Who has ever, at least once in life, seen a flask of red wine? For us Tuscans it is quite likely to see it “towering” over our grandparents’ table or in a typical trattoria.
The flask, an object that has the flavour of times gone by, is one of the symbols of our tradition. Currently less common than the Bordeaux bottle, it evokes the moment of conviviality that the ancient peasants used to share, perhaps by the fireplace, in front of poor food.
The birth of the flask
It seems that the production of flasks began near us, in the Valdelsa area (Poggibonsi, San Gimignano, Gambassi Terme, Montaione). It appears that here a kiln was already in operation in 1230.
The first documents to refer to the flask as a glass vessel ideal for containing wine date back to the 15th century. But a well-known literary source – Boccaccio’s Decameron, written between 1349 and 1353 – suggests that it was already circulating in the mid-14th century.
What seems certain is that the flask replaced tin containers, which were subject to constant fraud because too much lead was added to them.
The peculiarity of the flask
The special feature of the flask – apart from its pot-bellied and footless shape – is the fact that it is stuffed with straw. This proved very useful both to protect the vessel from knocks and to store the wine, thus protected from the sun’s rays.
The covering was made by hand with reedmace (Typha latifolia), a grass widespread in the marshes of the area, easily mouldable and of strong fibre. This practice, which required a certain manual skill, was mainly carried out by women, the so-called “fiascaie”.
Over the centuries the way of stuffing changed: initially the flask – covered up to the whole neck – was different from the one we know today, stuffed only on the belly.
The expression “to be a fiasco”
The expression “to be a fiasco”, which refers to a complete failure, seems to be linked to the typical Tuscan wine container. There are various hypotheses about the origin of this expression, which is also present in English, French and German vocabulary.
According to some it is linked to a theatrical flop and there are two versions. One says that an actor – who every night performed funny monologues using objects – would stage a flask and bore the audience terribly. There is also the story of the 17th century comedian Domenico Biancolelli, who is said to have improvised performance on a flask without making anyone laugh.
Others believe that “to be a flask” alludes to the glass-blower who sets out to create something beautiful but ends up with a clumsy-looking object.
A final interpretation is that the saying derives from the custom in Venetian factories of throwing the shattered pieces into the container in question.
The flask today
A combination of factors – the “extinction” of the figure of “fiascaia”, the spread of the Bordeaux bottle, the replacement of straw with plastic – has decreed the end of an era for the centuries-old flask: it has gone from being an artisan creation to an industrial standardisation reserved for low-quality wines.
However fortunately there is good news for our “friend” flask: recently some Tuscan wineries have undertaken a recovery project aimed at rehabilitating the historical and identity value of this extraordinary artefact.
In the last years here in Poggio al Bosco we too have put into flasks a small part of our Chianti DOCG production.