Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Milk prices, wine history, more olive oil

We had a beautiful weekend in Parma: a cool and clear Sunday, ideal for a stroll by the river, after a sprinkling of snow on Friday. That was a meteorological Australia Day gift for our Ozzie colleague, who'd graced us that afternoon with bone fide Vegemite sandwiches, Mintos and Fantales. Friday night several of us checked out Shri Ganesh,the Indian restaurant in town, and it was good: wonderful tandoori chicken, dhal and samosas, and lots of other things too.

Meli has passed along a timely story from BBC News about milk prices and farmer underpayment: A woman sat in a bath of cold milk outside Parliament in protest at the price per litre dairy farmers are paid. (And if you want to support dairy farmers in a real way, you might like to pick one off your morning pint, if you're lucky enough to get the ones with the lonely hearts ads on them.)

Meanwhile, more classes since the great pig farm visit of '07. Since Wednesday, we've had some wine history, wine technology, sensory analysis, more olive oil tasting, and a dash of semiotics. Phew. Here are some highlights.

Wine history: I was delighted to hear Allen Grieco speak in support of Retsina, the Greek wine that was born from an ancient quest for preservatives - and one turned out to be pine resin, which led to a characteristic aroma and flavour, which nurtured a taste, which only began to die when foreign tourists started to swamp the tastes and production values in Greece within the last thirty years.

In my experience you are either born a retsina drinker or not. Our family was divided on that point. I'd like to suggest maybe it's a genetic thing, like tongue-rolling? Anyway it made me look forward to visiting Crete again, as I remember well the delightful bottles of retsina made in Chania that perished on my last visit.

Sensory analysis... more statistics. Horrible stuff. And discretion forbids me from saying anything more about the nature of the class; indeed, the very need for discretion says all that should possibly be said about that.

And I would have thought that all that kind of complex thinking about communication in the form of signs (present through their absence) should have made me ready for yesterday's start in semiotics. But not.

I prefer the oil and wine studies.

Oil tasting was, as always, delightful in every way. We had Greek olive oil day yesterday. The mystery factor was a second tasting of one of the oils after it had been heated to below the smoking point (which no doubt everyone but me always knew was 180 degrees c, right?). So even though it was just heated and cooled, with nothing cooked in it, the flavour was totally gone. It had none of the aroma of the original wine, and smelled and tasted a bit like popcorn. A helpful reminder about (a) keeping your olive oil cool, dark and away from exposure to oxygen; and (b) don't cook with the good stuff! It's meant to be added as a condiment after the cooking's finished. Heat will bring out its flavours, but cooking it will only kill them. A fine line.

You can make it into mayonnaise, if it's not too bitter or peppery: very pretty. (Guess which one was made - not from olive oil - by Kraft?)

Another useful tip for those of us maybe schlepping wondrous bottles of extra virgin olive oil thither and yon, fresh from some exquisite pressing in far-flung places: you can freeze it if you need to. But once you thaw it, use it up faster than you would fresh, as it will be that much more fragile. As we never tire of hearing, olive oil does not improve with age: its power, aroma and flavours dissipate as time goes by.

Monday, January 29, 2007

We Feed The World

I watched We Feed The World the other night and it was more around the troubling subjects this year has been opening up for me. The film's ironic opening and closing image shows corn cobs and husks being burnt for industrial fuel. Its title comes from the slogan for Pioneer Seeds, which appears to be the Monsanto of Europe. In the film, one of the company's senior directors took a tour through Romania, observing that the small scale production there was a reminder of how European farming used to look about fifty years ago, and he hoped things would not change too fast there but the big companies are already moving in, and it probably won't be long before their world changes for the worse. Some of the things that stayed with me from the film:
  • The initial subsidisation of hybrid crops (the example given was eggplant - which looks better but tastes nowhere near as good as traditional eggplants) by the Romanian government so that farmers buy cheap seed, reap the profits, and then the subsidies are removed the next year, leaving the farmers without saved seed from traditional crops, unable to plant the reproductively sterile hybrid seed, and eating into their earnings to buy the more expensive hybrid seed. And thus starts the cycle of uneconomic overproduction that must surely lead to selling out to industrial giants. And doing what after that: working in some peripheral industry for a poor hourly wage?
  • The wholesaling of Brazilian rainforest which is being systematically razed to plant genetically modified soya for European farm animals. The soil is good, but unsuitable for soya so all the nutrients must be brought in to make that happen. And it means that all the efforts to keep GM out of the European food market are in vain because the animals are eating it.
  • Vast areas of southern Spain are covered in warehouses growing the amount of vegetables needed to feed Europe. More monoculture, more hybrids, and lots of impoverished farm workers from Northern Africa, driven out of their homes and livelihoods by--- cheap greenhouse vegetables from Europe. A story very much like the one told in Chicken Madness, where African chicken farmers were being driven out of business by cheap frozen chicken from Europe and Brazil.
  • Small scale fisherman are being removed from the equation by the EC which aims to make all fishing industrial-scale. Which means no more fresh fish for the markets, only the product of trawling deeper and deeper and selling anything and everything they can dredge from the ocean because there's less and less of what we want. Fish that's been sitting in the hold for a couple of weeks having died on the nets that are in the sea for 10 or 12 hours does not, the film said, compare with fish brought out of the nets by hand after a couple of hours and sold in the market later that same day.
  • The CEO of Nestle is captured giving a chilling talk about water. What he regards as an "extreme position" is that water is required for human life, and should be a human right. But he, his company (which just happens to be the market leader in bottled water) think it should be considered a "foodstuff" and priced and sold accordingly. He also says that we've never had it so good; we're better fed with more money than any time in history. Yes, we agree, looking at his sleek and well-tended self, you probably are. But not so much those Africans living in greenhouse-shantytowns in Spain, or the farmers starving in Brazil and drinking unclean water while locally grown food is exported for animal feed. Or all the farmers and agricultural workers driven out of business, together with all the businesses that used to serve them.
  • Quote from the poultry breeder, whose mass produced chickens were shown from egg to packaging: "All the market’s interested in is the price. Taste is not really a consideration." Nor are a lot of other things, from the looks of the world we've created.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Wednesday: Culatello and the tale of the black pigs

What a difference Wednesday's trip was from Tuesday's. We travelled to the village of Polesine Parmense to visit the Antica Corte Pallavicina - home of some prized artesanal Culatello di Zibello and the much revered Al Cavallino Bianco ("white pony") restaurant.

Polesine's very name, according to our guide, means village that has been destroyed many times by the Po River (Po + lesionare/to damage), which has a history of flooding. Although it was very low when we were there - we couldn't see any water at all from the banks we walked along - it did overwhelm this area massively in the floods of 2000 (which had also put another of the restaurants we've visited under water). The climate favours culatello production: high humidity coupled with great heat in the summer and cold temperatures - normally below freezing - in the winter. Artisanal culatello aging takes place in cellars, using windows to regulate the flow of air rather than automated humidity and temperature controls used in industrial production.

One of the cattle to be seen on the property where, later this summer, a high end Agriturismo will be opening, with guest rooms in the castle.

The place is owned by by the remarkable Spigaroli brothers. We were shown round by Luciano, the businessman; Massimo - a distinguished chef and president of the Culatello di Zabello consortium - was unfortunately away, but we heard a lot about him both from his brother and from last year's students. Massimo's passion for pigs is legendary, and he's gone to astonishing lengths to build the farm's heritage breed herd of 500 - the only free range culatello pigs in Italy we were told. This fact is not due to the innate cruelty of the Italians, but to the scarcity of land available to most pig farmers here (but why then, I wondered, is there free range pig farming in tiny wee England? More arable land than mountainous Italy, at a guess. And perhaps due in some part to the highly vocal, highly visible animal welfare lobby in that country which as far as I can tell has no real counterpart in Italy).

The pigs Massimo has found and raises to use for Culatello di Zibello for this operation are black pigs, similar to Spain's Pata Negra (cerdo ibérico) pigs. They are free range only in the summer months and cost a lot to raise, because they are not suited to rearing indoors in crowded sheds like the prosciutto pigs. He wanted to raise them in traditional ways, using cereals produced on the farm. The only way he can do this is to fund the Culatello di Zibello production with income from the restaurant.

We started in the production area where some new pork thighs had just arrived. It's a very small production, deliberately so, to control quality. The three men - Roberto, Carlo and Kumar (a vegtarian from India) - working the table were trimming and preparing the meat, which arrives in the same shape, more or less, as a prosciutto ham, but only the large part of the thigh is used, the bone is removed, and the meat is sewn into a pig bladder. The size of the pigs used for culatello production is different as well: these porkers are 250-300kg when they are slaughtered (as opposed to the 140kg prosciutto pigs - which are again bigger than commercial pigs from Northern Europe). So that makes them more expensive, because it costs more to raise pigs to this weight.

Roberto prepares to trim the ham. After he has trimmed and de-boned it, it's whacked and trimmed precisely into its characteristic pear shape, then trussed, rubbed with locally produced Fontana wine and garlic, seasoned with salt and black pepper, and then refrigerated for ten days.

After ten days, during which time the ham is massaged daily, the ham is washed and placed in a pork bladder. Roberto stitches it closed:

and weaves it into its characteristic shape with string:


An artesanal Culatello di Zubello will carry three labels: one identifying it as Culatello di Zibello; one with the label of the consortium; and one with the label of the producer. What is sold in restaurants or delis as simply "culatello" is not produced in accordance with the consortium's standards; what is sold as Culatello di Zibello DOP (and lacks that third tag) is not artesanal, using traditional aging cellars, but has been produced in the eight villages of the allowed region and is likely to be the product of an industrial scale production.

We moved into the cellars to inspect the culatellos hanging from the rafters, enjoying the Po breezes.

Moulds on the outside of the ham are part of the aging process, as the hams develop their character.

Some Culatello di Zibello that has been aged 21 months and sliced in the typical ultra-thin slices -- which you can and should eat with your fingers.

Finally got to taste some lardo. And it was... lardy. But it had definite texture, a bit chewy, and the seasoning was lovely. Perhaps on hot toast it would be better. But I was swiftly distracted by the arrival of some awesome tortelli (hot and flowing with melting cheese and spinach.. or was it chard) and some interestingly flattened gnocchi in a tomato sauce.

A fantastic cheese tray. Top row: not sure about the first one; second one is Gorgonzola (dolce); then Pecorino Toscano; Parmigiano Reggiano (24 months); bottom row: something very ripe and runny with black pepper coating (not sure what it was); bottom right-ish is Caprese (goat cheese) wrapped in chestnut leaves.

Dessert: a delicious, mildly alcoholic, vaguely custard-like, pebbled with almondy? crumbs signature dessert accompanied by gelato (frutta di bosco - berries or mele - apple). After coffee we sampled some of the house-made liqueurs and with the full complement of Antica Corte Pallavicina wares in front of us - half a dozen kinds of salami, Culatello di Zibello, wines, liqueurs - forthwith invested collectively and decisively in the retail side of the business.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tuesday: the pig breeder and then lunch at La Nonna Bianca

Phew. I have been in more than one barn in my time but never one that smelled like Tuesday's. This was a day to sober the hardiest meat eater: when we parted ways at the end of it I was reminded of people leaving a funeral.

Our guide through this version of hell was Francesco Sciarrone, the veterinarian and meat inspector who had previously talked to us about animal welfare and slaughterhouses. He and the pig breeder answered questions afterward, and at one point someone asked him how he felt about eating pork, witnessing as he does the entire grim saga from industrial pig production through slaughter every day.

Traditionally, he observed, people ate meat once a week, or maybe every couple of weeks; nowadays we expect meat every day, even several times a day. So, his implicit reply was: if you want meat every day, this is the market economy's way of fulfilling that request.

He told us he himself doesn't eat meat every day; he has it maybe once a week, and for that he goes to the butcher in his town, so he knows how the meat was raised and who is slaughtering and processing it. So he pays four, five or maybe six times what we'd pay for the meat of the animals in those hellish sheds, but that's what it costs to raise it humanely. And he's fortunate to be in a part of the world where small scale butchers have not yet been entirely driven out of business by supermarkets. (I recently saw some figures for England: The number of butchers in Britain has declined from 22,900 in 1980 to 6,600 in 2005.)

I guess that makes it vote with your feet time. Here's the Italian version of where that pork chop on your plate comes from:

We kitted up in some protective plastic for the occasion and that kept the muck off us (but was more for the protection of the pigs from infection). The smell when we walked in to the sow shed was overpowering, overwhelming, persistent.

According to the EU, "Sow stalls are the most widely used housing system within the EU because they allow individual rationing, prevent aggression, are easy to manage and occupy little space. However, in some member states, the use of individual stalls for pregnant sows has been made illegal or is currently being phased out." Signatory states have until 2013 to change their systems, but the stalls (aka gestation crates) can still be used to confine the sows for up to four weeks after gestation, according to the US Humane Society's report on the subject (they also have a short video clip about sow stalls on their website). I was grateful to learn that the UK has banned these since 1999. I don't know if there's legislation governing this in Canada, but the largest pork producer in the US has just announced its intention to do away with them.

Anyway, here - from the point of insemination (usually artificial), for at least the next three weeks - they stand, sit or lie down, because that's all they can do.

When after 21 days they are seen to be definitely pregnant, they are moved to another barn - which we didn't see - to finish the gestation period, about three more months. (My reading tells me that at least 60 to 70% of US sows are housed in stalls throughout the entire gestation.) Presumably the ones who didn't get pregnant the first time get to stand there for another round. If they're lucky.

Then when they are ready to give birth, it's into the farrowing crates; these too are designed so that the sow cannot turn or move other than to stand, sit and lie down, with what is called a "creep" area for the piglets to move around her. She is barricaded from them so that she does not lie on them (and damage the product). Even when they are safe from crushing, the farmer said there would be around a 10 percent mortality among the piglets, mainly from issues to do with development and feeding.

Once the piglets are weaned (by law when they are at least 4 weeks old), the sows are returned to what the EU coyly calls "service accommodation," namely, in most cases, sow stalls. They can expect to live like this, moving back and forth from one crate to another, for their entire lives, which for good breeders last 6-7 litters (around 3 years). Longer lives than the pigs we eat, which are slaughtered when they reach prosciutto weight - about 9 months and 140kg.

When they're weaned, the piglets move into teen (weaner) housing, kept in family groups. Not because we love them so, but because it keeps them from fighting for hierarchy and damaging the product. The promising ones - from a size point of view - are branded on the hips with PP - Per Prosciutto. We noticed this on some of the hams we saw at the prosciuttificio the day before.

This is all the fresh air these pigs get in their lifetimes.

When you live in conditions like this, you get sick. This was the top of the nearly overflowing bin we passed on the way into the barn. Before slaughter, there's a resting period for animals who've been on medication, to try to get the drugs out of their system - to minimise harm to the people who eat the product.

The illumination beyond the door, which looks like daylight, comes from the windowed or skylit outer areas of these barns; it's not an outdoor run.

Again, kept in family or familiar groups to keep them from fighting. I guess this is where they stay either until they reach slaughter weight or until they are transferred to another farm to be "finished". One thing I am guiltily grateful for: that our tour did not take place in the heat of summer, which I'm told is hot and humid - temperatures in the thirties and forties (celcius). I cannot imagine what those sheds must be like then.

The smell hung around for hours as we debriefed soberly afterwards at La Nonna Bianca, the very trattoria that waylayed Carlo Petrini on his way to talk to us. Even without the salumi, which we declined, the meal was pork-heavy: this is after all pork country. We each said, I'm sure, our private apologies to the pigs on our plates. I mulled over what Petrini had said when asked about animal welfare, something poetic about how you eat the violence you wreak on other living beings.

So, the food began its march across our tables. Petrini's favourite: tortelli verdi (what we'd call ravioli, though by definition, it seems that here, ravioli are meal-filled pasta; these vegetable ones are filled with ricotta and chard, or was it spinach), followed by equally sublime tortelli di zucca (sweet pumpkin filling) (--they disappeared too quickly to photograph), both served with butter and parmigiano-reggiano.

Coppa di maiale arrosto con patate all antico - rich, soft pork with fabulous pan-roasted potatoes, golden and tasty and speckled with crispy bits of rosemary.

Guanciale brasato con crostoni di polenta (braised pork cheeks) with fried polenta (getting a little full by this point..)

Gorgeous desserts - a kind of standalone creme brulee, a fruit tart and chocolate pudding.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Monday: Prosciutto di Parma

A meltingly sweet bit of salt-cured pork, sliced paper thin, draped on ripe melon: what could be better? A ham that is just ham and salt, no other ingredients; a bit of chemical magic. One of the most wonderful things about Italy, I always thought.

But that was on Monday. A bit predictably, I'm less keen having seen where the pork comes from.

But we start at the beginning, when we visited the Prosciutto di Parma Consortium office. Like most food consortia, this one spends much of its time and money defending the brand from imitators and fraudsters, who aim to confuse the market and reap the benefits without investing in the advertising. The consortium also has an active marketing program, both for the 82% internal and 18% international markets for its products. Not a small market either, with 10 million hams produced as Prosciutto di Parma alone: and there are scores of variations, sold simply as prosciutto crudo, or with other regional designations such as Prosciutto Toscano.

Prosciutto di Parma, a DOP designation, has a narrow and specialised definition. The pig must have been of the Large White, Landrance or Duroc breed, born and raised in one of the 11 regions of central-northern Italy specified in the regulations. It must be raised to a certain weight (a minimum of 140kg); the leg, weighing usually 10-14kg (for a finished weight of not less than seven kg), must be cut in a characteristic shape with a specific percentage of fat; it must be preserved using only salt, and aged for at least 10 months (- depending on weight - but at the production plant we visited, was at least 18 months).

After lunch (yes, it featured prosciutto) we visited a prosciuttificio, prosciutto producer, in Langhirano, a village where 50% of the Prosciutto di Parma is produced. Like all of the producers, it was located within the geographical boundaries of the Parma production area, 5 km south of the via Emilia, bordered to the east by the river Enza and on the west by the river Stirone, and up to an altitude of 900m.

Unfortunately we saw very little of the actual production, but were walked through the plant and shown the hams in various stages of curing. Interestingly we heard that every step in the process is a skilled one, but it is difficult to find people interested in working in this field nowadays, and a lot of the workers are Moslem - so they handle food they cannot eat. Here's how it all went.

After arrival at the production centre from the slaughterhouse, and about 24 hours in cold storage, the pork legs have been cleaned and salted by machine and by hand, and set on these racks for a week or so, in la cella da prima sale - the room of first salting. Then another salting, and another 12-18 days cold storage, and then they hang for 60 to 70 days in refrigerated, humidity-controlled rooms. Lots and lots of legs.

The hams are now finished with 100 days of salt curing. The salt has penetrated the meat through to the bone and the hams have been washed and brushed and hung in drying rooms, and then hung for another three months in "pre-curing" rooms. It's time for their final aging, which will last another three to five months in the curing cellar. To soften the meat and prevent the hams from drying out, la sugna - lard mixed with a bit of pepper and perhaps some rice flour - is applied to the exposed surfaces of the meat.

The final test; the ham is now fully cured and properly aged - a minimum of 18 months for the ones we saw; some connoisseurs prefer it aged 24-30 months, but this can be risky as the ham can develop a strong flavour, or become too dry if it's at the older end of the spectrum. Using a tasto di prosciutti, a horse-bone needle prized for its porous quality, the inspector pierces the ham and then smells the needle to see if the aroma is one of cured ham or.. well, something less aromatic.

If it's good, it can be sold as Prosciutto di Parma; you can see its ducal crown logo stamped on the rind of the whole ham, or recognise it by the consortium's branding (a black triangle featuring the ducal crown on the corner of the packaging for pre-packed sliced ham). Shown here and in the testing, you can see the mould that develops naturally during the aging process. Before slicing for consumer use, the hams are brushed and cleaned of course, and the rind is removed. Wholesalers buy the hams and the retailers either de-bone them for slicing or cut them into (de-boned) chunks to sell for consumers to slice at home.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Some food reading, viewing, listening

An interesting interview with Whole Foods co-president Walter Robb. The CEO of Whole Foods, John MacKay, posts a blog on the company's website. Of interest to me and my recent reading is the exchange of public letters between MacKay and Michael Pollan, discussing Pollan's somewhat skeptical take on the Whole Foods phenomenon in The Omnivore's Dilemma. and the expansion of organic food production and retailing into something that rather too closely resembles the system that organics grew up to counteract.

David Szanto, who completed our course at UniSG in November, joined us for some merrymaking at the Quebec cheese tasting evening last week, and he pointed me to a recent article in The Guardian, The Organic Church Splits, about the Soil Association which I suppose you could say turns some of the same ground from a British perspective; and there was an earlier article and podcast on US organics in Business Week last October. An op-ed piece in the New York Times called The Amber Fields of Bland explains the US farm bill, and the terrifying span of its coverage, and just what it has done to food production in that country.

I've been watching a dvd called The Future of Food which MJ brought back from Canada. About farmers, farming, gmo crops and seed/pesticide monopolies, it's an excellent introduction to the realities of farming today and the issues we should all be attending to in our food. I liked the dvd extras, which included a clip from Michael Pollen responding to the question about 'will food cost more in future' - yes, he said, but it's artificially cheap right now because of heavy crop and farming subsidies in the US and Europe, and people need to perhaps look at their relative priorities: which do you want to spend your money on more each month: safe/nutritious food or $40+ on cable tv? He also made the excellent point that prepared food is always more expensive than food you cook: so people need to learn to cook. But they also need sources for raw ingredients: in some poor neighbourhoods it's simply impossible even to buy fresh fruit or vegetables.

Doris pointed us to a well respected Austrian documentary on themes of food and hunger, We feed the world – global food which I'd like to have a look at someday.

There's a Belgian-made short documentary you can view online at EUX-TV called Chicken Madness, about dumping of chicken surpluses in Africa by western countries such as Belgium, Germany, Holland and Brazil. It seems we've got very picky in the western world and we just don't want to eat all of the chicken, so we sell the icky bits to someone hungrier than us. But the lack of effective licensing (=political corruption) and the dearth of functioning cold storage facilities at the receiving end results in an economic double-whammy: food spoilage and the trashing of African poultry farming which can't compete with the prices -- or the convenience of a ready-to-cook product, however tainted. But the industrialised world is committed to free trade at (literally) all costs. As one African farmer bitterly noted, would the US and Europe be ok with the destruction of their local economies in the name of globalisation? Something to think about next time you pick up a packet of chicken breasts...

And I recently listened to a podcast about nutritional food labelling. An education in how little consumers understand of what they read on the label: consumer food education has a long way to go. One telling example from the American representative who said that the majority of American consumers surveyed could not say what a typical daily calorie intake ought to be, despite the calorie information printed on the food labels since 1994 which stated that it was based on a 2000 calorie per day allowance; and that they often disregarded serving size recommendations and simply ate the whole packet. Which says something about labelling, obesity and education.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Tasty week - olive oil, wine technology and the physiology of taste

We've had a lovely oily tasty sniffy week, with our first oil tastings and some coaching on olfaction and taste thresholds.

Our oil guy, Alessandro Bosticco, is an inspired teacher, a sommelier as well as an olive oil expert, and I was happy to hear he'll be steering us through some wine tastings as well. I particularly warmed to him when he dodged a question about his favourite olive oil by saying that he simply loved tasting new things, and if he were offered the choice between his current favourite and one he'd never tried, he'd take the one he'd never tried.

He said oil tastings were rare, even in Italy, and to do them as we were, by tasting oil from cups (rather than by dipping bread) was still fairly unusual. We tried four different kinds on each of the two days. Oil is what carries flavour to our tastebuds, and it does its job well; so, being oil, its flavour is hard to purge from the palate. We had to allow more time between tastings than we would for wine, and take sips of bottled water and slices of apple - granny smith being the apple of choice for oil tastings because it is the most acidic.

We heard about the craze for fresh, unfiltered oils in Bosticco's own local oil-producing region (Tuscany): cloudy and bright-coloured, these oils are not, he said, good for the long run, because the particles in them are fibres that have not been extracted during filtration, and which will trap water which can in its turn trap bacteria. So murk or sediment will affect the oil's flavour adversely over time, and he advised that if you intend to keep your oil more than a few weeks, to get a clearer one. Even then it's not going to last more than about 18 months, with a steady decline in colour and flavour as time goes by. More than once he remarked that the oil you taste today is as good as it's going to get: it is not a product that improves with aging. Rather it is a living thing that changes over its lifetime. And it's vulnerable to heat and light, so store it accordingly

We got some pointers on reading labels, and learned about the legal designations of "olive oil", "virgin olive oil" and "extra virgin olive oil", as well as a few others, defined by the International Olive Oil Council.

Basically the big deal with extra Virgin Olive Oil is that it must be produced by mechanical means (which is always and inevitably cold pressing, so that phrase added to labels is just hyper marketing). This distinguishes it from the processes used to produce all other kinds of oils (except for specialised niche versions of course), which involve heat and chemicals. Extra virgin oil has to pass a chemical test (it can't contain more than .8% oleic acid) and it then has to pass a taste test by a panel of experts. This doesn't guarantee it will taste 'good' to everyone, but it gives a basic measure of quality. It may also be the result of blending more than one crop, including crops of different years, but is tested at bottling, so no new blending can taste place once it's had its testing.

There's a statement which for 2 years now must appear on bottles of Extra Virgin Olive Oil: it must be described as "superior quality oil obtained straight from olives using only mechanical means of production." That again is no guarantee of flavour (which is subjective anyway) or origin. Most of the olive oil in Europe is produced in Spain, but Italy has the highest consumption, ergo much of what we describe as Italian olive oil is imported and only bottled in Italy.

So for those who want Italian and only Italian olive oil, there is a fairly recent DOP designation (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or Protected Denomination of Origin) - a high falutin' version of extra virgin, which is subject to standards governing where and how the olives may be grown, pressed and bottled as oil. This oil of course sells at a considerable premium. It would be one instance where the bottler will note the date of harvest on the bottle, giving you an indication of the freshness and therefore the power of the oil's aroma and flavour.

Farther down the scale, what is sold simply as Olio d'Oliva, or Olive Oil, is a blend of refined (by chemical means) olive oil and virgin olive oils. Virgin Olive Oil is produced by mechanical means and has a higher measure of oleic acid than Extra Virgin.

Olive oil is used in its traditional market - Mediterranean, for example - for traditional reasons such as taste. In the newer and ever expanding world-wide markets, it's been picked up for its health benefits, as it's a pure unsaturated oil containing fat-soluble vitamins (A and E) and antioxidants. Among the many other advantages it has over other oils, as enumerated by the Oil Council, when you use it for frying, it adds less fat to fried foods because it forms a crust on the surface of the food that impedes the penetration of oil and improves the food's flavour.

There are different taste preferences for olive oil that are partly cultural: people raised on animal fats tend to prefer milder olive oils to more pungent peppery ones with their bitter after-bite. We had a reinforcement of the advice about becoming a good taster: to taste and smell many different things in order to build an olfactory library, so you have a more comprehensive memory of tastes and flavours to compare.

Due to some weird global synergy, BBC Food Programme and NPR both had programs on olive oil this month.

We also had a first lesson on wine technology... ack - more chemistry. Still, we are paddling around in the sea of knowledge and one day it will all make sense.

We finished the week with a lesson on the physiology of taste from Mirco Marconi. We'd heard already about the classification of taste - sweet, salty, bitter and acid (plus the newcomer, umami, which reflects 'meaty' tastes). We learned that the position of taste buds on the tongue is not as static as had originally been supposed, with fixed areas for each taste, but that they are in fact in an overlapping range of regions with the central area of the tongue the least sensitive.

Bitter tastes linger longest because of their placement on the sides of the papillae where the flavour gets 'stuck' until it is washed out. We heard that there are varying proportions of the world's population who are unable to taste bitter (3% in West Africa, 40% in India, 30% of white people in North America; 37% of Italians).

We heard about two theories of taste, which are called either molecular shape theory vs molecular vibrational theory, or docking criteria vs swipe card model. The first supposes that there is a 'lock and key' relationship between odorant and receptor: odorous molecules have shapes and sizes that "fit into" the shape and size of corresponding olfactory receptors. In the second, it's supposed that receptors in the olfactory organs recognise molecules by their vibration, so the nose acts as a kind of spectroscope.

We got into hands-on mode for some tastings and sniffings. We sipped our way through nine samples representing sweet, salty, acid, bitter, umami and astringent - substances dissolved in water - comfortingly straightforward. We then finished by attempting to identify thirty different olfactory samples, ranging from smoke to mint, from cloves to coconut and saffron to bergamot. Fiendishly difficult.

And finally, we were welcomed to Parma officially before Christmas, and here's the official photo!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Lodi: mozzarella and ricotta

We had a day out today, and watched some small scale mozzarella cheese making in the Istituto Sperimentale Lattiero Caseario/Institute of Dairy Science in Lodi, not far from Milan. The lab is equipped with a cheese making facility and over the course of our day-long visit, the master cheesemaker whipped up a batch of mozzarella and a little ricotta for us.

Mozzarella curd: whole milk from the institute's dairy farm has been acidified (lowering the pH from 6.8 to 5.85) with citric acid (interesting to see it's useful for more than cleaning one's kettle).

Mozzarella curd: cut, drained, cut and then left to drain again.

Mozzarella curd: cut, drained, cut, drained and now cut again.

Mozzarella curd: cut, drained, cut, drained, cut, drained and then put into the basin; cut once again. Then some hot water (around 90 degrees c) is added and the stretching begins.

Hand stretching the curd - a slower, lower-yield way to make mozza. The advantages are that any problems with texture can be dealt with right away, so you end up with a better quality cheese. But you'd go bust doing it: the volume of milk you need to process to make mozzarella, together with the greater loss of milk solids into the liquid, and the slower processing (man ain't no machine) just aren't cost effective these days.

Stretching the cheese; shaping it into balls. Stretchy stuff with characteristic threads (elongated casein strands, eh?): practical heat and chemistry.

Hand-adjusting the steam-heated vats to start making ricotta from the mozzarella whey. Ricotta, we now know, means ri-cotta, or re-cooked/twice cooked. (Want to make your own? Here's an illustrated guide.)

The whey starts off at the same pH as the mozzarella curd (around 5.85 - lowered from milk's natural pH of 6.8). Sodium hydroxide was added in order to raise the pH to what's needed for ricotta, between 6 and 6.5; the pH is regulated and if it goes too high, more citric acid can be added to lower it again. In the process we watched, there was a mistake - the pH gauge was too close to the sodium hydroxide when that was added, and gave a faulty reading, so it never quite worked out while we were watching. Which was instructive: we saw the effect of curds that were too small to bind properly for ricotta. However, under optimum conditions, the whey begins to coagulate and - after adding milk (around 6% in this case, although up to 20% might be used) - the foam needs to be skimmed off. The ricotta is then poured into baskets to drain and set, and is used most often in pasta and cake fillings.

In one of the labs: Roberto Giangiacomo tells us about a piece of equipment called 'the sniffer' while Richard Gere and Clive Owen look on.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Auto-indoctrination at the feet of Petrini

Monday was our first face to face meeting with Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, and therefore our patron saint, since the University of Gastronomic Science fell out of the folds of the cloak of the Slow Food movement in 2003.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, he arrived late, his excuse being the exquisite tortelli he'd had to stop and sample at an excellent local restaurant. Well, he lives the dream all right. And he lived up to his reputation as a charismatic and passionate speaker.

He talked about the founding of the Slow Food movement, and the university's role in delivering to its students a thorough education in all aspects of gastronomy. Throwing down some of the catastrophic examples of large scale farming and fishing enterprises driving small, local food producers out of business, he said each time: what is this but gastronomy?

He has a passion for the value of education, and sees, I think, the students of this university as the seeds of an educated future. Teach people what is wrong with the food of today and you initiate the action that will change it for the better. He spoke on the three principles of Slow Food (good, clean and fair = Buono, pulito e giusto, just like the name of his latest book..) and about the movement's expanding scope, to raise public awareness about issues of biodiversity and the perils of a market-based food economy.

Produce food for profit alone, is the message we've been hearing from all three of the Slow Food speakers we've had so far, and you sever the social and economic links that allow you to produce food for reasons of hunger, tradition, love, and community -- and you destroy the very means of reversing the damage. And so there is a shift in the organisation's focus now towards community building. The remarkable achievements of the Terra Madre meetings were groundwork for this, but it will be interesting to see how the structure of the organisation changes to accommodate - or not - this wider vision.

Well, I think I was not alone in enjoying our first major indoctrination session. There is something cozy and deeply reassuring about being addressed intimately and respectfully by a leader in a field we all already believe in. This experience I'm in for the next year does feel so validated by the zeitgeist; it feels to me that we are on the crest of a wave of righteous knowledge about the evil being done to what literally feeds our most fundamental human need.

We were invited last night to join Petrini for informal drinks in a local wine bar. And so about a dozen of us descended into a private room in the cellar, picking our way around cases of wine, greeting the owner - hard at work on the meat slicer - to find a full table already of students from another program in our uni, as well as a few uni staff and unidentified (to me anyway) others. So, dodging flaking plaster, we perched on makeshift seats - boxes of wine - and nibbled on excellent salumi and bread and sipped excellent wine, and listened to the mostly Italian banter around the table. Those of my classmates present were mostly unilingual English speakers, so it was not as entirely convivial as it might have been, and as we were more or less at nose level with the table we had the distinct feeling of being literally at the feet of Petrini. But it was pleasant enough, and I made an early exit into the fogbound streets around midnight, leaving the others to enjoy it for a couple more hours.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What a week: oil, food culture, slaughterhouses, sensory analysis - and a party

Lost some time last week to the flu, but it was a well parenthesised week nonetheless. We returned to classes on Monday with a lecture on olive oil history by our very own Allen J Grieco. It was an interesting and illuminating trip and unpacked a few things that hadn't sat side by side in front of us before: the triumvirate of wine, bread and oil, for example, which travel together through Italian history with an importance not just as food for the body, but as tools of the church as well. Note to self: to ensure perpetuity of product, make sure it's adopted as a religious symbol (in your local dominant religion). We're looking forward to more about oil this month; later today we have our first oil tasting which sounds exciting.

Last Thursday afternoon, I had managed to crawl out of the covers and enjoy the presentations of my classmates in Laura Mason's final afternoon on food culture. We heard about pie, curry, marmalade, tea, cake, pudding and more; some of the groups had brought samples, but in my weakened state I thought rice pudding was about as much as I should attempt.

Friday was my first full day of classes, and we had a talk on animal welfare and slaughterhouses in the morning followed by an introduction to sensory analysis in the afternoon. We sat in what I can best describe as an uncertain silence while a number of translation difficulties in the first lecture were overcome, and took what we could from the slides. The gist of it was that there is masses of EU legislation covering animal welfare but the balance is heavily on the side of he who wields the butcher knife (or indeed the electrical stunning tongs). The animal's welfare is protected because it is a living creature, but that's about it for empathy and compassion; the rest of the formula aims to reduce stress and suffering because otherwise the quality of the meat suffers.

We aren't sure yet if we'll be visiting the slaughterhouse itself to witness the mechanics of that link in the carnivore's food chain, but many of us are willing to see it, to understand the whole of the practice and perhaps face the reality of what we eat. The lecturer's remark that he could not show photos on the slides because there was "too much blood to see things clearly" suggests it's not an easy show; and he responded to one question about the emotional effect on the people working at the pointy end of things by saying that it's not a job a sensitive person would take on. He himself was trained in veterinary science and works as an inspector in the slaughterhouse, where his job is to check that the animal's health before and after death won't impede its use as meat for human consumption. A far cry from coaxing kittens back to health; but doesn't every occupation to some extent offer you a series of unlikely choices on which to apply your training? I suppose the doctors who oversee lethal injections are at similar poles of application.

About sensory analysis I will only say this to myself: get thee to a calculator. Our instructor, well known by his students as an... unusual personality, is very much an expert in his field, and I'm looking forward to seeing our tasting booths from the inside. We learned about the particularities of choosing a tasting panel, when a food producer tests, as it continuously does, its products for quality and consumer ratings. Not a simple process of pulling likely looking suspects in off the street. Nosiree, there's math in them thar hills. We ended our first class with a brief lesson in finding the geometrical mean of a panel's taste threshold. Yowza.

Luckily the weekend spread before us, and a happy series of gatherings to fill our calendars. I did not make it to the farewell drinking dancing extravaganza in Colorno, but it sounds like a lively and long-lived event. I did gather my strength to attend the ABCD B&W Birthday Bash on Saturday: Amy, Bruno, Clementine and Don had alphabetically conspired to have more or less consecutive birthdays to celebrate, and the theme was a mercifully simple one: black and white, which most everyone adhered to, including Bruno's profiteroles, fresh from Harnold's Gelateria:

I speak from experience to say that nothing restores the strength of a post-flu victim faster than a profiterole slathered with chocolate and filled with gelato. Still, around 2am, with the dancing in full swing, I decided to be the early-to-bed type and slunk off into the Parma night. Or tried to. Turns out I am still culturally challenged by the inside, outside and all around the townside locks on the buildings here. So, having shut the main entry door behind me and proceeded a few metres to the iron gate to the street, I discovered the exit gate was well and truly locked, and swiftly deduced that the unlocking mechanism must be just inside the now locked entry door.

a) climb the iron fence in my skirt and weakened (ok and slightly wine-soaked) state - not a great option, although doable since the gate did not have pointy bits on the top of each bar;
b) walk the perimeter of the building and seek alternate exit point (=none found);
c) buzz for assistance from hostesses of high velocity party upstairs.

I opted for c) and then realised this would entail standing on lower rung of gate to read building buzzer name plate upside down, while not strangulating self between bars (you do not want to ring the wrong bell at this hour, I reasoned). I was never a girl scout but I did have a shiny perfume lid I could hold in front of the names to help a bit. Found the right bell. Rang it. Discovered next problem, which was that due to imminent strangulation I could not actually speak into the speaker bit. Luckily Corrie thought to look out the window and came down and released me and the next guest, who swooshed off into the night on her bicycle.

And she was not the only one on wheels at that time of night.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

How I wish I were in England now

...for then I could rush out to the newsagent and buy a copy of the Independent on Sunday, and read Nancy's poem which appears in its pages today.

Since I am not and I cannot, instead I will browse the recipes and then read about Englishmen and their beer bellies.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

In which I revisit a couple of cooking sites

I was feeling so much better this evening, and checking a few food/recipe sites, testing my tolerance for pictures of food (still fairly low - glad that so far you don't get aromas through the laptop) and I noticed a couple of major differences between two I've visited in the past, both by British food celebs.

Further to yesterday's posting on recipe copyright I was interested to see, while stopping in at Nigella Lawson's site that I think it has been revamped since my last visit. It's very much a glossy marketing forum for books, dvds, kitchenware and of course Nigella herself. No Nigella recipes on offer; instead a clever wrinkle whereby she invites readers to post their own recipes. She does provide an index to her own - simply the recipe title and the name of the book it's from. Drat, and me separated from my one Nigella cookbook by 7 or 8000 miles I think it is. (There are some of her recipes available at UKTV Food, including a good one for lemon risotto.)

Thankfully Delia Smith still offers a hefty selection of recipes, though some (would be interesting to know what percentage) of them are now locked into "premium content" which you have to pay for. (I wonder if more and more recipes will slip into the "premium" void?) While the site is also a serious marketing tool - you can buy kitchenware, books, online recipe collections and even wine - she has a number of added-value pages, like her online cookery school. If you've ever lamely wondered how to make shortcrust pastry, joint a raw chicken, or prepare and serve a mango, she gives you step by step instructions with photos. And if that leaves you thirsting for more she offers links to her own cooking school in Norwich (no she doesn't teach the classes) and the Leith School in London.

On the other hand there is a page where she plugs products for McCain's that she has developed to bulk up her football team (Norwich City). An interesting wrinkle - given the U.S. copyright controversy - is that she gives a few of the recipes for these away in case you want the hands-on challenge of making a high-carb, low-fat dish like Lean Shepherd's Pie from scratch (--if "scratch" to you includes using McCain's frozen mashed potatoes) (why on earth would anyone use frozen mashed potatoes for anything??). And she does tell the alert reader, flat-out, that a simple baked potato (not counting any fillings) is a better source of carbohydrates than anything McCain's is offering.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sick of being sick, food in Britain, and copyrighting recipes

I have been languishing in my sickbed for two solid days, mostly too ill for meditation, although I have reached the following conclusion: surely the ailment that delivers the hardest blow to the solar plexis of the student of food culture is stomach flu. My diet since Monday has consisted of a large bottle of water, two glasses of juice, and this evening about a half cup of cooked white rice. Not least of my discomforts was the irritation of knowing I was missing lectures by visiting food culture expert Laura Mason, who I'd particularly wanted to hear. I did manage to listen to the radio for a little while today, and reflect on some recent articles I'd read.

I listened again to a report on Italian vs British food on the latest Food Programme, which is available online until Sunday when it is replaced by a report on olive oil: very timely for us as we begin a few weeks of study on that very topic. This episode was built around a visit to Fiera del Bue Grasso in Piemonte. Some interesting discussion about attitudes to food, issues around steroid use in cattle, and a recipe for brasato. One remark caught my ear (by eminent food writer Anna del Conte, a longtime Italian expat living in Dorset), which was that there was good food to be had in Britain, and the opportunity to buy from producers, but getting hold of it was tied to class (and income).

On a partially connected note I spotted a piece by Israeli food writer Daniel Rogov on finding good food in Britain. I was amused by his observation that “French restaurants have become the rage in the city and many of these serve meals that, in addition to being creative and exquisite are often so expensive that a weekend in Paris is a cheaper way to enjoy French food than by dining in London.”

I had come upon Rogov while reading his excellent commentary on recipe writing which I’d been led to by following a report on some weird things happening with food patents and copyrights Oddly enough, a friend (thanks Ruth!) had earlier in the week sent me a link to an article about food experiments by the very chef Cantu mentioned in the copyright article. Not convinced this is the kind of food I want to spend my money on just now: too many unprocessed foods I haven’t tried yet, still in their original packaging. (Why does everything I read lately make me want to wail “what have we done to our food??”)


Friday, January 05, 2007

Innocent fun with hot beverages

Needing some fresh air, I took a walk around Oltretorrente, just across the river; BBC Weather said it was foggy and cold. Who can you trust?

I was trying to study some Italian this afternoon when I got distracted by La Stampa's photo pages taken from LatteArt. So if you are good at decorating your cappuccino, you can send your photos in to the website, or you can refer to it for demos on making la foglia (leaf), il cuore (heart) or la mela (apple) designs on your cup at home. All you need is a steady hand. And good luck.

That got me thinking about other hot beverages.
  • Maybe once you've finished messing about with cappuccino you can move on to a spot of tasseography.
  • Did you know you can now earn a Tea Appreciation Certificate? (...Only in Canada you say?)
  • When I first moved to London and worked as a temp, there were still Tea Ladies to be found in many of the offices I worked in; indeed there was one in our company's Johannesburg office as well. It was one of those jobs that should never have been phased out, since machines are lacking in character, sympathy and common sense. I loved meeting these ladies who were always kind to newcomers and who knew everyone in the office, and their drink preferences. It's good to see there are still places in the world that employ them: I found positions advertised in Kuwait and Kuala Lumpur.
  • Did you know there's a web page devoted to the Ovaltineys? On it you can hear that old standard "We are the Ovaltineys" (once heard, never forgotten).
  • Horlicks has a fun site with interactive information about sleep (hint: the answer to sleep problems is often a nice cup of Horlicks).
  • Sketos, metrios, glykos or vary glykos: how do you like your Greek coffee? Learn how to make it with a series of helpful photos.
  • Long ago I tried mate, after reading something that glamourised for me the gourd and bombilla used to drink it. Now it seems to be everywhere, often known as Yerba Mate, although this sounds slightly redundant as my reading suggests yerba (Argentinian spelling of hierba, or grass) is the raw ingredient, and mate is the hot beverage. I didn't know it had quite so many names though: Erva mate; Congonha; Paraguay cayi; Paraguay tea; Jesuit's tea; St Bartholomew's tea; Hervea; K'kiro; Caminu; Kali chaye; Erveira; Hervea; Erva-verdadeira; Matéteestrauch.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Corn and turkeys

I was confused when I first moved to England about use of the term "corn" - which to North Americans means the yellow kernels that brighten every summer picnic. In England it's used in its traditional and more wide-ranging sense, meaning any grain, and generally the kind that feeds livestock. According to Michael Pollan, it used to mean literally any grain at all - including grains of salt, hence the expression "corned beef". And hence the qualifier "sweet" which is added to the kind of corn that people eat, as in sweetcorn.

While passing through London in November, on my way to Italy, I happened on a copy of his recently published and much-praised book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, right there in the Bloomsbury Oxfam Bookshop. Delighted I was, but long in the opening of this fascinating story. I have started reading it this week, after coming upon an interview with him recorded a few months before the book hit the shelves. The interview is more about Pollan and his research and writing methods than the content of the book, but he does preface the interview with a reading from it and answers some interesting questions about it at the end.

(Corn Maiden, in the sculpture garden of The Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Santa Fe)

And so I've been reading the first section, which is a depressing story about the appropriation of corn - one of the traditional foods of American Indians - by agribusiness, and about the enslavement of American farmers to corn subsidies which in turn has created such a surplus of corn that its products form a shocking part of the fabric of American life, from sweeteners to manufacturing materials.

And if we thought it was cruel to feed cow by-products to cows, it turns out it's actually not much better to feed them corn, which they aren't designed to digest either (they are grass not grain-eaters). Luckily Pollan is a talented, humane and funny writer, so it's possible to survive the facts he's presenting to his fellow humans. I thought I'd take a break and look at some of his other writings today.

His 2003 article about Slow Food (from Mother Jones magazine) is interesting reading, particularly following turkey season. I hadn't realised, when I wrote my poem, Lamenting the Turkey, that I was writing about Broad Breasted Whites, but seeing them described in Pollan's article as "mindless eating and shitting machines" that are so deformed by breeding they cannot reproduce without artificial insemination, I'd say that's exactly what they were; lumpy and awkward like the poem. Here it is, (from Cartography) - let's dedicate this iteration to Pollan and to omnivores everywhere (oh, and by the way I do -really!- like eating turkey but will of course be more diligent about buying traditional breeds in future..).
Lamenting the Turkey

Stub-winged idiot, a food whose life
is a brief hymn to gluttony: crescendo of feathers
and flesh fills our tables, bloodlessly knifed
as the red leaves of Christmas bloom in the background,
remorselessly bright.

In a time we're kneeling to stars and shepherds
this is our chosen meal: a feathered blunder
so dumb it drowns in rain, gaping at skies
as they seal its throat with liquid wonder.

We adopt all the symbols of peace
but consume the corpse of a baleful thing:
it riots at the scent of blood, will slay
wounded brothers with its bladed chin.

We fill the season with music, and stop
this wobbling voice with a plug of bread;
it ends its time as it always lived:
stuffed with food, yet never fed.

So this is our festive platter:
a death of stupidity and fatted fear,
naked and shining beneath the candles,
a meal we gobble in the gullet of the year.