28 Mar 2008

My Palate on a Palate

I AM at an event called ‘Euro & Med Food 2008’, held in Foggia’s fractured outskirts. This lethargically-paced, Puglian city, rebuilt post war in concrete, is about two and a half hours drive south of Naples. In Italy's granary, it drizzles; London was warmer. My task: seek out honest, marketable wines for an employer and gain an insight into the liquid culture of the republic's heel that 'only travel can provide'. I have three days.
It soon becomes clear, however, that my minutes will be manipulated. I am instructed to stay at a small, safe-grey desk within the ‘B2B’ section of this solemn, dilapidated Olympia. What ensues is a sort of speed-dating. A frenetic procession of export seekers determined to pile their wares on a palate. Soil stained, elderly folk lacking big picture vision versus producers with misplaced, appeasing ambitions who plant trespassing varieties like Pinot Noir and Syrah amongst the Nero di Troia and Primitivo.
I am metaphorically manacled.
A regal looking, silver haired local translates my desires. I am not here to import the fabled, almost painfully pungent, ultimately opulent olive oil. I want to experience indigenous grape varieties. And I don’t want to know the prices just yet because what I really crave is to first fall in love with a local…
A great many of these people look at me - representative of a small faraway firm carefully setting course through inbound credit crisis, puritanical taxes and tricky transport and packaging increments - as a probable Saviour. Mine must appear a smooth, moneyed face.
I politely sift through all manner of glossy brochures. These are filled with obscure translations, promoting the virtue of the ‘peasant tradition’ and depictions of un-sellable, repulsive labels.
I become disheartened. My face is Poker. I glance away from my wine-less table-top. This miserable area, with lurid lime carpet, is annex to a hall where I’d much rather be sampling. There, local firemen are legally obligated to oscillate the giant buffet, and they strut with reassuring purpose, taking particular interest in the drippingly fresh mozzarella globes. Families and students from the local university fill their faces too. I feel envy.
Eventually, as dusk begins to collect, shrouding the expo's hideous, concrete cancer riddled arrangement, I am granted an hour to break free and taste. According to the hype, the corresponding bottles of every grower and cantine sociale I have met will be best in region. That’s a lot of perfection.
Some producers consider plastic picnic beakers to be appropriate tasting vessels. I think they are a quick way to sabotage a year’s work. This is not the way to turn me into ambassador amo, charging forth to praise Puglia on my return…
As I taste, I feel outrageous pressure of hope-laden eyes boring deep into me. One producer demands my opinion even before I sniff. I need rhino skin. And patience.
I return to my brand new hotel compound, which is in a purgatorial setting, and is fenced. The drizzle clears. I realise that this biannual is a board of commerce sponsored farce. For all the puff of brochure porn and pattina of persistent people shaped into suits (I am wearing jeans) I yearn to get out amongst the red soils, to drag my hand within a tank and see how the year’s vats awaken in spring.
This is after all Enotria, what the Greeks termed ‘land of wines’. And it deserves better attention. The venue showcasing the region's sun-struck produce is probably disused the rest of the year...