On Thursday evening I had a phone call: “Jessie, tomorrow we are making grappa at 8:30am, write down this address”.
Now, you have to understand that at this point I was under the impression that all grappa making was completely illegal. So I wrote down the address and said a silent goodbye to Italy. I had to make grappa, it was part of my research.
As I army rolled down the cobbled street to my Grappa making destination – an elderly man’s shed – I was told that home made grappa or distilling alcohol, is only illegal if you intend to sell it. I won’t lie, this disappointed me a little bit, yet I was happy that I could breathe again… I was sure we were all going to jail due to a telephone conversation that resulted in me yelling out “GRAPPA!” followed by an echo off the old walls. (Terrifying).
I arrived to a boiler full of pomace (grape skins) that were left over from this years wine. They had collected the pomace from the wine after its fermenting process, which is normally about five to six days. During this process the wine finds its way to the bottom of the vat and the grape skins to the top. Once this happens you are then able to take the layer of skins from the top of the wine and make the famous Italian grappa. It is important that the grape skins don’t dry out and that they still smell nice, this pomace smelt quite pleasant – kind of like sultanas!
As we waited for the boiler to heat up, I was taken on a tour of the house, vineyard and vegetable garden. Another family that uses everything from the land they have. The old man explained to me that the house he now lives in has always been in the family. He and his wife live on the bottom floor whilst his brothers family live on the top floor. This is found to be quite common here in small towns of Italy, as all family members – wives, husbands, brothers family and sisters family – continue to live under the same roof. Perhaps this explains the role of the stereotypical Italian mum?!
We retuned back to the shed to see how the grappa was going. It basically works like this, the skins are put into a boiler and soaked in water. We then sealed the boiler using a mix of flour and water that had formed a paste (In the old days they used fresh cow poo as they couldn’t sacrifice flour – I am happy to say that my traditional experience was not that traditional).
As the grape skins heat up they form steam or vapours, the vapours naturally float upwards and are directed out of the boiler, through a tube into another tank full of cold water. The vapours then spiral downwards, and the contact with the cold water causes the vapours to condense and voila, create grappa!
The two men explained to me that grappa is produced in three different parts. The first part of the grappa is called the head, if you drink this part it can cause you to go blind. The second part of the grappa – the heart – is the most valued part as it holds the aromas and taste of the grappa. The third is called the tail, the tail is less alcoholic and holds an unpleasant taste. It is for this reason that making grappa at home can be so dangerous. The grappa can be sorted into its three parts by close monitoring of the alcoholic content, with 46 – 50% being considered normal, you only want to keep the heart of the grappa.
In the old days Italians would make their wine, then take the pomace of their wine to be made into grappa, and then, take all the seeds from the pomace waste, let them dry and then grind them to make coffee. We instead emptied the used pomace onto the lawn for the chickens… I don’t think I will be accepting any fresh eggs for a while.