Thursday, July 9, 2015

Sugar and Yeast

All across Tuscany, different crops paint the countryside hues of green and brown. One of the most prolific crops is the grape, which are typically harvested for wine making rather than as produce.  Today in Montepulciano, I visited the … winery. As I ventured down into the cellar of the winery, large barrels of oak dwarfed me. The tour guide explained to us oaking the wine while it’s aging adds all kinds of flavors to the wine after the fermentation process has taken place. Fermentation needs only two things, sugar and yeast. A ripe organic grape is filled with sugar, and wild yeast lives on its skin. In order to start the fermentation process, all one has to do is break the skin and expose the sugar to the yeast. However, in conventional grape growing and harvesting, the yeast is absent, so the yeast is introduced by the producer. Natural wines are made with wild yeast indigenous to the grape’s region, but most commercial wines are the same handful of yeast strains. This takes from the flavor and the individuality of the wine. The amount of sugar in the grapes dictates the level of alcohol in the wine. An organic wine is created using only its own sugars, but the commercial produces use a process called Chaptalization, in which they add sugar to the juice during fermentation in order to boost the level of alcohol. Whether it’s a fine complex wine or a table wine, they both come about through the process of fermentation.


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

One final post: Beautiful Cinque Terre

Well, It's a bittersweet moment, my last blog post of the trip. Its been an incredible ride and I've seen so many interesting sites, while having an awesome time in the process. Hopefully in the future I will get to come back and enjoy all the wonderful things that Italy has to offer all over again.

This past weekend, most of the group traveled to Levanto, where we got to spend 3 days in beautiful Cinque Terre. One of the days, 4 of us from the group decided to hike the entire trail of Cinque Terre. In Italian, Cinque Terre means "5 lands" and it literally is 5 towns or "lands" on the coast that we hiked: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. We actually hiked more than just the 5 cities because we started from Levanto, which is a 5 mile hike north of Monterosso. The entire hike was absolutely gorgeous.
My favorite part of the hike was in between Corniglia and Manarola. Even though getting to the beautiful area meant exhausting yourself on a near-endless staircase up an actual mountain, it was totally worth it in the end as I got to see incredible terraced vineyards, stretching along the entire side of the mountain, green and luscious. It is hard to put into words just because you're in a place where you're surrounded by beauty at every angle. All the grapes grown along the mountainside are all white and include the varieties of Bosco, Albarola, and Vermintino grapes. As a result, the only local wine is white, which makes sense because most of the cuisine is seafood, which is best paired with white wine. I can only imagine having to harvest these grapes, having to trek up and down the trail carrying multiple pounds of grapes as you do. It was tough hiking carrying only a backpack! Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to try any of the wine but I'm sure that it is probably delicious. In addition to making white wine for meals, Cinque Terre wineries are known for making a special dessert wine "Sciacchetrà". The name comes from the root word "sciacàa" meaning to crush in Italian and describes the process of the wine and all wine for that matter.

Our hike was incredible but also pretty exhausting. It was calculated that we hiked over 19.5 miles, took over 36,000 steps and climbed a hellish amount of stairs. But we finished the entire trail and it was absolutely worth it in the end. I will definitely remember all the terraced vineyards and the gorgeous scene they set agaist the colorful Cinque Terre villages and the vast expanse of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Its a place I will never forget.


Cinque Terre: Terraced vineyards

Coca and Cocaine

In our last class of the summer semester we talked about the addictions. Marijuana, tequila (blue agave), coca and opiates. The one that stood out to me the most was coca. Native to South America, the coca plant is used daily in a lot of South America. The leaves of the coca plant can be chewed and made into tea in its natural state and when chemically altered it can be turned into cocaine. When used in tea or chewed the coca plant does not give off the same "high" as one would assume it would. It is said to give you energy and even help with altitude sickness. The coca leaf is often sold by the bag at markets and by street vendors. The most dangerous part about this particular plant is that many people use it to make and sell cocaine to the U.S. After watching a video in class my eyes were opened to the realities that many people face daily. Many young men are forced into cultivating the leaves and making cocaine. In the video it showed the process of producing the cocaine, which includes adding battery acid, bleach and many other harmful chemicals. In these small towns cocaine is used as cash because there is a lack of it. I found it so sad that many of these people have no chance at making it to college or even finishing their secondary education and graduating highschool. Many of the producers of the cocaine don't use it because they are aware of how bad it can be for ones body. When they are done with the process the cocaine is sent off on horses and the people never know who it's really going to. They just get money back from the illegal distribution that goes on in the United States. Watching that video make me aware of how lucky I am to attend Texas A&M and hopefully create a future for myself.

Cove of Wonders

Probably our most incredible discovery was the baths of Queen Giovanna of Naples. Traveling along a secluded, winding path, you finally arrive at a secret cove. Hidden in the forest is a small, clear pool with refreshingly cool water. Although the ground is quite rocky, it is very easy to stand and walk through the water. You can even jump off the rocks into the deeper parts! While our first trip to the cove was fraught with awkwardness and just a little bit of danger, our second trip was incredibly ideal. Very few other visitors came by, so we practically had the whole area to ourselves.

Giovanna I was the Queen of Naples in the 14th century. It was rumored that she entertained young lovers at her palace nearby, and took them bathing with her in the pool. She was even said to have pushed her lovers off the cliffs when she was tired of them. She was married four times, and her rule was fraught with internal and external conflict. But her cove was super nice.

Back in Black

In late 2010, Ball FloraPlant, a division of Ball Horticultural, released Petunia Black Velvet. After 4 years of development, the black flower was deemed ready for introduction into the market and into the gardening world. Black flowers are extremely rare, due to the fact that the black color does not occur naturally. Producing a true black color, and not simply an extremely dark purple, requires years of manipulation and mutation that does not come easily to a plant.

We first saw some of these beautiful flowers on our trip to Assisi. While we were leaving the city, I spotted some on our walk down the hill. When I asked Dr. Starman about them, she mentioned that they were a relatively new variety that Ball had produced. Until that trip, I had no idea that the flowers existed in that color. Certainly other colors of petunias, in fact for many years we've had petunias in our front lawn. But never in black! I loved being able to see something completely new. The fact that entirely new, never before possible colors are being created every year is incredible. With every new creation, new gardening possibilities abound.


Red, White and Rosé?

This past week we traveled to a winery on our home turf, Castiglion Fiorentino. We walked through the town for around 30 minutes before we arrived at La Pievuccia. This little winery is all organic and take pride in their sustainability. Not only is it a winery but it is also a hotel. They only use vegan soap and their products inside the hotels are all very environmentally friendly. Before we started the wine tasting we were given a tour of the vineyard and the rooms in which they produce the bottled wine. In one day the winery hires people to come and bottle all of their wine for that year. It is estimated that around 13,000 bottles of wine are filled and corked in one day. One of the more interesting things about this, for me at least, is that they use a glass cork for the white wine.
When we started the tasting I couldn't help but notice all of the beautiful flowers around the table. Slowly, I started adding flowers to my braid and on the walk home it just kept getting more and more full. Just some examples of plants that went in my braid are chicory, poppies, some greenery and for good measure I stuck a cherry in the end of my braid. It was a fun day full of laughter and horticulture.

Cinque Terrace

Quickly approaching the 14th mile of a 19 mile trek in Cinque Terre, my three fellow hikers and I woefully learned that the trail that we wanted to go down was closed. So we took the alternate route, straight up the nearby mountain. After struggling to reach the top and finally traveling horizontally again, we knew that our determination had paid off. We walked through beautiful terraced vineyards planted on the side of the mountain that faced the coast, the side which receives the most sunlight and gives the grapes the best chance to transform into great wine. They are layered on terraces, each containing a few rows of vines in an effort to decrease soil erosion and surface runoff, an effective practice that is common in most hilly agricultural areas. In Cinque Terre, however, terraced vineyards also give travelers some of the most breathtaking views Italy has to offer. They combine the already beautiful Italian coast with the illusion of well-kept, personal hillside gardens. The pristine conditions found in these vineyards exemplify why Italy makes such great wine. To outsiders, it seems very difficult, and almost not even worth it, to go through the difficulty of digging terraces and daily hauling materials up and down mountains to sustain these plants. But Italians take great pride in their work, and so much work and care goes into the upkeep of vineyards that, if diligently continued, Italy will never give up its spot as one of the world’s leading wine producers and one of the world's most beautiful countries. Ciao Italy!

-Nathan Monger