25 September 2005

Wine & Cheese

Barbara had a post today about a delightful bleu cheese from New Zealand, which in the comments she admits to pairing with a 10-year old Italian Valpolicella. The main point of her post was about restrictive regulations on unpasteurized cheeses and whatnot, but when she mentioned the wine, it hit me like a ton of bricks...

December 1996. I'm only 20, and I'm in Italy for a three-week long tour of the country with my girlfriend at the time. There's an entire book that could be written about that relationship debacle, but I'm going to focus on one thing here. We were in Assisi for Christmas, and had been told by various travelers that this city like many throughout the country shut down on major religious holidays. We had booked a dinner through our youth hostel (which turned out to be amazing--handmade tortellini, white bean soup, smoked salmon, panettone, and all the wine you could drink), but needed something for lunch. So the day before, we stocked up at the local markets: some sliced Genoa salami, a fresh loaf of bread, a hearty chunk of Gorgonzola cheese, and a bottle of inexpensive Valpolicella made by the cousin of the pizza shop owner.

Now, Gorgonzola is not exactly a "bleu" cheese, it's a little more on the green side, and tends to be softer at room temperature. Though we lucked out, as rustic youth hostels in Italy tend to be around 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, practically a refrigerator. But let me digress a bit before talking about the wine and cheese combination.

After dinner at a trattoria, we attended Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at the Basilica of St. Francis. Funny tradition there--at 11:30 p.m., they start ringing the church bells, and everyone finishes their drinks or coffee at the bar. At 11:45, they ring again, and everyone begins walking up the hills to the Basilica. The church service was lovely (even for this Presbyterian), and was delivered in a variety of languages.

The next morning, we had Christmas breakfast with the family running the hostel, which was delightful because we got to watch the kids open their Christmas presents over fresh rolls and coffee. And like I said, we were going to have dinner at the hostel that evening. But for lunch, we had our meat, cheese, bread and wine, and were on our own. It was a little chilly--not cold. As we were locked out of the hostel for most the day and the city was shut down, there wasn't much to do. We milled about the old city and finally found a church that was holding an afternoon service. It was an ancient building, originally a Roman temple to Minerva that still had bas relief carvings of the twelve signs of the Zodiac. On the steps of that temple, my girlfriend and I had our simple, elemental lunch. The bread and meat were nourishing and delicious, but the cheese was divine. I'd kept it close to me to warm up, and it was soft and malleable, showing rich veins of mold throughout the pure white cheese. And when washed down with the red Valpolicella--consumed with alternating swigs straight from the bottle--it provided for one of the most memorable lunches of my life.

Shortly afterwards, we attended the afternoon mass, conducted in the tiny room by two Franciscan monks, one who read the service and the other who played the acoustic guitar during the songs. The two dozen or so attendees--mostly locals--huddled together with us for warmth during the service, and my halfway decent Italian was enough to make us part of the family.

Gorgonzola isn't seen a lot in these parts unless it's one of the milder varients used sparingly in a salad or something, but the combination of a good moldy cheese and an Italian wine is one that is always going to throw me back into the gentle embrace of fond memories.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Wonderful post Ben. Thanks for sharing the memory.