The Road Home

Every year lately, during the Christmas holidays, I go back to Portland where I spent my years in college. I go to check in with my old coach’s wife, his daughter, and with my best friend from the time in school.

The coach has long been gone but his wife, a grandmother many times over, perseveres. Over tea and cake in the family home in the comfortable Eastmoreland neighborhood next to the college, she pulls out her old recipe book.

From a Croatian fishing family in the Pacific Northwest, she tells of the homemade wine her father used to make. In the cookbook is the combination of grapes used to make the wine. Under the recipe is a story about her uncles stomping the grapes in a bathtub.

We will come back to the wine. Because the daughter Joanne has worked to keep a tie to the land of her forbears. So she learned Croatian and applied for citizenship.

She told us about the gruff Croatian consul in Los Angeles who first refused to make an appointment, as was his policy, but relented when she explained that she was coming from a long distance.

He then helped her when she could not remember one of the Croatian words on her language proficiency test.

So she now has dual citizenship. And with her new Croatian passport, she traveled to Dubrovnik, where her uncle gave her a jug of homemade red wine.

She asked him how it is made.

“From grapes,” he answered.

She persisted. How was it fermented.

He held up his hands, as she tells the story, and rotated them. “From the air all around,” he said.

Having struggled with making wine, I knew what he meant. He relies on natural yeasts from the region to act as the fermenting agent.

The general practice in the U.S. is to kill all the natural yeasts by putting sulfide powder into the juice from the grapes, and then inserting yeast from another package. It is also the practice to add malolactic acid, which helps give the wine its bouquet.

The unfortunate result, in Joanne’s case, is that she has a strong allergic reaction to red wine, including shortness of breath.

But, presented with her uncle’s red wine in Dubrovnik, she was determined to be able to tell him she had tried it. Despite any reaction that might ensue.

Lo and behold, there was none. She drank the wine and was fine.

There is a lesson in that.

Similar to the one learned by my sister who has become in the last few years, like so many here, intolerant of wheat flour.

On a trip to France a few years ago, she, like Joanne with her uncle’s wine, was determined to eat a French baguette, a pillar of the French national culture.

She ate a baguette and, no reaction, she was fine.

So I recently sent an article to an old family friend in Brittany’s capital Rennes about the fact that the French are now buying baguettes from vending machines.

Françoise replied, “Pas de panique!”

She reassured me that in extremis the French would buy bread from a machine, but that, with some attrition, the boulangeries are still alive and well in France.

She then wrote an exposition of the recent history of the French baguette. After the “hyper-sélection” of white flour “pour la productivité,” she said, the French too had seen a surge in gluten intolerance.

But there had also been a market reaction returning to artisanal methods for making baguettes, while recovering and using ancient strains of wheat.

The French culture with its hyper-attention to food quality had found a way to get back to a good and healthy baguette.

The irony in all of it is that the wine I am making with a friend, with full control over the ingredients, is causing a slight reaction among some friends — don’t know why.

So maybe we should return to the old ways and take a chance on the wild yeast of the SoCal terroir. Although that may bring an arrière-goût of brush fire and freeway, rather than blackberrry and currant. We’ll see.

The visit to Portland wound up with a glass of Christmas beer in a pub on the way to the airport. Friendships had been refreshed, holiday rituals observed, and, on the plane home, I would get a chance to ponder and perhaps to sleep.

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