Monday, November 29, 2010

Italian Beer Series: Birracrua Montecrocetta (Vicenza)

Birracrua is Vicenza's only brewery within its city limits. They usually produce (frankly, not so special) session beers, but in typical Italian gastronomic fashion they also produce limited beers made with seasonal ingredients. The brewery's autumn beer, Montecrocetta is named after the street that runs past the brewery and definitely the star of my recent visit. This 7% ABV beer is indicative of the American-style freewheeling approach the Italians have to beer--ingredients include mielo di castagna (literally "chestnut honey", could be bought in grocery stores as a spreadable jam not unlike nutella), Czech malt and hops, and Belgian yeast. The beer's heady floral and honey scent is so pleasant that it was still apparent despite the beer's minuscule frothing. The dark red/amber color has a prominent body but not so much as to coat the mouth like a stout. The taste is amazing and complex: a malty and grainy start, that turns fruity with hints of apple, that finishes off with a complementary mellow bitterness. The beer is not sweet at all, with the honey added more for the aroma than flavor. A great beer, and definitely worth a try. I bought an extra bottle to check how well this beer ages. We'll see.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Some time ago, I was in a place where my main form of entertainment was watching CNN International and experiencing real life through hand-picked news segments by the news channel. During commercial breaks, they would constantly play the commercial above, enticing the viewer to discover this place somewhere in Central Europe that is pronounced remarkably different from how it is spelled. Would you in Lodz? Would I what? It didn't matter, as I became more bombarded by the commercial, I cared less about what exactly I was supposed to be doing in Lodz, I just wanted to do it there. It seemed so exciting, so lively and so full of energy.

A year on, I finally "would" Lodz. I feel cheated. I guess I was supposed to "would" a depressing city filled with crumbling secessionist buildings and industrial growth made defunct by decline in its post-industrial state. Everything was rundown, nothing was spared. Even buildings that must have had its fresh coat of paint not a few years ago are already aging. One rounds a corner, and things become more depressing and more hopeless.

One of the city's claim to fame is its very long market street, Piotrkowska, filled with bars, restaurants, and alcohol shops (that look a bit more upmarket than the liquor stores back home, especially Piwoteka, which offers a number of regional Polish beers). It's actually a great street if it was well capitalized. But I suspect that with the rise of Manufaktura (a vast mall--supposedly the largest in Europe--that the local tourist bureau calls a "cultural center") foot traffic shifted a block away from the street and what I was witnessing is the street's slow decline. On a Saturday night when the bars should be buzzing like those in Nowy Swiat in Warsaw, the street is dead except for a few drunk teenagers, ambling intoxicated homeless men, and preening old women in fur coats. There was a mini parade of girls on stilts wearing angel wings, but instead of commotion, people just turned and stared as if those wings were just sorely out of place.

At the northwestern end of Piotrkowska right next to the gate to Manufaktura is the Poznanski Palace, a palatial residence made by the man responsible for Lodz even existing. See, Lodz has been around before Kalman Poznanski entered the scene, but it was for all intents and purposes a mere sleepy town. But Poznanski was an industrialist with an idea: Lodz was right in the middle of Western and Eastern Europe, perfect for transporting and manufacturing goods on the cheap. What he specialized in was textile, and by the end of the 19th century the town has grown from a few tens of thousands to roughly 600,000. All of this literally was at the service of the glorified industrial zone that Poznanski created. But although Lodz likes to call this palace the "Versailles of Lodz", it's far from a palace, more like a bourgeois mansion straight out of Detroit.

For what it's worth, Lodz actually exudes a sort of a dilapidated charm, a city rich in art nouveau but poor in attention. If one thinks about it, Lodz is like Venice, without the hordes of tourists or the grandeur of being the last vestige of a long gone powerful empire, itself on the slippery slope to deterioration and ultimate destruction. Lodz only represents the uber-pragmatism of an industrial city built solely for that purpose, but the purpose for which is long outlived by the remnants built to serve it. A shadow is cast over the city, like it is secretly longing for its glory days, but impotent to act upon that desire.
The days of Lodz being in the shadows of Warsaw or Krakow is apparently about to end: steering away from the romanticism of its neighbors, Lodz is looking at contemporary art and music, avante-garde films, and modern shopping complexes to revitalize it. At the same token, it is aggressively trying to lure young entrepreneurs willing to build on top of the heap new factories, new housing complexes, and new strip malls. To an extent, I don't think their commercials lied; they just focused it on the banal. Lodz has a gloom akin to Genova or Torino, but its marketers do not know how to market it. All in all it should be good for the city, but I'm sure it will also lose that nostalgia of a faded beauty in exchange for an L.A. makeover.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Italian Beer Series: Castello (Udine)

Castello, produced in Udine, recently just went through a makeover to jazz-up its image as a homely brew from the Slavic part of Italy. You can still find its old straightforward label (as I did), but the new labels are also around--more energetic, young, and for the drink-til-you-pass-out crowd. Despite all that, the beer is nothing to air-guitar about. It's characterized by a mellow hoppy smell with strong carbonation and medium body. Upon pouring, the beer has a light amber color and the froth is light and transient. Beer itself is nothing special, with a very slight sweetness and pleasant bitter aftertaste.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Busa di Novegno Snow Hike

Busa Novegno is usually known for its rolling hills, lots of malge, and WWI-related trails and caves, but we hiked today to the top of Busa di Novegno for one purpose: to see a winter wonder land when snow has not yet descended upon the Vicentino plains. We got more than we bargained for, and most of the day was spent desperately tying to keep warm, keep dry, and keep the snow from getting into our eyes. But I'll let the pictures speak for themselves, a good hike and perfect for a solitary day in the snow.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lago di Trasimeno (Umbria)

The northern shores of Lake Trasimene is an agricultural paradise: quiet, with the surrounding rolling hills filled with olive groves and vineyards. In the morning, a thick mist blankets the quasi-valley, making the atmosphere more peaceful and quieter still. But one could tell by the names of the surrounding towns the bloody past of this small piece of flat land: Sanguineto, Ossaia, Pian di Marte. This was the location of one of the earliest and most successful military ambushes in history, in a battle between Hannibal's Carthaginian forces against Flaminius' Roman army. In a matter of three hours, almost 20,000 men died and more were sold into slavery. Hannibal's victory was decisive and have been remembered throughout history despite a persistent campaign by Rome to erase him and his aggression from history. Agriturismo owners nowadays don't sell their products with Flaminius' face--Annibale's is plastered onto everything bottled sold by these farms.

I wonder, what would he think of his legacy, now that his name is being used to sell quality wine and olive oil?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Italian Beer Series: Moretti Baffo d'Oro

Top shelf Moretti that costs as much as a four-pack of the regular stuff. According to Birra Moretti, Baffo d'Oro is 100% barley perfect for "drinking with old friends". Sure, if they like beer that smells like somebody's crotch. Immediately after opening the bottle, one instantly notices the beer's odd and very strong odor. It's barley with a side of Pepe le Pew. It has a strong, slightly cloudy amber color and a big and lasting head. The body is rich with hints of caramel. A slight bitterness holds throughout and becomes very unpleasant at the end. No matter how premium of a Moretti this one is, it's still a Moretti in its vast abilities to disappoint.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Movies in Italy: Voyages in Italy (Roberto Rosselini, 1954)

A film about the disintegration of an upper class English couple set in Naples, this film was originally considered a failure, Rosselini's cementing of his turn away from neorealism towards plotless stories about the upper class. The Italian and American critics hated it, but the French loved it, with Rivette proclaiming, "With the appearance of "Viaggio in Italia', all films have suddenly aged ten years". Although I would disagree that this film was as radical a shift from the films that came before it, it is definitely a departure from the typical products of the time. Rosselini does not use a traditional three-part narrative to portray the conflict between husband and wife. Instead, it is unfolded through their interactions with Naples: with its copious pregnant women, religious fervor, ancient ruins, and affinity for catacombs for the dead--almost a teaser for the far radical departure in narrative that will be introduced by Antonioni five years later. Some may think that the ending is abrupt and contrived, but do notice the actual ending: the film cuts away from the protagonists into a random street scene, which says a lot about what the filmmaker is really thinking about this "relationship".

Sicilian Fashion Village Advert

Pretty cool, but Filippo looks like a try-hard L.A. scalawag.

Ivrea Carnevale

Carnevale in northern Italy is more popularly associated with the hedonism in Venice or the floats in towns such as Viareggio or Verona, but the best of them all isn't the prettiest but definitely the raunchiest. Spain may have their tomato and wine festivals, but Italy has Ivrea's Carnevale, where the town takes a break for a weekend and throws an orange or two in each others' noggins, all in good fun. The tradition is said to date back to the Middle Ages, and the story goes: once there was an evil duke that ruled the city and, exercising his right to lus primae noctis, dragged a virgin into the castle on the first night of her wedding. Unfortunately for the duke, the night ended with him drunk, head cut off, and tossed off his castle's tower down to the cheering crowds below. To commemorate the gruesome event, the town threw rocks at each other every Carnevale. Shocked at what must have been a very bloody sight, the invading Napoleon decreed that only beans could be thrown and not rocks. Around the mid-19th century, the beans turned into oranges. After WWII, the event became organized to what it is today, most likely to capitalize on tourist potential.

The day of the orange fight started tense. After taking a very crowded train from Torino, participants walked the long main street of the town towards the main piazze where the duels took place. Non-participants wore silly read stockings in their heads to make it known that they were not supposed to be targets, but as we found out later on this was an illusion best left at Ivrea's city limits. Slowly, colorful carriages of aranceri (orange throwers) representing "the duke's men" start to roll down the streets, singing fight songs and some visibly drunk. As one gets closer to the squares, one starts to see aranceri camps, filled with food, booze, and ammo (oranges).

After entering the historic center of Ivrea, the streets got more packed and the crowd more squeezed. Buildings were covered in green nets so as to protect windows. The pushing increased and the crowd noticeably started to buzz. Some tourists go behind the green net. It was boring and the spots were snapped up by tourists very early, so there really was no point avoiding the ensuing barage. After an hour of waiting, the neighborhood teams arrived, ready to fight the aranceri. After their procession and their bands started to drum up adrenaline, the carts started rolling in!

First, they came slowly. A few minutes in between each cart to let participants acclimate. Some stay in the sidelines, but one slowly realizes the middle of the piazza, right in the sight line of the throwers, was the safest spot and the most convenient one for throwing oranges back. In the beginning the neighborhood teams are angry at red-hatters for throwing back, but the more beer they consume the less they cared. After a few minutes, it became an absolute melee and the whole place is covered in orange guts and blood from broken noses.

After the first few carts, the carriages start to enter the piazza in an endless stream, sometimes three or four at a time and the targets become completely surrounded. Children, pregnant women, old people: everyone was throwing oranges and getting struck back. Camraderie started to build with the neighborhood teams and even if I didn't wear their uniforms, I couldn't help but associate with one team or another. Once in a while TV cameras controlled by remote control hover the crowd, but they only became targets for the oranges. Unlike La Tomatilla in Valencia, Ivrea's carnevale lasts more than two hours. Imagine: bone cold in the middle of February hurling oranges into exhaustion.

In the end of the festivities, the whole place is covered in oranges (imagine the smell!). Horse shit and oranges mix and crying children protest in disgust as they navigate streets knee-deep in muck. The remaining intoxicated keep the random orange airborne, and some fights start to break out. Obviously, this would be the time to go and enjoy the rest of the festivities.

Afterwards there are dance demonstrations, mock sword fights, and a reenactment of Napoleon's invasion (which the town welcomed). It's all well-staged, except I think no one really had enough energy to enjoy the rest of it. The train back was horrendous: packed to the brim, with no room to move for the hour-long trip. For those lucky enough to enjoy it, Torino offered great nightlife and decent beds to delay the aches and pains surely waiting for the next day.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Italian Beer Series: Splugen (Varese)

Before I came to Italy, I didn't have much of a taste for alcohol. I was not a complete teetotaler, but I just didn't have the appreciation for the bitter taste of alcohol. After tasting the wine of Italy and the beer of Germany and Belgium, I realized my aversion may not be to alcohol in general, but bad alcohol--which sadly, is very common in the states. However, instead of developing the taste for wine as expected of somebody living in Italy (I like white wine, which is a point of ridicule for some of my vinophile friends who think only red wine is real wine), I developed the taste for beer. I find the unpretentious taste of beer makes it more enjoyable and easier to appreciate with food and friends.

As much as this is true however, I still carried the false notion with me that Germany and Belgium made beer and the French and Italians made wine--no exceptions. Italian beer, true to its secondary role next to the wine in everyday Italian wine, is bland and only useful for cheap Friday nights of trying to get wasted. But then I decided to explore the budding world of the Italian craft beer, and was mildly surprised. Transporting the same attention to detail that they usually put into making wine, Italians are more than adept at making beers themselves. Maybe not as adept as the Belgians, but they produce good beers with complex tastes and aromas.

With this in mind, I decided to start a series on Italian beers to highlight the numerous types of beers that are produced in Italy, and to dispel the notion that Italy does not make decent beer. I will be highlighting a lot of bottled and canned beers, but I aim to focus on the smaller local breweries to fully illustrate the diversity of Italian beer production. (Note: I'm an amateur beer lover. Unlike other sites that utilize technical language akin to wine criticism, I'm going to be more humble in my choice of words until I become more adept at tasting the nuances of beer. So bear with me.)

With that aside, first up: Splugen from Varese (Lombardy). A beer with Austrian roots from northern Lombardy that has been in production since the turn of the century. Originally brewed by Birrificio Angelo Poretti, it is now part of the large Carlsberg beer conglomerate. I wanted to try Pedavena from the Dolomiti Mountains near Feltre, but this one was on sale, and nothing is better than things on sale. Splugen is clear and golden in color, and after pouring its foam does not last. Smell is slightly of hops, but generally balanced. The taste is really light and smooth and carbonation is weak, but there is a bit of a bitter aftertaste. To be honest, it's almost like a light beer in how fast it comes and goes. Definitely not recommended for those who like their beer with even a modicum of body, but it was refreshing with a plate of bigoli in a sauce of tomatoes and tastasale (a Veronese sausage made with pork, garlic, and rosemary).

Chantrelle Mushrooms - Certificate of Authenticity

I know it's fairly late in the season, but I saw chantrelle mushrooms at Emisfero today and decided to try them (at 13 euros a kilo, not too cheap). I'm excited to try them in risotto, but what I find most interesting is the "certificate" that comes with the package. Certificate of authenticity? Maybe--at least I know now that the mushrooms came from Carano, about two hours away. But I think they are to ensure consumers that the mushrooms are safe for eating, especially after a spate of posioning in Trento a few months ago and now, poisonous Bulgarian mushrooms making it to Rome.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Flood Strikes!

Almost three days of nonstop rain in Vicenza and east of Verona have caused major flooding in the province. By Saturday, the skies were so dark due to the clouds that something like this was almost inevitable. By this afternoon, towns and cities especially next to major waterways and rivers have been inundated. Vicenza could only sit and wait for the Bacchaglione to spill over its streets. Autostrade were closed down causing major traffic across the Veneto. Fortunately I live in higher grounds and I was at work most of the time to see much of the damage, but I'm afraid to go down to my basement and see a a swimming pool or a mold lab. We'll see. But in the absence of pictures taken by yours truly, some videos from youtube--

East of Verona, shutting down A4 going west

Near Soave

The extent of the damage in Vicenza, hopefully...

Into the night, some lights are out in Vicenza and residents can only wait for the waters to recede