Edible Gold and Silver–for Decorating (before Devouring!) the Human Body during Sexual Foreplay

“The procedure, it is said, is simple:  The body part is slightly moistened (if nature has not already seen to that!), then the tissue paper bearing the metal leaf is gently placed onto the body part, metal-down (“growers” and “show-ers” calculating accordingly). The tissue paper is then carefully lifted away, leaving the gold- or silver-adorned body part in all its glittering glory….”

 

Gold Leaf (23 karat edible gold—96% gold, 4% silver) and Silver Leaf (99.9% edible silver)

It is oftentimes said, especially in the fashion industry, that crows and humans are a lot alike: They are attracted to “bling.” But despite mankind’s alleged innate penchant for objects resplendent, there is something revoltingly decadent, and, arguably, ungentlemanly, about eating precious metals: It somehow smacks of tales of monarchs of yore pulverizing pearls and imbibing them with nectar, the mythological drink of the gods, or of “Let them eat cake,” the infamous declaration commonly misattributed to Queen Marie Antoinette. After all, there must be at least a million and one other things on which a gentleman could spend his hard-earned money in order to delight himself…. But even so, there is no denying that for thousands of years—despite the fact that neither gold nor silver has any taste or smell discernible by humans [Well, until the Manetti company, at Expo Milano 2015, introduced edible gold crumbs in four of life’s greatest flavors and aromas: vanilla, lemon, white truffles, and olive oil], and that neither metal has any nutritional value—mankind, from Africa to Asia to Europe and now the rest of the world, has eaten gold and silver, some cultures citing aphrodisiacal justifications. All the gold ever mined—since the beginning of human history—would fit into a 100-cubic-feet container. And much of that gold has been used to make jewelry, jewelry-making remaining the single largest use for gold. But from over 5,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians would eat gold for medicinal and healing purposes; the Chinese, as far back as 2000 B.C.E., were known to eat gold during certain sacred ceremonies; and the Indians and Japanese have long used gold and silver to decorate food. But it was upon the tables of the great houses of Renaissance Italy that gold-adorned food and drink became, and remains, a part of Western tradition.

Traditionally, when gold or silver is consumed, it is not—for obvious reasons—ingested in the form of nuggets or jewelry or coins. Instead, it is eaten as leaf, flakes (the size of Kellogg’s corn flakes), crumbs, or dust. But not all gold and silver leaf, for example, is manufactured for human consumption. Gold leaf to be used for gilding furniture or picture frames oftentimes contains a percentage of copper, which, in high concentrations, is toxic to humans. So a gentleman who wishes to consume gold and silver must be certain to obtain edible varieties. Edible silver is 99.9% silver, and edible gold is typically 96% gold and 4% silver since pure gold is somewhat soft and somewhat sticky, making it difficult to manipulate for food-decoration purposes. The small percentage of silver is added, therefore, to give the gold more workability.

Vark” (also spelled “varak” or “varakh”) is the Sanskrit word for any foil comprised of pure metal, typically of silver, but also of gold, used for garnishing food. In South Asian cuisine, vark (referred to as “edible gold leaf” and “edible silver leaf” in the Western World) is used to decorate sweets. In the European Union, gold and silver are approved for food foils (When created as decorative food additives, gold is assigned the E-number E175 and silver, E174 [“E” standing for “Europe”]). In the United States, edible gold and silver are regarded as food additives, and like in the EU, may be used to decorate food and drink. And both edible gold and silver are certified as kosher. In addition, because gold and silver are inert metals, they pass through the digestive tract without being absorbed into the body. (Besides, the quantities utilized in normal consumption are miniscule: One ounce of pure gold [28.3 grams/31.1 grams per troy ounce] can be hammered into a 10.7-square-yard [nine square-meters] sheet of gold leaf, which can produce approximately 80 twenty-five-sheet booklets of 3” X 3” gold leaf sheets; and the total metal intake for sweets decorated with gold or silver is less than one milligram per kilogram [2.2 pounds] of sweets. The typical circa-3-inch-square sheet of gold leaf or silver leaf has a thickness of 0.2 – 0.4 microns. Yes, inappropriate consumption of silver can cause argyria, a symptom of which is the human skin taking on a bluish or bluish-gray color. But which gentleman in his right mind would eat bowlfuls of silver, day in, day out, for years?)

But as with all products which are to be ingested, the highest level of due diligence should be exercised. And when it comes to edible precious metals, the company Giusto Manetti Battiloro of Florence, Italy sets the “gold standard.” From its earliest recorded beginnings in the 16th century, to its affiliation with the great Renaissance era Medici family, to its presumed unintended destruction at the hands of Allied Forces bombing during World War II, to its present status—four hundred years after its earliest days—as a multinational entity, the name Manetti and its various commercial manifestations have been linked to luxurious gold.

Because baptismal records of the region date only as far back as 1580, nothing is known of the parentage of Matteo Manetti, the family’s patriarch, who lived in the village of Quinto, a few kilometers from “La Patraia,” a Medici villa, some time between the late 1400s and the early 1500s. What is known, though, is that his grandson, also named Matteo Manetti, began distinguishing the family’s name in the gold business when he moved to Rome to work alongside Battino Bologna on the gilding of the golden ball atop Michelangelo’s dome on St. Peter’s Basilica. The Basilica project established the young Manetti’s reputation so much so that in 1602, when lightening destroyed the golden ball of Florence’s Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, young Manetti was summoned to the city to restore the ball. On September 18, 1602, one month after receiving the commission, the work was completed to much acclaim, resulting in Matteo being appointed Cathedral Goldsmith, the appointment regarded as the Manetti family’s first major public recognition. And it is that same Matteo Manetti who would shortly thereafter establish the first Manetti workshop, employing gilders, decorators, and “battilori,” (Italian for “goldbeaters”), craftsmen who transform gold and silver into thin sheets or “leaf” for gilding, silvering, and/or eating. Matteo further solidified the Manetti family’s ties with the powerful Medici family when in 1633 his son Lorenzo Manetti was baptized godson of Don Lorenzo de’ Medici (1599-1648), thereby buttressing a relationship with the Medici family which is believed to have officially begun by the infant Lorenzo’s grandfather, Antonio Manetti, who is reputed to have worked on the restoration of “La Patraia” for Don Lorenzo de’ Medici.

The 1700s saw the Manetti family’s sustained distinction when in 1732 Nicolò Manetti was appointed Consul of the Academy of Drawing, an appointment which remains to this day a great source of family pride. But perhaps the turning point of the family’s fortune occurs in 1811 when Luigi Manetti (1791-1855), son of Domenico Manetti (1753-1816), embarked, at his father’s suggestion, upon a tour of Europe—Italy, Spain, France, and Prussia—in the throes of the Industrial Revolution to witness, firsthand, a transforming Europe. In 1816, the year his forward-thinking father died, Luigi returned to Italy, poised to give new life to his family’s business. In 1820 he purchased a shop in the heart of Florence, the focus of the business being the production of gold leaf. And in honor of his first-born son, Giusto Manetti (1818-1890), Luigi named the business Giusto Manetti Battiloro, the name which remains with the enterprise to this day. With the knowledge of industrialization gained during his five-year sojourn, Luigi began modernizing the company. And following in the footsteps of his father, Giusto further modernized the company and oversaw its emerging national reputation.

But it was Giusto’s son Adolfo Manetti (1855-1926), who besides further mechanizing gold leaf production through the use of automatic hammers, began exporting the company’s products to other European countries: Giusto Manetti Battiloro, after 300 years, had emerged as a company known outside the borders of Italy. And today, with subdivisions Manetti East and Manetti Iberia, the company is a bona-fide multinational, headquartered at Campi Bisenzio, Florence.

Besides rising from the ashes of World War II under the leadership of the family’s war hero Giusto Manetti (1891-1961), named in honor of his grandfather, the company’s crowning glory occurred, prophetically, in 2002 when the Manetti family financed the restoration of the golden ball of Brunelleschi’s dome at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, exactly 400 years after their ancestor Matteo Manetti, namesake and grandson of the family’s patriarch Matteo Manetti, had answered the call to restore the city’s lightening-destroyed symbol in 1602. So the moral of the story is: When it comes to Manetti gold and silver (www.manetti.it ), a gentleman can put his money where his mouth is! And what is even more appetizing is that gold leaf and silver leaf, because so little precious metal is used to form each sheet, is relatively inexpensive: A packet of twenty-five 3” X 3” sheets of gold leaf typically retails for around $70.00 on www.Amazon.com . So edible leaf packs a lot of “bling” without too much “cha-ching!”

Some of life’s greatest moments—anniversaries, weddings, and births, for example—are celebrated with food and drink, and with gold and silver. So when food, drink, and those two precious metals are combined, the result is usually a tour de force of over-the-top proportions. Many people know about Goldschläger, the liqueur with flakes of floating gold. And long-stemmed gourmet strawberries are beautiful and delicious in their own right. But when they are wrapped in gold leaf, the element of glamor is added, making the decorated whole greater than the sum of its individual parts. Likewise, there are few things in life more delicious than dark, bitter-sweet chocolate. But when it is presented, gift-like, covered in edible silver or gold, it is elevated to the mythical food of Aztec gods. And it is said that some sexy, 21st -century gentlemen dress (or permit to be dressed) certain body parts with edible gold and silver, offering those parts to their lovers to be savored. The procedure, it is said, is simple: The body part is slightly moistened (if nature has not already seen to that!), then the tissue paper bearing the metal leaf is gently placed onto the body part, metal-down (“growers” and “show-ers” calculating accordingly). The tissue paper is then carefully lifted away, leaving the gold- or silver-adorned body part in all its glittering glory….

“Kallaloo” of St. Croix–One of the World’s Oldest, Enduring, and Delicious Delicacies

Crucian Kallaloo

When Crucians (natives of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands) think of Christmastime, one of the things at the forefront of their thoughts is food. And when Crucians think of food, they usually think of kallaloo. That is because of all the foods eaten on St. Croix, kallaloo is arguably the most revered—so much so that many a cook has built his or her reputation upon the ability to cook “a good pot of kallaloo.”

Bowl of Kallaloo.jpg

What is particularly noteworthy about the eclectic, sophisticated, difficult-and-time-consuming-to-make (correctly) dish is its pre-15th-century West African origins. The ingredients list is long and varied (so much so that the word “kallaloo” is used throughout the Caribbean as a metaphor for “complicated”); the prepping-and-cooking time is formidable (so much so that it remains a mystery as to how enslaved people, with their limited “free” time, could ever have managed to have such a complex dish as their daily fare when today’s Crucians, with all their modern kitchen appliances and conveniences, find the dish too cumbersome for regular preparation); and despite its savory palate, kallaloo’s flavor derives from none of the now-ubiquitous, Temperate Region, European flavorings such as garlic, onions, and celery. Instead, the dish, considered one of the world’s most flavorful, obtains its primary flavors from fish, mollusk, and meat (pork and beef) stocks, as well from its mélange of leafy ingredients, hot peppers, and salt. The dish is so much a part of the Crucian DNA that unlike with most fine things, such as Italian wines and German beer, or Persian caviar and French truffles, most Crucians never have to “acquire” a taste for kallaloo; instead, they emerge from their mothers’ wombs loving it. It has been that way for as long as anyone can remember. But despite the long-standing, local affinity for the “territorial dish,” most islanders—even those of the older generation—do not know the historical origins of this age-old delicacy.

In 1767 Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, in his capacity as inspector for the Moravian Church, journeyed to the Danish West Indies to report on the Moravian missions, which had been established in the islands 35 years earlier, beginning in 1732. He remained in the islands for a year and a half. But today, Oldendorp’s findings, first published in Germany in 1777 under the title Geschichte der Mission der evangelischen Brueder auf den Caraibischen Inseln S. Thomas, S. Croix und S. Jan (History of the Mission of the Evangelical Brethren on the Caribbean Islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John), serve as much more than a church history, for Oldendorp’s two-volume work not only presents a detailed account of the establishment and development of the Moravian missions, but also details, with Pliny The Elder (23-79 A.D.)-type scope of interest, everything from local flora and fauna to pirates to the cultivation of sugar cane to detailed accounts of the lives of slaves in the Danish West Indies. And it is Oldendorp’s keen ability to observe and report that provides scholars today with one of the earliest written descriptions of kallaloo: “The Negroes call everything calelu [he also spells it “kalelu”] which they cook into a green vegetable stew from leaves and other ingredients. However, a really complete calelu, which the Whites and particularly the Creoles [in this case, the word refers to island-born whites] also like to eat, consists of okra, various kinds of leaves, salted meat, poverjack, which is a kind of stock-fish [presumably “wenchman”], kuckelus, a variety of sea snail [perhaps “conch” or “cockle”], various fishes, tomato berries, Spanish pepper, butter, and salt. Along with the dish are eaten big soft dumplings made from corn meal flour.” Oldendorp also reports—presumably from previously written records and/or oral accounts regarding mission life on St. Croix in October of 1740—of kalelu as an already-cross-cultural, local dish. Referring to the pioneering efforts of missionaries Friedrich Martin, Christian Gottlieb Israel, and Georg Weber, Oldendorp writes, “They set up their cooking facilities in the regular Negro fashion. A dish called kalelu, or green cabbage, prepared from plant leaves and land crabs, which fortunately were plentifully available there, served as their daily fare in those days.” In essence, then, within a mere seven years after the Danish purchase of St. Croix from the French in 1733 for 750,000 livres, kallaloo had already become such a prominent dish amongst the local, enslaved African population that it was even being consumed by European missionaries to the islands on a daily basis.

But where did the name “kallaloo” come from? And how was consensus as to its ingredients, consistency, and taste achieved? The most probable answers are that the name of the dish is West African in origin, and its recipe probably derived from a synthesis West African ingredients and culinary techniques. In present-day Angola, for example, a very similar dish called “calulu” is served with “fungi” made either of cornmeal or cassava.

Though the French, who immediately preceded the Danes in their colonization of St. Croix, also brought enslaved Africans to the island, very little documentation has survived from the French era (1665-1733) on the island. And very little is reported in the surviving documents regarding what the enslaved populations ate, let alone what those dishes were called. What is known, however, is that by 1695, the French colonists on the island were given instructions from the crown to pack up their belongings—including their slaves—burn the island to the ground, and depart for Sainte Domingue (present-day Haiti) since it was generally regarded that the colonial efforts on Saint[e] Croix were not sufficiently profitable. (The French rationale for burning the island—and breaking down their buildings—was to make the island, which they still legally owned despite their official decision to abandon it, less appealing to squatters and pirates).

It is well established that Denmark concentrated most of its slave-trading efforts on the African continent in the region that is today called Ghana. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that a significant percentage of enslaved Africans transported to the Danish West Indies on Danish slaving vessels came from present-day Ghana or nearby regions, where language groups would have been interconnected. But it is also equally well established that slaves from all over West and Central West Africa were brought to the slave-trading posts all along the coast of West Africa and sold to the various nations involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Regions such as present-day Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Senegal, Congo,Mali, Cameroon, and Ivory Coast, for example, all served as major sources for enslaved Africans. And quite intriguingly, “papa lolo,” also known as “kallaloo bush”—the premiere herbal ingredient in Crucian kallaloo—is still called by that name in the outdoor produce markets of Ghana. Perhaps most interestingly, however, is the fact that the word “kallaloo,” spelled variably, is used in other Caribbean islands to describe okra-and-herb-based dishes, oftentimes flavored with land crabs and/or fish, conch, and salted meats, giving rise to the theory that the name of the dish and its manner of preparation derived from the coastal regions of West Africa before the peoples of those regions were dispersed throughout the New World during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Even in the cases where the word “kallaloo” or a form thereof is not used to describe a similar dish [A similar dish of Antigua is called “pepperpot”; an okra-and-pork dish popularly eaten in Curaçao is called “yambo”; in Bahia, Brazil, “caruru,” a dish made primarily of okra and cashew nuts, is eaten as a ritual meal for the children’s feast, “Ibejis,” within Yoruba Candomble; and the world-famous “gumbo” of New Orleans is often regarded as mainland America’s “cousin” of kallaloo], it is clear that a fundamental connection exists between those dishes and the “kallaloos” of the Caribbean.

Already identified as the foremost local dish by the mid-1700s, kallaloo maintained its popularity into the 1800s. In 1828, when a Lt. Brady of the British Royal Navy came to St. Croix to visit his brother, who was manager of Estate Mannings Bay, the lieutenant observed the lifestyle of the black people on St. Croix, thereafter committing his observations to paper in the form of a pamphlet that apparently served as the basis for an 1829 publication titled, “Observations on the State of Negro Slavery in the Island of Santa Cruz, the Principal of the Danish West India Colonies, with Miscellaneous Remarks upon Subjects Relating to the West India Question and a Notice of Santa Cruz.” In that publication, Brady describes kallaloo as follows: “The common and favourite mess [dish] with negroes is a soup called calalue, which is composed of pork or fish, pigeon peas, ochras, yams, capsicum, and other vegetables boiled in water, with a pudding of corn-meal; this is commonly their supper.” Though Brady’s list of ingredients varies somewhat from the generally accepted recipe, his observation regarding the popularity of the dish in the early decades of the 1800s is invaluable.

Kallaloo maintained its position as the premiere local dish into the middle of the 1800s, as evidenced by the writings of young Danish schoolmaster Johan David Schackinger, who arrived on St. Croix on July 25, 1857 to serve as First Teacher at the Danish School in Frederiksted. In a series of letters addressed to his parents back in Denmark between July of 1857 and 1863, when he suffered an untimely death, young Schackinger describes, in charming detail, his life in the tropics—from the island’s people to its vegetation, entertainment, and cuisine. In a letter dated February 10, 1859, the schoolteacher mentions some of the then-popular soups: turtle soup, white bean soup, guava soup, cucumber soup, and “ ‘calalu’ (the Negroes’ usual meal).” It is interesting to note that of all the aforementioned soups, kallaloo is the only one not to have been relegated to a footnote on the local menu.

Kallaloo was also popular in St. Thomas and St. John. In the 25-year period between 1882 and 1907, Danish lawyer N. A. Kjaer lived on St. Thomas, where he served in various public capacities, the most prominent being Police Assistant and Royal Accountant. After returning to Denmark, he wrote his memoirs, which were later expanded and published in Copenhagen in 1934. In his writings he describes the social unrest in Charlotte Amalie surrounding the 1892 Coal Workers’ Strike: “On one of the days,” writes Kjaer, “unrest broke out at the French shipyard. Before I went to the shipyard with a smaller force of police, I asked my wife for something to eat but the food wasn’t finished. When she offered me a West Indian dish called ‘calalu,’ I first declined it with contempt but as there was nothing else, I had to swallow the bitter pill. But when I had tasted the Calalu, a kind of cabbage mixed with fish and spices, I found it to be excellent and from that day I would eat Calalu and other West Indian dishes. Did nothing else come of those September days, then I at least learnt to eat West Indian food which was more agreeable to me than the heavy Danish dishes, ill-suited for the climate as they are.”

In the late 1940s, just about a half-century after Kjaer’s introduction to kallaloo during turbulent times on St. Thomas, celebrated New York fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes decided to spend some time on St. Croix during those tumultuous years on Seventh Avenue, when fashion was at war with itself: couture versus ready-to-wear. In her book But Say It Politely, published in Boston in 1951, Hawes created a local and national sensation when she—without restraint—discussed race relations on St. Croix; poked fun at the island’s white, racist, self-proclaimed elitist families; and expressed her concerns about how tourism would affect the long-term authenticity of St. Croix.

Hawes, too, took a liking to kallaloo, though by her time it had become a once-a-week dish more than a daily meal. Hawes took up residence in Christiansted, employing a local cook by the name of Astrid. “I decided to invite the Hollinses to eat fungi and calalu,” Hawes writes, “the chief Crucian dish.” “The dish,” she continues, “consists of some kind of salt pork, okras, eggplant, crabs, fried fish, hot pepper, and four kinds of weeds, the chief being calalu. This is all thrown into boiling water at various times depending on how long it has to cook, and finishes up as a sort of thick stew which is eaten with fungi—corn meal flour boiled in just enough stock to come out a solid ball. The dish is not only delicious but it’s a whole and balanced meal.”

From time immemorial, kallaloo was served locally with fungi. And one of the earliest recorded descriptions of fungi comes from the writings of Reimert Haagensen, a young Danish plantation owner who came to St. Croix in 1739, just six years after the island was purchased from the French. After achieving rapid success in the islands, Haagensen returned to Denmark sometime around 1751. In his book Description of the Island of St. Croix in America in the West Indies, published in Denmark in 1758, he describes the making of fungi: “This corn is ground, as the slaves do it, between stones, in such a way that the grain, which is itself dry, is quickly ground and turned to flour. The latter they boil with water and salt, which to the slaves is a delicacy, since, in addition to alleviating hunger, it is highly nourishing.”

Another early record of kallaloo’s chief complement, fungi, comes from Johan Lorentz Schmidt, who lived on St. Croix during the 1770s and 1780s, working as a surgeon on the Schimmelmann family estates of La Grange and La Grande Princesse. In 1788 his manuscript detailing his experiences in the Caribbean, titled Various Remarks Collected on and about the Island of St. Croix in America, was published in Copenhagen. He writes: “From daybreak, and often before, the Negroes work until eight or nine o’clock, when they have about half an hour free for breakfast. All of them sit down and eat whatever they have. Usually they have ‘fun[g]ie’ with them, which is made of corn meal pressed into large clumps or balls.”

Though today regarded by many as a delicacy to be eaten only on special occasions, kallaloo was in former days an everyday meal because its key ingredients were readily available, free, from nature. Kallaloo bush, or “papa lolo,” was commonly found in cane fields, locally called “canepieces.” And except for tania leaves, which were grown in provision gardens, the other herbal ingredients, namely [“man”] bower, [“woman”] bata-bata, whitey Mary, and pusley, were “yard-bushes”—those herbs that tended to catch root in the towns’ “big yards” and alongside “long-rows,” and village-houses back in the days when Crucians were still sweeping their yards clean (sometimes until the compacted earth attained a glossy patina). And interestingly, the brooms used to sweep those yards were made by lashing the discarded papa lolo twigs—after all the precious leaves had been picked off for use in the pot—to a tan-tan stick. Those clean-swept yards, swept with traditional “kallaloo brooms,” served as fertile ground for the other kallaloo herbs. And so the cycle continued, generation after generation: kallaloo brooms made way for yard-herbs, that in turn combined with papa lolo to make the kallaloo dish.

By 1966, the sugar cane industry of St. Croix—after serving as a way of life from around 1736—had come to an end. Many Crucians moved off the plantation villages and out of long-rows, finding lodging in public housing. Likewise, they left their agrarian ways and found employment with the Virgin Islands Government and in the tourism and manufacturing industries. In essence then, the way of life that kallaloo had sustained and the way of life that had sustained kallaloo was altered. The Crucian desire for the dish, however, never waned. So when the average household could no longer prepare kallaloo on a weekly basis, Crucians turned to local restaurants and cook-shops to fill the need, each establishment preparing its kallaloo on a designated day: Pennyfeather’s on Mondays, Steen’s on Tuesdays, Birdland on Wednesdays, Harvey’s on Thursdays, Brady’s on Fridays, Motown’s on Saturdays, for example. Even Crucians who had left the island to live abroad never gave up on kallaloo, even when they had to substitute spinach and collared greens for the traditional herbal ingredients. Some families would go as far as to clandestinely send the herbal ingredients via airmail so that mainland relatives could make “kren-kren,” which is kallaloo made with the same herbal ingredients, dried, thereby taking on a brownish, rather than greenish, appearance. And in the late 1980s, mainland-transplanted Crucians were thrilled with the coming of Express Mail and Federal Express siince they were then able to have frozen kallaloo shipped from St. Croix with guaranteed, next-day delivery to them all across America.

Not even the “Stay off the Swine” campaign of the early 1970s could dissuade Crucians from eating kallaloo; the no-meat disciples simply turned to a seafood-only version of the classic dish, which is accepted today as sufficiently authentic—except, of course, by the old-school traditionalists.

The problem for the traditionalists is that the ancient, noble kallaloo tradition is quickly fading. It is not uncommon today, for example, to hear of Crucian children who do not “like” or “don’t eat” kallaloo. And even though great Crucian cooks have preserved the recipes for future generations in their cookbooks such as Amy Mackay’s Le Awe Cook (1980) and Laura L. Moorhead’s Krusan Nynyam—from Mampoo Kitchen (1977), many of today’s young cooks—people in their 50s and younger—could not identify the key herbal ingredients of kallaloo in an open field if their very lives depended on it. And those herbal ingredients are critical for achieving the authentic kallaloo flavor.

Of critical importance to the preservation of kallaloo is the new generation’s ability to identify its traditional herbal ingredients. And until a Virgin Islands Department of Culture is established, and/or until the Virgin Islands Department of Education adopts a cultural curriculum, old-time Crucians will have to adopt an each-one-teach-one approach (by, for example, posting “how to” videos on YouTube), less this great tradition–one that came across the Atlantic in the holds of slaving vessels to sustain and nourish Crucians throughout four centuries–will be lost in a generation or two.

Puerto Rican Lechon: Arguably the World’s Most Delicious Pork!

Lechón

During the colonial era, wherever the Spanish went, “lechón” went—and stayed. So today, from the Spanish Caribbean to South America to the Philippines, and, of course, in Spain itself, there is lechón. But of all the world’s lechóns, the lechón of Puerto Rico is unequaled. It is arguably the absolute, all-time, most delicious pork—though many would insist that Italian “porchetta” is equally delectable.

Leche” is Spanish for “milk.” And the word “lechón” was originally—and in Spain and some Latin American countries, still today—used to describe a suckling pig that is roasted. But in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines, for example, the word “lechón” is used to describe a spit-roasted whole pig—of any age and size, pigs from 90 to 120 pounds (40 to 55 kilos), large enough to feed about 50 people, being typical.

Traditionally eaten at Christmastime and on special occasions, lechón is today prepared and eaten in Puerto Rico primarily on weekends—on account of the many hours required to prepare the delicacy. The Caribbean island’s lechón is distinguishable from other lechóns primarily because of the seasonings typically used to marinate the meat: annato oil, salt, black pepper, garlic, oregano, and rosemary.

But before the pig is seasoned, it must be properly “prepped”: The butcher is notified of the size-range of the desired pig; it is then slaughtered, its entrails and hair removed (The head, tail, and hooves are left intact); any hairs missed by the butcher are removed by the chef, using scalding-hot water and a razor; the carcass is then thoroughly washed, inside and out, with a cider vinegar-and-water solution, rinsed thoroughly with cool water, then pat-dried with paper towels in preparation for the seasoning.

Approximately 24 hours before roasting, the pig is seasoned, inside and out, the foundation of the seasoning blend being annato oil. Annato is the spice derived from the achiote tree (Bixa orellana), also called the “lipstick tree” because of the spice’s traditional use in body-painting amongst the native peoples of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. The desired quantity of the brick-red, somewhat triangular-shaped spice, about the size of a lentil, is put into a heated skillet and slightly toasted in order to release the essential oils. Cooking oil is then added to the skillet, thereby allowing the oil to be infused with the color, flavor, and aroma of the spice. (Annato is used worldwide as a natural colorant in such foods as cheese and butter. The spice imparts a yellow-orange color and is oftentimes used as a substitute for saffron. The flavor and aroma of annato are at once somewhat peppery, nutty, and sweet). The contents of the skillet is then passed through a sieve, and the annato-enhanced oil is then allowed to cool before being mixed with the salt, black pepper, garlic, oregano, and rosemary to form a seasoning blend with a paste-like consistency. The seasoning blend is then generously rubbed onto the entire carcass, inside and out, before the carcass is placed into a refrigerator, where it marinates for about 24 hours.

After marinating, the pig is readied for roasting: A wooden or metal spit sturdy enough to support the full weight of the pig is passed through the entire length of the pig, emerging through its mouth. (Because of their relatively delicate nature, the pig’s ears and tail are protectively wrapped in aluminum foil until the last two hours of cooking, when the foil wrapping is removed so that those parts can attain the same reddish-brown hue as the rest of the pig). The carcass is then secured onto the spit with culinary wire before the point of a knife is used to perforate the carcass in strategic locations so as to enable any excess melted fat to escape during the roasting process.

Lechón is traditionally slow-cooked, rotisserie-style, over a white-hot charcoal fire, the charcoal usually made from local woods that impart a slightly smoked flavor to the meat. Approximately one hour of cooking-time is required for each 15 pounds of pork, a 120-pound pig therefore requiring about eight hours of cooking-time. The pig is given a quarter-turn about every 10 minutes, and the entire pig is basted with annato-infused cooking oil with each turn, the skin (when fully roasted called “cuerito” [“litte leather”], the diminutive of the Spanish word “cuero,” meaning “leather”), in the process, obtaining a crispy, caramelized texture and its characteristic reddish-brown color.

When fully cooked, the pig is moved to a large table and the spit is removed. Thereafter, the roasted pig is allowed to “rest” for about 20 to 30 minutes so that its juices may evenly distribute throughout the carcass. Thereafter, the meat is carved—traditionally with a razor-sharp machete—and served, each serving presented with a portion of prized “cuerito.”

Lechon is “down-home” food—so much so that it is the official dish of Puerto Rico. It is traditionally served with rice-and-beans, arepas, boiled cassava, or guineitos en escabeche (pickled green bananas). During the Christmas holidays, the complementary drink is coquito (See “Major National Liquors of the World” above), and during the rest of the year, rum or beer.

Italian Porchetta–one of the culinary luxuries of the world

Porchetta (of Ariccia, Italy [in the Province of Rome])

What lechón is to a Puerto Rican, porchetta is to an Italian. Porchetta (pronounced “porketta”) is one of those simple, affordable luxuries that countrymen crave while away in distant lands; pregnant women, in their frequent fits of raging cravings, demand of their “baby-daddies”; and the terminally ill request on their deathbeds.

Pork is a delicious meat. But when it is prepared as porchetta, it is elevated to a delicacy. The Italian delicacy of porchetta is the boneless, roasted torso of a pig. Though prepared and eaten throughout Italy, the dish is believed to have originated in central Italy, especially in the Lazio region, which includes Rome, and is most associated with the town of Ariccia.

During the slaughtering process, the pig is eviscerated, and its four legs are removed. Occasionally, the head is also removed, but it is oftentimes left intact so as to enhance the visual presentation of the dish. The animal’s ribcage is neatly cut away from the carcass, leaving only lean, fat, and skin for the making of porchetta.

Laid out skin-down onto a large, flat surface, the deboned carcass is seasoned primarily with ample salt, black pepper, fresh rosemary, fresh fennel herb, garlic, and juniper berries. (Some cooks saturate the inside of the carcass with white wine prior to applying the seasonings). A long spit—long enough to extend about one foot on each end beyond both ends of the pig—made of metal or wood is laid lengthwise atop the seasoned carcass before both sides of the carcass are brought together around the spit and sewn together, lengthwise, using a bodkin and sturdy twine. Once secured with twine, the skin of the carcass is pierced in various areas with the point of a knife so that excess melted fat can escape during the roasting process. In certain parts of Italy, such as Umbria, or in Valdarno in the region of Tuscany, prior to positioning the spit atop the seasoned carcass, the animal’s internal organs—the liver, kidneys, and heart—are laid out lengthwise, chopped or whole, in the center of the carcass such that after the roasting process and the spit is removed, the delicacy, when sliced depth-wise as is the custom (the way one would slice an orange so as to produce “wagon-wheel” rings), each slice is studded with a portion of an organ. Alternatively, the sides of the carcass may be sewn together lengthwise without a spit in the middle, then placed atop a rack so as to facilitate oven-roasting and the falling away of excess fat.

The pork is slow-roasted in an oven or on a spit in a rotisserie or above a charcoal fire for several hours until the skin attains a rich, golden-mahogany-brown color and a crisp texture. In Sardinia, where the delicacy is known as “porceddu,” suckling piglets are typically used and are slow-roasted over juniper and/or myrtle wood.

Porchetta has been selected by the Italian Minestero delle Politiche Agricole, Alimentari e Forestali (Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies) as one of Italy’s traditional foods of cultural relevance.

Besides being sold as a popular street-food in Rome, served as the filling for “pizza bianca,” porchetta is also eaten as a meat course in many Italian households and is served as a sandwich at picnics. Porchetta is also typically sold from food vans, especially at street festivals or outdoor markets. But perhaps the grandest porchetta event of them all is the Sagra della Porchetta di Ariccia (Village Festival of Porchetta of Ariccia), held annually during the first Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of September.

Sal de Ibiza’s “Fleur de Sel”–The World’s Most Luxurious Salt

 

Sal de Ibiza’s Fleur de Sel (Salt of Ibiza’s “Flower of Salt”)

If rivers—the Nile, the Tigres and Euphrates, the Yellow River, the Ganges—are the cradles of civilization, and if grain is its mother, then salt must be declared “Father of Civilization,” for the use of salt to preserve food is one of the cornerstones of human survival.

Man’s earliest beginnings as a hunter and gatherer are linked to salt: Animals would wear paths in pursuit of salt-licks—protrusions of salt deposits from beneath the Earth’s surface—and man, in pursuit of those animals, would create trails that, eventually, became roads. And when man decided to abandon his nomadic ways, grain thus becoming the foundation of his diet, he needed meat to supplement that plant-based diet. Many of mankind’s earliest settlements, then, were situated not only alongside rivers, but also near the paths used by animals en route to salt. But much of that most palatable compound (NaCl—sodium chloride) was situated in underground deposits, beyond the reach of primitive and ancient man. So as populations grew and civilizations spread, salt became a precious commodity.

For most of human history—until about 100 years ago—salt was rare and expensive, demand for it fueling wars, inspiring exploration, and justifying slavery. And as early as the 6th century in sub-Sahara Africa, Moorish merchants traded salt, ounce for ounce, for gold. One of the most famous salt routes led from Morocco to Timbuktu in Mali. Ten-inch long, two-inch thick slabs of rock salt, called ‘amôlés, were used as currency in Ethiopia. Cakes of salt were also used as money in parts of central Africa. And in 1295, when Marco Polo returned from his epic journey to Asia, he intrigued the Doge of Venice with accounts of salt coins bearing the seal of Kublai Khan.

In addition to being used to preserve and flavor food, salt was used by the Romans as an antiseptic and was regarded as conducive to health—so much so that their word for the mineral, “sal,” was etymologically related to “Salus,” the Roman goddess of health, hence the English word, “salubrious.” The pay of a Roman soldier, consisting partly of salt, was called “salarium argentum,” meaning “salt money,” hence the present-day English word, “salary.” Salt was used to preserve food, thereby saving humanity from famine and starvation, hence the word “salvation.” And because the Greeks and Romans oftentimes purchased slaves with salt, whenever a person did not or could not perform to the desired standard, he was typically described as “not worth his weight in salt,” a phrase still used today to describe ineptitude. In the ancient world, it was popularly said that “all roads lead to Rome.” And of all the roads leading to the Eternal City, Via Salaria, the salt route, was one of the most traversed. It eventually ran a distance of 242 km (150 miles), from Rome’s Porta Salaria to Castrum Truentinum (Porto d’Ascoli) on the Adriatic coast, and derives its name from the earliest days of Rome itself, when the route was used by the Sabines as they would journey to collect salt from the marshes at the mouth of the Tiber. Salt also facilitated distant travel and international trade: Mariners could preserve their vittles and sail the “seven seas”; and salted meats and fish from faraway lands could provide nourishment to peoples halfway across the globe. In the English language, the suffix “wich,” as in the case of the towns of Middlewich and Nantwich, typically denotes a place with some historical association with salt, brine springs, or wells. “Wich” derives from the Latin “vicus,” which means “place”; and by 11th -century England, the suffix was being used in the names of places with some specialized function, including that of salt production.

The two primary sources of salt are underground deposits of rock salt and sea water. Salt may be extracted from mines or obtained by evaporating salt water. Rock salt—an edible rock—occurs in vast underground beds and veins, the result of ancient, enclosed seas and salt water lakes that evaporated, their salt residue eventually becoming sedimentary rock salt. Rock salt deposits have been known to be as thick as 350 meters and underlie vast areas the size of regions and countries. Since the second half of the 19th century, with advancements in drilling techniques and industrial mining, an increased percentage of total salt production is the result of mined rock salt. And because the technological advancements made large salt deposits that were previously inaccessible, accessible, and because mined salt is generally less expensive to harvest than salt produced by evaporating sea water, salt prices have declined significantly since the middle of the 1800s. (The invention of the ice-making machine in 1854 and the introduction of freon in the 1920s led to the proliferation of the household refrigerator by the 1930s. With refrigeration a domestic reality in the industrialized world, salt became less critical for food-preservation, resulting in declining prices of salt. But by the 1990s, with widespread health campaigns about the harmful effects of excessive salt consumption, health-conscious consumers began switching to healthier, more flavorful, gourmet-quality sea salts—despite their higher price tags). Rock salt is either extracted in solid form from its underground reserves or by the “solution mining” process, where water is used to dissolve the underground salt, the surfacing brine evaporated to produce salt.

Alternatively, salt may be produced by evaporating seawater, either by solar evaporation or by some heating device. In certain climates, where there is abundant sunshine vis a vis rainfall, the sun may be used to evaporate seawater in a series of linked ponds, each successive pond receiving seawater with an increasing concentration of salt, until the final pond where the salt crystallizes on the floor of the pond. In the “open pan” method, the traditional method employed in temperate climates and dating back to prehistoric times, seawater is heated in large, shallow, open pans typically made of a type of coarse ceramic called “briquetage,” lead, or, later, iron. Wood or coal was the fuel used to heat the seawater. As the seawater evaporated, the remaining salt crystals would be collected. In industrialized nations, the traditional “open pan” system has been replaced by the “closed pan” system, where the seawater is evaporated under partial vacuum.

It is often said, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” But it is also said, “What happens on Ibiza is forgotten on Ibiza”—especially if what happens, happens at the island’s famous “Amnesia” nightclub. But, thank God, the same does not hold true for what is made on Ibiza. Case in point: the island’s coveted salt, which has been exported for almost 3,000 years.

Salt is believed to have been produced on the 220-square-mile Mediterranean island of Ibiza since it was first colonized by the Phoenicians in the 8th century B.C.E. But the earliest extant reference to salt production on the island dates from the Punic era, which began in 540 B.C.E., when the Carthaginians of North Africa conquered the island. The saltworks were in operation during the Roman era, from 122 B.C.E. to 476 C.E. Then for almost half a millennium after the fall of the Roman Empire, Ibiza and its saltworks changed hands frequently—until 902 C.E., when the Moors conquered the island and took up and significantly improved its salt production. In 1235, Spain, during the “Reconquista” (718/722 – 1492) of the Iberian Peninsula, ousted the Moors from Ibiza, thereafter the island—on account of the importance of salt as a preserver of food—becoming a strategic and prosperous partner to some of the most powerful republics of the Medieval period, namely Genoa, Florence, and Venice. During that era, salt production was again upgraded, resulting in higher yields of a salt of a higher quality. With the end of the Spanish Succession War in 1714, the saltworks were administered by the Spanish crown. But by the middle of the 19th century, the facilities had fallen into disrepair, and annual salt production had declined from 25,000 tons to about 7,000 tons. In 1871, the saltworks were sold to a Majorcan businessman who, in 1878, established “Fabrica de la Sal de Ibiza,” the embryo for today’s “Salinera Española S.A.” By 1888, over 1,000 jobs had been created, and production was at 50,000 tons per annum. Salinera Espanola is the exclusive supplier of “Sal de Ibiza,” the gourmet label for Ibiza salt, founded by Daniel C. Witte in 2004, that markets the luxurious salt internationally. Today, the salt of Ibiza is the antithesis of the island’s best-kept secret: It is the Balearic island’s best-known ambassador.

Salt is oftentimes called “the fifth element,” along with water, air, fire, and earth. Traces of salt are found almost everywhere on the planet, and it is essential to life. Natural sea salt, sometimes referred to as “whole salt,” is not simply a compound of the elements sodium and chlorine; it is evaporated seawater and contains an array of minerals and trace elements that are essential to human health. If left untouched by any form of refining, sea salt retains more than 80 essential minerals and trace elements such as magnesium, fluoride, selenium, and iodine.

“Fleur de sel” (“flower of salt”) is regarded as the quintessential sea salt and the crème de la crème of all salts. It is used more as a spice or as a “finishing salt,” sprinkled onto foods just before serving, than as an ingredient for cooking. Fleur de sel is obtained by traditional production and harvesting methods of the “open pan” system, utilizing primarily the sea, the sun, and gentle breezes in its manufacture. Unlike the coarser salt, which solidifies at the bottom of the pan because salt is heavier than water, fleur de sel, like cream, floats to the top during salt-production and must be skimmed off the surface of the water the day it is formed. It is a salt most associated with the traditional salt-makers of Brittany since the middle of the 9th century. Fleur de sel is referred to as “fresh” salt and is harvested by hand. This gourmand’s delight is 100% natural; it is altered in no way. Typically bright white in color, the luxurious salt sometimes has pinkish highlights. It is slightly moist and is best kept as such. Its flavor is milder and more subtle than regular salt, and its aroma is that of the sea. Sal de Ibiza’s (www.saldeibiza.com ) fleur de sel is sold in a distinctive, sea-blue, ceramic container with cork lid and a small porcelain dispensing-spoon, with refill paper bags. An inner-lid maintains the salt’s moisture. The company also produces “novelty” salts containing herbs or chilli peppers or flowers, for example, and also plain sea salts in various finishes, from coarse for salt grinders, to small-grain for salt cellars, to fine for salt shakers. But never are anti-caking or pouring elements included in the company’s products.

Ironically—but deliciously and delightfully so—Sal de Ibiza also produces a gourmet dark chocolate, “Chocolate Extra Fino a la Flor de Sal” (“Extra Fine Chocolate with Fleur de Sel”). A 70% cocoa- content blend of South American Criollo, Trinitario, and Forastero cocoa beans, the delicacy is created by chocolate masters according to artisan methods: A little fleur de sel is used to awaken the subtle chocolate flavors in the “conche” (the liquid chocolate-mass); the precious liquid is then spread onto heated slabs of marble, where it begins to cool and its flavors become fixed; then fleur de sel crystals are quickly incorporated into the chocolate just before it is placed into molds to take form and then cool, the result being a tiny salt crystal or two in each bite of chocolate. Created is a delicacy that tantalizes the palate of even the most discerning connoisseur, the fleur de sel imparting a piquant flavor to the intensely fruity chocolate.

The Correct Way To Eat Soup

The Soup Course

There are soups and then there are hearty soups. It is unlikely that a hearty soup—the type with meat and potatoes, for example—will be served as a second course at a formal dinner of multiple courses. Such soups are meals in and of themselves, and they are wonderful in their own right. The type of soup likely to be served as a first or second course at a formal dinner is a much lighter soup—either a clear, broth-like soup such as a consommé, or perhaps a slightly heavier, pureed soup.

Soups are served either in cups, cup-sized bowls (Oriental style), soup bowls, or soup plates. But regardless, when brought to the table, the dish containing the soup will be placed atop the place plate. Soup spoons in Western-influenced cultures are primarily of two prevailing shapes: those with circular bowls, and those with egg-shaped bowls. The Oriental soup spoon is usually made of porcelain and features a shorter, grooved handle, with a deeper, more angular, oval-shaped bowl.

When served in a cup with one or two handles, the cup may be taken up by the hand(s) and drunk—after having had at least two or three spoonfuls, primarily to eat the garnishes that are oftentimes floating atop such soups and/or to test the temperature of the soup before bringing it to the lips. If the soup cup has one handle, it may be held in the right hand and drunk. If the cup has two handles, both hands should be used to hold the cup, the handles being “pinched” between the thumb and index finger of each hand. In the case of handle-less Oriental soup cups, the cup is taken into both hands, using the thumb and index finger of each hand as the primary support for the cup, with the other fingers allowed to follow the natural contour of the hands as they provide additional—and graceful—support to the cup.

When using the soup spoon, it is permissible to dip soup towards oneself or away from oneself, though the latter method is regarded by many authorities as more elegant in appearance. Likewise, when sipping soup from the spoon, it is acceptable to turn the spoon such that it approaches the lips from its front or from its side, though the latter is preferred by many authorities as the more refined approach. What is not open for discussion, however, are the following:

  1. When eating soup from a cup or a bowl, the spoon is placed onto the service plate (after—discretely—being wiped sufficiently clean with the lips), to the right side of the cup or bowl, whenever eating is interrupted or at the end of the course. The spoon is never left unattended in the cup or bowl during conversation or if its user has taken temporary leave from the table.
  2. When soup is being eaten from a soup plate, which is a wide, somewhat-shallow dish—a cross between a plate and a bowl—the spoon is left in the soup plate when eating is interrupted and at the end of the course, the rationale being that the soup plate is almost as wide as the place plate unto which it is placed, rendering the spoon with insufficient space to be placed securely onto the place plate below.
  3. When the soup cup, bowl, or soup plate must be tilted so as to access the remaining liquid without noisily scraping the spoon against the dish, the dish is to be tilted away from, not towards, the diner, by gently lifting, with the left hand, the portion of the dish closer to the diner, thereby slightly dipping the portion of the dish farther away from the diner, as the soup spoon is used in the right hand to access the remaining liquid.

The wine traditionally served with the soup course is sherry—if the soup is flavored with or would be enhanced by sherry. Otherwise, some other compatible wine is served as the complement to the soup. Sherry is usually poured from a decanter; but on occasion, especially if the vintage is noteworthy or remarkable in some way, it may correctly be poured directly from its bottle. The sherry glass, usually V-shaped and stemmed, is the smallest drinking glass set upon the table at the commencement of the meal. And before its glorious contents is drunk, it is imperative that a gentleman use his napkin to press-wipe his lips clean of any traces of the soup. The little sherry glass should be held by its stem.

At the end of the soup course, the place plate, along with the soup dish and soup spoon, is removed from the table in preparation of the following course, which is usually a fish dish.

 

Amarone–The World’s Most Luxurious Red Wine!

Amarone (della Valpolicella) of Conti Dagostino

Veneto, located in northeastern Italy, is one of the country’s twenty regions; and Valpolicella is Veneto’s most famous wine district. (The name “Valpolicella” is believed to derive from the Greek language, meaning “valley of many cellars”). Of all the wine styles of Valpolicella, “Amarone della Valopolicella,” or simply, “Amarone,” is the most venerated. And of all the Amarones of Italy, the one produced by Conti Dagostino ( www.contidagostino.it ) is the best.

The Italian word “amarone” (pronounced “ama-roh-neh”) literally means “great bitter”; it derives from “amaro,” which means “bitter,” and the suffix “one,” which denotes impressive size or volume. But to inhale the bouquet of, or to taste the decadently delicious wine, is to wonder how it ever received its disparaging appellation. One unfamiliar with the history of the wine might think that the ever-creative Italians, in a clever attempt to keep the precious liquid all to themselves, gave the wine a discouraging name—the way the wily Danes encouraged unwitting mariners towards barren “Greenland” while keeping the more habitable “Iceland” for themselves. But in the case of Amarone, the Italians were more innocent than their Nordic neighbors.

Like vin santo, Amarone is a “passito” wine: It is made from partially dehydrated grapes. But unlike vin santo, Amarone is not a dessert wine; instead, it is a rich, flavorful, dry, red wine made primarily of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes, sometimes supplemented by Corvinone, Negrara, and Oselata varieties.

Traditionally, the grapes destined for Amarone production are selected while still on the vine: Sparsely spaced bunches of vine-ripened grapes are hand-picked during the first two weeks of October and allowed to desiccate for a period ranging from three weeks to 120 days atop reed mats in a warm, dry, well-ventilated room or portion of the winery. (Today, with modern wine technology, the drying process, called “appassimento” in Italian, occurs in temperature-controlled rooms atop stainless steel racks or upon wooden pallets). The dehydration process allows the natural sugars in the berries to concentrate.

At the end of the designated appassimento period, the grapes are gently pressed, and their sweet “must” (juice) is allowed to ferment until all the sugars have been converted to alcohol, resulting in a robust wine with an alcohol content of about 15 percent by volume. The wine is then aged in barrels (called “barriques”) of French, Slovenian, or Slavonian oak for at least two years, but usually for around five or six years, before being bottled for commercial release.

Veneto’s most famous wine today, Amarone is a relative “new-comer” on the wine scene: In 1953, Bolla and Bertani produced the first vintages for commercial release. While Amarone-style wines have existed in the region for centuries, it was rarely deliberately made. Typically, Amarone was “made” by “mistake” when a vintner producing “Recioto,” a popular dessert wine of the region, would inadvertently allow his or her Recioto to fully ferment, thereby converting all the residual sugar in the Recioto into alcohol, producing, in the process, a strong, dry, somewhat “bitter” wine—bitter as compared to its sweet Recioto counterpart. (When producing Recioto, the fermentation process is purposefully interrupted so as to preserve some of the sugar content of the wine). In 2009, the production of Amarone wine in the Valpolicella zone was granted DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita/ controlled and guaranteed designation of origin) status. And today, when one thinks of the wines of Veneto region, one thinks of Amarone.

Technically, “Amarone” may be made anywhere within the greater Valpolicella wine-producing zone; but only the Amarone from the Valpolicella Classico and Valpantena sub-zones can legally be labeled “Amarone della Valpolicella.” And the finest terroir (the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma) of the entire Valpolicella zone is found in the northern portions of the Valpolicella Classico—in the villages of Fumane, Marano, and Negrar. There, the hills rise more than 2000 feet (610 meters), allowing the grapes to capitalize upon the crisp sub-Alpine air, the northern Italian sunshine, and all the subtleties and aspects that derive from unimpeded exposure from every direction. The grapes of Conti Dagostino’s Amarone della Valpolicella are grown in the hills of Negrar.

For the gentleman who likes dining the old-fashioned way, the way Romeo and Juliet and the other ladies and gentlemen of the Houses Capulet and Montague of fair Verona would have dined—great feasts featuring game-meats such as venison, wild boar, turtle, rabbit, pheasants, geese, and duck, for example—Amarone is without equal anywhere in the world. And of all the Amarones, the one produced by Conti Dagostino is unsurpassed.

From Tang Dynasty, China to Wedgewood, Flora Danica, and Royal Copenhagen: The History of Porcelain

 

The History of Porcelain

Elegant dishes are as essential to fine, 21st-century dining as they were during the late 18th century, when luxury was almost a religion. But long before names such as Flora Danica, Wedgewood, and Royal Copenhagen became synonymous with beautiful porcelain dinnerware, mankind had already invested thousands of years, through trial and error, in the art of using the humblest of materials—clay—to create useful vessels for cooking, serving, eating, and storing food.

The concept of firing objects made of clay is about 30,000 years old, as evidenced by the fertility figurine “Venus,” discovered at Dolni Vestonice in present-day Czech Republic. But the earliest known pots and utility items, found in the Yuchanyan cave in Southern China, are believed to date from about 18,000 years ago. By 10,000 B.C.E., the art of pottery-making was well underway in China and Japan.

But perhaps the turning point in one of mankind’s oldest and most useful crafts came around 4,500 B.C.E., with the invention of the potter’s wheel in Mesopotamia. Whether earthenware, stoneware, or porcelain, the potter’s wheel enabled craftsmen to create, with relative ease, perfectly round objects.

Of all the materials used for pottery, porcelain is the most revered. A relatively translucent ceramic material, porcelain is comprised of kaolin, petuntse or other clays, ground glass substances, soapstone, bone ash, etc., and must be fired at extremely high temperatures in order for its ingredients to vitrify. The name “porcelain” derives from the Latin “porcellana,” meaning “cowrie shell,” a translucent shell of a sea snail.

While the making of porcelain dates back about 3,000 years in China, porcelain became popular during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 906 C.E.), famous for its white porcelain, much of which was exported to the Islamic world.

The introduction of porcelain to the West, however, is attributed to Marco Polo, who returned to Italy in 1295 with a small, white vase, today preserved in the San Marco Treasury. Then in the late 1400s, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama reintroduced the luxurious product to Europeans, with the vast network of the East India Company facilitating porcelain’s spread across Europe. By the end of the 15th century, porcelain had been dubbed “white gold” by Europeans, and merchants of Genoa, Pisa, Venice, and Portugal sold porcelain goods to an ever-increasing customer-base. But the fabrication of the “white gold” from the East remained a heavily guarded secret by the Chinese, leaving the West desperately trying to crack the porcelain code. It was not until 1575, when research supported by Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, yielded a soft, white clay containing powdered feldspar, calcium phosphate, wollastonite, and quartz, that the West achieved its first breakthrough. The brain behind the discovery was Bernardo Buontalenti. And the products made therefrom were called “Medici porcelain.” When Francisco died in 1587, however, the venture, which was never commercial, came to and end. In 1588, the inventory compiled after Francesco’s death listed 310 pieces, 60 or 70 of which are known to have survived.

But in 1708, chemist von Tschirnhauser and alchemist Johann Bottger discovered a way to make a hard-paste porcelain that allowed for European craftsmen to produce porcelain products on par with the Chinese. And two years later, in 1710, Poland’s King Augustus II established the first hard-paste porcelain factory in Europe in Meissen. Within 50 years, there were porcelain factories throughout Europe, especially in Vienna, Venice, and parts of France. And with the concurrent demand for teas from Asia, coffee from Africa and Arabia, and chocolate from the New World, there was an increase in demand for vessels from which to drink those culture-transforming beverages.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, Italy–the world’s most delicious, luxurious, and rare vinegar

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO):  a vinegar so precious it was, and still is, given as gifts to popes and kings and queens; so rare, it is drizzled, not poured; and so delicious, it is used to enhance everything from ice cream to fresh fruits to filet mignon. 

 

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, Italy is so delicious and versatile that the precious liquid is drizzled—not poured—onto everything from steak to salads to cheese to fresh fruit to ice cream. It is also sipped as a digestif after a grand meal. And the vinegar is so venerated by the families that produce it that a series of vinegar barrels, called a “batteria,” is created to commemorate the birth of a child (especially a girl), the child being presented with her or his aged vinegar as a wedding gift. Such was the case when Ada Cavallini from Castelvetro married Bernardo Soli of Vignola on June 5, 1909, bringing along her dowry of coveted balsamic vinegar. And it is that cache, now six generations old, that serves as the foundational barrels for what is regarded as one of Modena’s most esteemed vinegars: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP of the Biancardi family of Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca. Only the cooked must of grapes grown at Villa Bianca is used in this vinegar. And once the aging process begins, each barrel is personally monitored by the discerning eyes of a family for which vinegar is not only a livelihood, but a way of life.

Until the 1980s, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena was scarcely known outside Italy. And even within Italy, it was regarded as a “cottage industry” product, made in the attics of family homes and used only on special occasions or presented as gifts to special friends. For the most part, the “black gold” was not widely available as a commercial product.

The Modenese tradition of making vinegar derives from the even more ancient custom of cooking grape must in lidless pots in order to reduce the juice to a sweet, dense substance called “saba,” which was used by the ancient Romans as an overall sweetener, the way honey is used. Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, the 1st -century scientist of agriculture, reports in his 12-volume treatise, Res rustica, that in northern areas of the Italian peninsula, known today as Modena and Reggio Emilia, cooked grape must tended to naturally acquire an acidic taste. (Today, it is known that the reason for that natural phenomenon is the existence in the region of naturally occurring bacteria that convert alcohol into acetic acid). But the earliest known written reference to what is believed to be Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena occurs in 1046, when Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, on the occasion of a journey across the plain of the river Po, declares his “yearning to enjoy that perfect vinegar.” By 1228, during the time of Marquis Obizzo II, the House of Este was already preserving barrels of the vinegar. And as evidenced in a treatise by Modenese scholar Ludovico Antonio Moratori, the vinegar, in its early history, was regarded as an elixir, prescribed even as a remedy for the plague. The Italian word “balsamico” derives from the Greek word “balsama,” which means “medicine.” (However, the adjective “balsamic” was first used to describe vinegar in 1747). By 1598, when the seat of the House of Este moved from Ferrara to Modena, the historical record is replete with references to the vinegar and the Este practice of giving it as gifts to special friends and visiting dignitaries. And by the 1700s, the vinegar was known in many of the noble houses of Europe. The earliest extant formula for producing aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, however, is that of Modenese lawyer and landowner Antonio Maria Aggazzotti (1811 – 1890 ), who, in a letter to a Dr. Pio Fabriani dated March 2, 1862, provides details on the vinegar’s production. And it is that letter, preserved in the archives of the Cavazzoni Pederzini family of Modena, that serves as the foundation for the present-day DOP production rules for Aceto Balsamico Tradiozionale di Modena DOP. Just over a hundred years later, in 1967, La Consorteria dell’ Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale (www.museodelbalsamicotradizionale.org ) was established in Spilamberto, in the Province of Modena. And each year since then, the Consorteria hosts the Palio di San Giovanni, a contest to select the best Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. (In 2014 there were 1,470 entries, and Mr. Giuseppe Corradini of Formiginie took top honors, winning “The Golden Spoon.” [The competition is also open to non-DOP-certified producers]). And in November of 2002, La Consorteria established the Museo Del Balsamico Tradizionale in Spilamberto.

There are many products sold around the world labeled “Balsamic Vinegar.” Many are simply wine vinegar with coloring and flavoring and, hopefully, are priced accordingly. Some are even labeled “Aceto Balsamico di Modena.” And yet others are called “Condimento Balsamico di Modena,” a term typically applied to vinegars made in the traditional manner but cannot receive the “Traditional” designation perhaps because they were not produced under appropriate supervision, or perhaps because they were not aged for the specified aging periods, or because the product did not pass the regulatory body’s eight-member taste test, for example. Many of those products are excellent in their own right and serve their specific purposes. A gentleman who wishes to marinate fish or meat would be wise to use a basic supermarket-quality “balsamic vinegar” rather than waste his precious “tradizionale” vinegar for such a mundane task. But at the end of the day, the “real McCoy” is the real McCoy for a reason. So the moral of the fable: To avoid having to cry “sour grapes” after unwittingly purchasing a wannabe traditional balsamic vinegar, a gentleman should first know that all balsamic vinegars are not created equal; then he should be sure to purchase a product officially labeled “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP” if what he desires is the absolute best.

The manner is which the vinegar is produced is a metaphor of life itself—the old shaping and influencing the young; the young inspiring the old; each generation charged with the responsibility of surpassing the one that preceded it…. To experience the traditional vinegar is to immediately sense that it must have been years in the making and is the result of generation after generation of passed-down production secrets. And to see the manner in which the stewards of the product lovingly and meticulously carry out their duties is to know that the vinegar binds the generations of a family, forefather to scion, like few other things in life can. The product is so superior in every way that a gentleman need not have the elusive gift commonly referred to as “good taste” in order to distinguish this luxurious vinegar from its lesser counterparts, for to taste it—even with an untrained tongue—is to know immediately that Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP is in a class by itself.

[ A DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta/Protected Designation of Origin) classification may be obtained only after a group of producers from an area or province or region, for example—typically organized as a consortium—comes together and agrees upon production and quality standards, then selects an independent certification entity to ensure compliance with those standards. The producers then forward their classification request to the designated Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, which, after review and preliminary approval, forwards the request to the European Union for final review and status designation. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena received its DOP classification on April 17, 2000. ]

For a vinegar to be labeled “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP,” it must adhere to the strict standards established by one of the two consortia (Consorzio Pruduttori Antiche Acetaie and Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena) and an independent regulatory body. The vinegar’s only ingredient is cooked grape juice, called “must.” And only certain grape varieties grown and harvested under specified conditions in the Province of Modena can be utilized. The white trebbiano grape and the red lambrusco grape are amongst the most popularly used. But spergola and berzemino, for example, are also used. The grapes are harvested in late September or early October, when they are fully ripe and their sugar content is high. Immediately after being soft-pressed, the unfiltered must is slow-cooked in lidless vats over direct heat at a temperature of between 80 and 100 degrees Celsius (176 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit). The must is never rapid-boiled; instead, it is slowly simmered, with special care taken to ensure that the sugars do not crystallize since crystallization would impart a “burnt” flavor to the vinegar. The four primary reasons for cooking the must are to reduce its water content; to increase its sugar concentration (28-33%); to kill the natural yeast, which would otherwise convert sugar into alcohol; and to achieve an amber color in the cooked must, which will figure significantly in the achieving of the molasses-black color of the vinegar years later. Typically, the volume of must is reduced by 25% during the cooking process.

Once the must is cooked to the desired consistency, it is left to cool. Thereafter, the cooled must is transferred to a ceramic demijohn or a stainless steel tank situated in a cool, dry place, where the must is allowed to “settle” for several months, allowing for natural sedimentation to occur. While settling, the must is covered to minimize any subsequent fermentation (which would quickly convert sugars into alcohol). Then in the winter, typically around February or March, the desired portion of the settled must is transferred to wooden barrels. And it is in the wooden barrels that the must begins its first phase in the long aging process. And it is the unique aging process that makes Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (DOP) one of the great gastronomical luxuries of the world.

Balsamic vinegar is aged in series of wood barrels of descending volume, the largest usually of 75 or 80 liters, and the smallest of 10 liters. Typically, barrels are made of oak (harmonizes the various flavors, imparts a pleasant aroma, and is resistant to the ravages of time), chestnut (very important for coloration and acidic development), cherry (imparts sweetness and a reddish color), mulberry, ash, juniper (contribute a spicy flavor and aroma), and combinations thereof. Each type of wood imbues the vinegar with unique qualities, adding flavor, color, bouquet, and complexity to the final product.

Unlike wine, which is aged in temperature-consistent cellars, vinegar is aged in a vinegar attic, called an “acetaia,” subject to extreme heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter. And those temperature fluctuations figure significantly in the maturation of vinegar. The vinegar “works” in the warm months and “rests” in the cool months. During the warm months, two things occur: The sweet, cooked grape must gradually transforms into a sweet-sour vinegar; meanwhile, the heat in the attic causes a portion of the contents of each barrel to evaporate, the remaining liquid condensing in the process. (Just as naturally occurring yeast transforms sugar into alcohol, naturally occurring aerobic bacteria, acetobacter, and the single-celled fungus, saccharomycete, symbiotically transform alcohol into acetic acid—the saccharomycetes transforming some of the sugars in the cooked must into alcohol, and the acetobacters converting that alcohol into acetic acid, the souring element of vinegar. Each year, depending on the ambient temperature in the attic, approximately 15 percent of the volume of a barrel evaporates, leaving a more concentrated product. That evaporated portion is poetically referred to by the ever-romantic Italians as the “angels’ share”). In the cool months, the dormant microbes in the vinegar settle to the bottom of the vinegar.

Vinegar barrels are positioned on their sides, each with a rectangular-shaped bunghole facing upwards. The bunghole, which is never plugged, allows for evaporation of the vinegar; the inspection of the vinegar; and for the evaporated volume to be replenished. A piece of white linen or gauze measuring about one square foot is generally used to cover the bunghole so as to prevent contamination of the contents of the barrel—but allow for natural evaporation—throughout the aging process. (At Acetaia Villa Emma, intricate, handmade, white doilies are used. And a scarlet cloth is the fabric of choice at Acetaia Ferrari Amorotti). In the olden days, stones collected from the local river were used to cover the bungholes; and, interestingly, the acid of the vinegar would, over the decades, slowly corrode the stones, the eroded fragments falling into the vinegar and allegedly contributing to the desired overall sweet-sour equilibrium of a good vinegar.

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is categorized as DOP or Extra Vecchio DOP, the former aged for at least 12 years (and unofficially referred to as “Affinato”), and the latter aged for at least 25 years. A battery comprised of a minimum of five barrels is used to age the vinegar, and the barrels must be made of at least three different types of wood. But some producers, in order to create a superior product with tantalizing complexities, use approximately 10 barrels in the aging of DOP and about 20 barrels in the aging of “Extra Vecchio” (Italian for “extra old”) DOP. A battery containing many barrels may therefore have more than one barrel made of the same wood.

When a brand new battery of barrels is acquired, the barrels must be “prepped” or “seasoned” before they can be put into the service of aging Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP. First, boiling-hot, salted water is used to fill the new barrels, remaining in the barrels for approximately one week. Thereafter, the salted water is discarded, and the barrels are filled with wine vinegar for up to one year. Thereafter, the wine vinegar is discarded. Only then may the barrels be used for aging the traditional vinegar.

First-time visitors to the classic acetaia—with its vinegar-blackened batteries of barrels dating back several generations; testing equipment that looks more like the instruments of alchemists than of modern food production; mysterious, almost-ritualized processes of “rincalzo,” “travaso,” and “prelievo”; and an atmosphere so sweetened by the smell of aging, condensing vinegar that one may be tempted to open one’s mouth so as to devour the perfumed air—oftentimes want to know how an acetaia is first established. How does a person who does not descend from a family that has been making traditional vinegar from time immemorial join the ranks of this elite fraternity.

One method is thus: When a person decides to establish a brand new batteria, all the newly “prepped” barrels—whether five or ten or twenty, for example—are filled with cooked must. Then after a year, “the angels” having taken their share from each barrel, the evaporated portion of each barrel, beginning with the smallest barrel, is replenished with liquid from the barrel in the batteria that immediately precedes it, the evaporated portion of the largest barrel being replenished with freshly cooked, settled must. That process continues, without one drop of the precious liquid being harvested, for at least 12 years or 25 years, depending on the classification of traditional vinegar desired. Then once the desired aging threshold has been achieved, approximately 10 percent of the aged vinegar from the smallest barrel is harvested each year.

Alternatively, at the inauguration of a brand new battery of barrels, the cooked, settled must is siphoned into the largest (first) barrel, in a process known as “rincalzo,” remaining there to age into vinegar until the following year, at which point a portion of the largest barrel’s contents is used to fill the second, slightly smaller barrel in the battery. To the remaining one-year-old vinegar in the first barrel is added the newly cooked, settled must from the second year’s harvest of grapes, the old vinegar serving to “jump-start” the aging process of the newly added must. In the third year of aging, with the first two barrels of the battery containing aging vinegar, vinegar from the second barrel is used to fill the third, smaller barrel, and vinegar from the first barrel is used to replenish that which has been removed from the second barrel to fill the third. Then the cooked must of the third year’s harvest is used to refill the first barrel. Each year, in the winter, in a process known as “travaso,” each successive barrel in the battery is filled, and each contributing barrel is “topped up” with vinegar from the previous barrel in the series of barrels, the first (largest) barrel always being topped up with the freshly cooked must of the year’s harvest. Eventually, all the barrels in the battery are filled, the smallest and final barrel in the battery containing the greatest percentage of the oldest vinegar. (Technically, since no barrel is entirely depleted of its contents in the travaso process, each barrel in the series contains a portion of the oldest vinegar). And it is from the final, smallest barrel that approximately 10 percent (one liter from a 10-liter barrel) of the aged vinegar is extracted to be bottled for market. The process of extracting the aged vinegar from the final, smallest barrel is known as “prelievo.” After the very first harvest of vinegar from a “newly” established batteria (after 12 years in the case of DOP and 25 years in the case of “Extra Vecchio” DOP), the smallest barrel is then regarded as the “first” barrel since from the first prelievo onward, once the vinegar is extracted from the smallest barrel, it, and every other barrel in the battery, will be topped up with vinegar from the barrel that immediately precedes it in the order of ascending volume, the smallest barrel becoming the “first” to be topped up, and the largest barrel, topped up by the cooked must from the “settling” tank, becoming the “last.” (Barrels are reused for many years—sometimes for centuries. In addition to the active culture, referred to as the “madre” [“mother”], found in the remaining vinegar left in each barrel after some of its contents has been transferred, the walls of the barrels themselves have precious, active, vinegar-making bacteria culture. So when barrels become so old as to be compromised, their outsides are oftentimes reinforced such that the inner surfaces can continue to stimulate the aging of vinegar. When barrels are so old and so saturated that they can no longer effectively contain their vinegar, they are re-clad with a newer barrel: the metal hoops of the old barrel are removed, and the barrel is held together with “corda canapa,” a rope made of the fiber from the hemp plant. [Corda canapa is also used to plug holes in damaged barrels.] The old, compromised barrel is then fit inside a newer, slightly larger barrel—that has already been in the service of aging traditional vinegar—so that any vinegar that escapes the walls of the old barrel will be secured by the newer, intact barrel. Some acetaie are of the opinion that a re-clad barrel, because of its double-thickness, impedes the natural evaporation, and thus, condensation, of the aging vinegar. Acetaie of that mindset, therefore, opt to retire a barrel when it has become too saturated to safeguard its contents).

But even the bottling of this luxury product is a closely regulated process. Once the aged vinegar, after 12 or 25 years, is extracted from the smallest barrel, it is transported to a Consortium, where it is subjected to laboratory testing for acidity and density. If the vinegar passes the Consortium’s test, it is then subjected to a taste-test administered by the independent control board, where five taste-experts judge the product. Finally, if the product passes the taste-test, then—and only then—is the Consortium (not the producer) allowed to bottle the vinegar in the distinctive, rectangular-bottomed, 100ml bottle (the size of a typical perfume bottle), specifically designed for the consortia by Italian automobile designer Giorgetto Guigiaro and in use since 1987. That bottle—and that bottle only—may be used for the bottling of Aceto Balsamic Tradizionale di Modena DOP. The Consortium then caps and seals the bottles (While the color of the DOP cap may vary, sometimes red, sometimes white, for example, the color of the Extra Vecchio DOP cap is always gold), thereafter affixing its certifying labels. The producer then affixes its private label onto the bottle in preparation for market.

Once bottled, no further aging occurs in the vinegar. And if tightly sealed and stored in a cool, dark place, the vinegar endures indefinitely. (DOP vinegars are sold with a knob-headed cork to seal the bottle when not in use, and a cork fitment with a flow-spout for when the vinegar is in active use at the table). What also endures is the flavor of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP: Besides the vinegar’s delightfully lingering after-taste, its flavor seems to imprint the gastronomical DNA such that no other vinegar will ever compare thereafter.

At first glance, except for the joyous aroma that immediately embraces a visitor, an acetaia can appear somber—like a funeral parlor or a cortege of mourners all dressed in black, each wearing a white veil upon her head; or as a family crypt, with neatly lined-up coffins and sarcophagi bearing the names, dates, and remains of long-dead ancestors. But almost simultaneously, an acetaia reveals itself as instead a place full of life—indeed, as a metaphor for life itself—and as a declaration of the power of family, past, present, and future, each informing and defining the other….

It is often said that to truly fall in love with Venice, a gentleman must engage the services of a private gondolier to tour the city’s quiet canals, the guide’s voice echoing down the narrow passageways, off the medieval stone walls, and under the picturesque bridges of “Neptune’s City.” So, too, it is with “black gold”: A gentleman must ascend the stairs then enter an acetaia in order to experience, first-hand, the wonder that is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.

One of the perquisites of visiting an acetaia is getting to taste, from different barrels, the delicious liquid in its various stages of maturation. Though the trophy of the Palio di San Giovanni is a golden spoon, traditional vinegar is best tasted from a half-teaspoon-size spoon made of porcelain (A similarly sized plastic spoon is second-best). The distinctive sweet-sour flavor of the vinegar is perhaps closest to what would be the result of mixing tamarind preserve with cider vinegar, cooking the mixture on low heat for about 30 minutes, then, just before serving, stirring in a teaspoon of raspberry preserve. Such is what a person who finds himself at Earth’s end, desperate for traditional vinegar but, alas, could find none, would concoct. But today, grazie a Dio, with online shopping and next-day deliveries, he can order the product from his favorite acetaia and have the authentic vinegar delivered to his door before dinnertime the following day. Another remarkable thing about visiting an acetaia is observing the liquid in the barrel through the square-shaped bunghole: From the motionless, thick, almost-black liquid, one’s image reflects as if looking into a mirror. (Had Narcissus visited an acetaia instead of a river, he would have transformed into a pickle rather than a flower!) And as varied as the families and their individual members in whose honor batterie are established, so are the acetaie themselves different, each one from the other.

One of the grandest acetaie of them all is Acetaia Villa Emma, established by Mirella Leonardi Giacobazzi and situated in the attic of the mid-1800s palazzo of Modena’s esteemed Giacobazzi family. To enter the acetaia, one must don disposable protective coveralls—to safeguard the precious, delicately balanced vinegar from human contamination! Twelve hundred barrels, lined up like sentinels of the past, present, and future, fill the great attic. The acetaia is a veritable museum to traditional balsamic vinegar: tasting- and testing-instruments, period-furniture, old amphorae, seemingly countless awards and commendations, acid-eaten river stones, framed photographs and newspaper articles, and, of course, handmade doilies, decorate the space. Villa Emma (leonardo@fattoriegiacobazzi.it) is a delight to the five senses.

One of the most innovative acetaie (to the extent that traditional balsamic vinegar allows for innovation) is Acetaia Del Cristo ( www.acetaiadelcristo.it ). Having the luxury of 2,000 barrels in the active service of producing traditional vinegar, Acetaia Del Cristo has ingeniously created a diversified product line within the confines of the “traditional” and “extra vecchio” classifications. The acetaia produces the classic “traditional” and “extra vecchio,” both of which are aged in batterie consisting of barrels made of different types of woods. But the company has also added a line of “flavored” vinegars that are aged in batterie featuring the final several barrels of one particular wood: oak, chestnut, cherry, mulberry, or juniper. And because most of the aging occurs in one type of wood, the dominant characteristics of the vinegar are particular to that wood. Unlike other acetaie of aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, then, which offer only two categories vinegar, Acetaia Del Cristo offers fourteen products: 12-year-old “Tradizionale,” plus five flavor variations; 25-year-old “Extra Vecchio,” along with five flavor variations; the company’s Palio di San Giovanni-winning “Black Diamond Extra Vecchio,” a classic vinegar harvested from barrels containing liquid that has been aging for at least 50 years; and the “granddaddy” of them all, “Della Nonna” (Italian for “from Grandmother”), a classic vinegar taken from the acetaia’s oldest barrel, which dates from 1849. Each year, only 20 to 40 bottles of this most prized vinegar, presented in a hand-painted wooden box, is made available on the market. Three generations of the Barbieri family and their partners, the Bonfatti family, have worked to earn the distinction as Modena’s—and therefore the world’s—largest producer of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP.

Traditional vinegar is one of the cornerstones of Modenese culture. And it is not uncommon for even small producers to create vinegar of the highest quality. To assist those producers with bottling and marketing, the cooperative La Tradizione ( www.acetaialatradizione.com ) was established in 2002. One of the cooperative’s associates is Ms. Loretta Goldoni, the eponymous founder of Acetaia Loretta Goldoni (loretta.goldoni@libero.it ), situated in the attic of the owner’s home and art studio. In 1940, Ms. Goldoni’s father established a batteria in his home primarily for domestic consumption. And it is those now-seventy-five-year-old barrels that serve as the backbone for his daughter’s acetaia. Around 1985, additional batteries were inaugurated. And today the acetaia boasts a total of eleven batteries. Goldoni grows her own grapes and has them pressed and the must cooked at the cooperative’s processing facility. The cooked must is then delivered to her acetaia to begin the long process of creating traditional balsamic vinegar. Goldoni, who holds a degree in art history, began bottling “traditional” and “extra vecchio” through the coop in 2003 and today derives her primary income from her vinegar enterprise.

Another member of the La Tradizione cooperative is Acetaia Ferrari Amorotti (ferrariamorotti.giovanna@hotmail.it ). The oldest batteria at the revered acetaia was once owned by the Duke of Modena and dates from around 1750. That batteria was eventually acquired by Francesco Antonio Maria Aggazzotti, considered by many—on account of his “codification” in 1862 of traditional vinegar production—as the “godfather” of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. The historic batteria was eventually inherited by Elvira Aggazzotti, grandmother of siblings Francesca, Giovanna, and Lorenzo Ferrari Amorotti, present-day owners of Acetaia Ferrari Amorotti. Located in the village of San Venanzio, just outside Maranello on the old, panoramic, Via Giardini, the ducal road built by the Estes to connect the Duchy of Modena to their ducal estates in Garfagnana and the harbor of Massa in Tuscany, the acetaia, known for its long batterie, each consisting of nine or ten barrels, is situated inside the tower portion of a complex of buildings that was once used as an outpost and rest-stop by the Este dukes to refresh the horses of traveling merchants and provide short-term lodging and a place to eat for travelers and pilgrims. The Ferrari Amorotti family acquired the complex and ducal batteria at the end of the 1700s when Napoleon confiscated and then auctioned the ducal estates and the Este’s prized barrels of vinegar in order to finance his military campaigns. The austere-yet-imposing edifice, surrounded by extensive open fields and gentle hills, was built in three phases: The tower, likely constructed for defensive purposes, dates from the 12th century; the living quarters of the building was added in the 14th century; and the Este family added the front portion, which runs along the roadside and today serves as a restaurant, in the 18th century. The entire complex was restored between 2004 and 2005 by Vincenzo Ferrari Amorotti, father of the current owners. Comprised of 170 barrels, the acetaia is in effect a merging of two of Modena’s oldest and foremost balsamic vinegar families: Aggazzotti and Ferrari Amorotti. And as such, the acetaia is one of the region’s most storied and decorated: In 1861, at the National Exhibition in Florence, an Aggazzotti balsamic vinegar won a gold medal; and in 2000 and 2007, Acetaia Ferrari Amorotti won the coveted Palio di San Giovanni, thereafter retiring from active competition.

Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca ( www.acetaiavillabianca.com ) may best be described as “stately.” Stately entrance pillars welcome visitors onto a stately driveway, which leads to a stately, early 17th -century villa. The estate is self-contained: Everything pertaining to the production of the vinegar—from the growing of the grapes to harvesting the “black gold” 25 years later—is done in situ. The heirs-apparent to this stately estate are Emilio and Aurora Biancardi, great-grandchildren of Ada Cavallini Soli, the matriarch whose dowry batteria serves as the foundation of the acetaia’s present-day arsenal of 600 barrels. In 1936 Ada’s husband, agronomist and pharmacist Bernardo Soli, wrote a series of published articles on the production methods of traditional balsamic vinegar, and those articles are still referenced today. But it is said that it is Ada’s daughter, Bice Soli Biancardi, who, by instilling the love and respect for traditional balsamic vinegar in her sons Claudio and Vincenzo, transformed the Biancardi acetaia from a typical Modenese family acetaia for domestic consumption into a commercial enterprise. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Claudio, in 1963, while enrolled in a course on food chemistry at Modena University, became interested in the efforts to establish standards and parameters for traditional Modenese vinegar. Around that same time, the Department of Agriculture officially recognized balsamic vinegar as a bona-fide Modenese tradition. And it was during Claudio’s tenure (1990 – 2003) at the helm of Consorzio Produtti Aceto Tradizionale di Modena (Consortium of the Producers of Modena’s Traditional Balsamic Vinegar) that the vinegar’s DOP status was secured. So if Francesco Antonio Maria Aggazzotti is the “godfather” of the traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, then it is Claudio Biancardo who is its “big brother.”

At Villa Bianca, visitors take an elevator—not stairs—to arrive at the acetaia. The modern world, however, is left at the elevator’s door, for to enter the acetaia is to come face to face with something ancient and sacred, like a shrine to the god or goddess of vinegar. A long table of oak, flanked by chairs of oak, sits in the center of the room, as if awaiting a holy offering or a meeting for heads of state. And upon that table are the accoutrements of the vinegar trade, each more ancient, peculiar, and interesting than the next. Meanwhile, the air is heavy with the glorious aroma of traditional vinegar. At once acetaia and museum, the experience leaves even the most seasoned visitor uplifted—as if having had a religious revelation. Alas, the inevitable descent to Earth, via the elevator, is almost anticlimactic—but only for a short while, for it is not unlikely that visitors will be treated to a stately Italian meal, hosted by Irene Biancardi, comprised only of ingredients grown and raised at Villa Bianca.

Each year, Modena produces approximately 60,000 bottles of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP and 30,000 bottles of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale “Extra Vecchio” DOP. Like many of the world’s luxuries, DOP vinegar is expensive. But unlike some of the world’s expensive luxuries, the vinegar is worth every penny: As a result of natural evaporation and condensation, 100 liters of cooked grape must yields only one liter—25 years later—of “extra vecchio” traditional vinegar. It is for good reason, then, that a 100ml bottle (3.3 ounces) of the “extra vecchio” DOP typically costs hundreds of dollars, making the product, ounce for ounce, one of the most expensive foods in the world.

[ Traditionally, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP is used sparingly, primarily on special occasions or to enhance very special meals. The typical serving amount is about one teaspoon per person. Outside Italy, DOP is found only in the finest stores or may be purchased online directly from the producers. But for gentlemen in need of good-quality, everyday vinegars—for use in cooking, on salads, or as a base for marinades, for example—and for young gentlemen who simply cannot afford DOP vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar di Modena IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protteta/Protected Geographical Indication) (www.consorziobalsamico.it) is typically available worldwide and is modestly priced. Each year, the Province of Modena produces approximately 90 million liters of balsamic vinegar (aged at least 60 days in wood) and balsamic vinegar “invecchiato” (aged more than three years in wood), 90% of which is exported to over 120 countries worldwide, with 35% of total production going to the United States. Compared to many other vinegars simply labeled as “balsamic vinegar,” Balsamic Vinegar di Modena IGP is a far superior product—in appearance, aroma, flavor, and density. Balsamic Vinegar di Modena IGP is comprised of between 20% and 90% cooked grape must plus wine vinegar. Caramel color, no more than 2% of total volume, may be added. Generally, the higher the percentage of grape must, the higher the quality and price of IGP vinegar. And typically, products with a high percentage of cooked grape must contain no added color. Per labeling laws, ingredients must be listed in the order of their prominence in the product, the most prominent ingredient listed first. An IGP vinegar comprised of 50% or more grape must will list grape must as the first ingredient on the label. A discerning gentleman, when purchasing Balsamic Vinegar di Modena, should insist upon the IGP designation and should be mindful of the relative grape must content of the product. ]

Casu Marzu–the world’s most notorious, peculiar, and prohibited luxury cheese

Casu Marzu

The name “casu marzu” tends to conjure up images of Eastern invaders dashing across The Steppes on horseback in pursuit of Western conquest, or of some dark-haired, doe-eyed, harem beauty, unequaled in the art of seduction. But, alas, casu marzu is just the name of a cheese.

Casu marzu,” also called “casu modde,” “casu cundidu,” and “casu fràzigu” in the native Sardinian language, and “formaggio marcio” in Italian, literally means “rotten cheese.” Sardinia’s colorful and eventful history is also eclectic: “casu” is believed to derive from the Spanish word “queso,” meaning “cheese,” and “marzu” derives from the Italian word “marcio,” meaning “rotten.”

Casu marzu begins its life, peacefully, respectably—and legally—as Italy’s world-famous Pecorino cheese, a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk. But it is what happens to the Pecorino after it is made that transforms this Sardinian delicacy into one of life’s great luxuries, albeit a peculiar and sometimes feared (and now prohibited) one.

After the Pecorino cheese has been formed, it is placed in a cool, dark place, where it cures (ages) for about three weeks before its upper rind (crust) is sliced off and set aside so as to invite the “cheese fly,” Piophilia casei, to lay its eggs in the body of the open-face cheese—an invitation which the fly welcomes since it is keen on infesting human foodstuffs. The fly’s eggs develop into pearl-white, somewhat-translucent maggots that voraciously consume portions of the cheese, digest it, and then deposit their excrement within the body of the cheese. In the process, the formerly hard cheese becomes soft and creamy, so much so that its liquified portions sometimes ooze though breaches in its rind—a phenomenon the Sardinians, with their ever-romantic, flowery language, call “lagrima” (“tears” in English). (The less romantic English or Germans would probably call it “pus” of “cheese poop”!)

After the larvae have done their work—eating, digesting, and excreting—for about two to three months, the now-soft, pungently fragrant casu marzu is ready for human consumption! The upper crust is replaced, and the delicacy is served, maggots moving, wiggling, and burrowing about to their hearts’ content, presumably unaware that they and that upon which they feast will soon be feasted upon.

Dubbed “cheese skippers,” the maggots, usually about four millimeters in length (about one-sixth of an inch), are known to propel themselves a distance of about 15 centimeters (approximately six inches), 36 times the length of their bodies, when disturbed—or, in layman’s terms, the maggots can jump out the cheese and onto the dining table when touched with a fork! Some fastidious eaters—to the extent that such types would ever entertain the thought of eating casu marzu in the first place—are known to painstakingly extract the live, cheese-colored maggots, one by one, from the cheese prior to eating the delicacy. But true connoisseurs of casu marzu eat the larvae along with the cheese. After all, what could possibly be cause for additional alarm about eating a moving maggot when one is also eating said maggot’s excrement?

Casu marzu’s flavor can perhaps be best described as an über-intense Pecorino with hints of pepper. Its flavor assaults the tongue—in a good-bad-interesting way. It can perhaps be best likened to good sex with a mean dominatrix. The delicacy’s unique taste and after-taste have been known to linger in the mouth for hours. One would be wise, therefore, to truly like casu marzu if one intends to regularly indulge in its delights. Casu marzu is typically priced affordably, at about twice its Pecorino counterparts.

Because—in rare instances—maggots swallowed alive have been known survive the human intestinal tract, only to take up lodging in the human body, causing enteric myiasis, a gentleman should follow the sage advice provided him as a child: chew thoroughly before swallowing!

Only a few residents of Sardinia make casu marzu. The delicacy is also made in Corsica, where it is called “casgiu merzu.” Several European countries, citing health concerns, prohibit the importation of the luxury. And its official production for sale is officially prohibited even in Italy. But gentlemen of steely constitution are known to alight in Sardinia specifically to delight in this rare treat. And makers of Pecorino, especially people making it at home for household consumption, sometimes—oftentimes—find themselves with casu marzu, by accident, of course. And as it is a sin to waste or throw away food, what is a gentleman to do—other than eat the delicacy? After all, there are people starving in certain parts of the world….

Because of the nature of casu marzu, it is rarely encountered outside the places where it is made: Much of the point in eating the notorious cheese is to devour the creeping, crawling, cheese-engorged maggots in the process; and with packaging, shipping, refrigeration, etc., the larvae would likely perish. And if there is one thing that requires more fortitude than eating living maggots, it is eating dead ones!

Casu marzu is not for everyone. But it should be tried by every gentleman at least once in his lifetime, provided that he chew properly before swallowing. Then, just to be on the safe side, he should chase the casu marzu with another of the world’s great luxuries:  a shot of Single-Barrel Cruzan Rum. Any maggots that survived mastication will certainly succumb to inebriation.