Italian Beer

DSC_7588.jpgOn page 724 of Against the Day, we find sinister (likely orange-faced tiny-handed) plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe touring northern Italy with his faithful manservant Foley Walker hunting bargains in Renaissance art. The hunt involves regular humiliation for Foley, not a day going by that he doesn’t “find himself carrying out some chore better left to a performing monkey.”

Page 726, though, has Scarsdale doing some of the heavy lifting himself:

At the moment they were out in the lagoon among the Lost Lands, Scarsdale underwater and Foley up in a little steam caorlina fitted for diving. The millionaire, rigged out in rubber hoses and brass helmet, was down inspecting a mural, preserved for centuries beneath the waves by a varnishing technique now lost to history, attributed (dubiously) to Marco Zoppo, and known informally as The Sack of Rome.

This circumstance provides Foley’s subconscious a chance to entertain its urges towards murderous retribution, his hands creeping unbidden towards the nozzles of the air-supply hoses…

DSC_7581Meanwhile, Vibe is having an underwater moment of art-appreciation:

Seen through the brilliant noontide illumination, approached with the dreamy smoothness of a marine predator, the depiction seemed almost three-dimensional, as with Mantegna at his most persuasive. It was of course not just Rome, it was the World, and the World’s end. … Scarsdale was no aesthete, the Cassily Adams rendition of Little Big Horn was fine enough art for him, but he could see right away without the help of hired expertise that this was what you’d call a true masterpiece, and he’d be very surprised indeed if somebody hadn’t already sold reproductions of it to some Italian beer company to use in local saloons over here.

The Little Big Horn painting referred to is the inspiration for a print distributed by Budweiser to bars across America, discussed in fascinating detail here. It seems every people must have their national equivalent to this great saloon mural of mythic foundational violence. Back on page 395, the narrator describes the cantina where Frank kills Sloat thus:

adobe walls, perpetual 4:00 A.M. gloom, abiding fumes of pulque in the room, no Budweiser Little Big Horn panoramas here, instead some crumbling mural of the ancient Aztec foundation story of the eagle and the serpent, here perversely showing the snake coiled around the eagle and just about to dispatch it

So Mexican beer (or pulque) gets snakes eating eagles, Budweiser gets Custer killing Native Americans, and the Italians (Vibe presumes) get the sack of Rome.

DSC_7568.jpgHow is that Italian beer anyway? I have gathered a highly representative and nineteenth century-relevant sample of two mass-produced lagers (Moretti and Menabrea) and two modern craft things (Birra Del Borgo My Antonia and LoverBeer BeerBrugna). None of them feature any sack of rome imagery unfortunately, although the LoverBeer label doesn’t look completely unlike it was copied from an underwater mural.

The Moretti is very pale and very clear, and starts out as a pleasant enough crisp euro lager. But it falls off a muddy cliff on the back palate and as it warms up a bit becomes just a nasty puddle on the floor of a suburban pub. The Menabrea is much nicer, with a pronounced sweet bready nose and a pleasant light biscuity body.

LoverBeer are the only brewery on our lineup from the northern region of Italy that Foley and Vibe are plundering–they’re just outside of Turin, not too far from the French border. Their BeerBrugna is a wild sour ale aged on plums. It’s tart, with a full plummy body, but just isn’t super exciting to me.

Birra del Borgo’s My Antonia blows them all out of the water. It’s a “continually hopped” imperial pilsner, originally made in collaboration with Dogfish Head. Hazy golden with a beautiful fluffy white head. Smells like peaches, and has this incredible soft pillowy mouthfeel. It’s smooth sweet hops throughout — a mix of spicy noble Saaz and fruity American Simcoe, among others. It’s got the inexplicable magic touch that Vibe perceives as genius in his underwater mural.


Drunk Pynchonette and I ordered a couple of (enormous) glasses of this last night then only realised halfway through ’em that the name’s familiar ring owed itself not to my comprehensive knowledge of Italian viticulture but to Pynchon’s most alcoholic of opuses, Against the Day. So it was camera out, non-Instgramming restraint and decency away, and time for a spontaneous addition to the Pynchonian wine cellar.

Pynchon MontepulcianoThe Montepulciano makes its appearance late in Against the Day in the wistful hands of Prince Spongiatosta. He’s talking to Cyprian (p. 873):

“You will come out to the island next week for our annual ball?”

“I’ve nothing to wear.”

He smiled, allowing Cyprian to think it was nostalgia. “The Principessa will find something for you.”

“She has exquisite judgement.”

The Prince squinted at the sky through his glass of Montepulciano. “In some things, most likely.”

Montepulciano is a grape commonly planted across Italy, used in numerous different protected styles. Ours was a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from Tenuta Ulisse. I had a couple of pints post-Montepulciano, and I’m struggling to remember now quite what the stuff tasted like. I know I did most enjoy it. A bit spicy, with some sweet liquorice flavours, Drunk Pynchonette is reminding me. Pretty dark for staring at the sky through, though perhaps that explains the squinting.


Pynchon PrimitivoI finished Against the Day more than two months ago now. Or that’s when I read the last page anyway–who really ever finishes a Pynchon book. Drinking through it is sure going to take a while. The list is longer than for VGravity’s Rainbow, and Mason & Dixon combined. And it’s fun stuff, distillations of many of the books diverse milieu, from Colorado to Siberia. Check it out.

Though there’s plenty of obscure spirits and good weird cocktails and in AtD, we’ve been pretty starved for wine around here lately (last one was Schloss Vollrads back last October), so I’m starting with some of that: Primitivo. It’s a red wine from the heel of Italy, closely related to Zinfandel.

About halfway through AtD, Dally Rideout (who we follow sporadically through much of her life) is living in Venice and going out with Hunter Penhallow, a painter arrived here from Greenland through diverse and possibly supernatural passages. They’re living happily bohemian. Page 584:

One day Hunter showed up in sunglasses, broad-brimmed straw hat, and fisherman’s smock. “Feel like getting out on the water?”

“Let me borrow a hat and I’ll be right there.”

They head out into the lagoon with an anarchist Futurist painter friend of Hunter’s called Andrea Tancredi and some others.

They picnicked on Torcello in a deserted pomegranate orchard, drank primitivo, and Dally found herself looking at Andrea Tancredi more than she could account for, and when he happened to catch her looking, he stared back, not angry but not what she’d have called fascinated either.

Primitivo Against the Day PynchonTorcello, our Great Guide says, is a quiet, sparsely populated Island in the north of the lagoon. Probably an ideal place to find a deserted pomegranate orchard. The whole island is actually pretty deserted–it was the most populous bit of Venice until the lagoon around it turned to swamp in the 12th century and everyone jumped ship. Now it’s home to ten people.

Primitivo seems like a good grape for the occasion. Based on the glass in front of me, it’s fruity and rich with a good wallop of tannins up the back. There’s a definite aniseed note too. But also all remaining somehow light and picnic-friendly. Lovely stuff. The Italian anarchist painters are successfully showing the foreigners how it’s done.

Nero d’Avola

Nero d'Avola

Early in Bleeding Edge, Maxine pays a visit to the VC (which I’m assuming is venture capitalist) who’d supported (which address now conveniently directs one to the book’s wiki). The VC is Rockwell “Rocky” Slagiatt, who’s dropped his surname’s terminal vowel in order “to sound more anglo,” despite then “becoming disingenuously ethnic again” in Maxine’s presence. Slagiatt takes Maxine to Enrico’s Italian Kitchen, which she recalls “getting rave reviews in Zagat.” (Enrico’s unfortunately doesn’t seem to be a real place. Brings up a grand total of two Google results, both for the BE wiki. But I’m about as distant as can be from NYC anyway, so what’s it matter.) After some faux-Sopranos banter between Slagiatt and the waiter, they order:

Maxine ends up having the homemade strozzapreti with chicken livers, and Rocky goes for the ossu buco. “Hey, what kinda wine?”

“How about a ’71 Tiganello?—but then again with all the wiseguy dialogue, maybe just, uh, li’l Nero d’Avola? small glass?”

“Readin my mind.” Not exactly doing a double take at the pricey supertuscan, but a certain gleam has entered his eye, which is what she may have been looking to provoke. And why would that be, again?

DSC_9514Stozzapreti with chicken livers? Someone can start an every-meal-in-Pynchon blog. Not too bad being stuck with the drinks though–even if (like Rocky) I haven’t shelled out for the ’71 Tiganello, this Nero d’Avola is nice stuff. The bottle I have (from Feudo Principi di Butera) here claims on its reverse to be “a supreme expression of the indigenous Sicilian grape variety par excellence.” The winemaker’s website says they wrote the book on Nero d’Avola. Guess I’ve got no way to confirm or deny these assertions, but I can say I like the stuff. Maxine does too, even if her lunch investigation doesn’t go so well:

She can hear from inside her purse the as-yet-undeposited check laughing at her, as if she had been the butt of a great practical joke.

The Nero d’Avola on the other hand is not bad at all.

Mine is big, rich, and tanniney. Dry, but with an interesting tannin sweetness. A bit spicy, maybe some cherries. Not one to guzzle, but very drinkable. It’s making me wish I were sitting in an Italian place with a plate of livers to go with it. Or maybe not livers. Maybe I’ll take the ossu buco.


Sticking with V for another: it’s 1899 and we’re in Florence with a “seedy looking Calabrese” called Cesare. Cesare’s mates have just commandeered a barge loaded with crated Chianti flasks, throwing the captain into the Arno.

Cesare waved. “A riverdeci.” Soon they had disappeared, dissolved in the darkness. Cesare put his hands in his pockets and started to stroll. He found a stone in the street and began to kick it aimlessly along the Lungarno. Soon, he thought, I will go and buy a liter fiasco of Chianti.

Cesare waves as the barge spins away “towards Pisa and the sea.”  They’re all getting drunk on the barge, he’s wandering away. I forget why he didn’t go, or what they’re trying to do. It’s a confusing book. You just go with the flow of the river and drink the Chianti.


I picked up this (not quite litre) fiasco of Chianti at the South Melbourne markets on a stinking hot day in February. “Lovely Chianti!” the Italian woman behind the counter exclaimed. She told me very charmingly and not un-forcefully that I would put it in the fridge for just a small time when I got home and then I would enjoy it. I instead sat on it for three months until this blog got going.

fiascoby the way , is a what that rustic straw-basket bottle is called! I will pursue more fiascoes.

The Chianti is tasty stuff. Sweet but pretty tannin-ey on the tongue. Basically tastes like wine. Getting stuck into a bargeful of it while floating through Florence sounds pretty ideal. I can empathise too with Cesare’s strolling home planning to get himself a bottle. Reminds me of strolling home past Good Beer Week posters plotting buying fancy beers. Planning to buy alcohol is really a great pleasure. Pretty much what this blog’s all about I suppose.

The bit of V. with all the Chianti is on page 212 of my copy.