Cheese, wine, and bread is all we really need for a flavor-packed evening. For author, food journalist, YouTuber, and podcaster Katie Quinn, the trio is also the subject of her new cookbook, Cheese, Wine, and Bread: Discovering the Magic of Fermentation in England, Italy, and France. Quinn worked as a cheesemonger in London, apprenticed at Parisian boulangeries, and assisted vintners in northeastern Italy so she could share the techniques behind each fermentation style, as well as recipes: Cheddar brownies! Sourdough pizza! Drunken spaghetti! (Don’t worry, we snagged the recipe for that last one.) In this excerpt, Quinn shares her experience working the wine harvest at a family-owned winery—and the celebratory lunch that followed.
It was before 8 o’clock in the morning; the sun was still low in the sky, hiding behind trees and buildings. I walked from the agriturismo apartment where I slept into the hillside vineyard it overlooked. Eros was moving empty barrels from storage into the cantina and Michele and Christian were in la vigna placing big red crates throughout its rows. These would soon be filled with bunches of grapes.
As I approached the rows of pignolo grapes, I began to hear the chatter of a dozen people speaking in enthusiastic Italian, a tune of overlapping conversations. I introduced myself with a wave and a smile: “Ciao, sono Katie.” In a matter of moments, gloves and clippers appeared in my hands; I was ready.
A harvest will vary based on many factors: the size of the vineyard, whether the grapes are handpicked or machine harvested, and the style of wine that will be made, among other
considerations. Like many agricultural businesses, vineyards often hire migrants to do the labor of the harvest—this is true everywhere from cherry farms in Michigan to asparagus farms in Belgium—but the workers at this harvest were an exception to the rule: they were local friends and neighbors. Comelli Winery is small as far as industry standards go, and ever since Grandpa Paolino bought the land almost a century prior, the harvest had been established as a community endeavor.
All morning we clipped the grape bunches from their vines and chatted (in my case, in basic Italian) as we worked. Felicia, Christian’s wife, positioned herself next to me with a big smile and a hug and helped get me oriented. She couldn’t speak English, which helped me see the whole experience as a language class on top of a grape harvest.
We made our way down the rows like a gang of ants following a trail of food. It was a true team effort, and with camaraderie established, the time flew. The sun heated things up quickly, and before I knew it, we were shedding our jackets and sweatshirts. I placed a tidy bunch of grapes in the red crate and looked in it to see bugs climbing up the walls of the rigid plastic, escaping the crush of the grapes where they had previously nestled. Bugs mean healthy soil, I had to remind myself to keep from squirming.
The grapes hung at the height of my stomach or lower, so less than an hour into clipping, my back started to hurt, and I had to adjust my stance (which I constantly tweaked during the rest of the morning as new parts of my body piped up in complaint).
I never felt the truth of the adage “Many hands make light work” more than I did while cutting the grapes. When we began a new row, I’d look down the length of the plot and think, This is going to take a while, but inevitably we’d put down our overflowing red crates and I’d marvel at how quickly we’d made our way through it.
Around midday we finished, tired but cheerful. We walked toward the main building together as a crew, some people lagging behind to light a cigarette or pet [the Comellis’ dog] Maia. As we approached the main room of the agriturismo office—the windows and doors were open, the sunshine pouring in—I heard pots clinking and clanking, and smelled the rich scent of Bolognese.
Daniela had been cooking up a storm while we were in the vineyard, and when I peeked into the room, I saw Lara in there with her flawless posture and graceful movements (an entire childhood as a ballerina will do that) setting the long dining room table with plates, forks, and wineglasses.
A half hour later, everyone had reconvened around the table. Eros poured wine—people drank either red or white to accompany the feast of cheese and salami, bread and mortadella, and penne alla Bolognese—dispelling the myth that (in Italy or anywhere) one must drink certain wine with certain foods. Although red is typically thought to complement that kind of a meal, the heat of the day and the exertion of the morning inspired most of the table to ask for white wine—friulano.
Daniela called our attention and lifted her glass—we all followed suit—as she thanked us for our work and offered a toast: “Salute!” Eros popped the bubbly before we had even finished our first glasses (down the hatch!), and he walked around the table for a prompt refill of our quickly emptied glasses. I didn’t get ubriaca (drunk), but I was happily tipsy as I picked up my fork to dig into the meal.
We ate gratefully, unabashedly motivated by our growling stomachs and the feast before us. The meal wasn’t over until everyone deployed pieces of bread to sop up the extra sauce on their plates—an end-of-meal ritual known as fare la scarpetta (“make the little shoe”). The annual romp in the vineyard was closed for pignolo, although the fermentation had just begun.
From Cheese, Wine, and Bread by Katie Quinn, © 2021 by Katie Quinn. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.