Wines from the Old World

It’s Better to Smell of Wine…

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In Italy, one is never any stranger to food and wine. Lunch is a daily celebration, and dinner can easily become a ritual in the holy act of foodly consumption. In the region of Emilia-Romagna, the identity of food and local cuisine are respected far beyond many other aspects of life. This is the region where some of the world’s favorite condiments were created, and structured global cuisine into what it is today. It’s the home of balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese, prosciutto crudu, and bolognese, shaping the most renowned kitchen artists into slaves of delivering their goods. Next to the plate, you will always find some of the most compatible wines to bring out the true beauty of each dish; Lambrusco, Cagnina di Romagna, and Trebbiano, to name a few. The cusine of Emilia-Romagna is more than a way of life: it’s tradition. It’s shaped the culture from generation to generation, through crisis and war, in poverty and prosperity. Cradled eloquently inside the tradition are philosophies about food and wine which continue to be nurtured today.

So, where, in this crazy world of multi-cultural cuisine does one find a typical dish from Emilia-Romagna? In Emilia-Romagna, of course. Consistently dispersed throughout the region are bakeries lining the streets of every city. Here, one can try such typical baked goods as erbazzone and gnocco fritto, often eaten as snacks between breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner. This fast food revolution of quick feeds has occupied areas which once concentrated on local, home-made dishes. These meals are filling and delicious, but to get a true, fresh taste of Emilia-Romagna, a small trip to the small towns and villages outside of city centers is strongly encouraged.

In a small village called Casalgrande, about twenty kilometers from the center of Reggio Emilia, is the newly-formed Ristorante Badessa. Since opening a little over a year ago, Ristorante Badessa is already recognized throughout the area as the place to be if you want to eat local dishes. To be given this reputation is a well-earned dignity, established through hard work and a unique philosophy. The concept is simple: Kilometer Zero. Built on the same principal as the “Hundred Mile Diet”, this ensures that all ingredients are at their highest state of freshness, while also supporting local businesses. Owner Alberto Ruozzi describes Kilometer Zero as constructing a “sort of a family of the food”, bringing the ingredients from nearby into the Badessa kitchen, and creating the final product right there. He explains: “it is important to think about the food like culture and history. These two things are linked, and the guests that come inside my restaurant think that it is important to eat a good meal prepared by hand.” From the bread, wine and coffee, to the vinegar and cheese, everything that ends up on a patron’s plate is fresh from Emilian sources. “In this age… is is unusual in Italian restaurants,” he goes on, as he pours me a glass of Chardonnay made a few kilometers down the road. Though four courses, I was guided through a fabulous dosage of the finest Emilian food and drink.

The Chardonnay I was given was, like most Chardonnays in the region, sparkling. The carbonation inside the wine was beautifully matched with the unusual aromatics of the grape. Chardonnay has always been a very one-dimensional grape for me, and I always find that without oak and malolactic fermentation, the finished product has too much of a latex aroma to it, and the palate lacks complexity. The nose from this particular wine was grassy and herbacious, similar to that of a Sauvignon. Once on the palate, the Sauvignon characteristics remained consistent. To pair with the Chardonnay, I was fed a leek omelette lightly drizzled with a dark sauce based from saba, a special grape syrup. On the side was a selection of naturally preserved home-made salamis and prosciutto crudo, to be eaten with gnocco fritto, which is a typical light pastry fried in oil. Then came the Lambrusco. As Ruozzi poured me a glass, he told me about the winery in which he grew up. The house was attached to a wine cellar, where his father produced wine and he was able to learn the trade. Over the past few years, after spending his lifetime immersed in the industry, he has been making his own wine, which is now being sold at the restaurant. The Lambrusco, which I was about to drink, by that particular winery, Cantina Masone Campogalliano. Lambrusco is arguably the most typical wine from Emilia-Romagna, fusing it’s identity with the food and landscape of the region. The grape lacks sweetness, and is therefore often fermented into a dry wine, carbonated, and leaving a slightly bitter finish. The acidity of Lambrusco is high, and as soon as the wine hit the bottom of my glass and I could see the deep crimson that was inside, I could tell this was going to be a real treat. The nose was filled with strawberry and forest fruits with a slight leafy overtone. As the bubbles gently crossed my palate, filling my cheeks and into my nasal cavity, a strong flavor of ripe berries supported the combination. There was a slight smokey sensation sitting at the back of my palate, and that Lambrusco acidity was beautifully balanced among this complexity. Between myself and the wine glass was placed the next plate to eat: a variety of tortelli, a particular pasta from the region, which is basically a slightly larger version of tortellini. There were three versions on the plate in front of me: one set stuffed with leek drizzled in a fresh balsamic dressing, another set gorging with savoy cabbage peppered with pieces of crackling, and finally the caramelle della baddessa, which are filled with tender duck. The pairing of Lambrusco and tortelli is very typically Reggiano, given that these two items are some of the most recognized of the local cuisine. My stomach was beginning to bulge, and I began to wonder if I would have room for coffee and dessert. The Chardonnay and Lambrusco went down very smoothly, and the bottle of the latter was nearly polished off, since every bite I took, I also had to have some wine in my mouth to wash it down and experience the fantastic pairing. Then, much to my dismay or delight (I hadn’t decided yet) came another course: a plate of different meats consisting of baked quail, a roasted lamb chop with fresh rosemary, accompanied by a tender beef steak infused with juniper and our beloved Lambrusco.  I looked down at the plate, unsure of how I was going to manage to fit all this food inside of me. Curiosity and desire overcame me, and I stuck a fork into the steak, and brought a piece to my mouth. Soon I realized that I would have absolutely no problem finishing everything that sat in front of me. Sure, it may become painful at some point, and I would have to perhaps step outside and take a stroll around the building, but there was no way I was going to let any of it get away from me (and I do declare that once, I did have to step outside in order to attempt a gain at more space inside of my belly). As wonderful and delicious as this specific variety of meats was, what sat beside it was what my focus was on. Ruozzi had opened up a bottle of his Cabernet Sauvignon, which he calls Cacciolino. The grapes came from his vineyard, pruned to be low-yielding, focusing on the flavor in the fruit remaining on the vines. In 2009, the summer was very hot and very dry. This was difficult not only for the Italians, but also for the vines. In that year, eighteen of his Sauvignon vines dried up and died, but he refused to water in order to create a higher concentration of taste inside the grapes. As soon at the cork came out of the bottle, from across the table, a waft of dark forest fruit came at me and surrounded my senses. I began to tingle with excitement as the crimson wine poured into my glass. I restrained for a few minutes after giving it a gentle swirl, letting the oxygen settle comfortably into the liquid, but already my taste buds were jumping up and down. I stuck my nose in, gave a big sniff, and sat back to enjoy the abundance of cassis, wild strawberry, and blackberry. Having this wine in my mouth was an honor. Flavours of coffee and tobacco danced through me, balancing a light acidity and spiciness with delicate tannin. Raspberry, dark cherry, and vanilla were charging across my palate, and I let them repel down my throat, massaging my throat with their spice. The finish was that of chocolate and vanilla draped over dark fruits; but what really stuck out about this wine was the mineral characteristic.  The minerals quenched me in every sense that I had, while keeping me wanting more. Needless to say, the bottle was finished by the end of meat selection, and as the end approached I noticed there was a little bit more sediment than what I was normally used to for a bottle of this age. “Why would I filter this wine?” Ruozzi asked rhetorically. I sat back as the plates and empty glasses were taken from the table. My belt buckle had managed to change notches without me even noticing, and my belly was smiling happily, though maybe a little uncomfortably. Ruozzi then brought me then a small glass of home-made nocino, a liquor made from walnuts to aid my digestion. His business partner, Luca Ferrari, who is the one putting to great use his creativity and skill inside the kitchen, personally delivered to my table his renowned zuppa inglese, a local take on English-style trifle. To go with this is Badessa‘s coffee from beans roasted fresh inside the restaurant. This delicious dessert proved to be a perfect finish to a massive meal. No matter how large it was, though, I polished the plate that the pudding came on as well as possible.

In the dialect of Emilia-Romagna, there are many references to food through song traditional phrases. One piece of paper which was sitting at the table I had reserved had an old proverb written on it, which said “L’èe dmei pusèr ‘dvein che d’oli sant“, which roughly translates into “it’s better to smell of wine than of death”. Wise words. I reflected on this as I left the restaurant, and figured I’d eaten well enough to live by this. I smelt, what is probably the farthest thing from death (or starvation, at least), but I was certain that I smelt of wine, given the status of the bottles that were left on the table. Fortunately, I had a ride home.

Written by Liam Kidner

March 31, 2012 at 5:49 pm

One Response

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  1. “It’s better to smell of wine.” So, so true! “Lambrusco” (unfortunately) means different ‘things’ in different countries:

    While most Lambruscos made and consumed in Emilia are understood to be almost always ‘secco’ (dry to off-dry; about 11% alc.), most Lambruscos that are destined for export are turned into a ‘dolce’ (very sweet; 7-8% alc.; residual sugar: 50+ g/l) style (very often ‘custom made’ for the ex/importer.)

    Cantina Masone makes a number of different Lambruscos (see here: but actually only is labeled ‘amabile’ (sweet; RS: 30-50 g/l) – all others are secco and none ‘dolce’!

    In other words, if you ever want re-experience that true Lambrusco taste outside of Emilia you need to look for a (non-commercial) Lambrusco which says ‘secco’ (RS: 0 -15 g/l) anywhere on the label and has a minimum of 10.5% alcohol (by law).

    BTW, next time we’re driving through Casalgrande we’ll have to check out Ristorante Badessa’s food and wine list: Thanks for the great review!

    Lambrusco Day

    April 2, 2012 at 7:18 am

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