When it came time for Caleb Barber and Deirdre Heekin, owners of the Vermont restaurant Osteria Pane e Salute, to return from their Italian vacation a few years ago, they found themselves cramming nearly 20 bottles of amaro, a strong, bitter digestive, into their bags. The couple had long been fans of Italy's food and wine, but their amaro discovery raised their level of infatuation. Now, Heekin has even written a book, Libation: A Bitter Alchemy (Chelsea Green, May 2009), about their attempts to create Italian-inspired wine and liqueurs in their northern New England home. Recently, SAVEUR spoke with the pair about amari (naturally) and the challenges that come with transplanting old-world ways to Vermont.
You first tried amaro while visiting Italy's Basilicata region. What did you like about it?
Deidre: We were at a wonderful restaurant in Matera, and after dinner the waiter asked, "Do you want coffee or amaro?" Then he asked whether we wanted the national brand, Fernet-Branca, or Padre Peppe. When we hesitated, he raised his finger, gave us a knowing look, and said, "I'll be back!" So there was all this mystery around it from the beginning. When I finally took a sip, I was struck not only by its great flavor but also by the way it feels as if it were it's traveling down your windpipe and expanding your chest. You feel like you're going through some sort of conversion.
Caleb: We started asking questions and found that Padre Peppe comes from the local monks, who use green walnuts as a base. Everywhere we went on that trip, we asked about amari.
D: We also learned that Padre Peppe is available only locally, which is true of many amari. Many people still make it at home.
C: At one restaurant in Puglia, when we asked about Padre Peppe, the waiter said, "Oh, we don't have that, but my mother makes an amaro called Cente'erbe [100 herbs]. Meet me tomorrow, and I'll give you a bottle." Soon, the entire trip became defined by our meeting people in coffee bars to let us sample a new amaro.
Does the younger generation make amaro too, or is it more an old-fashioned practice?
C: Recently, there's been renewed interest among younger Italians. The economy has been weak for several years, and people are looking to local food traditions to generate new activity.
Italian wines are widely imported in the United States, but amari are hard to find. Why?
D: Amaro is just starting to become more popular in the States. A friend of ours who is a terrific chocolate maker has just launched a line of chocolates flavored with amaro. And there are some great mixologists using amaro, too.
What kinds of amaro do you make?
C: I've made nocino, a walnut-based amaro, for the past three years. We don't yet have the proper walnuts growing in Vermont, so I've been getting them once a year, in early summer, from a farmer in Michigan. This year we're going to plant our own trees and hope they can survive the winters. **
What other Italian flavors are you trying to re-create here?
D: We really want to try growing figs and citrus and winter them in our greenhouse.
Through your book and your restaurant, you tell stories about Italy. What do you hope readers and customers will come away with?
D: Storytelling is a huge part of our mission, especially related to memories. We've had Italian people come to the restaurant and start to cry. They say things like "I haven't tasted this since my grandmother was alive!"
C: On the other hand, while we've spent years bringing back the recipes and stories we discovered in Italy, the longer we go on, the more we find ourselves telling stories about the farmers here. Ultimately, we want people to view our food both as the story of Italy and as the story of local people and products, because that's where our future lies.