Thursday, May 31, 2007

Burgundy mustard, pork and beaucoup du vin

Wednesday was mustard day. We left Lyon and stopped for a couple of hours’ free ramble round Beaune, looking pretty in the sunshine. The wine museum beckoned a couple of us, and we learned many things, including the six different ways one can drive a vine stake into the ground. Who knew??

After lunch we all trooped into the Fallot mustard mill, which still makes its mustard in the traditional way, using stone grinding. We were surprised to hear that 98% of the mustard seed used in French mustard, including Dijon (which is not a geographical designation, so it can be made anywhere). The Fallot mill makes a Burgundy mustard which has nearly achieved its AOC designation, and which uses only locally grown mustard seed, some of that elusive 2%.

After a tour of the interactive museum and a small tasting, we headed off to Dijon, where we dined near the market at Au Bon Pantagruel on some duck in armagnac sauce that did not linger quite long enough in the pan for most, and had to be wrestled onto the fork, followed by a chocolate mousse that left us wanting, well, a better chocolate mousse.

It's entirely possible one can have a much better meal there if there are not 25 of you with a block dinner order. Let us hope.

Thursday we went to Volnay, to visit the Chateau de Puligny, where Etienne de Montille took us out to the fields to show us the terroir. His fields are organic, without irrigation, and he looked rather pleased when he said he couldn’t show us any unhealthy plants because they were all doing so well.

We tasted a small and delightful selection before departing to la Ferme des Levees in Lusigny-sur-Ouche.

Born again pig farmer Jacques Volatier told us he’d given up life as an engineer and town planner in order to do something more socially useful, environmentally sound, and agricultural, serving a local market – in protest against the industrialization of food production and long-haul food transportation. So, he raises pigs year round, outside, without antibiotics, and produces pork products on the farm. He doesn’t breed the pigs himself because that would require conformity with EU hygiene regulations which are so strict (like making the farm a war zone, he remarked) they would make it impossible for him to do what he needs to do, which is to show the people who buy his pork where it comes from.

It’s a small scale enterprise, in which he slaughters about three pigs a week, and sells the meat and products at markets and from the farm shop.

We sampled some jambon persille, jambon a la moutarde, pates en croute, gratons, salad and some home made elderflower cordial (he planted the elderflower as shade for the pigs, and began turning it into a saleable product as a sideline), followed by fromage blanc, a bit like cream cheese, from a farmer up the road, served with thick spooning cream and sugar or salt. Kind of like a do it yourself cheesecake, someone remarked.

And off we went to another vineyard, this time the Domaine Dujac, where as we dodged spitting rain and thunder, Jeremy Seysses told us about his vines and wines.

We had a spin round the cave and then he gave us a horizontal tasting of 2001 wines, chardonnay and pinot noir, followed by a special and delectable glass of 1976 pinot.

Thursday night was another free meal, and after a drizzly walk seeing the sights of Dijon, we ended up nearly back at the hotel with our noses pressed to the menu board of Allo Nem, an Asian restaurant - when, like magic, our Taiwanese food guru Andy popped his head out the door and said the magic words: “it’s good!” And he was right.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Beef and chicken à la française

So here we are in France. We arrived on Sunday morning, in Lyon, and I for one am rejoicing in the cooler temperatures – Parma was a steamy 35 degrees when we left. We’ve had our customary stage weather – chilly and drizzly with a bit of sun thrown in.

We had a free night in Lyon and headed for Le Nord, one of the Bocuse brasseries, on the expert recommendation of a local (thanks Jeremy). An excellent salad of green beans, artichoke hearts and a silky slab of foie gras de canard, followed by a wholesome waffle with sides of applesauce, warm chocolate and cream. Pas mal, and a good entree to France.

Monday we were up with the birds and off to Bourg-en-Bresse where we met our new friends Philippe Marchenay and Laurence Bérard, researchers in food and bio-ethnology, who talked to us about geographical designations and biodiversity in French food products.

Our first example was Charolais beef, plodding towards AOC/PDO designtion and so widely known already that they have their own museum at la Maison du Charolais, where we had a talk and a tasting.

Then onto the bus and off at a Charolais farm.

Dominique Gateau, the owner, talked to us about his breeding practices, which involve 24 hour video surveillance during calving, which lasts from January till June. We met a few of the newcomers and were shown some of the qualities that make good beef cattle.

Afterwards, he set up a little wine and cheese party on some hay bales, featuring of his own goat and cow cheese.

And then back to le Maison du Charolais where they also have a restaurant, and we had a Charolais steak before heading off into the night.

Tuesday morning we ambled across the street to Lyon’s excellent food market, les Halles de Lyon, where Philippe and Laurence guided us through the stalls.

We fetched up at a great cheese stand and bought plenty for lunch which we enjoyed in Philippe and Laurence’s comfortable house in the country.

Lots of cheese, wonderful bread, salumi, apple juice, Philippe's cornichons, a bowl of fresh strawberries, and their neighbour's wine.

Then to the Bresse Chicken farm owned by Christophe Vuillot, who, at 37, thanks to skills at poultry farming learned from his grandfathers, has a happy life raising his happy chickens who fill the fields around his house, with a small flock of guinea fowl and a grey border collie keeping an eye on them. The birds are long maturing, fed on a mixture of special poultry feed and what they forage in the grasses, and they are given a helping of whey in their feed which works as a natural preventative against worms and parasites. They are also, of course, healthy enough that they don’t need the chronic antibiotics that battery farmed chickens do.

We were given a demonstration of the dressing of these very special and very expensive chickens, which are slaughtered on the farm, their head and neck feathers left on (for aesthetic purposes, the farmer explained) and then sewn into a linen casing that expels air and acts as a secure protection for up to a week. The chickens are prepared this way for competitions and feast day – 150 of them are hand sewn each Christmas at this farm alone.

And for supper, we had… chicken.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Visitations and celebrations

The week has been largely social, beginning with my return from London on Monday. Tuesday we arrived in Colorno to find the morning class cancelled, so filled the time with a British and Irish cheese tasting - Berkswell, Caerphilly, Double Gloucester, Durrus, Stilton, Swaledale and even a little Vignotte, just because, well why not, we're off to France this weekend. I'd brought some Dunkerton's Cider to wash things down, and some oat cakes and digestives and Cornish wafers.

A big party on Tuesday night, which started with a rooftop aperitivo party - passing through a nicely decorated laundry line - here it is with Jess the artiste:

and on to an al fresco dinner at the Santa Chiara Trattoria, which featured traditional starters including torta fritta with culatello and prosciutto, and a parmesan torte drizzled with balsamico.

I was indulged in my year-long project to try every Barbera wine I can find (and this one was lovely). Then had a nice bit of duck followed by a fruit tart, as well as toasts and songs in many languages.

Next, I was blessed by visiting Canadians, although the difficulties of arranging a nice time became somewhat operatic in everything except musical elegance.

The day of departure the Parma B&B, found online and booked a couple of weeks earlier, cancelled my friends' stay... I guess on the positive side at least they actually let them know they were pulling the rug before arrival, but it was nearly impossible to arrange a room at such short notice, and so instead of a charming centrally located abode, they ended up in an airport hotel with a higher than expected taxi bill and no place to eat except the hotel restaurant. Not much of a welcome to Parma. (If anyone wants the name of that b&b in the interests of avoiding them in future, get in touch.)

After that, Geoff's plane from Canada was caught up in a strike and his connection to Milan was cancelled so he had a bonding experience with some similarly afflicted fellow travellers in their circuitous route through Geneva and onwards by train, while his lovely wife kept vigil in the Milan train station all day.

The whole week has been a kind of precis of what can go wrong here when you try to make plans.

I had tried to book a restaurant for the supper I thought we'd have together in Parma on arrival night, but the one I tried had, according to its website, closing days of Tuesdays and Wednesday lunchtime. I tried to phone but the phone was on fax. I tried emailing a reservation, but didn't hold out much hope for a reply, so I stopped by Wednesday evening but the place was shuttered with no indication of opening times posted on the door. So I gave up. Luckily, as it turned out.

I then attempted to book a rental car, and thought I'd try to support local businesses by booking locally. After my opening remarks and my first "scusi?" to the voluminous reply, the helping hand at Maggiore used it to put the phone down on me. I gave up and went to Hertz, booked online and hey presto.

I also attempted to book an agriturismo we'd found online, which had nice pictures of its room but no room rates posted. So I tried emailing them (in pidgin Italian) to ask about room rates, but there was no reply, so I had a more fluent friend call on my behalf (grazie Corrie) and succeeded in landing the rooms. Which turned out to be first rate and we had a perfect stay at the gorgeous and welcoming Campo del Pillo. The owner was friendly and generous; when he saw us tucking into an al fresco antipasti of Pecorino Sardo and wild boar salame, he sniffed manfully and returned moments later with some 30 month old parmigiano-reggiano, drizzled with 35 year old balsamico, and accompanied by organic salame and spalla cruda.

A bella vista out the windows:

And the old grey mare...

Next on the agenda was attempting to book dinner at a Slow Food recommended restaurant, Il Capolinea. After numerous attempts over two days with failed phone connections, I finally got through. After my opening remarks, the other end hung up on me. Let's say the sound quality was bad. In any case, I phoned back, and this time he heard me out and took my booking.

And we had a fantastic meal in very friendly and capable hands; a mixed starter of pork salad (insalatina di maiale), vegetable frittata, pickled onions, salame and culatello,

followed by roast lamb (coscia d'agnello biologico al forno) and roast beef (drizzled with balsamico),

accompanied by a comfortable selection of vegetables, followed by four star desserts: stunningly good fresh strawberries with gelato and balsamico; and chocolate mousse so good I wanted to lick the plate. Afterwards we made friends with a neighbouring table and were rewarded with a glass of nocino; and after that the proprietor brought us some beautiful dessert wine and exquisite almond macaroons.

Awesome. We discovered later that Castelnovo ne' Monti is in fact a Slow City, so we were destined for a good meal no matter what, but I think we struck it lucky nonetheless. Scenic place, with its characteristic tabletop mountain, La Pietra di Bismantova, which is said to have inspired Dante's Monte del Purgatorio.

We also discovered that the town is known as the City of Bells because of a long-standing bell foundry (Capanni Bells) where they've been ringing the changes since 1500.

On the way home today we paid a visit to the Museo del Sughero (cork museum) in the pretty Appenine spa town of Cervarezza Terme.

Monday, May 21, 2007

London break

London was mercifully cool and damp after a hot week in Parma, and it was wonderful to catch up with the old gang in the Shackleton Room of the Troubadour where we dined on Brompton Burgers and fish and chips. The food, I'm afraid, looked more promising than it tasted, but the service was excellent and the private room a fortunate thing as there was a lot of youthful exuberance beyond the doorway. London restaurants can be deafening. (But at least they will be smoke free come July!)

We followed with a very large cake from Patisserie Valerie:

Says it all, really.

The next day my kind cousin took me to a Chiswick treasure, Fish Hook, which used to be a South African specialty restaurant (Fish Hoek as it was then) whose niche turned out to be just too narrow for the neighbourhood. In its new incarnation, it serves well priced lunch specials like this one: asparagus veloute with cockles and pea sprouts...

...followed by perfectly cooked sea bream...

... and - living as I do in gelato country I was curious to see how English versions compared - home-made ice creams (vanilla, caramel and chocolate). The comparison? I think I may actually prefer the local gelato here in Parma; the ice cream tasted ... thicker and more dense. Still good, though. Might need further research.

I had a very good supper, surprisingly good, from a Lebanese takeaway called Elias, on Turnham Green Terrace. Lamb shish, tahini, hoummus, felafel, pita bread and a few other things - all incredibly good and carefully prepared before my very eyes. And a fresh apple, carrot and ginger juice to wash it down. Perfect.

Then on Sunday I was reunited with my old writing group and we had a delightful poetry workshop (and excellent lunch of bits and pieces from Carluccio's) before a few of us headed off to a Poetry School talk by Michael Schmidt about value judgements in poetry at the dangerously wonderuful London Review Bookshop.

Sallied out of there with a few more food books (In the Devil's Garden; The Cheese Room; Last Chance to Eat; and even a small poetry anthology, Open-Mouthed) and dined on Indian (balti curries, for a thoroughly British experience) at Annapurna.

And back to sweltering Parma. On with the week....

Friday, May 18, 2007

Industrial pasta, arab influences and the spoken word

Phew, a week seems to have got away from me. Wandering round Parma on Sunday the 13th, I came upon a big party right around the corner, on strada Farini, which had been closed to traffic and lined with street vendors, with nearby gardens and galleries open to viewing. All good street parties in Parma seem to involve strategic use of turf, and this one was no exception, going a step further, adding a fountain:

If the week before was visual, last week was, well, audio-visual. We divided most of our time between Barbara Santich, visiting from Adelaide to tell us about Medieval food history, and Simon Parkes, from the BBC Food Programme, visiting from London to talk about food radio.

We kicked off the week with an all-day tour of the Barilla Pasta factory near Parma on Monday. Oh no, we thought, a dreary day of PowerPoint presentations followed by endless trailing around to see more large shiny machines... but happily there was more to it than that.

Though we did commence, as all 21st century students surely do, by sitting helplessly in a room for half an hour or so, watching a series of mildly concerned staff members take turns having a go trying to persuade the projector to talk to the laptop, and when that didn't work, trying another laptop, another staff member, another cable, and so on. Enough time had fallen off the clock to convince the plucky marketing chap to plunge in, armed only with a box of spaghetti and a head full of company history. He did very well off the cuff, and by the time the technology was awake he'd covered a good chunk of time.

We had technical talks too, which luckily followed a not-too-distant class in pasta technology, so we were old hands at distinguishing common wheat from durum, and were already aware of the legislation requiring the use of durum wheat for Italian dried pasta; we knew about different gluten actions in each, and of course familiar with potential major flaws in dried pasta. We heard about the work of the research department to produce the perfect balance of protein, gluten and yield in its various strains of durum. We heard that Barilla buys a large percentage of Italy's durum production, and some of the rest from the US, where it has both mill and pasta factory. And we did see some big machines that were churning out a lot of strands of spaghetti, and were treated to a large lunch of pasta.

Back to the halls of learning on Tuesday, in Barbara Santich's classes we enjoyed a walk through Medieval foods: heard about some of the foods that were prepared for feasts and how banquets began; and reviewed the astonishing number of days set aside each year for fasting and religious observance that affected foods. We looked at some recipes that had made their way down the years from early cooks such as Apicius, and talked about some of the spices that have pretty much disappeared from Italian food, like dill, cumin, mint, coriander and asafoetida; heard about the influence on cuisine from Arab traders who introduced such foods as citrus fruits, buckwheat, cane sugar, spinach, eggplant and lots of spices to the Mediterranean.

Next, Simon Parkes had us work on a six minute radio piece, which was a challenge to complete in two days. One night, really. It involved the use of some sound editing software which worked better for some of us than others but we had fun with it and enjoyed listening to the final products on Thursday afternoon.

And at that point I flew away to London for the weekend.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Watching food

Mostly a visual week, this. We've had a series of talks on food television from the Swiss film maker Annette Frei Berthoud, who's been showing us various clips (including a bit from Mondovino) and documentaries. We had one yesterday about cacao growers in South America, which talked about Kallari organic cocoa from Ecuador, and the Presidia product cacao nacional.

A couple of classes were cancelled this week and replaced with documentary screenings. Monday we had a Canadian film that our Don worked on, On the Road to Bocuse d'Or. Yesterday saw the return of Stefano Sardo who showed us several things including the Sierra Club's neat little education tool, The True Cost of Food, and then the wordless and sobering Our Daily Bread which is something to see if you have ever wondered whence cometh those tomatoes, pork chops, apples, eggs, cucumbers..

Most shocking to me in Our Daily Bread was seeing the industrialisation of work: evidently the design of industrial food production facilities builds in the isolation of its employees. These are not jolly production lines where the workers banter across the conveyor belts or bond over coffee break; here we have blank-faced drones in full hygiene kit arranged so they never face one another and probably couldn't speak if they did for the factory noise and the ear protection; handling fruit, vegetables, chicks, piglets, animal corpses and a whole lot of machines in an efficient, dispassionate flow. Do they take breaks together or are they always sent off in sequence so as not to interrupt the production chain? I wondered how the designers of these factories had managed to divest from their consciences and their planning all those great 20th century concepts like job satisfaction, employee motivation, team-building; they've stripped these jobs down to a cold essence. The perfect 21st century environment for an alienated 21st century workforce?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Lots of fish

Two fishy events last week. The first was an enlightening visit from a veterinarian, Valentina Tepedino, whose topic was fish quality. We embarked on a pre-prandial nightmare into nematodes and parasites (anisakis), poisons (tetrodoxin) and various aspects of fish fraud. Here is a small fraction of what she talked about.

Fish fraud, she said, is huge in Europe; as much as 80% of the tuna sales in Europe are fraudulent, with lower grade fish (bluefin) being passed off as the more expensive yellowfin or albacore, and it can happen because the fish are not sold whole where the identifying dorsal, pectoral and anal fins cannot be seen.

Likewise there is well documented fraud involving other fish varieties; a farmed fish, Pangasius, a sort of catfish, is often passed off for sole. It's so cheap to produce that with strategic employment of some equally cheap labour, it can be filleted to resemble sole and sold for many times its market value. Solea senegalensis, a farmed variety from Senegal, is often sold as the much more expensive Dover sole; it takes skill and experience and a close look at the whole fish, skins and gills included, to distinguish one for the other.

Another big fraud is passing farmed fish off for wild. Though there is a popular misconception that all our cod is wild, the Norwegians have in fact developed a highly successful farming industry. Salt cod (bacalau) is popular in markets like Italy, Spain and Portugal, but much of what reaches the market is either farmed or one of many cheap varieties such as pollock and hake that are almost indistinguishable from cod once decapitated, dried and salted.

And there is the fish product known as “surimi” which is pulverised whitefish (often those cheap farmed staples, pollock and hake) coloured with paprika and reformed into imitation crab, lobster, prawns, eels (anguilla). But often only a percentage of this is actually hake or pollock, as it’s often mixed with even cheaper ones.

One key area where it becomes dangerous to substitute one fish for another is in the area of, for example, pufferfish, which can be passed off as monkfish, as the two are nearly indistinguishable when skinned and decapitated. But pufferfish carry the lethal neurotoxin tetrodoxin which can cause death in as little as five minutes, an risk that eaters of Fugu undertake voluntarily, but not something the average monkfish eater would expect. One instance of this kind of fraud in Italy was enough to ban the sale of monkfish without heads, so that consumers can be sure which fish they are buying.

As always it's a case of buyer beware, and educating yourself about the sometimes huge and complex issues to to with identification, sustainability, aquaculture and fishing methods. Websites such as Sustainable Seafood, Fishonline, the Marine Conservation Society, MareinItaly and Fishbase are good starting points.

So, thus armed, I was interested to see what was on display at Slow Fish in Genova yesterday, a good mid-sized exhibition with lots of tastings and workshops.

One of the most popular points was the enoteca and bistro where you gained admission by buying a cotton nosebag (actually a glass holder, equipped with a wineglass ready to be filled from over a thousand different bottles). There was a selection of food, including oysters and shellfish and other seafood tastings, some pasta dishes, and some local and Presidia products: focaccia, gelato, candied fruit and sugared almonds from Romanengo, and Huehuetenango coffee.

We were excited to experience a rare tasting of the Portonovo Wild Mussels we'd heard so much about - but never seen - during our visit to Le Marche.

Everyone and his (well behaved) dog was there..

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Journalism, food geography and a mighty fine picnic

We had the entertaining guidance of the Guardian's very own Matthew Fort to speak to us last week. I have been to many a talk on how to write and on selling your writing, but it never hurts to have a few stern reminders from a guy at the top, like: you can't call yourself a writer if you don't write every day. His chief tip is to try to elicit three reactions from the reader: ‘I never thought of that’; ‘that’s really useful’; and ‘I really enjoyed that’.

One side-comment he made stayed with me: British food shops are shooting themselves in the foot by keeping bankers' hours; the only food shops open at times when their customers are able to shop are the supermarkets, and so they win the business. A remark that goes for other places as well; but he praised Italian food shops for staying open in the evening so that working shoppers could patronise them on their way home. Here in Parma most shops open between 8.30 and 9.30 and close for a very long lunch (12.30 till as late as 4.30) but then reopen for evening trade, until about 7 or 7.30 - which is indeed convenient, seen in that light. Not the first thought in my mind when I finally emerge to do my shopping on Saturdays around noon, but I guess that's my choice.

We finished our week with Colin Sage, an environmental geographer and crusader for raw milk Irish cheeses. He talked to us about food geography, and specifically about some of the regulatory issues around raw milk cheeses that are helping to draw a scientific noose ever more tightly round the food we are able to buy. He referred us to Marion Nestle, a name that's been coming up in various places and readings, and mentioned a useful article by our hero Michael Pollan about the rise of a whole new evil that goes by the handle of nutritionism. And he left us with the suggestion that maybe it's time to grow our own food.

He called on us to shift away from thinking of ourselves as simply consumers having our choices limited and being passive recipients of what might be less and less a 'whole food' and more and more a nutrition product. We need, he says, to become food citizens with an active role in asserting values and creating an environment for our own sustenance. Increasing transportation costs mean there will be a higher and higher cost for our food: the current system is unsustainable. We need to be responsible and involved in how and where food is sourced, and grow some of our own food if we can. He advocates alternative food networks: perhaps develop small scale cooperatives for sharing food resources. Fair trade needs to go further than chocolate or coffee, and develop in such areas as fruit that we’ll never be able to grow in northern climates.

Oddly enough I had been listening to a Food Programme piece from last February on much the same theme, where the speaker, Colin Tudge, advocated a "world-wide food club" - a cooperative relationship between good farmers who really want to produce good stuff, artisans, bakers and brewers who are prepared to produce good food from it, and people who are willing to pay for good food properly produced.

Colin Sage has also spent time looking at the structures around our food governance, and is uneasy with his findings. The bodies that research and govern our food supply are suspect: there are well publicised funding relationships between business and research (academics and scientists) and government which is problematic for impartiality: when funding determines what is being studied and how the results may be released, that limits what we can truly investigate and report in all that we need to know about our food. The ‘cosy relationship’ that exists between business and regulatory bodies in terms of who heads them (but where do you find the expertise to head regulators if not in the industries they come in to regulate?) can be causing problems again in impartiality. And food sovereignty means that countries that need to feed themselves are using their own resources to grow export crops, which are more lucrative, but create a world in which food is being grown as animal feed or fuel while their own populations suffer hunger and malnourishment. Sobering stuff; the more so when so much of it is literally echoing down this year, repeated with variations by our speakers and in our readings.

With all that on our minds it could have been hard to gather the strength for a Labour Day picnic in the park but we managed. We spread our blankets on a sunny day in a quiet, walled garden overhung by chestnuts in full flower with a few bouncing dogs in the background - and later in the afternoon some curious soundtracks (Frank Sinatra?) coming from the puppet show in the courtyard of the Castello dei Burattini. One by one we set down our wares, explaining why they were not adequate, which ingredients we'd been unable to find or adapt, why the recipes had not worked as we had hoped, why they didn't look the way they were supposed to; and one by one we ate the offerings with delight and mutual encouragement. Even halfway through our year it can be a scary thing to share humble food among our ever-more gastronomically enlightened selves. But we all agreed we must do it more often.