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!

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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!

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!

Ups and downs

Today we woke up to a rain that persisted all day. You don’t see any photos because it was too wet to take the phone/camera out of the inner dry pocket of my rain coat. That is all I will say about the rain because it became something that was just there and was not oppressive. I had read other pilgrim’s writings about how their breakfast consisted of cafe con leche doble and bread. I thought that was a choice they made. When I entered the dining room this morning the table was set with bread, butter, jelly and large bowls. I thought ah, cereal…maybe oatmeal. I watched others with their bowl approach the bar where milk was poured in the bowl. But where were they getting the cereal? I traced the approach to the bar back and saw a woman add coffee to her bowl. Odd. Maybe that’s common in whatever country she’s from. Then I watched others. The bowl was a giant coffee cup (doble) and the milk was…the only source of protein. So I joined the ranks of those who started the day with cafe con leche doble with bread and butter and jelly. The day started going up steeply as I told you it would. Then it leveled off into a gentle up. We had been walking on a paved road so far. About a km from where the Camino left the road there was a truck parked with awning. It was a former pilgrim who would stamp one’s pilgrim passport and had hot coffee and other snack food items for sale. It was a wonderful gift. He warned us that in 5 minutes we needed to turn right off the road. Five minutes later we reached that intersection. It wasn’t that it wasn’t well marked, it was just that it was difficult to see any path there through the grass. But we turned right and an occasional splash of yellow paint on a rock reassured us that we were on the right path. We walked along a path about a foot wide on the side of a hill. On either side of us were meadows with occasional grazing sheep. Eventually the path led down to a wider path that was very well marked and we entered Spain.
The Spanish Camino had a marker post every 100 meters (with the number to call for emergencies). The route leveled out for quite a stretch which made for good walking. Then we started going down. It surely would be a joy to go down after so much up, right? At first I thought so. Then I was really glad I had walking poles. Then as my legs got rubbery and wobbly I realized that down is not all it’s cracked up to be. Plus it was a little slippery from…moisture. We did make it safely to the monastery at Roncesvalles, checked in, got our sellos, picked out bunks (indoors and dry!) and went to make a reservation for the pilgrim’s meal. After a shower, a cup of coffee and a glass of quite good Basque red house wine I was feeling good. I can’t believe I haven’t talked about food. The pilgrim’s meal last night was a great vegetable soup, roast lamb, white beans in a great sauce (a little pork fat as ham for flavor), with house red wine and bread and gâteau for dessert. It was great and it was easy to overeat. Once again the vistas today were stunning. I has also been amazing learning the stories of those traveling with us. Some of them are truly heroic. When I can get to a full key board instead of my iPhone I will tell some of them. Almost time for dinner then a church service. Tomorrow more down but more gradually. Sent from my iPhone