Above: You really can’t understand what Lambrusco really is and what it’s for until you’ve experienced it in Emilia where it belongs. I hate to say it, but it’s true.
This afternoon, I found myself reading a wonderful book from the 1930s (published for the first time in 1963, if I’m not mistaken): Optimus potor ossia il vero bevitore by Paolo Monelli, an Emilian journalist and widely published author from the years before and after World War II.
The first part of the title is Latin: optimus potor meaning the ideal drinker. The second part is Italian: il vero bevitore meaning the true drinker.
The book is a guide to the wines of Italy (and some wines from beyond Italy’s borders) and more importantly, a collection of recommendations of how to drink well.
He covers nearly all of the appellations we consider today to be among the great wines of Italy. And as an Emilian through and through, he devotes ample space and ink to his beloved Lambrusco.
He makes two points that really resonated with me as I continue to try to understand why Lambrusco is so misunderstood outside of its home region, Emilia.
First he observes that Emilian cuisine is as “rustic” as it is “succulent.” And then he expands on that to say that “it’s succulent for the very reason that it is rustic.”
And then using a simile that would be considered sexist and highly inappropriate today (although completely acceptable at the time), he notes that Lambrusco is like a handsome person from the country who might inspire someone’s love interest and affection when encountered in their home village. But when that person is taken to the city (into an urban environment), his/her (I’ll just leave it at that) “rustic” character eclipses his/her beauty.
As I wrote, the simile is inappropriate (then and now, if you ask me) but it is what it is. And it does reveal something important about Lambrusco: it is best enjoyed and understood on its home turf.
It’s great to drink Lambrusco, he writes, when you visit the provinces in Emilia “for business or for pleasure.” But don’t try to take it beyond Emilia’s borders.
He also points to a poem by the famous Emilian writer and illustrator Luigi Bertelli, who writes of Lambrusco unique “foam” as early as 1888. This may seem irrelevant to some but to me it speaks volumes. As Monelli notes, Lambrusco is one of the world’s oldest wines. The Lambrusco that was served in the late 19th century in Emilia was probably very similar to the wine that we drink now. You can’t say that about Barolo, Barbaresco, or even Brunello for that matter. Those wines have changed radically since they were first made and labeled as such.
My mind drifted to a lunch I had with friends in the village of Busseto in Parma province a year ago or so. We had stopped into the first trattoria we could find because we were famished. And they served us the above tagliatelle al ragù (they don’t call it bolognese in Emilia; they just call it ragù).
As it just so happened, they had Ceci’s Lambrusco on the list. Well, it wasn’t a list, so to speak. Our server told us that there were two Lambruscos available and one was Ceci. So we ordered the Ceci.
The pairing couldn’t have been more perfect. And I found myself falling in love with Lambrusco again, for the umpteenth time.
The tagliatelle, the Lambrusco, and the pairing wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else. Or would they? I don’t know. But I don’t care. I left a little bit of my heart in that village that day. And that’s the way it should be.
You can take Lambrusco out of the country but you can’t take the country out of Lambrusco.
To be continued…