Salsiccia di Bra

The first time I encountered salsiccia di Bra was shortly after we moved to Bra from our temporary quarters in Pocapaglia. We had decided to have a glass of wine at the Caffè Pasticceria Converso which, as the name implies, is a coffee shop and pastry shop in the historic center of Bra. What we didn’t know at that time and were to discover is that when you order an alcoholic beverage in the late afternoon at a bar or coffee shop you are having an aperitivo and with that comes food. At this particular visit they brought our wine and a plate containing several types of finger foods including some pieces of cheese,  small crackers, little sandwiches spread with a type of egg salad, and some pieces of salsiccia di bra. We didn’t know that’s what it was then. We only knew that it looked like cut pieces of raw sausage. And we assumed that we were expected to not only eat them but to enjoy them.

I don’t have many problems with eating food in various stages from raw to cooked so I immediately tried one of those reddish morsels. It was delicious. June, who has a little bit more reluctance about eating raw food (some would say more common sense), also tried one. She agreed it tasted good but ate only one. She has eaten more since but still has some difficulty with it. It is not the idea of it being raw nor its texture but, she says, it is the color that is off-putting for her.

I was glad that we had experienced salsiccia di Bra early in our stay because after the first day of classes the other Masters group, that had started in November, hosted an aperitivo at the school and one of the dishes served was salsiccia di Bra. I was able to nonchalantly nibble on them while sipping my wine.

We have now had many experiences with salsiccia di Bra and found that it not only served raw but also cooked in ravioli or agnolotti served in a savory broth. It was a big part of the Easter week festivities in Bra. There was a Salsiccia di Bra booth at the fair market

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and there was a pavillion where they were serving Mac ‘d Bra sandwiches made with Salsiccia di Bra, Formaggio di Bra, and Pane di Bra.

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We learned that the salsiccia is made of veal but couldn’t identify the seasonings. Then we found a reference to it in the book, The Slow Food Dictionary to Italian Regional Cooking published by Slow Food Editore. It says this, “Salsiccia di Bra is a unique sausage of finely ground veal cured with sea salt, white pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon and mace, sometimes enriched with garlic, fennel, leeks, cheese (Parmigiano, mature Robiola or Toma), and wine. It is pressed into a small ram’s intestine. It is eaten fresh raw, or more rarely, broiled.” It is very delicately seasoned and goes great with wine or the popular aperitivo drink, Spritz (prosecco with Aperol).

So there you have it. You have now learned about a great regional, even local, dish of Piemonte and Bra. It is good! Come visit us and we will make sure you get some. I’m reasonably sure that with U.S. and Minnesota food regulations that you will never encounter it in Minnesota.

Ciao!

 

Piemonte Stage

This past week was listed on our academic calendar as the Piemonte Stage. The word “stage” is from French and rhymes with “Taj” and not “age.” It refers to an apprenticeship and is most common in the culinary world when a culinary “student” works for free for a chef for a period of time to learn the tricks of the trade. Now its use is spreading and can mean a period of student work experience in any discipline, generally without pay. We will be having four stages in Italy (Piemonte, Puglia, Trentino, and Emilia) and two abroad in France and the UK. Each stage is one week long and we’ve each been assigned one of them to study in depth and to prepare a written and oral report to the class. We all go to all the places together but only a few of the larger group need to pay attention in any one place. Well, we all pay attention, of course, but some of us will be graded on our observations while the rest of us won’t.  This past week was sort of a “warm up” stage so none of us had to report on it. We visited several places in Piemonte, our home region. Each day was a day trip by bus to a different venue. I’ve already discussed our visit to Baladin, the institute of snail farming and the cured meat processor. Those visits made up the first two days of our Piemonte stage. After that it was rice, wine, wine, wine and dairy.  So, to give you some exposure to the life of a gastronomy student I’ll touch on those visits.

 

On Wednesday we left Bra at 8:00 AM to travel to the Rondolino rice farm ( http://www.acquerello.it/ENG1.html ). I hadn’t realized that this part of Italy has a lot of rice production and actually supplies 30% of the rice used in Europe. The rice is farmed in the traditional rice paddies using water that comes down from the Alps. Most of the rice grown in Italy is aborio and its most common use in Italy, of course, is risotto.

 

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The farm we visited has been in the family since 1935 and was in the traditional production of aborio rice for the first 25 years. During that time the current owner’s father learned how to grow rice to earn the highest possible earnings. But because rice farming, like much of traditional grain farming, is not a high profit activity (they make about 2% profit) the son, Piero, decided to look around at other possibilities. All rice grown was basically the same product so there was no way to compete there except by growing more. They increased the size of their farm to 600 hectares (~1500 acres).  The only way they felt they could grow more would be to move their operation to Nicaragua where one could grow 2 ½ crops per year due to the “eternal summer.” There was also no differentiation in the milling process. All farmers took their rice to a few mills for milling and the resulting rice was all the same.

 

Piero learned all he could about rice and made some decisions to change the way they produced rice. First, he planted the carnaroli variety of rice instead of the aborio. It is a rice with a higher starch content and firmer texture. It tolerates over cooking better than aborio and doesn’t release its starch into the water as much. It makes it into a “fool proof” rice to cook with. He cut the size of their farm to 140 of the most fertile hectares. He aged the rice after harvest for 1 ½ to 2 years to stabilize the starch. Then he had to deal with milling. Milling takes off the outer coats of the rice grain leaving the white grain that is used in cooking. Milling also takes off the germ where vitamins and other nutrients lie. He decided that he needed to mill his own rice in a gentler fashion so that the grains wouldn’t be damaged (cracked or broken grains release their starch to the cooking water easier) and he wanted to find a way to put the germ back on the granule. He finally found a process to do that by centrifuging the milled rice with the germ that has been separated from the chaff. The process generates heat and the heat “melts” the germ and coats the grain with it. He then decided to pack his rice in cans under a vacuum to preserve it better. The resulting product was branded Acquerello and is considered a “high end” rice brand that is used by many of the world’s top chefs including Alain Ducasse, Heston Blumenthal, and Thomas Keller. They would like to get a wider acceptance of their rice but the public seems scared off by the price and a little by the color and texture of the uncooked rice. It is a little yellower and a bit waxy to the feel due to the germ that is coating the granules. They feel that the ease of cooking this rice (you don’t have to pay so much attention to risotto while it is cooking) and the increased health benefit should sway people but many people (and chefs) feel that rice is rice and the cost is the prime consideration. In their growing of the rice they do not use chemicals.

 

 

We had a all rice lunch consisting of a bowl of three varieties of rice so that we could compare them. We could add a bit of rice oil for flavor if we wished. Then they prepared a delicious rice salad accompanied by a rice beer. We had rice cookies and rice ice cream for dessert. They gave us some rice to take home and cook with so we are eager to try it. We were back in Bra at 19:00.

 

 

The next day we were to visit two wineries, one in Bra and the other in Castagnole Lanze. It was going to be a tough day. It wasn’t like we would taste just one wine in each winery, no the wineries each made several types of wine and we needed to be exposed to the differences. At least we were provided with some nice cured meat, some cheese, a little bruschetta, some salciccia di Bra, and bread to help clear our palates between glasses. The winery in Bra is the Ascheri winery (http://www.ascherivini.com/welcome_eng.lasso). There we had a couple of Barbera di Alba and Barolo wines. They don’t try to be trendy and do not use too much technology in the production of their wines. Their grapes are selected/sorted in the field, not in the winery. They use Croatian oak, not French, as they think it is milder and better for their wine. They age it 24 months in wood and use only cork in their bottles, which are requirements for Barolos under DOCG regulations.

 

 

After drinking  tasting wine and eating delicious snacks we had lunch and then boarded the bus for Castagnole Lanze to visit La Spinetta winery ( http://www.la-spinetta.com/ ).

 

La Spinetta started out making Moscatto which is a nice wine to make because it can be sold shortly after making it, not needing aging. They have since purchased two other vineyards, another in Piemonte and one in Tuscany. They have started making Barolo wine fairly recently. They stress quality in the vineyards and do not use chemicals and use green harvest (remove about half the grapes when they are green) so that the remaining grapes get more sugar and the vines develop better with deeper roots.  About 80% of their wine is exported with the most going to the United States. We tasted their Barbera d’ Asti, PIN (a blend of barbera and nebbiolo), Barberesco, Barolo and Moscato d’ Asti. The information on the growing and production of these great wines was very interesting.

 

After the winery visits we went to Pollenzo for a short lecture on photography. We got back to Bra at about 19:40.

 

On Friday we caught the bus at 7:30 AM to go to the school in Pollenzo where we had some hands on photography instruction while we took pictures around the campus.

 

 

Then boarded our bus for Castiglione Falletto to visit the Terre del Barolo winery ( http://www.terredelbarolo.com/inglese.html ). Terre del Barolo is a cooperative winery with 370 farmer members. Farmers in the cooperative grow the grapes and the wine is made at the winery for all of them. The 30 people who work at the winery have the job of providing the best value to the growers. The wine maker works with the growers to help them produce grapes with the best quality and quantity. They make many different varieties of wine. They are a much bigger operation than the ones we had visited prior to this. Many of their production methods were optimized for speed. During harvest they have to make a lot of wine in a short period of time – 5,500 tons of grapes.  They make two types of wine: bottled and un-bottled. The un-bottled is often sold to secondary bottlers. Wines to which they can attach the “names of the vines” (higher quality) is bottled and sold mostly to restaurants.  At present growers are paid on the basis of the sugar content of the grapes. Now they are trying to change that to include other parameters of grape quality.

 

We toured the plant and then we had a nice lunch with wine pairings and were told more about the wines we tasted.

We then traveled to San Vittore di Fossano to visit the Cagnassi farm. This is a dairy farm that is starting to get into the production of some dairy products such as yogurt and cheese. They are pretty early into those endeavors, however. We learned about how they ran their dairy farm including the breeding and raising of cows. We go to do a little hands-on cheese making, but we had seen the same thing done at school.

 


We returned to the school in Pollenzo where Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA talked with our class. He is a dynamic fellow and discussed with us the direction they are trying to take Slow Food USA and why they have chosen those goals. We were all tired after our long day but none of us wanted him to stop. Since we are a small group the talk was more of a dialog than a presentation. The school people had to put an end to the meeting as the bus driver needed to get home. They are going to try to schedule another session Monday afternoon after class with him if his schedule permits. Many in the class were very excited by what he was saying and for many the issues he discussed are why we are here. We returned to Bra about 20:00. It was a very long day at the end of a very long stage, but it was all very educational and stimulating. The wine was good too.

 

Ciao!

 

 

 

Snails and sausage

The snail is the symbol of Slow Food. It was also the subject of our stage yesterday. More specifically we learned about the farming of snails. We visited the International Institute of Heliciculture

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which was founded in Piemonte in response to a law prohibiting the gathering of wild snails. The law was passed to prevent the extinction of the snails from over gathering. The Institute developed a way to farm snails and their purpose became to help those who are interested in establishing snail farms to get started. There are now snail farms in many parts of the world with much of the growth in the number of farms driven by the large number of European countries who also have prohibited the gathering of wild snails.

We learned that there are three good reasons for farming snails. First, the product is safer. A snail foraging in the wild will eat many things including some things that are poisonous for humans but that are tolerated by snails like Aminita mushrooms and those toxins would be passed in the snail meat. When farmed, the snails are fed only green vegetables and thus are safe.  Second is the matter of quality due to the age of the snail. In the wild the snail is subject to varied climatic conditions. When it is wet the snails will eat and grow. When it is very dry the snail will go dormant. Thus by the time the snail is the size for collecting it may be 6 years old. The meat will be very tough and is harder to cook and eat. When farmed the snails are kept in a wet environment with greens and grow rapidly. They are ready for market in 1 to 1 1/2 years and are more tender and easier to cook. The third reason is economic. When they are fed only vegetables they cost less and the fat content is less with higher protein content. When raised in countries that are not that well off, the production costs are low and profit can be higher.

The demand for snails continues to grow for several reasons. People eat snails, of course, and those people are divided into 2 groups. Those who depend on snails as a protein source and those who eat snails as a gourmand treat. Snails have also become important in the health and cosmetic industries. The mucous that snails produce contains anti-inflammatory chemicals and also substances that contribute to smoother skin by reducing wrinkles. Some countries produce snails almost entirely for industrial chemical use as it is less expensive to handle and ship snail “saliva” than snail meat.

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Snails aren’t that difficult to raise and one person can raise a considerable number of snails. With an automated drip irrigation system snail production doesn’t require daily attention and, in fact, you could be gone a couple of weeks without causing problems for your farm animals.

I began to think that snail farming was something I should consider but there are a few things I’d have to deal with. First, the United Stated prohibits importation of live snails (they have to be canned or frozen) which would make obtaining my breeding stock difficult. Next, I would need to survey the market to see what the local demand would be for my product. I probably could start by talking with the meat buyer at Just Food Co-op. Also, we were told that the biggest problem contributing to the failure of snail farms was a psychological one. Apparently not being able to see your live stock each day — they hide in the daytime and feed at night — can be stressful and has resulted in divorce in some couples who have entered the snail farming business. June already seems somewhat reluctant to get into that type of farming so the idea may be dead from the start.

I have to admit that I didn’t know what to expect from this field trip, and my expectations were not high, but I found it fascinating! I am half way serious about looking at getting into heliciculture.

We then visited Salumeria Dho Giuseppe in Centallo. There Beppe and his wife Bruna provided us with great hospitality. We had a tasting lunch featuring several of their products including salame cotto, salami crudo, prosciutto cotto, and lardo.

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It was my first experience with lardo. I had read about it and was eager to try it. It was wonderful! It basically is made up of fat which has been brined and has some herbs and spices added. It is difficult to explain how something that many people wouldn’t even try, because…well, because it is mostly fat, can be so tasty.

I was talking to one woman in our class afterward and she said that she had to confess that she is the type of person who removes the fat from prosciutto before she eats it, but…she loved the lardo!

After lunch Beppe had us gown up

and took us into his small shop where he and an assistant showed us the process for making the products they make. They did all the steps for us to watch. It was fascinating!

Again I reached my maximum picture file size for this posting so I’ll save the rest of my pictures for another day.

Today we went to a rice farm and mill, and tomorrow we have to visit two wineries. Nobody told me that school would be so time consuming. I’m way behind on keeping up with my blog! I hope I will be able to catch up soon.

Ciao!

 

 

BIRRERIA BALADIN

Today’s class involved travel. We boarded a bus this morning to head for the small town of Piozzo where we met Teo Musso. Teo is an extraordinary fellow and it was fun just to hear him talk about his work and his products even though all he speaks is Italian. His words were translated but his passion came through without needing translation. Teo does something a little unusual in Italy. Teo makes beer. Italy has not been known as a beer drinking nation though that is beginning to change. It is ironic because Teo makes beer in the middle of Piemonte in the heart of some of Italy’s best wine regions (think Barolo, Barbera, & Barbaresco).

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Teo credits his parents for getting him interested in beer. His parents were into wine and, being a rebellious youth, he decided that he was more interested in beer than wine. He became passionate about it and began to learn all about beer and especially Belgian beers. He also loved music and would have become a musician except he thought it would be “too much work.” Instead he decided to make beer (which in retrospect was more work than music) so he started Birreria Baladin (http://www.birreria.com/?id_pg=55). To break into the Italian wine culture he initially produced two beers. One lighter to go with light food and another heavier to go with hearty food, like stews and red meat. He thought that by pairing beers with food, as wine was, that he could influence people to try it. He traveled all around Italy and got 100 restaurants to try his beer. He found out later that only 2 of the 100 actually served it to customers, the others just drank it themselves. Through persistence his beer finally took hold and he had to expand his original brewery into the family chicken coop and eventually build a brewery down by the river that runs past Piozzo.

He wants his business to be as independent as possible and currently provides 80% of what he uses. The main thing he still buys from others is hops and he is now experimenting with growing hops in Italy. His brewery has solar panels on the roof for energy. He uses no chemicals in his brewing process which requires strict hygenic standards. His beers are secondarily fermented in the bottle (like wines made in the méthode champenoise) by adding a little sugar and yeast when the bottles are capped.

I could go on and on about how he makes and communicates about his beer and how he has worked, even helping competitors, to make beer more acceptable in Italy but that is all school work and probably boring to you. So, I’ll mention only a few highlights. First, Casa Baladin is a restaurant and “hotel” of his with about 5 bedrooms. It was a delightful place to meet. The setting was amazingly comfortable. The decor was sort of contemporary old. Here are a few shots.

I didn’t get any shots of the bedrooms but they were lovely and very unique.

Before lunch we went to the expanded part of the original brewery which has been redone into a sort of experimental brewery. We met his mother, whom he appointed to manage the remodeling of the brewery space.

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He wanted the space to preserve some of the old “chicken coopy” feel and the results are very interesting.

In this space he has collected wine barrels from many wineries of the region. In those barrels he is aging beer. He is making a “white beer” from the white wine barrels and a “red beer” from the red wine barrels. He gave us samples to try and they were very interesting and quite good. One of them had almost a cream sherry taste and mouth feel.

We returned to Casa Baladin for a wonderful lunch paired with beer.

After lunch we visited the Cantina which is in the original brewery space and now has a festive circus theme.

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Then it was back on the bus to go to the new brewery where I won’t show you pictures of stainless steel tanks, but it was interesting how their brewing process works.

It was an interesting visit learning about how passion, hard work, timing, and some luck enabled Teo to create a quite large specialty brewing company. It is interesting but when I was talking to a neighborhood merchant who sells some Belgian style microbrewery beers and is passionate about them, he is almost dismissive of Baladin saying that they are too big. He showed me a guide to Italian microbreweries along with their production and how Baladin towers over the others. Teo, on the other hand, points out that Baladin’s production of one and a half years is about equivalent to one day’s production at Heineken.

Well, I could go on and on. You can see how difficult this class work is…so much to learn, so much to taste. But I have run out of room for photo upload space and I have to get some sleep in preparation to our class study trip tomorrow to another area of Piemonte to learn about heliciculture techniques at the International Institute of Heliciculture. Heliciculture is the production of snails. I’m thinking that could be a niche that hasn’t been filled in Minnesota that I could explore. In the afternoon we go to Dho to visit an artisanal cured meat producer. So, it will be a busy day tomorrow in school.

Ciao!

Scavenger Hunt, Trick-or-Treat, Chocopass

Well, after a tough week it was time to relax. We had our introduction to Sensory Analysis. That included two class excercises. In the first we were tested for visual analysis. We were given a series of various geometric shaps with various parts of them shaded. Our task was to mark on a linear line how much was shaded from 0%————–100%. I did really well on that one. Then the instructor passed around 9 small bottles of concentrated scents and some strips of filter paper. We were to dip the paper in the vial, shake it so it wasn’t so strong and then identify the odor. I got 5 out of 9 and felt very embarrased. I thought my sense of smell and odor recall was better than that. Then we moved to the sensory analysis lab in the other building. We were seated in individual boths with a computer screen above us, a mouse on the desk and a keyboard below (we didn’t use the keyboard). Under a panel of the desk was a sink with a water source. We were give a cup of water and some crackers. The first test was bitterness. A panel in the wall of the cube slid open and a plate with 4 samples of chocolate was presented. We were to taste each sample, eat cracker and drink water and then taste another sample. The task was to rank the 4 types of chocolate in order of bitterness. Then we were given 3 samples of cheese and were told to indicate the one that was different. They were parmigiano type cheeses. Next we had a test of umami (savoriness). We were given a dilute solution of monosodium glutamate (a reference for umami) to “learn” the taste of umami. Then we had 5 samples of snack type crackers and were supposed to check “yes” or “no” if they taseted of umami for each sample. Then we were given three samples of a liquid (white wine). The first was a reference and we were to determine which of the other two matched the reference. Lastly we had two samples of apricot juice. The instructor had added a little bit of sugar to one. We were to determine the sweeter one. All this sounds easy. It wasn’t. We will find out next week what the distribution of responses was and how we compared to our classmates.

Well, the day after that trying day we had more lectures on the molecular basis of taste. Much of it was organic chemistry and sort of review for me…if you can call the stuff I recall 30+ years after being taught review. The interesting thing is that while the instructor was lecturing, she was making cheese to demonstrate the coagulation of proteins into something good. She started with milk. Luca (I talked about him in a previous blog) brought in some raw milk. The instructor added rennet and set the beaker (yes, a beaker!) on a hot plate. It was slow but it finally did its thing and formed curds and she strained off the whey and we had cheese. I think that Luca would have done it MUCH better.

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So, getting to the title of the blog, it was time to relax on Saturday. June really wanted to go to the Chocolate Festival in Torino (http://www.cioccola-to.it/home.php). Torino is a big chocolate city. We caught the 9:19 AM train (in spite of going to our first class party that BEGAN at 9:00 PM Friday night) and picked up our Chocopass at the Tourist Office at the Porto Nuovo train station in Torino. The Chocopass contained a map of 18 different chocolate destinations (chocolate shops, bars, caffes, etc) scattered around Torino. In the Chocopass were coupons that we could redeem for chocolate samples. We went to the nearest location and discovered that there were two numbers (locations) on the coupon which meant that if we used it there we wouldn’t have one for the next place. Since we bought a Chocopass for each of us we used one at one location and the other at the next. It worked swell. The reason for this posting’s title is this. When we entered a shop either we, or the shop keeper seeing the Chocopass in our hand would say, “Chocopass.” Then the shop person would hand us a small packet of a few pieces of chocolate to sample. We put them in our bag and went to the next place where…”Chocopass!” It reminded us so much of Halloween combined with a scavenger hunt to find the locations. Sometimes they didn’t had out candy. Once they gave us a cup of thick, rich dark, chocolate with cream whipped into it that needed a spoon to eat. Another time they gave us a piece of chocolate and pear tart (delicious!). It was interesting because we got to see a lot of Torino that we might not have ever encountered, we got to walk a lot and we saw some great chocolate shops for future reference.

After that we went to the place where the main activities were held. There were a couple dozen tents where various types of chocolate were sold.

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The centerpiece of this was a huge pavillion that had a chocolate Italy with chocolate replicas of historic buildings in the various regions ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKPubSGvBZY&feature=player_embedded ).

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There was one tent that showed how chocolate was made.

At the end of our afternoon we found ourselves by 8 tables that were set up. Standing by each table was a woman in fancy old style Italian gowns handing out chocolate samples and the chocolatier who made the chocolate. For €2 one could purchase a card with 8 slots in it. You’d take the card to the table, be given a sample of chocolate and the chocolatier would sign a chocolate wrapper and put it in the slot corresponding to his chocolate on your card. Fun!

After all the chocolate filled excitement of Saturday we had a calm Sunday. We picked a few things at the store that we needed, stopped for aperitivo (drinks and snacks) and strolled the streets of Bra like so many other of the residents on this beautiful, sunny spring day (temperature was 22 degrees — aka 72F). It is amazing how many people come out and stroll in the evenings, but especially on the weekends and especially in great weather like this. Families walking, eating gellatos, and visiting with friends.

I’ve mentioned aperitivo. In the late afternoon or evening when you order anything with alcohol (beer, wine, mixed drink) food is always brought with it. It varies from place to place but always is good. Here is an example from Torino, but Bra has many places we have enjoyed similar snacks. Some people after work go out with friends and make a meal of aperitivo.

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Sometimes I have to pinch myself to be sure this all is really happening. I just wonder when I will get tired of it. I’ll let you know…I’m sure…

Ciao!