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Malcolm Jolley: Adventures in Abruzzo: Three meals and three lessons

Commentary

A trabocco is a kind of shack on a pier that juts out from the beach into the waters of the Adriatic on the coast of Italy’s Abruzzo region. Festooned with poles and nets, it’s a machine for catching fish; an ancient technology said to be developed by the Phoenicians. Along what’s known as the Trabocchi Coast, stretching south from the aptly named seaside town of Pescara, they dot the shoreline every 500 meters or so. Some are still used to catch fish, but many have been converted to restaurants that feed tourists fresh seafood.“Trabucchi were built in the most prominent promontories, jutting nets out to sea through a system of monumental wooden arms. The development of the trabucchi allowed fishing without being submitted to sea conditions using the morphology of the rocky coast of Gargano.

The trabucco is built with traditional wood Aleppo pine -the typical pine of Gargano and common throughout the South-Western Adriatic- because this material is widely available in the region, modeled, elastic, weatherproof and resistant to salt (trabucco must resist to strong winds of Provence usually blowing in these areas). Some trabucchi have been rebuilt in recent years, thanks to public funds. However, since they lost their economic function in the past centuries when they were the main economical source of entire families of fishermen, trabucchi rose into the role of cultural and architectural symbols and tourist attraction.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trabucco

I found myself having dinner in a trabocco last week when I traveled to Italy as a guest of the Consorzio di Tutela Vine d’Abruzzo. I was there for the Abruzzo Wine Experience which took place in the old Duke’s palace in Vasto and served as an “ante prima”, or preview, of the wines coming to market from the region. Before and after the grand tasting event, I travelled throughout the region visiting wineries and enjoying Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Pecorino, Cerasuolo, and Montepulciano in their natural habitat.

Showing the wines in their native setting was the point of the dinner in the trabocco, explained my host, the consortium’s president Valentino di Campli. In North America we think of wine as a drink, but in Italy it’s more like a food, or an ingredient among others in a meal. In my experience, one of the highest compliments one can give an Italian winemaker is their wine is gastronomico.

At the table, the slightly oily character of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo reveals itself next to an octopus salad. The citrus and saline character of Pecorino becomes that much more apparent accompanying a breaded and fried sardine. And the bright red fruit character of Ceruasolo d’Abruzzo, the region’s answer to rosé, sings with a dish of sea snails in a sauce of tomato and garlic. For Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, though, I would have to go back up into the mountains.

Visitors to Rome might be aware of the big hills in the distance to the southeast. These are the The Apennines, the spine of mountains that runs down peninsular Italy and dominates the geography of Abruzzo.“Apennine Range, also called the Apennines, Italian Appennino, series of mountain ranges bordered by narrow coastlands that form the physical backbone of peninsular Italy. From Cadibona Pass in the northwest, close to the Maritime Alps, they form a great arc, which extends as far as the Egadi Islands to the west of Sicily. Their total length is approximately 870 miles (1,400 kilometres), and their width ranges from 25 to 125 miles.” https://www.britannica.com/place/Apennine-Range On the three-hour drive from the capital to Ortona the mountains rise quickly and don’t let up until they tumble into the coast. The highest ranges of the Apennines are in Abruzzo, and some snow remained on their craggy peaks. I had read, and have repeated, that Abruzzo has the twin most desirable moderating characteristics of a Mediterranean wine-producing region, altitude and coastline, but until I saw it, I didn’t understand how dramatically they manifest.

North of Pescara, in the foothills between the sea and the Gran Sasso massif are wineries that include a trio of forward-thinking organic producers making high-quality versions of the essential Abruzzese wines: Trebbiano and Pecorino for white, Cerasuolo for pink (or light red), and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo for serious red. They are Abbazio di Propezzano, Strappelli, and the renowned Emidio Pepe. Emidio Pepe is 90 years old and considered a pioneer of Abruzzese fine wine, having begun to be noticed by the world’s critics in the 1970s. I travelled with a vanful of American and Canadian journalists to all three in that order one day, finishing with dinner at the restaurant run by the Pepe family at their winery and farm.

At Emidio Pepe, once we were greeted by il signor e la signora Pepe, we were taken under the wing of their granddaughter Chiara De lulis Pepe, who is taking over responsibility for the production of their sought-after organic wine. She showed us the vineyards that roll through the hills at the foot of Italy’s highest mountains south of the Alps. The vineyards were interspersed with olive and citrus groves and fields of wheat, spelt, and chickpeas.

She explained that she followed the example of her grandfather to make fine wines that were made to age and evoked this particular place, roughly halfway between the sea and the Gran Sasso range. Explained, later in the cellar, that her family’s wines were elevated simply in concrete tanks, meaning the vintages of Emidio Pepe wines could vary greatly in taste. Said: “The responsibility of the winemaker is to bottle something that is true to the season.”

At dinner, Chiara Pepe proved her points by example. Around a long table near the winery restaurant’s kitchen we were served a seven-course meal by her younger sister and brother, who work in the vineyards and cellar as well. The meal focused on ingredients from the farm and the hills of Abruzzo, if they didn’t grow or raise it themselves. Chiara Pepe told us that one of the few silver linings of the COVID pandemic was their ability to recruit Chef Pietro La Rosa, a native of Palermo, trained in San Sebastian and working in Copenhagen until the pandemic hit. The food was Alta Cucina, but also down to earth, a lot like the wines.

There is magic in those hills and in that cellar.

We tasted (well, drank) nine wines throughout the dinner: Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2019, 2009, and 2004 to start. As the wines got older, they seemed to become more vibrant. Then, we had a stunning Pecorino from 2013, redolent with orange peel and white flowers. Then onto the reds, which could have only been Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Here was a deep trip back in time: 2007, 2003, 2002, 2001, and finally 1983. Oddly again the last two seemed more alive and resonant than the first three. There is magic in those hills and in that cellar.

On our last day, our van of merry wine writers found ourselves back high up in the hills in the Pescara Valley on the other side of the Gran Sasso from Emidio Pepe. There we visited Cataldi Madonna, which like Emidio Pepe is being taken over by a young woman and third-generation winemaker, Giulia Cataldi Madonna, who gave us a tour and took us to lunch and a tasting of her family’s wines.

At one point in the not-so-distant past, the Cataldi family processed most of the grapes grown in the valley, which is crowned at each end by the ancient hilltop towns of Ofena and Capestrano. As if to nod to the family’s humble past, Giulia Cataldi Madonna showed us her bottling line as it was filling up a bag-in-box label of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. We learned that this was a relatively modern winery; the family’s original was in a very old stone building at the very top of Ofena, and that’s where we headed, after the tour, for lunch.

Lunch was not cooked by a fancy young chef, but rather by a local lady with deep experience of the local foodways. It was served buffet style and offered such an array of mountain specialties that it was difficult to get everything on one plate. Giulia Cataldi Madonna explained that this would be a light lunch because there was no pasta. Instead, for starch there was a kind of small fried “pizza” bread and, in a tangy fresh tomato sauce, pallotte cace e ove. This specialty of Abruzzo, which none of the visitors had tried before, is dumpling balls made of old bread, eggs, and cheese and is absolutely delicious.

The Cataldi Madonna winery. Photo credit: Malcolm Jolley.

Throughout lunch we tasted through Cataldi Madonna’s higher-end wines, starting with their fundamental selections and graduating to single-vineyard versions. For whites, we had the Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2021 and the Pecorino 2021 and the “SuperGiulia” Pecorino 2019, whose intensity woke up the palate and made room for more pallotte. Then onto the Cerasuoli: the 2021 and then the Pie Delle Vigne 2019, which Giolia Cataldi Madonna described as “somewhere in the middle between red and white”, and which went particularly well with the multiple varieties of local salumi and cheeses.

For the reds, things got serious when we were presented with Abruzzo’s great contribution to meat on a stick: arrosticini. These were small cubes of local lamb, simply seasoned with salt and olive oil, grilled over coals. Sometimes known as spiedini or speducci, they complemented the inky herbal Malandrino 2020 and then the tarry and aromatic Tonì 2018 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

I went to Abruzzo and learned three things from three meals. Abruzzese whites are particularly suited to fresh seafood. Their high-end wines, particularly when aged, have a place of prominence in the most prestigious restaurants. And their wines go very well with cheese balls, meat on a stick, or any other good old home-cooked meal.

Websites for the wineries in this column are:

https://cataldimadonna.com/

https://www.emidiopepe.com/en/

And for the Consorzio di Tutela Vine d’Abruzzo:

https://www.vinidabruzzo.it/

Father Raymond J. de Souza: Are we returning to an age of assassinations?

Commentary

Nicholas Roske was arrested on June 8th and charged with the attempted murder of Justice Brett Kavanaugh of the American supreme court. The 911 call that Roske himself made—“I need psychiatric help”—led to his arrest across the street from Kavanaugh’s house. He allegedly made assassination threats, was heavily armed, and travelled from California to the justice’s Maryland home. He was angry about a potential supreme court ruling restricting abortion rights.Armed man arrested near Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh’s home charged with attempted murder https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/man-arrested-supreme-court-justice-kavanaughs-home-allegedly/story?id=85259333

Congressional hearings into the January 2021 assault on the Capitol are focusing American attention on political violence. The Kavanaugh threat got relatively less attention. The New York Times put the news on page 20, and the Washington Post filed it under “Local Crime and Public Safety”, next to a report about a traffic accident. 

If you get your news from a still more progressive source, at Mother Jones the senior news editor was not as sanguine about bloodshed at the Supreme Court.

“We apparently just came unacceptably, terrifyingly close to catastrophe,” wrote Jeremy Schulman. “The assassination of a Supreme Court justice would be … a threat to American democracy every bit as severe as the January 6 insurrection and Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. … Everyone, across the ideological spectrum, needs to take this completely seriously and figure out what can be done to prevent the country from plunging into a new era of political violence reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s. The fate of our republic depends on it.”The Assassination Plot Against Brett Kavanaugh Is a National Emergency https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2022/06/the-assassination-plot-against-brett-kavanaugh-is-a-national-emergency/

The fate of the republic does not depend upon it; after all, the assassinations of the 1960s did not vanquish it. But it did shape the politics of the time, and while assassinations have not been a regular part of political life for a few decades, it is not foolish to worry that they may return.

Assassination was a present danger and a political force throughout the twentieth century. Assassinations go back much further, of course, to Julius Caesar most famously—a development that loosed that demon in imperial Rome. Several of Caesar’s successors were also assassinated.

The most consequential assassination of our time set off the Great War—a calamity that resonates even today. Austria-Hungary went to war after the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne. By the end of the war, the Austrian emperor, German Kaiser, Russian tsar, and Ottoman sultan were all deposed. Gavrilo Princip’s bullet may have been the most consequential shot in history.

In a century of unprecedented violence there would be many more political killings, perhaps the most notable being the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 in a newly-independent India. Gandhi was killed by a fellow Hindu, a nationalist who objected to Gandhi’s conciliatory approach to Muslims and the new state of Pakistan.

The first family of Indian independence, the Nehru/Gandhis (no relation), would suffer two assassinations. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, succeeded her. He was assassinated in 1991 by the Tamil Tigers.

For Americans, the 1960s was the time of the assassins. John F. Kennedy was killed as president in 1963, and his brother Robert while campaigning for president in 1968. Just months before RFK’s assassination, Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis. In 1969, Malcolm X would be killed in New York. In 1972, Alabama Governor George Wallace was shot while campaigning for president. He survived but remained paralyzed for life.

In 1970, Canada had its most prominent assassination since that of D’Arcy McGee in 1868. Pierre Laporte, deputy premier of Quebec, was killed by the Front de libération du Québec during the October Crisis.“The October Crisis refers to a chain of events that took place in Quebec in the fall of 1970. The crisis was the culmination of a long series of terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), a militant Quebec independence movement, between 1963 and 1970. On 5 October 1970, the FLQ kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross in Montreal. Within the next two weeks, FLQ members also kidnapped and killed Quebec Minister of Immigration and Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte. Quebec premier Robert Bourassa and Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau called for federal help to deal with the crisis. In response, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau deployed the Armed Forces and invoked the War Measures Act — the only time it has been applied during peacetime in Canadian history.” https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/october-crisis

The 1970s brought prominent assassinations around the world. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was killed by his own half-brother’s son in 1975. In 1978, the Italian Red Brigades killed Aldo Moro, former prime minister of Italy and close friend of Pope Paul VI. In 1979, the Irish Republican Army blew up Lord Louis Mountbatten’s boat, killing the United Kingdom’s most prominent military personality and the uncle of the Duke of Edinburgh. 

Having dealt a lethal blow to the Royal Family, the IRA would make another spectacular attempt, attempting to kill Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. She narrowly escaped from a hotel bombing that killed five and injured 31.

The nadir of assassinations came in 1981, when Ronald Reagan (March), Pope John Paul II (May), and Anwar Sadat (October) were all shot. The president and the pope survived; the Egyptian peace-maker was killed by an Islamist extremist.

Sadat’s assassination for making peace foreshadowed the 1995 murder of Yitzhak Rabin, killed by an Israeli who objected to Rabin’s making peace at Oslo. The twin assassinations of Sadat and Rabin, by their own people, have made Arab-Israeli peace more difficult—the price for the peacemakers could well be death.

While political violence is never absent, the Rabin assassination seemed to mark an end to a century plagued by them. There have been assassinations since: Rafic Hariri in Lebanon (2005) and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan (2007). Yet assassination has retreated from a prominent role in this century. 

Might the time of the assassins return? Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated last July. There was an assassination attempt against Vladimir Putin earlier this year. 

In the United States, had Roske decided to rush Kavanaugh’s home rather than call 911, the justice could well have been dead, possibly setting off widespread violence.  

In 2011, Gabby Giffords, a Democratic member of Congress from Arizona, was shot. Six years later, Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, was shot. Both survived. 

In a country plagued by mass killings on a weekly basis, with two members of Congress shot in recent years, is the assassination of supreme court justice outside the bounds of what can be imagined?

Justice Kavanaugh was not hurt. The next time, and the next target, may not escape harm.

The signs are ominous. Fear about our political situation is widespread. How much worse will matters be if the time of the assassins returns?