Thursday, June 14, 2012
Friday, May 4, 2012
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
...how many kidneys a lamb has.
a. That it was four in the morning, and I was drunk.
(I wasn't. It was a sober dinner.)
(I didn't. It said "Lamb kidneys with bacon." I got lamb kidneys with bacon.)
(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
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 Pathetic attempts at humour seemed the only antidote to my dejection: I saw her outdated pop-culture reference, and raised her a Seinfeld.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?
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?
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
Risotto al nebbiolo
Greek lamb "offcuts"
Bitto e birra
Campari gelée, fennel granita
Semolina cake, yoghurt gelato, pistachio tuile
Gianduia soufflé, hazelnut tuile
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
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.
Friday, February 24, 2012
With less than two weeks left in Bra, we figured it was time to start a communal blog to share our travels, feasts, and other bits of inspiration/procrastination that we come across. We’ll be spread across Europe (London & Campania), the States (New York & San Francisco), and Australia and New Zealand. There’s a lot of inside jokes, Mom, but it should still be interesting to see what other people are up to. I told you I wasn’t the only one still trying to figure my shit out.
(check out the About section.)
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Saturday, February 4, 2012
The photo would show me grinning foolishly in one moment and then spinning out of control the next. I would end up on my ass staring blankly at the sky, only thankful for the last ‘nduja burger which cushioned my fall.
It would look like this.
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Winter has finally arrived in Piemonte. This is now the view from our (crowded) bus ride from Bra to Pollenzo.
Non mi piace. So I’ve decided to hibernate. I’ll awake from my slumber only when my body has used up my fat reserves. Or when my employment prospects have improved.
(Not) a presto, Mom.
Photo compliments go to Yvonne de Zeeuw. For more of her lekker shots - and what I imagine is witty Dutch writing - check out her blog.
Monday, January 23, 2012
The New Year began in the most lekker* of ways: appeltaart, herring-pickles-onion sandwiches, North Sea shrimp(ies), dim-sum, more appeltaart, Indonesian krupuk and spicy delights, and every possible variation of fried dough.
Though it was great to be home for Christmas, two weeks in the Bawlmore burbs was more than enough time. Debates over the state of the economy and credit default swaps (between my younger brother and soon-to-be brother-in-law, no less**) prompted me to go pale and silent, freak out, and then desperately scan the room for anyone who would intelligently and energetically discuss the importance of lactic-acid bacteria. What I had deliberately ignored was no longer easy to deny: my UniSG life has made me woefully socially inept. Sure, we may seem like cool gastronomes inside the Bra bubble; outside, we are just sort of food losers. No one cares that their olive oil is rancid, and everyone thinks lardo is gross. This hard pill of truth, though somewhat easier to swallow when washed down with Brewer’s Art green peppercorn tripel, made the last few days at home almost unbearable. Sorry for being a bitch, Mom & Dad.
Give me my Food Bubble. Let me live out this glorious and gluttonous existence, if only for these two months more.
With these thoughts on my mind and a new stage-proof wardrobe in my suitcase, I plane’d-train’ed-and-automobile’d it back to Europe (Baltimore to Philadelphia to Munich to the Hague.) Though I had been dreading the (post-trans-Atlantic flight) ten-hour ride from Germany to the Netherlands, I’m fairly sure it was the most pleasant train ride I’ve had…ever. I’ll chalk it up to German punctuality and efficiency. Seriously, they know how to get shit done. After spending so much time in Italy, ones gets used to the following:
a. Stuff does not work.
b. If it does work, it’s not on time.
c. Or it’s not open.
d. If it’s open and/or on time, it will take hours to complete. And crush part of your soul in the process. And don’t try to make sense of anything, it will only further demoralize you.
Apologies for the vague generalizations and hackneyed stereotypes. It’s just that I had reached the point of the year when everything that was once “oh-so-charmingly Italian” has become mind-blowingly frustrating. Screw the quirks, give me something that works. It was bound to happen at one point, and the German and Dutch trains acted as the perfect foil to the realtà italiana. Or maybe it was just the crankiness triggered by jet lag. In any event, my time spent north of the Alps just made me think, yet again, “Fuck, Italy. It doesn’t have to be this way.”***
After our Nederlands jaunt, three-fourths of the Dirty Girls and a Lil’ Bandit (don’t ask) made it back to Bra and back to our comfort zone. But not for long: after several days of class we embarked on our penultimate stage to Calabria, the land of pepperoncino and ‘Ndrangheta (the former, the omnipresent chili pepper, the latter and omnipresent and omnipotent mafia.)
The region encapsulated my feelings for Italy: breathtakingly beautiful and infinitely fucked at the same time. I’ve been known for gratuitous vulgarity, but I feel that it is appropriate in this instance.
Like many regions of Italy, Calabria’s mountainous interior is juxtaposed with the sea (or in this case, two - the Tyrrhenian and Ionian.) This geographic duality is reflected in its cuisine, which involves both hearty mountain fare (thickly cut, rough casareccia, perfect for soaking up rich meat sauces) and the fresher flavours of the sea (grigliata mista di rana pescatrice, pesce spada, e gamberoni.) Either way, you’re going to want to douse it pepperoncino, and preferably the fresh stuff. Or at least I did. I’m still not sure if they were tears of joy (oh, beloved piccante!) or tears of pain (oh, damned piccante!) Either way, it was awesome.
Calabria’s geographic position has also made it susceptible to various invasions and foreign dominations over the past two millennia. Like Sicily, everyone from the Greeks and Arabs to the Normans and Lombards (just to name a few) have been there and left their mark, for good or ill. At its best, it has created la cucina calabrese as it is today: more varied than that of other regions (I’m looking at you, Tuscany.) At its worst? Calabria is still not immune to domination, though the contemporary version is of a different sort. While many think of the mafia as a problem indigenous and limited to isolated pockets of the mezzogiorno, in reality the ‘Ndrangheta is multi-national criminal organization. Its power has evolved in no small part thanks to its control of the drug trade: the majority of cocaine found in continental Europe has come from South America via Calabria. The Second World War destroyed what little infrastructure existed in Calabria; today, the potent combination of natural disasters, political corruptness, unemployment, and the ‘Ndrangheta have stymied any sort of growth. What’s left is the sort of landscapes tourists have come to expect of southern Italy: rolling hills of green (at least in the winter) dotted with citrus trees (now heavy with fruit) and olive groves. Sadly, these visions were marred by nearly every town we drove through: unfinished cement block-buildings long-abandoned; or do people live in them? All windows are shuttered up. The only people you see are the occasional nonna and the unemployed male youth idling outside the local bar. Fuck, Italy, it doesn’t have to be this way. But what other way have they known? How can it be any other way? Boh.
I’ve returned to Bra with a newfound appreciation. Though still not the most charming of small Italian towns, it is no Calabrese eyesore. And luckily I’ve brought back some of the better aspects of the south: pepperoncino, colatura di alici, e ‘nduja. Now I just need to write a research paper on my experience. So far, I’ve come up with the following titles:
Il Grasso e la Spalmabile: an exploration of foie gras, ‘nduja, and Spam.
On the Longitudinally Challenged Pepperoncino. Or, Why Isn’t There Any Spicy Food North of Calabria? (Seriously.)
Oops…? : How my great-grandfather left his peasant life in southern Italy for the New World, and then a century later I returned with the sole desire of working on a farm. Or, why my mother disapproves of my lifestyle.
Yea, I’ve got my work cut out for me.
*the infinitely versatile Dutch word meaning tasty, tempting, attractive, nice, good, enticing, delicious, and probably everything else in the same vein.
** It was the first time I’ve felt old. Old, and none the wiser. Another beer, please.
*** Also applies to: most Italian pastries and bread; the Italian male’s affinity for overly-plucked and shaped eyebrows. Ew.
Sunday, January 22, 2012
My mother responded the way most mothers would upon hearing my description of the latest stuff-I-ate-and-loved.
The seemingly lethal dish? Unpasteurized, curdled, moldy sheep’s milk, washed down with the fermented juice of rotten grapes.
When described in such a way, I’d have to agree with my mom: the classic pairing of Roquefort with Sauternes has never seemed less appetizing. But over the course of our eight months at UNISG, we’ve come to understand and appreciate the processes that give cheese, wine, and other products their unique flavour. Without the transformative powers of decomposition, fermentation, and inoculation, our gastronomic world would be much blander.
While the prospect of eating rotting or fermented meat is likely to trigger your gag reflex, any high-quality cut of meat or salame has, to a certain extent, been in such a state. An animal’s body stiffens after slaughter, but with time, enzymes break down the proteins in the muscles along with other molecules. Often referred to as “dry-aging,” this process essentially involves the decomposition of the animal carcass. But when carefully executed in a controlled environment, it causes the meat to tenderize and develop a depth of flavour not found in its raw form. As the aging has already primed the meat for maximum organoleptic delight, neither elaborate seasoning nor cooking methods are needed: some salt, freshly cracked black pepper, and smokey char will suffice.
Non-prime cuts of meat undergo a different sort of change: fermentation. Various bacteria are responsible for transforming the mixture of ground meat, fat, and spices into a salame. The acidic environment that the bacteria create make the salame safe to savour long after it’s been made. And don’t let those white fuzzy surface molds fool you: they actually are consuming the oxygen that would otherwise cause the salame to become rancid.
Two staples of Asian cuisine – miso and kimchi – also exist thanks to the work of microbes. While there are many different types of miso, they all involve some combination of cooked soybeans and moldy rice. During the ensuing fermentation—which can last for weeks or even years—enzyme-producing microbes break down the rice’s starch and beans’ proteins into simple sugars and amino acids, creating the sweet and umami sensations that miso is renowned for.
Cabbage becomes considerably more interesting when left to ferment with spices and fish sauce—itself another example of the “edible rotten”—to create kimchi, the essential element of a Korean meal. It also raises the question, who came up with that? The same could be asked for all of these products. Seriously, who first said, “You know this fresh meat? Let’s stuff it in pig intestines and see what happens.”
Legends abound: Tokaji Aszú—Sauternes’ Hungarian relative—was supposedly discovered during a moment of peace during the many wars between the Austro-Hungarians and Turks. When the Turks returned home to observe Ramadan, so did their Slavic rivals. These famers-turned-soldiers found that their grapes had been ravaged by a fungus. Luckily for them, it was botytris cinerea, now known as the “noble rot.” Luckily for us, they decided to press the grapes anyway, and their descendants have been making the golden nectar ever since.In reality the credit shouldn’t be entirely attributed to such fortunate accidents of questionable veracity: the powerful combination of necessity and ingenuity undoubtedly had a hand. The need to preserve the abundance of the milking season, harvest, or slaughter bred innovation. With time, the recipes and production methods have been perfected, and the resulting products are now revered as traditional and emblematic. Chemistry and history and biology and culture all melded into that one perfect bite: Yes, you definitely should eat that.