Tuesday, January 31, 2012

neve? no, grazie.

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

l'anno nuovo, thus far.

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 realtĂ  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

"You probably shouldn't eat that."

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 AszĂș—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.