Tag Archives: italy

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

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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

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

Chasing Liquid Gold

Row of Honey

If my first few classes at UNISG are any indication of what is to come in the year ahead, it is guaranteed to be a great year. This past week my eyes were opened to the world of bees in a honey tasting class led by Andrea Paternooster. Andrea is a third generation beekeeper and owner of MieliThun in the northern provence of Trentino.

What is unique about Paternooster is that he practices nomadic beekeeping. This means that instead of leaving his bee hives in one remote location, he moves them with the seasons, as different species of flowers bloom, allowing his bees to make various mono-floral honeys and to create a unique line of products

Andrea Paternooster

Each hives consists of thousands of bees: one queen, 50,000 worker bees and 3,000 drones. The queen is the brain of the hive and serves as the reproducer in the hive, as she chooses just one drone to mate with. The worker bees are the busiest of the bunch with over 20 different responsibilities that include cleaning the hive, gathering pollen and collecting the nectar of flowers to produce honey.

We tasted six of Paternooster’s honeys, all part of a special collection he calls Quintessenza, that is so exclusive it’s only available to chefs and students for educational purposes. Each honey comes from a single plot of land and a single type of flower. It may sound strange to call honey exclusive but after tasting these unique varietals I now understand just how special honey can be.

Honey Closeup

Tasting honey can be compared to tasting wine. In order to smell and taste properly, Paternooster served each honey in a tall wine glass. For each honey we tasted we used the back of a spoon to move the honey along the sides of the glass, to extend its contact with oxygen in order to smell the honey and observe its color. Starting with a delicate French honeysuckle honey, we then tried a richer, almost savory rosemary honey that comes from the nectar of the small blue flowers of the herb. Next was a sunflower honey that both looked and tasted like the sun, with a bright yellow tinge and tropical fruit notes, and a eucalyptus honey that smelled of porcini mushrooms and tasted savory and almost salty. We ended with a dandelion honey, which had a sharp, acidic nose but tasted of butter and chamomile, and a honey from limonum flowers that grow in the Venetian Lagoon, which had a floral nose but tasted slightly bitter and medicinal.

Like wine, tasting a variety of different honeys is the best way to learn and now that my curiosity is sparked I am excited to continue to pursue my honey education. I may never look at the ordinary plastic honey bears at the supermarket the same way. I guess I am officially a honey snob.

MieliThun

Una Nuova Avventura

Bra ItalyMoving to a foreign country always sounds like an alluring idea until you’re actually doing it. When you’re pulling a year’s supply of belongings along narrow, cobblestone European sidewalks, panting as you rush to catch the two trains and a bus to the tiny Italian town that will be your new home, it suddenly hits you that the next year just may be a bit more difficult (and a lot less glamorous) then you imagined.

Despite the unforseen difficulties that may lie ahead, I am far from complaining. This next year is sure to be one I’ll fantasize about years from now. I’ve chosen to come to the heart of Piedmont to pursue a master’s degree in Food Culture and Communications at the Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche. The university, founded by Slow Food, is a research and education center devoted to gastronomy. Yes, I am studying food in Italy.

While I eagerly wait for classes to start, I’ve been spending my time trying to settle into the tiny town of Bra and the Italian way of life. It may or may not have taken me an hour to navigate my way around the local grocery store and I am still making abrupt stops on the sidewalk to look at my map. But I’ll get there.

One of the first foods I came to discover upon my arrival is persimmons, as they are everywhere this time of year in Italy. As they are not as common at home, I fell head over heels when I tried my first slice of the juicy, deep orange-colored fruit. Tempted to not eat my entire supply fresh, I saved two to bake into this quick bread. With a few minor mishaps thanks to my wonky Italian oven, I managed to turn out a delicious, fall-inspired bread. Just the thing to kick off my Italian adventure.

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Persimmon Bread (adapted from David Lebovitz via James Beard)

Makes 1 loaf

1½ cups + ¼ cup flour
¾ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup sugar
½ cup melted unsalted butter, cooled to room temperature
2 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
1/3 cup orange juice
1 cup persimmon puree (from 2 very ripe (almost over-ripe) persimmons)
1 cups chopped walnuts
½ cups raisins
½ cup dried cranberries

1. Butter loaf pan. Dust with flour and tap out any excess.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

3. Combine the first 5 dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.

4. Make a well in the center then stir in the butter, eggs, orange juice, persimmon puree then the nuts and dried fruit.

5. Bake 1 hour or until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.