Today started with a sloppy banging sound on the school’s library window. It was supposed to be a knock, but the person out in the street was clearly using more the palm versus knuckles. I recognised her hand immediately. It was Annalisa, panicky over the huge quantity of grape must beginning to ferment in the back of her car.
‘Hurry and take these’, she said as she passed the jugs through the library window. ‘Thanks to you, a swarm of angry bees followed me all the way from Gallipoli’.
She was exhausted as she spoke: It was the kind of exhaustion common to women that have recently given birth. Or, in her case, any wine maker come harvest time, when the fate of the entire year hinges on a few, fickle-weathered days.
The must was stickier than wine, and very cloudy. Just opening the plastic jugs, they hacked and coughed: only half an hour off the wine press, the yeasts on the grape skins had already started to ferment the juice. It didn’t smell exactly like wine, more like spilled wine, the fruity fumes that rise from the bottom of recycling bins and bottle depositories.
I poured the 95 litres of the must into a giant cauldron in the school’s garden and started up the flame.
Somewhere back inside the school, Anna ironed and sang along to Ella and Louis, not remotely concerned with not knowing the words. Or even the language, her husky, out-of-tune, local accent broken only by the sizzling spits of her iron.
With the cauldron within a couple of fingers of overflowing, I added ten handfuls of dried figs.
Their pectin helps to thicken the vincotto, as well as echoing the fig flavours already present in primitivo.
For the first four hours, the liquid simmered and reduced, but looked far from edible.
My shoulder began to ache from all the stirring.
Vincotto translates as ‘cooked wine’, but it’s really reduced must. Its euphemisms brim in our dialect, from what translates as ‘the honey of the poor’, to ‘Old Roman Anchovy sauce’, the later describing more how it’s used, rather than it actually having anything besides fruit in it.
And like the ancient ‘garum’, vincotto can go just about everywhere. On savoury dishes. In sweet ones. In savoury dishes that aspire to me sweet ones.
We don’t serve any beef at the school, mirroring its absence in our local cuisine, but when alone I’ll occasionally grill up a steak, dousing it liberally with our home-made vincotto, serving it with a really fruity young wine, most often made from the same grape, the local primitivo.
It’s one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. Ever. And even though I’m still full from lunch as I write this, my mouth continues to water controllably as I push down these computer keys. It’s not always the answer but if you were to ask me today, I’d say it’s my death row meal, the last big one before checking out: If I could have anything, that’s what I’d have.
It simmered as I stocked our wine cellar, as I picked weeds in the garden, as I poured long-flowing cascades of golden semolina into giant hermetic jars. I sang along with Ella and Louis, and Anna, at one point hearing her sing something close to ‘Even. Even. Mime in Even’, her whiskey-voice cracking in the upper-register.
We were looking for what the French call ‘nape’, the stage at which the thickened-liquid clearly coats the back of a spoon.
And although only the pedantic would really argue this with me, there ARE similarities between vincotto and balsalmic vinegar, a complicated product to be certain.
Begun as a dowry in the antics of Emilia-Romagna, the real stuff today is more expensive than perfume. What is sold in supermarkets and in ketcup-packets in salad bars all over the world is actually a modern, industrial product made from sugar, caramel-colouring and cooked must, two out of three ingredients of Cocca-Cola. Both are sugared, kiddie-flavours, just, for some reason, recently marketed to adults.
Late into the evening I began to filter out the figs and grape skins, pouring the boiling black liquid through a serious of haphazardly-stacked colanders. I poured what passed through that into a funnel and begin to bottle the vincotto into one-litre bottles.
I’d place those into a giant bagna maria, just to be certain that nothing would continue to ferment once cool. That simmered for an hour and I turned it off and went to sleep.
Another year’s worth of vincotto was finished.
As I’ve said, you can serve vincotto just about anywhere but the sweet dish where I appreciate its flavour most is with la cotognata, a quince paste that we make at the school each November. We marry that with a salty local cheese called caccio-ricotta, and sometimes we get a little fancy and serve it like you would in some fancy restaurant.