Thursday, November 30, 2006

Thorns in the cheese and elsewhere

Piazza Garibaldi, Colorno

Interesting fact learned the other day: the tool used to break the curd during the making of a parmigiano-reggiano cheese is called a spino, meaning thorn-bush, after the hawthorne bushes traditionally used in the process. We are looking forward to our first field trip to see the process for ourselves in the next week or so.

The week is flying by as we compare notes on our various degrees of illness and ease into life in this new country, new course of study. Tomorrow the public services have conspired to allow those of our class living in Parma to experience our first public transit sciopero (strike), and so our morning will be spent competing for taxi service to get us to classes on time. This will be swiftly followed by a train strike on the weekend. Bemused travellers in this country will have noticed alternate train and other schedules posted 'in caso di sciopero'. Such is their regularity that you can consult a calendar of them to plan your movements accordingly.


Monday, November 27, 2006

Cheese technology, dragon sausages and rocket soup

Hmm... what's wrong with this picture...

Enjoying the walk back to class. Postprandial view: fountain at the Reggia di Colorno.

Week two has started at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, and we're deep into microbiology and the technology of cheese. A classmate has thrown down the gauntlet and invited me to find poetry in that.. but first I must master the terminology. No easy thing. But perhaps by the end of the week I'll know my triglycerides from my diglycerides and my casein from my hydrolytic enzymes. Yessir... thank the lords 'n ladies of technology for Wikipedia is all I can say. And bless the foresight and generosity of Douglas Goff for creating the Dairy Science and Technology website.

And thank heavens for email. One of my correspondents reliably informs me that at the moment a company in the UK is being hauled over the coals for calling their product "Welsh Dragon Sausages" on the grounds that it is not a true description of the contents. Apparently a commentator on this topic noted that it had blown the cold wind of fear into the makers of shepherd's pie, angel cakes and chocolate brownies.

Owing to my continuing throat ailment I stayed in tonight and had some nourishing soup. Not chicken soup which I'm sure really does cure everything, but some rocket soup, a kind of vegetable jet fuel I'm hoping, and nice to eat while you catch up on the story of Elizabeth Smart and George Barker:
Rocket Soup

1 tbsp butter
1 large shallot, minced
1/4 cup minced fresh fennel
1 small carrot, minced
1 medium potato, diced
3 cups vegetable broth
2 cups rocket
  • Melt the butter in a saucepan on medium and add the shallot, cooking for a couple of minutes until soft.
  • Add the fennel and carrot and cook gently on low heat about 10 minutes.
  • Add the potato and then the broth. Bring to the boil and then simmer another 5-10 minutes until the vegetables are soft.
  • Add the rocket, cover and cook another few minutes until the rocket has wilted. Season with salt and pepper.
  • I was lacking a blender, but it could (should?) be blended/pureed at this point or served as is.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Random walking and eating

A day of major excitement yesterday as we hopped the bus to Euro Torri to pick up some essentials at Media World and Brico and then wandered under the road to Ipercoop. Such wonders I have seen, and indeed carried home on my back.

I was intrigued by the Ipercoop's Salvatempo, a magical wand you can employ if you are the fortunate holder of a carta sociocoop; you carry it round the store with you, pointing it at your groceries and making joyful beeping sounds, saving many tedious minutes of operazioni ripetitive.

This weekend I am suffering from il mal di gola, so have not been up to much, but here are some snaps from recent days.

Parma Torrente after a few days' rain: feeling much more itself.

Sadly for this one's living relatives, you can find such delicacies as pesto di cavallo or bistecca di cavallo on the menus round here.

My this was good: carpaccio of swordfish (pesce spada).

Friday, November 24, 2006

Classes in Colorno

Just another street in Parma.

Busy busy. We started classes on Wednesday. A morning of introductions where we met the faculty and staff of the university, counted our nationalities (11) and listened to 25 highly condensed life stories The teaching and administrative staff gave us a flavour of the year ahead including our field trips (stages) to France, Spain, Crete and different parts of Italy. After an introductory lunch in the ALMA cafeteria (provided by its cooking students) we had an afternoon of Italian lessons - a fairly typical mix of excruciating embarrassment and hilarity.

The back of the Reggia di Colorno, the building that houses the Colorno campus.

That evening the group was invited to an impromptu welcome gathering in Colorno where we had, naturally, a pretty stunning selection of nibbles - heavy of course on the cheeses and cured meats. Most of the students live in Parma, and it's going to be a challenge for us to get together in the evenings with buses stopping at 6pm and taxis running €25-30 a pop. We are learning about the interesting and somewhat time consuming experience of calling Parma's taxi dispatch service late at night, and how sometimes random the taxis' arrival can be.

Not a bad view out the classroom window...

Day two we plunged into language classes and in the afternoon had a presentation by Cinzia Scaffidi, director of the Slow Food Study Centre in Bra. Among the many programs and projects of the movement she described, we warmed to her discussion of the Slow Fish event we'll be taking in next May, in Genoa.

And the view out the other classroom window.

Thursday ended with American Thanksgiving dinner (Giorno del Ringraziamento) for 60, courtesy the students of the Italian masters' program, one of the cooks and the ovens - big enough to hold two 30lb turkeys - of ALMA, and the owners of the Pub in Colorno. During the meal I asked the director of the Colorno campus, Carlo Catani, if it was true what I'd heard, that we could expect on average to gain 5kg over the course of the year. Of course not, he scoffed: on your stages (field trips), you will be much too busy to eat!

One turkey down, one turkey left.

We've started receiving books as well - Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book, and Italian Cuisine: a Cultural History by Alberto Capatti and Massio Montanari. And on with the first lecture on cheese technology today, which was a crash course in the fundamentals of organic chemistry. Head spinning with talk of peptide bonds, triglycerides, protein domains and butyric and linoleic acids... I'm well ready for the weekend now.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tartufo in Savigno

Ooh.. so glad I wasn't driving.. where to start with this one?

Hitting the ground running, so to speak, I was invited to visit a visiting friend in Bologna, whose hostess - doing some research for her property business - whisked us off into the Apennine countryside to see a few sights before hitting the main event, a truffle (tartufo) festival in Savigno.

Three days of truffles and mulled wine (vin brule/vino caldo) had obviously warmed everyone (and their dog) into a mellow crowd. We wandered around admiring used leather coats, antiques and knick-knacks, truffle spades; little moss thrones and glass domes holding nuggets of black and white truffles; truffle oil, truffle cheese/polenta/rice/you name it, vintage cars, cauldrons of hot wine, caldarroste - ovens of roasting chestnuts, and much else besides. The place was heaving with visitors. And the tables were still, late on the last day, still heaped with cheese, meats, vegetables...

Chestnuts rocking and roasting.

Cheese, cheese, cheese!

Lotsa lovely squash, from an organic farm.

Tower of power: no disputing the real thing, and thrilling to be in its home town. I tasted both 12 month old and 36 month old Parmigiano-Reggiano... and wanted to take it all home with me.

As we wandered, I was introduced to a cook from Centro Natura, a vegetarian restaurant (and much else besides) in Bologna. Must make a visit there. She said they develop the menu each morning, based on the ingredients to hand, and accommodate both celiacs and more relaxed vegetarian diners alike each day.

And tonight I dined at La Filoma in Parma where as we considered the menu we were presented with a glass of prosecco and a plate of airy, crunchy, heavenly cheese fritters, before diving into a warm fish salad (fish, potatoes, courgettes/zucchini, tomatoes) and then (for me) a melting pair of beautifully seasoned pork medallions, and for my dining companion a tender leg of rabbit.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Fast Train Slow

Ever feel small? (Santa Maria della Steccata)

Here I am in my very own microcosm, in the Hotel Torino. Very central, as promised in the writeup on TripAdvisor's Parma forum, and my room faces a courtyard so should be nice and quiet (if not large and spacious) -- providing no more tipsy Englishwomen choose to have lengthy late night telephone conversations facing their windows. No in-room internet as I'd had (for a price) in Paris, but a reasonable connection in the lobby, free for the first half hour.

It was a long trip from Paris yesterday, and a grey and wet one despite a few glimpses of blue sky on departure. I left the hotel about seven-thirty in the morning - having left the nice young man at the hotel laughing and shaking his head in delight at the idea of anyone going off to study food in Italy - and threw myself and my gigantic bags on the TGV service to Milan in good time. Alas it was not so TGV today. We limped along the tracks near Chambery until we ground to a halt in a tunnel. Periodic updates in French were not overly enlightening, although if my ears and tragic grasp of French did not deceive me, the reason for our delay was finally given as "leaves on the line"?? Whatever it was, it put us 45 minutes behind time, and that killed any chance of my making my connection to Parma scheduled for 20 minutes after arrival. By the time we got to Milan we were about an hour and a quarter late, and there was a terrifying throng gathered on the platform for the return journey.

I managed to get myself onto a new train, one of the first to board, and not a baggage rack to be seen (lucky for the health and safety of my fellow passengers I lack anywhere near the upper body strength and sang-froid to attempt to put these babies in an overhead rack) so I claimed a couple of spots for me and my bags - lucky thing as the car had filled to overflowing by departure time - passengers perching in the hallways. A kind man sitting next to me told me he too was getting off in Parma and to follow him. He raised a quizzical eyebrow at the heft and girth of my bags and quipped, perhaps you have brought enough for one day? He said he'd lived all his life in Parma and couldn't think of anywhere better, that I'd like it: it is very quiet, the people are very nice, if you ride a bicycle people will wave you through, and yes it is the best food in Italy. And helped me haul my bags up and down stairs and rather proved his point about the kindness of the locals, I thought.

When I arrived at the hotel, around 7pm, the taxi driver pointed to the outermost unzipped compartment of my backpack and I thought uh oh now what was in there.. probably some light-fingered onlooker in Milano Centrale wondered the same, but fortunately my travel paranoia is such that all valuables were deep inside inner pockets, the somewhat trickier zip to the compartment holding the iPod wasn't touched, and I think nothing has gone astray.

After checking in I realised I'd had nothing to eat since the edible but unremarkable panino sold me by the hatchet-faced woman serving what passed for food on the train, and happened upon a snack bar on Piazza Garibaldi, the town square. I had a large and welcome salad with a gorgeous glass of red wine, gazing out at the flocks of cyclists - not a helmet or a reflective vest among them - and figured that was that for one day.

Torrente Parma - more a lawn than a torrent at the moment.

Today after early rain the sun came out to shine on a first ramble through my new home town.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Paris in the rain

Today it was grey and spitting with rain. Better that than pouring I suppose. Nevertheless, there is much one can do underground or inside. So I made my way to the Gare de Lyon to have the anticipated tussle with the automatic ticket machine in advance of my 8.04 departure tomorrow. Sure enough the machine rejected my Canadian credit card, and the ticket agent tried to as well, but luckily she persevered and managed to coax a ticket out for me.

Onward I steamed, this time to la Librairie Gourmande.. of all the bookshops in all the world.. I found a copy of some required reading (en anglais) -- a (how could it be otherwise) heavy paperback called Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, by Harvey Levenstein. That should keep me from floating away during tomorrow's train journey.

I passed by Shakespeare & Company which didn't open till noon, and so headed up to the Marais. En route I emerged at Metro St-Paul where we were treated to an all-singing Manifestation (Tous en Greve) by a large throng of cheerful protesters.

On I went to check out Chez Marianne, where I had a wonderful assiette - caviar d'aubergines avec cumin; salade turque (tomatoes, peppers, fennel, onion, I think); salade d'artichauts; and some excellent felafel on top.

Though I drooled at the windows of Florence Finkelsztajn I thought it more prudent to taste only with my eyes... Have you ever seen such strudel?

Travelling back I passed through the Metro station at Bastille where they seem to have above average buskers. Imagine 11 hearty Ukranian men in full voice and full orchestra singing their hearts out, and there you have Les Musiciens de Lviv. Fabulous.

Why oh why would anyone Wal-mart??


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Paris in the sunshine

It's been a beautiful day in France. Started off well in London but the clouds had gathered by the time my enormous bags and I got to Waterloo (thank you again Andrew) to board the Eurostar. An uneventful and comfortable journey, with a helpful taxi driver at the Paris end; we confessed our mutual inabilities in one another's languages and faltered through a little small talk (mostly about the beauty of the Italian language) while he followed his GPS directions to (l'Hotel St-Louis Bastille (thanks Sue: great tip - very nice hotel!).

The weather was so gorgeous I hopped on the Metro and went for an afternoon wander: caught Notre Dame streaming with the last of today's sunlight,

the Seine looking lovely - the trees still leafy,

the plant and flower stalls selling beautiful things,

and the Galeries Lafayette lit up like a temple carpet.

A nice plate of salad in their 6th floor cafeteria and home I hurtled on the Metro - even travelling at rush hour it felt positively commodious after London and the crush of the tube. Resting my feet and self in preparation for my one day of sightseeing tomorrrow.


Monday, November 13, 2006

Fish for supper

Where it all began, at the Fish Works on Regent's Park Road in Primrose Hill.

A lovely table in a lovely flat.

Starting in style: marinated anchovies from Sainsbury's, plus artichoke salad and Lebanese Coleslaw from the Green Valley.

Red mullet hits the table and we fall over in delight. A little thyme and wine and olive oil in the preparations. Lovely with steamed new season brussels sprouts 'n carrots, and baby roast potatoes with rosemary. Thanks Leah!

Quick before it's all gone... cheese from Neal's Yard cheese shop in Covent Garden. The stilton in particular caused some happy moans...


Saturday, November 11, 2006

A day in the country

Evidently we defied death and ivy for the sake of a pleasant perambulation through Kent on a dry and breezy Friday afternoon.

Set off from (truly and appropriately) Sole Street station and walked a wide circle to reach a pretty flint church at Luddesdown (home of Luddesdown Organic Farms, we surmised from some posted literature along the path). Some restoration work was in progress on one of the churchyard's walls:

And flint was everywhere in the fields, crusted in chalk, so it almost seemed we were stepping over bones.

And then, we spied a pub. It was the Golden Lion - unfortunately for my conscience a Greene King pub - and its entertainment poster (promising "themed food night's" and referring us to "local paper's and in house flyers") certainly begged for help from Lynne Truss. But all that aside, I highly commend its amazing and enormous Bubble 'n Squeak, smothered in excellent cheese and perfectly seasoned. Oh, and cheap (just under £3)! This dish takes many forms, but here it was made from mashed potatoes, cabbage, carrots, onions and - perhaps, because it is usual - a little bacon or ham.

Just up and around the bend on Henley Street, The Cock Inn, but we were making for the train and couldn't stop again.

After all that walking, a stroll through Rochester where the cathedral seems to rise between the walls of the castle where Dickens wanted to be buried. Sadly for him, Queen Victoria felt his remains would be better placed in Westminster Abbey and there he remains, in Poets' Corner.

Back to London and a final sprint round the Power and Taboo exhibition at the British Museum. Too limp to go further we collapsed in gratitude before some excellent Thai food at the Thai Garden Cafe on Museum Street.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Nancy Breaks Her Silence

What a lovely audience -- in The Crypt at St Mary's Islington, November 9.

Back in London one more time. I can't think when I last read with Nancy, but I suppose it was sometime in the nineties, that long lost decade when we shared this city and all its ups and downs. After long silences from both of us we have both published new collections this year. Hers, Writing With Mercury, is the long-awaited successor to Maria Breaks Her Silence (1989). A jazzy ol' cover on the new book by and as a tribute to her friend Elaine Kowalsky, who was killed by a car last year when she was crossing the street on her way to a birthday party - a sad and sudden end.

Nancy's fetching scarf, beautiful book and inspiring reading.

Nancy and Mike have been running this Islington-based, more or less bi-monthly readings series Poetry in the Crypt for some years now and it's a feel-good venture, no pay for the poets and all proceeds going to the St Mary's homelessness project. Normally there is an open mic as well as a feature reader or two, but not tonight due to the addition of music to the bill. It was good fun with a generous audience (in all senses) and more people I wanted to catch up with and meet than I managed to talk to. Sold out of all the copies of Cartography that I'd schlepped across the ocean for the occasion which was very good news for my baggage weight; maybe not such good news in case I do more readings before my year is up! Anyone who wants one can find it on ABE or (it comes up in and as well, very mysterious) or of course try ordering from your local bookshop.

Mike at the mic.

All in all a wonderful evening. I even enjoyed even being heckled by fireworks - a timely volley of them went off just as I was reading the lines "I feel sometimes that everything happens to me" in my traditional final poem Another Life to Live at the Edge of the Young and Restless Days of our Lives.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Aubergine to Zucchini

Now that I'm back in England I'm having to revive my English vocabulary. Aubergine not eggplant. Courgette not zucchini. Bicarbonate of soda not baking soda. Chips not fries.

So for lunch yesterday we had one of my favourite soups, which is either Zucchini and Rosemary or Courgette and Rosemary depending on which side of the Atlantic you eat it. It's equally good on both, a pretty green colour and very warming on a winter's day. A handy recipe to have in case your guests include vegetarians or the wheat/gluten-intolerant, as it can be made with vegetable broth or cubes and is self-thickened with potato.
Courgette/Zucchini and Rosemary Soup

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive or other oil
1 large onion, chopped, or equivalent number of shallots
2 cloves garlic, sliced (or 1 tsp garlic granules, or 2 tsp freeze-dried chopped garlic)
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, minced
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock (1-1/2 UK pints water plus 6 Oxo chicken or vegetable cubes)
1 large potato (russet or King Edward - a floury rather than waxy one), peeled and sliced
3 medium courgettes/zucchini, chopped or cubed
  • Melt butter with oil in heavy large saucepan over medium high heat. Add onion; cook until translucent but not brown, about 5 minutes.
  • Mix in garlic and rosemary and stir well.
  • Add stock and potato; bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes, until potato just done.
  • Add sliced zucchini; simmer until tender, about 15 minutes.
  • Working in batches, puree in blender. Season with salt and pepper.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

End of Aldeburgh

Where did it all go? One minute the weekend dizzies delightfully before us, the next it's over. Sunday was a modest blur, beginning with the hugely popular reading by the Joy of Six, whose venue - like that of many other events - was full with a queue of hopefuls. TJOS is in fact five people, all well established poets in their own rights. André Mangeot, Andrea Porter, Anne Berkeley, Peter Howard and Martin Fugura write and perform together, reading a combination of individual and group work. The hands down favourite piece for Sunday's hall of poets was Poets' Retreat, from Martin Figura's 2005 collection ahem, and read by the group. If there was a sub-species of poet from whom this hilariously sinister poem did not take the mickey I don't know which it would be:
The concrete poets, for obvious reasons, were less quick
and paid the price. But they have found a certain peace
and are with their own kind holding up the flyover
at the Junction with the A66.
Following a less than swift cup of tea in the White Lion, we set off for the finale reading: the ever wonderful Vicki Feaver, an incredibly good German poet, Durs Grunbein, reading with his unfortunately almost inaudible translator Michael Hofmann, and - once more to the microphone - Sharon Olds reading work selected by and on behalf of her friend Philip Levine.

Supper was a delicious trip to the Crown and Anchor in Orford, proving ground for Ruth Watson's imaginative food in a cosy and friendly hotel which has in the past delighted the likes of Nigel Slater. We sipped some sublime old sherry while considering the menu, deciding upon guinea fowl on a pea and chervil risotto; a towering portion of crisp, juicy pork belly on a well seasoned kindling of vegetables;

and a perfectly pan-fried fillet of hake on saffron mash with fresh spinach. The desserts were not so successful, the pumpkin cheesecake a bit watery - maybe not sieved? - but for whatever reason a bit too vegetable-textured for my taste.

The cheesecake looking a bit lonely with its luscious loganberry companion at its side, after half of it had been spirited away to another plate... and I found the bitter chocolate souffle cake pretty much inedible - hard and uninteresting even with a darling little pot of cream to pour over it. I'd been reading up on the pudding recipes beforehand (the chocolate one came from Something for the Weekend) but not carefully enough, as I thought there would be some give to the texture. Oh well. Everything else was so good it was overkill anyway. And it did look quite majestic.

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