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Wednesday 13 August 2014

Luxardo Distillery in Padua // Food, Drink & Art in Venice

MATT THE TRIP - A little jaunt to Padua & Venice to see the Luxardo Distillery in action with the Luxardo family, Craig Chapman from Cellar Trends, The Cocktail Lovers aka Sandrae & Gary, Mark Ludmon from Bar Magazine, Douglas Blyde & Su-Lin Ong.

Day 1 - Gatwick, 11.30am, flight to Italy in two hours.  Only one way to pass the time with drinks journalists - two rounds of Negronis and snacks from Jamie's Italian.  Matteo Luxardo, 6th generation distiller joined us for the flight, after a busy week of Luxardo promotion in London at Imbibe Live.

The first round were fine examples of the genre, but the second efforts were oddly different.   There would have been time for a third variation had we known in advance that our plane was delayed due to an inoperable loo - I've never heard that one before.  The pilot dealt with it like a true Brit - he came down to the departure lounge and advised us all to go for a pre-flight toilet trip.

Jamie's Negroni at Gatwick
From Venice airport, we drove to Montegrotto, a sunny spa town frequented mostly by Italians over 70 according to Matteo.  After a quick spritz / negroni in the hotel bar, we popped over to nearby Ristorante Cencio, a charming restaurant with a cosy garden on the hillside.  We started with a glass of Luxardo Sangue Morlacco with Prosecco, the first of many cherry based treats.  The combination doesn't have a name yet, so all suggestions are welcome!

Luxardo cherry liqueur was renamed with the curious name of Sangue Morlacco (Morlacco blood) by the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio in 1919, at the time of the Fiume military expedition, due to its dark red colour and in honour of the Morlaccos, fierce warriors of Dalmatia who fought for the Republic of Venice and defended their homeland against the Turks.  It is a liqueur of marasca cherries (a sour cherry variety exclusively cultivated by Luxardo), obtained by the infusion of fermented marasca juice, matured for two years in larch vats.  It does wonders for a Blood and Sand (with rye whisky, Angostura bitters & orange juice).

Fountain at Gran Hotel Montegrotto Terme
Ristorante Cencio in Montegrotto
Sangue Morlacco - now available in the UK
A fantastic dinner of aperitivo plates and fish followed, starting with two different fish tartares and octopus carpaccio.  This was followed by fried zucca flowers with anchovies (first of many on the trip), zucchini tart with fondue sauce, a wild herb soufflé, and porcini mushrooms served with polenta.  That would have been enough for any normal evening, but we pushed on with two beautifully cooked turbot twins on a bed of moreish potatoes, and an impressive tray of salt crusted seabass.

Matteo, "the wild child of Italy", kept us entertained with stories about his relations & upbringing, including his time in the navy, reminding us that whilst Luxardo is a worldwide brand, it is still just a family business.

Social media reaching the Italian hills

Small plates at Ristorante Cencio

Turbot twins at Ristorante Cencio

Salt Crusted Seabass

After the savoury courses, we had a pause with some Apricot Liqueur and Sangue Morlacco making its way round.  Hopefully, we might soon see Luxardo's Albicocca Liquore Della Lupa (Apricot liqueur of the she-wolf!) turning up in bars around the UK.  Lupa, the symbol of Rome, is reffered to after the liqueur won an award there all the way back in 1935!

Liqueur of the she-wolf

The evening finished in style with a boozy glass of vanilla ice cream laced with Sangue Morlacco and garnished with a luxurious Luxardo cherry.  The perfect nightcap ahead of a busy Friday.

Sangue Morlacco laced ice cream

Day 2 - After a healthy breakfast by the pool surrounded by octogenarians in loose-fitting dressing gowns, we made our way over to the Luxardo Distillery, a short drive away in Torreglia.  Before taking a tour, Matteo gave us a quick history lesson.

Girolamo Luxardo, originally from Genova, was sent to Zara in Dalmatia (now Zadar in Croatia) as consular representative of the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1817.  His first wife, Maria, was rather handy at making liqueurs using old monks' recipes, and in 1821 Girolamo founded a distillery to produce Maraschino. Girolamo was obviously quite a character, ending up with 20 kids (fifty years apart in age), and a second wife (originally intended for his son, but he fell in love with her on the boat from Ancona!).  

Fast forward almost century and 3rd generation Michelangelo Luxardo constructed an impressive modern distillery in Zara in 1913, though both World Wars caused closures and a lot of damage, and many family members lost their lives.  Matteo's grandfather Giorgio escaped with 3 families in 1947, and sensibly rebuilt safely outside of a city this time, in the Torreglian hills near Padua.

Firmly up to speed on the back story, we went for a wander to see the creative process behind their 5 lines - drinking liqueurs, confectionery liqueurs, fruit syrups, jams and of course, the famous cherries.

Vats from 1947 are still in use, ash for the 2 year Maraschino infusion (marasca cherry stones, pulps, leaves, branches et al) and larch as previously mentioned for the Sangue Morlacco.  Nearby, barrels of orange blossom, mandarin, bitter orange and sweet orange lie in wait to surprise a Triple Sec, one of many Luxardo products that hasn't made it to the UK yet.

No such problem for the Maraschino though, a mainstay of the majority of London back bars.  It's become an essential bottle, not only for Manhattan cocktails but also Aviation, Martinez, Hemingway Daiquiri and others.  It's one of a handful of liqueurs produced by distillation, making use once again of Luxardo's sour marasca cherries.

Matteo Luxardo

We soon moved to the futuristic bottling line, which was put through its paces in front of our eyes with some cheeky quality control tests via rogue pieces of paper.  Only James Cameron's T-2000 would have dealt with the obstacles more efficiently.

A little further on, the luxury jams were given a more hands on approach.  170g of fruit is used for 100g of jam, streets ahead of your average supermarket 55% fruit-based-ish jars.   Luxardo are famous in Italy for their confectionery products, but it's not a mass market thing for them.

The Luxardo Distillery from Matt The List on Vimeo.

Franco and Matteo Luxardo - father & son

Before a visit to one of their cherry orchards, we stopped for lunch at Ristorante di Rifugio Monte Rua, a secluded spot with a stunning view and food to match.

Su-Lin hard at work

Luxardo Aperitivo with prosecco set the tone for another excellent meal which kicked off with plates of zucchini, buffalo meat, sweet prosciutto and more.  

A cheeky plate of burrata & basil ravioli "sunflowers" with bitter chocolate shavings preceded cherry brandy soaked pork with Luxardo cherries on top, but dessert stole the show.  Peaches were flambéed live at the table with Maraschino & Sangue Morlacco, and then placed alongside semifreddo pannacotta & wild strawberries - heavenly.

Live flambéed peaches, Sangue Morlacco & Maraschino w/ pannacotta & wild strawberries
To end the Luxardo stage of the trip, we made a quick stop to look at one or two of their 29,000 marasca cherry trees, which had been harvested by just 4 people a week or two before our arrival.  To keep up with demand, the Luxardo family get local farmers to grow the cherries for them before buying them back.

Jars of the cherries bathed in sugar syrup fetch up to £8 (for 400g).  You will no doubt have had one as a garnish at some point in your life, most probably in an Aviation or a Manhattan.  They make a superb present for any budding home cocktail maker, and bartenders are always happy to receive another jar.

Cherry harvest in progress

Sour marasca cherries
Head to Matt The List on Facebook for more photos from Padua.

At this point we said goodbye to our wonderful Luxardo hosts and made tracks for Venice. An evening of spritzes, cicchetti and Don't Look Now references was ahead of us.

Free advertising for Luxardo

After a speedy turnaround at the hotel, we took to the canals of Venice to find some cosy bacari, the small bars that dish out spritzes galore and cicchetti, small plates of food, often eaten by hand or using toothpicks much like pintxos in the Basque regions of Spain.

Osteria alla Ciurma was our first stop for arancini (fried rice balls), baccala (salt cod) croquettes and bargain €3 Aperol spritzes.  In fact, despite staying only a little bit off the beaten tourist track, the cost of spritzes remained pleasantly low all night.  The high price tags attached to this "cocktail" in the UK are laughable.

Next up was the lively Cantina do Spade which lacked the basic ingredients for G&Ts and Negronis, so more spritzes arrived, along with some more fried zucchini flowers (eaten at every meal so far).

All the cicchetti were just a warm up for an enjoyable dinner at Antico Dolo, though the speakeasy style toilet and funky English translations (crunky nougat anyone?) left the biggest impression.  We washed down tasty local food (polenta, squid ink pasta, more courgettes) with Cartizze prosecco, the highly-rated variety often referred to as the "Grand Cru of Prosecco" that even has a bar named after it in London.

Whilst some went off to find one more canal-side bacaro, Craig and I came across an open air showing of Brazil vs Colombia.  We ordered two dreadful negronis and settled in for the second half near a bunch of hopeful Colombian fans.  45 minutes later, they weren't so happy, James Rodriguez was in tears and Neymar was on his way to hospital.  Bed time.

Day 3 - We had a free morning before our flight home so I squeezed in a trip to the Doge's Palace (Bridge of Sighs and all that), a 30 second gondola ride, a quick whip round the Guggenheim and some more food & drink.

View from the Bridge of Sighs

The Angel of the City at the Guggenheim

Cheeky sculptures inspired by Picasso sketches

Peggy Guggenheim's dogs

Our last stops were the classic Caffe Rosso for one last spritz, Grom for superb gelato and Ristorante Terrazza del Casin dei Nobili for lunch on the waterfront.

Ristorante Terrazza del Casin dei Nobili

Pasta with Arugula Pesto & Prawns

Il Cagalibri - type that into Google

And what better way to end the trip than by travelling to the airport in a speedboat driven by a fashionable Venetian called Mario?

The Cocktail Lovers

It was a short stay in Venice and Padua, but we certainly made the most of it.  The Italians know what they are doing, and I expect I will be back in that part of the world before too long.  

Endless thanks to Su-Lin, Craig from Cellar Trends and the Luxardo family for organizing such a fantastic trip filled with outstanding food and drink in glorious settings.  If only every weekend was like this...

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