History and Hospitality: wine and food stories told in silver. Part 1

 

I love a good story, especially one that involves wine!  Who would have thought I would stumble across a story that involves not only wine but Sicily and the British naval hero, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson when visiting the Allen Gallery in Alton, Hampshire a couple of weeks ago.

It all began as I looked at a silver wine label marked “Bronte”…

This label is part of a wine and sauce label collection managed by Hampshire Cultural Trust in collaboration with the Allen Gallery.

Silver and enamel wine and sauce labels were used in the 18th and 19th centuries by the growing middle class in England when wine was decanted from barrels into glass decanters and the identity of the wine was described by a silver label.    Condiments or sauces for food were also served in glass jars or bottles and similarly labelled.

So what is the connection between this Bronte silver wine label, Sicily and Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson?

The latter part of the 17th century and early 18th century was the time of the Napoleonic Wars (1793 – 1815) between Britain and France and involving many other nations in Europe.   It was a time of major land and sea battles, which are still commemorated.

The Napoleonic Wars ended with the great victory of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo in 1815.   The Napoleonic Wars include the mighty naval battles of the Nile (Aboukir Bay) and Trafalgar under the leadership of Admiral Nelson.     It is the history of Nelson that relates to our Bronte wine label.

As part of the naval battles in the Mediterranean, Nelson protected Naples from the French. At the time, Naples was incorporated into the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies of which Ferdinand 1st was King.     In 1799, King Ferdinand rewarded Nelson’s services to his kingdom by granting him a title of Sicilian nobility, the Duke of Bronte together with an estate in Bronte, an agricultural area in the shadow of the volcanic Mount Etna.

A famous wine from Sicily is Marsala, a fortified wine similar to sherry which became popular in Britain in the 18th century.     This popularity was partly due to the trading activities of the 18th Century importer John Woodhouse and the British Royal Navy, which became a big consumer of Marsala wine.   Vice Admiral Lord Nelson used Marsala as the official wine ration for sailors under his command.   A manuscript exists, dated March 19, 1800, and carrying the signature of the importer John Woodhouse and the Duke of Bronte, Nelson’s Sicilian title, stipulating the supply of 500 barrels, each with a capacity of the equivalent of 500 litres for the fleet stationed in Malta.

After Nelson’s victories, especially at Trafalgar and his death there, Nelson was held in great esteem by the British people for saving Britain from possible invasion. Many landmarks were created in his name, including Nelson’s Column and Trafalgar Square in London.

The British people were keen to taste the wine that had so fortified Nelson and his sailors’ spirits in battle and this added to its popularity.

Back to the wine label marked “Bronte”.     This fine piece of craftsmanship was made in London by the silver makers Reilly and Storer in 1830.  It was just fifteen years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.    The label would have been used on a decanter of Marsala wine, possibly produced on the Bronte estate in Sicily or elsewhere on the Island but called Bronte in recognition of Nelson’s Sicilian title.

The Bronte estate remained in Nelson’s line of descendants, now called Nelson-Hood until 1981 when the last remaining lots of land were sold to the Municipality of Bronte.    There remains a Nelson Museum in the town of Bronte, which is now known for its pistachio nut harvests and the delicacies made from them..

Marsala wine is grown in the region DOC Marsala in Sicily and produced from three white wine varieties.     It is a fortified wine usually containing around 17 % ALC – alcohol by volume.   The ‘in perpetuum’ process used to make the fortified wine is similar to the solera process used for Sherry produced in Jerez, Spain, in which old wines are blended with new wines and the barrels never emptied. Marsala wines are classified on an eight-point scale according to their colour, sweetness and duration of their ageing.      Usually served as an aperitif, Marsala can also be served with a cheese course.     It is often used in cooking and this is how I remember it being used by my Mother.  Dry Marsala is used in savoury cooking. One of the most popular savoury Marsala recipes is chicken Marsala.   Sweet Marsala is used in the preparation of delicious desserts such as tiramisu and zabaglione.

Every story has an ending.   Our story about the Bronte wine label ends with our visit later that same day to Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, about two miles from Alton.

For most of Jane Austen’s ( 1775 – 1817 ) life, Britain was at war with many countries including America, France, Spain, and others, including the Napoleonic Wars.    Many of her books include characters with a naval or army background.   While jokingly hoping to see Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice fame walk through the garden in Chawton, we did in all seriousness read the stories of Jane Austen’s brothers,  who both rose to a high rank in the Royal Navy and were contemporaries and admirers of Admiral Nelson.

 

A fitting end to our visit was to see on display in Jane Austen’s house, the Herculaneum Funerary Dish in memory of Admiral Lord Nelson, Duke of Bronte, immortalized for me in that silver Bronte wine label.

 

References:

British National Archives   http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Various websites about Bronte, Italy and the Castello Nelson Museum

Hampshire Cultural Trust and Allen Gallery. http://www.hampshireculturaltrust.org.uk/allen-Gallery

Wine Label Circle   http://www.winelabelcircle.org

Italy, Lazio Region:War Heroes and Wine

It’s early morning and I am vaguely listening to the CBC news. My concentration is suddenly focused on the announcement of the earthquakes in Italy and the tragic loss of life and destruction of the mediaeval town of Amatrice, north west of Rome.

In my mind, I am visualizing the towns and villages that we saw on our recent trip to Italy and in particular, the area around Cassino, where the famous World War 2 battle of Montecassino took place in 1944.

Our visit was to pay homage to a relative who died at the battle of Montecassino in 1944 and whose final resting place is in the Cassino War  Cemetery.

Cassino War Cemetery

Cassino War Cemetery

Beneath a clear blue sky, crisp lines of cream coloured gravestones softened with plantings of yellow and red roses stop us in our tracks and bring a lump to our throats.   Here lie thousands of young war heroes:  their names, biographical and regimental details etched on the gravestones. Small family groups of visitors, like us, quietly walk around the Cemetary, touching the gravestone of their family relative in silent respect.   An atmosphere of calm and peacefulness pervades this place which lies in the shadow of the Abbey of Montecassino that is situated on a hill top high above the town of Cassino.

We spend the day with Dr. Danila Bracaglia, a local historian and licensed, professional guide.    She is very knowledgeable about the WW2 Italian campaign and we visit relevant areas in the vicinity including the Abbey itself.  We feel as though we are re-living the history as we stand in these places and absorb the surroundings of mountainous terrain, valleys, rocks, trees and plants, rivers and bridges and listen to Danila recount details of the campaign.

The intense day is followed by a restful stay at a small family run hotel in the middle of Cassino.   At dusk, we hear church and Abbey bells ringing out and look up to the Abbey above the town, both completely rebuilt after the war and now very much alive and vibrant.

To regain our equilibrium after our unforgettable pilgrimage, we spend the following day visiting mediaeval towns, including Alatri with the ultimate objective of lunch in Anagni at the Ristorante Del Gallo.

Ristorante del Gallo

Ristorante del Gallo in the 19th century

Fortunately, our reservation at this family run, generations old restaurant, was booked well in advance.  The restaurant is packed with locals for Sunday lunch.  We are the only foreigners having lunch there that day.  It’s just as we prefer it: no other tourists in sight.

The atmosphere is lighthearted, exuberant, loud with laughter, smiles and warm welcomes and chat in broken Italian and English as we are asked and we respond about where we are from.  Vancouver seems a long way away.

We anticipate a good meal accompanied by local wine.  The experience doesn’t disappoint and exceeds our expectations for a memorable occasion.

The piece de resistance, the starter course,  is the specialty of the Lazio region.  It is wheeled out of the kitchen on a waiter’s trolley and taken to each table for examination and appreciation.  Il Timballo alla Bonifacio V111, named for a Pope, is a fettuccine based pasta dish enveloped in prosciutto ham.  It is prepared and baked in a mould then served upside down and freestanding.  The Timballo is irresistible with its aromas of cooked cheese, tomatoes, prosciutto.    Inevitably, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs as we enjoy this taste of Lazio, made according to the Ricette TRadizionali.  I have looked at a number of Timballo recipes in Italian and have the general idea of what’s involved.  At some point, I will make a brave attempt at creating this very Italian dish.

Il Timballo alla Bonifacio V111 is the traditional pasta dish of the area, and Cesanese is the local wine. The grape variety and wine by the same name has its roots deeply planted in this area.     Cesanese is indigenous to the Lazio region with very old origins and may have been used by the Romans in their wine making activities.  Cesanese wine has long been associated with the ancient town and commune of Anagni where we are having lunch.

The bottle of Cesanese Del Piglio DOCG, DOCG being the highest classification of Italian wines, is perfect for the occasion.  The Cesanese grape variety produces a red wine which we found paired perfectly with the regional food:  soft, velvety, light bodied wine yet rich in flavour.  A very drinkable and enjoyable wine.

Sadly, winemaking in the Lazio area is in decline due to the urban sprawl.  We feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to enjoy Cesanese wine on this visit  as it is not readily available outside the area.

When I attempt to make make the Timballo, I will serve it either with a Sangiovese wine since this grape is widely grown in the area or my preference would be a Montepulciano d’Abrozzo DOCG from nearby on the Adriatic coastal area.  This wine is made from the Montepulciano grape variety.  While each of these wines is generally richer in colour and texture than the Cesanese, I think either would complement the Timballo.

Our time in Cassino visiting the grave of our relative and other war heroes, together with the WW2 sites and the mediaeval towns and villages in the area will always have a special place in our memories.  And, how could we forget the Timballo alla Bonifacio V111 accompanied by Cesanese wine?

Back to the present and our historian, Dr Danila Bracaglia emails me that fortunately her family were not in the area of the Italian earthquakes.   However, they heard and felt them and knew this would mean tragedy for those involved.

Our thoughts are with those affected by the earthquakes and aftershocks.

References:

Dr Danila Bracaglia.  www.montecassinotours.com and http://www.viaromatour.com

Ristorante Del Gallo.     http://www.ristorantedelgallo.it

Lazio region     www,italia.it   There are many websites about Lazio.