Friday, August 8, 2014

The Entire Unexpurgated History of the Eight Glasses.

So I’m looking for an interesting topic for a tasting seminar and I see someone order a Martini.  I do love it when I get struck by inspiration at a bar. (And, yes, it does happen often. Both bars and inspirations.)

Fortunately, shortly after inspiration struck, I called up a friend, the talented and personable Nathan Gerdes, who knows just a little about Martinis, and Gin, and cocktail lore, and loves history too, and talking about his chosen craft.

Not long afterwards, we proposed a seminar to the Society of Wine (and Spirits) Educators for their Annual Conference in Seattle (August 15th). It’s entitled “The Entire Unexpurgated History of the Martini…in Eight Glasses.”

Unindicted co-conspirator
Nathan Gerdes
This was a labor of love for both of us, of course; it’s fascinating to delve into the often murky and myth-driven history of cocktails, knowing you’ll hear any number of versions of how and by whom and where famous cocktails were developed. Some of them are ridiculous and collapse under the most superficial scrutiny. Some are simply delightful and entirely whimsical stories made up after the fact from nothing but idle speculation and vivid imagination.  And some…some are investigative thrillers revealed by exacting research and meticulous reconstruction of scattered written tidbits.

No, Martinez.
Cocktail lore is primarily oral history, or at the best idle conjecture only occasionally written down in passing, and most of what we “know” is not easily verifiable. Fortunately, there are some who recorded the history, such as “Professor” Jerry Thomas, now considered the “Father of the American Cocktail” because he bothered to write a book back in the 1800s, and indefatigable modern researchers, such as David Wondrich, Esquire magazine columnist and book author, that ferret out the historical details and attempt to separate fact from fabrication.

The Gibson.
For us the immediate problem became apparent:  how can we adequately represent the broad scope of evolutionary development of such an iconic drink, through so many stages, in only eight glasses?  It wasn’t an easy challenge: broad strokes and giant leaps were required. We had to chronicle the leaps without paying nearly enough attention to the slow and gradual evolutionary process.

Challenge bartenders---assuming you are dealing with professional and accomplished bartenders, and why would you wish to deal with any other sort?--- to come up with a list of eight martinis replicating the evolutionary development of the drink, and you’ll get some radically different lists, followed by some surprisingly passionate debate.

The Rockefeller Martini, or
You're so rich you can have it both ways!
But Nathan and I seesawed back and forth, with him convincing me of one cocktail and me convincing him of another that just had to be on the list.  Name calling, insults, and outright vituperation were held at a respectable professional distance, and we both yielded up righteous indignation and sulky disagreements for our favorites to come up with a list of eight that we could both agree with.

We made a couple of privileged decisions right from the beginning: keep it primarily about gin, only allude to the presumption of a “vodka martini” by talking about the Vesper; and don’t veer off into “flavored martini” country, because there be monsters there.
The original Vesper.
Bond. James Bond.

So what did we decide on?  Which eight made the cut?

The Martinez 1864 
The Manhattan 1872  
The Martini 1888  
The Dry Martini 1896
The Gibson 1898  
The Rockefeller Martini 1911 
The Vesper 1953
The Extra-Dry Martini Circa 2014
So go ahead.  Nitpick. Opine. Criticize. Snark, even. We can take it.  We even welcome it. Which drink shouldn’t be on the list, and which did we leave out that should be on the list?

The seminar is next week, and unfortunately it's already full. Sorry. But we'll give you an after-action report to let you know how it went. Stay tuned. 
So many choices.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

File under shameless self promotion...

If you peek over to the right of the blog page, you'll see a new addition to the links:  Taste & Compare  It will take you to one of my other beverage-driven ventures, the Taste & Compare Academy of Wine, Spirits and Food, a nifty and nimble little company composed of partner Chef/Sommelier Maxine Borcherding of the Oregon Culinary Institute and myself.

Our credo is pretty simple, as stated on the opening page of the website:

Dedicated to bringing you outstanding educational and travel opportunities from a staff of exceptionally talented and experienced instructors, we offer tastings, seminars, and hands-on classes designed to guide you into an enhanced appreciation of wines, spirits, and foods. 
Tasting one wine, spirit or food tells you little more than whether you like it or not. To fully understand and comprehend you must TASTE & COMPARE as much as possible, while gaining the information you need to raise that understanding to a higher level. 
That's who we are, and what we do. And we have a lot of fun doing it

Taste & Compare Academy is heating up too.  We're signed up to do two seminars at the upcoming Society of Wine Educators Annual Conference at the Renaissance Hotel in Seattle, August 13-15.

The first is something near and dear to my heart, a thorough tasting (and comparing) of The Great Brandies of France: Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados. We'll have twelve outstanding representatives from these three regions and it looks like we've pulled some great interest---and against some fierce competition too!

For the second seminar, I'll be working with the innovative bartender, Nathan Gerdes from Portland, Oregon. We (and by we I mean mostly he) will be tasting through The Entire Unexpurgated History of the Martini in Eight Glasses.  Yowza!  Should be fun, huh?  How could it not be?

Immediately after that, we're taking Taste & Compare Academy on the road to the San Francisco Bay area. We're working with that great educator, David Glancy, and his San Francisco Wine School to do a seminar tasting on Monday, August 18. It is entitled Cognac Master Class: Essence and Elaboration, and we'll be learning all about the history of Cognac, how the iconic brandy is created, and then tasting nine samples to exhibit terroir, maturation and house style.

And it's once again Cognac in September at the University Club in Portland, Oregon---but sorry, you have to be a member, or member of a reciprocal club, to participate in that one.  Or call us and we'll do one just for you.

Fall is coming up on us as well, so we'll be doing more SWE Certified Specialist of Spirits "Intensive" sessions---it's one of the best ways to prepare and review for the examination---in Seattle and Portland.  Also looking to schedule another Fall session of the French Wine Academy Scholar Certification series, which I honestly think is one of the single best put-together educational organization for French wines there is.

So check us out. All looky-loos welcome and appreciated.  If you see something interesting, let us know.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Cognac Glacé at Camus

Cognac Glacé
Here’s a radical thought: unstopper a sleek crystal decanter of your finest cognac, pour a modest amount of the precious nectar into a glass…and serve it up at eighteen degrees below zero!

Sound a bit strange?  That’s exactly what happened on a bright, sunny summer day at the Chateau du Plessis in Cognac.  The House of Camus sponsored a lunch at the family chateau for a visiting group of Cognac educators.  The room was lovely, the table was pristine and the menu promised a delightful meal.

An interesting contraption sat by each plate, composed of a fragile cone glass resting in another glass receptacle partially filled with rock salt.  A server appeared and poured from an ice-frosted crystal decanter into each glass.  Our gracious host jovially informed us we would begin our lunch with the “Eighteen Below,” a glass of Camus Extra Elegance frozen to -18°C, sometimes referred to as the Cognac Trés Glacé

Why serve a cognac---and especially an aged, subtle and delicately perfumed cognac---in this way?  Wouldn’t the extreme cold depress the very aromatics that define the spirit?  Wouldn’t cognac be more appropriate in the traditional small snifter, or perhaps a small tulip?

Ah, but we are told, here in the heartland, the epicenter of fine cognac, on a warm sunny day, when the dogs are sleeping in the shade and the workers avoid the heat of the mid-day sun, what could be a more pleasant and soothing way to begin an elegant lunch than this touch of elegance, a chilled glass of impeccable cognac warming ever-so-slowly in the warmth of the day, releasing its concealed aromatic essence more with each tiny, measured cool sip.

With almost imperceptible languor the waft of orchard fruit and honeysuckle lifts seductively in the air, both fruit and flower evoking summer, followed ever so gently by a wisp of caramel sweetness and the lilt of hovering vanilla, altering with time to a whisper of dried fruits, soft baking spices and toasted hazelnuts. On the palate, the Extra goes through a transformation, from chill and refreshing to warm and satisfying, from simple and satisfying to amazingly complex and fascinating.

Camus Extra Elegance Cognac
It is a curious historical oddity that the once popular drink of the working man became so exalted that it was transformed by time and trouble to something suitable only for the wealthy, that cognac was taken from the bistros and bars of everyday people and was destined only for the drawing room.  Prior to the onslaught of phylloxera in the French vineyards, that devastating louse (and thus the apropos vastatrix), fittingly named, Cognac was a commonly available spirit, not something reserved only for wealthy and bling-trendy, the rich and the nouveau-riche.

Cognac, then was consumed as much in the daily café as the drawing room, as often as not with a spritz of seltzer, or for the sweet tooth, a splash of ginger ale, or enhanced with the exotic bitter orange liqueur from the torrid Caribbean Islands, perhaps with a bracing dash of bitters. The rare and expensive cognacs were very much there, of course, but the spirit was not at all limited to the wealthy. It was available to everyone, not sitting lonely on a pedestal.

Indeed, when the American ‘cocktail’ began to become a “thing,” many say cognac was there, an essential ingredient in the great cocktail of New Orleans, the Sazerac.  The first Sazerac, it is said, was assembled in the French Quarter by a Creole pharmacist, and was created around cognac as its base spirit, perfumed by absinthe, rounded with sugar, and made complex through bitters and lemon peel…and served in a deeply chilled, if not frozen, glass, when ice was not a common addition to drinks. It was not until later that commerce and politics changed the cognac to rye whiskey.

So is it then odd or unusual or strange to chill down a cognac? Certainly not in the fundamental Sazerac.  Or the charming WWI-era concoction, the Sidecar (that’s the one with cognac and triple-sec).  Or ever—popular French 75 (And what’s Champagne without a good chill? Tepid bubbly, that’s what.  Add the chill, and the cognac and the bitters and you have a great cocktail)

The menu at Chateau du Plessis


So give it a try, and you might find yourself quite pleased with the result. Get over the idea that superb and complex and well-aged spirits are somehow to precious to be chilled.  Don’t use ice, for that dilutes the cognac, and continues diluting it as the ice melts: chill the glass, and chill---no freeze---the cognac (because of course, it won’t really freeze, just get icy cold) and serve it.  No flourish necessary. The cognac will speak for itself.  It might be cool at first but, trust me: it will warm up to you.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ungava Canadian Premium Gin: a unique gin from the Arctic Circle

There’s a brand new gin coming that will wake up your taste buds with bright, lively and totally unexpected flavors. It’s available now only in Canada---and only three provinces of Canada at that (Quebec, Ontario and Alberta), but the plans are already in place for a rollout to other markets, so it will be internationally available soon. It’ll take a while to get here, but it’s well worth the wait.
This new gin, from an unexpected source and with entirely unexpected aromas and flavors, is Ungava Canadian Premium Gin. Ungava is a word in native Inuit from the far northern reaches of Quebec within the Arctic Circle that means “toward the open waters”, and the gin is a delightful botanical expression of both a rare and special place and a rarely experienced culture.
Ungava Bay, leading to Hudson Strait and the Labrador Sea, is a land of extremes, but the endless expanse of tundra possesses a stark beauty in its contrast of long winters and brief but glorious summers.
In this Arctic region, where wintry ice and snow holds on for nine months of the year, and summer is an all-too-brief but exhilarating explosion of vibrant life, the Inuit customarily harvest rare botanicals that are incorporated into Ungava gin for an aroma and taste profile that is quite literally unique.
If you’re a fan of that fierce aromatic snap and bite of a fine gin, redolent with botanical essences that tingle and tease the palate, you’ll want to snap up a bottle of sun-bright Ungava. The blend consists of six specific botanicals mingled together:
Nordic Juniper
--Nordic Juniper, with a brisk snap of piney brightness followed by a citric jolt and a cool mentholated finish, the obligatory juniper essence is evident---but this Arctic juniper has an authoritative bite that lingers.
--Crowberry, which looks a bit like blueberries on an evergreen bush, is essential to the Inuit culture, with the berries used for jams and the leaves steeped into soothing teas during the long icebound winters. Crowberries add an intriguing fruity sweet-tart element to Ungava.
Labrador Tea
--Labrador Tea, another evergreen plant, with sprigs of white flowers and fuzzy leaves, is a key ingredient in the ubiquitous teas of the Inuit, and here imparts a strong herbal flavor to the gin.
--Cloudberry, a charming little plant native to the area, and looking for all the world like sprightly little pale amber raspberries, provides both fruit and tea leaves with herbal components, as well as adding bright coloration to the gin.
Arctic Blend
--Arctic Blend, a close cousin to the Labrador Tea plant, although smaller in format and with differing herbal expressions, provides floral woodsy elements to Ungava gin.
Wild Rose Hips
--Wild Rose Hips, the fruit of the rose plant, which spring up in profusion where there is direct sunlight in the brief summers, are widely used in foods, medicines, and for flavoring. Rose Hips are high in Vitamin C, and thus prized by the Inuit for both their health benefit and their fruity-tart flavors, and add an enticing element to the botanical blend of Ungava.
These botanicals create a reflection of a unique place and people captured in a beverage that is delightful and engaging. Ungava Gin is bright, lively and bracing, easily drinkable on the rocks or in imaginative cocktails that highlight the unusual aromas and tastes.
Try these variations with Ungava:
--Midnight Sun: Ungava, rocks, and a wedge of grapefruit.
--Ungava & Tonic: Ungava gin and Fever Tree Tonic with a grapefruit wedge.
--Northern Star: Ungava gin, lime juice, simple syrup and egg white.
--Northwest Passage: Ungava gin, CointreauLillet Blanc, Thai basil simple syrup
and lime juice, garnished with a Makrut lime leaf.
--Ungava Martini: a delightfully different martini with Ungava gin and dry vermouth.
--Arctic Fizz: Ungava gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and soda in a Collins glass.
--Inamorata: Ungava gin, CampariLimonata San Pellegrino, and Prosecco. For an exotic
touch, add a bit of liquid nitrogen to the glass before mixing.
Ungava Canadian Premium Gin is a new experience well worth waiting for. It’s coming, but it will take a while…so if you can’t wait, take a trip to Canada this summer and enjoy a bottle. After all, Montreal is lovely this time of the year, Toronto is a world-class city, and Calgary is gloriously beautiful.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Appreciating Corton

Appreciating Corton

Wine aficionados spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for a wine to become fully mature. Perhaps they should also consider whether they are “mature” enough to appreciate a wine.

Consider Corton. Or more properly, Le Corton, a Grand Cru wine from the famous Hill of Corton in Burgundy. It is the wine of legend, highly prized by all, enjoying both stratospheric prices and worldwide encomium from wine critics and consumers. If there are wine superstars, Le Corton is one of them.

And yet… And yet…

With all my experience in and appreciation of wine, and especially my love of great Bourgogne wines, Le Corton somehow never figured all that prominently in either my consumption or my adulation.

There are few Burgundian wines I did not like, and Corton certainly wasn’t in that category; it’s simply that I never seemed to be as inspired by Corton as I was by others.  I could get silly over Savigny-les-Beaunes, which is usually more a cute number than a profound example of Pinot. I could thrill over a Chambertin, or one of the Romanee siblings. I could even appreciate the somewhat stodgy but consistent nature of a decent Pommard. But as much as I could appreciate what Le Corton was supposed to be, I never could truly come to appreciate it as thoroughly (and reverentially) as I thought I should.

And I never really understood why.

That is, until recently.

I was in the home of good friends in Bordeaux and with a simple dish of sous vide salmon and new potatoes, a perfect backdrop for a good Burgundian Pinot, I had my revelation with a 2006 Bouchard Pere et Fils LeCorton.

As revelations go, it was rather quiet, with no spinning wheels within wheels or arcs of lightning. The earth did not shake nor did the silverware clatter. I simply came to understand: it was not the wine that had been underperforming; it was me.

Until that moment, I did not know that the lack of appreciation for what Le Corton is was not implicit in the wine, but in my inability to properly appreciate what was there.  In my (relative) youthful naiveté of sensory understanding, Despite having frequent opportunities to experience and enjoy Le Corton, even some well aged prime vintages, I was not capable of understanding what the wine was supposed to be.

It was a problem of maturity. My maturity.

Suddenly, in this quiet moment with a good but relatively young version of Le Corton, there was gestalt.

With Corton, it’s not essentially the lovely aromatics, though lovely they can be.  And it’s not at all the cherry-berry fruitiness laced with acidity that characterizes most Pinot and is the first thing one notices, although that is there as well.  With Corton, it’s the superb density of the wine, the concentrated, earthy, mushroomy compactness of the sensory experience the wine provides, as if it goes beyond mere fruit and into a primal sort of communion with the soil.

Corton doesn’t charm, in the way a Savigny can. It doesn’t resound with vibrant fruit. It doesn’t even display its lean acidity. It’s a wine of surprising and endless depth and complexity and almost brooding strength.

That Corton was always there. It just took a while for me to mature enough to understand it.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Pepe Le Moko and Morgenthaler Magic

In the latest stop on the continuing bar crawl of Portland’s purveyors of alcohol-laced goodness, we ventured into the subterranean vaults of Pepe Le Moko, at the corner of Washington and 10th Street downtown.

Or in other words, around the corner from the Ace Hotel and Clyde Commons, and down the stairs.  The proximity is important because the talented Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bartender extraordinaire, is the manager and inspirational leader of both joints.

It’s clear that Pepe Le Moko is an act of love. It is imbued with its own character and attitude, an ambiance of the old idea of a speakeasy (although it’s not), and to see Morgenthaler behind the bar there is to see a happy and satisfied man doing what he loves to do.

Pepe Le Moko is small, cozy, convivial---and with its particular style and connection with Morgenthaler, you’ll get excellent service because he has that invaluable knack for hiring good people, and you’re likely to see many of the best bartenders in town showing up here on busman’s holiday.  That’s a great sign; one of the ‘secrets’ of the spirits trade is when you arrive in a new town, ask a bartender where the bartenders go when they’re not working.  In Portland, one of those places would be Pepe Le Moko.

Morgenthaler (l) with Tommy Klus, having
way too much fun making cocktails
But it’s not just Morgenthaler’s charisma that brings them there: it is also the particular, and somewhat peculiar, drink menu he has designed and the immaculate cocktails he and his staff create that brings them there and back again.
Part of Morgenthaler’s genius, and a reflection of his devotion to his craft and art (he wouldn’t call it art, but we can) is an inspired re-creation of some of the legendary drinks of yesteryear, particularly drinks that have become so corporatized and bastardized and poorly made by sloppy hands over the years as to, quite literally, leave a bad taste in people’s mouths.

Let’s take a look at a few of the standout drinks on the Pepe LeMoko list:

When’s the last time you had a Grasshopper, that once hugely popular sticky sweet concoction of crème de menthe and cream that gives you a cheap minty blast and raises your glucose levels drastically?  (I thought so.)  Now, when is the last time you actually had a good Grasshopper.  (Uh huh.)  Go to Pepe Le Moko. Right now, if you can, or as soon as you can. Order the Grasshopper re-imagined by Morgenthaler. Be amazed.

As one who usually hates the mere thought of that overdone, oversweet mess of a drink, most often consumed by barely-legals (and perhaps not even that) until the sweet stickiness makes them ill, I was forcibly convinced by Morgenthaler (he made me try it!).  Quelle surprise: this was a not-too-sweet combination of rich ice cream and good menthe, a touch of crème de cacao for added dimension, and brought into perfect balance with the addition of that bartender’s bitter tipple, Fernet Branca.  And this may be the single best use of Fernet Branca as an ingredient I’ve ever enjoyed.  Most bartenders have a PBR tallboy with a shot of Fernet Branca, but that’s another story.  It’s inclusion here literally makes the drink a home run.  Add a touch of salt for more diversity of flavor and serve it up in an old-style soda glass and you have one of the most surprisingly delicious drinks imaginable.

El Nacional
Another drink you seldom see these days is the once hugely popular Nacional, a rum-based drink.  Operating on his belief that there’s no such thing as a bad cocktail, just badly made cocktails, Morgenthaler re-created his ideal versions.  And it is a reminder that a great cocktail, done with precision and care, remains a great cocktail even if it has faded and been debased over many years of carelessness.

Then there is one of the most maligned, mocked and defamed drinks of all time, the infamous Long Island Ice Tea, usually an excuse to cavalierly throw together some of the cheapest spirit ingredients possible into a Frankenstein’s mishmash of flavors primarily designed to be cheap, highly profitable and to get college kids buzzed as quickly as possible.  The “Lahn Gighland” is one of the all time “throwaway” drinks made to appeal to soda pop-trained drinkers.

But not in Morgenthaler’s house.  The secret, which is no secret, is to use premium ingredients and pay close attention to the balance of aromas, flavors and textures.  If you’re a Long Island Ice Tea fan, have one at Pepe Le Moko: it will remind you of the very first one you had, and why you liked it so much at the time.

The Amaretto Sour
Morgenthaler has bragged, loudly, often, and to anyone who will listen, that he makes the best damned Amaretto Sour in the world (the giveaway might be his article in Playboy humbly entitled “I Make The Best Amaretto Sour In The World”). 

Low bar, some might claim, and the thought of such may not inspire you: but remember, a well made drink is the key here.  First rule: use no mixes.  Thus the ‘sour’ part is fresh lemon juice, not some concocted pre-mix laced with chemicals.  Second, use good ingredients; and for every ingredient, there is a choice among bad, mediocre and good, and it makes a difference.  Finally, pay attention---close attention---to the overall balance of the drink. Create the drink; don’t just slop some ingredients together.  So does he make the best damned Amaretto Sour?  Could be; it is an impressive drink.  Will it convert me to a steady drinker of Amaretto Sours?  No; but as a very occasional drink this is not bad. Not bad at all.  (And oddly delicious with a couple of the bocadillo sandwiches, which you really shouldn't miss on the Bar Foods Menu.)
And the rest of the list

If you’d like to enjoy more of Morgenthaler, that’s entirely possible because not only can you visit his blogsite but you can read his newly released book, The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique, available on Amazon, or at Powell’s Bookstore on May 28th, where you can see the man himself, along with photographer Martha Holmberg, and get an autographed copy to boot. Since Pepe Le Moko is all of a block away from Powell’s, that puts you in close proximity to the book, the author/bartender, and his cocktails all at the same time.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Remembrances of Venice:Street dogs and the Murano hustle

In this second (and thankfully final) amble down the misty nostalgia of memory lane inspired by a friend's recent Venetian visit, I revive from my "In Caso da Nebbia" journal the enchanting stories of the dog that wasn't and the never-ending hustle of the Venetian soul.

After a morning of shopping the next day, we decided we would go to Murano.  More specifically, our wives decided they would go to Murano, and we were to go with them.

Massimo, from our locanda, arranged the visit by water taxi.  As he greeted us at our locanda door I noticed the engaging little dog bustling around his feet, darting through the legs of all the passersby with great aplomb.  Looking like a cross between a Jack Russell Terrier and a midget seal, he was quite the sight.

He is not my dog.
“You have a nice dog, Massimo.”

--Massimo, puzzled, looks down.  “That’s not my dog, Signore.”

“Oh, but he acts as if he were your dog.  Or rather, that you were his person, perhaps.”

--“He acts as he will, Signore.  But he is not my dog,” says Massimo, with a curiously expressive flip of his hand off to one side, and a half-shrug.

“He must like you though, since he follows you around.  And he appears to pay very close attention to you.”

--“Ah, yes.  He came one day, and I happened to be going to a MacDonald’s, so I bought for him a hamburger.  Since then he stays with me and accompanies me when I go to my meals.  Sometimes, when it rains, he asks to come into my apartment.  But he is not my dog, you see.”

“Yes, I see.  He is not your dog.  Quite obvious.”

--“Yes.  Now we must go to the water taxi.”  Massimo made a smirching kissy sound with his lips and waved his hand to the dog that was not his, who immediately trotted over to his side when Massimo strolled away.

When we reached the water taxi, Massimo called us over to the side and huddled with us, speaking privately.  The dog that was not his pattered over to smell what may have been a dead fish or some such.

--“When you reach Murano, Signore, you must understand.  We are Venetians, you see.  We have either been occupied by or have dealt with the Romans, the Goths, the Turks, the Slavs, the Levantines and Arabs, the Austrians, the Germans, everyone.  We have either conquered them, or they us, or both at different times.  So we are traders.  When the man at Murano makes you an offer, he will say ‘One thousand Euros for this.’  So you must say, ‘No, Five Hundred Euros, no more!’  Then you and he can discuss this for a while. But never accept what he first says.  This is not an insult to us, you must know.  This is the way we are.  If you are so foolish as to take the first offer, we will of course accept the money, but you deprive us of the bargaining, which we expect.  This, for us, is our way, and part of what invigorates us. The man at Murano will not feel badly if you bargain.”

Millefiore alla Murano
We bought, of course, for it is almost impossible not to buy at Murano.  Not for the haggling and the pressure to buy, but because the pieces are so beautiful and the artisan’s pride shows through certain pieces so clearly that you feel you are purchasing a small piece of their soul, and therefore acquiring a bargain even if it is not.  And the maneuvering is fun. 

The man at Murano, Ricardo, who was of the fifth generation of one of the four families who had established the Vetrerie, the glass factory, was delighted to be showing his glass to us, and delighted that we treasured it enough to buy it, and delighted to bargain with us, for then he could further respect us for being intelligent as well as appreciative of his art. 

The Arlecchino in question
As we left Ricardo recommended two restaurants, gave us directions, told us the names of the owners, advised us on what to order and instructed us to tell the owner we were friends of his and should get “Ricardo’s price,” not the price for tourists!  And this is the beauty of Venice, when the provider profits, and the buyer profits, and both are happy and content.  Then you go to lunch.

(And now, the rest of the story of Ricardo: after bargaining for quite a while for a particular bowl in the “Arlecchino” style, Ricardo took the bowl to the back room for the artist to sign and to then pack carefully in layers of straw and paper and twine so I could carry it in my backpack. Which I did for the remainder of the long trip, until it was safely home. When I unwrapped it, it was quite a different piece, clearly inferior, sloppily done, shoddy.  Ricardo had substituted, it seemed. The old bait and switch. Ah, Venice. Let the buyer beware.

I formally lodged a protest with Visa; they contacted the Vetreria, and someone immediately agreed, without any demur, to refund the entire amount, and we were told to keep the piece.  So we did, and have it now as a memento of our day in Murano and the mercantile nature of Venice.)

Then  across the lagoon and up the Grand Canal and back to San Marco, and the cathedral, and a walk to l’Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim.  Along the way we come to understand that Venice is, as much as any city has been, ever, a city of music.  There are street musicians.  There are cafes on the various piazzi who have trios and quartets and quintets and sestets, mostly based on strings, to entertain the languid patrons.  There are various and sundry orchestras throughout the city on a nightly basis in the summer, celebrating music.  The chiesi have their doors open in the evening so the music can spill out into the streets.  When the hour strikes, the various belltowers carol out point and counterpoint, as if each was playing to and with the other in the soft air above the city.

The Guggenheim was overrated, although the walk through the city was not.  Max Ernst may have been avant-garde, but he was also a terribly modest and limited painter, and Peggy liked the dark things for the most part.  Perhaps that is why he was her second husband.  Even the Kandinsky and the Klee were not of the vibrance that typified them.  Only the Calder showed the exuberance and vitality inside the villa. 

Ah, but on the outside, with the Picasso-like sculpture on the canal of the boy on the horse with arms spread and erection in full glory and the horse smirking as only a horse can, or the juxtaposition of the grand pallazzi, the Venetian seahorses and the pyramid of orange metal on the aged and pitted marble terrace with the sunlit water lapping just beneath, all under the celebrated Venetian Light.

A short break in the room, then inexorably out to the streets and alleys and canals and the endlessly milling people, the constant movement and babble, the flowing of colors and sounds and smells, feeling the amazing textures and contrasts of this place.  The gruesome and tragic turn fascinating and romantic when you realize you have just stepped on the Ponti dei Sospiri and can see the smooth depression rubbed in the marble of the first step from the countless millions of feet that have stepped just there at that point.  And how many of those feet were dragging and reluctant, you wonder, as people now take pictures of each other on this bridge of romance, emitting altogether different sighs. The fantastic and the mundane sit in equal glamour when a sleek black lacquered gondola glides by, with a young couple dazzled by the gondolier as his voice rings out like a clear chime while he effortlessly dips the paddle just so to swerve around a putrid garbage boat reeking of the effluvium of the stylish ristorante perched over the canal.

Restless, we move on past the grand palaces with their pitted facades and the mooring posts that seem so solid but oddly show their bottoms hollowed and eaten away to the spindly core when the boats pass and disturb the milky green water.

We stop at a canal-side ristorante to duck away from the pitter of rain and shelter under the canopy, again close to the throbbing Rialto, to sit and dine and watch the boat traffic go by, the clogged vaporetti, the polished and shiny water taxis, gleaming like wood-lacquered echoes of The Great Gatsby, the rusted work barges, the cigarette boats of the nouveaux riche and the stolid and dowdy boats of the old and tattily elegant rich. 

But it is the worst of Venice we have ducked into, this tourist trap without soul or substance, with waiters shilling people off the streets and squabbling amongst each other to provide tasteless food for high prices for heedless people.  We decide to order a glass of wine, as little as we can for the pleasure of watching the flow of spectacle, a pittance of Pinot Grigio, then we are off to a more hospitable place.  We come across, in some conjunction of alleys somewhere, the Aquila Nera, purportedly founded in the 1500s and still possessing charisma in its little hidden corner of streets that don’t quite meet.

They have a good wine list, so we carefully peruse it and make our selection:  A bottle of Refosco.  The waiter returns shortly and tells us, “I am sorry, Sir, but the bottle of Refosco is missing.”  We look at each other, but neither shows a quiver, and neither says a thing.  Let us try this again:  A bottle then of Marzemino, per favore.  Again the waiter returns, this time visibly embarrassed, to tell us, “That bottle is also missing, Sir.  Perhaps something else?”  The next bottle, a Cabernet Franc, for we like the Francs of the Veneto and Friuli, is not missing, and so we have it.  Perhaps for the next person it will join the other missing bottles from the good wine list of the Aquila Nera?

Finally, footsore and tired but not weary, we shuffle through the streets to our locanda and listen to the city quieten itself through the night, and think of all the things we did not see or feel in our time in Venice.

We are off the next day, on the vaporetto past the train station to the Piazzale Roma, with its link to terra firma, to the justly derided Mestre, and on to Padova and the Colli Euganei.