Sunday, September 29, 2013

From grapes to grain...

When people think of "La Cantina", they think of wine.  We're in Italy.  We drink wine.  It makes sense.  Long dinners swirling ruby reds, chilled whites, terrace covered hillsides and Tuscan rolling countryside dotted with vineyards like pinpricks on a map.  It's hard not to think about another beverage so important to Italian culture, except for maybe coffee, and that makes more of a pitstop in your day as opposed to a long appearance at your table.
Some of our beers at the Cantina
Beer, however, has been making a lot of noise in the last decade in Italy.  No longer regulated to it's prize post as the beverage of choice of Italians while eating pizza (wine, no, but beer is a pizza must), the craft beer movement in Italy has been growing steadily in the past several years.
When I met Manuel before moving here, I was actually here to study this trend for my MA in Food Studies at NYU.  Traveling around the country, I tasted many different Italian craft beers from Udine to Reggio Calabria (it's a tough life sometimes), and interviewed many Italians and tourists about the craft beer scene in Italy.  Back to New York in 2010, using the about to open Eataly brewpub as an example, I studied the export influence of Italian craft beer.
Beer and cheese, my preference over beer and wine
A tripel and a basil blonde, both from Genova
I learned that as excited as Italians are about birra artigianale, craft beers from the boot are not as well known in the United States for a variety of reasons, price, bottle sizes (many Italian beers are made in the 75cL wine bottle size, not the smaller bottles you might be more used to seeing) and domestic competition being big ones.  This is cemented even more working in La Cantina Di Miky, where we now have one of the biggest Italian craft beer selections in this part of Italy.  Through a lot of research and hard work (again, life can be tough) we put together a list of 62 different bottled microbrews and 4 on tap.  We offer a flight of beer tastings with Ligurian snacks to try and encourage people to branch out and try some craft beers.  I'm incredibly proud of our beer list and how many people have come back just to try the beers.  Ranging from a local summer ale from La Spezia, to a basil beer from Genova to a Tuscan roasted chestnut beer and a Roman pilsner, we have a huge selection, and every day I see more and more guests shocked and happily surprised at it.
Having worked at a brewpub in New Jersey for more then a decade and in the beer industry for my entire adult life, I learned early on to appreciate craft beer.  I love wine, but my heart belongs to another.  I also learned that not everyone wants to give it a chance (my Italian grandfather, for example, was a staunch Coors light drinker in spite of my best efforts to sway him) and that when people come in and order "a beer", you have a great opportunity to introduce them to something new.
On tap at Il Bovaro in Florence
Though here in Italy, Italians are becoming more and more aware and proud of their craft beer movement, many foreigners aren't as aware that they have another completely Italian drink option when on vacation.  As much as people associate wine with Italy, beer is just as great of an example of taking the Italian food philosophy and applying it to something.  Take what is local, take what you have, and get brewing - hence roasted chestnuts, basil, sardinian wildflower honey, sicilian orange peel, and so forth.  Like the United States 20 years ago, the lack of a brewing tradition like a Bavarian Purity Law or some Belgian monks breathing down your neck, means that Italian brewers can take inspiration and styles from all around the world and play with them in their own way, though they certainly love their Indian and American Pale Ales.
For those of you coming to Italy, it's really worth it to branch out.  Take the words Peroni and Moretti temporarily out of your vernacular and ask for something local, something unique, and drink up.

Beers with my cousin Valentina in Cividale (Friuli)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

ciao from corniglia


...however unjustly, is probably the most underrated of the Cinque Terre.

People here for a day or two (which seems to be the norm) are trying to maximize their time, and the allure of the village perched on the rocks doesn't outweigh the 387 steps you need to climb to arrive in the village.  The boat doesn't stop here, a car is more or less useless in exploring the region, and the train connections to here aren't as frequent as bigger Monterosso or Riomaggiore.  The village does offer a small blue bus to bring visitors up from the station to the center of town at a fee (a well spent 2 euro), and though theoretically it should arrive in concurrence with the trains, the world isn't perfect, and Italian train and shuttle timings are far from that.

Once you arrive in the village, a shy beauty perched atop a cliff, she opens her arms to you.  Streets isn't the correct word. Corniglia is full of alleyways that wind up to more stone steps, down to wind battered gates perched over the sea, and open into a windy piazzetta, a terrace with a stunning view, or a tiny church looking protectively down on it's few residents.  The stairs do not end when you arrive in the village center, as the stone houses built into the rock sprout other houses atop them, other little offshoots that pile on top f each other in a seemingly impossible balance of color.  Corniglia is the tiniest of the villages, and offers the least in terms of dining options or bars, but oozes and romantic and eerie sort of charm.  Time here isn't spent in terms of days, as the village is so small that a few quick passes here and there can cover the whole thing, but a few left turns instead of rights can bring you to quiet stone terraces with breezy, 360-degree views.  Ducking through an arch and looking to the left, another open balcony is covered with nets, as local boys practice their soccer, ingenious in their method to make sure the ball doesn't fall hundreds of feet into the crashing blue sea below.

The other villages have had a healthy rivalry through the centuries, and locals are very proud of their homes.  Those from Monterosso might scoff at Riomaggiore, those from Vernazza thumb their nose at Manarola, residents of Riomaggiore laugh at everyone else, and so forth, but Corniglia, as has been mentioned "never bothered anyone".

You feel that sort of beautiful isolation twofold here, already within an area of villages already difficult to reach, to add the challenges of Corniglia on top of that seems almost impossible.


Though Corniglia might be the most overlooked, like a beautiful and timid girl in the back of the room, she looks up at you and smiles knowingly.  Corniglia doesn't care.  She's perfectly secure in knowing that she's the real star of the show, and happy to share her secret with the few who want to seek her out.