day 13 :

friday, 26 may

Sadly, this was our last day of adventure with our cooking class! We traveled to Bassano del Grappa, a beautiful old town in the Veneto, to learn about grappa-making from the folks at Poli.  Grappa is a high-alcohol (40-55%) beverage made from the skins, seeds, and stems that are leftover from making wine. Truth be told, Eric wasn't as excited about this outing as our other trips earlier in the week. He had tasted grappa a couple of times before, and although he likes a good high-alcohol digestif (like armagnac or madeira), grappa just hadn't impressed him. However, after today's visit, we had a completely different opinion on what good grappa can taste like. The Poli family has been making grappa since 1898, and their years of focus on high quality really shows. Most of what you taste in the marketplace has been produced by high volume industries, and tastes like little more than fire water. After learning about the history and process of making grappa, we walked down a long, dimly lit corridor in their cellar, with huge aging barrels under lock-and-key on either side of the hall, to a tasting room. The wide variety of tastes was really impressive, and is a product of using different grapes (moscato, pinot, merlot), different types of barrels during the aging process, and also infusing the grappa with flavors like cherry, pear, and honey.

Our final cooking class lunch was a multi-course meal at Ca' Sette, a well-known restaurant in Bassano del Grappa. While Eric’s favorite restaurant this week was Fiaschetteria Toscana in Venice, most of our class said that this was their favorite. One course was a modern interpretation of the southern Veneto classic dish of asparagus with fried egg; this one featured a raviolo with an egg inside, and dollops of asparagus foam around the plate. Dessert was certainly the best semifreddo we’ve ever tasted: the conically-shaped custard had an airy, light texture, and was surrounded by an intensely flavorful mango, strawberry, and chocolate sauce. When we planned our trip, we tried getting hotel reservations at Ca' Sette, but they were already booked. Now we know why!

Marilisa Allegrini, head of the Allegrini wine empire, joined us for lunch today, and unexpectedly ended up riding the bus back to the villa with us afterward. One of our classmates asked jokingly, “Marilisa, have you ever ridden on a bus?” After a brief moment of contemplating her answer, she replied, “No, I don't think so.” She also entertained us with an account of what it's like to fly first class on Air Pacifica; she had just returned from a business trip to Hong Kong this morning, and had been upgraded from business class. First class had amenities like completely flat beds with linen sheets and feather duvets, and a wine list that included offerings like a 2000 Tignanello that even she found impressive.

We had a few minutes to rest before class, so Dawn took the opportunity for one last walk around the beautiful villa grounds. Her timing was perfect, because the villa's peacock finally cooperated for photographs this afternoon, and showed off its beautiful plumage in full.

Then it was time to start cooking our final meal of the class:

Friday Dinner
  • Risotto alle vongole - risotto with clams
  • Involtini di pesce spada - swordfish rolls
  • Caponatina - eggplant relish
  • Torta di cioccolato - chocolate cake

Tips from the evening:

  • Caponatina
    • When choosing an eggplant, you want it to be as light as possible; it will be sweeter, younger, and have fewer seeds.
Friday Snack
  • Mucca yac - cheese made from specific cows which produce only 90 wheels of cheese each year. Aged 12 months.
  • Pecorino colored with saffron
  • Finocchiona - salumi that we shared with the class, from Tuscany
  • Two kinds of lardo: smoked lardo, made from Sienesa pigs that have a black band around them (cinta pigs); and lardo di colonata, made with over 100 different spices

An amazing vertical wine tasting: Allegrini Amarone 1999, 1997, and 1995.

  • 1997 had the longest finish, spice in the mouth, and a slight plum nose.
  • 1995 also had a plum nose, and took at least 30 minutes to begin to open up. It changed dramatically, for the better, once it started opening up.

General things learned tonight:

  • Caperberry is the fruit from a caperbush, larger than capers (which are the flowers from the bush). Sometimes, when you buy capers in a jar, you'll see a caperberry mixed in there, too.
  • Allegrini dries their grapes for Amarone using large plastic boxes and fans to circulate air in the drying facility. Marilisa said that the wine producer Masi uses dehumidifiers and heat to dry their grapes for Amarone, but in that process you lose some of the fruit and quality of the wine. Allegrini switched to the plastic box drying method in 1998.
  • Avinare is the term used for rinsing (seasoning) a glass with wine before you put the wine you'll actually be drinking in the glass. This helps remove any contaminants, like dish detergent.
  • Amarone was called “meditation wine” because it used to contain more than 17% alcohol - thus making the drinker rather sleepy. (“Have you ever seen an Italian meditating?” Marilisa asked. Actually, no; in fact, the thought is somewhat amusing, given the constant state of animation most Italians seem to be in.) These days, Amarone wines are more like 15.5% alcohol.

Marilisa recommended drinking Amarone wine with spicy Indian or Asian food, and some cheeses. Open the bottle several hours before drinking it. Older Amarones should be decanted, while newer bottles can just sit and breathe a bit.


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