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Drink | GREAT MARRIAGES

What's a Good Hot Bath Wine?

January 07, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

Halfway between the medieval hill towns of Castiglione Falletto and Monforte d'Alba in the northern Italian wine region of Barolo is the winery of Aldo Conterno, one of Barolo's most distinguished producers.

It's a handsome whitewashed structure, one of the few built in traditional style in recent years. Knock at the heavy wooden door and, most likely, it will be Conterno who answers and who presides over the tasting room that adjoins the house.

Conterno and his wife, Ghemma, have three sons, all of whom work at the winery. Now that they're grown and Ghemma has help keeping the books, she has more time to cook, something she has always loved to do on Sundays.

A typical meal with her large extended family gathered around the table begins with homemade salame that Aldo makes every January from one of his own pigs. They grind the meat themselves and season it with pepper, salt, cinnamon, garlic--and Barolo. One pig gives enough sausage and salame to last almost the entire year.

Ghemma serves the rustic salame with bread she bakes in the wood-burning oven at a neighboring farm every Saturday morning.

Piedmont has a grand tradition of antipasti, which are served in successive courses, one by one. Usually, there are at least three, sometimes many more. And at weddings and other festive occasions, cooks pull out all the stops, cooking for days ahead.

"In the old days, sometimes you would go to a wedding and they served 10 or even 15 antipasti, one after the other," says Aldo. "In those days, there weren't cars or Ferraris. The horses were all the same, so the rich couldn't show off too much--except at the table. And the poor, they tried even harder to offer a memorable feast."

One of Ghemma's best antipasti dishes is roasted yellow peppers covered with bagna cao^da (also spelled bagna cauda). It's one of Aldo's favorite ways to eat the ubiquitous "hot bath" of garlic, anchovies and olive oil. (Bagna cauda is more commonly used as a dip for vegetables.)

"I could make a meal of these right now," he says with relish as he pours his robust Barbera "Conca Tre Pile" into everyone's glasses and takes a bite of the sweet roasted peppers. Bagna cao^da is a dish that famously celebrates garlic and there's no getting around it. "It must have lots of garlic," Ghemma says.

Though, if asked, ALDO would proudly call himself a barolista or Barolo man, like everyone in the Barolo area of Piedmont, he has great affection for the humbler Barbera, which, with Dolcetto d'Alba, is the everyday wine in these parts. Barbera is a full-bodied red wine with bright, luscious fruit, high acidity and virtually no tannin. Conterno's Barbera is among the best made in the region.

"Barbera is well-suited to foods that are more fat or strong in taste because its acidity cleans the palate," Aldo says. "It gets you always ready to eat. And it's the only wine that stands up well to bagna cao^da." His Barbera "Conca Tre Pile" comes from a tiny plot of vines with exposure to the south. "Conca" means concave or scooped-out, i.e., a vineyard site that takes the sun all day, a feature that is prized in the steeply terraced hills of the Barolo area.

In the past, Conterno aged his Barbera in the traditional large oak casks. But as soon as his sons graduated from enology school, they wanted to experiment with French oak. Dubious at first, he now professes to like the result.

"The French oak does a great deal for Barbera, because it's a wine that is born completely without tannin and with a high percentage of acidity. So the wine takes the tannin from the wood, which also has the effect of somewhat covering its acidity. Plus, the oak gives spices and vanilla to the Barbera and so, in a way, improves the taste and the bouquet of the wine."

To pair with the Barbera, Ghemma also makes a delicious sauce for vitello tonnato, cold roast veal. "Vitello tonnato is typical of this region," says Aldo. "You may find it all over Italy now, but it originally came from this area. It was made from tuna and anchovies, which is what everybody had on hand in the house. You couldn't just run out to the store in those days," he says, launching into a tale of venditori ambulanti (itinerant sellers) and how his grandmother would bottle every cherry from the cherry tree in the middle of their vineyard. Today, he laments, people don't even bother to pick all the cherries. They just sit on the trees.

In Monforte d'Alba, where both Ghemma and Aldo grew up, women often boil veal roast for vitello tonnato. Ghemma prefers to roast the meat, and when she's pressed for time, she simply buys the already roasted meat from the butcher in town and has him slice it on the machine so all the slices are uniform. All that's required to finish the superb antipasto is a handmade mayonnaise blended with tasty canned tuna in olive oil from Liguria, a staple in every Piedmontese pantry.

YELLOW PEPPERS WITH BAGNA CAODA

4 large yellow or red bell peppers

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

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