Verona

Ah… fair Verona, such a lovely town. We arrived by train, after a vaporetto ride to the Venice Santa Lucia train station.

One highlight of the trip we had both been looking forward to was the opportunity to see Turandot, the magnificent opera by Puccini, performed at the Verona Arena. In preparation for the evening ahead, in the afternoon we went to the Maria Callas exhibition, which was truly extraordinary. Her costumes, posters, photographs, props, newspaper clippings and so on, all about her life and career at La Scala in Milan, and elsewhere, with an excellent audio guide which interspersed commentary with recordings of her performing opera arias. In the context of the tragic events in her life, hearing her voice and her incredible performances was exquisitely poignant and moving.

Puccini’s Turandot was amazing. It was a Zeffirelli production, so the sets and costumes were fantastic. The chorus we estimated to be at least 150 singers, which is far larger than typical New Zealand opera performances I’ve played in or been to. The sound of the full chorus at fortissimo was simply astonishing, and it also meant that the conductor, rather than giving the orchestra the hand in order to plead restraint, was instead egging the brass on, simply in order to be heard. The result was an absolutely thrilling, intense and unforgettable sound. Went for a pizza and a cheeky prosecco afterwards!

The next day, we went on a wine tour of the local Valpolicella region, organised with Pagus Tours. We visited three wineries in the region, the first was a fairly large producer, the second a smaller family business with a beautiful cellar door building, where we had lunch. The only other people on the tour was a couple Rob and Angela from Florida, who were excellent company.

There are four notable DOC and DOCG wines of the Valpolicella region, made from predominantly the corvina grape, but with varying amounts of corvinone, rondinella, molinara, and other local grape varieties.

Valpolicella (sometimes Valpolicella Rosso) is a DOC red wine made in a light style without oak, for day time summer drinking, rather like a rosé. There is also Valpolicella Classico, a historical denomination indicating just that it comes from one of five townships to the west of the region. Valpolicella Superiore is fermented for longer for a heavier style red wine, and aged in oak for at least a year.

The DOCG wine that has been made traditionally in the Valpolicella region since Roman times is Recioto, a sweet red wine. The grapes are harvested very late and dried on racks for up to three months in order to concentrate the juice and flavour. They will have lost nearly half their weight in water, and the juice is then fermented and cut short to produce a very sweet wine. Until the mid-20th Century, this was by far the predominant wine made in the region. We tried a couple of very good recioto wines, and they are very crisp and fruit driven, without the raisin or prune overtones of port.

In the 1970s a method of winemaking emerged called Ripasso, meaning “re-passed”. Now a DOC wine in itself, it is a Valpolicella wine with the pomace from a Recioto or Amarone added back in, for a second round of maceration and further fermentation. This produces a more robust, darker and beautifully complex wine, which must be aged in oak for a minimum of two years.

Finally, a wine called Amarone emerged in the mid 20th Century. Now a DOCG wine, a good story is that it resulted from barrels of recioto abandoned during World War Two that were left to fully ferment. Although this story may be somewhat fanciful, such wine having probably been produced in the past, modern Amarone began to be deliberately produced only since the 1950s. Amarone is a very strong, highly alcoholic, strongly oaked, full and complex wine, made from dried late harvest red grapes as per a Recioto. For the DOCG it must be aged for three years in oak, and many makers age it for longer still.

After lunch we visited the tour guide’s family business, Damoli, which makes a stunning 2006 “Checo” amarone. We were forced to buy six bottles to bring back in the luggage.

After all that hard work, and a nap at the hotel, we met up with Rob and Angela again at an excellent restaurant, Trattoria Tre Marchetti, for a four course degustation. It was entirely decadent and well-deserved; ham with an apricot and cherry marinaded in mustard and amarone, which gave them a horseradish kick. A porcini and black truffle fettucine, then braised veal cheek in jus, with buttered potatoes and a little pressed spoon of suviche zucchini and carrot. And a plate of miniature dessert pastries. With a great Superiore, a Zenato Ripasso, and finally a Recioto, which we dared to try with the red meat; it was surprising and fantastic. The wine was offered in an array of wineglasses including Murano glass, and one for the Ripasso that was seriously the size of my face. And as anyone who knows me knows, I have a big face.

The following day it was hot, and we felt a little tired and lazy, so we had pizza with soppressata, olives, capers and big white anchoves from a good outdoor pizzeria for lunch, and read our books for a while. We had a look around the fortress museum, lots of devotional art, frescoes and statues of the Virgin Mary.

Interesting different things about Italy #49: bathroom taps are often operated by a foot pedal.

At 5.30 we jumped on the train again. Next up, Bologna, less than an hour away, where we just had great fresh pasta with Bolognese ragù for dinner at a Chinese-run canteen for only €5, since almost nothing else was open. But that’s another story for another post!

Venice

Traveling in style on Italotreno at 300 km/h.

On Monday, we checked out of our hotel in Rome, and jumped on a train to Venice. This Italotreno train zoomed along at up to 300 km/h in places, in a comfortable quiet cabin with free WiFi. On arrival, we find the main island of Venice rammed with tourists, not helped by an illusion of density; the “streets” are very narrow. There are no roads, only canals and pedestrian footpaths; no vehicles, save for hand-pulled carts for delivering goods, and of course the famous Venetian gondolas.

Our hotel room was teeny-tiny but manageable, in a Venetian house that had been converted into a hotel. We were to later learn this to be common; the only “locals” we saw were the business owners, tour guides, restaurant staff and the like. One guide told us that not many locals can afford to live on the main island any more due to the increasing costs of maintenance and insurance as the island subsides (and the sea level rises), and the sky-high rents, driven in part by highly lucrative tourism. Most apart from the mega-rich now live on the mainland, and if they still own property on the island, let it out through Airbnb; much of the housing in Venice is now hotels, or even empty.

After settling in we found what turned out to be an awful place for tea, Aciugheta. The service was terrible and they served tired, microwaved frozen seafood on chewy packet pasta.

The next day we found Magna Bevi Tasi, a lovely place to start the day with coffee and a panini in the morning, on the square next to the hotel. From there we embarked on a walking tour around San Marco, and a visit to St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace. In the afternoon we went on the Vaporetto (water bus) out to the island of Murano, with its glass factories that produce the famous and beautiful Venetian glass, and Burano, famous for its lace. By this point the relentless crowds of tourists everywhere drove me to escape down a quiet alleyway, where I found, only a hundred yards away, an oasis of quiet and colourful residential Venice, and managed a few idiot-free photographs.

That night we found Antica Osteria ai Tre Leone for tea, a lovely place right next to the Bridge Hotel with good pasta and wine list.

On Wednesday it was Bek’s birthday, and so we ventured out into the local countryside on a Prosecco tour. What better way to spend a birthday than drinking nice sparkling wine in the sun?

Prosecco vineyards near Valdobbiadene, Italy.

We went to three different Prosecco wineries, all producing Prosecco Superiore DOCG, which is sparkling wine made in a region around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, from the Prosecco grape. The first was Toffoli, near Conegliano. They make a really good millesimato, extra dry. We mailed six magnums home to make use of the good NZ shipping rate. Happy birthday! These will come in handy for special occasions. We also got chatting to one of the staff who came to New Zealand for a couple of years and worked in Marlborough vineyards, and he very kindly gave us a couple of bottles of their sparkling rosé, made from the Marzemino grape.

A prosecco vending machine, in the middle of a vineyard.

On the way to the next vineyard in Valdobbiadene, where we had lunch, we stopped by a prosecco vending machine, out in the middle of the vineyard on a hill, with chairs and tables nearby. The whole thing runs as some sort of local honesty system. Just amazing!

Prosecco Superiore DOCG from Villa Sandi.

The third vineyard was Villa Sandi, which also had a lovely extra dry Prosecco Superiore.

After a hard day of drinking sparkling wine and being chauffeured around the Italian countryside, we went to the Tre Leone again for dinner. It’s a good restaurant, and it was very crowded and tiresome to try to find another good one.

The next day we decided to take it easy. The main island of Venice was relentlessly busy with tourists, so we emerged about midday and decided to bob along Canal Grande on the Vaporetto for about an hour and a half, until we ended up at the Lido.

Here we reclined on the beach for a while with Prosecco and spritz. Dear reader, if you want to visit Venice in the height of summer, go to the island of Lido – it is refreshingly free of tourist crowds and has good local cafés and restaurants. We went to a nice outdoor place for dinner on Gran Viale San Maria Elisabetta with good food and service.

Tomorrow we catch the train to Verona!

It’s chilli season again

Chillies from Penray Gardens.

March always brings ripening red chillies, especially to my favourite market garden up the road. This year’s first small batch of sauce was made with mild poblano chilli, a small amount of very hot manzano chilli, capsicum and de-seeded tomato, all roasted and smoked with hickory, and simmered in vinegar, lime juice, onion, garlic, toasted ground cumin and honey.

Chillies from Penray Gardens.
Produce from Penray Gardens, March 2015. Clockwise from bottom left: bhut jolokia chilli (800,000 SCU), red capsicums, tomatoes, poblano chilli (2,000 – 5,000 SCU), manzano chilli (250,000 – 300,000 SCU), experimental smoky chilli sauce 2015, Batch #1.

Penray Gardens have pick-your-own chillies and capsicums for very good prices, and tomatoes for $2 a kilo. This haul is just under 8 kg (17 lb) of ingredients for around $30, which is good for 3-4 litres (a gallon or so) of sauce. I’ve also got enough bhut jolokia here to make an extremely ferocious hot sauce too.

I have also discovered that my Smokai smoke generator works much better when I undo the nut, pull the back off and clear all the tar out of the air intake. So good in fact, I’ve had some good feedback that this sauce might actually be too smoky, and I don’t want to make the same mistake many NZ craft breweries make with their hops. Sometimes more is not better! I’ll do a post soon about my experiments with smoking food, methinks.