Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Slightly cooler and ever so much nicer in Parma

It's a mercifully cooler day here in Parma, and I'm sitting with my windows boldly open at 11.30 in the morning, fans off, enjoying a breeze. I can honestly say that's a sentence I haven't been able to write for months, and I'm grateful to be able to do it now.

Last night we had another farewell gathering: they get smaller and smaller as people take off for their summers 'n stages. About half a dozen of us were having a glass of wine together around 9pm when our chairs began to shake gently. We'd been talking about fast food, and although at first we suspected it was the Wrath of Carlini, we swiftly arrived at the conclusion we'd just experienced a mild earthquake (measuring 4.6, as it happens).

Oddly enough, I had been reading only on Sunday in my guidebook which told me that Parma's duomo was
"erected on the present site by heretic bishop Cadalus, who later became antipope Honorius II, but was destroyed by the violent earthquake of 1117 that shook the whole Po valley and left only parts of the apses standing."
We finished our glasses and headed into a breezy, almost chilly, evening and washed up at Sorelle Picchi, where I'd had my lunch, and this time ordered a big bowl of cappelletti in brodo, which were absolutely delicious.

While we were waiting for our food, we saw a man who'd stopped us on the street to ask if we'd felt the earthquake. He was in his seventies, I'd guess, and had his white table napkin draped around his neck: he and his wife, who hovered in the background, had been eating supper in their fourth floor apartment when they felt the vibrations and fled into the street, thinking Parma must be at the epicentre of some awful disaster, and were too afraid to go back inside. He paced up and down stopping everyone - passers-by, tourists, policemen - looking for some kind of reassurance. he disappeared eventually, but I saw him out on the street again this morning, still anxious but lacking his napkin.

Meanwhile I was spending some time today looking at YouTube videos and happened upon one for Unisg. It starts off well but then gets a little draggy with fuzzy tourist shots of Delhi and chops off suddenly at the end. But it was a delightful surprise:

Monday, July 30, 2007

A small gastro-tour

I'd visited Tribunale on Friday, though it has since closed for hols, and had a very tasty and interesting insalata rustica, made with warm cooked onions, slightly pickled, and pancetta.

Tammy and Sue came to visit on the weekend and we did our best to eat our way through the local offerings - what was left of them, as many places have already shut for summer holidays. We were enticed into Osteria del Gesso by fond memories, air conditioning (it was 38 degrees on Friday) and an "open" sign. Always good and often unusual food. Here's my starter which was a salad of strips of something from the octopus family on a bed of farro (aka spelt or, I have read, more accurately emmer)

Next course for me was a nice bit of lamb with an apple marmelade. My companions had excellent tortelli di erbette - some of the best I've tasted.

Ombre Rosse has often served the uni crowd well; it seems to be open when all else is closed, and its 1,500 item wine list is entertaining reading. They have an unusual menu, from which I chose the quail salad with peaches and foie gras - an odd but pleasing combination:

Gatta Matta is always excellent, and we had some wonderful food there. I've become a huge fan of tepid octopus salads, and got to have a bit of that here

followed by some lovely steak

and some very boozy zabaglione - I think they'd emptied the Marsala bottle into it (and the effect was not unpleasant, though perhaps I didn't need a delightful glass of passito on top) served with some excellent quaresimale (almond biscotti)

We finished our weekend with a second lunch at Sorelle Picchi, where my visitors made sure that the tortelli di zucca was in fact as delicious the second time as it had been the first (it was), and I had the triple-barrelled combination of tortelli - zucca, erbette and patate con funghi. All excellent. We washed it down with some inky cold frothy lambrusco. As you do.

Friday, July 27, 2007

We can't believe...

How did it happen? A year flits by and all of a sudden it's tearful farewells and no more pig farms, Unisg cheers, bus rides, charter airlines, wine tastings... how will we cope in the months to come?

The final week shaped up kind of like last week's, commencing with an exam and then moving swiftly through food marketing, journalism and a great big party. We had lunch on a riverboat on the Po

(photo from Andy)

with Carlo Petrini and our university staff and dignitaries.

After the food we had a little wisdom from the brow of Petrini,

and then some goofy awards and another gem of a slideshow (so there WAS a reason for taking those - must be literally millions of frames - cameras everywhere we turned all year) by our animators Don and Marta.

Next stop was Polesine Parmense, where we revisited the scene of last winter's visit when we learned about culatello di zibello.

(Photo from Andy)

We were attending the annual Spigaroli Awards (to local food heroes of various kinds) at the beautifully refurbished Antica Corte Pallavicina, which was about half finished on our last visit. It's now ready to roll as a swanky agriturismo for visitors who want a short and scenic walk to their dinner at Al Cavallino Bianco.

But on Wednesday tables had been set up around the perimeter of the courtyard and the Spigaroli brothers, Massimo and Luciano, were busy seeing to the comfort of their hundreds of guests. The hay bale corral in the middle holds a flock of black piglets who made up part of the award, one for each recipient: the Spigarolis would raise, slaughter and cure them, so the prize - in good Slow Food form - would be years in the making. We had some wonderful culatello, of course, including two kinds made from white and black pigs, each culatello aged 36 months.

And a wonderful tortelli in brodo with some exquisite cheese filled pastas in a light and warming broth - bliss to be in the cooling air eating such things. Fortified, the guests then enjoyed the awards ceremony, which included a special prize for Carlo Petrini.

And then it was the last couple of classes - marketing and wine tasting from Matteo Baldi, journalism from Clodagh McKenna, the last lunch together,

the last bus home,

the last visit to Tabarro,

rounds of signings (our brand new copies of Slow Food Nation, serving as school autograph albums)

and some emotional farewells...

Thursday, July 26, 2007


I managed to get myself to Bergamo last Friday on a trip of two trains. The first, from Parma to Milan was air conditioned (just) and equipped with curtains to keep out the worst of the heat on a day when the temperature was predicted to reach 41 celsius.

By the time we got to Milan it was, well, very warm out there, and I took my cue from the locals who were huddled in the coolish shelter of the underground passageway beneath the platform, swatting Milanese mosquitoes and waiting until the last moment to rush the trains as they arrived.

When one did, alas it was not air conditioned and you could choose either to pull down the shade or enjoy the hot rush of air from the opened windows, More cruel plastic seats. Fortunately the misery only lasted half an hour or so and then we were in Bergamo, and I fell gratefully into the hospitality of Nancy and Mike who met me at the station and escorted me to my hotel.

They would have helped me to my room as well but when the front desk clerk saw us heading for the elevators, she blanched and demanded to see their passports. I explained they were not staying, but helping me with my bags. After some further officious to-ing and fro-ing she said she simply could not allow three people to occupy a single room even temporarily, it was the law. Ah, Italian rules, How endless, peculiar and insane they are!

We then hopped on a bus and ascended to the citta alta: the prettiest, oldest and highest part of town, with excellent views and lots of wandering streets. We ambled through the pretty piazza with its Venetian fountain

and lions watching us from atop the colonnade of the public library, where Nancy writes on warm days looking out at the hills behind the city. We peered in at a couple of food shops and admired the local specialties on offer, and then sat ourselves down for a cooling beverage on the piazza. We supped at the Agnello d'Oro, including some casonsei, the Bergamo ravioli:

Saturday we ascended by funiculare, which was short but pleasant and had another amble through the warming streets before taking shelter in the church which houses the remarkable Tarsias by Lorenzo Lotto and Donizetti`s tomb with its weeping cherubs:

Then a second funiculare, way up to the top, where we tripped over a very fine lunch, lured in by the red water glasses and the stunning view.

Back down the mountain we went and found ourselves at the Galleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo where one of the featured artists was the very relevant Vanessa Beecroft, whose food diary, The Book of Food, was represented visually; she had somehow found the time to document everything she ate between 1983 and 1993. We also enjoyed a film whose name and author I forgot to write down, but which was a bit of visual poetry, white-garbed people creating fire on a disused airstrip in Essex, if memory serves.

Then back up the hill for some sups in a beautifully located but somewhat disappointing place, Antica Trattoria Colombina, recently given a thumbs-up by the Guardian which maybe spoiled it. Or maybe the chef was on hols. Or who knows. Anyway we enjoyed being out under the arbour of grapes and long beans...

Then it was Sunday and we managed a tour of Accademia Carrara, after which we were overcome by art, heat, sloth and hunger, and retired to casa Nancy e Mike where we lunched, napped, supped and slept. Before supper we had a reviving stroll in the cooling air and looked back at the citta alta in the sunset. The next morning I woke at 5.30 and began my journey back to Parma, which took till nearly 11 because of train problems. The problem, according the man sitting next to me and frowning into a fat book of train timetables, was that all the trains were late: the hot temperatures had deformed the rails. (Did it have anything to do with Sunday's train strike? We will never know.)

Friday, July 20, 2007


I was thinking for a while there that the Parmigiani simply didn't have sweat glands. Day after day we tender stranieri have been glowing fiercely morning and afternoon on the bus, while Italians of all ages dart here and there on bicycles, hatless, dry-skinned; on one shocking and typically overheated lunchtime we even witnessed one of the Italian students in a cardigan in the dining room. But yesterday's trip home on the curtainless air conditionless bus, the afternoon sun slamming in through the big windows, we were all dripping and miserable. One might even think, on seeing passengers disembark, that we had all been afflicted by some mass incontinence. It is unbearable.

There, I feel much better, sitting at my steaming laptop, a wet towel draped over my shoulders.

We had a mixed week, a food culture/history exam, some branding, some sociology, but my personal highlight was a talk on the technologies of development, from Ugo Vallauri, who is ex-Slow Food and now works for Computer Aid in Nairobi, where he has been exploring means of development aid publicity using high and low technologies. He told us about the difficulties of using computers let alone internet in an environment where power supplies are patchy at best, and where internet access is prohibitively expensive even where it is available. The telephone and cabling infrastructure doesn't exist, and so what access there is tends to use, like the much more influential medium of mobile phones, satellite technology.

Off to find some slightly cooler air in Bergamo now. As you'll see, I'm crawling through back-filling my Spanish postings. Only a couple more days to go. Maybe I'll finish next week.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The week that ended with Balsamico

Reports, exams and internet problems have been interfering with this blog. More to come on Spain, but maybe not for a couple of days. Meanwhile, back in Parma...

We are counting down now. Ten more days of classes and we're done, ready to scatter for the summer and then for two months of internships.

Odd to think that after months and months of constant contact we won't be seeing one another until graduation in November. Good and bad it's been, and I when I heard Leonard Cohen talking about monastic life in a recent BBC interview, it struck a chord:
"People think of this activity as somehow remote, isolated and serene, whereas it's much more abrasive than ordinary civilian life. In ordinary civilian life you close your doors at the end of the day and more or less you're alone with your television set, but in a monastery.. there's a zen saying: like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another."
We are, I think, well polished gastro-pebbles by now.

It's been a steamy week in Parma with the temperature set to rise and rise into next week; I can't say I'll miss the weather here (damp and cold in the winter; hot and humid in the summer, just the way the prosciutti like it). Nor will I miss my visits to supermercato Standa, where you can enjoy spiritual debasement with the rest of the long-suffering Oltretorrentini: standing in long, tedious queues which may randomly end with a terse "E chiuso" from the attending demon, at which point we all shuffle into another long, dispirited queue, and are then hectored into giving up complicated combinations of coins because from all appearances the check-out cashiers are charged for their change floats.

So here we melt. By night we toss in our hot rooms, only to rise welted and itchy from insect bites: spiders, mosquitoes, who knows. To judge by the volume of chittering along the river, the frogs are doing their best to control the numbers; the rondini (swallows) who took on the springtime airborne have all left for what I assume are cooler climates. There's an abandoned bird nest in the air vent in our kitchen that only coughs a bit of dust on the floor these days, no more face to face confrontation with the parents who for a couple of weeks hovered fiercely at the window, moths in beak, to demand what we were doing so near their home.

This week, several of those who didn't fall to Spanish ailments began to drop, and our numbers were reduced by nearly half for most of our classes. The end of Consumption Psychology: no more than a recap really of what we talked about before we left for Spain - who we are and our social circumstances influence what we eat and how we think about food - nothing too new there. Then Sociology of Food Consumption, where we talked about branding and advertising techniques as applied to food. Mostly it felt like a depressing recount of mergers and aquisitions among the likes of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, with less to do with artisanal brands or alternative markets. Then we had two delightful final tastings with Sandro Bosticco, who led us through discussions about the role of oxygen in winemaking, with a finale that featured four Pinot Noirs (three from Burgundy and one from New Zealand) and then group tastings of sparkling (Prosecco), red (Amarone) and sweet (Moscato - passito) wines.

Friday we got on our stage bus for the last time, leaving behind a host of fallen comrades (some suffering from late-breaking flu and others perhaps from a mild case of Friday nightis), to study balsamic vinegar production from industrial prosciutto makers Ferrarini, who as a family have the slightly surprising hobby of artisanal vinegar making. As balsamico derives its name from 'balsam' - as in healing substance - it was a shame we couldn't all be there to breathe the purifying perfumes, and taste the rapture, spoon by blessed spoon.

We learned about the rather lax standards for the substance known as Aceto Balsamico di Modena ("Modena Balsamic Vinegar") - which require that it be of a minimum acidity of 6%, made from grape must (minimum 20%) and vinegar, caramel (maximum 2%, for colour and flavour), with a minimum 60 days aging. Ferrarini make a higher quality product which is aged a minimum of 8 to 10 years, but on the grocery shelf, consumers won't understand the difference (other than price) when it's ranked against the lower end products. This version is the balsamico you use for cooking and salad dressings. The more precious condiment is another story entirely.

What we may think we're getting when we see the words balsamico and Modena and vinegar on a label is in fact correctly known as Tradizionale Balsamico, and there are two strains of it, one from Reggio-Emilia and one from Modena, made in more or less the same way but with a different balance of density and acidity, and bottled in different areas. They also have different quality standards: there are three quality levels for Tradizionale Balsamico di Reggio Emilia (red, silver and gold) and two for Tradizionale Balsamico di Modena. This is the highest end product, a thick, sticky goo that takes at least 12 years to make and should be doled out by the drop, as a condiment on strawberries or parmigiano-reggiano cheese, or even drunk from thimble-sized glasses after a meal or, according to Anna del Conte, diluted with ice and sweetened with a little sugar.

Before you get to that point, though, the stuff has to be made. According to tradition and regulation, it's made only from grape must: local grapes are crushed and cooked until the volume has reduced by 50-60%, leaving a high density, sweet syrup. It's fermented in barrels with only natural yeasts (present in air or the grapes themselves) for company. At the end of the year it will have reached about 6 or 7% alcohol, with lots and lots of residual sugars. A small quantity of older balsamico is added, containing live bacteria, and another two years or so go by while these bacteria carry out the acidification process which transforms the alcohol into acid.

Then the real fun begins, when it's decanted into a series of barrels of diminishing size, made of different woods: chestnut, oak, ash, mulberry, cherry and locust wood, which all add different flavours. There will be at least three but not more than ten casks, which are not sealed, the opening on the top covered with muslin to allow the liquid to thicken through evaporation. They are stored in vaults where the local climate can play its part: the cold winters concentrating the flavours, the hot summers evaporating the water content.

The barrels lose about a litre a year, so they are topped up in a formal process: the smallest barrel gets a litre from the next largest; that one gets two litres from its neighbour, and so on up the chain until the largest barrel receives about 30 to 40% newly acidified balsamico. This chain continues for between 12 and 25 years, at which point between 5-10% of the smallest barrel's content is decanted and sent to the consortium for testing.

The consortium determines which of the three levels the balsamico will be sold as. These are related to age, but not completely determined by it, as the tasting is the final arbiter. The "lobster red" labelled balsamico is at least 12 years old; the silver is 12-25 years; and the gold is at least 25 years old.

Because vinegar is a preservative, once you've invested your money (at least 30 euros for the red label, and upwards of 75 euros for the gold - in Italy; more if you buy it in other countries), you won't ever have to worry about it going off (perhaps you'd like to pass a bottle down to your grandchildren?). It does behave much like honey though, and has a tendency to crystallise; but, like honey, it can be restored to liquid state by gently heating the bottle in water.

We got back to sticky Parma in time to rest up before supper. A group of us went to see chef Davide at Ristorante Mosaiko and ate ourselves into a happy stupour, with my favourites being an outstanding guinea fowl salad, dreamy gnocchetti topped with amazing mozzarella, and an even better than last time slice of bonet for dessert. I'm still digesting today...

Monday, July 09, 2007

Spain 7: markets, Barcelona, adios

Two were left behind with awful colds when we set off for Barcelona, and another was on her way to visit the hospital en route. But wait! While crossing the road to the train station I realised my hip had gone out, and rather than wait to see if it righted itself while doing a walking tour of the city markets, I turned tail and joined the fallen for a day of rest. The hip gradually recovered, and thanks to some strange fizzy Spanish anti-inflammatories, I was upright again by nightfall.

Lucky thing too, because Sunday was a free day, and we transferred to the excellently located Residencia Campus del Mar in Barcelona, where we were handed tickets for the Touristic Bus and set free until Monday morning. We took full advantage and circled the town in our yellow headphones, disembarking at the Miro museum an hour before it closed (early on a Sunday afternoon), so after a sprint round there we hopped back on and then wandered up the Rambla until we found somewhere to eat on a side street. Gazpacho, tortilla and paella did the job nicely and thus fortified we ploughed on to Sagrada Familia and Park Guell.

It was cooling off enough to dare riding the top of the bus, which we did until we reached Parc del Palau Reial de Pedralbes, where we made a tactical error by thinking we could sprint across the city to our hotel at Barceloneta faster by metro.

Not quite. It was so late that, nearly home, we stopped for a small but substandard Chinese meal before rousing the security guard - busy spraying flies in his office - and turning in for our last night in Spain.

We gathered at the bus in the morning, a couple of fallen comrades left to rest up, another taken to seek medical help for a mysterious swollen lip that appeared to be an allergic reaction. The rest of us had an excellent talk from communications and quality director Jordi Tolra about the markets of Barcelona, which number 46 (40 of them food markets) and which aim to allow the citizens to be within walking distance of at least one of them.

Would that other cities could follow this policy! Some of them had even made what seem to me unholy alliances with supermarkets - the one where we had our lecture, Santa Caterina (a former monastery which had been, before the monastery, an ancient food market), had a small supermarket within its walls. Tolra explained that the markets are gathered under one umbrella organisation, which is part of the city government, but that the stall-holders themselves are independent, but joined together by trade associations which organise them by food type. These associations, he said, are a long tradition in Catalonia, which was once an independent state with its own king and culture; after it was annexed by Spain, it kept its culture alive by creating Catalan associations, and trade assocations were the first of these.

The markets have received a lot of money which is used for renovation and modernisation of the buildings, to bring them into line with contemporary needs (logistical, technological, environmental).

A few of us who'd missed the Saturday tour were taken round and shown the foundations of the monastery, the seniors' housing next door, built at the same time as the refurbishment, and the loading areas where a couple of the market's delivery vans were parked. Hearing that all the stall holders bought their produce at the same wholesale market disillusioned us a bit. There were, our guide said, a few stall holders who sold their own produce, but they were in the minority, and there were hardly any organic stalls either.

While carefully negotiating a hefty lunch from the organic tapas stand at the well thronged Boqueria market, I mulled over what we'd heard.

So if the food markets are buying their produce at the same place as supermarkets, where does the difference lie? I guess the sales are distributed to more and smaller sellers, who have less overhead and perhaps employ (en masse) more people with better expertise in their area. But Tolra was definite on the point that he wanted to drive traffic away from supermarkets and into the city markets: families that packed the kids into the car and drove to a supermarket for the day should be bringing them here instead. His vision of family entertainment was more wholesome than supermarket kiddieland, though: his programs aim to educate school children and offspring of visiting shoppers on food and nutrition, to counteract 'hamburger culture' and to bring kids into contact with food producers and sellers as well as teachers and nutritionists.

It's an interesting and busy area, and the markets have some impressive communication programs going. How successful the markets of the future will be will depend on whether the political winds continue to blow kindly and generously in the direction Tolra hopes to keep sailing.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Spain 6: wine and Bulli

We arrived at Viticultors Espelt, a winery in Girona that opened in 2000, and decanted the able-bodied for tour and tasting, while a pair of sufferers and their translators headed to hospital in search of antibiotics for respiratory tract infections.

We were presented with jolly orange sun-hats in which we set off in hot windy sunshine for a look at the vineyards.

It's a new estate, only aquired three years ago, and the winemakers are busy learning about their terroir, by experimenting with different harvests, agings and blendings. In this baking climate, the plantings are done strategically, matching the varietal to sun exposure, and using stronger vines like grenache to protect more fragile ones like syrah from the wind that blows in from the sea, visible from the hilltop we were standing on. The terraces along the hillside are being restored by dry stone walling, three km achieved in two years, by two people working full time. Global warming is playing its part here, and the harvests are coming earlier each year: traditionally done in mid September, they are now taking place in mid to late August. Such is the heat, the harvest takes place between 4am and 11am, otherwise the grapes would start fermenting in their skins as soon as they were picked.

As we walked back for our tasting, we passed a charming but unremarkable farmhouse, which the winemaker told us was by night a very exclusive and popular disco, Ranch Frank, started by Salvador Dali and his American girlfriend.

We dashed through the tasting - Mareny 2006 (Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat), Quinze Roures 2006 (Grenaches gris and blanc); some nice full-bodied reds, Saulo 2006 (Grenache and Carinyena) and Terres Negres 2004 (Carinyena and Cabernet); and finished off with Airam 1998, a sweet wine made in very limited quantities from Grenache grapes, using the Solera ("fractional blending") method, which is also used for sherry. It's aged in half full barriques using a complicated method of adding partially aged wines to the new (in a process I'd be reminded of when we learned about balsamico tradizionale) all of which allows controlled oxidation to leave its mark.

The bus with its slowly reviving occupants arrived and whisked us off to a lively seafront town called Roses,

where we had an excellent tapas lunch - sweet shots of gazpacho; mussels both in a cold vinaigrette and hot stuffed; a gorgeous but too-small school of anchovies in garlic oil; quail eggs;

calimari; octopus; patatas bravas;

and then some noodle-style paella with, of course, allioli, and strawberries and ice cream to finish, all washed down with lots of sangria.

A lucky thing we'd eaten well as we weren't offered so much as a speck of foam at El Bulli where all hands were busy preparing for supper.

A spectacular and slightly terrifying cliff-side drive from Roses, the much revered restaurant is only open six months a year, and they begin taking reservations from October.

The numbers involved are revealing... of something. In order to assure newcomers a place in the experience (which is around 30-35 small and ever-changing dishes for 185 euros per head plus wine and taxes) they have a policy of booking half the total 8,000 seasonal seats in repeat business and half new diners. There are 1,700 items on the book-like wine list, representing some 19,000 bottles in their cellars, and so the sommelier recommends you consult online before they start pouring into one of the 60 different wine glasses and 5 types of decanters. They have an electronic menu which you can use to filter your wine selections through your 30 food items if you want to complicate your life further; and of course there is a water list to choose from too.

The staff (67) outnumber the diners (50) but are not all paid employees, since there are 45 trainees (4 this year will be selected from 4000 applicants).

Ferran Adria stepped out of the kitchen long enough to engage in a bit of verbal ping pong about what is art (El Bulli is officially known this year as Pavilion G in the German art festival Documenta) and revealed he spends about 30 percent of his time talking to media and conferences.

After one last look at the dandy view from El Bulli's courtyard, we hopped back on our bus and arrived at Mataro, which Carlo explained was another word for Mourvedre, very appropriate. It was a nice hotel in a bad location - across the road from what I heard was not a great beach, and a couple of kms from town, so taxis were needed for any expeditions. After we tried the first night's hotel restaurant fare, we concluded these would henceforth have to include supper. Gazpacho in a wine glass? Phooey.