From Soil to Spear

asparagus in the fieldYou know your a bit food-obsessed when you electively choose to take a field trip to an
asparagus farm on a sunny Saturday instead of heading to the sea or lingering away the day sipping a spritz or two alfresco. This isn’t so far fetched when you’re going to food school with a group of like-minded people. Last weekend, my fellow classmates woke up earlier then the weekend norm, skipped out on our morning café and cornetto, and piled into a half dozen cars to make way to the tiny village of Santena, just southeast of Turin. 

Santena is famous for their asparagus – it’s known throughout Italy for growing some of the best asparagus in the country. Christina, an alumna of UNISG, met us at her small family farm to show us their asparagus fields. They grow just enough asparagus to supply a few local restaurants and to sell to members of the community out of their home. This was the first time I had ever seen how asparagus grows and I was quite surprised by the process. They have just two small plots of land dedicated to asparagus. One is currently being harvested while the other won’t be harvested until next spring. The interesting thing about asparagus is that when seeds are first put down the plants must mature for two full years before they can be harvested. The third year after planting is the first year they’ll be harvested and enjoyed. Then, after that first harvest, the asparagus plants keep giving, as they are perennials, for 10 to 12 more seasons.

asparagus plants

The rows of maturing asparagus plants – these won’t be harvested until next spring

Harvesting is quite a labor-intensive process. Christina’s family’s asparagus is all hand
harvested – her father was out in the field harvesting the morning’s crop when we arrived. The season in Italy lasts about two months, from mid-April to mid-June, and during the height of the season the asparagus is usually harvested twice a day since it can grow at an astonishing rate of 20 cm a day.

Christina with asparagus

Christina explains the harvesting process

After a morning out in the fields we found our stomachs grumbling for lunch. We piled back into our cars for a quick drive to the nearby restaurant, L’Antico Poppio, where we enjoyed a leisurly asparagus-centric lunch in order to taste the locals’ favorite springtime vegetable. For serious asparagus lovers only – the lunch consisted of four courses and four preparations of the vegetable, all served family-style. We started with platters of blanched asparagus served with flavorful aioli for dipping. Then came asparagus wrapped with prosciutto crudo and Stracchino cheese and baked with even more Stracchino, Parmigiano-Reggiano and cream – a sort of retro-style casserole that was extremely addictive. Our next course consisted of ricotta and herb ravioli dressed in a simple asparagus and prosciutto cotto sauce. And finally, when we has already easily consumed about a pound of asparagus each, came asparagus cooked in a healthy dose of butter and finished with a heavy hand of Parmigiano-Reggiano. We were half expecting dessert to consist of asparagus as well but luckily it was a simple but delicious tiramisù, a welcomed change after all that asparagus. Yet, even after all of that asparagus, I found myself craving more not too long after I had thought I had my fill for the season. The next evening, all it took was risotto made with a handful of Christina’s family’s asparagus that I had brought home to nix the craving.

asparagus with aioli

Asparagus four ways – blanched and served with aioli,

 

prosciutto wrapped asparagus

…wrapped with prosciutto crudo,

 

asparagus ravioli

…as a sauce for ricotta and herb ravioli,

 

butter asparagus

…and finally, bathed in butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano

Crossing the Border

DSC_0421 Last week I casually hopped on a bus and drove to France. For some strange reason, this simple truth about Europe continues to boggle me – I can pretty much drive anywhere in a reasonable amount of time and be transported to a completely new and exciting place. For my third study trip I had the fortune to travel to southern France, to the regions of Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon, and to the city of Toulouse. It was a jam-packed week full of beautiful scenery, unique learning opportunities and of course, lots and lots of incredible food and wine. Here are just a few of the amazing things I saw, did and ate:

Our first night in Provence felt like it came straight out of a postcard. We stayed at the picture-perfect Le Relais d’Elle, a chambre d’hotes in the small village of Niozelles where the owner Catherine greeted us with a seat by the fire and a glass of crisp rosé. The Provençal dinner she prepared for us was homey and delicious, especially the phyllo-wrapped warm goat cheese sprinkled with thyme, drizzled with lavender honey and served with a simple side of greens.

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The facade of our bed and breakfast

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Warm goat cheese wrapped in phyllo was a taste of Provence

Just 10 minutes away at Saveurs des Truques farm, we learned about the production of einkorn wheat, which is considered to be the oldest variety of wheat. It was a complete field-to-fork experience, as we got a chance to see the production from harvesting to milling to then processing into fresh pasta that became the basis of a wonderful lunch.

Antoine Baurain of Saveurs des Truques making pasta from the freshly group einkorn wheat

Antoine Baurain of Saveurs des Truques making pasta from the freshly group einkorn wheat

We spent the majority of our time in Toulouse with the local chapter of Slow Food. We went foraging for wild and eatable plants in the forest surrounding the city and spend an afternoon educating a group of French high schoolers about the values of good, clean and fair food. Any free time was, of course, spent exploring the city’s food. At Le Genty Magre, we tasted the city’s famous cassoulet, a wintry stew packed with beans, duck confit and garlicky sausage, then experienced high-class brasserie dining at Le Bibent. And at La Capucin, we lunched over gourmet crêpes inspired by Michelin starred chef Michael Bras.

A hearty dish of cassoulet at La Genty Magre

A hearty dish of cassoulet at La Genty Magre

Gourmet crêpes at La Capucin

Gourmet crêpes at La Capucin

In Toulouse we also had the chance to visit Xavier, one of the most famous cheese shops in France. Xavier is one of the few affineurs in France, which means cheeses that are sold in the shop are all carefully aged in the three cellars they keep in the basement of the shop. We toured the cellars and were led though a tasting of some of their best goat’s, sheep’s and cow’s milk cheese.

One of three cheese cellars at Xavier

One of three cheese cellars at Xavier

Leaving Toulouse, we prepared for a long drive back to Italy, but made one last stop back in Provence, for one more night of good food and wine. We spent our last evening at the La Bastide de l’Adrech, another beautiful chambre d’hotes nestled in the Provençal hills. Chef and owner Robert Le Bozec prepared a feast of local goat, stewed and served with fresh vegetables and a Swiss chard and potato rosti. The highlight was the dessert – a simple red wine-poached pear tart served with a saffron-infused panna cotta. It was a combination of flavors that I have never experienced before and one I hope to recreate soon.

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Chef Robert preparing the goat and chatting with guests

A delicate saffron panna cotta paired perfectly with the poached pair tart

A delicate saffron panna cotta paired perfectly with the poached pair tart

Chocolate Rush

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One of two of our chocolate “tasting wheels”

Excuse me if I come across a bit jittery. I am just coming down from quite the sugar high. I feel like a kid who greedily ate too much Halloween candy, which when you aren’t a kid anymore sadly results in a quicker then normal heart rate and a sore stomach.

Today we had our much anticipated chocolate tasting class. This means six hours of everything and anything chocolate. Our professor, Mirco Marconi, is an expert in the study of chocolate and focused on teaching us not only the history of chocolate but also on the processing from plantation to bar.

We learned that chocolate was originally consumed as an unsweetened beverage by the Mayans. Since they did not know of sugar until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, the beverage was originally flavored with vanilla, chili peppers or a red seed called achiote. After the Spanish conquest, sugar began to be added and chocolate slowly, over the centuries, developed into what we know today.

Professor Marconi preparing the traditional Mayan chocolate drink for tasting

Professor Marconi preparing the traditional Mayan chocolate drink for tasting

Turning cocoa beans into chocolate involves a handful of steps. After the cocoa pods are harvested, the beans are removed and undergo spontaneous fermentation, either on banana leaves laid out in the sun or in wooden boxes. The goal of fermentation is to use up the thick, gluey substance that coats the beans inside the pods, to reduce the astringency of the beans and to begin to develop aromatic compounds that will influence the final taste of the chocolate. The beans are then gently dried for one to two weeks to reduce their water content.

Roasted cocoa beans

Roasted cocoa beans

At this stage they are typically shipped to the chocolate factory for processing. The beans are roasted and then winnowed, which means the shells of the beans are removed and the beans are broken into smaller pieces called nibs. The nibs are then ground into a paste that is made up of cocoa butter and cocoa solids called liquor. Sugar and sometimes vanilla is added and the mixture is refined to remove any grittiness. The mixture can also undergo a process called conching, which is essentially a long lasting kneading of the chocolate mass at a very hot temperature for 36 to 72 hours to lower the moisture content, reduce sour flavors, smooth out the chocolate and better develop aromatic compounds. Finally, the chocolate is tempered (the melted chocolate is heated and then cooled to stabilize the fat crystals, making the chocolate shiny and glossy) and molded into bars.

After our lecture, a whirlwind tasting of 27 different single origin and dark chocolates ensued. We tasted chocolates from all over the world, some mainstream and some more high-end, which showcased just how diverse chocolate can be. The standout for me was the Dos Rios bar from Utah-based Amano Artisan Chocolate. A 70% cacao, single-origin dark chocolate, it is one of the best and most unique chocolates I have tasted. Using cocoa beans from the Dominican Republic, the chocolate has the surprising aroma and flavor of Earl Grey tea. The pure chocolate taste is made more complex with flavors of bergamot and spices. Yet all of these flavors come naturally from the beans itself, no flavors are added.

There are just a few sacrifices you occasionally have to make when you are getting a degree in food culture. Enduring an chocolate overdose is one of them. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Moonlighting Brewmasters

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Straining the hops from the mash

I have an exam coming up on everything anyone ever wanted to know about beer, yet when I tell people this I often receive a laugh and an eye roll. While I agree that studying for a beer exam outweighs studying for a biochem exam any day, with over 400 slides on the history of beer, its various styles and the brewing process to review, along with in-depth tasting notes on the twenty five different beers we tasted in class, it isn’t as simple as it may seem.

With the exam date quickly approaching my classmates and I took our heads out of our study materials for a night in an attempt to make the studying process more interactive. Going to a local bar to sip beers while we quizzed each other could have been an option but instead we gathered together to brew our own batch of beer. With the help of one of our friends and UNISG undergraduate Sebastian, we learned what it takes to create our own homebrew. Sebastian is an avid homebrewer and was eager to share his knowledge.

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Sebastian explains the homebrewing process

We first started with the mash. Mash is the liquid that is obtained when the crushed grains that are used for beer (typically barley though wheat and other grains can be used) are soaked in hot water to release the sugars in the grains that are necesarray for fermentation. While mashing can be done at home, it requires a bit more time and equipment, so for our first batch we opted for a malt extract that Sebastian purchased in the neighboring region of Emilia-Romagna. The malt extract was diluted with water and heated on the stove with our choice of hops, the flowers of the hop plant that are used to impart bitter and aromatic characteristics to the beer. We chose a mixture of the Cascade variety from the U.S. and the Northern Brewer variety from England. Once the mixture came just to a boil we strained the hot liquid of the hops and poured it into a 23 liter plastic carboy. An additional three grams of hops were added to the carboy for flavor and aroma enhancement and good quality bottled water was poured into the carboy to further dilute the mash and lower its temperature. Once the temperature reached 20 degrees Celsius, yeast and sugar were added and the carboy was sealed with a stopper and fermentation lock.

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The mash extract is diluted with water and heated on the stove

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Hops infuse the mash as it is heated

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Sebastian happily stirring and cooling the mash with added water in the carboy before yeast is added

Fermentation began the next day and take about five to six days. Once completed, the beer rests for a couple of days before bottling. A small amount of sugar is then added to each bottle and the bottles are sealed for another month to allow conditioning to occur. During conditioning flavor is refined and carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottles, giving the beer its natural carbonation.

Now it is only a matter of time. We toasted to the prospect of our class brew with craft beers and beer-friendly bites. In a month we will gather together again to taste the end result and see if all our studying paid off.

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Preparing to dig into German sausages and meat pie after (hopefully) a job well done

Scenes from Veneto

Veneto

This past week my classmates and I embarked on our first of six study trips (or as call them here at UNISG, stages). We crawled out of our warm apartments Monday morning, before the sun had even risen, and loaded ourselves and our backpacks onto a minibus that we would quickly get to know quite well over the next five days. Five hours and two pit stops later we arrived in the northeast region of Veneto.

We bypassed the typical stop to the canals and back alleys of the region’s capital city, Venice, for more gastronomic-inspired ventures. It was a morning to night nonstop journey from our first day to our last. Focusing on regional food and beverage production, we visited nine different producers, all with an enviable passion for their work and a desire to share their craft with us. Here are just a few of the highlights:

At the Azienda Agricola Littamé in Padova, Michele Littamé is breading Romagnola white geese for a Slow Food Presidia product called oca in onto. Michele is only one of two producers in Italy of this traditional goose confit. He specializes in two forms of the product: one made with raw goose meat that has been dry salted, covered with goose fat and stored in sealed jars, and the other made with meat that has been brined, cooked at a low heat for ten hours and vacuum sealed with goose fat ready to be cooked sous vide.

Goose Farm

Michele (right) explains the process of making his “oca in onto”

We discovered the very heart of Prosecco production among the awe-inspiring hills of Valdobbiadene. The tiny town, along with the neighboring town of Conegliano, produces the highly regarded DOCG Prosecco Superiore. DOCG is the highest ranking of quality assurance that can be given to an Italian wine and less then 100 wines in the country are given this recognition. It was easy to see how superior this Prosecco is compared to the run-of-the-mill stuff being poured behind many bars when we visited the incredible Sorelle Bronca winery, owned by sisters Antonella and Ersiliana. A practicing organic winery, they are producing Prosecco that is fresh, sharp and balanced.

In the DOCG Prosecco Superiore vineyard

In the DOCG Prosecco Superiore vineyard

If Willy Wonka had preferred panettone to chocolate I am almost positive his factory would have looked like Loison Pasticceri in Vicenza. Passionately outspoken Dario Loison and his wife Sonia own this third generation bakery that focuses on panettone, the traditional Christmas sweet bread dotted with raisins, candied orange peel and citron that originates from Milan. While Dario runs the business side of things, his wife creates the elegant packaging, which elevates their baked goods to something quite special. Their products are exported to high-end food shops in the states, such as Dean & Deluca, and all over the world. While panettone makes up 70% of their production, the company also produces the traditional Italian Easter bread called colomba along with cookies and sweet focaccia.

Warm sweet focacce just out of the oven

Warm sweet focacce just out of the oven

Other snapshots from the trip:

In the lab at the Nardini Grappa Distillery in Bassano del Grappa

In the lab at the Nardini Grappa Distillery in Bassano del Grappa

Franco Favaretto of Trattoria Baccalàdivino prepares mantecato: the traditional Venetian whipped dried codfish spread

Franco Favaretto of Trattoria Baccalàdivino prepares mantecato: the traditional Venetian whipped dried codfish spread

Fresh from the farm: just harvested and cleaned Radicchio Rosso di Treviso

Fresh from the farm: just harvested and cleaned Radicchio Rosso di Treviso

Preparing to taste 32 Via dei Birrai's craft beers with brewmaster Fabiano Toffoli

Preparing to taste 32 Via dei Birrai craft beers with brewmaster Fabiano Toffoli (left)

A Lesson in Bagna Cauda

bagna cauda

One of the most unique parts about studying at an international university abroad is the knowledge received not only from worldly professors but also from classmates that come from both near and far. My class is a United Nations of sorts, with over a dozen countries represented among just twenty six people. And seeing that we are all a bit food obsessed, the most exciting knowledge obtained from one another is that of our food culture.

Before the holidays two fellow classmates from Torino organized a dinner for our class centered around one of the important traditional dishes of the Piemonte region where I am living. Bagna cauda, which translates to “hot bath,” is a warm dip made with garlic, anchovies and olive oil. Many variations exist but all are served hot, traditionally in a terra cotta pot lit with a candle to keep the dip warm, with a variety of raw and cooked vegetables for dipping.

bagna cauda dinner

Bagna cauda for twenty six

At our dinner we ate it as a main course, with each person dipping from their own terra cotta pot. The dip can also be served as an appetizer, which is how I prepared it for my family on Christmas Eve back in the States, thanks to my friend and classmate Claudia who provided her family’s recipe. And while you may not want to breath too close to anyone after indulging in bagna cauda, be careful: the stuff is addictive.

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Back at home – smashed garlic and anchovies cooking in oil then blended till smooth

Bagna Cauda (adapted from Claudia Quaranta)

Serves two as a main course or many (10-12) as an appetizer. The recipe can easily be halved or doubled depending on how much you need. Leftover bagna cauda can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days. It is great tossed with pasta or reheated as is.

2 heads of garlic (try to use a mild garlic like elephant if available. If it’s strong, one head is enough)
200 g (or slightly less then a 1/2 pound) of salted anchovies, prepped and cleaned (see below)
2 cups good extra virgin olive oil
2 cups + 2 Tbsp milk
10 walnuts, toasted and finely ground

How to prepare the anchovies:

First debone the anchovies by carefully peeling away the main bone and the tail starting from the back, leaving little to no meat on the bone. Discard bones and put the anchovies in bowl with a splash of red wine vinegar. Put the bowl in the sink and with water running, wash each anchovy to remove salt.  After washing, place each anchovy on a plate lined with paper towels. Pat dry with additional paper towels and let them continue to dry for 30 minutes. At this point they are ready to be used. If you’d like to do this ahead of time, place the anchovies in an airtight container, cover them with olive oil and store in the refrigerator until ready to use, no more then 4-5 days.
 

1. Peel garlic cloves and put into a medium saucepan with 500 mL milk. Bring the milk to a simmer and cook over medium low heat, stirring frequently, until the garlic is soft and can be smashed with a fork.

2. Drain the garlic, place it in a bowl and smash it.

3. Place smashed garlic and prepared anchovies in a clean medium saucepan and cover with 500 mL of olive oil. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently. The anchovies will melt into the oil and garlic and become a thick, rough sauce. Once this has happened, turn off the heat, add remaining 2 Tbsp of fresh milk and puree until smooth using an immersion blender. Once smooth, stir in ground walnuts.

4. Serve warm with your choice of raw and cooked vegetables for dipping. Traditional vegetables include raw endive, raw celery, raw or roast peppers, boiled potatoes, raw Jerusalem artichokes, boiled cardoons, raw or boiled cabbage, steamed onions and boiled turnips.

Embracing Sunday Lunch

Guido Ristorante

Coming from New York, Sunday lunch is a bit of a phenomenon for me. Where are the mimosas, eggs and fancy pastry baskets? As far as I’ve always know, Sunday is for brunch, not lunch. Here in Italy, however, lunch dominates. The mid-day meal is relished on Sunday and lingered over for a few too many hours. While lunching with friends in a cramped apartment or at a nearby trattoria is more typical of my student budget, I recently had the chance to join friends for a bit of a classier affair at Michelin-starred Guido Ristorante.

Guido Ristorante menu

Since 2004, the restaurant was located right on the campus of my university, in the beautiful medieval building that now houses our university canteen. In the early part of this year it moved just 20 minutes away to the stunning landscape of the Fontanafredda Estate in Serralunga d’Alba. Now set on the first floor of the ornate Royal Villa, the restaurant overlooks the Estate’s famous vineyards and gardens.

Guido Dining Room

With its high ceilings and neutral tones, the dining room manages to feel of a different era while remaining modern. The level of service matches the stunning atmosphere, while the food and wine meet every expectation the atmosphere gives you.

After ordering a bottle of crisp white wine from the surrounding region, we began with two amuse-bouche – a profiterole filled with salt cod and cardoon (a vegetable in the artichoke family that tastes of artichoke but looks awfully similar to celery) topped with hazelnut granola, hazelnut cream and shaved black truffle. My primi was the house specialty – agnolotti stuffed with veal in a light sugo d’arrosto, which is the drippings of the roasted meat. It was near perfection and the first pasta I’ve tasted during my brief time here in Italy that surprised me by how flavorful yet simple it was.

agnolotti Guido

My secondi of steamed cod with porcini mushrooms was also quite surprising. The woodsy flavor of the fresh and rehydrated mushrooms was an interesting contrast to the light, flakey fish, which was served atop a simple potato puree. It was a refreshing change from the heavy Piedmontese food I’ve been indulging in over the past couple of months.

cod with porcini mushrooms Guido

While we digested our two courses, we were brought out a few plates of cheeses to sample and to wet our palate for dessert. Almost too full, we couldn’t help but order a few plates to share. The first was another house speciality, which we had eyed across the room at a neighboring table when we first arrived. A towering mass of fior di latte gelato, it was churned to order and served simply on its own in order to appreciate its delicate flavor. We also chose profiteroles filled with hazelnut cream and chocolate and oven-roasted pears with chocolate and shaved black truffle. Enjoyed with a bottled of Fontanafredda’s slightly sweet Moscato d’Asti, it was an indulgent end to an equally indulgent lunch.

cheese Guido

Dessert Guido-1