It’s January and none of you is buying wine. This happens every year. Maybe it’s a health or diet resolution that’s keeping you away, or maybe it’s the credit card bills from the holidays. But with few exceptions (bless you, by the way), you’re not in a wine-buying mood. And you’re not alone. In today’s Washington Post, cocktail guru Derek Brown says that some people refer to this phenomenon as “Drynuary,” although he wishes there were a less ugly word for it.
So I figured you wouldn’t mind a not-quite-totally off the wall post that’s related to wine. Not about how it’s made or what it tastes like, but about how being in the wine business taught me something new about a seemingly unrelated thing: opera. Specifically, an opera called “L’Elisir d’Amore,” or The Elixir of Love, composed in 1832 by Gaetano Donizetti.
I’ve mentioned this opera before, in a post about wine and health benefits, and how wine and alcohol have been part of medicines for centuries now — and a lot of them didn’t work at all. In L’Elisir d’Amore, Nemorino, a poor farmer, is in love with Adina, a wealthy landowner. In order to make her fall for him, he buys a “love potion” from a quack doctor that turns out to be non-magical, ordinary wine. Right after Nemorino drinks the wine, though, all the women in the village start throwing themselves at him because they’ve learned he inherited money from a rich uncle. Of course, he doesn’t know this yet, and thinks that the so-called elixir really worked.
But what struck me recently was not directly about the wine aspect. The L’Elisir audience knows that Adina loves Nemorino too. But she’s not tipping her hand, and she engages in the kind of behavior every teenager would recognize: don’t show any interest, flirt with someone else to make him jealous, etc., albeit more methodically than most teenagers could muster. Through a typically silly operatic set of plot developments, Adina eventually admits she loves Nemorino and the whole thing ends happily.
So what’s going on here with putting him off (other than a way to make a full-length opera)? Apparently I’m not the only one to wonder about it, believe it or not. On a recent podcast about L’Elisir, one of the (male) hosts complained that Adina isn’t very nice or likeable but gets redeemed by the music. And on the Adina defenders side, I listened to an interview with a soprano singing Adina who claims she’s just thoroughly modern and acting the way men do when they have the power in a relationship. But neither of these seems like an adequate explanation. Not that you have to like every character in an opera, but there has to be more to it. And, thanks to being in the wine business, I think I know what that is.
Six weeks ago I introduced you to one of our new Italian producers, Azienda Agricola San Benedetto, located near San Gimignano in Tuscany. The Gianelli family owns the property and the winery, but their land was part of a large estate well into the 20th century. The Gianellis were tenant farmers on that land, sharecroppers, for decades before they were able to buy some for themselves. They worked for the landowner and had to give him (or her) a large percentage of the crops each year in exchange for having a place to live and work.
After I had written about the history of San Benedetto, it occurred to me that this is the same situation as l’Elisir, and the opera audiences in 19th century Italy would have recognized it immediately. Adina is the landowner and Nemorino is one of her tenant farmers. And it’s not just a question of marrying down. A woman in her position was a rarity. She’s the boss of everyone, including Nemorino. Adina’s land would become her husband’s property on marriage and she’d no longer have the control over her life she has at the start of the opera. She’d be giving up a lot. Nemorino, although good-hearted, is kind of an idiot. So even if she loves him, she has to be sure about him. He passes the tests and she realizes that he’s even kinder than she thought, and that she had gone too far herself in what she put him through.
L’Elisir has been popular since its premiere and has a lot of great music, despite being composed in only six weeks. The duets for Adina and Nemorino are all top-drawer, and one of Nemorino’s arias would make it onto any opera lover’s list of top tenor tunes. But l’Elisir was also the most performed opera in Italy for a 10-year period pre-1850. Given the huge amount of high-quality opera that appeared during that time, this one probably wouldn’t have achieved its domination if audiences just thought that the high-handed Adina was getting her comeuppance, no matter how good the music.
For me, learning the historical context restores the humanity to the piece, thanks to our new friends at San Benedetto. It’ll never be Shakespeare, but it’s a much nicer and more complex story than I first thought. And since you won’t be ordering wine this month, I’ll have plenty of time to listen to it!
Of course I’m recommending a wine from San Benedetto this week. Their 2013 Vermentino ($13) is a nice, easy-to-drink wine that packs citrus and richer fruit flavors. It’s medium-bodied and pairs well with a bunch of foods, particularly those you might be eating if you want to eat lighter in Drynuary.
Although many people don’t like to cook fish in the winter, it can make a great, easy meal. If you use a very fresh, mild fish like cod, you can bake it in 20 minutes without smelling up the house. Cod takes well to a number of different spices, giving a big variety to meals. The best way to bake individual pieces of fish and keep them moist is to bake them in parchment. It looks a little pretentious but it works. You could put them in a covered baking dish too, but they’ll take longer to cook since the dish has to heat up. And since you’re going to use citrus — either lime or lemon — with the fish, you don’t want to use aluminum foil.
Cut a piece of parchment that’s as big as a baking sheet and put the paper on the sheet. Place the fish fillets on the paper with a little space between them. Season them however you like, but be sure to hit them with a little lemon or lime juice too. Then grab the short sides of the parchment and bring them together. Start folding them down toward the fish, creasing well with each fold. It should stay together, but you can use a couple of paper clips to secure it if you want to be sure. On the long ends, make a fold halfway between the fish and the ends of the paper, then tuck the paper under the fish.
I’ve been in the mood for Indian flavors, so this week’s recipe uses Garam Masala and a little crushed fennel seed to flavor the fish. And it’s served with rice cooked with coconut, spinach, and a little more Garam Masala. Garnish the rice with some chopped orange and give everything a spritz of lime juice.
If you’re really going cold turkey for Drynuary, you can skip the wine, of course. But if you’ve abstained you might be missing wine about now. We promise we won’t tell anyone if you order some.
PS: a couple of youtube clips if you want to hear some of the opera. My favorite Adina is Ileana Cotrubas — her commercial recording is to my mind the best sung and an appealing character. This is from a live performance of her first aria, where she reads aloud about the elixir of love that Tristan gave to Isolde, and how it would be great to know how it was made. The second is Nemorino’s famous aria, Una Furtiva Lagrima, where he realizes that Adina loves him, even though she hasn’t said so. Gajillions of tenors have recorded this aria so it’s tough to pick just one. Overall I think Luciano Pavarotti probably sang it best. But it’s hard to resist Rolando Villazon in this 2005 clip. By 2009 or so his voice was in shreds, so it’s a nice document of what he could do at his best. Enjoy!
4 4-5 ounce cod fillets, about 1-1/2 inches thick
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
A one-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced fine
3 garlic cloves, smashed, peeled, and minced
2-1/4 teaspoons Garam Masala, divided use
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 of a naval orange, peeled, sectioned, and each section cut in 6 pieces
1 cup raw long-grain white rice
1/4 cup usweetened flaked dried coconut
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small bag washed baby spinach (5 ounces)
1 lime, cut in half
Equipment: a rimmed baking sheet (15 to 18 inches long), parchment paper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Put the rice in a saucepan and add 2 cups of water, the coconut, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then stir it up, cover the pot, and set the heat to low. Cook for 14 minutes. The liquid should be all absorbed — if not, cook for another minute or two. Take the pot off the heat, stir up the rice, and leave it uncovered.
Put the fennel seeds on a cutting board. Using the bottom of a heavy skillet or pot, crush the seeds. Put them in a small bowl with the Garam Masala and set aside.
While the rice is cooking, prepare the fish. Cut a piece of parchment that’s as big as the baking sheet and put the paper on the sheet. Place the fish fillets on the middle of the paper with a little space between them. Sprinkle some salt and pepper on the fish and let them sit for 5 minutes. Then sprinkle on half of the Garam Masala/fennel seed mixture divided among the fillets. Squeeze half of the lime over the fish. Grab the short sides of the parchment and bring them together. Start folding them down toward the fish, creasing well with each fold. Go all the way down to just above the fish. The paper should stay folded together, but you can use a couple of paper clips to secure it if you want to be sure. On the long ends, make a fold halfway between the fish and the ends of the paper, then tuck the folded paper under the fish.
Put the fish in the oven about 10 minutes before the rice is done. Set the timer for 20 minutes to cook the fish. After the rice is cooked, heat the oil in a large, nonstick skillet until it shimmers. Add the ginger and garlic, and cook for a minute, stirring constantly. Add the rest of the Garam Masala mixture, 1 teaspoon of salt, and some pepper. Stir for about a minute until you can really smell it. Add the spinach to the pan and stir to wilt it. The spinach will release some liquid as it wilts. Make sure to mix the spinach well with the garlic, ginger, and spices, and push it to one side of the pan so that the liquid goes to the other side. Cook to boil away most of the liquid, just a couple of minutes. Then add the cooked rice and cook everything until the rice is dry and maybe beginning to brown just a little. Taste for salt and pepper. Turn off the heat and stir in the orange pieces.
The rice should be done just as the fish comes out of the oven. (The fish can sit in the parchment if you’re not quite ready with the rice yet.) To serve, dish out the rice on four plates. Carefully cut open the parchment and put a fillet on each plate on top of the rice. Spoon any juices in the parchment over the fish. Squeeze the other half of the lime over the four plates and serve immediately.