What a Gentleman Should Know About Ballet–one of the luxurious performing arts of the world


Court Ballet

The French word “ballet,” adopted into the English language in the 17th century, derives from the Italian word “balleto,” the diminutive of “ballo,” meaning “dance.” And “ballo” derives from the Italian verb “ballare,” “to dance.” But any modern-day student or connoisseur of ballet knows that most of the art form’s vocabulary is from the French, not the Italian, language: pas de deux (a dance for two people); pirouette (a complete turn of the body on one foot); plié (a bending of the knees, with the knees wide open and the feet turned outward), for example. That is because while ballet originated as an art form in Renaissance Italy, it was in France, during the middle of the 17th century, that the genre formalized, ballet’s terminology thereafter remaining largely French, with dancers around the world today communicating with a now-universal, French-derived vocabulary. The valiant Italians, however, would not give up without a fight. So even if they did not have the final word on the art form to which they gave birth, they certainly kept its most important, for “ballerina” is Italian for “little dancer,” and what would ballet be without its ballerinas?

The precursors of ballet were lavish, elaborate, entertainment spectacles performed at the courts of 15th -century Italy. The performances typically included painting (in the set-designs), poetry, music, and dance and oftentimes took place in large halls as entertainment at weddings and banquets. A dance performance in 1489 occurred between the courses of a banquet, the action closely related to the menu: The story of Jason and the Golden Fleece was preceded by a dish of lamb, for example. In those early years, the dancers—the nobles themselves—would base their performances on the popular social dances of the day.

When in 1533, at age 14, Italy’s Catherine de’ Medici married Henry, the second son of King Francis I of France, she took with her to France her homeland’s custom of the dance performance. And in France, the nascent art form was nurtured. Henry would go on to become King Henry II of France in 1547, Catherine his queen consort.

At the French court, Catherine, a great patron of the arts, began funding ballet. And her spectacular festivals encouraged the growth of ballet de cour (court ballet), a system that consisted of dance, décor, costume, song, music, and poetry. The first ballet for which a complete score survives, Le Ballet Comique de la Reine (The Queen’s Ballet Comedy), was performed in Paris in 1581. Directed by Balthazar de Beaujoyeux, a violinist and dance master at the court of Queen Catherine de’ Medici, the dancers were aristocratic amateurs, with the royal family, situated upon a dais, viewing the performance from one end, while courtier-spectators were situated in galleries on three sides, looking down onto the dance floor, thereby witnessing the choreography and its elaborate floor patterns created by the lines of dancers and groups of dancers. Poetry and song enhanced the dances.

But if the court ballet got its start under the reign of Catherine de’ Medici, it was during the reign (1643-1715) of Louis XIV that the genre reached its apex. Also known as The Sun King, Louis XIV’s illustrious moniker was actually derived from a role he danced at the tender age of 14 in a ballet—Ballet de la Nuit (Ballet of the Night) (1653), which is believed to have lasted 12 hours, from sunset on one day, to sunrise the following morning. And just one year later, in 1654, the young king danced in a court ballet, Les Nopces de Pelée et de Thétis (The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis), in which, in the opening scene, he appears as Apollo surrounded by the nine muses—the female roles danced by actual women, thereby marking the first time in the history of ballet that women had performed on stage. (Prior to that groundbreaking event, it was considered inappropriate for women to expose their ankles, let alone their legs!) King Louis’ appearance on stage with the muses served as the precedent for noble men and women to dance together in the ballet du cour.

Many of the ballets presented at Louis’ court were created by Italian-French composer Jean Baptiste Lully and French choreographer Pierre Beauchamp, the man to whom the establishment of the five feet positions of ballet is attributed.

Most of the 16th – and early 17th -century court ballets were comprised of dance scenes connected by a minimum of plot. And because they were performed primarily for aristocratic audiences, sumptuous costumes (oftentimes cumbersome and restrictive), scenery, and sophisticated theatrical effects were employed.

By the middle of the 1600s, the proscenium stage had been adopted in France. Ballet, then, left the confines of courtly halls and went into public spaces, even if the audiences were still primarily of the privileged classes. And on the public stage, the concept of the professional dancer emerged.

One of the greatest leaps towards ballet’s advancement as a dance form was the 1661 establishment by Louis XIV of the Academie Royale de Danse (which would later become Paris Opera Ballet), a professional organization of dancing masters, its aim being not only to teach dance technique, but also social etiquette, thereby integrating dance, elegance, and manners. In 17th -century France, a gentleman was expected to be well versed in riding, fencing, and dancing. And Louis was known as the consummate dancer and supporter of ballet.

The Emergence of Women as Ballet Dancers

The king stopped dancing in 1670, after 75 roles in 26 performances, and his courtiers followed suit, thereby signaling the changing of the guards from court ballet to professional dancing. In the beginning, all professional ballet dancers were men, with men in masks and women’s garb dancing female roles. But in 1681, in a ballet titled Triomphe de l’Amour (The Triumph of Love), the first professional female ballet dancer, Mademoiselle Delafontaine (ca. 1655 – 1738), her first name lost to history, made her debut.

By the year 1700, as evidenced by Raoul-Auger Feuillet’s book titled Choreographie, many of the steps and positions recognizable today as ballet had already been established. Commissioned by King Louis to create a system of dance notation (comparable to how music is notated on paper), Feuillet, with the aid of the work laid down earlier by Beauchamp, established a system that could be written down in symbols, printed, and disseminated, allowing for choreography to “recorded” and recreated in an era prior to film and video recordings. [Other dance notation systems, most notably Labanotation and Benesh Movement Notation, have since evolved].

The first decades of the 1700s also saw the emergence of opera-ballet, a theatrical form that placed equal emphasis on dancing and singing and usually consisted of a series of dances woven together by some common theme. One of the most famous opera-ballets, Les Indies Galantes (The Gallant Indies) (1735) by French composer Jean Phillipe, featured faraway, exotic lands and peoples.

The movements of 16th – and 17th -century dancers were restricted by masks, wigs, headdresses, and heeled shoes. Men oftentimes wore the tonnelet, a knee-length hoop-skirt, and women wore panniers. But around 1730 danse haute (“high dance”), with its jumps, allowed dancers to take to the air, thereby replacing danse basse (“low dance”), wherein dancers would move from one elegant pose to another. The 18th century is also the era when women began making their mark in ballet. Following in the footsteps of Delafontaine, French ballerina Marie-Thérèse de Subligny (1666 – 1735) became the first professional ballerina to appear in England. Françoise Prévost (ca. 1680 – 1741), with her expressive style, helped establish dramatic dance in the early days of the genre. She also was teacher of the two foremost professional ballerinas who would emerge to first threaten male dominance and virtuosity in ballet: Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo shortened her skirts and adopted heel-less dancing slippers so that she could better execute—and display—her magnificent jumps and footwork; and her rival, Marie Sallé, literally let her hair down, cast off the then-conventional corset, and donned Grecian-inspired garb to perform in her own ballet, Pygmalion (1734). It is unlikely that these trailblazing women, “the queens of ballet” as they would come to be called, were fully aware that they were making one small step for a woman, one giant leap for womankind. And it is also unlikely that they were aware that they were laying the cornerstones for Women’s Rights: Ballet (along with fashion modeling) is one of the few professions open to both women and men where women surpass their male counterparts in both financial, professional, and social reward.

Despite the presence of some prominent female dancers, during the second half of the 18th century, Paris’ opera was still dominated by male dancers, Italian-French virtuoso Gaétan Vestris (1729 – 1808) and his son Auguste Vestris, famous for his leaps and jumps, being two of the most celebrated. But women, too, were becoming known for their technical prowess: German-born Annie Heinel is credited as being the first female dancer to do double pirouettes. Meanwhile, outside Paris, choreographers were working to achieve more dramatic expression in ballet. In London, for example, John Weaver eliminated words, trying, instead, to convey dramatic action through dance and pantomime. And in Vienna, Austria, Franz Hilverding and his student Gasparo Angiolini experimented with dramatic themes and gestures. But arguably the most famous advocate of dramatic ballet was Frenchman Jean Georges Noverre. His Letters on Dancing and Ballets, published in 1760, served to influence choreographers during and after his lifetime. Noverre rebelled against the tendency towards artifice in opera-ballet, arguing that ballet could stand on its own two feet—as an independent art form. He was a proponent of the use of natural, easily understood movement, and insisted that all the elements of a particular ballet should work harmoniously to convey that ballet’s theme. He introduced ballet d’ action, a dramatic style of ballet that conveys a narrative through expressive, dramatic movement that reveals the relationships between characters. Noverre’s philosophy found fertile ground in Stuttgart, Germany, where he produced his most famous ballet, Medea and Jason (1763). As such, Noverre is regarded as the father of the narrative ballet that would be embraced by the 19th century.

Much of what is broadly regarded as “classical ballet” emerged in the first half of the 19th century, during the Romantic Period of literature, music, art, and dance. The artists of the era—Byron, Shelley, Keats, Géricault, and Chopin, for example—embraced themes of beauty, passion, love, nature, and the supernatural. In ballet, Romantic themes oftentimes involved the supernatural world of spirits and magic, filled with tragic encounters between mortal, terrestrial man and the supernatural female. Ballerina characters were almost always other-worldly: the sylph in La Sylphide, a supernatural creature who is loved and ultimately, even if inadvertently, destroyed by mortal man; the wilis in Giselle; the fairy in La Peri; and then later in the 19th century, as swan maidens in Swan Lake; more fairies in Sleeping Beauty; the shades in La Bayedere, for example. (One of the few flesh-and-blood female characters of the era was Swanhilda in Coppélia. And in 1836’s Le Diable Boiteux, in the dance the “cachucha,” Austrian dancer Fannie Eissler popularized a more earthy, sensuous character in the Spanish-style solo performed with castanets in hand. Eissler was also known for dancing stylized versions of national dances). Female characters were also oftentimes depicted as passive and fragile. So it was the logical and aesthetic extension that during the Romantic era, “point work,” dancing on the tips of one’s toes—as if floating or about to fly—became the norm for the ballerina. The ballerina of the era is oftentimes depicted as a woman not earthbound; she is almost, if not, weightless. So it was only fitting that that era would produce such ballet classics as La Sylphide (1832) and Giselle (1841). And, ironically, it was in the Romantic era that female dancers became dominant in the genre. Excellent male dancers such as Frenchmen Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Leon were known for delivering stunning performances, but they were eclipsed by ballerinas such as Taglioni, Eissler, Carlotta Grisi, and Fanny Cerrito. The United States also produced two renowned ballerinas during the era: Augusta Maywood, and Mary Ann Lee, both of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Romantic Ballet and En Pointe Dancing

But en pointe dancing did not just occur one day out of thin air: Ballet had already existed for 200 years before toe shoes made their debut. The thing that, to a large extent, symbolizes ballet, was long in its evolution. And to a large extent, that evolution began with Marie Camargo (1710 – 1770) of the Paris Opera Ballet when she decided to remove the heels from her dancing shoes. Other dancers followed suit; and the new flat-bottomed slippers caught on quickly throughout the ballet community. (The flat-bottomed slippers worn during the 18th century were very much like the demi-point rehearsal and learning shoes that young ballerinas wear today). Secured to the feet with ribbons wrapped around the ankles, and pleated under the toes for a better fit, the flat slippers allowed for a full extension and enabled a dancer to use her entire foot. But with such types of slippers, dancers rose onto the balls of their feet or, on a few occasions during a performance, onto the tips of their toes. It was not until Charles Didelot’s 1795 invention of his “flying machine” that lifted dancers upward, allowing them to stand on their toes just before leaving the ground, that the notion of en pointe dancing gained footing as a dance technique. The lightness and ethereal quality achieved by use of the device was well received by audiences, resulting in choreographers finding ways to incorporate more “point work” in their pieces. As the technical skills of dancers became more pronounced in the 19th century, dancers endeavored to display more point work—without the aid of the wires availed by the “flying machine.”

Dancing en point, as a ballet technique, was intimated in the 1828 treatise on ballet training and exercise by Italian choreographer Carlo Blasis (1797-1878), Code of Terpsichore. (The extant ballet exercise regimen of adagio, pirouettes, and allegro, and the dance pose “Attitude,” derived from the famous statue Mercury by Giovanni da Bologna, are attributed to Blasis). But who, exactly, was the first person to dance en pointe remains a mystery. Perhaps Camargo had done back in the 1700s. And there are newspaper references to various ballerinas with “fantastic toes.” In its earliest years, en-pointe dancing was probably viewed as a stunt. But in Paris in 1832, when Italy’s Marie Taglioni first danced the entire La Sylphide en pointe (clearly not the first occasion upon which she danced on her toes), she established that dancing en pointe was on its way towards becoming an artistic expression—a dramatic as well as technical feat.

In 1832, Taglioni’s dancing slippers were, in effect, nothing more than modified satin slippers with soles made of leather and with toes and sides darned to help maintain their shape. Because shoes of that era provided no significant structural support, dancers would pad their own shoes and rely on the strength of the feet and ankles for support. Nonetheless, Taglioni, because of her grace, seeming weightlessness, elevation, and style, went on to enjoy a brilliant career and countless adoring audiences. It is said that in Russia her fans so loved her that they cooked her slippers and ate them with sauce!

Dancers would continue using the rudimentary, Taglioni-type, “do-it-yourself” point shoes until the late 19th century when in Italy a shoe with a modified toe-section, the precursor to the toe box, emerged. Dancers such as Pierina Legnani—rather than wearing the earlier model shoe which featured a sharply pointed toe—were known for wearing shoes with a sturdy, flat platform at the front-end of the shoe. The new shoe design, a then-guarded trade secret of the Italian School, enabled dancers to accomplish spectacular technical feats such as multiple pirouettes. Eventually the shoes evolved in the 1880s to contain a toe-box, made of multiple layers of fabric, for containing the toes. A stronger, stiffer sole was also added. Constructed without nails, and with soles stiffened only at the toes, the shoes were almost silent. And as the shoe evolved, so did ballet as an art form, each advancing the other: the shoes enabled dancers to do more; and dancers, in turn, wanted more from their shoes. Because of the Romantic era’s preoccupation with the ethereal female, and because the pointe shoe served as the vehicle by which the female characters’ seeming immateriality could be achieved, pointe shoes never became part of male ballet dancing since during the Romantic period, it was the corporal, flesh-and-blood, corporal man—with his foot firmly on terra firma such that he could hoist his willowy female counterparts into the air—that was needed as the contrast.

The pointe shoe as it is known today is largely attributed to Anna Pavlova, the early 20th -century Russian ballerina, one of the most famous and influential dancers of her time. Because of her exceptionally high, arched instep and slender, tapered feet, which made her particularly susceptible to injury when dancing en point, she compensated for her impediment by inserting toughened leather soles into her slippers for extra support, and flattened and reinforced the toe area to form a “box.” The shoes worn by ballerinas during the early years of the 20th century would seem unfathomably soft by 21st -century standards. Fundamental to the development of ballet, then, was for the shoes to be stiffened and more sturdy in order to accommodate more sustained balances and multiple pirouettes.

Today, most pointe shoes are constructed of layers of satin stiffened with glue, with a narrow sole made of leather. But despite the advances over the centuries, ballet slippers, which must be at once flexible, soft, but sturdy, are short-lived: Point shoes last for two to 12 hours of steady dancing. (Shoes used for one-hour pointe classes, once per week, will endure three months. And a professional ballerina may expend a pair of shoes in one performance. As such, a professional ballerina can use 100 to 120 pairs of shoes in a dance year. Different roles also require different types of shoes: The rigorous role of the “Black Swan” in Swan Lake will require a strong shoe with copious support, while the role of the sylph in La Sylphide requires a more gentle shoe since the role calls for more jumps and less pirouettes).

In essence, though, the pointe shoe has remained fundamentally unchanged for the past 100 years. But recent developments have begun to appear as shoe companies such as Nike collaborate with dance professionals to create shoes the aim of which is to advance the art form while protecting the dancers’ most important asset: their feet. The first half of the 1800s—the early Romantic era, with its groundbreaking, bar-raising en pointe dancing—also ushered in the ballet costumes that are today iconic. The sylphs and spirits needed light, airy garments to convey their other-worldly immateriality. The romantic tutu, a calf-length, full skirt made of tulle, was introduced in La Sylphide and reprised in Giselle (and has remained a ballet staple ever since).

Classical Ballet

In Paris itself, during the late 19th century, ballet began to decline. Few notable ballets were produced at Opera. Poetic qualities yielded to virtuosic displays and spectacle. Male dancing was neglected. In Coppélia (1870), the principal male role was danced by a female.

In Denmark, however, the high standards in ballet established during the Romantic era were being maintained. Paris-trained Danish choreographer Bournonville established a system of training and created a large body of work, many of which are still performed by the Royal Danish Ballet, including a Danish version of La Sylphide. Russia also did its share to preserve high-level ballet during the second half of the 19th century, by 1850 establishing itself as the world’s foremost country of the genre. Chief choreographer for the Imperial Russian Ballet, Frenchman Marius Petipa, perfected the full-length, evening-long story ballet that incorporated set dances with mimed scenes. His The Sleeping Beauty (1890), and Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s Swan Lake (1895) and The Nutcracker (1892), all with music scores by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, represent classical ballet at its apex and in its grandest form. And one of the primary purposes of those works was to showcase classical technique—point work, high extensions, precision of movement, and “turn-out” (the outward rotation of the legs from the hip) in all its glory. Complicated sequences specifically choreographed to display prowess—demanding steps, leaps, and turns—were purposefully incorporated into the presentations. And, as such, the classical tutu, much shorter and stiffer than the romantic tutu, was introduced so that the ballerina’s legs and the intricacies of her footwork could be revealed.

By the 20th century, though, Petipa’s choreographic methods had been so imitated that they became formulaic. Enter: Mikhail Fokine (1880 – 1942), the groundbreaking Russian choreographer and dancer. Fokine advocated an evolution from the by-then-stereotypical ballet traditions, abandoning miming, outdated costumes, and virtuoso feats for their own sake. Instead, he was a proponent of more expressiveness and authenticity in choreography, scenery, and costumes. He realized his vision through Ballet Russes, a new company formed by Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Ballet Russes opened in Paris in 1909 and won immediate acclaim. Diaghilev joined forces with composer Igor Stravinsky on the ballet The Rite of Spring, a work so avant-garde and so different—with its dissonant music, unconventional movements, and theme of human sacrifice—that its debut caused the audience to riot. Ballet Russes immediately became synonymous with novelty and excitement, a reputation that would endure throughout the 20 years of the company’s existence. Male dancers were especially admired since by the early 20th century, male dancers had all but disappeared from the Paris ballet scene. Dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was one of the most esteemed. The company produced a wide range of works, including some one-act ballets featuring colorful themes derived from Russian or Asian folklore: The Firebird (1910); Scheherazade (1910); and Petrushka (1911).

Though most of Ballet Russes’ members were Russian, Diaghilev collaborated with Western European artists, composers, choreographers, and dancers such as Pablo Picasso, Maurice Ravel, Russian-born American George Balanchine, and Russian-born French dancer Serge Lifar. Together, they experimented with new themes and styles of movement. And offshoots of Ballet Russes established and revitalized ballet the world over: Renowned Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who danced for the company during its early seasons, formed her own company and toured internationally; Fokine lent his genius to many companies, including what would become the American Ballet Theater; Léonide Massine contributed extensively to Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, a company established after the death of Diaghilev; two former member of Ballet Russes, Polish-born British dancer Dame Marie Rambert and British dancer Dame Ninette de Valois, founded the British Ballet; De Valois also founded the company that would eventually become Britain’s Royal Ballet; Balanchine was invited to work in the United States by Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy patron of the arts; and Lifar worked at the Paris Opera, influencing French ballet for many years.

The Genre Transformed

In the 1920s and ’30s, the genre of modern dance emerged in the United States and Germany. American dancers Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, and German Mary Wigman and others broke away from ballet to create their own expressive movement styles and to choreograph dances that were more closely tied to human realities. During the same period, ballet also aspired towards realism: German choreographer Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table (1932) was an antiwar ballet. Anthony Tudor developed “psychological ballet,” a genre that revealed the inner being of its characters. And just as ballet had informed modern dance, modern dance also expanded the movement vocabulary of ballet, especially in the use of the torso and in movements while lying or sitting on the floor. The 1930s also saw the emergence of the concept of “pure dance”—plotless ballets in which the primary inspiration was movement to music. (Balanchine’s Jewels [1967] is regarded as the first full-length ballet of this type). And Léonide Massine invented “symphonic ballet,” the aim of which is to, through dance movement, express the musical content of symphonies by German composers Beethoven and Brahms.

Ballet originated and evolved as an art form in Western Europe. And in the early 1900s, as cultures became more integrated primarily as a result of advancements in methods of transportation, there were concerted exclusionary efforts to maintain ballet as a Western European art form. Darwinist-type biological justifications were oftentimes proffered, claiming that the non-Caucasian races and types were physiologically unsuitable and incapable of achieving high standards in the genre. In the minds of some, ballet was, by definition, a European[-only] art form. By the 1950s, however, such notions were not only being challenged, but also tested and disproved. Ballet Nacional de Cuba was founded in 1948 by renowned Cuban-born ballerina Alicia Martinez Alonso, her husband Fernando, and his brother Alberto. After the 1959 revolution, the company and its school, the Cuban National Ballet School, began receiving national funding. The aim was to make the art form accessible to all Cubans. And to that end, each year the school combs the island-nation in search of young people with the makings of stardom: musicality, good body proportions, and the ability to learn dance steps. Today, the company performs all over the world and is widely regarded as one of the world’s premiere romantic and classical ballet companies, fusing the great ballet traditions of Italy, France, Russia, Denmark, and England with Cuban-derived approaches to the genre.

Likewise, Dance Theater of Harlem was co-founded in1969 by Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, and Karel Shook, who had served as the first teacher and dance master of the Dutch National Ballet. The company is renowned as both the first black classical ballet company and the first major ballet company to feature black dancers in principal roles. In 1972 Homer Bryant, founder of Chicago’s Multicultural Dance Center, joined the company as one of its principal dancers.

Popular dance forms also influenced ballet: In 1944, American choreographer Jerome Robbins created Fancy Free, a ballet based on the jazz dance style that had developed in musical comedy.

Two great ballet companies were founded in New York City in the 1940s: American Ballet Theater; and New York City Ballet, the latter drawing many dancers from the School of American Ballet established in 1934 by Balanchine and Kirstein. And since the middle of the 20th century, ballet companies have been established across Canada and the United States, some of the most notable being National Ballet of Canada in Toronto (1951); Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal (1952); Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Ballet (1963); and the Houston Ballet (1963).

Beginning in 1956, Russian ballet companies such as the Bolshoi and Kirov began touring the West for the first time, giving compelling performances and leaving their audiences mesmerized on account of technical virtuosity and their intense dramatizations of emotions through movement. The impact of those tours would prove indelible. And the Russian influence on the world of ballet continues to this day, whether through performances from visiting companies or individual dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev, artistic director of the Paris Opera (1983 – 1989); prima ballerina and choreographer Natalia Makarova; and Mikhail Baryshnikov, director of the American Ballet Theater (1980 – 1989).

The 1960s witnessed a renewed popular interest in ballet as the genre began reflecting—both in theme and style—the influences of a younger audience. Popular music such as rock-and-roll and pop were used to accompany many ballets, and the “sport” element of dance, with its physical rigors and virtuosic expressions, was admired.

Today’s ballet repertoire offers great variety: New ballets and reinterpretations of older ones coexist; choreographers are keen on experimenting with new and traditional forms and styles; dancers are constantly seeking to expand their technical and dramatic range; manufacturers of dance equipment work closely with dancers in order to create products that allow for the advancement of dance; and because of the proliferation of air travel, the frequent touring of ballet companies allows audiences all over the world to experience the full array that modern-day ballet has to offer.

Ballet has undergone many transformations throughout its 500-year history, from an art form, the participation in which was limited to aristocratic men, to an art form dominated by women, to an art form open to any talented dancer, regardless of gender, race, color, or creed. What has remained constant throughout the transformations, however, is ballet’s appeal to gentlemen as one of the world’s great luxuries.

Vin Santo (Holy Wine)–one of the luxuries of the world

Vin Santo of Fattoria Santa Maria, Montescudaio, Italy

Vin santo, which literally means “holy wine,” is a dessert wine made in several of Italy’s twenty regions. But the region most revered for vin santo (also called “vino santo”) is Tuscany. And of the most esteemed Tuscan vin santos, the one produced at Fattoria Santa Maria (www.fattoriasantamaria.it) in the hilltop village of Montescudaio, in the province of Pisa, reigns supreme. Aged in oak barrels for at least four years, one sip of this precious wine reveals it as not only holy, but also godly.

Traditionally, vin santo is made of blends of the white grapes Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia. Occasionally, Grechetto and Vermentino, as well as other varieties of Italian whites, are added. The darker-hued vin santo called “Occhio di Pernice” (“Eye of the Partridge”) must be comprised of at least fifty percent Sangiovese.

Unlike most other wines, which are made of grapes picked in September or October and pressed the day they are harvested, the bunches of grapes destined for vin santo (also called “straw wine”—“vin de paille” in French and “strohwein” in German ) are laid atop reed mats called “cannicci” and/or hung from rafters in a warm, dry, well-ventilated room or area, sometimes called the “vinsantaio,” for a period ranging from several weeks to several months (depending on the degree of desired sweetness of the vin santo) so that the grapes may desiccate—naturally dehydrate, thereby allowing the sugars in the grapes to concentrate. Generally, a grape will lose sixty percent of its original volume during the drying process, which, in Italy, is referred to as “appassimento” or “rasinate.” For a “bone-dry” vin santo, akin to a fortified dry wine such as fino sherry, for example, the desiccation period may be as short as three weeks, and such vin santos undergo a more rigorous fermentation process where almost all the sugars are converted into alcohol; but for sweeter vin santos, akin to the botrylized wines of France and Germany, such as “sauternes” and “trockenbeerenausiese,” respectively, the desiccation period may last from three to six months, ending as late as March of the following year, and the fermentation process is more protracted. At the end of the day, vin santos are characterized as “sweet” (“amabile”), “very sweet” (“dolce”), or “dry” (“secco”).

But it is primarily in the harvesting and desiccation phases that vin santos begin distinguishing themselves as exquisite, good, or average. (A “bad” vin santo is not a real vin santo!) And to the see the process whereby the exquisite vin santos are made is to immediately know that only a vintner who adores grapes could produce such wines.

For the best vin santo producers, the desiccation process actually begins in the fields—by selecting only those bunches that are most ripe and bearing sparsely spaced grapes since such bunches naturally lend themselves to the appassimento process: dry air can more easily circulate around grapes on loosely packed bunches; and grapes ripened on the vine have already begun the process of concentrating their sugars. During the desiccation process, the bunches of grapes lying on mats are occasionally turned by hand so as to expose all grapes to comparable drying conditions. Bunches hanging from rafters are sometimes repositioned. Either case, substandard grapes are painstakingly plucked by hand from the bunches and discarded.

After the grapes have desiccated to the desired degree, they are gently pressed, and the sweet juice is transferred to the small barrels called “caratelli,” where the long, natural fermentation process begins—with the help the “madre” (Spanish for “mother”), a starter-culture comprised of the indigenous barrel-bred yeast formed over the years and which remains at the bottom of the barrel each time it is emptied, and/or a little of the previous year’s vin santo. Once in the caratelli, the wine is left to age not in cellars, but in attics—which are cold in the winter and hot in the summer—from a minimum of three years to a maximum of ten years, without human intervention. (One of the reasons vin santo caratelli are traditionally smaller than normal wine barrels is because of the safety concerns associated with storing heavy barrels on upper floors). With vin santo, once the caratelli are sealed, it is the natural starting of fermentation in the warm months and stopping of fermentation in the cool months that guides the maturation of the wine. Eventually, the wine stabilizes itself. So making “holy wine” the traditional way is an act of faith: Unlike other wines, which are tested and monitored throughout the production process, for vin santo, once sealed away in its caratelli, its quality remains a mystery until the barrels are opened years later. If, when opened, the wine has been over-oxidized or does not meet the quality standards of the producer, it may be converted into a vinegar that is highly regarded in the culinary market. (Today, with modern wine production techniques, vin santo is oftentimes aged in temperature-controlled rooms, thereby increasing the likelihood of a high-quality wine).

Vin santo caratelli are traditionally made not of oak, but of chestnut, which, because of its porous nature, contributes to copious evaporation and oxidation of the wine. Towards the end of the 20th century, however, many producers began switching to oak barrels, which results in less evaporation. Other producers prefer caratelli made of juniper or cherry wood. And some producers blend vin santos aged in barrels of different wood-types, oftentimes imparting a certain complexity to their final-product, the way barrels of different woods add subtlety to the balsamic vinegars of Modena, Italy (See “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO” below). The little barrels, typically with a carrying capacity of 50 or100 liters, are filled and sealed for the duration of the aging process. And because they are sealed, they cannot be “topped up” when the portion of the aging wine called the “angel’s share” evaporates. Consequently, oxidation occurs as a result of the air space (“ullage”) created within the barrel as a result of evaporation (also referred to as “ullage”). And it is that oxidation that transforms the precious wine into its golden-amber color. (In case of Occhio di Pernice, a caramel-rosé color is achieved). Typically, only thirty percent of the “must” (grape juice) initially put into the barrel remains after a ten-year aging process. The rest, as they say, goes to the “angels.” But the remaining thirty percent is the drink of the “gods.”

The earliest evidence of a fermented drink made from grapes is from China, circa 7000 B.C.E. And the practice of making wine from partially dehydrated grapes is believed to be as old as wine-making itself. What is less clear, however, is how Italian appassimento wines came to receive the lofty appellation of “holy.” Many tales exist—each as plausible or apocryphal as the next. But interestingly, though not entirely surprisingly, most of the enduring tales involve men of the cloth or things holy: a 14th-century friar from Siena who would give the wine leftover from the Mass to the sick, sometimes miraculously healing them of their ailments, the wine eventually being declared “holy”; the tradition of bottling the wine during Easter; the 14th-century story involving John Bessarion, a patriarch of the Greek Eastern Orthodox Church, who, when attending the Ecumenical Council of Florence in 1349, tasted a local Florentine wine called “vino pretto” (“pure wine”) and is said to have either declared that the wine was like Xanthos (a famous straw wine of Thrace) or xantho (a Greek word for yellow)—both words sounding like “santo” to the Florentines, who were more than happy to bestow the name upon their wine. Some of the earliest documented usage of the term “vinsanto” is gleaned from the Renaissance-era sales logs of Florentine wine merchants who used to aggressively market their strong, sweet wines in Rome and elsewhere. But the most likely source of the term “vin santo” comes from the Catholic Church’s preference for sweet wines for the celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist during Mass. And just as the Church’s water is called “holy water,” it was only fitting that the Church’s wine would come to be called “holy wine.”

Because of the labor-intensive, labor-sensitive nature of vin santo production, it has always enjoyed a “cottage industry” status and appeal. And for many years, because of the various manners in which the wine was produced, it was served and sold as a basic table wine for simplicity’s sake. But today, most of the wine-producing regions of Italy have their own DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which translates to “controlled designation of origin,” a quality assurance system and label for Italian food products, especially wines) for the vin santos produced within the region.

The D’Antilio name has been associated with land-holding and wine-making in Montescudaio since 1779. But it is since 1973 that the family has been producing Tuscany’s finest vin santo at Fattoria Santa Maria. A vin santo of the caliber of Fattoria Santa Maria’s is what the Italians affectionately refer to as “vini di meditazioni”—wines for contemplation…. Such wines are to be sipped slowly and savored. Traditionally, vin santo is served at cellar temperature to welcome guests to one’s home. But it is more often served with cantuccini (hard, semi-sweet biscuits with almonds inside)—at the end of a meal after espresso—as an alternative digestivo to grappa or limoncello. However, because of the exquisite quality of the Fattoria Santa Maria vin santo, many people—even cantuccini-loving Tuscans—prefer to allow nothing to come between them and the vin santo of Fattoria Santa Maria. Simply put: To taste the wine is to be elevated—spiritually.

Though not a fortified wine, vin santo, because it is oxidized during the aging process, has a long shelf-life after being opened—after all, whatever harm could come to the wine from exposure to oxygen would have already occurred during the years of oxidation while in the barrel. Some experts insist that the wine, once opened, if re-corked, laid down, and kept in a cool, dark, moderately damp cellar, can last as long as six months.

Truffles–One of the Luxuries of Life


Truffles, one of the world’s most expensive natural foods, are actually subterranean mushrooms, though they look more like gnarled potatoes. Dubbed “diamonds of the kitchen,” in 2010, a truffle weighing just over three pounds—one of the largest found in decades—sold at auction for $330,000 USD. Typically, however, even the most desirable truffles sell for about $6,000 USD per pound, based on 2013 pricing. But there is more to luxury than price; and that is certainly the case with truffles, where the elusive delicacy intertwines the lives of trees and flies and pigs and dogs and, of course, man.

There are scores of species of truffles, but it is the genus Tuber that is the most prized as food. The word “truffle” seems to have derived from the Latin “tuber,” meaning “swelling” or “lump”—the same derivation that led to the word “tumor.” Eventually, “tuber” became “tufer,” and, in turn, gave rise to variations in several European languages: “trufa” in Spanish; “truffe” in French; and “trøffel” in Danish, for example.

One of the primary roles of fungi in any given ecosystem is to decompose organic materials. The fungi that manifest into truffles form symbiotic relationships with the roots of certain trees, namely beech, oak, pine, hazel, poplar, and hornbeam, and thrive between the leaf litter and well-drained, dry, limestone and other calcareous soils that are either neutral or alkaline. As such, the environments best suited for the presence of truffles are specific and limited.

Of the edible truffles, two are most highly esteemed: the “white truffle” of Italy; and the “black truffle” of France. The “white truffle,” or “Alba madonna” (Tuber magnatum) hails from the countryside around the Italian cities of Alba and Asti, as well as from the Langhe and Montferrat areas of the Piedmont region of northern Italy. The “Alba madonna” is also found in the Molise region, located alongside the Abruzzo region, of southern Italy, and in the hills around San Miniato in the Tuscan region. White truffles mature in the autumn, and for the truffles market in Alba, the “Fiera del Tartufo” (Truffle Fair), October and November are its busiest months. Pale-cream in color, or brown with white marbling, Tuber magnatum is the world’s most expensive and desirable truffle. Though the largest white truffles are about the size of a man’s fist, truffles of that size are extremely rare; most are much smaller, about the size of a walnut or golf ball.

The Italian peninsula is home to other edible white truffles—Tuber magnatum pico of the northern and central regions, as well as Tuber borchii, a whitish truffle from the regions of Tuscany, Romagna, Umbria, the Marche, and Molise—but none of them are as aromatic as Tuber magnatum of Piedmont.

France’s Périgord region is home to the “black truffle” (Tuber melanosporum), also called “black Périgord truffle.” Capable of attaining a size of about two inches in diameter and about five ounces in weight, black truffles grow symbiotically with oak and hazel trees—especially those of upper Provence, Périgord, and Lalbenque in Quercy—and are harvested from the late autumn to the winter, January being the month when the mushroom attains its most pronounced aroma. While France, Spain, and Italy are most known for black truffles, large quantities have recently been found in Serbia. And the prized mushroom is known to grow as far away as Tazmania. At Richerenches in Vaucluse, France’s largest truffles market, black truffles were reportedly sold for $3,000 USD per pound in 2013.

Cultivating Truffles

One of the primary reasons for the market prices of truffles is dwindling supplies in the face of ever-increasing demand: 2,200 tons were reportedly harvested in 1890; 300 tons in 1914; and a meager 25 to 150 tons were harvested annually during the first decade of the 21st century. Another reason for the exorbitant prices for truffles is the elusive nature of the delicacy. The first written accounts of truffles occur about 4,000 years ago in the inscriptions of the Sumerians, where they describe the eating habits of their enemies, the Amorites, who occupied lands that are today a part of Syria. In classical times, as evidenced by the writings of Greek historian Plutarch, it was believed that truffles were the result of a convergence of lightning, warmth, and water in the soil. And Juvenal, the Roman poet whose works date from the late 1st and early 2nd centuries, believed that truffles originated from thunder and rain. The great Cicero declared truffles the “children of the earth,” presumably because they do not derive from seeds. By 1808, however, man had uncovered a method of cultivating truffles: Joseph Talon, from Apt in southern France, drawing upon the knowledge that truffles tended to grow amongst the roots of certain trees, entertained the idea of sowing acorns collected at the base of specific oak trees that had been known to host truffles. And his hunch was, apparently, a good one because years later the trees that grew from those collected acorns also served as hosts to truffles. The experiment was again repeated in 1847 when Auguste Rousseau of Vaucluse, located in southeastern France, planted 17 acres with acorns collected from the foot of truffle-hosting oaks. And the oaks that grew from those acorns also served as hosts to truffles—so much so that Rousseau received a prize at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris. The Talon-Rousseau approach to cultivating truffles was especially successful in southern France, where the sweet limestone soils and dry weather enable the growth of truffles. Then, in the late 19th century, when many of Europe’s vineyards were destroyed by the phylloxera epidemic, and the continent’s silkworms also succumbed to an epidemic, former vineyards and fields of mulberry trees (the food source of silkworms) were converted into “trufficulture” farms, and truffle production reached an all-time high. By the 20th century, however, with industrialization, many farmers abandoned their lives of agriculture for urban existences, leaving truffle fields to return to wilderness. Then, with the Great Wars, much of Europe’s male population died, leaving few hands available for trufficulture. And since the “fertile years” of the average truffle-hosting tree is 30 years, by the 1940s, most of the trees planted in the late 19th century had stopped being productive. Consequently, with the shortage of truffles and an increased demand for the delicacy, prices skyrocketed. Since the last decades of the 20th century, there have been efforts to mass produce truffles by planting truffle groves (truffiere) per the methods uncovered by Talon and Rousseau. There have also been marginally successful attempts to inoculate seedlings with truffle spores. Then once the saplings are established, they are transplanted into appropriate soil environments. Trees generally require at least seven years before the first truffles appear around their root systems. Once truffle production begins, however, a farmer can expect to collect truffles in the areas where they were previously collected for the next 15 to 30 years. In 1993, Gisborne, New Zealand earned the distinction of being the first place in the Southern Hemisphere to produce “black truffles.” But some long-time farmers resist such attempts for fear that increased production would result in lower prices. And part of the truffle’s mystique is its price. As was said by French lawyer and epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), “… as one of the great values of truffles is their dearness, perhaps they would be less highly esteemed if they were cheaper.” Also, there have been attempts to cultivate truffles on a commercial scale in other countries, but rarely do the climatic and geographical conditions favor such endeavors. So, for the moment, truffles remain elusive, expensive, and enticing.

[ Besides Italy, “white truffles” can also be found in Croatia and in the Drôme region of France. “Black truffles,” in addition to France, which accounts for approximately 45% or the world’s production, can also be found in Spain, Italy, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, and the Australian states of Tasmania and Western Australia. There are also other—albeit less highly regarded—edible truffles that are found in other regions of the world: black “summer truffles” and “burgundy truffles,” members of the Tuber aestivum/uncinatum species, are found throughout Europe, the former harvested in the summer, and the latter in the in the fall; the “pecan truffle,” Tuber lyonii, which is found in the vicinity of pecan trees in the southern United States (For years, farmers would find them and discard them, considering them to be a nuisance. Based on 2013 pricing, however, they are being sold at approximately $100 per pound and are being served by gourmet restaurants in the United States); and the “Oregon white truffles,” Tuber oregonense and Tuber gibbosum. There are also other truffle-like species of underground mushrooms, the most culinarily notable being the “desert truffles” of Africa and the Middle East—“black kame” (Terfezia bouderi) and “brown kame” (Terfezia claveryi). And there is the “Bohemian truffle,” which is traditionally eaten in parts of Germany. Then, of course, there are the poisonous varieties, which are, at all costs, to be avoided by gentlemen. ]

Harvesting Truffles

If cultivating truffles is interesting, then harvesting them is exciting. Dogs and female pigs are used to sniff out and unearth truffles. Mature truffles produce a compound that, to a female pig, smells akin to androstenol, the sex pheromone found in boars’ saliva—a musk-like smell to which the sow

is acutely attracted. Unless pigs are nozzled, however, they tend to not only devour the precious truffles before the harvester can secure them, but also to damage the truffle-producing spores in the process. Consequently, in some countries such as Italy, the use of truffle pigs is discouraged or prohibited. Enter: man’s best friend, the dog. The Lagotto Romagnolo (“lake dog from Romagna”), a breed of dog from the Romagna sub-region of Italy that is traditionally used as a retriever, is the only dog officially recognized for its truffle-hunting capabilities. But any dog can be trained to hunt for truffles. And because trained dogs tend to be more obedient and less ravenous than pigs, dogs are generally more eager to relinquish their truffle-finds to their masters—especially if they know they will be rewarded with a substitute treat or some display of affection. It is also said that truffle flies gather at the base of host-trees that host truffles. And some farmers, as guided by the truffle flies (Suillia flies), which tend to lay their eggs on the ground directly above or in the vicinity of truffles, dig for the truffles themselves. (But since the best time to harvest a truffle is determined by its smell, animals that rely on sniffing out truffles are regarded as the best method for finding truffles at their optimum harvest time). Also, animals such as squirrels, chipmunks, and other rodents that eat truffles, will also burrow into the ground in search of them. (And when they find them, they bring them to the surface and devour them, thereby spreading the spores and helping to ensure the growth of the fungus). Farmers, therefore, look for evidence of burrowing as an indication of the presence of truffles. And since truffles tend to appear in spots where they appeared the year before, farmers are keen to discreetly mark those spots so as to find new truffles in the future. Once there is a clear indication that a truffle has been located, it is carefully unearthed using hand-tools such as a small hand-rake, a trowel, and a hand-broom—similar to the way an archaeologist on a dig removes precious artifacts from the soil. Once exposed, the truffle is carefully lifted from the ground. Typically, truffles are located a few inches below the surface-soil. And on rare occasions, they appear above-ground.

Contrary to popular belief, washing a truffle clean with water does not harm it—after all, they grow underground, exposed to the elements. The truffle is held by the hand under cool, running water, and gently, with a soft-bristled brush, scrubbed clean of soil. Once the soil has been removed, the truffle is pat-dried with paper towel and stored properly—if not used immediately. (See below).

Eating Truffles

The pungent aroma of a mature truffle is said to be reminiscent of musk mixed with nuts mixed with ozone. In layman’s terms, it smells somewhat earthy and nutty, but with overtones of onions and garlic. Its flavor is best described by its aroma, and vice versa; it tastes as it smells, and it smells like it tastes. Even a small white truffle possesses enough aroma to perfume an entire apartment—sometimes to the point where its inhabitants may be inclined to temporarily seek shelter elsewhere. And the more fragrant a truffle, the more flavorful. But, alas, the flavor and aroma of truffles are as fleeting as they are intense. It is best, therefore, to use them shortly after they are harvested. But in the cases where they must be transported to market, some experts store them in the refrigerator in a glass container filled with uncooked rice until they can be delivered. And in keeping with the truffle’s tendency to exist symbiotically, not only does the rice help preserve the truffle, it also absorbs some of aroma and flavor of the mushroom, which are then released when subsequently cooked. (Fresh eggs stored with truffles also absorb, through the shell, the aroma and flavor of truffles, thereby enhancing the eggs when cooked).

It was once the custom to peel truffles, but that practice has long been abandoned as wasteful and unnecessary. Every part of the delicacy should be enjoyed. So today, after being properly cleaned, truffles are sliced into paper-thin slices with specially designed truffle slicers. Every gentleman’s kitchen should be equipped with such a device—made of sterling silver or some other luxurious material, of course.

Traditionally, because of the intense—but fleeting—flavor and aroma of truffles, it is rarely subjected to cooking. Typically, it is ceremoniously brought to the table and sliced or grated directly onto the dish it is to enhance. But that it not always the case: Truffle slices are oftentimes placed under the skin of chicken prior to roasting, thereby imparting its unique flavor and aroma into the bird before and during the roasting process. And truffle slices are always inserted into the center of traditional pâté de foie gras. With most other foods, however, such as sauces, fish stocks, and creams; omelettes; risotto and pasta; soufflés; and chicken and veal, for example, the delicious mushroom is added at the end of the cooking process or shaved onto the cooked dish immediately before presentation.

Preserving Truffles

Truffles may be stored for a few days without losing all their flavor and aroma. Many chefs prefer to wrap the mushroom in dry paper towel, place the wrapped mushroom into an airtight container, then store in a refrigerator. Each day, the paper towel is replaced by a fresh, dry sheet Alternatively, truffles may be frozen in an air-tight glass container for approximately two weeks. They may also be preserved, whole, in a tasteless oil, which will take on the flavor of the truffle and can be used to enhance many dishes.