Friday, January 24, 2014

"In what deestrict of Italy 'ave you voyaged most?"

The above is a quote from one of the six most delicious novels ever written, all comprising the Mapp and Lucia saga of the great, the superbly great E.F. Benson. The splendid BBC production filmed in the mid 1980s, wherein almost every actor was perfect for his role and the town where the show was filmed perfect too, was called by the same name; the six collected novels can sometimes be found in an omnibus edition, Make Way for Lucia, but if you own the individual copies then you are the proud possessor of Queen Lucia, Lucia in London, Miss Mapp, Mapp and Lucia (in which the Titanesses meet!), The Worshipful Lucia, and Trouble for Lucia.

Throughout the books Lucia is forever maintaining the fiction that she can speak Italian, and of course every time she is caught out in her lie -- meeting or more often avoiding native Italian speakers, usually managing to sail away still trilling "buona notte!" -- she simply recovers from the blow to her scholarly reputation by some brilliant excuse. How could she be expected to understand the Neapolitan dialect, spoken by that opera composer "who is like a huge hairdresser"? She couldn't understand his English, either. Does that mean she does not know English?

No indeed. The huge hairdresser/composer, Signor Cortese, is one of the first to discover that Mrs. Lucas (the wife of Mr. Lucas and therefore La Lucia, just as the wife of Signor Giocondo was La Gioconda, better known as Mona Lisa) -- does not really know a shred of Italian. They attend a party together in Queen Lucia. He accosts her with a rapid-fire question she can't answer. She replies "Si, tante grazie." He looks puzzled and asks:

" 'In what deestrict of Italy 'ave you voyaged most?' "

And everybody snickers, while Lucia answers " 'Rome -- adoro Roma' " and her equally hapless husband perks up and inquires (in Baedeker Italian) of the famous composer " 'whether he was not very fond of music ....' "

Cortese happens to be the name of a grape, too, a white grape used to make fine wines in Italy's Piedmont region, and I wonder if this is a little joke on author Benson's part, or simply meaningless happenstance. He does have a gift for easy references to practically anything in the whole corpus of Western knowledge, musical, Biblical, liturgical (his father was the Archbishop of Canterbury), historical, or literary. There is a minor character in Lucia in London, for instance, named Rex Greatorex, and you would think surely he's made that one up, until you leaf casually through your old abridged copy of Samuel Pepys' Diary one day and find there was a Greatorex, in real life seventeenth century London. Ecco!

Signor Cortese's pointed query about the deestricts of Italy comes to mind because I have decided I really must learn Italian wine. In her Wine Bible Karen MacNeil recommends studying one grape variety at a time, so as to become thoroughly familiar with each before moving on, but I find that approach a bit dull. Studying a country at a time seems more fun, and carries with it the opportunity of armchair travel.

Incidentally, while stocking wine at work the other day I did have a sort of wine knowledge There I was, kneeling down, peering into the dim recesses of the lower shelves, "fronting and facing" the jug wines, when I thought: surely none even of the noble varietals are that remarkable in character, such that a Cavit, Bolla, or Turning Leaf merlot is going to be truly different from every other jug of that single varietal. What keeps consumers brand-loyal to their own particular jugs?

If we want a real merlot, we likely want a Pomerol, a Bordeaux from the appellation where our French friends have been making and drinking merlot for many a long year. The same with rieslings from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, where our German friends ... you get the idea. But it’s funny. The people being loyal to their favorite jug merlots and rieslings are doing exactly what wine writers say they should, what they say Europeans have always done: drinking what they like, and treating wine as a part of everyday life. What they are missing is the epiphany-like experience of tasting a wine that soars beyond product and becomes, well, something that well-drunk people have epiphanies about. Pomerol.

All this has led us far from where I wanted to go, and that was Italy. The reason I have decided I must learn Italian wine is because it seems to me, of all those varietals and all those jugs and then all those Pomerols circulating up in the stratosphere above our plonk-y heads, it's Italian wines that truly seem different, different enough to catch the eye and startle the tastebuds of the person who lacks decades of well-drunk experience. Chiantis, for example. They're not too much more expensive than a notch-above-jug, Lodi red wine, and yet they remind me of raspberries, olives, and horses. I find that very intriguing after my umpteenth bottle of shiraz or cab or cab shiraz, once again going down more or less like barbecued chocolate syrup. Italian wine ... don't the words themselves trill crisp and luscious off the tongue? No wonder Lucia stood fascinated by it all. And then that recent prosecco, for example. Delicious, why -- it made me enjoy an extra dry sparkling wine. Why are Italian wines different?

In what deestrict of Italy shall we begin our voyage? I can't decide whether to start in the north, in the heavyweight wine production areas of Piedmont or the Tre Venezie, or in Chianti's home of Tuscany, or in the south, in Sicily with its ancient Greek ruins and its marsala or nero d'avola. What would Lucia do?

" 'Me must fink,' " she would say, in the baby language that she and her best friend and cavaliere serviente, Georgie, occasionally indulge in. Oh, and as for almost every actor being right for his role in that splendid BBC production, the only one miscast was the nice lady playing Olga Braceley, Lucia's first nemesis. Why an overmade-up, beefy, six-foot laughing hyena, when Olga was written as beautiful, gentle, kind, and sweetly happy? Me must fink.

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