Italian Beer Pilgrimage Chapter II
The brilliant translator William Weaver, responsible for works by Calvino and Eco, said in a conference that I attended that the hardest words to translate are food. For example if you say that a family sits down to a dinner of collards and grits, how would you translate that into Italian, so that it would hold all of the same meaning for an Italian as for an American reader?
Our food and drink tell a story. What we eat and drink each day says who we are on a personal level, and who we are as a society.
I am back at Open Baladin in Rome with Letizia. I can't stay away. It is such a great place to have lunch and I want more of their beer.
I look over the beer menu very carefully. I will choose what to eat this time around my beer choice. Unfortunately they are out of my first choice Nora and my second choice Elixer.
It is almost August when Italy shuts down for the month's holiday.
I don't care what month it is. I will not leave without a great beer experience.
The waitress suggests a Baladin saison, Wayan, that they have on tap. The flavor is good but it tastes as if it is going flat. I send it back.
She then brings me a bottle of Baladin's new Super Bitter beer. After the extremely hoppy beers that are brewed in the US, I find this beer to be very well balanced. It is the color of red amber with a consistent off white head. The taste is a complexity of caramel and something that tastes like spicy black berries followed by a final well calculated twang of Amarillo, a special type of American hops. Super Bitter I believe is a misnomer in this case.
I pass it to Letizia to try. She takes a small sip. I explain to her what a friend taught me. "You can't understand good beer by sipping it. You have to fill your whole mouth with it. Only then will you fully understand it." She throws back a large gulp. I wait. She gives me a huge grin. "Laura that is really good. I will have that beer too."
From the sweet sensing tastes buds in the front of her mouth, swirling and flooding over the salty and sour detectors, into the bitter sensing taste buds in the back of her mouth, Letizia has experienced the full story of that beer.
For me that has become the definition of poor, mediocre or a great beer. Each beer that I drink tells me a different story. The complexity and beauty of that story is what makes a beer great.
It is a story in part, of what Italians refer to frequently in their cuisine as materie prime; the importance of the the raw materials that you use. Any recipe that is true to the great cooking tradition of Italy can not be made without great, make that, sublime ingredients.
The best swordfish that I have ever had was in Sicily in a simple trattoria.
This noon time meal began with a pasta alla Norma made with local Sicilian sun stimulated eggplant, tomatoes and basil. Ricotta salata is grated on top. Then the swordfish arrived. The fisherman haul the swordfish off the boats and bring them straight to the restaurants. There they are whacked into 1/2 thick slices, rubbed with garlic, drizzled with olive oil, slapped on the grill, adorned with fresh parsley and wedges of fresh lemon and then it goes on your plate. You can not imitate that taste anywhere. That taste in itself is worth the trip to Sicily.
...or you can eat a slice that has been frozen and traveled half way around the world and smothered with some fancy complicated sauce that is supposed to make up for the fact that it isn't fresh.
This is the same problem that results when you start to drink great beer. There is no going back. You want freshly made beer that has been made with great ingredients in an artful way.
I was going to write about a beer experience in Umbria, but I guess that will have to wait until the next chapter....