Food Adventures

Saturday, July 21, 2007

School (part I)

It's 10 am on a hot July day in Firenze. There are 10 of us in the Advanced kitchen of Apicius. There are pots stewing on every single burner. The contents of each pot look very different even though we're using the same main ingredient: one looks like spinach tomato stew, another one has ground beef, still another looks like tomato sauce. The main ingredient is the star of Florentine cuisine and something tourists take pictures of every day at the market and the brave ones occasionally taste in restaurants—tripe.

That morning, we were greeted by a large mound of tripe on the stainless steel table of the classroom. It looked huge for an organ that resides in the stomach of an animal, yet it was only a piece of the whole thing. It had been cleaned, scrubbed, and boiled and was grayish-white in color and rough to the touch. As Ducio talked about tripe and its place in Italian cuisine (Florence and Tuscany are famous for it, but it is also used in other regions), many of us were trying to imagine tasting the dishes we would prepare at 11 am on a very hot day. Most of us, myself included, have no problem eating tripe; it's the thought of having 5 different versions of it at 11 am in 100F+ that was not very appealing. But once we started working on the different preparations and the aromas of the stews filled the room, others started peaking into the classroom to see what we were cooking. Many of them would come back later for a taste of the different versions. (The photos are of two different tripe stews, one with spinach, the other with tomatoes, and a tripe salad.)

This is my first course of the day: Tradition of Italian Food II. It focuses on the main ingredients used in Italian cuisine: truffles, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, cured meats, cheese, honey, tripe, fish, etc. Each day, we talk about an ingredient (e.g., parmigiano or pecorino cheese, olive oil, truffles, etc.), taste several variations, and then prepare two or three dishes with it. It allows us to think about how that ingredient has evolved, how it differs from its close relatives, and how it can be prepares so it shines. Our instructor, Ducio Bagnoli, a native Florentine, is passionate about high-quality authentic ingredients and shares that passion with us every day: I can now distinguish not only prosciutto di Parma from that of San Daniele and Tuscan prosciutto, but also taste the differences in Pecorino cheese that come from the method and length of aging. (I have been using Ducio's book of Italian cheeses, which contains the descriptions of no fewer than 293 different cheeses produced in this country, to taste 2-3 different cheeses a week. It has been a great research project.)

Some of the ingredients we are learning about and working with are very famous, others less so but equally crucial. The first day of class, the perfume of truffles filled the room as we smelled, tasted, and used all types of truffle products (truffle oil, truffle paste, preserved truffles, truffle honey, truffle butter). Another day, it was prosciutto and we learned the method of production and differences between Prosciutto San Daniele and Prosciutto di Parma, for DOP products, strictly controlled with special designations from the EU, produced in a particular way in a limited geographic area. We also tasted a prosciutto di Norcia, a less famous, but equally delicious relative, and a local Tuscan prosciutto, dryer than most and with a stronger flavor.

Then there was the day we tasted cheese (probably my favorite) and talked about the differences between Pecorino produced in different areas and aged for different amounts of time. Pecorino is a sheep's milk cheese Tuscany is famous for (think Pecorino of Pienza), but depending on which part of the region it comes from and how long it is aged, it varies greatly in flavor. It is featured on the menus of most Tuscan restaurants and usually served with honey or pears. It is a great start to a meal, but I prefer it as a finish. It pairs wonderfully with a good Chianti. We also tasted and cooked with cheeses from other regions: parmigiano reggiano, grana padano, bitto, fontina. The flavor of each of there cheeses contributes greatly to the overall dish as we saw most clearly the day we prepared risotto with horse bresaola and bitto. Some of us made a variation of the recipe using fontina and parmigiano instead of the bitto and the differences were very obvious: the risotto with fontina was more flavorful and more unique, as the combination of the two cheeses perfectly complemented the flavor of the horse breasaola (Yes, cured horse meat is a delicacy and it has a distinct flavor that can't be compared to anything else and a tenderness and moisture that are somewhat surprising.)

While I get very excited about tasting and comparing balsamic vinegar, cheese, and even cured horse meat at any time, some days are less glamorous and it is harder to get excited about tasting the main ingredient that early in the morning as the memory of the cappuccino and bombolone is still fresh. Like the day we tasted lardo, lard that has been cured in spices in marble caves. Lardo is one of the stars of Italian cuisine and it is also becoming famous and appreciated in the U.S. Several famous chefs (e.g. Mario Batali) use is in their recipes and even make their own lardo with a unique blend of spices. It is usually served very thinly sliced on warm toasted bread, so the fat starts melting onto the bread, but sometimes it can also be served on bread that is not toasted. The lardo carries all the aromas of the spices it has been treated with and lardo from different regions and different producers has particular flavor combinations. Unfortunately, I find it hard to get excited about lardo (even great lardo). I can appreciate it when it is used in a dish to add flavor, but lardo by itself on a piece of bread is not something I would seek out. There are too many other tasty things to focus on.

Stay tuned for some stories about my other course, Tradition of Italian Food III (advanced).


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