Saturday, December 30, 2006

Asian monster menu, and photos of Italy

We spent yesterday in Colorno, trying to eat our way through Asia. Amy, representing Hong Kong, gathered her pan-Asian army of chefs - Andy from Taiwan, Donghyun from Korea, Louisa from Australia - and together they fed us well, very very well. We are ready for the new year.

Amy's Asian menu

Only the beginning... Thai carrot salad, sushi, beef with eggplant, rice...

A Korean favourite: Bi Bim Bap!

Spending the day digesting it all. Thought I'd try some feasts for the eyes for a change. A friend of a friend is a sublime photographer of the Tuscan landscape and many other things beside. Check him out: Fabio Muzzi. Phew. Photos so beautiful you want to eat them for breakfast.

I was nosing around to see what other photos were posted of this neck of the woods. A site called TrekEarth has a gorgeous selection of photos from all over the world, including this region, Emilia Romagna - a few beauties of Parma itself.

You can take a virtual tour of Parma in a number of 360 degree photos on the Comune di Parma website.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Cheese, more cheese

Travelling on Ryanair is ... an experience. One of its peculiarities is that passengers are charged many hidden fees: for use of a credit card to make the booking, and for checking a bag, for example, and they give not so much as a cup of coffee away for free in-flight. So it's not as cheap as you might first assume when you see 99 cent fares. But okay, so it's the only game going direct from Parma airport to London, with your (count 'em) 15 whole kilos checked baggage allowance (which you've paid for the privilege of bringing). And then you get the thrill of rubbing up against your fellow passengers in the scrum at the boarding gate and you can try to out-run them on the tarmac for better seating. I won't attempt to describe the experience of dragging (heavier than it sounds) 15 kg of suitcase without wheels (never again) through the seething inferno of holiday travellers at Stansted Airport on Christmas Eve. Brrr, may I remember enough to never do that again, and may I forget the rest.

For my return to Parma, I chose to alot a hefty corner of my 15 kg to a lovely smelly bag of cheese from the well-regarded and cunningly-named Cheeses, which has been doing a queued-out-the-door trade in Muswell Hill for some years. Not least because the shop is tiny - holds three thin customers at a time, with floor to ceiling shelves of this and that to look at while you wait. It has one modest display case which manages to hold a prime selection of farmhouse cheeses from Britain and beyond. I saw a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano lovingly displayed and simply described ("exquisite" I think was all the sign said, or needed to say) and a bevvy of French beauties perched around it in various postures of diminishment, and beyond them a hearty selection of British cheeses.

The cheesemonger looked very weary - it was getting on to the evening of December 23 and his sign advertising baby wheels of stilton had probably lured a few dozen extra souls ithrough his doors - but he cut me some fine wedges of Cornish Yarg, Berkswell and aged Caerphilly. The women behind the counter were cheery and helpful and pointed me towards some Millers Damsel digestive biscuits to go with my selection. Luckily for my baggage allowance I managed not to come away with a slate cheeseboard or jars of chutney or tins of quince cheese to go with, nor even a fragile package of inky Charcoal Wafers, though I was sorely tempted, but they were recommended for brie, camembert or goats cheese.

After a few days' rest for the cheese, yesterday afternoon we gathered in my Parma kitchen to test our palates and practice our tasting terminology, yeah verily once more for England.

Yarg, I'd learned, was not an obscure Cornish word after all, it was the name of its early makers (Gray) turned around. A little disappointing to be disillusioned, but the cheese is made from a 13th century - and it seems a tried and true - recipe. Wrapped in nettle leaves, it looked very handsome, its ivory paste contrasting nicely with the dark green wrappings frosted by a pale mould. Lots of butter, rendered butter, and a bit of tangy sweetness - and perhaps a little pineapple? It had been described elsewhere as young with a fresh, faintly lemony taste; creamy under the crust, yet firm and slightly crumbly at the centre. And it was too. Many thumbs up for this one.

Next we examined the Berkswell, a ewe's milk cheese made in the Midlands, and named for the village which took its name from the Saxon chief, Bercul, who was baptised in the ancient well at its centre. I read somewhere that it had been originally developed from a Caerphilly cheese recipe, although it bore little resemblance to the one we tasted after this. We admired its rind which has a tan, cobbled appearance - must be moulded in a net? We found its ivory paste smooth and firm, the tang and texture reminding us of cheddars of our pasts; a hint of animal aroma reminded us it was a sheep cheese, but the flavour was subtle and sweet. It struck us as being quite different in flavour from its Italian cousin pecorino, and people liked it for being a happy contrast to the Italian wonders all around us.

The last to fall under the knife was the aged Caerphilly; unusual, they told me at the shop, to find an aged version, as it's usually eaten quite young. We noticed the moulds on the rind and the thick, even nail (undercrust) which when tasted was soft and silky in contrast to the dry, fine sponge of the centre. Its colour ranged from ivory in the centre to straw yellow in the nail. I'd read that it was eaten by Welsh miners to replace the salt they lost in their labours, but it wasn't an overwhelmingly salty cheese. It had, when I unwrapped it, a whiff of ammonia but that didn't linger after resting and cutting. It evoked aromas of yogurt most strongly, and for its texture Louisa dredged from her olfactory memory a comparison with a Greek cheese, like (but not) Halloumi. I suppose the salt content makes it a dryer cheese than most? Caerphilly is a sweet, crumbly cheese that's nice in cooking; I remembered some Glamorgan Sausages I'd eaten at a New British restaurant once and they were a beautiful melding of salt, cheese and leek. Not nearly enough left over to cook with this time even if I wanted to...


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Fungus not chocolate

White (Tuber magnatum) and black (Tuber melanosporum) truffles.

Truffles. Tartufi. What are they? Chocolates? Tubers, like their names? Mushrooms? An acquired taste? Why so expensive? A million questions, many appetites, much interest. And so it transpired two Saturdays ago that 22 of us jumped out of bed at some breathtaking hour of the morning and piled onto a bus, on the trail of the truffles.

An hour or two later, we disembarked in Savigno, scene of the annual truffle festival in November which I'd taken in soon after arrival in Italy, and where they take their truffles very seriously, as you might expect of a town whose population is 2000, about 200 of whom are truffle hunters.

We loitered in town for a while before heading to the forest, and had the good fortune to get a tour of the basement of La Bottega del Macellaio, a 110-year-old family business. We dodged the hams curing in the rafters to see some cured lardo which we'd heard about in our cured meats lectures; it was among the first cured meats to find protection under the Arca del Gusto, (Ark of Taste), a project of Slow Food which seeks to protect traditional food products. After at least six months of seasoning and curing it's served in thin slices like any other meat product, eaten on hot toast.

Lots of lardo

On we went. This has been a bad year for truffles, apparently: not enough rain, and ongoing and growing problem with too many hunters, too many inexperienced dogs, and poor forest management.

Forests in Italy mean hunters of many kinds, but we were, hopefully, not going to meet the kind with guns in this one.

We were looking for Tuber magnatum, the white truffle, found mostly in northern and central Italy and also known as the Alba truffle, because the enterprising citizens of Alba thought to nab the trademark while they could, though it's not found only there. There are other varieties in these woods as well, like Tuber melanosporum - the black truffle. Although their Latin name is Tuber, they are not tubers, vegetables like potatoes for example. They are uncultivable fungi, a symbiotic variety: they exchange mineral salts with tree sugars, which is why they are always found in the roots, or near them, of trees.

We met two kinds of truffle dogs too. The first, the Lagotto Romagnolo, resembles a poodle and is the star among truffle dogs.

Pupa the dog and Adriano the truffle hunter.

The second, Hungarian Vizla, is a short-haired hunting dog, and we had the chance to witness some truffle training of a very high spirited four-month old.

Rosita and Stella.

Both our hunters used only female dogs, and this is apparently quite common. I'd heard that pigs were sometimes used for truffle hunting, but they apparently make a terrible mess - truffle hunting is a game of stealth and concealment, and any truffle-beds must be returned to a pristine state so that the truffles may re-grow there and other hunters not see the location.

One of the tools used to dig truffles. The hunters carry long-handled short-bladed truffle spades, which double as walking sticks, and carry the sapin, a hand tool used to pry the truffle out of hiding.

Black winter truffle.

After the truffle hunt we stopped for lunch and a tour of an old flour mill, Il Mulino del Dottore, where we watched water-powered stone grinding of grain. They grind corn, wheat and chestnuts there, and the shop seemed to get a steady stream of local business. Our venue for supper, Da Amerigo, gets the flours for its pasta from this mill, which has been in operation since 1680.

The cross on the roof of the mill, surmounting the crow which was the family emblem, advised pilgrims crossing the Appenines that they could find food and lodging here.

We had a talk about truffles by longtime truffle merchant Luigi Dattilo at Appennino Funghi e Tartufi. He talked about the products - truffle oil, rice, pasta, polenta and pasta sauces flavoured with truffles - and then we watched a truffle dealer handle the merchandise - staggering to consider the monetary value of what we were observing.

He chooses them by smell, feel, weight and appearance. Because his customers may shave them at the table they need to look nice. He says that a partially-nibbled truffle is not necessarily a reject, since it says something found this one good enough to eat!

It was getting late but we found the time to taste some local wine at Vigneto San Vito and pick up a few bottles for our supper.

We then braced ourselves for a five course meal of truffles and seasonal goodies at Da Amerigo. Much loved by the Slow Food people, it's described in the famed Osterie & Locande D'Italia guide as "a perfect combination of innovation and tradition." Which I think we agreed with the moment the first course landed on our table.

It was a soft, warm polenta served in parfait glasses, its surface layered with shaved white truffles which we stirred into the mixture to eat -- after first enjoying the perfume. Beautiful.

Swiftly followed by Parmesan gelato: parmigiano-reggiano cooked with cream, formed into gelato-sized balls, drizzled with some fine balsamico and served on a wee local flatbread. To die for.

Third starter - chicken and veal lasagne with black truffle shavings.

Mmmm... so happy...

Main course - lots of lovely chili-tossed vegetables and nuggets of fresh local pork, girded in pancetta and crowned with frizzled cabbage.

Dessert was a mercifully dainty, delicate and delicious gelato trio: pumpkin (zucca) topped with some orange marmelata, pomegranate (melograno) and persimmon (cachi).

Praise to the chefs.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

London interlude

Just back from a week in London - a busy frantic expensive delightful week, and a week without email or internet. A novelty, but I'm glad to be back at the keyboard. I have a piece to post about the truffle hunt last weekend but will put that up in the next couple of days.

Merry... Oxo?

(from one of the dwindling number of antique dealers in Camden Passage, Islington, North London)

Quiz night at the Troubadour: I managed to crash the party five years after attending my last one. These are brilliant and entertaining evenings which feature themes, announced in advance so people can seek out a poem or write one for the event, and the readings are accompanied by ferociously difficult poetry quizzes. Last Monday was The Inexorable Sadness of Pencils. Here's a taste of the quiz: What is Craig Raine describing when he says and the ground is full of pencil boxes? Name the Leeds-born author of these lines from The School of Eloquence... His home address was inked inside his cap/ and on every piece of paper that he carried. And who was he writing about?

I was happy to see Catherine Temma Davidson for the first time in a long time. Her excellent first novel, The Priest Fainted, (still in print!) has a special resonance for my foodie life these days. She's working on a second novel and says food figures in that one too.

London poet Paul McLoughlin and poet-novelist Catherine Temma Davidson.

Steve Hatt, legendary fishmonger, on Essex Road, Islington.

Fighting the neverending battle against street crime, with a taste of the week's fog in the background. Outside Turnham Green station, West London.

Hampstead Heath. A little teeny tiny bit of it.

The big cheese at Waitrose, Brunswick Centre, near Russell Square.

Paxton and Whitfield, on Jermyn Street, been around a year or two. Cheesemongers to gentlemen, they say (--so where do the ladies shop?) and handy to Pink's and Fortnum's where you might like to browse on your way to tea at the Ritz, perhaps?

What we did and didn't eat at Amato in Soho. Beautiful cheesy quiche and interesting salads (some rather middle-aged broccoli in there but otherwise good). Gorgeous pastries to admire through the glass on your way out.

What would a visit to London be without a nod to Newton and a visit to the temple of knowledge - the British Library, one of my favourite places in the world. The caff's not bad either.

A foggy night on Primrose Hill.

And: buon natale to one and all. How it was looking earlier this evening in the Piazza Garibaldi, Parma.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Where the milk comes from

So today's trip was to the dairy farm:
we got in the bus
to go to the farm
to meet the man
who owns the cows
who give the milk
that makes the cheese...

But before the farm, there was the Christmas market, and a stall selling small round edibles of a Sicilian persuasion.

Then there was the farm. More round things.

In addition to a persimmon tree, they had 200 cows, about half of which are giving milk at any time while the others are either growing up or getting ready to give birth. This farm had only Friesians, which came from Canada and the U.S. The farmer belonged to a dairy co-op of 11 farms and was very near his cheese factory, convenient for making that 2 hour deadline to deliver the milk. The other restriction on milking for Parmigiano-Reggiano is that the actual milking must be completed within four hours, start to finish (this farm managed it in one and a half hours, twice a day).

Hmm... these remind me of something I've seen lately... cylindrical, straw-coloured, stacked to the ceiling... The Parmigiano-Reggiano consortium obliges its dairy farms to produce - on-site - at least 50% of the feed for their cattle; this farm produces 90% of its feed. No animal products can be included in the diet of the dairy cattle, and no silage or wet grass, all to preserve the safety of the cheese, the reliability of the ripening process, and the purity of the flavour.

My fellow Canadian?

We observed the bedroom of the cows.

Scary farm dog.

And on that farm there was a cow...

Why yes, as a matter of fact, I was born yesterday.

The real thing - Parmigiano-Reggiano

Again the sciopero raises its ugly head. We had been scheduled to visit a cheesemaking factory and then a dairy farm on Wednesday and Thursday, but the bus strike would have affected our, um, bus, so the visit and our classes were rescheduled so we could go Thursday and Friday instead. Then the Wednesday strike was cancelled. Then we heard an all-out strike (buses, trains, planes) was planned for Friday instead. Then that was cancelled. Or was it? All so confusing.

Anyway we were, on Thursday, very happy to visit a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factory in nearby Baganzolino on Thursday and see all that had been described to us actually happen before our eyes. We arrived at 8am in time to see the whole range of the day's cheese production. and were well briefed on the bus.

The milk that arrives at the factory must be delivered within two hours of milking, so there was no time to lose. Everybody went wild with cameras and I think several thousand images were taken as we watched it all unfold; here are a few of mine.

The milk from the evening milking is set out in trays to separate overnight. The cream is skimmed off and this milk is mixed with that of the morning milking, so it's genuinely partly skimmed. It's then heated, and whey (naturally fermented from the previous milking) and rennet are added.

The whey and rennet have been added to the milk; it has coagulated and the curds are being broken up into grains the size of wheat kernels. For this task they use the spino, a whisk unique to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese-making, named for the thorn branches that were originally used (hawthorne, according to our Italian teacher).

The master cheesemaker - we were told that, like the cows, he never gets a day off - checks the temperature and curd. Once he deems it cooked, the heat is switched off. Traditionally and practically, copper urns are used because of their excellent conductivity: and their ability to both heat up and cool down quickly.

The cheese has coagulated into a nice big ball. It's cut in half after this; each vat makes two cheeses, a total - for this factory - of 24 cheeses a day.

Most of the whey goes to the pigs (this be prosciutto country after all); some is made into ricotta; this batch will be used for the next day's cheesemaking.

The first mould for the cheese.

After two days - the Parmigiano-Reggiano brand having been imprinted the first day and the cheese shaped in metal moulds the next - the cheeses are floated in brine for 20-odd days, to firm up the rinds and allow osmosis to do the work of removing excess moisture and prepare the texture for a good long aging process. The cheeses are turned and re-salted regularly. Salt is the only preservative allowed in Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Look up... look wheeeeeyy up!

Once aged, the cheeses are tested by experts (battitore) who use a hammer to determine the depth of the rind and the quality of the cheese through sound alone. A hollow note can indicate uneven texture or holes (eyes). We've heard from several directions that holes are an impermissible defect in Parmigiano-Reggiano; formed by fermentation within the cheese paste, they can allow bacterial growth and spoil the flavour. The farmers go to great lengths to prevent the cows from eating wet grass, and neither are they permitted to eat silage, because these can promote lactic fermentation that could spoil the cheese during aging; so notes on permissible feed for the cows have been included in the regulations that govern Parmigiano-Reggiano production.

Much of the cheese is sold after 12 months, just to pay the bills. We were told that currently the Parmigiano-Reggiano consortium cheesemakers are operating at a loss, and the earliest they can sell their product is 12 months, at which point it is fine for grating, though the preferred age for eating it as a table cheese is after 24 months. Its digestibility and flavour improve, but its texture gets drier as it ages. One of the distinguishing features of the well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano is the presence of small white crystals - an amino acid called tyrosine - which you find also in other long-aged hard cheeses such as (yum) gouda.

British cookery writer Delia Smith visited this region and learned about Parmigiano-Reggiano and documented her take on it on her website. I especially liked what she revealed about its noble history in England:
During the Great Fire of London, that most discerning of diners, Samuel Pepys, thought the cheese so precious that he dug a hole to bury his Parmigiano Reggiano to preserve it from the flames.