14 September: 'The Grape Harvest and Palio at Asti'

Thou, whose dry plot for moisture gapes, 

We shout with them that tread the grapes: 

For us the Vine was fenced with thorn, 

Five ways the precious branches torn; 

Terrible fruit was on the tree

In the acre of Gethsemane; 

For us by Calvary's distress

The wine was racked from the press; 

Now in our altar-vessels stored

Is the sweet Vintage of our Lord.

From ‘Barnfloor and Winepress’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

It was chilly, but bright, when I hung out my washing very early this morning. The year has definitely turned, the leaves on my old vine are browning and there are no grapes this year, but in sunnier climes than Cornwall, the grape harvest is about to start.  To me, harvest conjures up fields of wheat and the dusty smell of warm chaff that I remember so well from childhood, but in Piedmont in Italy it means – wine!

I’ve just read an Aurelia Zen novel by Michael Dibdin called ‘A Long Finish’ set near Albi, and about the murder of a vigneron (what’s the Italian for that?) – a wine maker anyway, slaughtered between his rows of vines. It’s a tale of revenge, murder and truffles - most enjoyable.

So in my mind I’ve been to Piedmont, the bit of northern Italy, east of Turin around the rival cities of Alba and Asti.  Most people know about Asti from drinking Asti Spumante at weddings, but there’s a lot more to Piedmont than oversweet fizz.

The ‘Vendemmia’ as Italians call the wine harvest will be in full swing at the moment. The country roads will be choked with heavy wagons packed with grapes, picked at that pivotal moment when sugar and acids are balanced to perfection. It will all go to make the delicious Piedmont wines; Barolo and Barbaresco - words that sound like grapes in your mouth.

It’s very hard work, but it is also a time of celebration, feasting and general communal congratulation. There are two weeks of festivals leading up to the ‘Palio’ in Asti on the third Sunday of September.  I didn’t realise until recently, that the more famous Palio in Sienna is just one example of the traditional bareback horse races held in the squares of several Italian towns - there’s another such race in Ferrara.

The Asti Palio dates back to 1275, and is much older than the Siena version. It’s essentially a race between twenty one riders representing the different quarters of the town.  In the build up to the race there are huge street banquets, a flea market, lots of bragging and teasing between rival teams, processions of flag bearers, a mediaeval pageant and much fevered preparation. A huge stand is erected in the Piazza Alfiera, which is deeply covered with golden sand – the riders often fall off!  There’s a video on Youtube if you want to watch it, and you can see the wonderful mediaeval costumes that people wear for the parade. I'd just love to do that.

The winner gets a crimson flag emblazoned with the city arms and Saint Secundus, the Patron Saint of Asti, this is the Saint on the horse below.  There's also the award of a special 'drappo' which is recreated every year.The word ‘palio’ incidentally comes from the Latin ‘pallium’ - a cloak, which was used as the flag to indicate the end of a race, then it came to mean the whole race.

So what to eat? There is no end of delicious food around Piedmont especially at this time of year. It’s a bit early for truffles – (next month) but the traditional snack to eat in the autumn vineyards is bagna cauda - literally 'a warm bath' which is a fragrant mixture of anchovies, olive oil and garlic. I think the idea is to eat something very sharp and savoury to counteract all that sweet stickiness that you encounter picking grapes, and to fortify you for another back breaking stint! 

There are lots of versions; a simple Elizabeth David one, a complicated Heston Blumenthal one, and a sort of compromise Jamie Oliver one.  Some have cream and breadcrumbs added to make a garlicky bread sauce, some are thin and oily, some even have cream added.  You serve the sauce warm – over a little tea-light warmer if you have one, and you dip into it the best seasonal vegetables you can find, both raw and cooked.  The locals in Asti traditionally eat it with blanched cardoon stems. I put together a healthy mixture of cauliflower, carrot, fennel and radish.

Bagna Cauda

Take a tin of anchovies in olive oil and add to it roughly equal weights of extra virgin olive oil, garlic cloves (skinned and thinly sliced) and half the amount of unsalted butter. I used about 30g of each and a 15g knob of butter. I did add a bit more oil actually, it seemed right.

Warm them altogether in a pan and cook very slowly until the garlic is soft. Do not fry the garlic or brown it, - cook it as if you were making a confit. When it's done - about 20 minutes at least, then blitz together and taste it. Add a shot of lemon juice and a maybe little grated rind to taste.

Cut your vegetables as prettily as you can and lay the whole thing out on a table in the sunshine. Griddle a ciabatta and drink with a hearty glass of Piedmontese red wine.

The traditional thing to do at the end is to add a beaten egg to the dregs of the sauce then soak up the garlicky/eggy mixture with your bread.

Unusually, Elizabeth David adds that this is 'excessively indigestible' and only suitable for 'very resistant stomachs' !!

I must have one then....

.....Drink it,
and remember in every 
drop of gold,

in every topaz glass,
 in every purple ladle,

that autumn laboured 
to fill the vessel with wine;

and in the ritual of his office,

let the simple man remember

to think of the soil and of his duty,

to propagate the canticle of the wine.

From ‘Ode to Wine’ by Pablo Neruda (1904 -1973)

No comments: