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We can spend a lot of time talking about all the variables that go into the making of a good glass of wine. Does it have more to do with a good vintage year or with the person making the wine? Does it have more to do with which side of the hill the grapes grew on, or how much water they received….or didn’t receive? What if the barrels were made from different kinds of oak? What if the wine had aged longer?
There are so many things that can affect the flavor of the wine. But to me, there is something else that is important to the taste as well. It’s much more subjective and much more emotional. It is the memory of where I had it for the first time. I love thinking back……. “Remember when we had that Sagrantino in Todi? We were eating those crostini with melted gorgonzola and honey and that wine was perfection, wasn’t it?” Or, “Remember when we were in that restaurant in Montefalco, and that guy kept bringing us all this great stuff we hadn’t ordered and telling us it was ‘on the house’? And then he poured us that huge glass of passito? It was so delicious, we bought a bottle to take home, remember?”
I have been lucky enough to have had some incredible winery experiences in Italy. I’ve seen the amazing diversity of Italy’s wineries; from small, rustic operations to architectural beauties to technological wonders. They have all been family-run, with most still having multi-generations living on or near the winery. I’ve tasted some truly beautiful wines, poured by people who are passionate about their product.
On many occasions, my “first time” with a wine has been at the winery. After a deep whiff, I take a sip, let it roll around in my mouth, swallow, savor the after taste, and break into a smile. My eye meets that of the winemaker, and he breaks into a smile as well. He doesn’t have to tell me all about how he grew the grapes, where he grew the grapes, when he harvested the grapes, he just has to know that I loved his wine. In the end, it makes us both happy.
Join me, won’t you…..on an Italian wine trail? Let’s meander the rolling hills of Tuscany or the hearty Umbrian countryside. Let me take you through lesser known areas like Lazio and Campania so you can discover something new and wonderful. Every, and I do mean every region of Italy has great wines, and most of them are not sampled outside of the country. You will find wines to fall in love with, and you won’t care how they were made, when you meet the eye of the winemaker.
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On my recent trip to Naples, I was struck by the incredible number of sweet pastries on display. Yes, it was Easter weekend, and I know that had something to do with it. But, I do believe Neapolitans have a distinct sweet tooth. There were three pastries in particular that were in great abundance:
An establishment called Pintauro has been making sfogliatelle in Naples for something like 400 years. Isn’t that fact amazing in itself? I ate sfogliatelle many times when I lived in Rome, and I see them occasionally in the U.S. in specialty bakeries, sometimes called “lobster tails”. They are made up of umpteen layers of flaky pastry baked into a crispy treat, always in the same seashell shape. In Rome, I’d had them most often stuffed with custard, and sometimes chocolate. In Naples, at Pintauro, where they make the original recipe, they are stuffed with sweet ricotta cheese studded with orange zest and lots of vanilla bean flavor. I was so lucky to get mine hot out of the oven. It was so hot in fact, I had to break it open, and let it cool off a bit. When you bite in, there’s the crispy, buttery, flaky outer layer and then you reach the creamy, gooey, center. Oh my! I’d never had one quite like that in Rome!
This is a special Easter time treat. As such, it was being served by the slice in most coffee bars I went to. But there was also a shop near the convent where the recipe supposedly originated from, that seemed to be selling nothing but. I figured this must be the best place to buy a whole one. It’s a very interesting pastry. It has an exterior crust, but the inside is filled with a grain akin to our wheat barley which has been cooked in milk, making it into something like a sturdy rice pudding. This mixture is combined with ricotta cheese, eggs, sugar and orange zest along with other spices and poured into the crust and baked. It has the weight and density of a New York style cheesecake, but with the added texture of the grains. It’s seriously delicious, and great with a cup of coffee.
Babas were everywhere! There is wide variation on the spelling, as well as the soaking liquid, so bear with me here. Babas come in many sizes, but always in the same little mushroomy shape. They are made with yeast, so they have almost a bread-like texture. Sometimes, they are stuffed with cream, but mostly they come soaked in rum or limoncello. These too, were being served in all the coffee shops. In this photo you see them on the bottom two shelves. They can be purchased soaking in rum in jars, or in various sizes, stuffed, or not.
Many places were selling dried babas which I found entirely fascinating. I bought a bag thinking when I got home from my trip, I would soak them myself. The package says you should make a simple syrup, bring it to a boil, toss in the dry babas, stir them around quickly and then put them in a jar with any remaining syrup to soak. When you are ready to serve them, you are to dish them out, and top them with a spoonful of rum or limoncello. I decided to do it a little differently.
Last winter, I had made (and canned) mandarin syrup infused with vanilla bean. I popped open a jar and put in a pot to boil. When it came to a boil, I tossed in my package of dry babas, and added a goodly glug of rum. I was quite surprised when the babas soaked up ALL the syrup in the pot very quickly, yet when I tasted one, there were still dry spots inside. So, I made a small batch of simple syrup, took it off the heat and added another glug of rum. I put the babas in a big canning jar, and poured over the hot simple syrup. So now my babas have a double dose of syrup; one very orangey, the other plain….but both with rum. They’ve been soaking for an hour or so now, so let me go taste one again real quick. Hang on a sec….I’ll be right back…..
Oh. My. Goodness. That was delicious! Very sweet, not something you want to eat a whole plate of, but when you bite into it the syrup seeps out and you get this orange, vanilla, rum hit. Very nice. A nice little perk-me-up!
So now that I need a shot of espresso, I’m going to end my blog post here and go fix myself one. I really enjoyed all my little Neapolitan sweet treats. I hope you enjoyed reading about them. Would you like to taste them for yourself? Come with me to Naples! My Amalfi Coast tour is booking NOW for Sept. 23-Oct.3. Other dates are available if those dates don’t work for you. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org Let me help you satisfy your sweet tooth.