In England. Where’s the beef? At Barbacoa.

In general you don’t often see England on a list of food destinations. There is a certain stereotype connected with the British and their food. It is not that they don’t have some great chefs hailing from the British Isles — Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsey, Graham Kerr and Heston Blumenthal, to name a few — It is just that one doesn’t readily match the British with a particularly enticing dish in one’s mind. So when we left for England on our final “stage” of our year, I didn’t have have that glow of anticipation that I’ve had on our other trips.

Then I looked at our itinerary and saw that we would have lunch at Barbacoa (www.barbecoa.com), a restaurant of Jaime Oliver’s. That was interesting. Jaime has made quite a name for himself with his work around school lunch programs and his food revolution. He is, of course, a celebrity chef with a large following. His TV shows and his campaigns are all about encouraging people to cook for themselves which will lead to a better tasting and healthier diet.

At Barbacoa Jaime has joined forces with Adam Perry Lang, a United States chef who has worked with Mario Batali at CarneVino restaurant in Las Vegas (http://carnevino.com/) and has his own restaurant in New York City called Daisy May’s BBQ (http://www.adamperrylang.com/). Adam is an expert in meat.

The restaurant, which looks over St. Paul’s Cathedral, is on the second floor of a downtown shopping mall. The restaurant is supplied by their own butcher shop downstairs that also sells meat, poultry and game.

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Photos by Chelsea Lepore

The tie between the butcher shop and the restaurant is no surprise considering Adam’s keen interest in all things meat. He described in excited detail how he visits all of the farms where their meat comes from to understand how the meat is raised and to make sure that it is done in a sustainable fashion. He also regularly visits the abattoirs where the meat he buys is processed. He essentially supervises the slaughter and preparation of the carcasses that will be delivered to the Barbacoa butcher shop. He wants to assure that the meat is of the highest quality and is handled properly throughout the path from farm to table and this was evident as we enjoyed a good sized hamburger that had the taste of well aged beef.

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What he said fit into what we had seen on our visit up to that point as we had visited three large organic farms. One, a biodynamic farm as well, had their own abattoir. We saw first hand how organic crops and animals could be raised well and how animals could be processed in a humane way. We were invited into the abattoir to watch the processing of cows as it occured. They had nothing to hide and they didn’t prohibit photography. The work environment and the handling of the animals looked much different than the view we often see and hear about…much better.

Adam went on to say that it is not just getting the best quality meat that concerns him. He also has a young daughter and he wants to make sure that the world for her will not be put at risk by unsustainable farming practices. This is where Adam’s narrative began to break apart a bit in my mind. He followed this with a response to a question asking how he sources his vegetables and does he pay the same kind of attention to where they come from and how they are grown? His response…”I don’t really care much about vegetables. Someone else takes care of them.” He said that it is not his job to try and educate people about how they should be eating. The restaurant’s purpose is to provide people the food that they want in the best possible way. The people that come to Barbacoa expect to get large portions of high quality meat cooked perfectly and that is what he delivers. Hummm…

You see, if you care about sustainability and creating a food system that will meet the needs of the future and provide a healthy way of eating for your daughters and sons, you have to think a little less about meat and a little more about vegetables. There are many people that worry about the expected world population of 9 billion that will soon be upon us. They are wondering how we can feed all of those people. We currently produce enough food calories to feed 1 1/2 times the present world population (or 10 billion people) and yet there are almost 1 billion people going hungry. In order to feed more people we don’t need to produce more food. We need to use less food in non-food activity, like producing ethanol. And we need to use less food in feeding animals instead of people. The feed conversion ratio (the amount of feed it takes to produce 1 kg of meat) for cattle is somewhere between 8:1 and 50:1 depending on how you calculate it. That means it takes at least 8 kg of feed to get 1 kg of meat. If we ate less meat (note that I’m not saying no meat) there would be more food available for all. But the per capita consumption of meat around the world is increasing .

I thought that surely this attitude was not in line with Jaime Oliver’s philosophy regarding food. After all he is very publically speaking out on eating in a healthier fashion and is working to decrease obesity and diabetes in children. He must have contradictory views on what this restaurant seemed to be embodying versus his healthy food movement. I went to his website expecting to find an expression that was different than what his restaurant, Barbacoa, represents in London. I visited Jaime’s web page and under Food Philosophy found the following:

“My philosophy to food and healthy eating has always been about enjoying everything in a balanced, and sane way. Food is one of life’s greatest joys yet we’ve reached this really sad point where we’re turning food into the enemy, and something to be afraid of. I believe that when you use good ingredients to make pasta dishes, salads, stews, burgers, grilled vegetables, fruit salads, and even outrageous cakes, they all have a place in our diets. We just need to rediscover our common sense: if you want to curl up and eat macaroni and cheese every once in a while – that’s alright! Just have a sensible portion next to a fresh salad, and don’t eat a big old helping of chocolate cake afterwards.

,,,So when I talk about having a ‘healthy’ approach to food, and eating better I’m talking about achieving that sense of balance: lots of the good stuff, loads of variety, and the odd indulgence every now and then.” (emphasis mine)

Perhaps this restaurant is intended not for regular visits, but for “the odd indulgence every now and then” of overly-large portions of meat. The restaurant is a business and successful businesses try hard to provide the best customer experience. One should not expect Barbacoa to do any less. However, if Chef Lang is truly concerned about his daughter’s food future and health, he should care a little more about vegetables.

Ciao!

Ciccioli

Somehow it didn’t seem that life could get much better. I was in class touring food producers in the Italian region of Emilia Romagna. This is the land of Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale (balsamic vinegar), lambrusco and ciccioli. Ciccioli? Well, this particular food can be a bit off-putting. Let me tell you a little about it.

We were at the “Cicciolo D’oro” association for demonstrations on pig butchering, salumi making, pasta making, and to enjoy a meal with the members of this association. A half of pig lay on the stainless steel table when we arrived and we were introduced to the men who would break this down into parts for making salumi and other meat items and to the women who would show us how to make pasta. Some of this was review for me as I had a similar pig experience in Minneapolis and we had been taught how to make pasta the evening before, but there was one new addition…ciccioli.

Ciccioli begins as a big section of the pig’s back fat. The fat is cut into cubes. The cubes are then taken outside and dropped into a very large pot over a very large flame where they are melted and then rendered for a couple of hours.

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When the cubes get golden brown they are scooped out of the pot into a large cloth where they are wrung out by two men twisting the cloth around the fried fat and then the contents is sprinkled with a salt and seasoning mixture.

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Then the golden cubes are put into a metal cylinder press with large holes, a metal disk is placed over them and they are pressed down, another layer of fat cubes is added, another metal disk, and it is repeated one more time. Then the top is put on the press and the entire contents are pressed down squeezing out all of the liquid fat and leaving only the browned ghosts of the fried fat cubes behind.

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The four “cakes” formed by this press are broken up into pieces and served.

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The whole idea of what you are eating is pretty disgusting. But, if it is so disgusting why is it that the package of ciccioli they presented each of us at the end of the evening is gone? Entirely eaten! It has something to do with the taste combination of crispy, salted, seasoned pork fat that is irrestible. Healthy? I’m guessing that it isn’t but that’s what walking 6 km to school every day is for.

Ciccioli, a new food to be looking for.

Ciao!

On being carfree and carless

We have lived in Italy for 5 months now and I have discovered something that has struck me as interesting. I really haven’t missed one of the icons of American life…the car. Some of you on reading the title for this posting probably thought that I had made some typographical or spelling errors and, I guess, I did. It should probably be car-free and car-less for you see we have not had a car at our disposal while living in Bra. We did, to be accurate, rent a car twice for 3 days at at time. Once when we went to Verona and later to travel around the surrounding area of Piemonte to visit the wine towns of the Barolo region. As part of our daily lives we do not use nor find a need for a car.

 

Granted, we live downtown in the “historic city center” of Bra. This means that we have within a few blocks almost all of the things we need for our basic survival. We live above a fish shop and across the street from a fresh pasta shop. We are a few doors down from a produce shop and across from what I fondly refer to as “our hardware store.” Going the other direction down our street and within a block or two are a pastry shop, a cheese and salumi shop, a meat market, a bakery, “our” coffee shop, a nice restaurant for whenever we want to celebrate something (every few weeks), and my barber. Actually, there are several pastry shops, bakeries, meat markets, produce stores, gelaterias (places to buy gelato), etc. within easy walking of our “flat.” No car needed for those. If we need to do some more extensive shopping there is the COOP about 6 blocks away or, for those times when sufficient just isn’t enough there is the Big Store (Yes, that’s what they call it in Italian!) which is about 2 miles away but you “have to” pass by a great gelateria on the way to or from there.

 

To get to school, which is about 4 miles away, I have been walking in the mornings when it is cool and taking the bus back in the afternoon when it is hot. I have a bus pass so the logistics are pretty easy. There have been a few times when class hasn’t ended near the time when the bus heads back from Pollenzo to Bra and I have had to 1) wait, 2) walk or 3) catch a ride with the 2 or 3 students that do have a car. In general, though, not having a car for school is not an issue.

So, what have I learned about not having a car vs having one? It really can be summed up in the title. Being “carless” can be felt to be a burden. “Less” means missing something…not whole. One could view that as being deprived of something. On the other hand, being “carfree” means free of the responsibility of having to depend on an oft undependable item with all its needs like fuel and parking. “Carfree” can truly mean “carefree.”

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There have been very few times when we have felt ourselves to be “careless” about being “carless.” One is when we want to make a quick weekend trip to one of the quaint small towns that surround us and to which there does not appear to be any reasonable way to get to other than by car. We tried, for instance to walk to Cherasco, a nice town about 6 km from Bra…an easy walk. It would be easy, too, if there was a path to walk on that was not in the direct path of cars and semi-trucks. We got to within about one kilometer of the town and found that a bridge separated us from our destination. There was no way to cross the bridge on foot. I tried and had to turn around and return after only a dozen feet or so while a semi-truck was stopped, holding up busy traffic, waiting for my retreat. Biking would be equally as treacherous. Many of the students have bikes but I haven’t found a need for one. The issue of safely riding a bike on highways is the same and bikes have been stolen.

 

So, we are car-less and do not feel deprived. We have learned to navigate the train and bus schedules and have come to enjoy traveling, on trains (mostly) or buses. It can be freeing having nothing to worry about except watching the countryside or reading or writing this blog posting…completely carefree.

 

Ciao!

Posted on the train from Trieste to Milano.

Green Harvest

Saturday promised to be sunny and hot as we were driven to the La Spinetta Campe winery near the town of Grinzane Cavour in the Piemonte region of Italy. We were going to La Spinetta to participate in the green harvest. Gathering in the tasting room with about 18 others from Switzerland, Denmark, and Belgium we were welcomed by Anja Cramer, (responsible for marketing), Giorgio Rivetti (the wine maker and co-owner), Giovanna (Giorgio’s sister, vineyard supervisor and cook), and Manuela Rivetti (Italian sales and winery visits). We were given background on La Spinetta, a family owned and run winery (http://www.la-spinetta.com/index.htm). The work we would be doing that morning was some of the most important work done in the vineyards and involves cutting off almost half of the clusters of green grapes from the vines. This work is done before the grapes start to turn color and is done so that the plant provides all of its energy to fewer grapes. It reduces the quantity of wine produced significantly but increases the quality. La Spinetta is all about the quality where as other commercial wineries are more concerned on the volume of wine produced.

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We were given aprons and cutters and headed for the vineyard. There we met the part of the field crew that works for La Spinetta for harvest, pruning, thinning, and green harvest. They are all very skilled at what they do and are supervised by Giovanna.

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Divided into groups of 5 or 6 we were assigned to one or two of these workers. Giovanna showed how they wanted to have about 5 or 6 grape clusters remaining on each vine, though it depended on the age of the vine and the size of the clusters. Some of the clusters were long and we were to cut them shorter so that the remaining grapes would do better.

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The thinning had the functions of making fewer clusters so that each received more nourishment but also to create space between clusters so that they would stay dry. If clusters are too close together and it rains they do not dry well and then mold forms and ruins the grapes. After the demonstrations we were ready to work under the watchful eye of the skilled workers. When we would have a question about whether or not to cut off a cluster we would say, “Questo? (this one)” and get a “si” or “no” or “corto” (shoren it). It was a little unnerving to think that each cluster cut would be less wine, Barolo in this case, made.

 

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Our group would move down the row each taking a vine to harvest and then when done moving past the last one down the row to select another vine. There is another vineyard between two of La Spinetta’s properties that is not owned by them. The owner is not a winemaker and sell the grapes to other winemakers. He does not do green harvest and you could see the vines thick with green grape clusters. For this grower it is all about production of a lot of grapes. Giorgio said that the winemakers who buy these grapes are not farmers and by not being farmers they don’t understand that the quality of the wine begins in the vineyard.

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Just when it seemed we were getting the hang of it we stopped for lunch. Lunch was served at the ciabót, a little hut or house in the vineyards where the vignaioli used to store their tools and take their breaks in the heat of the day. Lunch was simple, but delicious “finger food” prepared by Giovanna accompanied by La Spinetta wines (of course!).

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It was a good time to relax, eat, drink wine, meet and talk with the other people there and to enjoy the lush green view across Barolo wine country.

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Then it was back down the hill to the winery to turn in our cutters and back to the hotel to clean up and rest before dinner.

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Dinner was in Canelli at the Contratto winery. Contratto is a very old sparkling winery that was acquired by La Spinetta very recently. The winery is built into the side of a large hill and consists of multilevel tunnels dug into the hill. The winery was built over a 100 years ago without the machinery or technology we have now and it is very impressive to see how well it was constructed. I forgot to bring my camera in the evening so I cannot show you just how beautiful the facility is. They still use the manual process for “riddling” (getting the yeast into the neck of the bottle so it can be expelled before the final bottling.) All of the large sparkling wine companies have machines that do that now. We had a demonstration of riddling from a man that has worked there for 30 years. There soon will not be anyone with those skills around.

We had aperitivos in a underground tasting room (with some Contratto sparking wine, of course). Then we returned above ground to what was once a restaurant on part of the winery where we had a lovely meal prepared by Giovanna accompanied by several La Spinetta wines.

We were fortunate of be sitting by Giorgio and were treated to many stories. It is clear that they are passionate about their wine making and they work very hard to product the best wines that they can. One of the other guests told us that a La Spinetta had been rated the second best Barolo in Italy and was ranked among the best wines in the world. The evening ended with a 2004 Barolo Reserve and it couldn’t have ended better.

Ciao!

(for more pictures go to:  http://gallery.me.com/doughiza/100175)

Birthday in Puglia

Some of you have asked, “So what did you do on your birthday in Italy?” Well, actually nobody asked that but it serves as a good lead in to a very late posting. My birthday fell on the day our class went to Puglia for our first regional stage.

 

Puglia forms the “heel” of the “boot” that makes up Italy. I knew very little about it before going there but found it to be a fascinating place. Some quick facts about Puglia include that it produces about 40% of the olive oil in Italy (and Italy is the number 2, after Spain, producer in the world). It also produces a lot of wine. It is famous for orecchiette pasta which is often eaten with turnip tops. It used to be that the olive oil produced in Puglia was used primarily for lamps. It was not considered to be of a grade good enough for eating. When oil burning lamps became less popular, with the advent of electric light, the olive oil that was good enough was blended with olive oil from other places and the rest sent to refineries where it was processed into plain olive oil. Now the region has focused on olive oil production with newer methods and they are producing some top grade extra virgin olive oils. They still are not well known due to their past reputation for poor quality oil production.

 

Likewise they produce a lot of wine. Their vineyards are located on hot, flat plains and for years the high volume of wine they produced was shipped to others for distilling or mixing with other wines. Now they are developing better wine making methods and turning out some excellent wines based primarily on the Negroamaro, Primitivo (probably the same grape as Zinfandel), Nero di Trola, and Chardonnay grapes. They have attracted the attention of outside wine makers who have been buying Puglian vineyards and wineries.

 

The region of Puglia that we visited is most notable for the fields of large, old, twisted olive trees that are seen everywhere. We also were in the region where the distinctive Trulli architecture is seen. Trulli are conical roofed buildings that are homes as well as barns and sheds. We visited the town of Alberobello (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alberobello) where much of the town is made up of Trulli.

 

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Our first day in Puglia was rainy and cold so we cut short our afternoon to get ready for dinner…my birthday dinner… We ate at the Fornello Antico Borgo (http://www.rosticceria-lanticoborgo.it/) which, you can tell by reading their website, specializes in roasted meat. We also had a wine maker there from Feudi San Marzano Winery to present the wines we were served to compliment our meal. We had a nice antipasta of cured meat and cheese, a tripe soup, some braised donkey and, of course roasted meats of various types. That was followed by a dessert platter and I got birthday cakes with candles. I took bites of my cakes before I thought of photographing them so what you see is what was left. The wine maker also gave me a nice bottle of Primitivo.

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Much of our trip was arranged by the President of Slow Food Puglia (and a radiologist), Michele Bruno, who is on the left in this photo with the wine maker.

 

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Our class isn’t really known for being scholarly and sedate and this dinner was no exception. I don’t know if it was the giddiness of being in Puglia or being in the presence of a pretty old birthday boy or if Chris was simply looking to score a bottle of good Puglian wine (which she did). But she somehow ended up…well, the picture says it all.

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It was a great birthday and it was only our first day in Puglia.

 

Ciao!

Cooking Class

When I would tell people that I was going to Italy to study Gastronomy, many assumed I meant that I was going to a cooking school to learn how to cook Italian cuisine. Though that would be fun, and perhaps could be another trip someday, it is not what I came to study. I am studying in a Masters program in Food Culture and Communications. It is more about the history of food, food production, sensory analysis of food and beverages, communication techniques, etc. However, when the opportunities arise to learn more about how to cook Italian food I will try to take advantage of them. June and I had such an opportunity this week when we joined four of my classmates going to a cooking class.

Buon Appetito Bra is a “cooking school” that is run by 3 women, Francesca, Licia, and Chiara, who are in the two year Masters program at the University of Gastronomy. They are from three different regions of Italy — Puglia, Tuscany, and Emilia-Romagna — which gives them a fairly broad view of Italian cuisine. They are not professional cooks. They attained their skills and learned the recipes cooking with their “nonna” (grandmother). Their classes are very informal and “on demand” by which I mean that they are arranged for any particular group when that group finds it convenient to get together. They are also receptive to teaching a particular dish upon request (ahead of time, of course).

This night we were learning how to make a couple kinds of bread, Crostini neri Toscani, Piadina Romagnola Tradizionale, and Crostata di frutta. The Piadina is a flat bread. It is traditionally made with flour, lard, water, and a little salt. It is kneaded, divided into smaller balls, rolled out then cooked on a hot metal plate (griddle).

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It is generally served accompanied by Squaquarone and rucola. Squaquarone is a soft, white spreadable cheese. Rucola is arugula.

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The Crostini neri Toscani consists of a spread made from chicken liver and calf spleen that are sauteed in olive oil with onion and celery. Some red wine is added and that is cooked down. Then parsley is added and the mixture is put in a food processor to make the spread. This is then spread on toasted slices of bread.

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The two wines we were served, a rosé and a red wine were from Tuscany and were from the family of one of our instructors. We had a plate of roasted vegetables to accompany our other dishes.

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The last dish, dessert, was the Crostata di Fruitta, a fruit tart. We learned how to make a sweet dough that was rolled out, cut into circles and pressed into a cupcake type pan. This was baked. We made a custard infused with lemon peel to fill the cups and they were topped with sliced strawberry. For our meal they had prepared the same dish but as a pie so we had slices of that.

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The class was a lot of fun, we learned to make and appreciate some Italian regional dishes and it was all delicious, even the chicken liver and calf spleen spread. At the very end we were handed “doggie bag” of leftovers to take home (none of the spread, though, as it was all eaten).

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We will certainly be signing up for more of these classes.That way when I return I can reinforce the mistaken belief that I came to Italy to learn to cook.

Ciao!

LavAzza – Java Jive

Today we visited LavAzza. LavAzza is the largest coffee company in Italy and has a world wide distribution. They say there are 14 billion cups of LavAzza coffee consumed in a year around the world. They are also known for their training centers where they train baristas and others in the coffee industry. They have training centers in 27 countries around the world.

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We were greeted by Daniele Modaffari who served as our instructor and guide for the day. We started the morning with coffee, of course, that Daniele prepared in an efficient manner and which was quite good.

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In the training room Daniele told us about the history of the company that was started by Luigi Lavazza as a grocery store and how he began to specialize in coffee until that was all he produced and sold. In those days green coffee beans were what was available and housewives would buy them and then have to roast and brew them. Luigi began roasting coffee beans and selling them that way and it proved to be a successful idea. He also created the first blends of coffee in the market and soon became the top Italian coffee importer and roaster. He introduced the parchment packaging (“Pergamin”) to preserve the coffee flavor. Although it is a “joint-stock” company, all the shares are owned by the family and family members form the leadership team of the company. The statistics on the companies growth and market share were impressive.

He talked about coffee from the plant to the harvesting to the processing. It was a morning full of interesting information followed by a very good lunch in the company cafeteria.

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After lunch we donned hats and paper gowns and toured the production plant where the statistics of how much coffee they unloaded into their silos, moved, roasted packaged, stored and shipped each day was mind boggling.

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We are talking about millions of tons. Aside from the manual unloading of bags of green coffee from some countries (most of their coffee arrives in tank trucks that are automatically unloaded), all of their processes are automated and require few people.

After the tour the fun part really began. We were shown and sampled some of the innovative coffee “recipes” that have been developed in their Innovation Center in collaboration with other creative individuals such as Ferran Adriá, celebrated chef of El Bulli. They showed us a espresso that wouldn’t pour from the cup. It was made of foam and was eaten with a spoon.

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Then they showed us how to make an espresso “caviar” which they served on a dollop of whipped cream.

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Then they gave us an “air espresso” that was made as semi-frozen espresso with milk, added to a whipped cream canister and extruded and then frozen. It had the effect of when you put it into your mouth it would disappear leaving only an espresso taste behind.

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The last thing they showed us was a new double-walled cup and funnel they developed and will be releasing in a few days. You fill the funnel with crushed ice and pour a freshly brewed espresso with two sugar packets in it into the funnel above the cup and in 30 seconds you have an espresso that has gone from very hot to refreshing cold. Cold coffee is popular in Italy in the summer but usually doesn’t taste that good. This was good.

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All in all it was an interesting and tasty day. I think I can understand how I am now able stay up so late writing this after this day full of coffee. For more photos you can follow this link http://gallery.me.com/doughiza/100124 .

Ciao!

Homework — Field trip to La Morra

It was a long weekend as there wasn’t school on Monday because of…well, I don’t know, Mother’s Day? June is taking Italian lessons and her instructor had recommended some places to see around Bra, one of which is the town of La Morra. La Morra is a very small town that has some old stuff to look at, but not much because most has been lost to time and battles. It has two principal draws: 1) the view from the town across the wine area surrounding it is stunning, and 2) wine. It is located in the midst of the growing area for Barberas, Barberescos, Docettos, and Barolos. June wanted to visit so she went to the tourist office in Bra to see if they had any information on the town. They did. The brochure that grabbed my attention was “La Morra — Visite alle Cantine.” From April through June La Morra is having wine visits and tastings at the various wineries surrounding the town over the weekends. On Saturday there were schedule to be 6 wineries to tour. To get there is a little problematic if, like us, you don’t have a car. The train doesn’t go there. There is a bus from Bra to La Morra but its Saturday schedule was a mystery to the tourist office. So we took a cab which wasn’t that expensive.

La Morra is a beautiful little town sitting on a hill.

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The taxi dropped us off at the tourist office which is next to one of the scenic overlooks. The tourist office was very helpful but we found that there were only two wineries within walking distance that were open that day. The others would have been quite a walk and were better by car. She also gave us a few restaurant suggestions as it was time for pranzo and everything is closed for that until around 2:30. I chose the restaurant the furthest away (we are talking a VERY small town here) and so we made our way to Il Laghetto ( http://www.illaghettolamorra.it/ ) which was a small place by a pond with great outdoor seating. We had a delightful meal there. I couldn’t resist the snails from Cherasco as we had so recently learned so much about them. They were deep fried in a lightly seasoned thin crust and served with fried onion rings. They were really very good.

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We followed the map to the first winery and found the address but it appeared to be closed. We knocked on the door and telephoned the number with no response. As we were walking away a man offered his assistance and we told him we wanted to visit the winery but it was closed. He said just to ring the bell. We decided that with knocking and telephoning that we had done enough. He pointed down a narrow alley and said that winery was open and gave us instructions including, “ring the bell.”

The winery was Enzo Boglietti ( http://www.enzoboglietti.com/ ) and after ringing the bell we were admitted by a man who didn’t speak English. We managed to let him know we’d like to try the wines and he pointed to a table and said we could try anything opened. There were about 15 wines opened. This is when I remembered two things that we had learned in wine tasting class. Taste and smell as much as you can because that is how you learn. And it is a strong recommendation that we spit and not swallow when tasting if we want to learn/remember anything about the wines. He began to pour and we began to taste. It actually was a little bit of work remembering all that I was to look for and recording my perceptions. I tasted  Dolcetto D’Alba DOC 2010 “Tiglineri”, Barbera D’Alba DOC 2010, Barbera D’Alba DOC 2009 “Roscaleto”, Langhe DOC Nebbiolo 2009, Langhe DOC BUIO 2009 (80% Nebbiolo + 20% Barbera), Barolo DOCG “Fossate” 2007, Barolo DOCG “Case Nere” 2007, Barolo DOCG “Arione” 2007, Barolo DOCG “Brunate” 2007 and Barolo DOCG “Riserva” 2004 (a very good year). I spit all but the last. I could not bring myself to spit a 2004 Barolo DOCG Riserva. It was an amazing experience tasting the differences in all of those wines and I was already appreciating what I had learned at school about what to look for. Here’s our host and a photo of a Swiss couple that come to the area about every 2 years and take home about 30 boxes of wine. They enjoy the Enzo Boglietti wines. We bought three bottles to take home with us.

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We walked by the second winery without stopping because of the other thing the woman in the tourist office told us. The other part of the weekend of wine tasting occurs at the Cantina Comunale di La Morra, a central tasting room and enoteca which today was having a tasting of Barberas. She told us that for the price of a glass of wine there were about 20 Barberas one could taste. We grabbed a coffee and headed up the hill as it was getting close to closing time.

As we were walking we came to one of the businesses she recommended visiting. Mulino Sobrino ( http://www.ilmulinosobrino.it/ita/index.asp ) is a grain mill that uses only organic grain and has an old grind stone. She said that they make very good products and recommended their corn meal for pollenta. We stopped and had a look around. The woman there said that it is more interesting when they are grinding which would be on Wednesday of next week but she showed us the original grinding stone which is over 100 years old as well as the new grinders they use.

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We bought some oatmeal with several other grains mixed in and some corn meal and continued on to the Cantina Comunale.

At Cantina Comunale, as we were told, we could pay 5 euro for a glass and taste as many of the Barberas that they had there, all from the area surrounding La Morra and there were, indeed, about 20 of them.

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I needed to learn some of the differences that exist among Barberas so I ended up tasting five. At that point, although I was really amazed how different the same grape from the same region could taste from vineyard to vineyard and wine maker to wine maker, I felt it was time to stop. My taste memory was fatiguing.

I took some pictures of the view from the overlook and although the haze of morning had faded it was still hazy. Here are some shots.

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If you have a weekend free before the end of June and you want to sharpen your wine tasting skills in a delightful town visit La Morra. I’ll join you. I need more practice. …homework, you know!

Ciao!

Southeast Asian Food, Oil, Wine & Cheese (aka Week in Review)

I’ve been struggling, a little, in writing this posting. It is not that there isn’t a lot to write about. It is more a matter of trying to explain this week in such a way that my readership will understand how difficult much of the week was and not lapse into thinking, “Poor baby living the dream life and trying to make believe that it is work.” I will try to establish the case for the effort involved in my new undertaking.

Okay, Monday morning was more of a treat but it was very educational, too. Two of the previous Master students, who are just finishing their program, gave us a talk on Southeast Asian cuisine. Pan is from Thailand and Rae is from The Philippines. They thought that our mostly Western and mostly European food education should be balanced with some understanding of other very different food cultures and the faculty apparently agreed.

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– photo by Nathalie Stevens

I learned a lot from their presentation on the food of their region and how it related to climate and historical population shifts in their areas. They approached it in a very gastronomic way discussing the taste profiles of their food, their cultural traditions around food, meals and eating, and they showed the contrasts with the Western food attitudes and culture. During the presentation the served us examples of their traditional dishes which were delicious.

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– photo by Nathalie Stevens

It was very educational, entertaining and it left a good taste in our mouth, literally and figuratively.

That afternoon we began learning about oil production from Paolo Bondioli, a researcher and world expert on oil production. As you would expect, I’m not talking about petroleum. Most of the lecture was on olive oil production and it was quite technical but I found it fascinating. I had several misconceptions concerning olive oil and the way that it is graded and how it is best used. There are very strict E.U. standards as to what can be called Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The technical definition is that it is a “superior category of olive oil obtained directly from olives and solely by mechanical means.” There can be no use of solvents nor biochemical action (enzymes) nor any refining. It must pass two tests: 1) Chemical analysis, the most important of which is the acidity (specifically free Oleic acid) must be less than or equal to 0.8%, and 2) it must meet organoleptic evaluation standards. Organoleptic standards are those relating to odor and taste and are determined by a trained panel of tasters. There are something like 22 things that are looked for to certify an olive oil as Extra Virgin which mostly consists of the lack of defects but also it must include positive attributes. It makes no difference what mechanical means was used to press the oil, the Extra Virgin designation is the result of the evaluation. I used to think there were two pressings (or more) and that the first was where extra virgin came from. Apparently that used to be mostly true but it is not the case now. Virtually all olives are pressed once. If it doesn’t meet the Extra Virgin standard then the resulting oils are called Virgin if it has acidity from 0.8 – 2.0% and/or defects present, or Lampante if it doesn’t meet the Virgin criteria. Virgin and Lampante oils are not sold to consumers. Those oils are sold to refineries which use chemical and/or heat processes to remove defects (and the healthy things) and make a oil suitable for use. One product of that is oil that would be labeled “Olive Oil.” Olive oil is colorless and flavorless but some companies blend in small amounts of Extra Virgin oil to add color and some flavor. There are different qualities of Extra Virgin olive oil but there is not any regulated way to distinguish that on the label. Some producers voluntarily add more information than is required hoping to influence customers.

We had about 5 hours of lecture on olive oil production and standards and another one hour on other types of food oils (grain, nut and fruit oils). The last part was rushed but the basic principles were the same for these other oils.

The following day we began wine tasting under the tutelage of Sandro Bosticco, and expert in wine and olive oil tasting. Here’s a video of him in another role ( http://www.vimeo.com/2464560 ).

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Now the fun begins, right? Well, the answer to that is yes and no. Over the next 3 days we tasted 11 wines with a brief half-day interlude to taste olive oils. The main struggle for most of us was distinguishing smells and being able to describe them. He kept reminding us that this was the most important thing to be able to do and insisted that one of our primary jobs as gastronomy students was to smell everything. By everything he means everything! To be able to describe an odor to another person you have to relate it to some smell memory that you associate with that odor. That seems somewhat simple but someone would say they smell “sweet” and he would say “No. Sweet is a taste (one of the 5). What does it smell like that reminds you of sweet? Honey? …or…? ” This was a very difficult concept for many of us to understand. He was also quite forgiving in that if someone smelled something in a wine he would accept that they had smelled something that reminded them of that odor even if he didn’t find that. With some wines the smell can be simple and somewhat generic like “floral” or “tropical fruit” while others are more complex and made of of dozens of odors. He emphasized that while there are 5 tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami) there are thousands of odors and the detection of those odors by the nose is very complex. He said, “This is hard (referring to describing smells).” That is understatement. We would spend about an hour and a half “tasting” two wines. Then another hour and a half of tasting another 3 or 4. After a day of that one truly is fatigued but excited at the same time.

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When we tasted 7 olive oils for a half day in the middle of the 3 days of wine tasting we found the job was no easier. The same things are evaluated: clarity, color, aroma, and taste. The aromas are often complex, especially with quality extra virgin oils. The tasting technique is different in that you have to spray the oil in your mouth by “slurping” so that the oil reaches the back of the palate. He kept saying, “You have to make noise when you taste olive oil. If you visiting a producer and taste without making noise they will be disappointed.” The best olive oils have tastes that are fruity, bitter and spicy. We tasted some Tuscan olive oils that were strongly “grassy” and almost overpowering but very good. He reminded us that we had to think about their taste with food as people don’t generally sit around and drink olive oil as they do wine.

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The week ended Friday afternoon with the first of our classes on cheese tasting. Finally a break from the difficult work of identifying the subtle smells in wine and oil and a chance to enjoy some cheese. Right? Wrong! This was a most difficult and discouraging class for me. The class is taught by Cristiano De Riccardis. I was told by some in another Master course that he was a great teacher…their favorite.

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-Photo by Kunal Chandra

We have more classes taught by him so I will see how things go. I thought that the description of the technical aspect of cheese tasting, visual evaluation, olfactory evaluation and gustatory/olfactory evaluation were presented too quickly and not in a fashion that was easy to follow or remember. The visual was easiest. What is the shape of the cheese. What is the appearance of the external surface? What is the color. Describe the “nail” (the part of the cheese just inside of the rind). What is the color of the paste (the middle of the cheese)? Describe the eyes (holes in the cheese: round, irregular, almond shaped, evenly dispersed…).  But when it came to Olfactory evaluation and, for that matter, gustatory/olfactory evaluation as they blend into one another it was a completely different matter. What is the intensity? Check. Describe the olfactory sensations perceived. Hummmm…

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– Photo of classmate Chris smelling cheese (“barn yard?”) by Kunal Chandra

We were back to the thousands of odors that needed to be perceived but in this case Professor De Riccardis was more concrete. One student would say, “I smell <this>.” To which he would sometimes say, “No! There is no <this> smell in this cheese.” It did not appear to be a matter of basing what we were smelling on our own experience as it was for wine, but rather it seemed to be a matter of some set classification of odors to which we have not yet been exposed. The same held true for taste. For when you taste you chew the cheese with your mouth closed and breathe out through your nose so that the aroma can be perceived by the olfactory receptors in the back of the nose. So you have the 5 tastes plus all the possible acceptable cheese odors to classify. Some examples of common odors are yeast, cow shed, apple, caramel, brioch, black pepper, beef stock, leather, toffee, toasted nuts, etc.

This was discouraging for me because I had a difficult time pulling out as many smells as he wanted. He said we should be able to find more than 5 or 6 in a cheese. I often couldn’t. The cheeses we tasted, on the other hand, were amazing! We had a Bitto which is a difficult cheese to find as it is produced in only a small area in very limited production. We had a nice Fontina which is more common. The last cheese we had was a Losa which is very rare.

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– photo of Losa cheese by Kunal Chandra

It is produced in our region of Italy but there are only 3 or 4 people who make it now days. It is a goat cheese and the original breed of goat disappeared after the war because it was more economical to raise cows for milk. Another breed of goat was reintroduced and is used now. Those goats are fed some rose petals and violets and some of those odors were detected in the cheese by someone in our class (obviously a super-nose).

After class I found that I wasn’t the only one who had difficulty with the cheeses. Many thought it was very difficult and were exhausted by the process. A couple of them said, “Barn yard!?! I live in the city I have no idea what a barn yard smells like!” I thought this was interesting for two reasons. First it reinforced what we learned in wine to smell everything (and remember what you smell). The other reason I was amused was because on our Piemonte stage we visited a dairy farm. We were most definitely exposed to barn yard smell. Smell everything and…remember what you smell.

Ciao!

VinItaly

Our excursion to VinItaly has long passed. It was a great experience but upon returning to Bra we were  back in full swing with school and I never seemed to find the time to write about it. I thought that I wouldn’t as so much time had passed but it keeps popping up in my mind.

VinItaly is a 3 day exhibition of Italy’s wines in a huge setting in the beautiful and historic city of Verona.

This year there were about 158,000 people who attended and about a third of them were international visitors. There are producer representatives from wineries from all of the regions of Italy. The setting is a lot like the Minnesota State Fair but without the rides and ripoff games. The grounds holds many pavilions and each was dedicated to one or two wine regions of Italy. Each pavilion was packed with “booths” (some quite large) of producers. There are hundreds of producers there with samples of their wines and most often regional food that pairs with those wines.

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The University was able to obtain complementary admission tickets for many of us students to attend. Several of the University staff met us there and divided us up to “tour” VinItaly. I was trying to imagine how one could even begin to explore all of the wine producers there or even all of the regions and my mind just shut down. It was really overwhelming. Fortunately having the guidance and contacts of our University staff made this impossible situation into a wonderful experience.

We spent the entire afternoon visiting only 4 or so producers. The producers we visited were personally known by our guide and we were given the royal treatment. The first booth we visited, Fattoria di Poggio Foco (http://www.poggiofoco.com/) literally cleared out some other guests that were there so that we could have a place to sit. This family owned an island off of the Tuscan shore (Capraia island which they tried to maintain in as natural a state as possible. They grow grapes there and also raised some cattle but shared the space with wild boar and other native species of plants and animals. Their grapes were grown without chemicals and the wines we tasted were excellent. The owner played around with wines a little and we tried a white wine made from sangiovese grapes, a red wine grape, which was quite good and “different.” While we tasted some of their wines we were served many different bites of food from that area to go with the wine and the owner told stories and showed us some movies and before we knew it we had been there a couple of hours. The wines we tried were from La Piana (http://www.lapianacapraia.it/). It was a pleasant and very educational experience.

We also visited a Emilia-Romagna booth (more on the Romagna side, we were told) that appeared to be a collaborative effort. There was a winery, Altavita (http://www.altavita-wine.com/cgi-bin/aziendasel.asp?menu=6)

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but also there was a parmigiano reggiano producer and another that made salumi. We sampled the wines and tasted how the wines went with the parmigiano and the salumi and listened to stories about the way they produce the wine and food products. As I was stealling the last piece of mortadella I realized that we had been at this booth about another hour and a half. By the way, this was only the second time I had tried mortadella and it was incredibly good! They sliced it paper thin on an interesting looking (and very expensive, we were told, machine) and served it in piles on a plate. Mortadella, if you haven’t had it, looks a bit like oversized bologna that you get in the States, only with pieces of fat scattered through it as well as being flavored with spices, including whole or ground black pepper, myrtle berries, nutmeg, coriander and other things. The taste of this mortadella was heavenly. It wasn’t at all greasy or fatty in texture or taste, though it had obvious fat in it. The company that made it was Negrini Salumi (http://www.bonfattisalumi.com/). We also tried some excellent wines made by Cá di Sopra (http://www.cadisopra.com/home%20inglese.htm). They also made us try some grappa and other fruit licores that they made including one that they hadn’t put on the market yet. Another wonderfuly pleasant experience.

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We visited a both that was staffed by a former University of Gastronomy student who after graduating returned to her family’s wine, cheese and olive oil business in Tuscany. Her name was Sibilla Gelpke and their business is Fattoria Corzano e Paterno near Firenze (Florence) (http://corzanoepaterno.com/). She was very hospitable and we enjoyed several wines and got to taste some great olive oil there.

Our visit to VinItaly was an extraordinary treat. If we had gone on our own we probably would have tasted more wines (a LOT more!) but we would have missed out on the stories of these people who are so passionate about the products they produce and in preserving the land, species and techniques that they work on and with. We would not have had that experience without the contacts that the staff at the University of Gastronomy have and their taking the time to introduce us to their friends in the business. That is certainly one of the great things about being in this program.

Ciao!