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Here’s the thing. There’s this old Italian precept that says you can only write about Lambrusco if you’re drinking Lambrusco. Maybe bear that in mind as you read.
No really, but listen, listen. What? Nah, I’m fine. I’m fine. That … happened earlier. In the cab, the bag opened up and. Y’know, some … yeah.
It’s not often we take to the interwaves to shill on behalf of a wine; ordinarily we pop it on the tea-stained list, ask everybody to shut their eyes and pin the tail on the donkey. But Lambrusco’s a funny marsupial. Needs to be coaxed out of its hole. And when it comes, it comes darkly, lurking at the fringes. You really need to get your thumbs under the curves of that cork before you’re going to see what it’s made of. Like taking off Lois Lane’s glasses.
Thing is, it comes out of the gate limping. Not its fault though. See, history hasn’t treated Lambrusco kindly. That syrupy plasma your Auntie Dorothy used to drink in 1979? The stuff you’d steal from her drinks cabinet, mix with Baileys, Malibu and Kahlua, then collapse hyperglycemic in the airing cupboard trying to remember your lips? Yeah, that was also called Lambrusco. I know, I know, it’s like trying to sell people on Lee Majors in Hamlet.
But that stuff was sweet, blended with fresh grape juice to satisfy a palate weaned on Wonder Woman. Today’s Lambrusco is dry, almost furrily so, with the faintest hint of bitterness. Also, Auntie Dorothy’s was fizzy, TaB fizzy, baking-soda-and-vinegar-in-a-Play-doh-volcano fizzy. Ours purrs like a black cat. Yes, it’s frizzante; hits the glass with a plume of purple froth. But don’t be fooled. That’s just the genie coming out of the bottle, grabbing a breath before he does his three wishes thing (that I get drunk/that my pizza comes soon/that I get more Lambrusco). By the time you put it to your lips it has settled to a kind of … prickle. None of that ‘bubbles the size of pool-balls’ thing. Just something to take the flatness off the landscape, windmills at Kinderdijk.
Not convinced? How about a field-trip to Bologna, the food capital of Italy, where they guzzle the stuff like Uncle Derek at Cousin Abigail’s wedding before he fell in the latrine. And those Bolognese know a thing or two about wine. Pretty much all Lambrusco is produced no more than an uncontrolled cork-pop from their weird due torri. Ours – Barbolini Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro – is from vineyards south of Modena, Emilia-Romagna, where they’ve been making it since they were Etruscans. Want a second opinion? How about Cato the Elder, who insisted that two-thirds of an acre could produce enough Lambrusco to fill 300 amphoras? Or Eric Asimov in The New York Times, who says ‘I’ve been on a genuine Lambrusco kick for some years now, and I’ve been delighted to see delicious evidence of its rebirth here in New York.’ And I’ve seen the guy. He looks perfectly normal. Not at all like Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Or, indeed, your Auntie Dorothy.
Most pertinently, it’s the perfect Table on Ten red. Perhaps not the ideal pairing for Armagnac-drowned Ortolan in Saint-Germain-des-Prés; but for great sourdough pizza roasted in a wood-oven in the Catskills with a root vegetable salad? Unbeatable. Inexpensive, unpretentious and a tiny bit lower in alcohol, so you don’t have to feel guilty for drinking the whole bottle. If we were given to being unscrupulous, we’d give it away for free. For a couple of weeks. Till you’re all hooked. 7 in the morning, knocking at our cellar door. ‘I love you, baby. Can I have some more?’.
October 28, 2014. Posted in Inspirers, The Menu, Underpants. Tags: Auntie Dorothy, Barbolini, Bologna, Cato the Elder, Charles Laughton, Emilia-Romagna, Eric Asimov, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lambrusco, Lee Majors, Lois Lane, Maria Clark, Modena, Neil Young, Polaner Selections, TaB, The New York Times, Windmills at Kinderdijk, Wonder Woman.
September 28, 2014. Posted in Inspirers, Press. Tags: Abby Aguirre, Andrea Gentl, Bovina Valley Farm, Brooke Alderson, Brushland Eating House, Burnett Farms, Cheryl Lins, Conde Nast Traveler, Dan Finn, Hamden Inn, Holley Giles, Inez Valk, Jeanette Bronée, Justus Kempthorne, Kabinet & Kammer, Kelli Cain, Last Harvest Farm, Lucky Dog Farm, Marty Hyers, Peter Schjeldahl, Richard Giles, Sara Elbert, Sean Scherer, Sohail Zandi, Steve Burnett, Susan Riesen.
Equal with colleagues in a ring
I sit on each calm evening
Enchanted as the flowers
The opening light draws out of hiding
With all its gradual dove-like pleading,
Its logic and its powers:
All photographs: Gentl and Hyers
September 25, 2014. Posted in Events, Inspirers, Journeys. Tags: Andrea Gentl, Bramley Mountain, Camille Becerra, Christopher Rawson, Courtnee Martinez, Diana Delli Santi, Dusty Ray Richards, Emily Elsen, Emma Farrell, Four & Twenty Blackbirds, Inez Valk, Jack the Cat, Joe Aponte, Julian Richards, Kimberly Chou, Marty Hyers, Pamela Berry, Sadie Farrell, Star Route Farm, The PINES.
Lucky, this point in time and space
Is chosen as my working-place,
Where the sexy airs of summer,
The bathing hours and the bare arms,
The leisured drives through a land of farms
Are good to a newcomer.
All photographs: Gentl and Hyers
September 23, 2014. Posted in Events, Inspirers, Journeys. Tags: Andrea Gentl, Camille Becerra, Carver Farrell, Cheater, Christopher Rawson, Emily Elsen, Four & Twenty Blackbirds, Inez Valk, Joe Aponte, John Poiarkoff, Julian Richards, Justus Kempthorne, Katrin Stelmashuck, Kimberly Chou, Marty Hyers, Sadie Farrell, Star Route Farm, The PINES, Tianna Kennedy, Tyler Faulk, Zev Rovine.
The tale begins on the fifth floor of a pre-war building overlooking the Arno with a view of San Miniato al Monte and the steps of Giardino Bardini; the family home of Elisabetta, an actress in her unplaceable 60’s. The rambling apartment inherits the easy grace of a woman who cut her style-chops in the twilight years of Pasolini and Visconti: family photographs in mismatched frames (naked children the colour of hazelnuts and shirtless men who look like Marcello Mastroianni on boats off Stromboli), the 70’s record player, Bill Evans albums, dubious abstract nudes (hung crookedly). And the classic cookbook Il Talismano della Felicità, its pages tanned to parchment, open on the counter to some indecipherable flurry of pictureless Italiano: like the best textbook you ever saw.
In the republic of taste, property is theft; and this was one of those crystalline amalgams of poise, weight and beauty that can drive a person to burglary. But you can’t just run off with somebody’s book: that’d be rude, right? Also, it’s fucking huge. Plan B involved a quick sortie around the internet, a late-50’s edition languishing a few hundred feet away in a Santa Croce antiquarian bookshop. Bit of deft mousework and the deed was done: we’d plucked a magic bean from Elisabetta’s stalk to take home and bury in Bloomville’s flinty soil. With love and water it will germinate into La Dolce Vita on the Delaware.
Once home, Il Talismano succumbed to the fate of stuff that seems an absolute imperative when the amber light is refracting off the Duomo, but slightly less so when somebody locked the cat in the bedroom for four days and your tempurpedic smells like the triage at the Humane Society. It took a few days for our resident half-Italian/half-Scottish Ingrid Bergman – Paola Ambrosi de Magistris (try that on a half-litre of lambrusco) – to stumble upon an old letter whilst thumbing through the pages. On Air Mail vellum, yellowed with age, hand-typed on official Foreign Service letterhead, it’s a recipe from the book – Cinghiale in Agrodolce alla Romana - translated into English with personal annotations from the correspondent: substituting bacon for smoked ham, celery seed for celery.
Sweet and sour wild boar, Roman style. The writer – Mary Jernegan – signs off with a footnote: ‘this is a classic Italian recipe, from people who love to hunt and eat well … wish I were there to help cook and eat it!’. Seems the book was a gift from somebody connected to the US Embassy in Rome, probably around the time of publication (1957). The letter suggests a diplomatic blend of official and personal: wife to wife, maybe? Well … we don’t personally hunt (maybe spear the occasional mushroom) but plenty of good people here do. And we eat well. And while we don’t have wild boars snouting our forests (at least not of that spelling), we have plenty of local, barely domesticated pork. So why not celebrate the appearance of this wormhole to a different dimension; fulfill Mary Jernegan’s wish to help cook and eat the meal by making it, right here, right now, 4300 miles and how ever many years from where the impulse originated? Ride the space-time continuum, squeeze the universe into a ball.
But the question remains; who was Mary Jernegan, our guide to all things agrodolce?
In 1955, John Durnford Jernegan – a career US diplomat – was assigned the post of Minister-Counselor at the American Embassy in Rome, under Clare Boothe Luce (first ever US woman ambassador and author of The Women). Jernegan’s previous service included spells in Mexico, Tunisia and Spain (during the Spanish Civil War); but, most notably, he served in Iran during WWII, where he would have been present at the 1943 Tehran Conference attended by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. This meeting – the first ever between Stalin and Roosevelt – initiated tripartite commitment to simultaneous 1944 offensives against Nazi Germany (the Normandy landings) and forged the template for Soviet domination of post-war Eastern Europe; the satellite states of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, East Germany. The Cold War and Berlin Wall. Thus Jernegan was quietly – repeatedly – present at meridian of world history. It was whilst serving in Iran that he met Mary Margaret Brownrigg, 11 years his junior, the future Mrs Mary Jernegan and author of our letter.
A brief glimpse into the lives of John and Mary Jernegan constitutes a peek behind the curtain of mid-century Graham Greene-style diplomacy. The balance of world power was undergoing seismic changes and these people were at the eye of the hurricane, struggling to retain discreet good manners and politesse against a background of chaos and blood-letting. Kingdoms were vanishing, dynasties crumbling, empires collapsing. The Middle East in particular was a shitstorm of lurid immolation: republican coups d’état in Egypt and Syria, civil war in Jordan and Lebanon, a CIA-backed coup in Iran. And then in 1958, a particularly grisly revolution in Iraq, involving the execution of the Royal Family and the Crown Prince’s mutilated body being dragged through the streets of Baghdad and strung up outside the Ministry of Defence. The Prime Minister escaped dressed as a woman. This was the Theatre of Blood into which John and Mary Jernegan were inserted, first US Ambassadorial family to Abd al-Karim Qasim’s fledgling Republic of Iraq. The descriptions of crafts bazaars and people falling into the ponds at parties in the embassy gardens are in stark contrast to the harsh realities of history being enacted beyond the compound walls. The Jernegans remained in Baghdad until their expulsion in 1962, when the Kennedy Administration objected to Qasim claiming the Sheikhdom of Kuwait as de facto territory of Iraq – a gesture eerily similar to the one three decades later that precipitated the first Bush-era Iraq War. A US-backed coup (involving poisoned handkerchiefs and other Kennedy-era goofiness) endorsed Qasim’s assassination, installing the Ba’athist regime which ultimately sanctioned the twenty-seven year reign of Saddam Hussein. Two wars, eight years of US occupation and the rise of the Islamic State brings us to the present. But Mary Jernegan was right there in the crucible of the past.
And though her husband died in 1980, Mary Jernegan may still be alive, in her 90’s, living in California. More than half a century of febrile history has elapsed since she sat at a typewriter in Rome and translated the recipe which now sits on our kitchen table in upstate New York. The same table that will soon be set for Cinghiale in Agrodolce alla Romana, along with friends, gelato alla nocciola and (at the letter’s suggestion) several bottles of good red wine.
September 18, 2014. Posted in Events, Inspirers, Journeys, Recipes. Tags: 1943 Tehran Conference, Abd al-Karim Qasim, Ba'ath Party, Baghdad, Berlin Wall, Bill Evans, Bulgaria, Clare Boothe Luce, Crown Prince Abd al-Ilah, Czechosolvakia, East Germany, Egypt, Elisabetta Giovannini, Florence, Gelato alla Nocciola, George H.W. Bush, Giardino Bardini, Graham Greene, Hungary, Il Talismano della Felicità, Ingrid Bergman, Iran, Iraq, ISIL, John F. Kennedy, John Jernegan, Jordan, Josef Stalin, King Faisal II, Kuwait, La Dolce Vita, Lebanon, Luchino Visconti, Marcello Mastroianni, Mary Jernegan, Mary Margaret Brownrigg, Mexico, Normandy Landings, Nuri al-Said, Operation Overlord, Paola Ambrosi di Magistris, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Poland, Pope Pius XII, River Arno, Romania, Rome, Saddam Hussein, San Miniato al Monte, Santa Croce, Soviet Union, Spain, Spanish Civil War, Stromboli, Syria, T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Women, Theodore Roosevelt, Tunisia, United States Foreign Service, Wild Boar, Winston Churchill.