Tea Party Tuesday: Profumo di Capri

It’s a national holiday here in Italy, and while I was promised a parade replete with marching bands and elderly veterans in feathered hats, the truth is, it’s raining and no one seems to want to go out.

I spent some time on the island of Capri recently (I’m publishing my guide to the area tomorrow!) and the whole place smells incredible; imagine your fantasy laundry detergent plus the base notes of you favorite aunt’s signature everyday perfume in the ’90s with just a dash of brine. Everything smells just like that. It’s enough to make you highly likely to buy ANYTHING labeled “smells somewhat like here.” My credit card statement will confirm this.

Right before I got on the ferry home, I was browsing a little tourist shop for some candied Capri lemon peels and noticed they were selling the island’s signature tea blend. Since I cannot resist coming home with a tiny sachet of tea, it came in a cute tin, and it said that was Capri-scented, I bought 50 grams.

When I got home, I popped open the (very cute) tin and took a whiff. It smells not at all like tea, but rather strongly of Lemon Pledge, a scent I associate strongly with a fear of disappointing my mom and low-stakes accomplishment. A meaningful connection, to be sure, but maybe not the best impression for a tea to make. I dumped out five grams to take a look, and it was not photogenic; the lemon peels aren’t very yellow, and the leaves themselves were unshapely.

I brewed it according to the instructions and…it tastes like Lemon Pledge (or what I imagine Lemon Pledge tastes like had my mother not repeatedly warned me not to drink cleaning products as a child).

Look, sometimes you buy a dud. If you’re in a country where no one really likes tea on an island where it’s always sunny in a tourist shop that traffics mostly in liquors and bon bons, you should expect you’re going to get sub-par tea. In retrospect, I should have heeded a few warnings: one, the importers for this tea are based in Ferrara. Two, the label didn’t tell me anything about the mysterious “té nero limone” so it really could have been anything. Three, the one piece of info on the can said something to the effect of “packaged for the XYZ Brothers’ Liquor Distributors.” The takeaway is that I’m an idiot.

Silver lining? I think I can salvage it as some Delta-style lemon-mint iced tea here in a few weeks when the weather turns around. Tell me of your tea fails, readers! Surely I cannot be the only one.

Book Club: Beautiful Ruins

Happy first book of 2014, buddies! As promised, we get to talk about Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters, a book I would not have read were it not for very, very limited options in the airport bookshop.

This cover does it no favors, but bear with me.
This cover does it no favors, but bear with me.

I’m glad they didn’t have much, because I enjoyed reading this, and I wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise! The design of the cover does it no favors, and I think “Jess Walter” sounds like a Confessions of a Shopaholic kind of author name, right? I know I’m being a big jerk, and I guess I forgot about The Financial Lives of Poets or his myriad pieces I’ve read in magazines and liked. Oops.

The story is about a man who keeps an tiny inn on the coast of Italy and the glamorous actress who visits there in the 1960s. No, wait, the book is about Richard Burton and the Donner Party. Ah, no, I’m sorry, it’s about modern day Los Angeles and a disillusioned young woman working in film as a glorified assistant. Forgive me, I forgot–  it’s about her boss. Maybe it’s about her boyfriend, or an alcoholic Spalding Gray knockoff. It’s about all of them, together and apart, at once and over time. The word “high-wire” comes to mind when describing the feeling of the novel, and the whole thing feels like a movie from “go.” While reading it (and I tore through like a woman possessed), I felt like I could cue the suspenseful music here or fade to black there; Beautiful Ruins walks a fine line between hokey and workin’ it with play-within-a-play-as-device, and it almost completely succeeds throughout. Dude’s a great storyteller.

I love an ensemble cast, as I mentioned when we read Bel Canto, but I often struggle with feeling like the characters are as round and dynamic as I’d like, and I frequently feel as though I don’t get closure with all of them in the ways I’d like. Beautiful Ruins succeeds at fifty percent of these. By the last pages of the book, I had a great sense of what everyone was about, and could reasonably guess who was a cornflake person and who was a Frosted Flake person, which of these people I’d call to get me from jail, and if any of the characters were the sorts who pronounce it  “Tar-ZHAY.” By the same token, I did feel like I got rushed out of a couple rooms in an effort to close all the doors on the way out of the house. I wanted to know more about the outcome of the aforementioned disillusioned assistant, and I felt a little confused about the ultimate motivations of her boss. These were both great characters, and I wanted to know more, which I never will. The outcome of Richard Burton, well, that one is available on Wikipedia. (Spoiler alert: he dies.)

A game I often like to play with pieces of real-enough fiction is this: I ask myself if I can assume that a character can name the principle characters in Saved By the Bell. Not that specifically, but I very often wonder if the world my characters are inhabiting has already upgraded to iOS whatever, or if Barack Obama is president, or if they get their oil changed at JiffyLube. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose, but it’s kind of fun to think about, in the way that Donnie Darko blew your mind in 10th grade (you’re a liar if you say it didn’t.). Beautiful Ruins is a rare piece of art that I feel like I could answer that about (another is Sherlock on BBC, if you were wondering). I have no idea if Harry Potter knows about The DaVinci Code but I am damn sure who is a Verizon customer and who is on Sprint in this book. Jess Walters created a fictional, almost-real world that is both completely fantastical and tight as a drum;  if it weren’t for the fact that most of these people don’t exist and that the story is so wow, I feel like I could step right in to it, wearing my Gap jeans, joking in Doge, and not really draw much attention to myself. That’s pretty amazing, when you think about it.

So, have you read this? What did you think? I heard from a reader who loved it infinitely more than his other work, and made a suggestion for a future book club herself (coming soon, miss!). Next week, I’m finishing this, which I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. Please join me! I’d be delighted.

Happy Hour: La Fiera

Again, with these kinda brutal weeks. Is Mercury in retrograde or something?

Joking. Not joking. Totally kidding. But really. What. Is. The. Deal. 

I feel I’ve earned a glass or three of the 2011 La Fiera Montepulciano D’Abruzzo. You have, too. 

Bonus: You get to look at my Junior League cookbooks.

So, it’s my impression that Abruzzo, a region of Italy, is known for producing cheap wines. The quality has dramatically improved over the last ten years, but the prices remain the same, so “d’Abruzzo” is a good code word for “not at all bad for rock-bottom prices.” For $7.50, I walked out of my new favorite wineshop, Greenhaus, with a new lease on life. It does every last thing you want your table wine to do:

  1. It goes great with food.
  2. It is tasty.
  3. You are excited to drink it.
  4. If you hate it, it was only a couple bucks because it’s just Tuesday and it’s not like your boss is coming over for dinner or something.

Check, check, check, and check. This is a light-bodied, warm, fruity, big wine that doesn’t waste a lot of time with subtly. The sour cherries are right out there in front, and you know what? I like that. This isn’t the fanciest wine, but it’s the best thing ever for a weeknight dinner. 

And you can drink the whole bottle and be out less than the cost of a draft beer at some of the nicer places.