“Go on then, I’ll have a grappa please.”
After the events of four years ago, who would have thought I’d be uttering those words, and quite so regularly? Not me, that’s for sure.
Because four years ago I was laid up in hospital with a nasty bout of acute pancreatitis. Actually strike the ‘nasty’, I understand that all bouts of acute pancreatitis can be described as either ‘nasty’ or ‘really nasty’ or ‘particularly nasty’ or ‘extremely nasty’. The medics established that repeated outbreaks of gallstones had sparked this condition. Gallstones migrate to the bile duct and, believing it has something to digest, the pancreas awakes and goes to work. However, as there’s nothing there, the poor old pancreas is fooled into attempting to digest itself. This smarts a bit. At least until they hook you up to the morphine.
As alcohol can aggravate the pancreas of those who’ve enjoyed pancreatitis, the word from the surgeon was to approach the Devil’s Brew with caution and I was totally teetotal for, well, not quite the recommended six months. Because after four months or so we had a lovely pub lunch somewhere on the Quantock Hills in Somerset and I was bullied into trying the local ale by a most engaging and persuasive landlord. From then on it was moderate toping of beer and wine, but absolutely no spirits. I used to enjoy gin and tonic on a Sunday lunchtime and the occasional post-prandial brandy. But no more, and in truth, I didn’t miss it. You’re right, there’s a ‘however’ just around the corner. Ah, here it is…
However, on holiday in Sorrento and after lunch, we were presented with a couple of digestifs. Limoncello, which is basically raw spirit infused with lemons and sugar. A good one is most delicious, and, the game-changer for me was it being called a digestif. Because after losing the gall bladder, the old digestive system is not what it once was. It’s good for me, you see! It’s a digestif! It’s like medicine really. Then I moved on to the clear spirit, grappa, which, in Italy, is not like the tractor fuel you get in this country, and is a super digestif. The super-duper grappa digestif is grappa barrique, which is aged in oak barrels and looks like a whisky.
Apart from being just the ticket for my digestive system, the other benefit is that I get instant immunity from any spirit-guzzling ill effects just by being in Italy. Although this is currently being put to the test.
We returned from Venice last week (health and holidays in the same post. Excellent work) and, as you can see from the pictures, we brought back a few bottles. These were mainly grappa barrique, although one was a clear grappa made from prosecco grapes which is fruity, gentle and simply sublime.
Serious grappa sourcing involved a trip to Tre Mercanti, a gourmet grocery shop and deli quite close to St Mark’s Square. Where I sampled half-a-dozen fine grappas under the guidance and tutelage of the charming and knowledgeable Roberto.
Seemingly we impressed the owner of one Venetian restaurant by ordering grappa barrique, as shortly after pushing a couple of glasses of the dark stuff in our direction, he plonked 2 bottles of clear liquid on our table. One of them was juniper and, curiously, I can’t remember what was in the other one. He explained that these are home-brewed and he sends the bottles up into the mountains so his friends can add the flavourful twiggy bits as required, apparently a process in which timing is crucial. Leave your leaves in too long and you might as well leave it alone.
Author and Roberto at Tre Mercanti
Photography by Lily Stiff.