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Saturday, 6 August 2011

Fly on the Wall

Michel, Don Merlot's French dining companion, cringing at Italian food.
Wherein our American Correspondent Encounters
Italian Wine, Russian Song,
and a Cringing French Snob

By Don Merlot

[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]

New Orleans.
One night in Milan, in the autumn of 1979, my host Vittorio tried to make sure I was completing my gastronomic and oenophile adventures, and we ended up at dinner at a wonderful Milanese restaurant. It was de rigueur to follow the tradition of an appetizer, two dishes: first course and a second course and some salad, and a desert. My wine and food exploration was still going strong. Pinot Grigio was the new rage, and it came from the Venezia region. The restaurant was filling up with the after the theatre and opera crowd. We were not a big group, but could see that a big group had reserved a section of the restaurant.

Italians wanted to show me the light, dryness of this new success story –- Pinot Grigio. The French grow the same grape in Alsace under the name of Pinot Gris. We had discussed with the French boss about ordering French wines in Italy, and Vittorio, the Italian managing director, won. So the white wine was the Pinot Grigio and the red wine was a Piedmont wine. Vittorio chose a Gattinara. My French friend Michel was the boss and he was sticky about eating Italian food, even when we traveled in Italy. I noticed when traveling with Michel that he never would eat the local food or drink the local wine. Here I was learning about Europe and Michel was adamant that French wine and food was the pinnacle of the 20th century culinary field.

In New York, my then boss and advertising agency’s Italian creative director (who opened up the Italian Renaissance to me) told me that Catherine di Medici, who married a French king, had asked his brother to send the di Medici cooks to France to teach the French how to make palatable meals. Voila, the birth of French cooking, and Michel laughed this off. But tonight we would have a Milanese feast. We started with Bresaola –- high altitude dried beef from the Alps; a Cartocho -– pasta cooked in a baker’s paper bag with lake trout and a beautiful Bistecca di Vitello a la Griglia. An Italian red was ordered, and Michel cringed.

In terms of Italian wine definition, the King of Piemonte red wines is Barolo, followed by Barbera and Barbaresco. These are strong masculine wines and when young they have a lot of tannin which smoothes out with age. We tried a Gattinara which was more a feminine wine, however strong to hold the flavour and richness of the meat.

Vittorio ordered for all and it was in Italian feast. Since we were in the ice-maker sales business, Vittorio knew all the restaurant owners and chefs. So we were well attended. We started off with a glass of Ferrari Champagne (a name reserved for a region of France using the champagnois methode). To me it was excellent, but to the French, well, argumentative.

As we enjoyed our aperitifs, a large group came in. It was the Russian Opera which had just performed at the Milan Opera. They were loud and festive. The whole mood of the restaurant became loud and festive. As we were served our courses and the Russian troupe drank, a Russian folk song began to be sung by all: KALINKA. It truly was marvelous. Time just seemed to have floated by ,and everyone was treated to the best Russian folk singing and music.

When we checked the time it was 0200 hours. We had consumed the Pinot Grigio, the Gattinara, which was absolutely stupendous -– cherry red, bright, clear, and aromatic, and it went well with the meat and the cheese. The cheese was GRANA, a hard cheese that melted in one’s mouth with the wine. I was introduced to AMARO, a bitter digestif that followed an espresso coffee.

For the first time I had slipped out of the American culture and immersed myself into another culture. I felt myself Italian, of a European culture that was of the non-new world.

I broke away from French wine and found out that other countries have grande vins also.

When I got home to Michigan, I set out to find the 33 1/3 speed vinyl Russian Army album that included KALINKA. I drove my wife, family, and neighbours crazy playing that song.

I found out if Burgundy has its Pinot Noir, Piemonte has its Nibbiolo varietal. The name comes from the cloudy haze the hangs over the vineyards in the foot hill of the Alps and the weather seasons that nurture the grape growth.

Although Italy vineries make more wine than any other country, the famous wine vineyards are not as well known as the French Bordeaux’s and Burgundies and do not have a big following outside of Italy. This was true in the 1970s.

As I learned from my mentors, each country is very proud of its culture and the wine it produces. I also noticed in the European world, European business partners as hosts always selected the meal because they were proud to show off regional specialties.

Americans were not exactly criticized, but the Old World view of Americans was that they had no cuisine, and wines were just beginning to expand off shore. What the British called plonk, or the French, vin ordinaire. Or, what we now call 'table wine.'

(Ron Alzono, a resident of New Orleans, is Don Merlot).

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