• There's nothing like a Grappa

    In a MyLittleVespa first, Giancarlo Rinaldi (@ginkers) guest authors, and gets to the bottom of his passion for grappa and why it's so 'lethal' in one tiny glassful. 

    Small doses are best advised...
    It seemed to me like the dining equivalent of lighting the blue touchpaper on a firework. Whenever we visited my relatives in Italy, they always poured my father a homemade grappa at the end of the meal. Then everyone retired to a safe distance to enjoy the spectacle.

    A tirade of foul language was the very least we expected. Often he coughed and spluttered as if a tear gas canister had just landed in his lap. Sometimes it would take several minutes before the power of speech returned. All of which provoked great hilarity among his hosts.

    But, I admit, I was intrigued by this devil's brew straight from the Tuscan hills. It often resembled some kind of Molotov Cocktail with - is this true or am I just imagining it? - a rag where the cork should have been. And everyone seemed to produce their own.

    Even though I never tasted it during my teenage years, I was regularly encouraged to take a sniff. I usually recoiled quickly at the glass being brought anywhere in the vicinity of my olfactory organs. I feared, I think, that my nose hairs might be irreversibly damaged.

    Then I remember too, my grandfather - Nonno to me - throwing a glass onto an open fire having mistaken it for water. The resultant blue flame shot up the chimney and produced a mushroom cloud of fumes which simultaneously stung the eyes and cleared the sinuses. It was the kind of incident which should have left his trademark moustache aglow. It certainly caused him to jump backwards as quickly as I had ever seen him do.

    It’s not a drink I remember him being particularly fond of - from memory he was more of a Vecchia Romagna man. But I do recall the mountain men of old being fond of a nip or two. All deep voices, low-slung trousers and tales of gunning down a wild boar or two, they downed them for warmth and not for show.

    I can picture the small, stubby glasses carrying the mysterious liquid most clearly around a card table with a game of Briscola in full flight. Or, if a pack was not to hand, within easy reach of men locked in a boisterous battle of the hand-and-number game Morra. Then, later, it was supped sporadically during an evening sing-song or sitting outside a one-horse bar watching the last sun disappear on a warm Garfagnana day.

    My summer holidays touched upon that world but it was at Easter time that the door really opened. The tourists were gone and the days were colder and there was nothing much else to do but visit old relatives and the haunts of my grandfather’s youth. I did not realise at the time that I was glimpsing an era which was slipping away. And it left the burning aftertaste of grappa.

    By the time I was old enough to take a proper sip, it was no longer quite the drink of my youth. The bigger producers had got in and homebrew was no longer such a widespread option. It was refined - at least by its old standards - but it still packed a punch. The Mike Tyson of after-dinner drinks.

    "How on earth can you drink that stuff?" remains a common question among those I encourage to partake of a glass. Among the comparisons I have heard most often are paraffin, lighter fuel and petrol. Certainly, I wouldn't want to take it too close to a naked flame as my Nonno did.

    However, for me, it still retains some link with a bygone age of mountain men that I never fully got to know. They would drink a glass without batting an eye or splash it in their coffee for winter warmth. They may well have dabbed a little behind their ears to attract wild animals towards their shotguns. Whatever it is, it feels like an alcoholic link to my ancestry.

    Of course, it’s not a specifically Tuscan beverage (Piedmont and the Veneto lead the way), but it does come from that great peasant tradition of wasting nothing. When the winemaking is over, the leftovers could still be put to use. And, so, the seeds, skins, pulp and stalks were distilled again to produce a neat liqueur. The better the wine, so they say, the better the grappa. I’ve never quite become enough of a connoisseur to tell you if that is true.

    Where once the only choice was take it or leave it, there are now restaurants which offer a selection trolley of grappas. You can have it Morbida (soft) or Secca (dry) if you like. There are even a couple of guidebooks to the drink which I own, even though I can imagine the mountain men snorting at the very thought.

    It is not, nor will it ever be, a rival to whisky. Most of it is sold without much of an ageing process. Indeed, it only takes 12 months in a cask for a producer to be entitled to call it Vecchia (old) and after just another six months it can be Riserva (reserve) or Stravecchia (really old). Since the 1970s, however, Grappa di Monovitigno (Grappa from a single vine) has also been available in a move towards something like a single malt.

    I’ve watched its evolution with more interest than most. I used to keep a blog about it - The Grappa Diaries - until I ran out of things to say. And I still feel alcoholically undressed if I don’t have a bottle in the house to offer guests and watch for their reaction.

    Nowadays no big meal seems complete without it. Indeed, my uncle once memorably claimed that eating was really just foreplay to the grappa moment. It is, for me, part digestivo and part tradition. Perhaps it is no longer quite as rough and raw as those wild beverages of my childhood visits to Italy. But, nonetheless, it still has the capacity to make a few sparks fly.

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