Tobacco & Firearms

When Johnny Comes Lurching Home

May 09, 2008

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Perhaps the greatest compensation for trading cramped digs in Rome for a spacious house in the U.S. is that I have my beagles back. Susie and Franz-Josef are out back now, sniffing the trails of long-scampered squirrels, and howling merrily for blood. One advantage of living in New Hampshire instead of New York is that “out back” refers to the spacious yard—not to an alley full of metal trash cans. And I have a nice big rented house. On the other hand, I’m trapped there, since I don’t have a driver’s license. (Haven’t driven since 1996, and forgot to renew the thing. I take the test this month—wish me luck.) And there’s no public transit system—which is fair enough, since there are hardly any taxes.

And I have my beers. You might know that I devoted a good third of a 400-plus page book last year to beers, especially those made by monks. And I’m going to appall the oenophiles out there by saying that I find beer in its many varieties much more interesting and satisfying than wine.

Perhaps in the 80s as a thirsty, starving journalist I went to too many dismal press events to cover imaginary technological “breakthroughs” (Remember “virtual reality”?), where the only compensation for attendance was little plastic cups full of cheap chardonnay, oaked until it tasted like a park bench. Maybe I drank one cardboard box too many of Romanian red in grad school. But my taste for wine was dimmed. There are only a few varietals that excite me, and none of them come from Italy. Gewürztraminer is lovely all on its own—maybe with a little bit of Mozart—Riesling perfect with fiery Thai noodles, and pinot grigio a nice accompaniment to cheese. The best cheese, I think, is the stinkiest—the French “washed rind” epoisses from Burgundy which if you don’t wrap it carefully makes your fridge reek like a diaper pail. But the taste… it’s enough to win the pastiest-faced neocon back to loving the French.

I’ll confess that the reds I like the most are “big” fruity red Zinfandels that make your mouth feel as if a bacchante had stuffed it with grapes. (It doesn’t hurt that the original grapes came to California from the Austrian Kaiser’s private horticulture garden, and originated at a castle on the Adriatic, from whence all Zmiraks hail.) I also like to drink primitivo, although this is partly because of the name—which suggests that a bottle or two of the stuff will turn a sedentary essayist into a burly Italian peasant who can bend metal rods with his bare hands. In fact, the name was simply one given by monks to the grapes that came up first during the year—hence primo, as distinct from secondo.
Apart from those, my favorites are sweet varietals like Muscat Beaume de Venise, or late-harvest wines. All these are sweet, fruity, and fun—that’s why they’re usually served with dessert. Examples include riesling, spätlese, sauterne, and the exotic ice-wine—made from bunches of grapes that have frozen on the vine. Late-harvest grapes are left in the field long after all others have been gathered in the hope that they will undergo what vintners call “noble rot.” There’s a grape fungus called botrytis cinerea, which drains the grapes of water and concentrates their natural sugar—leaving a kind of raisin, which when fermented turns into a rich, lively drink to wash down your profiteroles or sorbet. Or to drown a quarrel over dinner in a sweet and tipsy haze.
There are few Italian beers worth opening, but there are plenty of wonderful wines. I didn’t sample many, however. Since I mostly ate out alone, I didn’t want to spend 30 pricey Euros (50 bucks) on a bottle, so I stuck to litri mezzi of vino bianco della casa—frizzante, per favore. (That was one of the phrases I used most in Rome, along with mi dispiace and dove il bagno?.) Bubbly, harmless golden stuff that nicely washed down the wonderful foods of Rome.

I’ll risk sounding vulgar again by saying that my favorite food was the pizza. I’ve heard from many New Yorkers and Chicagoans that the pizza in Italy is “nothing like” the American varieties—which is true. It’s much, much better. While New Hampshire pizza, in my experience, tastes like Frisbees chewed by beagles, Roman pizza crust is thinner than the lease for a rent-controlled apartment, and the toppings are wildly various. My favorite pizza spot in Rome is a delightful chain that hails from Naples, Rossopomodoro, which offers some 25 or so completely distinctive pies, ranging from white pizzas (no tomato sauce) whose dominant flavor was zingy gorgonzola, to “Slow-Food Certified” pies with rare varieties of buffalo mozzarella. During the recent scare about Mafia-tainted mozzarella (don’t ask), which had many people steering clear of the classic cheese, Rossopomodoro’s front door contained a sign explaining why and how its cheese was safe, and ranting about the latest threat to “a precious part of our national patrimony.” This gave my heart a little fillip of delight. Oh, to live in a land where the national patrimony comes not from a set of abstract, Enlightenment principles we are prepared to impose on the world, but from the udder of a buffalo. Bella Italia!

But just now I’m savoring Nashua, where the 7-11 within walking distance (!) for some reason is stocked with really interesting brews such as Fin du Monde, a spicy triple fermented ale; stark ales made by real-live Trappists, such as Orval and Chimay; and six-packs of distinctive beers from the Portsmouth brewery Smuttynose, the best of which is their Old Brown Dog Ale. There’s a microbrew pub at the cozy little airport we have in Manchester which serves Smuttynose starting at 9:00 in the morning, a mercy for those of us who hate to fly. The charming, revitalized downtown Nashua—if it had a grocery story, it would be a New Urbanist’s dream—also features Jasper’s Homebrew & Winemaking, a friendly and welcoming shop which sells hundreds of beers and wines, plus the equipment to make one’s own rotgut at home. Of course, beer is much easier to do well in one’s kitchen than wine—unless like me you’re a fan of muscadine, made from native American grapes by little old blue-haired Southern ladies (“scuppernong”), which has something of a “jelly” taste, and is best served with peanut butter sandwiches. (You think I’m kidding? Try it, sometime pal!) My friends and I have had much better luck making honey into mead—the bubbly, semi-sweet beverage drunk throughout England before Henry VIII closed the monasteries which tended bees for candles.

But the best news for brewskies in Nashua is Martha’s Exchange, a converted candy store with high, coffered ceilings and a shiny brass rail bar, which makes all its own beers—and makes them very well. My favorite is their Smoked Porter, a Yankee variant on the German rauschbier, whose malt is dried over an open flame, to give the beer a slight barbecue quality—think of those really peaty Islay single malts like Laphroig, Lagavulin, or the equally good (but much cheaper) Bowmore. A smoky beer like that goes really well with a garlicky hanger steak with rosemary, over chipotle mashed potatoes—my favorite New Hampshire combination. At the other end flavor extreme is Martha’s distinctive Velvet Elvis Vanilla Bean Stout, made with pure vanilla extract and vanilla beans. (The restaurant recommends adding ice cream to make a float.) Smooth and sweet, it’s almost the perfect “beer for girls”—although nothing quite fits that title (not even Rogue’s Chocolate Stout) as well as Lindeman’s lambic. A tart, even sour beer—the drink of merry Flemish burghers straight out of Brueghel—it’s sweetened with various fruits. The best one for women who claim they “just don’t like beer” is the Framboise, which is riddled with the juice of raspberries. Now that is a beer to make a float—add Haagen-Dazs vanilla, for the best simple dessert this side of the Tiber. It’s almost as heavenly as a Roman panna cotta. And it takes all of 30 seconds to make. The perfect dessert for a bachelor to “whip up” for his beloved. She’ll find it delicious, and notice how helpless he is. She’ll start stocking up his fridge, and buying him decent flatware… And we all know where that leads in the end.

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