The other day, someone who wanted to impress me with his deep knowledge of all things Italian suggested that tomatoes are the heart of Italian cuisine. I remember that a noted Italian chef described tomatoes as sacrosanct for Italians. Their place in Italian gastronomy is undeniable and tomatoes are obviously prominent in many Italian dishes, especially in recipes from the South.
But the actual centerpiece of Italian culture, the one item which transcends all geographies…the one item which is omnipresent not only on every table and in every cantina but in every Italian’s inner being is our wine. Because if tomatoes are heart of Italian culture, then our vino is our soul…quite literally, it is the very lifeblood that flows through our veins…and we (Italians) get inoculated at a tender age…usually about 12 years old.
If, at age 12 or so, you were squeamish about routinely having a sip or two of the homemade vino at the dinner table, there was obviously “something wrong with you…” The ritual always unfolded in the same manner: the patriarch, sitting at the head of the dinner table, would always pour the wine for you himself, albeit under the watchful eye of Mamma, whose role was to keep Papa’s exuberance in check. Your only real “wimping out” option was whether you chose to dilute it with a little soda…then you swallowed it and usually could not hold back a grimace, which the patriarch would immediately insist to qualify that it was not because of the quality of the wine but rather because of its “strong” (as in powerful) flavour. This was your right of passage…your inevitable initiation for which you were decorated, usually with a wine stain on your shirt.
In Italian families, the meal would usually end with a familiar ritual. No, not with cake for dessert…but with thin slices of fruit (mostly peaches or apricots) marinating in a glass of the vino. You fished the steeped fruit out of the glass with your fingers (no utensils necessary because by then, they had been removed) and with your head tilted all the way back, you carefully lowered the drenched slices into your mouth (this is yet another reason why our shirts are always wine stained). I will always remember the bitter-sweet-tart taste of the steeped fruit wedges…and the warm, comforting sensation a few slices always induced. Now, that’s Sangria…Italian style!
Wine is the oldest beverage known to man and existed way before Christ transformed it into his blood to purify us and save us from evil. Wine’s true origins however remain somewhat mysterious…but in our family, wine was always born the same way…in the early fall, we crushed and pressed the California grapes that we bought in 32 lbs wooden crates at the fruit market, using the same meticulous procedures and care year after year. Its fermentation was always carefully monitored (Please note that I said “carefully”, not “scientifically”)…and the smell permeated every room of our house for few weeks. The sense of smell is what feeds and activates our fondest memories and this particular smell, for me…this wonderful aroma of fermenting wine is the single biggest reason for my passion of wine today…and why I still proudly cherish my wine stained shirts.