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.