Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wine, Music, and Cheese IN A CAVE

This is my Italy.  Music & wine in strange locations.
There is a fabulous thing in Italy, really and truly magnificent.  It's called 'Cantine Aperte.'  It translates into English as 'open cantine.'  Generally, you pay a small amount as entrance (5-8 euros, depending on the event), they give you a glass, and you get to go buck wild tasting as many wines as you want in as many places as you want.  They also let you stuff yourself silly with traditional foods that are supplied aplenty, while listening to rollicking traditional music.  That's the general gist of it.

I'm a physicist, so let me provide you with this simple equation to make understanding easier:

Wine cellars opening doors+wine glass+food+music+good company=good time

This was the second one I've been to.  The first one was right before my wedding, and took place at all of the fancy-pants (AKA delicious) vineyards near my house.  The cool thing about this is they gave you a thing to hang your fancy-pants wine glass around your neck.
My darling Aunt demonstrating proper use of a wine glass at a Cantina Aperta

Now, this one I'm writing about today wasn't fancy-pants.  It was a big freakin' party in the streets of a small town called Donnas.  It's in the southern part of the valley, and a cute little town where they make really fantastic wine.  Donnas wine.  It costs a pretty penny in the US if you can manage to find it.  As one of the few fiddlers in the region and part of the traditional music scene here, I was lucky enough to get to play in one of the open cantines.  I think it might have actually been someone's personal wine cellar, I'm not really sure.  We hauled our instruments through the streets, and entered through the back door, with a special knock, to where a bunch of little Italian ladies were busily preparing  'Zuppa alla Valpellinense' (or if you prefer it patois, the regional dialect, 'Seupa a la Valpelinentze').  It is a funny sort of  cabbage soup that is topped with bread and Fontina cheese that is baked in the oven.  It's quite tasty.  They prepared huge sheets of it for the hundreds of wine-heads pouring through the door and milling in the streets.
Pans full of the cabbage-bread-Fontina soup ready to be eaten by pub crawlers
After eating and drinking an appropriate amount of local wine, we launched into playing.  There was another fiddler, upright bass, button accordion, piano accordion, mandolin, guitar, percussion, bagpipe, whistle, and my husband on the banjo.  We were squished together, quite literally, and I kept poking folks in the nose with my bow.  It was a little wine cellar with arched stone ceilings, and we were perched together wherever we could squeeze ourselves, while locals likewise squished themselves together while drinking vin brule (hot mulled wine).  It was a pretty great time.

All photos of us musicians squished together in a jolly manner, underground, amid wine and partygoers

However, we eventually decided to take the party elsewhere.  We played randomly in the streets, until we stumbled upon the best thing ever.  Seriously.

A cave.

Yes, a cave.  In the center of town.  It had an entrance a bit like any other building in an alley way, except it opened into a real cave.  I don't think it was dug out or anything, I think it was just there and they build this village around it, and others, thousands of years ago (not kidding...2000 years would be pretty accurate).  But this cave was way more awesome than your average cave.  It not only had hundreds of bottles of wine ready for everyone to drink, but some GIANT cheeses, waiting for us to eat.  Like, man-size cheeses.  Anyways, we marched in there, hopped up on some big rocks, and started playing our guts out amid the drunk and merry locals, man-sized-cheese, and endless bottles of wine.  It turns out that caves have incredible acoustics.
A giant cheese in the cave

Music, jolly Italians, cheese, wine, in a cave!
Not content to leave well-enough alone, I was recruited on the street to join a band that was in search for a fiddler.  They asked me if I played 'populare' music.  I translated that as 'pop' music, so I responded that I used to play in some classic rock and punk bands as a teenager.  They looked at me like I was a bit crazy.  They proceeded to start playing some music that sounded a bit like some kind of traditional music, and people started dancing what looked to be some kind of traditional dance.  It was simple enough, so I played along and jumped around while doing so, as I'm prone to do.  I found out later that 'populare' means traditional music.  Apparently they play traditional southern Italian no wonder they thought I was a bit crazy when I told them I used to play in a punk band when they asked me if I played their music!

But, yes.  If you can go to a cantine aperte, do so.  Especially if you get to party in a cave. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Battle of the Queens

It seems that most things in this lovely valley I live in revolve around cows.  The beloved Fontina that is eaten at every meal, the cows standing the the middle of the road blocking the traffic on the way to work, regional competions for leather workers who make very fine cow bell collars, metal workers who make special cow bells, a giant festival for when the cows come back down from the mountain at the end of the summer…. And the battle of the queens  (Bataille des Reines). 

Who are the queens, these strong females battling it out to become the queen of the entire region of Valle d’Aosta?  They are cows.  Not big fat stubborn women of the human variety, but rather of the bovine sort.  It is one of the biggest events of the year, held annually on the 4th weekend of October and countless people gather with ample food and wine to watch the top cows of the region literally battle it out in the annual finale.  There are about a dozen preliminary rounds in the preceeding months to establish which cows get to be in the big battle, before all of the eyes in the valley.  

At first, I was very perplexed by this, and didn’t like the idea much.  I’ve been a vegetarian for nearly 20 years, and am firmly against the mistreatment of animals in any manner.  I thought  it sounded cruel, until I realized (by watching the cows in the pasture around my house) that this is just what female cows do on their own every day in every field, everywhere, to establish the pecking order.  They don’t hurt each other, but just butt heads and lock horns until one gets bored and runs away.  The remaining cow wins, and when she has battled it out with all the cows in her field, and they all wandered away before her, she becomes the top queen of the field.  This spectical is essentially establishing a pecking order for the entire region, and everyone wants to watch.  It is actually quite lucrative to have the winning cow; that cow instantly is worth a fortune, as is all of their offspring.   I am proud to say that the neighboring dairy (the one across the field that I get my cheese making milk from) has THE queen cow from both this year and last year.  So, my cheese is made from the milk of a queen!  Queen Cobra. I would personally be a little wary of milking her.  

(video I shot at the Bataille des Reines.  It's a fairly 'active' couple of minutes, and it represents the cow aspect of the event pretty well, I think.  Personally, I thought the people watching was way interesting.)

The whole event is really peculiar.  At the gates there are young women dressed in traditional Alpine clothing.  They sell decorated cow bells, local cheese, cheap beer, and cotton candy.  The thousand or so people have all brought copious amounts of food and drink, spread out in the hundreds of picnic tables overlooking the arena.  It is all pretty much traditional food.  Big rounds of darkened cheese, hunks of dark and dry bread, barrels and unmarked bottles of home made wine, piles of aged sausages, and even a big old half eaten hairy leg of what I presume to be a goat or pig... feet, fur, and all.  People are wrapped in blankets, holding a knife in one hand, a giant hunk of cheese in the other, with a bottle of wine beside them.  The leap up and cheer when their favorite cow wins, and look downtrodden with their cow runs or wanders away.  There are at least 5 different TV news stations covering the event.  Below the picnic area, there is the barn, where hundreds of beautiful brown cows are being lovingly coddled by their owners, or teenagers are sitting on their feed bins sneaking drinks of wine, and texting friends.   Some of the cows even have corporate sponsors, with the name of  the companies name engraved onto the cows’ decorative face plates.  Another strange aspect: the cows absolutely must be pregnant.  The explanation I have heard is that pregnant  cows are much less likely to get into a violent fight. 
The ladies resting up for the fight

Barrel of (likely) home made wine

Yes, that is a leg of a critter amid fontina cheese, wine, and grappa

Italians must have fresh, delicious coffee no matter where they are

homemade pickles, mocetta (salted meat), fontina cheese, and wine

blood sausage, cheese, and genepy (local homemade herbal liquor)
The arena is quite big, and it is made especially for this event.  The venue is called 'vaccodromo', which literally translates as 'cow dome'.  Also, Bob Dylan got to play second fiddle there, so to speak, when he performed there some years back.  My husband, having been to both the cow battles and the Bob Dylan concert, says that more people were at the last cow battle than at the concert.  These people have their priorities straight!
Look! Here come the Queens!

There are six cow battles going on at a time.  They put two cows near each other, with their owners nearby, and usually the cows stand around, chewing their cud, pooping, and occasionally pawing the ground.  At some point, after a few minutes or maybe even a half hour, one of the cows head butts the other, and they clash horns a bit.  One of them eventually gets tired of it, and scampers off.  Sometimes the winning cow goes running after it, and then the various owners and random observers, start chasing the cows around to prevent them from trampling people, which sometimes can take a good bit of time.  I often saw the owner of the losing cow kiss his beloved cow on the head, and give it friendly pats.  These men really love their cows. 

My mom was visiting at the time, and went with me.  She turned to me and said, ‘Annie, you live in a really strange place’.  It’s true, I do.  People gnaw on furry, hooved, goat legs while watching pregnant cows butt heads, in an isolated valley in the Alps.  I just love it!