Saturday, July 2, 2011

è la passione

First off, I acknowledge that I’m the worst. Apologies, Mom, for not writing often enough; and then writing and condensing what has been a pretty damn good time into a short series of not-so-thinly veiled complaints.

That’s not what I meant, that’s not how I wanted this to go, this hasn’t been my best effort, I just put my bread in the oven, can I start again?

Can I change my answer?

Over a glass of sparkling wine on a late summer’s evening last night (apparently I will now be sickeningly positive) several colleagues (read: fellow students/friends) of mine were discussing our experiences thus far in Bra and UniSG. Two girls had the idea of checking in on another at the beginning of each month: in one word, what are you feeling right now? It’s like heading back to base for de-briefing and cocktails. (That was for you, Patch. New game: how many movie quotes can I incorporate; how fast can you find them? Sorry, Ka, you’ve already lost.)

Anyway, our group went around the table with our one word, and for whatever reason had to make the corresponding facial gesture for photo-documentation purposes. The overriding theme was concern – why do I still not know what I’m doing with my life? Why is my wallet empty? Will it always be empty? Seriously, will I ever get a job that I enjoy even half as much as I enjoy eating? - but there was also a good measure of cautious optimism, excitement, and energy. Never being one to think well on the spot, I said some combination thereof, and then made some bizarre expression. I’m fairly sure I looked constipated. But after thinking about it, I would like to revise my answer.

It’s passion. That’s my real word.

It turns out that Italians are quite passionate. No, I didn’t just figure it out (give me some credit.) But it’s something that strikes me time and time again in this country, and the thing about passionate people is that they don’t really get old. Even when you don’t share their interest, their passion is nonetheless contagious and invigorating.

I’m talking about Teo Musso’s dedication to creating a culture which pairs food with beer, and not in a pizza & Peroni way; but rather enabling an active discussion on how the complexities of an artisanal beer made from entirely Italian materials can stand up to the richness of Piemontese meat. That man oozed passion out of his pores; he is a rock-star.

But there’s also the more subdued passion, the kind that takes a cigarette and a caffè in order to properly manifest itself in front of 26 eager students on an early morning. This was Mario of Finocchio Verde, a man who somehow pulled off what a lesser man would never have dared: making these formerly eager but quickly famished students of gastronomy wait and wait and wait for lunch…just so he could prepare the feast himself. Before you eat his cheese, you must first understand the process by which it’s made; and the best way to do that is for him to curdle that morning’s fresh milk in front of you (just after spoon-feeding it to you for quality control, obviously.) So even if that meant lunch is delayed by an hour, you can savour all the varieties of sheep’s milk cheese with that much more gusto and appreciation; you have watched him in his element, he has transmitted his passion (which is as equally addictive as his cheese.)

And there was Piero and Maria Nova of Acquerello, who have taken something so ancient and seemingly simple – rice – and transformed it. Why not age the rice in its husk and allow its starch to stabilize and develop? Why must you only use the germ – once separated from the grain after milling – as animal feed? It tastes good, right? Why not melt the fat in the germ and, through centrifugal motion, incorporate it back into the rice? It takes time and passion to go from far-fetched idea to reality, and a pretty tasty one at that. And yet they’ve done so, and will continue to do so.

And of course there’s the most genuinely passionate Cristiano De Riccardis, our Cheese Tasting professor. People are often intimidated by experts, particularly when it comes to something so seemingly subjective as sensory analysis. This intimidation often translates into disdain or dismissal: there’s no way that guy can perceive all those things in this wine. It smells like wine to me, so he must be a pretentious prick. So there was clearly this danger during our class when, after discussing the exterior surface of the taleggio cheese (rough and humid, without uniform distribution of the natural flowery moulds), the nail (thin and absolutely uniform), and the colour of the paste (straw yellow and also absolutely uniform), our professor perceived – and expected us to perceive as well – aromas of beer yeast, rendered (not fresh) butter, fermented hay, apricot, animal hair and sweat, and just a touch of honey (of the acacia variety – chestnut honey being too bitter.) And that was just the olfactory evaluation; the palate provided different sensations of olive paste and garlic; soy sauce and anchovy; nutmeg and toffee and caramel and clove, and of course let’s not forget the cow hair. Always the animal sensations. For some people this would be too much. But I’ve never met anyone who loves cheese as much as Cristiano, and more importantly who wants you to understand, and appreciate, and love it just as much as he does. If he’s taking the time to smell, clean his nose, and repeat, it’s because the cheese has so much to offer, and he doesn’t want to deprive you of its organoleptic wonders.

And most recently there’s Gianfranco Fagnola, of Panetteria Fagnola in Bra. Without hesitation, his mamma and pastry maestra welcomed two sweaty students into their bakery to share their stories and goodies. Frolla con gianduia, you will be the end of me. Upon his arrival, Gianfranco fed us piadine di kamut con coppa, grissini al cioccolato, and whatever other treats we wanted. His life and work are not just about passion, but humility. Mai avere la presunzione di essere arrivati; never be presumptuous enough to think that you have arrived. Your bread can always be better, there’s always more to learn, and everyone has something to offer. So get out there, explore, exchange experiences and knowledge, learn and teach, and have another cookie in the meantime.

Simple ideas pursued with unwavering passion. All it takes is some time and a question or two, and people will share with you what they know and what they do, and you’ll probably get some great beer/rice/cheese/bread/more cheese/treats out of it.

So screw “concern.” It’s the passion that comes to mind, and passion that matters most. Sometimes we say things are trite when really it’s because they’re true.

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