Food (and Fermentations) that Keep Us Connected

By Maria Carabello

From Grapes to WineOne of the most overarching lessons I was presented with in my first semester as a food systems master’s student is that food is a hub for connections. It connects people with pastures, and products with places. It connects us with our health, our society, the economy, and the environment. It connects us with our past, present, and future. The connections are not singular but myriad; complex and deeply woven. I was reminded of all of this while enjoying some time at home with my family over the winter holidays. After our annual Christmas Eve dinner of shrimp scampi over fresh egg pasta (a lighter nod to the traditional Feasts of the Seven Fishes of yore) my Dad pulled out a bottle of wine. It was not just any wine though; this wine had a story to tell. And not incidentally, it was one of connection.

Vino Cotto JugThis past fall, my Dad was helping his mother to clean out the shared basement of her duplex-style apartment just outside of Boston, MA. The project was spurred by the need to reorganize in preparation for the first tenant-change she has experienced since moving into the house in 1955. Needless to say, a lot had accumulated over the years. As my Dad slowly sorted and plodded through the dust and clutter he discovered a sealed five-gallon glass jug behind a pile of boxes. The real discovery, however, was the sweet, nectarous, and poignantly fragrant content inside: a batch of vino cotto made by his Nonni (maternal grandmother) well over a half-century prior. Vino cotto (which translates to “cooked wine”) is similar in flavor to dessert wines like Marsala, and is traditional to the Abruzzo region of Italy where his Nonni grew up. The process of making this wine involves slowly cooking the juice of pressed grapes (called wort) to concentrate their sugar and flavor. The resulting sapa is then left to ferment in a sulfur-treated wooden barrel for a year or longer before allowing it to age leisurely in glass, steel, or clay vessels. Traditionally, this wine is made after the birth of a child in order to be served as a celebratory digestivo at the child’s future wedding.

AbruzzoAs a student endlessly fascinated by the intersections of food and culture, this forgotten wine was a remarkable artifact. I realized that this “cooked wine” connected me with the physical grapes, transformed and preserved through a long and miraculous fermentation, that were harvested decades before I was even born. More striking to me though, was the recognition that in drinking this wine I was being connected with its maker; my own great-grandmother who I never actually met. In exchanging greetings of alla salute (an Italian toast which means “to health”) my family was not only toasting to our own physical health in the coming year, but to the continued vitality of the traditions passed onto us by generations of family that came before us. This Christmas I gained a renewed appreciation for what I consider one of the greatest gifts of all; the food that nourishes and keeps us connected (in so many ways) season after season, and year after year.

Maria Carabello is a master’s student in the UVM Food Systems Graduate Program.

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