Story and photos by Dr. Michael Li m The Travelling Gourmet TM
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The indefatigable and debonair Travelling Gourmet TM heads to a remote part of northern Italy to taste…
MAESTRO Ernest Hemingways’s favorite Grappa…
Well, the photo in the previous article is actually Il Bolle which means the ‘bubble’ in Italian, and you can find it in Bassano del Grappa. This picturesque town in the north of Italy occupies a most strategic position near the Austrian border.
Here, you’ll find the oldest Grapperia in the world…Nardini Grappa where thay make arguably the finest Grappa in the world. Since 1779, Grappa or Aquavite has been made here in the artisanal way. Now helmed by the 8th Generation Nardini, my good friend, Antonio is charming, humourous and very intelligent. He speaks English with a distinctive New York accent, having gone to study in the USA at 17. After his education in Finance & International Marketing, he even worked on Wall Street before returing to Italy in 1995 to join the family business. Antonio is a genius and visionary and you can see it in what he built with architect Massimiliano Fuksas.
Two surreal flying saucer like pods levitate in mid air with the Montegrappa mountains as a backdrop. They represent the bubbles seen when Grappa i s made by distillation but look like they are structures on a far flung planet in some remote galaxy billions of light years away. Il Bolle was built to celebrate and to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the founding of Nardini Grappa which has become an Italian icon. Antonio believes in combining the artisanal production of Grappa with avant garde high tech production methods. I saw this for myself when he brought me to tour his gleaming spotlessly clean distillery and his restricted access state of the art laboratory. “No photos…” he said with a rougish smile, and put his finger to his lips, “It’s top secret.”
Mio buon amico Antonio is a most likeable gentleman, and when he drove me in his huge Mercedes to his Grappa Bar in the heart of the old town, he paused before an innocent looking door. I heard a soft beep as he activated his remote. The door opened and we drove in, then a huge lift opened and we drove slowly in, to be transported down to his private secure car park. I said to him, “Mi amico, you’re 007!” He chuckled and said, “Si, sono Bond..James Bond.”
The symbol of the town is the imposing covered wooden pontoon bridge, which was designed by the renowned architect Andrea Palladio in 1569. many wars have been fought here and the bridge was destroyed many times, the last time during WWII. The elte Alpine soldiers (Alpini) trained in mountain warfare and expert skiers have always revered the wooden bridge over the fast flowing River Brenta and Bassano del Grappa. After the destruction of the bridge, they took up a private collection and had the bridge completely rebuilt. Often soldiers flock to the bridge to remember and sing songs from their days as Alpini. The Grappa shop of Nardini Distillery is located on the bridge, known as Ponte degli Alpini. Here was where Nobel Prize laureate Ernest Hemingway used to drink his favourite Nardini grappa during WW1 when he was stationed here, attached to the Italian Army as an Ambulance driver. Here too is where Hemingway set his famous novel “A Farewell to Arms” which was made into TWO Hollywood movies, one starring Gary “High Noon” Cooper.
Antonio brought brought me down to his private bar and cellar. We walked down numerous narrow well worn steps hundreds of years old to enjoy Ruta Grappa in a room below the river.
The artisanal or traditional method of Grappa production utilizes discontinuous distillation. This utilises small copper cauldrons from which the used pomace must be removed before additional pomace can be added. This process is slower and more expensive than the continuous distillation utilized by the industrial producers. In the industrial method. the pomace can be added in the top of the tank and removed from the bottom without interrupting the distillation process. It is cheaper and faster but some nuances and flavour is sacrificed. Nardini’s distillery utilizes both methods with his finest grappas lovingly made from the artisan method. To my mind, a perfect marraige of tradition and technology. We tried Antonio’s favourite Mandorla Cocktail of Grappa with Citurs juice like lemon , served with a wedge of lemon floating on top like a caravelle. You can also cook with Grappa and use it to marinate meat like beef.
A few years ago in Prego Ristorante in Singapore, I organised a special Grappa Dinner working closely with Chef Salvatore. Every dish we created from antipasto to dessert was cooked with Nardini Grappa and I created 2 Grappa Cocktails. Antonio presided over the evening the Guest of Honour.
Fine grappa complements bitter chocolate and espresso coffee like no other spirit. For connoisseurs who demand the best, Nardini Riserva – aged in Slavonian oak barrels for 5 years fits the bill. It is Italy’s answer to cognac.
Nardini ‘Bianca’ has a distinctive aromatic flavour and alcohol content of 50% by volume. Italy’s best-selling premium grappa is intense on the palate but suprising smooth to swallow. A unique alternative to vodka especially those not made in Russia or Poland. Or for a fast ‘kick’ drink it neat as a chilled shot. One of my favourites is almond grappa, Nardini ‘Mandorla’. Excellent in a corretto and makes an amazing ‘Alexander’ cocktail. Stringent quality control – from local vine to bottle and attention to detail makes for a superb product. Also, Nardini disdains fanciful and intricate bottle shapes. The label and bottle have remained virtually unchanged since 1779! One of my favourites is Ruta Grappa made with the aphrodisiac sprig of Rue. It’ll put fire in your belly and grow hairs on your chest!
Come and visit Bassano del Grappa sometime if only to taste NARDINI’s gorgeous Grappa…and to see the bullet holes still left on the walls of walls of Nardini’s Grappa shop on Ponte degli Alpini by musket fire from Napoleon’s soldiers. Living History…
Here is an excerpt from a poem by Ernest Hemingway based on his experiences in WW1 called :
Winding road up the Grappa side.
Arditi on benches stiff and cold,
Bristly faces, dirty hides-
Infantry marches, Arditi rides.
Grey, cold, bitter, sullen ride-
To splintered pines on the Grappa side
At Asalone, where the truck-load died.
Life is uncertain, drink your Grappa first! Who Dares Wins!
The bullet holes from Napoleon’s Army are still there…
Dr. Michael Lim is The Travelling Gourmet TM