Monday, January 31, 2011

Italian Beer Series: Birrone Vai Zen (Isola Vicentina)

After opening a bottle of Birrone's Vai Zen, I was a little concerned. The beer smelled mealy and almost savory, something beer shouldn't really smell like. Compared to other hefeweizen, it is even weirder: instead of a fruity and sprighty aroma, this one carries a really strong scent of hazelnuts, something that reminds of cold weather and not of warm sunny days hefeweizen is designed for. But aroma can be--and is--deceiving. Although a bit heavier in mouthfeel and more forthcoming in taste than a traditional hefeweizen, Vai Zen is nonetheless refreshing and would be perfect as a chill-out beer in the middle of the summer. Upon pouring, the beer produces a big and stable white head that lasts for quite a while. The color is slightly on the darker side of amber and carbonation is moderate. The taste is of bananas, almonds, and butter, with the sweetness accompanied by a mild bitterness that does not linger at all. I find it funny that the company's logo features hops prominently, but the beer doesn't really have the bitterness and aroma of hops. Lots of diacetyl, but not necessarily a bad thing. I didn't feel the 4.9% ABV at all, and the smoothness makes this tasty beer go down easy.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Italian Hockey

Yesterday, Vicenza's calcio (soccer/football) team was playing in home turf, but surprisingly (nay, SHOCKINGLY) some in our group didn't enjoy watching soccer. So instead, we went to Asiago to watch the town's highly-rated soccer team beat Val di Fasso's team to the ground. But hockey, you ask? Although it may not make much sense for a Mediterranean country to indulge in such a cold-weather sport, participation is largely limited to the northern parts of the country, where alpine culture is very much alive and the locals tend to classify themselves more German than Italian. Going north along the Italian peninsula, Asiago is one of the first major towns that truly display its historic affinity to German culture, with some communities even speaking Cimbrian. Hockey in this context does not look or feel out of place at all.

It was the first time that I went to see hockey, and the experience was good overall. But the best part however were the fans: insane! Shouting, whistling, chanting, these guys are passionate over a sport that I never would have imagined Italians would be bowling over. American spectators are by and large dedicated to their teams, but these guys have an almost maniacal obsession with every hit, every foul, and every point scored. There were no jitters here--everyone stayed glued to their seats throughout the game, including the children. The stands right behind the Asiago goal were the rowdiest, chanting nonstop throughout the game, and waving the team's colors whenever the team scored (or it looks like the players are getting tired). The one very big difference with American hockey however were the players. They screamed at each other, got pissed-off to the point of a shoving match, but no fist-fights. Frankly, that is one of the biggest draws of the sport, so it is a little underwhelming that no brawls broke out.

In fact, the fans, although spirited, also stayed relatively calm and respectful. When a player from the opposing team was carried away on a stretcher, he was applauded. (His departure on a stretcher wasn't what they were clapping about. I didn't really sense such nastiness with the fans.) When the referees and the opposing team came out, there was no booing. A nice environment such fans make, especially for people like me who get turned-off by American sporting events due to their tendency to devolve into drunken messes. Hopefully Asiago makes it to the championship. I wouldn't mind going back and cheering them on alongside their usual life-long supporters.

If you are interested in watching the team play, visit their website for game schedule.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Little Italy in the Philippines

A good article about Italy in the Philippines, bringing together two cultures that I know well. Not a community of Italian expatriates planting a small piece of home in the tropics mind you, but a community grown dependent on money remitted from Italy to the Philippines by Filipino contract workers abroad. As the Italian government tries to deal with its "problem" with its Chinese, Roma, African, and Arab immigrants, this is an interesting look at how immigration affects the place from where the foreigners originate. Not just a sob story about poverty and suffering, but a story of renewed prosperity and the resulting lack of productivity (I'm trying my best to find an alternative to laziness) by the community that has grown dependent on foreign money. It's not just a problem associated with workers who go to Italy, but it's quite interesting how bits of Italian culture get transplanted into a context which in retrospect isn't really much different from it at all. Filipinos go abroad, send foreign money, and come back with foreign ideas and ways--will such a system benefit the Philippines, or hurt it? We don't know yet, and frankly the country the inward flow of money is still too vigorous to be bothered by such questions.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


"The cast is heading to the birthplace of the culture they love and live by." Yup. Italy. Apparently, the land of fake tans, steroid use, drunk skanks, and trashy behavior. Yes, I'm sure Italians will herald the show as yet another shining example of Italian contribution to American culture, sending local guido and guida representatives to welcome the cast once they arrive.

* The show is on its fourth season!?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Roman Brescia

The reconstructed capitolium

I don't really remember where I first heard Brescia's name, but I do remember coming to Italy having almost a need to go to Brescia. And so I did--it was one of the first Italian towns I visited. Given, it isn't the prettiest. By and large, this prosperous industrial town is indeed industrial, the grimy buildings partnered with fascist-era buildings that now serve the uncaring population as car parks. But in its industrial spirit lies its appeal, and the beautiful city center almost comes as a shock--including a reconstructed Capitolium and partially ruined arena. Brescia's ruins are by no means comparable to Rome or even Verona, but their accesibility is their draw, the city almost built into the ruin and vice versa. The city museum is a detailed--too detailed even--record of Brescia from its bronze-age beginnings, through its stint as a prosperous Roman outpost in barbarian lands, to its modern reincarnation as one o the north's most industrialized cities. Its a museum chock-filled with artifacts, and it is pleasing to know that even a mid-sized town such as Brescia cared enough about its past to save every shard of pot and every piece of millenial leftover. Brescia is largely a nondescript town, as worthy of visit as it is of being overlooked, but its most fascinating aspect is the degree to which it has recorded its existence throughout the ages.

Ruins, right next to the sidewalk

Brescia's most famous resident, the Winged Venus

Excavated floors from local Roman villas

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Charcutepalooza and Homemade Food

Maybe i can make my own Prosciutto Veneto...

Inspired by the Italian way of cooking and eating, one of the things I promised myself to do more this year is to make my food source be as local as possible. Not only buying local produce, making more out of the wild plants that grow in the surrounding fields and hills, and growing my own vegetables, but also making my own food: cured meats, beer, preserves, sweets, etc. I've already taken steps to fulfilling the brewing part, but I'was still trying to figure out how to get into the curing and preserving part--until today. After seeing a couple of posts from Over a Tuscan Stove about curing meats, I was led to Charcutepalooza, a site and community dedicated to learning ways to preserve meats. For me, there were no questions about it: I must participate. Henceforth, you will see periodic blog posts about curing meats from me, hopefully as success stories rather than horrific stories about food poisoning. Hopefully this works, because there will probably nothing better than eating my own bacon or duck confit...well, maybe if they were washed down with an imperial stout I brewed myself. Good luck to me!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Italian Beer Series: Birrificio Italiano Tipopils (Lurago Marinone)

A classic German pilsner, the beer is as classic as they go: a refreshing and hoppy drink with a medium 5.2% ABV. The aroma is nicely sharp and citrusy, and pours a cloudy pale golden color with a medium lasting head. The fruity taste is finished off by a pleasant hoppy bitterness. Mouthfeel is a bit watery and carbonation is felt but not overpowering. In a market saturated by pale lagers this one delivers enough character and complexity to be distinct but never crossing into unrecognizable. Great beer, except it suffers from what I am realizing is a problem with most Italian specialty brews: at 12 euros for 3/4 of a liter, it's too damn expensive. More on this pricing problem later...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Outdoor Switzerland

Before I saw these vids, I've always associated Switzerland with expensive Zurich. Now, I think a few hiking treks in Switzerland are in order...

(I am incredibly afraid of heights, but I'm incredibly afraid of a lot of things, and heights always seem to be the easiest to conquer)

The Swiss mountains look like the Dolomiti, but wilder and less developed. Now, I just need a hiking buddy and I'll be set...

Tourist Traps and Traveling Revelations

Piazza San Marco at its best

Not really an exposé, but just a funny satire on tourist traps, "authentic cuisine", and the general tendency--no matter how misguided--in part of everyone to offer largely unfounded opinions of the "best" a place has to offer: "If You're Ever in Florence, You Have To Visit This Mediocre Trattoria I Know." After reading the article, at first I felt validated. The writer essentially list things I knew I had to avoid if I ever wanted good food especially in such tourist-invaded places such as Venice and Florence. Located in main piazzas, over-fantasized recreation of authenticity, multi-lingual menus, listless servers, and spaghetti bolognese, to me it's almost like a list of criteria to follow faithfully. But then, I got to thinking, are tourist traps and the opportunists that create them the problem, or is it the need for "authenticity" that is driving the authentic out to be replaced for what was merely imagined?

Of course, tourist traps exist largely because tourists have money and many would like to get their hands on the loot. But it is undeniable that tourists come to a country with certain ideas of what to find in that country, and opportunists merely offer what these foreigners look for which is largely mediocre and miles away from what they as locals know is authentic. (It's only logical--why would the "authentic" be a tourist draw if it is not specific to that place and alien to the visitor?) I am guilty of this: I always try to go to places and try the local fare, only to realize that there is no such thing as "local fare," only indigenous food made agreeable to the production realities of a commercial kitchen and the varied tastes and demands of costumers. When I went to Valencia, I was adamant about getting paella and sad when I didn't come across a dish that was anything more than decent. That is, until a Spanish friend snapped me back to the reality that Valencia is probably the worst place to get paella, and promptly brought me to a place that served more or less familiar and un-exotic dishes (the simply stewed seafood and stuffed chiles reminded me of Italy and Southern California, respectively) that nevertheless proved better than anything I had during the trip.

The mediocrity of Tuscan restaurants in Florence or Venetian restaurants in Venice have as much to do with tourist naivete as it does to the fact that tourists--even those who tout the places outside of the beaten path--are motivated by a mysterious and ultimately fictional idea of a place's "essential" cuisine. It's not enough that we have good food; it has to be a site-specific specialty offered only by those who live in that place. One time, a friend from Vicenza suggested to me that no amount of eating at good restaurants will bring me closer to the food that they eat. I wondered, the food they call "cucina vicentina"? No he said, just good food they eat everyday. Aside from the fact that the ingredients may be a local specialty and the manner of preparation was molded around the realities of the region's environment, there's nothing absolutely particular--except maybe whose nonna was making what. However, the more we make those "specialties" a thing of attraction, the more alienated they become from their original preparers and the closer they transform into oddities, attractions, and finally, tourist traps.

So what is a tourist to do? Personally, I realized that there is nothing else for me to do but to reject the need to find the "authentic" and just succumb to what is merely there. Now, I am by no means advocating a daily staple of McDonalds, chicken alfredo, or spaghetti with meatballs. (From experience, I believe that no chicken alfredo or spaghetti with meatballs offered by a restaurant in Italy could be called "quality".) "What is merely there" does not imply mediocrity or laziness. But "authentic" does not suggest "quality" either. What I am suggesting is to just enjoy what is on offer no matter "authentic" the guidebook rates it, as long as it is good and of quality. Looking back to the places I have visited, I don't particularly remember dining in restaurants or eating "local" food. The things I do remember however the most were the street food in Istanbul, hot dog in Stockholm, 100 Montaditos (bocadillos chain restaurant) in Spain, and midnight Christmas prochetta sandwiches in the footsteps of St. Pete's in Rome. I remembered them not just because they were good, but because there were others with me who didn't look foreign, eating. In the process of not fussing over the authenticity of my experience, I found myself surrounded by the place and its inhabitants, who obviously would rather just eat good food rather than fuss over what they're eating and if it correctly represents their national identity or cultural heritage. The world over, we only think of eating food and not what the food represents. The closer we get to that fact, the better we understand the place we are in.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Signs of the Apocalypse #2

Tourists make Venice sink and birds fall from the sky

A few weeks ago it was Arkansas, then Sweden, Texas, Brazil and now...Faenza, Italy where 1,000 turtledoves fall from the sky. Observers say the birds have a blue stain on their beaks, indicating possible poisoning. Some say it isn't uncommon; some say it is an indication that something has seriously gone awry with our birds; some say it is the sign of the end of times. I personally believe these were caused by the aftershocks of an SBD released into our atmosphere. Surely, there will be more.

(Birds falling from the sky is signs of the apocalypse #2; the hair-flip was #1)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Epiphany and the End of the Holidays

With the Befana coming and going, the holiday season in Italy is officially over...and the Christmas market is now gone, leaving a complete mess downtown. Well, hopefully some brave souls go out there in the cold and slush to clean it up!

The Befana in Trento

Now it's time for a different party!

Giant air fresheners and surgeons in Viareggio

The king of gnocchi and his grumpy wife in Verona

Creepy masked tourist entertainer behind the San Marco tetrarchs

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Of all the fantastic, historical, timeless, beautiful and breathtaking places in Italy, no city does it for me like gray, industrial, hardworking and aloof Torino, simultaneously known as the "Detroit of Italy" and the "Italian Paris". The former because it is the home of Fiat and was once known more for factories than art. The latter because it was designed as a baroque rather than a medieval city, with wide avenues, gaudily decorated buildings, and rational grid-like pattern, making it look more like a French city. (No surprise really--it's practically next door.) But to me it's the mixture of the two that makes Torino exciting, not only a place of history and art (the undulating facade of the Palazzo Carignano is probably one of the best manifestation of baroque architecture), but also of people and everyday living.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

This Blog's New Year Resolutions

Saying goodbye to 2010 in Zagreb

I don't know about you, but I like making new year resolutions. It's almost like a curse: call them resolutions, and they are bound to fail. But I'm always optimistic for a new year. It gives me renewed hope, renewed focus on things I value but have not paid much attention lately, and renewed energy to move towards bigger and better goals. Do most of my resolution fail by year's end? Yes, but it shouldn't--and doesn't--stop me from setting a standard or ideal that I must--and do--strive for.

In this spirit, here are my resolutions for this blog. I know at this point not a whole lot of folks are visiting this site yet, but I want to have more visitors, if only to introduce more people to the things I find interesting and fascinating as it relates to my European adventure. Hopefully all of them work out. If not, well...I will welcome 2012 with open arms!

1. Get more people reading! It's more interesting when blog posts are complemented by hearty discussions in the comments section. It is also satisfying to know that i'm not speaking in a void. Ergo, I must have more visitors to the blog!

2. Get my film series up and running again. It's sad for someone who actually studied film in college to be writing more blog entries about beer. (Actually scratch makes sense.) But fear not. I'll have more discussions about Italian film and relate them to the contemporary Italy that I experience everyday. (That sounds like it will only appeal to students of film trying to find topics for essays, but I aim to float all boats.) I'll also try to review the less popular, more obscure Italian films, with the hopes that someday people will talk about a Rome lit not by Fellini, but by Dario Argento.

3. Interview Italian microbrewers. Italian beer is getting more popular as the European cousin to the cutting-edge craft beer scene in the US. However, outside of the breweries in Lombardy and Piedmont, not a whole lot of information about the Italian beer scene circulate outside the country, much less in a language other than Italian. Every few weeks or so I will post an interview of an Italian microbrewer to get a sense from the brewers themselves of the Italian beer scene and to gain a better understanding of what dictates beer-making in a country that doesn't really have a beer tradition.

4. More photo-only posts. Yeah I know, I already have these. But I speak better in images, and I'm better at giving ideas about a place if I just let the camera do the talking.

So there you are. Not too grandiose, not too meager. Hopefully I get to successfully complete each one. Wish me luck!

Italian Beer Series: Almond '22 Torbata & Noa (Pescara)

Here I have two barley wines from Almond '22, a brewery in Abruzzo. Great stuff, my first time trying such aggressive beers. Enjoy!

Almond '22 Torbata is my first barley wine, and it is true to form: strong, challenging and overwhelming. Upon opening, the aroma is of cane sugar, perfume, and alcohol. Head is off-white, coarse, and not very long-lasting. Carbonation is moderate and the body is medium. The beer is 8.7%, a touch lower in ABV than the typical barley wine, but the alcohol is very strong, with the heat in the chest hitting almost immediately. Taste is of smokiness, raisins and blackened sugar, but that bitterness--which I cannot pinpoint if it is of hops or just the alcohol--is extremely overwhelming. The experience is not unlike a really weak whiskey. I think this has a lot going on, which in time can really improve and become delicious.

Another barley wine from Almond '22, this one a little more sophisticated and harmonious. The aroma is of dried fruits and oranges, almost like red wine in its fruitiness. The head is medium, brownish, a little coarse, and does not last long but leaves a bit of lacing. The color is a dark red-orange, cloudy, which provides a medium body and strong carbonation. The taste is complex, with hints of spices and wood delicately rounding out the beer's malty and dry sweetness. The beer finishes with an alcoholic bitterness, and the 10% ABV hits fairly quickly. The kick is strong, but again I think some aging may allow this beer to mellow out and be much better. But fresh out of the keg, this one is definitely better.

Italy's Lost Generation

It has been a few days since violence erupted in Rome and across Italy: first in protest of budget cuts, then of Berlusconi's vote of confidence, and then seemingly out of anarchy as politicans rush to blame groups and old political enemies of inciting violence and anarchist groups taking responsibility for the violence and inflaming more through terrorist acts. December was a rough month for Italy, but predictably it will calm down and politics will go back to normal, with politicians more interested in their internal mind-games, completely oblivious of the people they serve, and the people unable to care less. The budget cuts wouldn't work because it doesn't address the real problems that are the cause of Italy's present and future economic woes; Berlusconi is still in office, as unpopular and ineffective as ever; and the anarchists got what they wanted in the form of media attention. High drama, but the country will be back to not dealing with the same problems, as usual.

The one media narrative I found most interesting is that of the youth protesters, members of what is increasingly becoming known as the "Lost Generation". Although no single traumatic event caused this generation's waywardness--much as WWI was to the European youth of the 20s and the Cultural Revolution was to the Chinese in the 70s and 80s--theirs was caused by a long history of economic mismanagement, bearing the brunt of generations of fulfilling promises of wealth and prosperity paid for by the future. Raised on ideals of unlimited potential, education, and endless sources of jobs, what this generation--my generation--realized was that they were the ones paying for the promises that were made and fulfilled to their parents. They expected the same, but found that the act of paying their parents' debts got in the way. The story isn't exactly new news (1, 2) but it was Italy's turn to face the fact of their wandering and aimless youth population.

Coming to Italy, I firstly thought that it must be a cultural thing: young people, all the way up to their 30s, were living with their parents and working menial jobs. There doesn't seem to be any stigma in living with one's parents, as much as it does in the US. (Although all my friends say that they do want to move out of their parents' house, I still don't think they comprehend just how much of a stigma this is in the US. Sure, there is now a growing trend among Americans in their early 20s to go and live with the parents after college, but (1) we still think it's odd and (2) we still think it's a sign of immaturity. Whereas in Italy people want to move out of their parents' house, in the US we take that as having already given up on your prospects out in the real world.) More surprising is that most if not all of them are educated, bachelors from big universities and PhDs even from British universities. For some, all the academic credentials have made them too good to take just any old job. For others, not enough face is worth saving to refuse any job, even if it is just in the sales floor. But the stories are the same: when you get a job in Italy, you hold onto it as long as you can work, and let go when the promise of a sizable pension and retirement is secure. All the jobs--especially the cushy government jobs--have been taken by the previous generations, and none of them are letting go for at least a few more years or a couple of decades. There is no hope of the bottom feeders getting sacked either--that's almost impossible to do in the Italian system.

So what does the young generation do? Not much really. For the most part, they go with the flow, even if the flow will inevitably lead to long-term suffering. The entrepreneurial spirit in Italy is barely alive. I just don't know too many individuals who see the prospect of starting their own business as a viable alternative to a job that offers stability for the next 40 or so odd years. But who can blame them? The process of starting the business is deterrent enough, as choked as it is in the infamous Italian bureaucratic mess. Once you have your business, then you have the mafia or constantly changing laws to deal with. To a large extent, Italian society and governance discourage people from setting out and finding their own destinies. Some go abroad, but the age of massive Italian emigration ended 50 years ago, and many who do leave the country come back after a year or two abroad. Those who believe that they are worth more than their market share largely stay home, waiting for their opportunity. Those who will take any job do, adding to that silent majority within the age group of the overeducated yet underemployed worker.

But in general, they still stay with their parents. Why? Because ultimately, they still believe in the promise of a good life--and the good life is hard to get when you have to pay rent. The irony in this whole situation is that Italy's youth protested not because the government isn't taking the right steps to fix the situation that dooms their future, but because they wanted more of the good thing that was made painfully apparent to be too good to be sustainable. What Italy--and the rest of the West--has not learned from this economic crisis is not the ways in which it can sustain its current programs and mode of spending, but that its bloated expectations from its anemic investiture is a delusion that needs to be shattered. "What was really lost in the crash was a popular delusion--the assumption that something as transient as the notional assets had enduring value," says Edward Jay Epstein in his brief analysis of the Japanese crash of 1991. Although he was talking about the Japanese real estate market (which was pivotal in its own "Great Recession"), the same could be said of government systems after the recession. The question for Italy is would it be open to change, or would it keep this "popular delusion" in exchange for a generation being truly lost?