Thursday, June 14, 2012

And, scene.

“On your first day of class, I said that you would end this year more confused than when you started. Well, I was right, no?”

Silence. And then: a collective, half-hearted chuckle.

Gifted orator you may be, Carlin, but perhaps acknowledging our grim post-grad employment prospects – and in front of our parents, no less! – was not the most auspicious start to a graduation ceremony speech.

But he had a point. Yes, the transition from the world of UniSG to the “real” one is not likely to be the easiest. But the foundation is there: the seed has been planted, to use the obvious yet no less apt metaphor. Our minds are fecund, Petrini assured us (though this phrase sounded much better in Italian.) The true value of the past year, he continued, lies not in the intelligence of the mind we have gained, but in our much strengthened emotional intelligence.

Silence. And then: sideways glances and smirks shared amongst colleagues.

Bravo, capo, for so deftly glossing over the university’s less-than-stellar reputation for academic rigor.

But perhaps we so easily read into Petrini’s statement because we were already two steps ahead of him. Long ago – I’d say about last July – we realized that the greater learning and growing experiences would happen outside of Pollenzo, in Bra and beyond.

With their gratuitous explanations of that dreaded trifecta of “good, clean, and fair,” the multiple and poorly-timed Slow Food classes did much to challenge our reverence of The Snail, at least as an Organization. Rather, it was the meals and travels we shared that reinforced in our minds what slow food is truly all about: responsibility and conviviality – two values that successfully retain their value, at least in my mind, despite being thrown around quite often.

So, sì, Carlin, in the past year our emotional intelligence has greatly increased, in direct correlation with our waistlines – and inverse to our pockets. Indeed, when I left Baltimore one year ago, that was the only expectation I had: to leave Bra broke and fat, but ultimately happy.

And here I am, in Belgium via Croatia, with frites and herring in my tummy and less time than I would have liked before sending my computer home with my brother.

The Bra is off.  

I wanted to make some attempt – however weak or excessively emotional – to give a sense of personal closure to my year and one final recap for a blog that, though started with the best of intentions, fell by the wayside as soon as the wine was poured and the lardo sliced. But that, too, failed. So I’ve got this.

In the end, my thesis – ambiguously “Words, Walks, & Work: on the Value of Wine Communication” (it made sense while jet-lagged in Abu Dhabi) – was more of a personal reflection than an academic piece worthy of being called a “Master’s thesis.” I’m ok with that, if only because the paper began with hobbits and ended with pork fat, with some random musings of a wine novice awkwardly thrown in the middle. Heavy on the emotional intelligence, light on the actual sort, and in that way an honest reflection of this year. Hell, I even made myself cry a bit at the end, but I’m sure a lot of bullshit sounds profound coming off a 42 hour journey. I haven’t re-read it since.

And then, the “defense” of said thesis, in which the panel remarked that it’s hard to academically critique a personal reflection; also, you failed to mention the wine – what was it actually like?


Indeed. In writing on the myriad ways in which people “missed the point of wine,” I, too, had missed the point. Can I also blame that on jetlag?

Luckily my white lace and four inch high-heeled sneakers bumped me up to an acceptable mark. Ah, to study in Italy, where it does not matter what you do (or do not) say, but how you look while you say it.

And then, the thesis was over; school was over, and it was time to ship out. But not before several carne cruda and negroni fueled late nights.

My friend Kathryn said it best over a final graduation dinner at a local agriturismo, Casa Scaparone. In a sort of “series finale” end to our year, the whole cast of memorable players came together in a way that had never before happened (Mamie eating Dutch appeltaart?! My heart is about to explode.) But we did, and we ate and shared the sort of incredibly honest and satisfying Italian food that people always talk about but rarely truly enjoy. A long table fit for fourteen consistently replenished with multiple courses (and multiple within each course) was certainly not a new experience. But, to paraphrase KT, these moments become truly transcendent when they happen naturally, and you find yourself surrounded by good food shared with your favourite people.

Call it emotional intelligence if you will; or one ridiculous, gluttonous vacation. Or even graduate school. I’ll need more than a couple weeks to emotionally and physically digest it all.  

Friday, May 4, 2012

the end of all things (in NZ)

My name is Julia, and I drink Chardonnay and Pilsner. Also, my pants fit.

Two months in New Zealand, and this is what I have to say for myself. 

How did that happen?

Nothing a little carne cruda and multiple negronis can’t fix. Bra, here I come!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

thesis thoughts

A wise man once said, “it takes a lot of beer to make good wine.” Touché. Perhaps I could offer a corollary: it takes a lot of beer to write about good wine.
No, that’s just an excuse for drinking. (And a pathetic one at that.)
Let me start over.
“Well, you see, I just wanted to go there. I figured I’d find the story once I was there.”
Matthew Fort’s ostensibly wise words comforted me that my decision to go to New Zealand was not a foolish one. Just one brilliant idea would suffice; others must surely follow. He had wanted to travel around Sicily and write about it, and by Jove, he did. Never mind that at that point of his life he was already a well-established writer and editor at The Guardian…with a publisher. I am twenty-four with a much-neglected blog that even my Mom has stopped reading.
But I had already booked a ticket, so I ignored the obvious. I’ve wanted to come to New Zealand for a long time, well before I skipped school to buy the just-released extended edition of The Return of the King. (Yes, I did that.)
The first part – getting here - was no problem. It’s been nearly five weeks since I arrived in Windy Welly, and what a whirlwind it has been! (Yes, I did that.) From the Vynfields rosé that rivaled its provençal counterparts and the peppery, pork fatty Schubert syrah of Martinborough to shelling out an absurd amount of cash to prove that I indeed do not have TB and am consequently fit for migrant labour; across the Cook Strait to the omnipresent gooseberry and green Marlborough Sauv-Blanc (actually saying Sauvignon Blanc makes you sound like a wanker); then resilient Christchurch, luxurious Queenstown, and Cromwell. I have no adjectives for Cromwell. Its main attraction is giant plastic fruit. Oddly enough, it’s a mere ten kilometers from arguably the country’s best Pinot Noir. Of course I can dub it a “mere 10K” now that I’m not biking said distance at seven in the morning. Two weeks of fruit-picking, botrytis detritus, and smoko breaks, and here I am again in Wellington, with dirty hands and a slight farmer’s tan.
But I haven’t yet found the story. I have twenty days to find it, research it, and write a thesis about it. Like I said, it takes a lot of beer to write about wine.
So now, I’ll propose a poll, hopefully cathartic and revelatory in some bizarre way.
Is the story...
…about the extent to which the New Zealand wine industry acts as a sustainable model?
God, I hope not. This is the sort of argument we’ve been discussing ad nauseam. I could easily switch a couple of proper nouns and submit that paper; I’ve written it at least three times before. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a worthy topic, but not one I’d like to devote more than ten minutes to.
…biodynamic wine in New Zealand? A case study of Felton Road.
I’m already bored.
…the current conversation in wine? With the demise of Parker-esque scoring systems, and the arguable rise of a new generation concerned with issues of sustainability, what is the next phase of wine journalism?
It could make for a mildly interesting five paragraph blog post. That I would neglect to write.
…Old World vs. New World: is this a false dichotomy? What can one teach the other?
Beyond my knowledge/capabilities. No, thanks.
…a comparison of the New Zealand and Italian wine industries; one, rooted in thousands of years of history, the other roughly the same age as the unified Italian state. Yet both – like much of the wine world – underwent significant changes in the 1970s and 1980s: where are they now, and what does this mean?
A potentially legitimate idea…that would require even more legitimate planning, research, time, and intelligence. I have twenty days.
…Wine travel in the 21st century.
I came to New Zealand with high hopes of grand adventures. Perhaps I’d read too much Mario Soldati and other memoirs of wealthy middle-aged men; they were living in a truly dynamic moment of wine. I’m just a girl biking from cellar door to cellar door, pretending that this “experience” will “develop my palate” and “broaden my vision of wine.” Did I say broaden? I meant blur.
So there’s the rub: you’re twenty-four, interested in wine: great, where do you start?
But really, where do I start?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

I don't want to know... many kidneys a lamb has.

Because if they're are anything like us – and I’m fairly sure they are, at least in this respect - I may have eaten my way through four little guys. With a side of bacon.

I wish I could say:

a. That it was four in the morning, and I was drunk.

(I wasn't. It was a sober dinner.)

b. That I misunderstood the menu description.

(I didn't. It said "Lamb kidneys with bacon." I got lamb kidneys with bacon.)

c. That my reason for choosing the restaurant - it was the favourite haunt of Viggo Mortensen - was ultimately justified; that my prolonged deliberations over "should I eat kidney number-that-shall-not-be-named?" were interrupted by the cast of the Hobbit mirthfully parading in and regaling me with tales over many a pint and unshod tabletop jigs.

(They didn't. But isn't that a great offal-OD-induced hallucination?)

No, none of the above happened. I just ate a ridiculous amount of lamb kidneys. I told myself that this, along with other slightly shameful Kiwi dining experiences, has been a lesson in how the other half eats. But in this case that would only be true if "the other half" meant Johan and Eddy. And even that's a stretch. They have standards and limits.

On the way home I bought spinach and a carrot as some sort of pathetic attempt to atone for yet another sin of gluttony.

In fact my greater shame is that this is my first post from New Zealand, where I have been visiting wineries, working the harvest, chasing hobbits, discovering the glories of the Kiwi Pilsner, and eating an awful lot of offal. (Sorry, it had to happen.) Now that I've left the internet desert of Central Otago - and only have the minor distraction of writing my thesis - I'll write a bit more about exactly what I have been doing here. Of course I'll have to figure that out, first.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Dario Cecchini: the man, the meat, the mind-fuck

That was my original title for this piece.

It was shit (which I realized soon after my rant.) So here is the revised version, which my professor called a "great improvement." Phew.

“Where’s the beef?” my friend asked as I walked out of the butcher shop empty-handed.

“No beef for us. I just met the Soup Nazi of Tuscany.” Pathetic attempts at humour seemed the only antidote to my dejection: I saw her outdated pop-culture reference, and raised her a Seinfeld. I wasn’t proud of myself.

After traveling with friends for several weeks in Tuscany, I decided that a bistecca alla fiorentina was the only acceptable way to celebrate our last night together. I had long felt familiar with Tuscan cooking, as evidenced by my graceful dipping of cantucci in vin santo while simultaneously bragging of my foresight to bring my own mini salt cellar to land of notoriously bland bread. But yet the bistecca, the most emblematic dish of Tuscany’s most emblematic city, had somehow eluded me. I shouldn’t have been so proud of myself.

While there is no shortage of restaurants serving bistecca in Florence, the hands-off process seemed all wrong. If you are going to indulge in the primal pleasures of bloody meat, you must first do as our ancestors did: build the fire over which to cook it. Or at least that’s what I said to convince my friends to go out and collect kindling.

What’s so great about the bistecca? The key is the quality of the meat and the stark oppositions achieved through proper preparation. Cooking over intense heat allows a thick, charred crust to develop on the surface. An open flame is crucial to develop the juxtaposition of a robust smoky aroma and subtle sweetness. But with minimal cooking time, the inside remains practically raw. Rather than a gradual swatch-like progression from palest pink to deep red, the contrasting colours are side-by-side, creating a carnivorous yin and yang. While the exterior shows how heat can elevate meat, the cool and mild center showcases the quality of the raw material, which needs little intervention.

The perfect bite thus involves all senses: the irresistible smell of smoky meat, the slight crunch as you bite into the crust which then transitions to a tender chew, the cooling sensation of the center, the simultaneous sweet and savoury notes, and the visual beauty of good company sharing a meal around a fire. That was what I wanted. I was on a mission.

Dario Cecchini is the only famous butcher in Chianti – and probably all of Italy – and after reading about him in several books, I knew where I had to go to buy my bistecca. A gastronomic pilgrimage to his native Panzano would surely be worth the effort, both for the purportedly unparalleled quality of his product and his reputation for spontaneous performances of Dante’s Inferno. What could be more Tuscan that that? I was on my way.

In Panzano, I could easily recognize Dario’s shop from the crowds socializing outside. Though its red and white color scheme ranks several notches above the stereotypical checkered tablecloth, the allusion is not lost, and the effect is oddly intriguing. Walking inside, Dario's young and enthusiastic minions greet me with a fiasco of unremarkable table wine and a leaning tower of glasses. Before I know it I’ve drunk up these Tuscan clichés and am already asking for seconds. Yes, Dario knows exactly what he’s doing.

To pair with the wine Dario provides his take on the omnipresent fatty and peppery Tuscan trio: piles of bread doused in neon green olive oil, whipped lardo, and obnoxiously thick slices of finocchiona. Once the savoury snacks have mellowed the sangiovese’s aggressive acidity and my hunger, I feel ready to explore Dario’s World.

Several cloven carcasses hang just beyond the spread, luring passers-by into a gastronomic red light district. From behind thick glass they can gawk at the marvels of flesh: one derives a perverse pleasure, even if they are bovine and decomposing. But it is Dario who draws my immediate attention. While interacting with guests he effortlessly incorporates his meat cleaver into a finger-pinch vertical motion – the most Italian of gestures – and I realize: he has lured us all in with the promise of a meal, and now we’ll have to stick around for the show.

Dario presents to the American tourists a beautiful package of Tuscany, featuring much of what they have been taught to expect from endless romanticized depictions: the generous bounty of the table and the chaos of the shop, which has been carefully manipulated to appear as the oh-so-charmingly Italian variety as opposed to the I-just-want-to-pull-my-hair-out strain. This game – that of Italians exploiting foreigners’ perceptions of their country - is not a new one, but Dario is certainly one of the best players around.

As Dario’s latest performance ends and guests begin to clear out, I inch my way towards him in hopes of asking him about his work. I’m a student of gastronomy, I reason, and surely he wouldn’t mind taking a few minutes to chat. I choose a hefty sirloin and ask how he would recommend to cook it: would al sangue be best?

Al sangue?! Al sangue does NOT exist! There’s only one way to cook a bistecca! So why would you ask that question?!”


Dumbstruck, I foolishly venture an even pricklier question: where did he source his product?

Despite his obvious Tuscan pride, the majority of the meat in Dario’s shop is raised and slaughtered in Spain before being transported to Panzano. The irony is not lost on him. Though he had once passionately performed a carefully reasoned and rehearsed speech in his defense, I can tell he has long since grown tired of trotting out the same argument to sanctimonious worshippers of the local. His exhaustion had become bitter indignation, and I was left alone to bear the brunt of it.

“ ‘Zero kilometer’ does NOT exist! You think your pigs in California are local, but where does their food come from? Iowa! Ha!”


Trying to re-direct the conversation, or rather in hopes of creating one and preempting the impending diatribe, I ask what breed of cattle he raises.

I should have known: in a world where “al sangue” and “zero kilometer” do not exist, then differences in animal breeds certainly cannot.

“It’s quality – I only care about QUALITY! Race does not exist!”

Yes, I had done it. I had pushed him past his breaking point.

My intermediate level Italian courses had not prepared me for such a thickly Tuscan-accented discourse on race relations. I am too busy trying to find out what happened to the “c” sound that I cannot make the connection between Barack Obama and beef. But I think his point is this: if Martin Luther King, Jr. had fought so hard for the equality of races, why do we insist that one breed of animal is better than another?


I try to pay for the bistecca in hopes of resolving the tension of the situation and enabling a swift exit. This conversation is going no where, fast, and I want to make sure that I can at least walk out of the shop with something for dinner and some pride intact. Dario, however, has other plans in mind.

“I am a serious butcher! I have been doing this for more than thirty years! Ask more interesting questions!” he bellows as he vigorously shakes his head, refusing my money. There would be no bistecca in my future, at least not that night.

How I had failed the in the most seemingly straightforward part of my quest? The long ride back to our agriturismo allowed me to gather the thoughts that Dario’s booming voice had scattered. To a certain extent, I could understand his annoyance. Local versus global, tradition versus innovation, and organic versus conventional: have these dichotomies been discussed to the point of abstraction? As in the case of the perfect bistecca, sometimes contrast is necessary and illuminating. But it can also force the debate into black and white terms, leaving no room for the complexities of reality. For all his rhetoric, this was essentially Dario’s point. So he cast these issues aside and focused entirely on one standard alone: quality. If restricting himself to his native Chianti would mean lesser quality, then he wouldn’t do it. He would source his product from somewhere else in order to deliver the best product possible. Though his tone was off-putting, his candor was admirable. As he suggested, much worse sins against food have been committed and then ignored or repackaged with an image of a happy farmer and cow.

Dario is quick to claim much of the credit for the recent renaissance of the bistecca, whose integrity was threatened by EU regulations to prevent the spread of mad-cow disease. But after meeting the man and his product, I wondered if this was not a rebirth but a distorted re-interpretation.

Ironically, for someone so well-aware of his stature and fame, he has underestimated himself. Dario’s substantial and consistent clientele have given him considerable power in the local market. If he demanded Tuscan-raised beef of a certain quality, surely local farmers would respond. Does Dario have so little faith in his compatriots?

On his website Dario writes that to eat a bistecca alla fiorentina “is to enter into communion with Tuscany itself.” You can take the meat out of Tuscany, he seems to say, but you can’t take Tuscany out of the meat. But can you?

on tasting & remembering

I was charged with writing the menu for last week's Farewell Feast (compliments to chefs Non Solo Eddy & the Curious Dane, featuring Lindsay on pastry.) Having received a vague description of the tasting menu, this is what I came up with - an almost-rhyming collection of ambiguous allusions to our year in food & travels.

On a hot summer day, it was all we could say

To start, your mouth we’ll divert

With a taste of dessert

- – -

But Italy is more than ice cream

From north to south and in between

Four stages, four starches: wheat, potato, corn, & rice

One knudel would suffice,

But to more pasta, who would think twice?

- – -

Then we travel abroad, beyond the Stivale

Might we interest you in something different,

Perhaps a palle?

(Carved tableside, there’s no need to hide!)

- – -

A cheese so rare, even Cristiano and Mirco did it elude

Is it rendered or fresh aromas of the Alpage that it exudes?

- – -

If food is memory, as surely it has been

To end, a sweet homage to all the places we’ve seen

From the Alps to Greek monasteries, Tuscan villages to Calabrian seas,

We returned to Bra after the vines of the Douro,

Here’s to many more of these moments in our tomorrow.


The actual menu went something like this:

Cipolle di Tropea corn-dog amuse-bouche

"Gelato" of carne cruda, Chirine's hummus, baccalau

Knüdel, braised beef

Paccheri, 'nduja

Risotto al nebbiolo

Greek lamb "offcuts"

Bitto e birra

Campari gelée, fennel granita

Semolina cake, yoghurt gelato, pistachio tuile

Gianduia soufflé, hazelnut tuile

Bravissimi, ragazzi.

We wrote personal limericks for each of our colleagues as party favours.

Who could this be?

With a hobbit she wants to hitch

Raw meat dinners she'll never ditch

Her heels leave a mark

And her roots are dark

Tell her and she'll say, "oh that's rich."

Thursday, March 1, 2012

time to go.

Our last class at UniSG is journalism. The professor thought the introduction to my piece had too much “tone” and that the language was a bit “strong.” I think it was a nice way of saying, “you sound like a huge bitch.” But isn’t that what he wanted, to tell a story like we were talking to our friends? Yes, I say “fuck” that much in casual conversation. It's my voice.

Instead, he’s looking for a discussion locality and authenticity.


In my current sleep-deprived and completely stressed-out state, I wrote this:

I was looking for the supposedly most authentic taste of Tuscany. It was an impossible quest, but through the journey I found much more.

And then part of my soul died. I didn’t think I was ready to leave Bra. But if this is all I have left, then it’s time I get the fuck out of here. Oh, pardon me. I mean it’s time to depart.