Thursday, 28 April 2016

Moretti La Rossa

The morning after we climbed Mount Pisanino, we sped along the coastal autostrada and pitched up early at the Piazza del Giglio in Lucca for the monthly antiques market.

Stalls arrayed around a statue of Garibaldi flogged tat, which we spent a hour or so sifting through before thinking better of every potential purchase.

Drifting up to the Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, we took a seat outside one of the cafe bars for lunch. Looking around I saw lots of Birra Moretti branding and a few glasses of dark beer.

Moretti La Rossa - a strong, dark German-style bock praised by beerhunter Michael Jackson - isn't often seen on tap outside of the northeast.

A couple of glasses of this hearty beauty accompanied papardelle all cinghiale perfectly.

As we supped and scoffed, the ambience on the elliptical piazza was threatened by a father and son team in full trackies who took turns to play the sax very badly, while the other circulated plaintively with a upturned baseball cap. Fine cabaret in a fine location.

Emboldened by the strong dark beer, we returned to the antiques market where I handed over €80 to some chancer for a large lithograph of two Bavarian men having a knife fight over the body of a wounded stag, framed in heavy dark oak. It'll look lovely above the sofa, I'm sure.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Glorious mountain, glorious beer

"Lots of people have died up there", he said, shaking his head. We were terribly proud of our exploits, but our host at the bar was dead set on killing the buzz. Thankfully he was pouring us two beers, the first of many. We'll return to the bar in a moment, but for now we need to go back to the late morning.

The mountain

At 1970 metres, Pisanino is the highest peak of the Apuan Alps. Despite being a small range of mountains, the Apuane are remarkable in that they almost dip their toes in the sea, with a very small coastal plain between them and the beautiful beaches of northern Tuscany's coast. Their marble quarries are, of course, famous too, having given birth to Michelangelo's David among many other great works.

The way to the ridge. Steeper than it looks, with lots of scrambling.

It wasn't gleaming marble but rugged limestone we had our eyes on, however. Driving up winding roads to the highest point accessible by car - a mountain refuge at around 1100m - we climbed Pisanino's peak one day last week. It was hard work from the very start, with steep gullies to scramble up before achieving the ridge.

Approaching the summit.

As we clambered along the limestone ridge, we were severely exposed to the wind and to steep drops on both sides. When we reached the small summit plateau we could relax for a while. The view was breathtaking, with the other, lower peaks all around: there was impossible Grondlice, jagged Pizzo d'Uccello, broad-shouldered Cavallo. We had the whole of Lunigiana below us and only the birds above our heads.

The descent through snow and ice on the eastern face was, in fact, considerably more hairy than the climb itself. By the time we'd traversed the mountain and hacked our way through steep, treacherous woodland to the car, we were very pleased to be finished, but elated at what we'd seen. Seven hours after we'd parked, we set off in search of a drink.

The beer

Pieve San Lorenzo is a village a mile or two from our own. It's possessed of a railway station on the Lucca-Aulla line, with trains emerging from tunnels under the mountains on both sides. In its very centre - it's quite spread out - is a tiny bar I'm very fond of.

Through an open door behind the bar, as many as four generations of the owner's family can be seen watching TV in a comfortable living room. He's fond of hunting, and has a real boar's head mounted on the wall. A games room with unsilenced (and therefore comically noisy) games machines is accessible through a bead curtain.

The bar is now even better: our host has installed draught Forst, probably the best mass-produced lager in Italy.

And that's Mount Pisanino in the distance...

Getting our mitts on glasses of this great beer in an unexpected place felt like a real reward for our efforts, as was the view of the mountain we'd just climbed.

In June I wrote about my love of Forst, situated in Italy's extreme north-east (formerly German Austria's extreme south, but let's leave that alone for now).

Monday, 25 April 2016

Petrognola Marron - a chestnut beer from Tuscany

That house has stood for half a millenium, yet still it was hard to believe it would be intact. When we arrived last week, it had been eight months since I last locked up and left Lunigiana behind.

Gloriously, all was well when we pushed open the door and crept over the dusty tiles. The next day, with the sun shining and a 1000 mile, two day car journey behind us, it was time to relax on the terrace. I'd left behind some quality local beer in August in anticipation of this very day.

Petrognola Marron, a 6.5%, orange-coloured beer, has, alongside malted barley, a small amount of spelt in the grain bill, the brewery's signature ingredient. Also included as a fermentable is a quantity of chestnut flour: I tasted a sweet note that, to me, suggested its effect. The use of Saaz hops keeps things on the straight and narrow and balances a slight sourness.

Chestnut woods are common in Lunigiana and the nearer part of Garfagnana, where the brewery is situated. Indeed our own house has an old chestnut mill adjoining it. It was, therefore, an appropriate - and delightful - choice of beer to toast our safe arrival.

I've written about Petrognola before. It's a microbrewery in the Garfagnana - the Tuscan region immediately to the east of Lunigiana, on the way to Lucca - that includes varying amounts of spelt in the recipes. The man behind Petrognola, Roberto Giannerelli, previously worked with Teo Mussa of Baladin, so has pedigree as well as an unusual USP. The labels are a bit dodgy, but the beer's packaged in lovely bottles that are cropping up all over the place in northeastern Tuscany.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Taverna Tortuga, Aulla

I first visited Aulla, a Tuscan market town on the Parma-La Spezia railway line, in 2002. Since then it's enjoyed a period of growth, with a huge new station installed in a commercial district frustratingly far from the historic centre.

Aulla was bombed heavily by the Americans in the war, and is now a stretched-out affair with wide roads and characterless late 20th century buildings. There is, however, an old town section - overlooked by the oppressive Fortezza della Brunella  - where the street plan and even some intact architecture survives. I've spent many happy afternoons there, and have always had an affection for the place I can't really explain.

Last week we arrived after dark in my pal's little car, having driven many hundreds of miles from Strasbourg, with stops at Luzern and Como along the way. Our throats were dry and our bellies empty. Thankfully, I knew that among the silent streets was a place that would come to our aid, even at such a late hour.

Taverna Tortuga is an unfussy little bar in a former shop unit. I don't know how long it's been there, but it certainly looks well worn. The cheap and cheerful grub is an American-German-Italian fusion, with pizza, burgers, currywurst and chips with everything.

What's remarkable is the beer offer: taps on the bar dispense a range of five beers from Herrnbräu of Ingolstadt, Bavaria. Presumably there's a connection between the owner and the brewery, as such an arrangement certainly isn't common in Italy.

We started with glasses of Tradition Festbier (presumably brewed all year round despite the seasonal-sounding name). At 5.6% abv, it's a punchy, full-bodied refresher, poured beautifully by our host and served in perfect condition.

For our second beer we bypassed the Radler (obviously, it's a shandy), the Weissbier and the Heller Doppelbock, opting for Röter Panther. Dark, north of 7% and served in a snifter glass, this was something else altogether: rich and smooth, with a roasted caramel character lifted by the alcohol.

While we were in Tortuga the owner, Roberto, had no staff to help him at all. He was dressed in chef's whites, and was cooking and pouring beers for three tables of half a dozen each, plus the pair of us and a couple of barflies. No-one seemed to mind waiting and he looked totally unperturbed by his predicament. Service was, consequently, very slow but very friendly.

The clientele was entirely male and every one of them was clearly a regular. It's not surprising they keep returning to somewhere with beer so good and, for the region, so unusual. This little piece of Bavaria in Lunigiana is a truly exceptional place I look forward to returning to.

Aulla is on the Via Francigena, the series of footpaths from Canterbury to Rome that commemorates the journey of the Anglo-Saxon Archbishop St. Sigeric. It is said he took many days rest in the town. Clearly the place charmed him too. I doubt the booze was much cop in the 10th century, though.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

AB-InBev buys Birra Del Borgo

In 2007 I got my first taste of Rome's artisanal beer scene, and wrote about it in the pages of What's Brewing? and here on the blog.

Rome, 2007. Leonardo Di Vicenzo is second from the right. I'm in the middle.
Woke up fully dressed on my hotel room floor after that session.
The first Italian craft brewer I met was Leonardo Di Vincenzo. I enjoyed beers from his Lazio microbrewery - Birra Del Borgo - at Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa in the Trastevere. I've been back several times over the years, and I've also met the lad here in London.

Yesterday it was announced that Birra Del Borgo has been acquired by AB-Inbev.

This is a tremendous success story: what was, less than a decade ago, an obscure brewery in a country not known for craft beer is now part of the world's largest brewing conglomerate.

No doubt some will be upset about this news, but I'd suggest they look at the positives: Birra Del Borgo beers will benefit from better distribution and hopefully, in time, keener price points.

The extremely high cost of craft beer in Italy - especially when compared to the country's fantastic wine - has been a barrier to growth. As someone who spends a lot of time in the country, I don't actually drink a lot of craft beer there because I just can't justify the cost.

I have a 75cl bottle of Birra Del Borgo ReAle Extra in my fridge. I'll be drinking it tonight to toast Leonardo's success. It cost me €12.50 in a wine shop in Lunigiana last week. I also bought six bottles of good local red wine for €2.50 each.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Rathaus Brauerei, Luzern

Entering Switzerland via Basel is a disappointing experience. They lift the best part of 50 notes from you just to use their motorways, and then you spend much of the next hour or so underground in terrifying tunnels. When you emerge into daylight the outlook is industrial, with only the mountains all around to hint at the country's famous beauty.

The reward, for us, was a two hour stop in Luzern. It's a gorgeous city, with a lakeside altstadt. Best of all, without having done so much as a quick google search, we chanced upon a brewery restaurant right in the middle of it all.

The Rathaus Brauerei is on the left.

The Rathaus Brauerei sits on the lakeside at just about the prettiest spot in town. The vaulted interior offers a compact tap room -  with beers poured from the tank and no food served - but the focus of the place is the restaurant next door.

The tanks from which the house beers are poured at Rathaus Brauerei.

The polished brewery kettles were visible from our table. Groups of smartly dressed business people enjoyed the basic (yet undeniably expensive) beer hall classics.

We dined on pork and sausages (of course) and enjoyed the lovely, unfiltered house beer. Without any of the murk or yeast bite you get in some hefetrub brewpub efforts, this was pure and well integrated as a good Germanic lager should be.

After our meal, we crossed the water on a long and narrow wooden bridge, and stepped into the Franciscan church. The magnificent early Baroque pulpit, appearing to float above the nave, was the most memorable feature of a tremendously attractive interior.

Returning to our car, we rejoined the motorway and headed for the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino and then the Swiss/Italian border. Our next stop was to be Como, another elegant city on a lake. However, we didn't have any beer there, so the next post here will take us all the way to the market town of Aulla in Lunigiana.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Beer as the perfect aperitif

The differences between the drinking habits of Romance speakers and we Northern Europeans are frequently discussed, usually by those seeking to characterise our own as barbaric.

I like both and am happy to fall in with local customs wherever I find myself in our great continent. As such I've had grappa with my coffee at 10am in Italy, and mugs of pivo in Prague even earlier than that.

Although I'm fond of a G&T as a sharpener, and have even been tempted by those lurid spritz things in Italy, I know what I'll usually reach for when it's aperitif time.

For washing away the dust of the day before the gastronomy begins, nothing beats beer.

I enjoyed Licorne Elsass (pictured) in Strasbourg last week. It's brewed right there in Alsace and very agreeable. We were driving from London to Tuscany, and stopped overnight to stay with friends. The restaurant was a bit hipster try-hard, with a wine list somewhat lacking in depth. Nevertheless, a single draught beer to start put me at ease instantly and enhanced the whole experience.