood news for all you who enjoy toasting a great day in the outdoors with a special glass of vino. The most prestigious wine zone in the Veneto, the Valpolicella DOC, home to Amarone, and known as the “Pearl of Verona” offers a wide range of outdoor activities to interest all active adventurers. Travellers can enjoy cycling along bike paths that wind throughout the region, or challenging themselves among the lovely rolling hills. Hikers can trek the Lessini hills or along the ridge line of Monte Baldo just to the west, relishing the panoramic view of Lake Garda. Walk through miles of vineyards, or explore the history of the city of Verona, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Tom Robertson photo
Tom Robertson photo

The Valpolicella wine zone is located in the province of Verona, east of Lake Garda, and north of the Adige River. The hills in this region are used for agriculture – predominately grapes for their wonderful wines, of course – as well as marble quarrying. The volcanic hills and alluvial valleys here in this region provided a variety of terroir for viticulture, each contributing a unique flavor profile, which the best and most experienced of producers appreciate and use to make their wines the best they can be.

valpolicella-vineyards-private-walking-tours-italyWinemaking in Valpolicella dates back to at least the times of the ancient Greeks. The Valpolicella and Amarone tradition of using dried grapes was known as the “Greek style” of wine production. Roman writers such as Cassiodorus refer to wines from this region, and during the Venetian trading period with the Byzantine Empire, one of the products regularly transported were wines from Valpolicella.

valpolicella-sign-private-cycling-tours-italyThe name itself, Valpolicella, is most commonly believed to be derived from Latin and Greek, “valley of many cellars”. Seven comuni compose Valpolicella: Pescantina, San Pietro in Cariano, Negrar, Marano di Valpolicella, Fumane, Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella and Sant’Anna d’Alfaedo. The historical “heart” of Valpolicella winemaking, known as the “classico” area, is in the Monti Lessini hills northwest of Verona. In 1968, in order to keep up with increased demand for their wines, the boundaries were extended east towards the Soave zone and south to the plains of the Po and Adige rivers. Today the economy of this region is centered on wine production.

valpolicella-rugolin-private-walking-tours-italyMost guided tours in this region focus on wineries that have facilities for larger group tours and tastings. These wineries are major producers with staff dedicated to wine tourists. They do a nice professional job, but I prefer to visit with smaller family producers. A bit more informal, and gathering around a kitchen table with three generations, tasting wines as they share their family story and their passion for their land, wines, and local traditions is truly unique. The occasional language barrier seems to disappear as we unite in appreciation of the wine and our shared experience. If traveling on your own, don’t miss an opportunity to visit at least one  – the lack of a professional looking storefront is intimidating, but these families love to share their wines with visitors, and are thrilled you stopped by.

valpolicella-monteleone-private-walking-tours-italyMany delightful dining options are found throughout the Valpolicella region. The area has a wonderful regional cuisine, the best dishes favoring seasonal local products – peaches and apples from orchards along the Adige, fresh olive oil from nearby Lake Garda, mushrooms, chestnuts and truffles from Monte Baldo and Lessini, Monte Veronese cheese. And look for many dishes made with the favorite wines – Beef braised in Amarone, Risotto di Amarone.

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valpolicella-polenta-dabepi-private-walking-tours-italyIn the heart of the Valpolicella zone, Antica Trattoria da Bepi is a nice spot for a casual meal where you can sample many of these local specialties. Try the antipasti platter with grilled polenta. Polenta is traditionally cooked for a long time over a wood fire, which introduces a smokiness to the dish that modern cook top versions lack. This is one of the few places where I’ve actually tasted that smoke in the polenta.

valpolicella-amarone-ruota-private-walking-tours-italyFor more refined dining while enjoying a panoramic view of the hills, visit Trattoria alla Ruota. Enjoy tortelli all’amarone “fatta in casa”, made in house, or with truffles when in season. Pork with apples, or a selection of local cheeses. An extensive wine cellar allows you to sample wines from a variety of local producers.

valpolicella-beef-ruota-private-walking-tours-italyAnother favorite of mine is the amazing Enoteca di Valpolicella in Fumane. I’ve shared details of my dining experience here on my blog. The wine cellar of the enoteca is quite impressive, with wines from over 100 local Valpolicella producers. They can design a wine tasting for a group with antipasti, or a multi-course dinner with wine pairings. I recommend just leaving yourself in the proprietor Ada’s hands, allowing her to recommend both food and wine, all beautifully prepared and paired.

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Paarlbrot – Traditional Bread from the Venosta Valley

paarlbrot-private-bike-tours-italyThe first few days of our Bike the Wine Roads of Trentino-Alto Adige tour is spent in the lovely Val Venosta, or Vinschgau Valley. This is the upper part of the Adige river valley, running west to east from the Reschen Pass to Merano. A well-maintained bike path follows this valley, winding through apple orchards, vineyards, and berry fields, with spectacular mountains on either side. A great cycling destination for all levels of cyclists, offering tranquil flat bike paths to the start of the ascent of Passo Stelvio.

val-venosta-path-private-bike-tours-italySudtirol was part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire until after WWI, and the region today still strongly reflects its germanic roots, with German being used as frequently as Italian. The cuisine too reflects these same roots, one example being the breads you find – the mountain farmers here have always preferred whole wheat and rye based breads over the white bread you find in most of Italy. I find the best and most interesting varieties of breads in all of Italy here in Sudtirol.

paarlbrot-close-private-bike-tours-italyThe enviable climate of the Vinschgau, with very mild temperatures for the elevation is optimum for the cultivation of wheat and rye. The best rye flour is cultivated at higher elevations, and with over 300 days of sunshine a year, the rye has sufficient time to fully ripen.

Paarlbrot is the oldest type of bread from Venosta Valley. This Vinschger Paarl, “pair bread” after its two-lobed shape, was first baked in the ovens of Monte Maria Benedictine Abbey in the town of Burgusio/Burgeis in the 13th century. At that time, this “monastery bread”, as it is also called, was made at most four times a year, so it was essential that they last for the long winter months. The flat loaves of Paarlbrot and other breads were stored on racks, and were broken with a special tool called a “grammel”, then soaked in milk, coffer or soup.
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Today you find many local bakeries producing fresh paarlbrot every day, so it no longer needs a long soak to be enjoyed. The original recipes begin with a sourdough type starter, 70% or so rye flour, and using milk rather than water – milk inhibits the gluten structure resulting in a flatter breads, but the fat in milk holds moisture so the bread doesn’t dry out as quickly, beneficial when these were expected to last for several month. The Paarl bread has a very distinctive flavor due to both the use of the sourdough, as well as the inclusion of cumin, fennel and fenugreek, all cultivated in the gardens of Sudtirol peasants.
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Enjoy with cheese, local smoked sausages and speck, and a glass of good local red wine like a Schiava, or a local apple juice.

This version of Paarlbrot is not authentic, but does include the traditional flavorings – beginning with a sourdough, rye flour, cumin, fennel and fenugreek. I recently purchased the cookbook “The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” by Jeff Hertzberg MD and Zoe Francois, and have been baking a LOT more bread recently, thanks to their minimalist approach (no kneading!!). So I adapted their technique using the traditional ingredients of Paarlbrot, and enjoying a panini with speck and cheese for lunch each day this week.

paarlbrot-speck-private-bike-tours-italyPaarlbrot

1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk (100°F or below)
1 1/2 teaspoons granulated yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
10 ounces all-purpose flour
6 ounces rye flour

Pour the warm milk into a 6-quart bowl or a lidded food container. Add the yeast, salt, and seeds. Mix in the flour, do not knead. You will have a dough that is wet and loose enough to form to the shape of the container.

Cover with a lid, leaving it cracked open so it is not airtight, or loosely with plastic wrap. Allow the mixture to rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse, or at least flattens on top, about 2 hours. Then refrigerate and use over the next 14 days. You can use the dough anytime after this first 2 hour rise, but the flavor will be more complex if you allow it to sit overnight or longer in the refrigerator.

When ready to bake, turn on your oven to 450°F. If you have a pizza or baking stone, place this in the oven on a top shelf. Place an empty heavy duty metal (not glass, it may shatter )roasting pan on a shelf below.

If you have a pizza peel, prepare it by sprinkling with cornmeal or covering with parchment paper so the loaves will not stick. If you don’t have a peel, you can use the back of a sheet pan. Or you can just bake on a sheet pan if you don’t have a baking stone.

Dust the surface of the refrigerated dough with flour. Pull up and cut off about a cup of the dough, about 1/8th of the entire dough mass. Form into a flat oval and place on the peel or sheet pan. You want to do this quickly and handle the dough as lightly as possible; irregular shape is preferred. Remove a second ball of dough the same size as the first; shape in the same way and place on peel or pan next to first, touching for 2 inches or so along one side to make the characteristic ‘pair’ or ‘paarl’ shape. Repeat three more times to make 4 total paarl loaves.

Allow the dough to rest for 40 minutes.

When ready to bake, slide the parchment paper with the loaves onto the preheated stone. Quickly pour 1 cup of hot tap water into the empty roasting pan below the stone and close the oven door.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the crust is richly browned and firm to the touch. Allow to cool.

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Exploring Merano – The “City of Flowers” Tucked Away in the Mountains

merano-mountain-view-private-hiking-tours-italyA favorite destination on our Bike the Wine Roads of Trentino-Alto Adige tour is the town of Merano, or Meran in German. It’s stunning location within a basin at the entrance of the Passeier Valley and the Val Venosta, surrounded by mountains topping out at over 3000 meters, offers a plethora of outdoor activities to keep us busy – cycling along the Val Venosta bike path, hiking along the Merano High Mountain Trail in the Texel Mountain group, climbing, and in the winter five different ski areas to explore. Afternoons bring us ample opportunity to explore the culture, history and cuisine of this vibrant town.

merano-cycling-tour-5The enviable climate of Merano (over 300 days of sunshine a year) and its thermal springs have made it a prime vacation destination for many years, attracting luminaries such as Franz Kafka and Ezra Pound. Settled initially as a road station for the Romans in 15 BC, Merano was elevated to the status of a city during the 13th century and made the capital of Tyrol. In 1420, the Duke of Austria, Frederick moved the Tyrolean court to Innsbruck. Though Meran remained the official capital until 1848, it lost its predominant economic position, but its popularity as tourist destination especially for Germans and Italians, remains strong.

merano-gardens-view-private-hiking-tours-italyThanks to its’ unique topology, Merano boasts the mildest winters in the entire central European area. The mild climate allows plants from Mediterranean areas to flourish alongside those from Alpine areas. This amazing diversity of flora can be admired in Merano’s beautiful gardens, including the botanical garden of Trauttmansdorff Castle, as well as the Kranzel Labrinth Gardens, ranking among some of loveliest gardens in the world, and giving Merano its monikeru of the “City of Flowers.”

val-venosta-path-15-castelbelloSudtirol is also the European region with the highest number of castles, with over 800 castles, manor houses, and ruins. The oldest manors date to the early Middle Ages while the most recent date from the late Baroque period. One of the most important is Tyrol Castle, dating from the eleventh century, which now is home to the South Tyrol Museum of History and Culture. The densest concentration of castles and palaces in area can be found in two villages just south Merano, Tisens and Prissian, often referred to as ‘castle villages’, where many aristocratic families constructed summer homes here. There are seven castles here, making it a lovely spot for a walking tour or well worth a short detour from the bike path traveling from Merano to Bolzano.

Merano is also known as the “beautiful fruit garden of the Alps”, where you can find apples, pears, apricots and many types of berries cultivated nearby. Honey, herbs, breads based on rye and other whole grains, Sudtirol speck and mountain cheese, spirits and brandies, beer. Here is where the Central European culinary tradition and alpine flavors meet the cuisine of the Mediterranean. Dine on traditional rich Tyrolean dishes, or enjoy more sophisticated versions reflecting inspiration from the south.

merano-market-private-hiking-tours-italyIn this area of Italy, there are no over-sized shopping malls: local producers offer their wares and fresh seasonal products at markets year round. In Merano there is a large traditional Friday market, as well as several smaller farmers’ markets throughout the week. My favorite to visit before we start a tour is the market held Saturday mornings from 9.00 a.m. to 1.00 p.m on the upper Corso Liberta. Another great place to buy local products from speck to chestnut pasta and apples, a wide selection of local cheese and wines and freshly baked bread is Pur, at Corso della Liberta, 35. Enjoy a freshly made panini on their outdoor patio.

forst-brewery-private-hiking-tours-italyTerraced vineyards surround Merano, where a nice variety of both local and international varietals are cultivated, thanks again to the region’s mild Alpine-Mediterranean climate. The best way to discover this region is to taste a glass of one of the original indigenous varietals: try the traditional Vernatsch (Schiava in Italian), the intense Lagrein, or a St. Magdalena, a blend of both. White varietals that originally hail from this region are Gewurztraminer and Moscato Rosa. International varietals that flourish here include Pinot Nero/Noir, Sylvaner, Sauvignon, and Riesling, just to name a few. Northern climates in Italy also provide the barley and fresh mountain water perfect for brewing beer, so one last stop at Forst brewery for a crisp cold beer is a great way to end our ride.

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Buckwheat canederli at Restaurant Sigmund

There are also plenty of wonderful restaurants where we can experience these great products and unique blend of cuisines found in this region. We often celebrate our first night on tour at Restaurant Sigmund on Corso Liberta, which offers typical Tyrolean cuisine with more modern, Mediterranean touch. A lovely spot to dine outdoors in the heart of Merano. A bit outside the town center is Restaurant Roberts Stube, a Slow Food restaurant of only a few tables tucked in an ancient cave. Their menu changes with the season, incorporating local products from white asparagus in the spring to chestnuts in the fall. Laubenkeller is an old school traditional restaurant with good solid food. Kallmunz offers more modern style cuisine, in an elegant room in an old castle on Piazza Duomo. For something sweet, Gelaterie Sabine has been making artisanal gelato in Merano for 40 years.

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Restaurant Robert’s Stube

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