Thursday, September 27, 2012

An Etruscan Tradition

By Patricia Winton

Umbria, which I visited a few of weeks ago, is a land-locked region in Italy where the Apennines rise above an otherwise hilly landscape. Located in the center of the peninsula, Umbria has many fine cities like Perugia (center of Italy’s chocolate industry) and Assisi (with its Giotto frescos). But it has as many sheep as people, and fine pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheese dominates the gastronomy.

This part of the peninsula lies in the middle of the area occupied by the Etruscans, and many Umbrians describe themselves as Etruscan descendants. (All you history buffs, don’t shoot me; I’m just the messenger.) And they say their cheese mirrors Etruscan traditions. Be that as it may, before the rise of the Roman republic, Umbrian shepherds tended their flocks in this hilly region and produced a cheese from the sheep’s milk. The herds wandered over the pastureland during the summer months, then returned in August to villages for cheese making.

It was a time of warring tribes, and somewhere along the way, the nomadic Umbrians learned to hide their food—ham, salami, and especially cheese—in fosse (caves and trenches) in the ground to protect them from being confiscated by tribal foes. When peace returned, the Umbrians discovered that the cheese thus stored and aged underground tasted better than cheese aged above ground and adopted this method as the norm for cheese production.

In some parts of the region, the fosse are carved in volcanic rock, but in the region around the Monte Cucco park, the fosse are formed by bedrock. In both cases, the process is the same. Straw is burned to rid the space of insects and other unwanted vermin. Then a layer of clean straw is spread on the floor of the fosse. The cheese, wrapped in cloth, is arranged on this bed and covered by another layer of straw. The openings to the fosse are sealed with mud and/or mortar.

Walter Facchini
The underground fosse maintain a constant temperature that allows the cheese to age uniformly and naturally. This production method has been documented since 1581. Today the pecorino in fossa is produced by small factories such as Caseificio Facchini Walter in Sigillo which has been operating since 1985. Signore Facchini died earlier this year, but his widow and children continue the tradition.

Many cheese makers believe that the diet of the sheep contribute to the taste of the milk and thus of the cheese. The Umbrians say that their sheep, grazing as they do on the fresh grass and herbs of the mountains, produce a pure flavor.

The newly made cheese is often flavored with hot pepper or truffles before being placed in the fossa. Sometimes, the cheese is wrapped in fig leaves or rubbed with olive oil.

I feel fortunate to have sampled the pecorino in fossa of Sigillo in several forms. I’m even more fortunate to have a few pieces vacuum wrapped in my fridge to serve my guests a bit later in the year.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bring Your Own Bottle

By Patricia Winton

Not all the tanker trucks you see plying the streets in Italy are delivering that golden liquid, gasoline. Many are delivering vino sfuso, or bulk wine. Vino sfuso is table wine served in a pitcher or liter decanter (or half-liter or quarter-liter) in restaurants across the country. If you ask a waiter to bring you the vino della casa (house wine), most of the time it will be bulk wine that you get.

And before you turn up your nose at the idea of drinking wine from a tanker truck, think about this. Wine that goes from producer to point of sale via tanker bypasses bottling, corking, labeling, and packing machines. Usually, it’s delivered by the producer to the seller with absolutely no intermediary. Those factors represent substantial cost savings that are passed on to consumers. In fact, some producers make wine solely for the bulk market. They pay just as much attention to production methods as other vintners.

Recently, I enjoyed lunch at a remote farmhouse restaurant in the country with a group of culinary writers. All the food had been cooked from local, organic products and made by hand—a superb meal. The owners sat down with us as we lingered over our tasty wine. A vino sfuso. They told us they make periodic trips to a nearby town, their car laden with five-liter jugs. And they pay €1.50—that’s about 1.12 euro or $1.40 for a standard bottle of wine. And it was really quite good. Not a Brunello, but good.

Vino sfuso is not reserved for restaurants and bars, however. Anyone can buy it. Some small mom-and-pop grocery story feature two or four tanks with modest choices of white and red wine. There are also shops devoted to vino sfuso with a dozen or more tanks offering as many varieties of wine.

To buy, you can bring your own container. Used plastic water bottles are common choices, but many people who use lots of wine (for both cooking and drinking) opt for the five-liter jugs. I have a glass bottle with a bale wire and ceramic top that I like to have filled. The shops have containers for sale, as well.

Some producers are touting vino sfuso as the green way to go. It’s hard to argue with them. They’ve cut out many costly, energy-consuming steps in getting wine from the vineyards to the table. They’re saving trees by eliminating cardboard cases. And the containers, from the tanker trucks to the bottles, are reusable.