Sunday, February 25, 2007

Food festivals and conferences

Who knew how many and varied they could be? Google any food type nowadays and you'll find a selection of organised activities around it. It's spooky really. Here we are in a time when food traditions are disappearing; our ability and will to feed the planet's out-of-control population are slipping badly; and technology is messing with flavour, quality and our faith in what we eat. And yet, just think of a food and there's a cult of celebration around it. Is it kind of like clapping very very hard to bring Tinkerbell back to life? I hope not.

Bulgarian National Pepper and Tomato Festival (August). I see no reason why these two excellent vegetables (yes, I know, I know, tomatoes...) should not be celebrated, and even celebrated together.

Finally a time and place to pay homage to my favourite tuber: the seventh World Potato Congress will be held in Tours, France, 2008 - plenty of time to plan for this one. Call for papers for a simultaneous potato conference is already out. And don't forget that 2008 is the International Year of the Potato. How will you celebrate?

The Big Cheese, in Caerphilly (July) (a little suspicious of this one: do falconry and fire eating really go with cheese?) And if that's not silly enough, check out the Cheese Rolling contest in Gloucester (May)

A couple of Slow Food events I hope and plan to be able to attend this year: Slow Fish in Genova May 4-7, 2007 and Cheese, held in Slow Food's home town of Bra, September 21-24, 2007.

And one I wouldn't mind taking in for sure: The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, September 8-9, 2007. This year the topic is Food & Morality, taking its spin from Slow Food's articles of faith:
  • Food and quality – should food be good?
  • Food and safety and the environment – should food be clean?
  • Food and justice – should food be fair?
  • Food and human nature – is it right to take pleasure in food?
As luck would have it I'll be on the other side of the planet in May, when the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society meets up with the Association for the Study of Food and Society in Victoria - of all places - to talk about Changing Ecologies of Food and Agriculture.

And then (is it just me or are these organisation names getting a little unwieldy?) the Collective Behavior and Social Movements Section of the American Sociological Association is going to host a workshop on the subject of The Morality of Food as a Social Movement at the Collective Behavior and Social Movements conference in August.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Semlas, trading cards, Madhur and fortified coffee

Some things that came across my in-box this week.

Following Shrove Tuesday / Pancake Day / Mardi Gras / Martedi Grasso, Merna sent me some news about Fat Tuesday in Sweden. She'd found an article about a treat I haven't tried: semlas, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of eating too many desserts...

I was also intrigued by the idea of Artists Trading Cards. I don't think I ever traded or collected cards in my youth - maybe it was a guy thing: they were mostly sports cards, weren't they? So it's apt there should be a sub-set of this genre just for women. Probably easier for artists than poets, unless you are cruel enough to shrink your type to size, or on the other hand maybe ideal for haiku writers.

Ruth sent along a review of Madhur Jaffrey's new autobiography which sounds delicious. I am among the many who have enjoyed her recipes as I experimented with Indian food; she must be the only food writer with equal weight as an actress (or is it vice versa?) I liked the disclosure in the review that her mother taught her to cook by mail: I reckon there is a whole new generation now learning to cook by email or internet.

I am not quite sure what to make of fortified coffee though. Is there no indulgence that can't be tampered with to make it seem more wholesome?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Pig Week

Piggish in many ways. Started it off by snuffling and snorting my way through yet another cold. Surprised myself by getting up at 6.05 am on Tuesday to listen to Barbara's Ideas program on pigs. And (thanks Gloria) enjoyed learning this was British Bacon Education Week. And of course we're into the first week of the Chinese Year of the Pig, which the class will celebrate tonight, noses firmly in the trough, with a big Asian feed (thanks in advance Amy, Andy et al). One day perhaps I'll get to the Bongseong Charcoal-broiled Pork Festival, or perhaps the Ballyjamesduff International Pork Festival, or one of the many American pork festivals: the Spamarama in Austin, TX sounds worth avoiding though. And if you want to see what 200 calories of bacon (and lots of other things) actually looks like on the plate, check out these pictures.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The weekend in review

It was a busy old weekend. Our class pretty much split into two: half of us spent the weekend in Pollenzo, checking out the other campus of our uni and attending a meeting of the Slow Food offices, while the other half larked about at Carnivale in Venice. I couldn't tell you who had more fun!?

The group I joined got a grand tour of our big brother campus. Our campus at Colorno is the small and newer half of the university which began in Piedmont, in the village of Pollenzo, about ten minutes from Bra where the headquarters for Slow Food has its offices. Amazing things have been done to transform Pollenzo's campus - the Agenzia di Pollenzo, a neo-gothic estate built in 1833 as a model farm by King Carlo Alberto of Savoy - into a sparkly new facility that can hold up to 180 students enrolled in cohorts of 60 in a three-year program that takes them on field trips literally around the world: they've had stages in the UK, Japan, Australia, India and Africa. Pollenzo's much smaller (pop. 800) than Colorno (8,000); and Bra (pop. 28,000) where most of the students live is much smaller than Parma (pop. 177,000) where most of us do.

One of the interesting features of the Pollenzo campus is the Wine Bank, in the historic wine cellars of the Agenzia di Pollenzo, where producers can lodge their products in a centre for oenological teaching and present - for study or tasting (but not, alas, by us this time) - a selection of specially selected Italian wines of many vintages.

Back in the meeting room, I enjoyed the business discussions, and the mealtime schmoozing that went on with the 50-odd Slow Foodies from Italy, Germany, France, Switzerland, the US, the UK, Australia, Ireland, Argentina, Canada and the Netherlands. We enjoyed good and interesting foods at lunchtimes: cured meats, varied cheeses, salads; there were of course some Presidia and local food products... including wonderful gelato.

Meanwhile, news from home today made me sad: I hear that Fanny Bay Oysters - locally owned for 22 years, described as the largest oyster farm on Vancouver Island, and one of the largest shellfish producers on the B.C. Coast, has just been sold to a U.S. (Washington state) company. Of course the public promise is that all will remain as it was as far as the running of the company goes, but there was also an uneasy paragraph in the news story I read that mentioned the U.S. firm's interest had stemmed in part from its lack of a processing plant in B.C. Which suggests that change is inevitable, and that the change will involve some kind of increased processing activity. Anyway, it's always a sad thing to see business ownership leave the neighbourhood, particularly one where there isn't a lot of steady employment. However you cut it, it's local cash leaving the local area, and in this case the country.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A year ago already

So, it's been a year since the Iambic Cafe revealed itself - and my evolving involvement with the staples of life: food and poetry. What can I say: the journey continues.

One of those present at the writers retreat where it all began was Barbara Klar, whose Ideas radio program Swine Before Pearls is about to hit the airwaves (February 19, 9:05 pm, CBC Radio 1 - or however that translates for internet transmission in time zones other than Canadian ones: I think we'll have to be tuning in during the wee hours of the 20th here in Europe). She's going to explore the connection between our food animals and our own mortality, as we tip over into the Chinese Year of the Pig. It sounds promising.

Me, I'm also impatient to see Barbara's new poetry collection which is due out from Brick Books -- next year? Having heard a few of the poems as they wended their way onto the page, I know it will be more than noteworthy. So the conjunction of food and poetry is present everywhere, not just in my life. And speaking of Brick, another book I've been waiting for seems to be busting over the horizon: Lorri Neilsen Glenn's Combustion.

Here's some food I've been enjoying now, mid-winter, when fresh vegetables and inspiration might seem at their lowest:

Celery and Apple Soup
(about 4 servings)
1 tbsp butter or oil
2 medium onions, peeled and diced
4-5 stalks fresh celery, including leaves, diced
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
2 large cooking apples, cored and chopped
4 cups vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
1 tsp brown sugar
1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
1/4 cup Greek (or full-fat plain) yogurt or 1/4 cup heavy cream
Crumbled stilton or gorgonzola; or grated fresh parmigiano-reggiano; or freshly made croutons; or toasted almonds, to finish
  • In a large saucepan sweat the diced onion in the butter until transparent. Add the celery and potato to the onion and continue on a low heat for about 5 minutes.
  • Add the apple and heat through, another 5-10 minutes.
  • Add the stock, seasoning and sugar.
  • Bring to the boil, then simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Stir in the parsley.
  • Allow to cool a little before liquidising thoroughly, and then pass it through a sieve.
  • Check seasoning and consistency, adding a little milk or broth if needed. Stir in about yogurt or cream, and crumble or grate one of the cheeses into the soup, or top with croutons or toasted almonds.


Painting with light and tasting with wine

One of this week's visiting lecturers was Alberto Cocchi, a Parma photographer who works out of his studio in Bologna. His American accent threw us at first - he spent some years in the US studying and working - but he was all Italian when it came to style and attitude to food - his photos were inventive and gorgeous. He revealed that the very etymology of "photography" comes from Greek roots, and means painting with light, before walking us through the technical stuff, the f-stops and the ISO settings, the digital vs film debate.

Depth of field, he said, is where it all begins when you're talking about food. Or talking, more specifically, about food porn (a term last year's students had taught him and which, since we're getting technical here, I feel obliged to reveal was originally gastroporn, discussed in print as long ago as 1984, in The Official Foodie's Handbook). He showed us some examples of his work with depth of field: selectively using focus to group objects, and using light to create interest and even a bit of mystery. We had a quick preview of his recent shoot in Scotland where he photographed whiskey, oysters and Black Angus (on and off the hoof).

Yesterday we had a photo shoot in the classroom where he worked magic on a couple of dishes, showing us the difference between natural light, side lighting, fill-in techniques (using plastic mirrors or even cosmetic mirrors) and more complicated stuff with softboxes, umbrellas and flashes. We got to watch the photos evolve on the screen. We're looking forward to seeing him on one of our field trips later this year, when he'll take us out and let us test what he showed us.

And we had an informal wine tasting. Some Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone, Nero D'Avola, Cabernet and Pinot Nero passed beneath our noses and across our palates in quick succession, and then we had to run for the last bus home and - those of us attending - get ready for our Valentine's Day dinner. It was red and white food, which included radishes & salt, cream cheese with red pepper jelly, pasta, roasted baby red potatoes, rice pudding and strawberries (in chocolate!). Oh, and red and white wine I guess. The Valentine's cocktail was prosecco with pomegranate seeds, very pretty.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Complicated chocolate

It seems right that on Valentine's Day I should come upon this article about the reasons to seek out free trade chocolate.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Call of the coypu...

... or do I mean Revenge of the Nutria?

Visitors to Florence, I'm told, often remark on the web-footed, beaver-like creatures you can see frolicking in the Arno. Here too in Parma we'd noticed mammals in the river and wondered what they were: nutria, we were told (aka coypu / coipú / kóypu / ragondin / nuture rat / swamp beaver -- but not to be confused with the river otter). And as their species name (Myocastor coypus) suggests, beaver-like they are, in many ways.. until you see their tails, and their colourful teeth!

Apparently these little blighters - Argentinian rodents with rat-like tails - were imported into Europe from South America in the 1920s. They arrived in Italy in 1928, brought here by commercial furriers hoping to turn a quick lire. When this didn't happen, it seemed easiest to just.. set them free. And some of the rest escaped fair and square, and have made a real success of it: since their first sighting in the wild in 1960, they have spread from Italy to Sicily and Sardinia .

Alas for Italy, coypu really like it here and find many nice things to eat in the river systems, to the extent that they have laid waste to a great deal of native vegetation, as well as rice farms, and their burrowing habits weaken irrigation systems and riverbanks, causing tens of millions of euros in damage per year.

They were introduced to Britain as well, where they caused a lot of agricultural damage, but Britain embarked on an eradication campaign, employing 24 trappers who managed to eradicate the species there in just under a decade, by 1989 (... or did they?).

They are still raised in France for fur, and other products including soap, pate and even jewellery (those lovely teeth, just the colour of Mimolette, alors). Here are a couple of recipes in case you want to make your own pate or ragout. (Lucky for the nutria, animal rights activists at Bite Back are hard at work liberating these giant rodents into the French countryside.)

The French are not the only connaiseurs: apparently the meat is lean and low in cholesterol (well, they are herbivoires) and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is aiming to get locals to help eradicate them through fine dining, and has helpfully posted some other recipes. If you need some visual prompts, here's a YouTube video - sponsored by LDWF - to show you how it's done.

Ironically, just as they are really making a nuisance of themselves by busting loose wherever they were imported, their numbers in the rivers and streams of Argentina appear to have been dwindling.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Chocolate finale

How do you make 24 foodie students happy? So easy. Make their last class on Friday afternoon a chocolate tasting session. We were reunited with our affable guide through cured meats, Mirco Marconi, who confessed his passion for artisanal chocolate, and treated us to a sampling of 23 different varieties.

We learned a bit about the history of cacao - its discovery by the Olmecs and its appreciation by the Mayans who consumed it as a liquid, relishing the foam. He showed us a picture of the Mexican chocolate whisk, the molinillo, which was actually a contribution by the Spaniards.

The New Taste of Chocolate by Spanish writer Maricel Presilla is, he says, the best book he's read on chocolate. There seemed to be interest among my long-suffering classmates in doing more of the onerous research required to master this subject: there are chocolate festivals enough to keep us happy: CioccolaTO in Turin next month; the recently elapsed but highly recommended purists' festival, Cioccolasita; and one to look forward to, Le Salon du Chocolat in Paris, from October 19-22, 2007.

We heard about the chocolate making process, from harvest through fermentation and drying, to refining, conching and tempering. We tasted chocolate beans, unsweetened chocolate, liquid chocolate, and 'grand cru' chocolates from Venezuela; we tried chuao and porcelana; criollo, forestero and trinitano. Bewildering varieties and many epiphanies of taste and texture.

My favourites were Guido Gobino's Cialdine lemon and ginger - a chocolate covered nugget of exquisite candied fruit; Ravera's Baci di Cherasco - a crunchy fusion of fine chocolate and top quality hazelnuts (nocciola from Langhe); and Château Domori Porcelana - a silky bite of Venezuelan (70%) criollo -- from a company evidently run by a chocophilic poet!? Marconi even brought us a special treat from his personal collection - a Bodrato cherry chocolate, the kind of treat he'd adored as a child and which is now produced with high quality cherries (la ciliegia d.o.p. di Vignola) which, bathed whole in grappa, are encased in a fabulous dark chocolate.

As we were picking and chewing I couldn't help but think if we'd been served any one of the sampling - unsweetened versions aside - we'd probably have been overjoyed. Taken together, of course, you really notice the differences.

There were three artisan producers named from the US, Scharffen Berger (which has been bought out by a multinational since he'd first encountered them), Ghirardelli and E. Guittard. I'm eager to get back to Hot Chocolates in Courtenay and do a little taste-testing to see how they measure up now...

Friday, February 09, 2007

Belgian cuisine to kitchen gardens

We said a fond farewell to Peter Schollier on Wednesday, after an entertaining journey through Belgian cuisine and the poles of food neophilia and neophobia.

Belgian cuisine, which for most of us (who might think of it) means moules et frites, or Belgian waffles, or perhaps even waterzooi, has been subjected to scrutiny and refinement by modern Belgians and is now a large and growing and diverse - and as we might expect, somewhat regional - gastroterritory. Which is what you get from a country that only achieved independence in 1839, after centuries of wandering borders and serial occupation by and influence from the big guys on every side. Anyway, the only Belgian restaurant I know of outside Belgium is Belgo in London (its founders were a Belgian and a Canadian!); Schollier says that the incomparable Leon's now has branches in Paris.

He then stepped carefully through the history of post-WW2 dining habits in Germany and Italy, building a case to compare the relative adventurousness of the Germans with the nationalistic, if not regionalistic preferences of the Italians. It was a story we've certainly seen played out ourselves in Italian restaurants and markets: no foreign dishes or products besmirch the menus of local eateries, and it is fiendishly difficult to find 'foreign' ingredients in traditional food retailers, including the open air markets. Which makes sense in many ways; it is absolutely consistent with the vision of Slow Food, for example, which advocates the preservation of local cuisines. But a tough course to follow with today's international appetites: even in Italy the workforce is swimming with foreign labour which will surely have some kind of effect down the line.

I was curious about the kitchen garden (potager in French) class as I remembered the term from living in England. In Canada I think we exclusively used the more prosaic term 'vegetable garden'. Which to the niggler doesn't completely describe something that typically includes fruits and herbs.

Antoine Jacobsohn, from Le Potager du Roi, Versailles, is a specialist in the history of food and horticulture and he shared a bit of his ethnographic research into gardeners and gardening.

In one sesson, he gave us what must be a preview of the paper called "Hot Bed Techniques and Morals: Out of Season Produce in Early Modern France" which he'll be delivering at a conference in Glasgow March 15-17 (Gardening: Histories of Horticultural Practice). He told us about hot beds which were used by Parisian market gardeners (and others, but Paris was our focus) to force vegetables out of season, with the aid of bell jars (aka cloches) and frames. Pretty much the same tricks used by home and allotment gardeners today. The morality discussion about out of season produce - is it right to trick nature into producing greater yield which, by nature, is less flavourful than seasonal produce? - is, he argued, not a contemporary one, but actually started sometime around 1600.

We learned that, for Parisians, the split between production and consumption only really happened in the 1960s when Les Halles, the vast central market, as well as the city's slaughterhouse (from where the science museum, La Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie now sits) were moved out of town. A good idea in many ways - traffic congestion and hygiene among them - but it did remove food's origins from the lives and sight of the population who were buying it. The central market used to be a popular meeting and social place outside market hours (which were few as they only traded for four hours in the early morning). The new market at Rungis is ringed by roads suitable for road transport and is not particularly open to visitors, although a determined punter can get there by bus and perhaps manage to pay an entry toll for a look round.

He concluded with an overview of his oral history project, discussing with food producers around Paris their views on the food products of today. He surprised most of us, I think, by reporting that the people he spoke to are by and large pleased and proud of the food they produce, and consider it better in many ways than what was grown in the past, in terms of hygiene, cultivation methods, nutritional value and yield. They did not always evaluate it in terms of flavour, but those who did were able to state that what had tasted best in the past was also the trickiest to sell in high volume. Quality is a perishable commodity, and that's what makes it hard to produce, difficult to distribute, and of course expensive to buy.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Carbon footprints

I seem to be shuttling back and forth between cultures so much I am either so far ahead of my current pack or so well behind them that my terminology is incomprehensible to anyone but myself.

One term I heard a lot from my English friends on my pass-through last year is Carbon Footprint - a conveniently packaged phrase that I don't think was so audible in Canada by the time I left, though perhaps that has changed. It would still be understandable in context of course, it's just that it didn't seem to have permeated the public discourse as it had in England.

The Guardian published an article recently which lets you calculate the size of yours (hint: it should be small, and "you live like an American" is not the rating to strive for).

You can also use their handy Climate Care Calculator for a quick look at what your lifestyle costs the environment. While you are cleaning up your act, you can pay your penance directly to a charity called Climate Care. Or if you prefer your calculator American-style, there's another one at

It's an interesting and topical area for the food industry which, it seems, leaves not so much a footprint as a crater.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Kitchen history and some pics

Had a great lecture today by visiting Belgian historian Peter Schollier, about kitchen workers in 19th century Brussels, with more to follow over the next couple of days, on food and identity, changes in food culture in Europe since 1945, and food culture in Italy vs Germany. He talked at first about the professional chef, how the title is bestowed rather than handed over on a piece of paper, having been earned through apprenticeship and observation.

It called to mind for me something said in We Feed the World, about how the industrial-scale food producers are run like cold-blooded corporations because there is no one at the top of these companies who worked their way up from the bottom, who understands farming as a learned skill.

In that context I particularly liked this text quoted in The Omnivore's Dilemma: "Farming is not adapted to large scale operations because of the following reasons: Farming is concerned with plants and animals that live, grow, and die."

And - timely, this - we're looking forward to hearing about kitchen gardens from Antoine Jacobsohn this very week.

In case you were wondering where everyone was on Saturday.. I found them at the market on via Verdi. All of them. And their socks.

The Italian rule of construction seems to be: never use one sign when you could use eight. Or eleven.

Fido Park, en route to Bologna.

Colorno this evening. Daylight! Waning daylight, but... daylight!!

Piazza della Pace, by day...

...and by night.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Nutella, Faust, wine and cured meats

Corrie passed along the important news about World Nutella Day which is coming up very quickly, on February 6.

Last night a group of us shared a box at the opera to see The Damnation of Faust. Reviews from our company were mixed, but I think it was agreed that overall the second half was better than the first, all beautifully sung of course, by a very large cast, but possibly overwhelmed by some of the visuals that were projected over the proceedings, and the choreography and circus work were a bit much. All in all I enjoyed the evening, though thought I sensed a touch of Lord of the Rings in the depiction of hell, and a lot of loin cloths were used in the making of this opera. Anyway, can't come to Italy and not see opera, even a French one, so I've got that one under my belt.

We have been having "sniff parties" chez nous. MJ has a pretty comprehensive wine aromas kit which we've been working our way through with some diligence. We sniff 18 different bottles containing everything from acacia to leather to chocolate to mushroom to smoke, and then sample some wines to see what we can detect in them, and then we eat nice food. This week's menu featured MJ's gazpacho - an unorthodox version apparently as it lacked bread, but it was beautiful without - and the near unpronounceable kolokythokeftedes (zucchini cakes with feta and mint). Mint was actually the hardest ingredient to find, but I bought a bag from an erborista, which wasn't quite right so to me it tasted a bit like mint tea, but it went down all right with some tzadziki. Corrie brought an Orange- cheesecakey- moussey- souffle- kind- of- thing, I think that was the official recipe name, and topped with blood oranges it was delightful.

We kept our menu quasi-vegetarian because we'd spent the afternoon doing a meat tasting, which was exhaustive and somewhat overwhelming: 21 different meats I think. I'd missed the salami tasting before Christmas, and this time we were doing only cured meats made from whole cuts. So we had prosciutto crudo e cotto (raw cured and cooked hams), some smoked hams and a couple of different kinds of lardo which were surprisingly good, even if we did have to take them without the requisite hot toast.

Some Culatello and Culaccia, Spalla crudo and cotto, Prosciutto di Sauris (a whole smoked prosciutto crudo), Alto Aldige (smoked), Cinta Sinese (Tuscan pig), Jamon Iberico, some black pig prosciutto with flavours of blue cheese; and the lardos came later, which I didn't photograph.

Many prosciuttos: 16 months, 24 months, crudo and cotto, smoked and salted.