Saturday, June 30, 2007

Massa to Mosaiko

Last weekend, in an attempt to escape the unending heat of Parma, we took a trip to the seaside, in search of cooling breezes and nice chilly marble museums. We found a breeze or two, and a few other things of interest.

We arrived in Massa and hopped a bus to the seaside which was large and developed. While looking for the information office we passed a rabbit park which was, well, hopping with rabbits. And little horses. And a lot of signs, like these ones.

A half hour or so in the information office was enough to convince us we didn't need to stay in Massa, and while searching for other diversions, we spotted a castle in Aulla, which if all else failed was at least on the way back to Parma. And indeed it was a castle, the Brunella Fortress. Its address is number 3 Via Fortezza (why not number 1??) and within it we found a small natural history museum, with a few items of interest including a collection of rather sad looking stuffed animals. Nice views, though.

We walked up the hill and then down the hill. We passed a nifty looking fence.

And then in town, I made the acquaintance of a poet, Ceccardo Roccatagliata Ceccardi (1871-1919), who touched down for a few formative years in Massa (but not as far as I can make out in Aulla) during his life of poverty and peregrination. It was some consolation to having missed the Parma poetry festival...

We escaped back to Parma having found only this in the way of sustenance: is it Italy's answer to Cheez Whiz?

After that, mercifully, it cooled down for a few days in Parma. We had our wine tutor Sandro Bosticco back for some informative tastings, and then spent the rest of the week alternately in a journalism workshop with Corby Kummer and learning about consumer psychology from Nadia Olivero.

Last night, a return visit to Ristorante Mosaiko: very nice indeed. We talked to chef Davide who told us his training route included France, England, Japan and Australia, and before that enjoyed the tasting menus: seafood for me, including in-house smoked salmon (with a touch of wasabi), followed by a mosaic of octopus on a tart nicoisey salad of green beans, potatoes, carrots, capers and more:

followed by some awesomely artfully seared tuna with fennel, oranges, olives and tomatoes and a tantalising pinch of je ne sais quois:

and what do you do when you can't decide which dessert to have? Have them all of course. That Piemonte classic, bounet, like a chocolate/nut creme caramel as Corrie so rightly observed:

Tart lemon tart:

And the winner was... simple is best? delicious strawberries laced with citrus and topped with yogurt gelato:

And with that it will be over and out, for a while, as we head to Catalunya tomorrow.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Food reading

Just back from a sprint round northern Italy.

Meanwhile, a couple of journals we've been pointed towards. Food For Thought, self-described (in the spirit of nose to tail gastronomic studies?) as the Organ of the University of Gastronomic Sciences, is a beautiful thing, like all the Slow Food publications. Helpful in many ways to be part of an organisation started by writers.

And Anthropology of Food is a webjournal produced by a network of European food academics.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Piemonte Thursday

We spent our last day touring Torino's ethnic markets with Vittorio Castellani, journalist, broadcaster and self-declared gastronomad, known locally as Chef Kumalé. An anthropologist by training, he has put his background to good use in communicating the issues, circumstances and foods of Torino's ethnic communities. He's a writer as well, and worked with our friends at Lavazzo to write Coffee Roots. He was kind enough to agree to an impromptu book signing at our meeting point, outside the Hamam, which originally served as the bath house to Torino's immigrant workers. We toured the facility later: abandoned for 20 years, it's been refurbished and offers meeting spaces, a cool and tempting basement restaurant and a turkish bath open on alternating days to men and women.

These are the tenements where the workers lived, above the market. Abandoned now, they held workers from the south of Italy and from many immigrant communities; they still host occasional squatters, many these days coming from China.

The food market is large and varied and sprawls across many streets and buildings: this is the farmer's market section, an unusual feature in Italy where the food markets nowadays tend to be straight retail operations selling imported produce. One of Slow Food's projects is to try to develop a network of farmer's markets around the country.

The market changes to reflect the communities it serves. In the enclosed section of the food market, Italian traditional producers now also sell cheeses and salumi tailored to Romanian tastes. There are areas of the market for all the different regions of Italy as well: we passed a little slice of Puglia, way up here in the north.

From an Asian-run stand, you can buy a bit of pork tongue or veal nerves. Why not?

We checked out a local Moroccan bakery, serving that community's needs for pastries and sweets. These are part of its culture; a social currency as well as a food tied to religious observance. When breaking Ramadan fast, sweets and pastries are some of the allowed items. Packed with dates, nuts and honey they are a quick, effective source of energy to bodies depleted by fasting.

In the courtyard at Torino's mosque. It's the simple grey door left of centre in the photo, situated in the courtyard of a tenement well hung with laundry and plastic sheeting. There were 24 of us there, which was comfortable; every Friday afternoon 20,000 moslems head in here for worship, aiming for one of the 200 spaces inside. The ensuing tension and conflict are widely reported, but nobody seems to know what to do about it.

After we parted from Vittorio, we leapt back into the bus and sped off to Eataly for lunch. Built in a former vermouth factory, it's a large and impressive edifice, one of the new wave of groceries (not unlike Whole Foods?) promising products for all budgets and offering a whole consumer experience. We started our day there with very good bread and lovely pizza (mine had fresh tomatoes, ham, anchovies and burrata - a fresh mozzarella with cream).

We travelled round the facility with Sebastiano Sardo, Slow Food's man in Eataly. He shows us a whole lot of beer. Unusual for Italy.

A whole lot of wine. Not so unusual.

A Spanish wood fired oven explained in part why the bread and pizza were so good...

Education is a big part of the picture: the seasonal wheel shows families, as they enter the store, what's in season here.

The store has a library where you can browse food guides, surf the internet and even buy books and Slow Food paraphernalia.

The foods of Piemonte, a special display which gives a bit of history and background to the foods of the area.

Paying tribute to the building's origins, there's a vermouth museum on the top floor, with these cool copper sniffing devices which give you a sense of the relevant aromas.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Piemonte Wednesday

We had a morning at the Pollenzo campus with some of the Slow Food folk on Wednesday. Representatives of the Slow Food International, Slow Food Editore and the Foundation for Biodiversity gave us a talk on their mandates and activities. It was a helpful boost to our understanding, half a year since our last talk from them, and was particularly useful for classmates hoping to do internship postings with the organisation. We left for Bra, where the offices and our lunch were waiting.

Where it all began: the restaurant in Bra where the Slow Food movement became a reality.

Italian sushi, quipped Piero Rondolino, who joined us for lunch. We had lardo, salsiccia di Bra - a delicately spiced raw veal sausage, and carne cruda battuta al coltello (raw, hand-cut veal). All delicious.

Then some pasta, followed by the best panna cotta in the world? Maybe, surely in the running, lots more research needed. It was sweet, soft, delicate. Creamy but not too rich. And very pretty.

Back on the bus, after a shuffle round the hot, closed-for-lunch town, and away we sped towards our final Italian winery in San Martino Alfieri. Not sure what was ahead, we strolled up the path...

Heading in the right direction for Marchesi Alfieri winery...

A very old grapevine (for table grapes)

And hey presto there we were in a castle with beautiful grounds, meeting our winemaker Mario Olivero, who gave us another talk about my beloved Barbera, which is the main one of the several varieties of red wines they produce. A neglected grape, it was dismissed as fit only for table wine until about fifteen years ago, when a few and then many Piemonte winemakers began to take it seriously for its fruit and body and capacity for ageing. Now there are some 50 million bottles produced in the region, and it's the area's second most important variety. We sampled a couple of different years each of Marchesi Alfieri's Alfiera and La Tota wines, and yes they were very good indeed.

After the cellar tour, Marco introduced Elena Rovera, from Cascina del Cornale, the organic cooperative that is an agriturismo, restaurant and seller of organic products, situated in Magliano Alfieri, between Alba and Asti. And what a spread she put on for us...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Piemonte Tuesday

Breakfast on the road. Only at the best eateries in Italy? Surprised us all by having what might be the best croissants we'd ever tasted.

Unfortunately good taste did not extend to their selection of Hitler beer and dictator wines...

We arrived in Torino ready for our day of coffee at the Lavazza Training Centre, and sure enough we were coaxed into our seats after lashings of freshly made Lavazza espresso. After a morning learning about the ins and outs of Italian coffee production and marketing, and a bit of the bean's history and geography, we went for a tasting session of a dozen different coffees, both robusta and arabica varieties.

There was a dramatic difference between all of them, tasted side by side like that. Under the natty tutelage of the company's Golden Palate, we learned the sniff 'n slurp method of coffee tasting, and heard about the differences between wet and dry processing: washed and unwashed beans, and the various ways of preparing them for roasting. We got a whole new tasting vocabulary, learning new defects like quakery, grassy, woody and fermented.

Lavazza has the biggest roasting operation in Italy and the lion's share of the domestic market, and so it's important to keep pressing forward to stay ahead of the competitors (...can I resist saying: in the poisonous growth economy we find ourselves in?) and we heard about a few of the new product lines, which ranged from worthy to silly. Many of them were spawned (and as you will shortly see I use the word advisedly) through the company's partnership with Spanish foam-meister, chef Ferran Adria.

Here we see the Coffeesphere, a bit of complicated nonsense to create a hit of sweet, gooey coffee substance that has the shape and texture of a soft-boiled egg yolk.

And syringes, perforated plexiglass slabs and a snappy lab coat are required to make the same thing, only smaller, so they can call it coffee caviare.

There was also a sweet, sticky foam coffee that came out of a nitrogen canister, like the ones restaurants use for whipped cream, making something called Espesso that, being foam, is the coffee that doesn't spill. They've even designed a special coffee spoon with a hole in the middle as if to prove to skeptics that it really isn't a liquid anymore. Well, maybe in a market that finds Italian television watchable it could work, I don't know.

And this miracle of twentieth century necessity: your very own tube of UHT milk foam for those moments of crisis when you must have spuma (foamed milk) now now now. If that's the sort of thing that amuses you, you might want to invest in a special plastic cup with a divider in the middle to drink it from. I guess what I found most disturbing about the innovation section was the amount of packaging and plastic and all round waste it was generating for the sake of stimulating a saturated market. We're a long way from a simple coffee bean here.

The company has other promotional devices, like their vamped up girlie calendar (shades of Italian television with its partially dressed presenters) that made me feel less and less Italian by the minute. But produces some excellent print publications. And there's its worthy sustainability project, Tierra, which lets the company pump a bit of money and development aid back into coffee-growing economies. Long may that project last.

We finished our day with a tour of the highly automated factory, dodging unmanned forklifts and miles of conveyor belts, and pondered the acres of warehouse with its robotic shelf-stockers gliding silently up and down the towers of packaged coffee, reading bar codes and pulling pallets out and putting pallets in. Surreal and strange and not a little overwhelming.

And then we were turned out for a free hour or so in the hot streets of Torino - everything having just shut for the evening - until it was time for supper at Pizzeria Le Rondini, with its decidedly, and thankfully, manual production methods.

Many of us had the house specialty, which had a thick, chewy crust filled with fresh ricotta, and topped with buffalo mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and salami.

We dined with Piero Rondolino, owner of Tenuta Colombara, a farm which produces the estimable Acquerello Rice, whose business we sadly didn't get to visit. He grows the prestige risotto rice variety, Carnaroli, and ages it to give it better flavour and texture. It's an organic business, and he uses a number of creative methods to manage it; he told us about the dragonflies they introduce to the fields to eat the mosquitoes that breed there.

After supper, a few of us slipped away to bide our time in the neverending summer evening queue at Grom's mother ship.