|Time Spent with a Legendary Food Scholar
~ by Bruce Neyers
Barbara and I traveled to Lake Tahoe recently on a sales trip planned with our California distributor’s ‘Mountain Man’, Jeremiah Schwartz. Jeremiah is the Sierra resort area’s most respected wine salesman, and I’d been looking forward to working with him for some time. Ski season in northern California usually begins at Christmas, and this year the Tahoe resorts were getting off to an early start with an unseasonably deep snow pack.
Our day promised to be a busy one. Jeremiah planned to begin on Tuesday morning, so we opted to leave home on Monday for the long drive. This allowed time to stop in Sacramento for one of life’s greatest pleasures — a visit to Corti Brothers Grocery Store, arguably the world’s finest source of rare and original foodstuffs. The owner and genius behind Corti Brothers is Darrell Corti, a man whose knowledge is beyond words. Darrell invited us to join him for lunch at one of his favorite Sacramento restaurants, The Waterboy on Capitol Avenue.
We arrived at the store an hour earlier than expected though, as we wanted to spend some time walking through the aisles, searching for treasures. Barbara had just received the Corti Brothers ‘Holiday Season 2018’ brochure, and when I came home and found her standing up in the kitchen reading it, she had already circled ten or eleven items — artichoke hearts in olive oil from Abruzzo, wild rice from Minnesota, air-dried Baccalà from Norway, dried pasta from Trento, fine salt from Japan, and luxurious handmade soap from Liguria. Within an hour after we arrived at the store, we had located all of the circled items on her list, then filled up another cart with breadsticks, prosciutto, fresh fava beans, tomato sauces, olive oil, blood oranges, pistachios, dried salami, an assortment of marmalade, and a selection of biscotti that would rival the greatest bakery in Milano. We had barely made it through half of the store. We had two bags of provisions to take home at the end of our trip, with some black truffles still to be shipped.
Darrell was busy waiting on customers, but as he saw us leaving with our shopping bags, he told us to meet him in the parking lot behind the store. We loaded into his car and headed off to lunch. The Waterboy bills itself as a casual neighborhood restaurant, and once you visit there you’ll wish it was in your neighborhood. The menu is a thoughtful mix of dishes from northern Italy, southern France, and California. The special that day was ‘Pasta e Fagioli’, a traditional Italian soup that often serves as a meal in itself. The restaurant was donating a portion of that day’s proceeds from sales of the soup to victims of the recent northern California wildfires, and each of us ordered it as a starter. It arrived, looking and smelling delicious, and was placed before us amidst a loud chorus of ‘wows’. It’s basically a soup of pasta and beans, in a flavorful broth of olive oil, garlic, herbs and sautéed vegetables. It has been called the most national dish of Italy, as each Italian region has its own, local version. This version was simply delicious. Barbara indicated she’d like to make the soup when we returned home, so I asked Darrell which pasta we should use. He began by explaining that the normal version of Pasta e Fagioli was made with a wide rigatoni called ‘Mezze Maniche’. The soup before us, he went on, was made using ‘Orecchiette’ or ‘little ears’, a pasta more common in southern Italy. This was perfectly fine, Darrell explained, but using ‘ditalini’ or ‘ditaloni’ would have been more consistent with the northern Italy direction of the kitchen. No question Darrell fields gets a casual answer. I bit into the garlic crouton accompanying the soup. Confirming that this was a place where attention to small details is important, it was absolute perfection – crisp yet chewy.
We finished our lunch, said our goodbyes, and headed off to Lake Tahoe. We returned home later in the week with our several bags of gourmet treasures, and Barbara announced that she had located a recipe for the ‘Pasta e Fagioli’. It came from her longtime friend and former Chez Panisse colleague, David Tanis. David now writes a weekly column for the ‘New York Times, and with David’s help, Barbara prepared Pasta e Fagioli, using our Corti Brothers ingredients. It was delicious. I opened a bottle of Neyers Carignan from the ‘Evangelho Vineyard’, a wine I especially like to drink when Barbara is being creative in the kitchen.
Grapes for this wine come from vines more than 140 years-old. They are own-rooted – not grafted on to rootstock — as the soil is too sandy for Phylloxera to live. The crop yield is barely one ton per acre. Tadeo insists on crushing the grapes by foot – no mechanical crushing device is used – and the wine macerates on the skins for 35 to 40 days before we drain the tank and press the skins. It’s a strikingly attractive wine, with a bright ruby color, and an exotic aroma of tropical fruit, mineral and wild plum. Most importantly, it’s soft already, and just as easy to drink by the glass as by the bottle.
By the way, if you don’t already receive the monthly brochure from Corti Brothers, contact them at http://www.cortibrothers.com and ask to be included. It’s a great read.