Good choucroute, like a favorite wine, comes down to what your tastes best on your palate.
Choucroute, you say it like this: “shoo-croot.” The word, meaning “sauerkraut” in French, is a typical dish throughout Germany. Essentially, choucroute is a mélange of meats—pork, sausages and cured meats—cooked with potatoes and covering a lavish foundation of sauerkraut. Since its inception in Germany when the first barrels of cabbage made their way into Magdeburg in the eighteenth century, the dish has slowly made its way into neighboring Alsace, France, into regions of Eastern Europe, as well as into Italy. It’s hearty, flexible, delicious and fairly healthy.
Today’s Alsace chefs make their choucroute garni of sauerkraut topped with meats, potatoes, and juniper berries. The French prepare it with goose or other gamey meats, while Hungarians add stuffed cabbage leaves to the dish. Regional chefs add their own interpretations to the dish and create a variety of different choucroute. In Italy and France, scallops, mussels, salmon, shrimp and other seafood make an appearance on top of the ever-present sauerkraut.
Regardless of where the chef resides, or what spin he or she puts on the dish, no choucroute is complete without white wine, the perfect pairing to this hearty dish—and an easy-to-find element in Germany, Alsace and throughout Italy. Try a rich, spicy Gewürztraminer or a fruity, steely Riesling, both of which can match the acidity and zestiness of the sauerkraut and balance the rich meats. Grab a glass of Zind Humbrecht or Joh. Jos. Prum or any other regional white when dining on this piquant dish. And if you have one open in the fridge, you can even use a touch of Riesling or Sylvaner to cook the sauerkraut.
The beauty of choucroute is that there are no rules. Choucroute doesn’t require any age-old recipe. There are no specific measurements or ingredients—other than the sauerkraut. In the end, good choucroute, like a favorite wine, comes down to what your tastes best on your palate.
The more I learn about Italian wine and food, the more I realize the close tie between regional cuisine and the indigenous wines throughout Italy.
The more I learn about Italian wine and food, the more I realize the close tie between regional cuisine and the indigenous wines throughout Italy. For example, in eastern Italy, the bean soup known as Jota, Montasio, a cow’s milk cheese, and the seafood along the Adriatic coast are all perfect pairings for Friuli’s distinct, white wines like Ribolla, Pinot Grigio or Pinot Bianco. Travel west toward Piemonte, and you’ll find heavier meat dishes topped with truffles or rich cheese sauces. These foods all complement the mighty Barolos and Barbarescos produced there.
Also on the hearty side is one region I knew little about: Basilicata. Nestled in the southern part of the boot in Campania within the provinces of Matera and Potenza, Basilicata has some serious gastronomic treasures, including the region’s traditional lamb-based dishes. Usually slow-cooked in a pot to create a stew called Pignata, lamb, and fish, stews are common dishes of Basilicata. Families would cook out in the open field, throwing the vegetables and meat that were close at hand into a big pot and choosing bread from Matera or local Potenza cheeses to accompany their meals. Along with the hearty stews, bread and cheeses, the people of Basilicata served wines of equal depth like Aglianco.
Aglianico, the name of both the wine and the varietal, tends toward the full-bodied end of the spectrum and is marked by firm tannins and jaunty acidity. The wine’s intensity is a perfect match for Basilicata meats, especially the region’s trademark lamb. In addition to acting as a solo varietal, producers in Campania often blend Aglianco with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The grape is known for its deep earthy aromas, which works to bring out the best in the region’s cuisine. Basilicata once had really infertile soils that meant very little space for sustained agriculture. Farmers grew what they could—like lamb—and thus the region’s cuisine is defined by heavier meat dishes as well as really good wine.
The adage is, was, and always has been “what grows together goes together.” It’s a truism that remains amazingly valid—especially in these days of fast food, frozen dinners and fusion cuisine. The wonder of Italian food and wine is not in proving the rule; it’s rediscovering it, region by region, dish by dish and wine by wine.
There’s no going back after hand-rolled pasta
I’ve often imagined rolling each strand of pasta by hand, one by one by one. My fingers might go numb, but I’d get to indulge in the fruits of my labor. In Italy, this artisanal endeavor is not uncommon. In fact, pasta is almost always hand-rolled all along the boot. Rare is the person who would fathom doing it any differently (though, of course, supermarket packaged pasta is always available for lazier cooks). And yet even in a land of handcrafted pasta there are some that rise above the madding handmade horde. One such different breed is pici, the local pasta of the Montalcino and the rest of Toscana.
Pici, or pinci in Montalcino, are thicker, chewier and richer than your basic spaghetti strands—and it’s easy to make! Unlike most pasta, pici doesn’t require eggs. You just need two cups each of semolina and all-purpose flour, a pinch of salt and one cup of water. Mix everything in a large bowl, and then take tiny pieces and roll them between your hands. That’s it! If fresh, the pasta will cook in under 10 minutes and rise to the top of the pot. You can also freeze the pici for several months for later use. Once cooked, you can top pici with some freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or serve it all’aglione (with garlic). A ragu of wild boar, lamb or a simpler one of basil, garlic or salami can also be added to the pasta.
The taste of fresh pasta makes it hard to go back to store-bought—just as tasting artisanal wines makes it hard to enjoy those that are mass-produced. This chunky pasta is a perfect match for the deep, structured wines of Montalcino. Any Brunello di Montalcino or Super Tuscan with a sturdy structure, full of spice and bright with tannin complements the heartier sauces and pasta.
I haven’t cooked much lately, but I’m looking forward to spending some time around the stove soon. I see myself sipping a nice red, enjoying the moment— and rolling some pici for dinner.
What’s the big deal?
The truffle is prized by foodies around the globe—and for good reason. Its earthy, ineffable flavor makes other fungi look like poor imposters. Truffles, however, are costly, and this cost does make some gourmands search for the deliciously dirty truffle taste without the sky-high truffle price tag.
In an effort to save money, some foodies turn to truffle oil. However, does truffle oil stand up to real, raw, whole pieces of truffle? Some would argue yes; others would say there’s no comparison at all to the “real thing.” Some gastronomes, and even some chefs, would even argue that truffle oil is the most cost-effective way to enhance a dish with the flavor of the indigenous truffles—white ones are found in northern Italy and black truffles in Perigord, France—to their dishes. It’s also worth pointing out that it can be difficult to find whole truffles in the US, so cooks, connoisseurs, and everyone else who wants a taste of truffle sometimes have little choice but to purchase truffle oil. This oil can cost as much as $30 for just over three ounces, and you can also find concentrated truffle oil made with cold-pressed oil pressed with actual truffle for as much as $70 for .33 ounces.
Chef Kevin Sippel of IWM’s Studio del Gusto takes the stand against truffle oil on the premise that it’s mostly artificial. “Truffle peelings and preserved truffles are garbage,” he says of the liquified version usually made of mushrooms, black olives and truffle oil. Instead, Sippel, who also dismisses other “imitation” truffles like those grown in Croatia, China, Poland or anywhere other than Italy or France, prefers using black winter truffles. Sippel observes that white truffles are great, but they’re far more delicate than the black and are therefore limited to specific dishes. “I like the punch you in the mouth and versatility of the black truffle,” he says. “They hold up well to aggressive cooking. Good white truffles should smell like good white truffles, and if someone is selling you white truffles from Alba ask for the certificate of authenticity.”
The price tag is high for truffle oil and it’s even steeper for actual pieces of the fungi. The expense stems from the labor necessary to gathering the tasty delicacy during its yearly season of September to December. Grown underground among the roots of oak trees mostly in the Langhe region of Piemonte and Alba, white truffles (or trifola d’Alba, the white truffle of Alba) are first located by the keen noses of the trufulau, or truffle hunting dogs, and then they’re gathered by hand. It’s a labor-intensive process to procure this luxury item. For example, 1.6 pound piece of truffle sold for $150,000 at the White Truffle Festival in Piemonte last November.
Delicate white truffles have hints of garlic and can be eaten raw or thinly shaved over pasta, risotto, eggs, fondues or just about anything savory, while black truffles have a more pungent aroma that makes them more food specific. The French counterpart to our trifola d’Alba, black truffles are earthier and are often stored with eggs or added to sauces, bread and other foods to permeate their flavors with truffled goodness. Slightly less expensive than white truffles, black truffle is a better choice with heartier foods like meat or rich sauces.
Any Piemonte Barolo will pair well with a white truffle-infused dish, but when having such a posh treat, you might as well go with some of the best like Bartolo Mascarello, Luciano Sandrone, Aldo and Giacomo Conterno, or Bruno Giacosa. IWM’s Perry Porricelli has tried all of these Barolos with truffles but favors Aldo Conterno’s Barolo Granbussia. Only made in the best vintages, Perry says “Aldo seems to have a wine made for truffles.” But then any meal with Granbussia is bound to be good—truffle, truffle oil, or truffle free.« go back