Thursday, 26 January 2017

Return to Garda

three grappas from the Garda region
Just over a year and a half ago Mrs Cake and I took our booze tourism adventures to Lake Garda in northern Italy (which you can read about here), and last year we decided to go back – because we were offered a discount to stay in the same apartment. Actually, not just for that reason; also because it was really good.

So we landed at Milan’s Bergamo airport at around 5pm (UK time) on the Wednesday afternoon. We had already chosen to remain in UK time for the purpose of keeping our little girl on her regular schedule of naps and meals. There were certainly no problems there, but this would lead to one or two difficulties and errors along the way that we’ll get to later.

I picked up a couple of take-out beers at an airport outlet (Ceres Strong Ale, 7.7%, 3 out of 5) for when we got back to the apartment.

After picking up the rental car (which always takes ages because queuing is an under-utilised concept in Italy) we had an hour’s drive to the accommodation, by which time it would be 7pm and getting on for little Sylvie’s bed time. We decided Mrs Cake would take care of bed time activities while I drove down the mountain to the Italmark supermarket for supplies (water, wine, beer, bananas – that last item for little Sylvie’s breakfast) and the nearby pizza bar for takeaway.

Both were closed, but I wasn’t about to give up. Otherwise it would be bed with no tea, and in the morning no breakfast and no water for the little girl to drink. You can probably drink the tap water in Italy these days, but not knowing that for sure, it was time to be the provider. I started to drive toward Salo, figuring there would have to be something open, and after one or two dead ends I found a hotel-restaurant-pizzeria and returned home with two pizzas, a bottle of house white wine and a big bottle of water. Result.

Triumph over adversity is a beautiful feeling.

The next day the people back home would be voting on whether we would remain part of the European Union. Mrs Cake and I had already voted by post, and were hoping for a victory for remain. While all that went on we got on with things. First on the agenda, after getting our little girl up and fed, was a trip to the supermarket to get food for the week, overstock on cold drinks, and get some preliminary booze.

Let’s start then, by looking at some beer selections from the local supermarket.

Peroni varieties

Peroni Nastro Azzurro is a very popular beer here in the UK. It seems to be the lager that is acceptable for drinking when you’re having a meal out. I first came across some of the other varieties of Peroni when we went to Tuscany, but I have noticed one or two of them since on the shelves at local supermarkets. Nevertheless, there are still more varieties available in Italy than there are in the UK.

I picked up the following:

Gran Riserva Puro Malto (5.2%), or pure malt, and I scored it a mere 3 out of 5.

special Peroni?
Gran Riserva Rossa (5.2%), or red pure malt. I was looking forward to this one. I, for some reason, thought it might have been aged in burgundy casks or something, and would be quite special. It doesn’t appear that anything of the sort is the case. I scored it a very disappointing 2 out of 5.

Gran Riserva Doppio Malto (6.6%), or double malt. I have seen this one in UK supermarkets, and would say it’s worth a punt at that nicely elevated ABV. With this one I finally started to deliberately score quarter points on Untappd, awarding it 3.25 out of 5.

For those distinctbeer enthusiasts who are thinking of visiting Italy, other varieties you can look out for are Peroni Gluten (gluten-free), Chill Lemon (a Radler), and Forte which is an impressive 8%. I didn’t see any of those on my travels, but rather on the Peroni website when I got home to do some research for this post.

Moretti varieties

Also available in the local supermarket were a selection of similarly packaged Morettis, representing various regions. I consider Moretti to be a decent quality lager, so I thought I’d get these because they’d also be decent additions to my distinct beers total. The ones I found were:

Lucana (5.8%), an amber ale with a scent of laurel (?) and a slight flavour of eucalyptus and mint (?!). Not things I’d normally be looking for in a beer… I thought it tasted gingery, but that could be my uncultured palate failing to identify eucalyptus. 2 out of 5.

Toscana (5.5%), a dark honey lager with “a chestnut aroma and scents of dry erbs and pine”, according to the website. I had no comment for this, but scored it 3 out of 5.
regional Moretti

Friulana (5.9%), a light yellow lager that tastes of apples. It really does. Fuck knows who wants their beer to taste of apples. I scored it 2.5 out of 5.

Piemontese (5.5%), an amber lager that is supposed to taste of blueberries. I wasn’t able to detect that, and scored it 3 out of 5.

Pugliese (5.6%0, an amber beer, that I actually wrote that I hadn't been able to find. I certainly hadn' logged it. Nevertheless, now that I come to post this, I find a picture, proving that I did find it.

I wasn’t able to get the Pugliese or Siciliana varieties but, as the ones I did try all seemed to be the same lager with an external influence of one kind or another – and as I didn’t enjoy them all that much – I think it’s safe to assume that I didn’t miss out on too much. Anyway, as we’ll find out shortly, there were other beers to be concerned with.


The next job was to pick out a bottle of grappa to drink during the week. It was a mammoth task as, as you can see from the photo, there was a veritable butt-load to choose from. And they were all well within the limit of my budget.

a selection of supermarket grappas
I went for the Nardini because I’d heard of it, it was a full 70cl, and it contained a cosy 50 ABVs. You’d be looking at around £37 plus P&P in the UK, while mine was around 15 euros. That was a large factor in my decision – the fact that I was already interested in trying it, and that I knew I wouldn’t want to buy it at home – why not buy it here, where it’s cheap?

Nardini - and a view
There was a bit of confusion in that the label states “Aquavite”, so I wasn’t sure whether this actually was grappa (once I got it back to the apartment). I looked for it on various websites and alls I could find was an identical bottle that said “grappa” on the label. Finally, I have to conclude that they are the same since fact of the matter is that aquavite is merely a synoynym of distillate. So grappa is an aquavite of grape pomace. It’s not for certain, but it’s the best I can ascertain from the information available.

As far as the drinking is concerned, it tastes like grappa, the extra alcohol gives the spirit a nice, full body and an extra, not un-welcome sweetness. I tried it straight at first, and figured at 50% a bit of water would be in order, but over the course of a couple of evenings I realised I’d been preferring it straight, so that was how I proceeded and then finished it.

What with everything else I drank during our stay (mostly during the evening when the day’s driving was definitely done) 70cl was almost a struggle to get through. One glass was nudged off the corner of a table (and smashed) by Mrs Cake, but nevertheless, I had to drink four large glasses on the last evening of our stay. By this stage, Brexit had cast a gloomy shadow over everything, but the cheap cigar I picked up at the bottom of the hill made everything better – until the next day when we’d have to find out how much Mrs Cake nearly driving us off a cliff would cost us with the rental company, and what returning to a politically divided UK would bring.

Nardini – this bottle at least – is far from the best example of grappa I’ve enjoyed so far. It is perhaps a little too rugged, too utilitarian. I suspect some Italians might tell you that’s how grappa should be, but I’ve been coming across some beautiful, refined examples in the last few years (as you’ll know if you read this blog), and I prefer those.

Wine Tour Part One

phone notes
In my pre-trip research I’d laid the foundations for some potential grappa tours – one such being an excursion to some distilleries in the Brescia region, to the west of our location, and the other being to the east, in the Vicenza area. These are easily accessible from the region around the southern end of Garda – as indeed is the Trento region, as we’d found out last time – but with our little girl still a month shy of a year old, we ultimately decided to err on the side of caution when it came to road trips. So instead of embarking on journeys that would take an hour or more (in the outward direction), we decided to keep our focus within 15 to 30 minutes of our home. Our host’s website showed that there was a world of wine within our grasp and, as had been the case in Tuscany, a lot of these vineyards, wineries and cantinas also produced their own grappas.

For the most part, they are open to the public from Monday to Saturday from 8.30 until 12, and then from 2 until 6 (give or take half an hour, depending on individual preferences). On this first outing we tried to arrive at our first target for afternoon opening. This should allow us to visit two or three places, then get back to the apartment in time for little Sylvie’s afternoon nap.

Now, we couldn’t find every cantina that was on our list of possibilities, but I had some backups (hastily prepared using the wi-fi at the apartment), so here’s what we got.

Monteacutodi Leali Antonio - Just a few minutes out of Salo, on the SS572 that skirts around the south western end of Garda, the satnav instructs you to turn right onto a country lane that leads by vineyards and to the tiny settlement of Puegagno del Garda. I park next to the fields, turning the car around in the expectation that we’ll be heading back to the main road after this.

I go to do a little recce, to make sure we aren’t getting the baby out of her car seat for no good reason, and find a sign directing me into a little courtyard. There’s no one obviously around, but it is just after lunch, so I go back and get Mrs Cake to come exploring with me.

After a minute or two, and with the help of a dog, I get the attention of a lady who comes down to help. She’s friendly and welcoming and doesn’t speak a word of English, but she’s happy to show us her showroom and let us sample some products. As with most Italians, she loves to see little Sylvie.

After a couple of purchases (Mrs Cake selects some pink fizz – Turmalino at 8 euros – and I some artfully packaged grappa, white in a dark glass bottle for 13 euros for 50cl), we head out encouraged, into the heat and back to the car for round 2.

At the Franzosi showroom
Cantina Franzosi – It soon turns out that turning the car around was a waste of effort because our next destination is behind us and only just up the road. I briefly consider walking because the satnav suggests it’s not far, and it seems easier than putting the baby back in the car seat. I don’t act on that, and it turns out that it’s a bit further than I thought – not very, but far enough to drive.

In contrast to Monteacuto, Franzosi is a larger, more industrial operation. I’m thinking that still makes it seem bigger than it is, but it is a more modern building with a car park, a warehouse and a forklift truck. At the back is a large and well-stocked showroom with many varieties of wine and grappa (one particularly fancy looking 3 year old at 43 euros for 50cl) as well as oils and vinegars.

By now little Sylvie is starting to get a little antsy, so I walk her around the building a little, trying not to bother the employees and keep her away from things she maybe shouldn’t be touching. She isn’t wearing shoes and the floor of the warehouse quickly turns her little feet black.

Meanwhile in the showroom Mrs Cake is being plied by the friendly host with four generous glasses of various wine varieties. Every now and then I hoist up little Sylvie and return her to this starting point before she gets herself in trouble. A couple of varieties of grappa are presented also, and we both select Rebo for our purchases – partly on the recommendation of our host. I could afford, and even be open to buying the 3 year old but as I’m already aware that grappa doesn’t tend to survive ageing more than 2 years all that well, I think it’s telling that it isn’t recommended to me. I also decide to pick up four new grappa glasses. I forget how much Mrs Cake’s wine cost, but my grappa was 14.50 for 70cl.

IlRoccolo – we fail to find the next cantina on our list, so we abort that one and instead come to il Roccolo in Polpenazze del Garda. Once again we are greeted warmly and treated to fresh wine samples, grappa samples and even finger foods for the baby. Mrs Cake selects a bottle of red for herself and a bargain white for our neighbour who is looking after Ruby the cat while we’re away. I also plump for another grappa, making it three for three. We’re already most of the way to achieving our take home target of four bottles each (and one for the neighbour).

It’s time to head home and relax while the little lady sleeps.

Rarrw! Manerba brews

Now, this is a place we went to last year to pick up one of each of their various beers. It’s a short drive from where we were staying, and indeed, close to many of the cantinas we visited during our stay. There was no one else there the first time we went, so we just picked up a box of 8 or 9 beers and went on our merry way. This time – after an occasion where we tried to go before they’d opened – we figured we might be able to get an early evening dinner while we picked up our beers.

It was probably about 17.30 when we got there this time, and it was thriving. We were sat outside with an Italian couple who were interested to know about the Brexit thing (though there was a great language barrier, so we talked a little bit about football instead), where we could listen to the rock n’ roll soundtrack and see a procession of people call in either for their own dinners or to pick up a box of beers.

In terms of food, they’ve gone for a kind of American roadhouse type menu – burgers, wings and that, so it probably doesn’t provide the authentic Italian dining experience that many tourists would be looking for, but it was decent enough food.

And the beer…

The branding has been changed somewhat; shifting from a simple but classic look with plain labels and a small follow the bear style emblem to stark black and electric, ZX Spectrum-type colours with a simple image representative of a snarling bear. I prefer the old style, but Mrs Cake saw the merits of the new one.

Luppulula, 5.2% – this one hadn’t been available last time, and it was the one I chose to drink on draught with my meal (it wasn’t available in a bottle). It’s classed as a pilsner, but it’s very light in body and in colour. 3/5

Fiordalisa, 4.8% - this is a wheat bear, which is usually a favourite genre of mine. That is reflected in the score, and that, at this point I’d given up relying on the fridge to get my beers cold, and had started sticking them in the freezer for 40 minutes prior to opening. 4/5

La Bionda, 5.2% - a Helles style lager, I scored this quite low. I must have been a little disappointed. 2.75/5

La Rocca, 6.8% - a Belgian Tripel that comes in one of those oversized bottles, topped with a cork. 4/5

Cucunera, 7% - a good strong bock, and a favourite of the range for me. 4.5/5

Weizen, 5.2% - a Hefeweizen and, again, a very good one. 4.5/5

Hop ‘n’ Roll, 4.7% - a pale ale, another favourite. 4.5/5

Rebuffone, 6.7% - also presented in an oversized bottle, this Belgian Dubbel didn’t quite reach the heights of the last three, but still; 4/5.

Wine tour part 2

You may not believe it, but a good smattering of months has passed since I last wrote anything on this post. I don’t know what happened, but suddenly I just couldn’t be bothered to write it anymore. Luckily, that’s all over with now and I feel like I can proceed again, though I have to warn you, my memory has faded somewhat and I might not be able to recall all the details. At least that means it won’t take as long to write – or read – right?

So anyway, our second wine tour was a chance to mop up some of the cantinas that were either a little too out of the way, or that we didn’t have time for on our previous excursion. We didn’t plan a big one though, as having already purchased 3 bottles of grappa and 4 bottles of wine, we simply didn’t have the luggage capacity to buy any more. I figured then that we could visit two cantinas, buying a bottle of wine at one and a bottle of grappa at the other – you don’t have to, but you kind of would prefer to be able to buy something everywhere you visit to make the effort the proprietor has put in worthwhile.

Our first stop, LeChiusure, turned out to be something of an unpleasant experience. Let’s make no bones about it. It was quite hard to find, with roadworks blocking the route the satnav wanted to take, and when we got there we ended up going through the wrong entrance, which meant strolling across some beautiful grounds that really ought to have been reserved for the family. They didn’t seem to mind, but we did feel we were imposing on their privacy.

In the showroom Allessandro Luzzago was already concluding business with a couple of visitors from the UK – visitors who were casually buying a couple of cases of his wine. Through this, a couple of sample bottles were already open, though one of the customers recommended we try the Portese. We requested to do so, and the proprietor opened a new bottle for us. Mrs Cake decided to buy that, and the annoyance on the proprietor’s face at opening a new sample bottle to secure a purchase of only one bottle was unmistakable. He quickly tried to make out it didn’t matter, but we knew that really it did. Really, I could understand this, but everywhere else we went the proprietors opened fresh bottles at the drop of a hat, and were delighted no matter how little we wanted to buy. I suppose it’s possible that most other cantinas can put these open bottles to good use later the same day, while perhaps Le Chiusure doesn’t have that kind of set up. Nevertheless, it left a bad taste in our mouths and left us apprehensive about continuing our adventure.

Was the wine any good? Well, as you know, I don’t tend to comment on wine. It seemed fine to me.

We had been late leaving the apartment that day – a result of keeping our clocks on UK time, to facilitate little Sylvie’s naps, remember - so when this first visit was concluded it was nearing lunch time, and all the cantinas would be closing. We decided to head into the nearby town of San Felice del Benaco and grab some lunch, then see how we felt after that.

After that we felt like maybe calling at Turina, which we’d spotted was on the main road through the industrial state at Manerba. It can be tough to pad out two hours though, even with lunch in southern mainland Europe, so we arrived at the site a good 20 minutes before it was due to open. The car park was bathed in direct sunlight, and little Sylvie was uncomfortable and upset, so we ended up parking under the only shade, which was actually in the middle of the road around the building.

It wasn’t a very happy time, but eventually someone arrived to open up, and they actually let me in early. He seemed confused by my presence, and my clumsy attempts at conversation got me nowhere, so I ended up just purchasing a bottle of Invecchiata, the aged grappa for 14 euros (I think). Finally we could head back to the apartment, and spend the rest of the afternoon drinking and relaxing by the pool.

Final Days

Brexit did cast a gloomy air over proceedings (and did pretty much ruin our holiday – and indeed, much of my waking life since. I wonder if anyone else is as worried about all this as I am?), but that didn’t stop us trying to get our party on for the last couple of days. The Manerba beers were dwindling, and it was time to revisit the supermarket and see what I could add to my distinct beers for the week.

Bad Brewer, but, presumably they mean bad in a good way
What I picked up this time were three varieties of Bad Brewer, an Italian brand described as street food beers – so they’re small bottles, and funkily branded – presumably intended for drinking with fancy burgers.

Now, as I said a little earlier, all this happened a while ago now, and I can’t remember much detail. Untappd tells me though that the Pale Ale scored 3.5/5 and the California Common and Amber Ale both scored 3/5.

Finally I picked up a super strength Dutch lager, whose cans had caught my eye – all shiny and gold, like. Even more importantly, this 8.6 Gold by Bavaria Brouwerij was 6.5% ABV. But it only scored 2/5.

Duty Free

Finally it was time to head home and find out what life in a fractured and divided Britain was now like. I’d been reading articles about increases in racism and hate crime, Corbyn’s shadow cabinet had resigned – which at first seemed likea good thing – and it all seemed like a great big shitstorm. I actually wished I’d been home the whole time, so that I could at least see things from my own perspective. The distance of a bit of a continent was distorting.

First though, there was the prospect of Duty Free. I’m sorry to say, that once we sorted out the damage to the rental car and got through security and all that, I had no enthusiasm for extra purchases left in me. I also felt a little rushed and didn’t have the luxury of time to adequately evaluate what was on offer. I did have a quick peruse, but all the grappa looked to be around twice the price it would have been in the supermarket. I should perhaps have looked at vermouth or even an Italian chocolate liqueur I’d heard about, but like I say, my mind just wasn’t in the right place.

We went home. Life, for us at least, was pretty much the same as it had been when we left, it was just hard to feel upbeat about the future. I think I’m used to that feeling now. Shit happens, we’ll deal with it. It doesn’t necessarily stop you feeling low, but you deal with it, don’t you?

There will be no trip back to Italy in 2017 unfortunately, and probably no trip to France either – which was something we’d been planning – because redecorating the hallway and carpeting the upstairs bedrooms is looking likely to cost £2k. But that’s life, isn’t it? There’s always next year, and this year’s going to be good anyway. Little Sylvie continues to develop, and there are loads of beers and spirits to try. Let’s get on it.

And if you come back next week, I’ll be looking at the grappas I picked up that week in a little more detail.

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