Grappa

Grappa is the Italian answer to brandy. It is produced by extracting the alcohol from the skins and seeds (vinacce) left in the fermenting tanks after the wine is transferred to casks. Once considered a poor man’s winter tipple in Northern Italy, grappa, which is made between 80 and 160 proof, is now fashionable throughout the country and can be purchased in most bars, including the bar in the railway station in the town of Maratea.

The port town of Maratea lies two hours south of Naples. A quite delightful little place, located on a number of tiers rising steeply from the sea, it is served by Italy’s west coast railway line, running from Milan, south through Rome and Naples to the toe of the boot, Reggio di Calabria. This is a busy line used by a broad cross-section of Italians, it would appear, including simple farm folk from the south going north to visit their children in Rome or Milan, and chisel-jawed factory workers from Milan returning south for a weekend in the home place, and nuns and priests on the move in both directions, and people with bicycles, and travelling salesmen and sleek middle-aged women on their way to secret trysts in Milan with silver haired men who own boxes at La Scala, or at least that’s how it seems.

Having arrived from Milan in Maratea, the tiny train station is quickly forgotten as the ascent by taxi is made up the winding road into the upper town where, from almost every street corner, bedroom window, restaurant table or terrace of umbrellas, the blue Mediterranean is visible. To get down to the sea involves another taxi, passing the railway station, and spiralling on down to the port itself, where retired fishermen are on hand to skipper trips for snorkelling. An alternative is simply to grab a table at one of the bars or restaurants in the port and drink grappa for the afternoon.

Unlike the wine that gets distilled into brandy, vinacce are solid, and would burn if they were just heated; for grappa they are steamed. The distillers put the vinacce in wire mesh baskets, stack the baskets in huge copper steaming cauldrons, seal the cauldrons, and begin. The resulting water-alcohol slurry is called flemma. The flemma condenses on the insides of the cauldrons, trickles into a holding tank and is piped to copper distillation columns in which the grappa is separated from the methanol-rich head and the impurity-laden tail.

A lot can be learned in Maratea about drinking grappa. It is drunk primarily as a digestivo, an after dinner drink to help the digestion of a large meal. Nowadays, the grappa industry is trying to promote the chic side of the drink and encourages bars to serve grappa in flute shaped glasses. This practise is scorned by grappa drinkers in Maratea who believe that only a shot glass should be used. Or a coffee cup. Grappa may be added to an espresso coffee to create a caffe corretto (a corrected coffee), or as rasentin: after finishing an espresso with sugar, a few drops of grappa are poured into the empty cup, swirled around and downed in one. More often than not, however, grappa is drunk in Maratea on its own, throughout the day and evening.

One way of getting back to Milan from Maratea is by sleeper train. To book the Maratea-Milan sleeper, a 10-hour journey, involves several visits to the railway station in Maratea – something that can be achieved on the way back uphill after lunch in the port. And if there is not a sleeper cabin available, then two seats in second-class will have to do. The sleeper train arrives/departs Maratea each day at 11.58 p.m.

Grappa is taken seriously in Maratea: local grappa drinkers, if asked, treat inquiries about the quality of different grappas with the utmost gravity. There are thousands and thousands of regional grappas, all over Italy, all with their own distinctive taste. Traditionally, grappa was drunk young and was as clear as gin; lately, however, as the fame of grappa has spread, aged grappas have started to be produced and in the process of being aged take on the yellow or red-brown hues of the barrels they have been casked in.
Tasting different grappas takes time, sometimes an entire day. It is a skilled business. Some seasoned grappa drinkers claim that only by rubbing the grappa on the back of the hand and sniffing it can the true quality of the drink be ascertained. Others insist on a specific mouth cleansing snack between brands – for example, salted pistachio nuts, or rusks spread with acacia-blossom honey and topped with a flake of mature Montasio or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Then there are those in Maratea port for whom nothing less than half a glass of fresh, pasteurized milk, swilled around the mouth thoroughly in order to refresh the taste receptors on the tongue will do between grappas.
At ten-thirty on the evening of departure the station is deserted except for the bar, which is still serving grappa to a few familiar locals, on their way home, ascending from or descending to the port, it is never quite clear. Soon everyone is drinking grappa and clapping each other on the back and talking about Robbie Keane, although neither side speaks the other’s language. And then, at 11.55, someone mentions that the train comes in on the opposite platform so it’s better to get over there because Italian trains don’t hang around.

The footbridge seems miles away, so the cases are lugged across the tracks by all the grappa drinkers and up on to the far platform, just in time, since the spray-canned Milan sleeper arrives out of the southern night like an immense strip of multi-coloured liquorice. All of a sudden the platform is alive with gesticulating guards blowing whistles. “Avanti! Avanti!” they cry as everyone scrambles aboard and the Milan sleeper barrels north out of sweet, sleepy Maratea.
The manufacture of grappa is principally a North Italian thing and apparently one distillery near Montepulciano produces grappa using plant and machinery originally designed to provide alcohol to power Mussolini’s tanks.

Each evening, much of southern Italy gets on the Milan sleeper. In corridors where people are packed tight as toy soldiers in cigar boxes, girls sleep in the arms of their lovers, tiny nuns sleep on brown leather suitcases, youngsters sleep on the joint between carriages and one man heroically slumbers astride a bicycle. The pre-booked seating compartments along these corridors are so jammed that in some of them children are stretched out up in the luggage racks. And life being what it is, the pre-booked seats that await lie a mere fourteen carriages south, which means transporting luggage a distance equivalent to going to Wexford. And although it’s not surprising to find the said seats already taken when they are reached, what is somewhat unpleasant is to discover that the ticket upon which the claim for the seats rests is for tomorrow’s train, not today’s.

People who have seen grappa being made compare it to stumbling into the den of a mad sorcerer, whilst others speak of the sense of tranquillity that descends having inhaled the fumes for half an hour or more. Finally, grappa, they say, should be drunk “without looking back”. And so it should be.

Renewing a passport? Welcome to Homeland…

At noon one day last week, I approached the outskirts of Balbriggan as light snow fell. I was searching
for the Fingal Bay Business Park. To the north, the white dustedMountains of Mourneshone between snow flurries. Border country. Somewhere here, in an anonymous campus, a deep cover operation of the DFA, the Department of Foreign Affairs, had its base. This was North Co. Dublin’s answer to Langley, the small town in Virginia that fans of Homeland will know as the location of the CIA.

Read the rest of my article in the Irish Daily Mail.

IRELAND: THE BULLET AND THE BALLOT

In a Dublin hotel last Friday afternoon, patrons could have been excused for thinking they were on the set of Fargo, the TV ganglands blockbuster. Gunmen armed with machine guns and dressed in police-style uniforms stormed into the crowded venue and set about executing a crimeland figure who was attending a boxing match weigh-in. Two other men were critically injured. One of the killers was dressed as a woman. The continuity IRA, an Irish republican paramilitary group that split off from the provisional IRA many years ago, has claimed responsibility.

The killers’ guns were reputedly from old Provisional IRA stock. Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach, has asked Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, once the political wing of the IRA, to comment on this coincidence. Mr Adams has responded that the killers “should be locked up, where they belong”. He added that the Continuity IRA has him “under active death threat”.

The uneasy collegiality that exists between violent republicanism and Irish drugs cartels occasionally disintegrates into turf wars. Criminals with republican pedigrees operate scams, such as diesel laundering, an illegal method of removing the dye from lower taxed agricultural diesel and then selling it at a higher rate to motorists. Drugs bosses conduct their business from the comfort and safety of the Costa del Sol, dispatching murderous acolytes back home to carry out their gruesome orders.
The government has responded to the latest bloodshed by putting armed police on the streets. The Labour party, the junior member of the outgoing government, wants the Archbishop of Dublin to get involved. Two days before the hotel attack, the Taoiseach called a general election. His Fine Gael-led government claims it rescued the country from the door of the poor house, where Fianna Fail, which led the previous government, had left it. Labour has been polling poorly and is fighting to avoid the customary fate of junior members in a coalition. Sinn Féin is steady in the polls, and shrugs off suggestions that its president consorts with border criminals and is but a small step from his paramilitary past.

The concept of “fiscal space” has recently entered Irish politics. It indicates how much the new government will be able to give away in tax reductions, or to spend on services, without displeasing the European Central Bank. Between €12 billion and €10 billion appears to be in play, depending on whether you believe Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. All parties now hover like bees around this honeypot. But fiscal space may be as relevant as outer space if the UK votes in its forthcoming referendum to leave the EU. Bilateral trade between Britain and Ireland is worth more than €1bn a week. And gathering international headwinds on stock markets and a strengthening euro could leave Ireland’s small, open economy vulnerable.

Fine Gael is likely to benefit most as the attention shifts from money to law and order. It has always been seen as strong on law enforcement, whereas Sinn Féin wants to do away with the non-jury court system set up for paramilitary and other sensitive trials in which juror intimidation had become a serious problem.

Mr Kenny is set to be returned with most seats — but to form a government he may have to turn away from Labour. He is most unlikely to deal with Sinn Fein and has on many occasions indicated that he will not do so. Apart from the numerous independents, his best option may well be Fianna Fail, whose differences with Fine Gael go back to the civil war of 1922-23. Little else of note separates these two centrist parties; and — as Ireland prepares to celebrate the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising — such an alliance, although currently ruled out by both, would be timely.

As the implications of last Friday’s execution sank in, another Celtic Fargo killing took place at the start of this week. A Dublin taxi driver, brother of a Spain-based drugs boss, was assassinated at his home, allegedly in retaliation for the hotel homicide. Latest reports say that the dead man’s brother has now returned to Ireland. Law and order is set to dominate the Irish political agenda.

Peter_Cunningham2

The Palindrome Club

Sometimes I imagine myself as a member of a palindrome club. We hold our meetings in circular buildings in the Irish town of Navan, or near Ekalaka Lake. Our members are interested in radar, the racecar and the kayak. Our club deed is lodged with an attorney in Wassamassaw. We are called Otto and Dod and Hannah and Eve, and our meetings consist of telling stories that all end at the beginning.

Palindrome —a word or phrase that makes equal sense read backward or forward —comes from the Greek ‘running back again’ and has occurred in verbal words plays for over two thousand years. The first palindromic sentence in English appeared in 1614: ‘Lewd did I live & evil I did dwel’. Even if the ‘&’ in the middle is a bit of a cheat, you have to admire the author for trying. There were no crosswords in those days and Scrabble hadn’t yet been invented.

Since then, writers of English have strained over their quills to come up with a circular phrase that is cleverer than the one that went before. The sole palindrome attributed to Shakespeare — ‘Emit no evil; live on time’ — is said to be part of Polonius’s original speech in Hamlet. ‘Norma is as selfless as I am, Ron’, is ascribed to W.H. Auden, whilst ‘Go Hang a Salami! I’m a Lasagna Hog!’ is the title of a book by Jon Agee.

Generations of schoolchildren have grown up being able to say, ‘Able was I ere I saw Elba’. Moving along the scale of scatology is ‘Knits stink!’ followed by ‘Sex elf flexes’ and ‘To lay a pig I pay a lot’.
The 19-letter Finnish word saippuakivikauppias, meaning ‘a dealer in caustic soda,’ is the world’s longest known palindromic word. However, the simpler the better, as far as I’m concerned. For example, ‘a man a plan a canal, panama’ is both clever and elegant, a bit like the Panama Canal itself.
It is the circular nature of storytelling that I’m most drawn to, stories that take us on a round trip and end where they began. Life is a circular journey: we step off it in much the same helpless state as that in which we stepped on. These circular rhythms are embedded in our psyche. We say, ‘what goes around comes around’, by which we mean that one’s actions, whether good or bad, will have consequences. It’s another way of saying, ‘you reap what you sow’.

I had this deep circularity in mind when I was writing my historical novel, ‘The Sea and the Silence’. Iz, a young and hopeful heroine, is brought by her new husband to live in a lighthouse, an outpost from where the revolving seasons are graphically apparent. As her life unfolds, the theme of history repeating itself, often with great irony, not to mention, cruelty, is omnipresent. And the narrative structure of this love story reflects these themes: Iz chooses to begin her story with the second half of her life; she then concludes by telling us how she got there in the first place.

Although the story begins in the 1940s, the themes of love and loss revolving in a great cartwheel of chance and fate are as relevant today as they were back then.

It was only when I had finished the novel and was looking for a suitable quotation that I thought of using a palindrome. The one I chose, which comes from Ancient Rome, is said to have been set down by a writer who was mesmerised by the circular motion of moths around the flames of a candle. He wrote, ‘We go in circles by night and are consumed by fires’. His ageless palindrome, of course, was in Latin:

IN GIRUM IMUS NOCTE ET CONSUMIMUR IGNI