Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Asparagini selvatici

“Let’s discuss the program for today,” said Emanuele on Saturday morning, just after we had deposited my baggage at his son’s agriturismo but just before he drove me out to visit his olive groves and oil mill. “This afternoon, my friend invite me to hunt for wild asparagus. You like to go?”

A wild asparagus hunt. It sounds terribly romantic, doesn’t it? And in some ways, it is terribly romantic. You drive out into the countryside with your friend Maurizio. You park your car on the side of the road, and then you put on Emanuele’s wife’s rainboots (luckily you happen to have the same size feet). You climb over a pair of rickety wooden fences while Emanuele hums “I don’t know but I been told.” Then you tromp across a rocky hillside strewn with wildflowers and you catch your breath soaking in the incredible beauty of the valley below and the misty mountains in the distance.

Some may say it’s a little less romantic once your pants and hands and even your face are smudged with ashy soot (the landscape bears the black evidence of a recent wildfire), or when you’re leaning heavily on your walking stick to keep your balance as you try to avoid twisting your ankle or tumbling down the steep incline. But for serious asparagus hunters, that’s all just part of the charm.

Can you spot the asparagus?
The asparagus, too, is a tricky business. It’s shy and solitary, generally preferring to grow alone or with a very few close friends, nestled amidst pricker bushes at the feet of the trees and scrubby bushes that dot the landscape. Maurizio is an expert at spotting asparagus a few meters away and then scrambling up or down a shaky incline to pluck it. You, on your first Great Wild Asparagus Hunt, are lucky if you can see it right in front of your face.

Finding the asparagus is only half the battle (luckily, Maurizio points out plenty of it to you). Once found, it is not generally inclined to be picked. Maurizio shows you the proper method, using the thumb and first two fingers to bend and break the pencil-sized stalks, but sometimes they require considerable tugging to come loose. He also demonstrates how to bite off and discard the tough ends of the stalks that are too long; that way, you can assemble a tidy handful of asparagus.

After an hour and a half, your legs are shaky and your fingers are sore where you’ve been snapping stalks, but you’ve amassed a bulging plastic bagful of skinny wild asparagus. Though the whole venture was Maurizio’s idea and though he collected the lion’s share of the haul, he won’t keep a single stalk for himself. Once at home, it is to be cut in inch-long bits and frozen for year-round use. You can only find wild asparagus from late March to mid-May, so you must take advantage of it now during the season.

On the way back to the agriturismo for the evening, Emanuele buys you a gelato. Asparagus hunting is hungry work.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Hello, Goodbye

In France, every interaction starts with a "bonjour" (or, if it's past about 5 PM, a "bon soir"). It doesn't matter how small the interaction is: buying a baguette from the boulangerie or asking for directions, you start every conversation with a hello. To not say hello is very rude; I suspect that, when people talk about how rude the French are, it's partly because they don't know this basic facet of the culture.

In Italy, you don't necessarily say "buongiorno" when you greet someone. In fact, on the phone, you don't start with "hello" at all, but "pronto" - essentially, "I am ready, speak to me." But if what I have seen in the past few weeks is typical, you always say goodbye. When you leave a restaurant or shop, you are sure to hear "arrivederci." And, just for good measure, you'll probably also hear "grazie," "buona giornata" or "buona serata" (have a good day/evening), and "ciao." You may hear each of these goodbyes from every person you pass as you leave.

The family pantheon

Last week I visited Vecchia Dispensa, an acetaia [balsamic vinegar maker] in the province of Modena in northern Italy. Like most Modenese families, the family behind Vecchia Dispensa has been making balsamic vinegar for generations. In the past, every family kept a batteria, or set of barrels for making balsamic, in the attic. The production was small - just enough for the family to use the balsamic to cure occasional headaches or indigestion. 

(As a side note, I stayed in an agriturismo in Modena one night last week. We got to talking about food with the owners, one of whom then led me over to the attic closet to show me their own family's balsamic batteria. Even as balsamic becomes a known entity around the world, the small family production tucked away in the attic remains a part of Modenese culture today.)

Today Vecchia Dispensa produces a little more balsamic than the family requires; we sell hundreds of bottles of their vinegar every year. The tradizionale vinegar - the stuff that's made the way it always was, aged for decades in small batterie - is kept in a five-hundred year old tower that used to be a prison. You get to the top via a stone spiral staircase that's only about eight inches wider than I am. In each room along the way up, you find sets of batterie filled with balsamic.

Most of the barrels are decades old. They don't create new sets all that often - only when a new daughter is born into the family. The new batteria is named for the new baby, and when that baby becomes a woman, the barrels belong to her. Over the decades, batterie will develop personalities: each will produce a balsamic with slightly different characteristics.

In the top room of the tower, the views over the charming town of Castelvetro in Modena and the surrounding countryside are stunning. But what's even better, I think, are the photographs on the walls. They show the family - especially the daughters - and are surrounded by the barrels that bear their names. It's a beautiful way to map the family tree. It's also a very pleasantly aromatic way to showcase the family pantheon.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Rest stop theory

I'm working on this theory. It goes like this: you can learn all you really need to know about how a country eats by visiting one of its highway rest stops.

In the US, at an interstate rest stop, you find Starbucks and shitty burgers and pizza. In Belgium, you can chow down on mussels, fries, and beer when you stop along the road. And what did I find at a rest stop along the Italian autostrada last week?

An espresso bar.

Sandwiches (fairly decent ones, I might add), served hot. Buttery pastries filled with creams.

A buffet with four courses (antipasti (hot and cold), primi, secondi, dolci), plus wine to drink and an oil and vinegar station for dressing your food to your taste.

Bags of pasta and bottles of wine to take on the road.

I don't think I could design a more perfect microcosm of Italian food culture if I tried. The only thing that's missing is the gelato case.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The exploits of Ugo

Monday through Thursday of this week, I was on the road in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany visiting some of the folks who produce foods we sell. Foods like balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and pasta. (More on those soon.) To reach the small towns where those producers are located, I rented a car.

Before I left the US, I made a reservation to rent a cute little Smart Car. I chose it because it was small, and cheap, and, most importantly, it has an automatic transmission. I can't drive a stick shift.

When we got to the car rental agency on Monday morning, the man at the counter told me that they had made a mistake. They didn't have any Smart cars.

"You drive a manual?" he asked, hopefully.

"No," was my emphatic reply.

After a few minutes of searching his computer, he told me, "the only automatic we have is a Mercedes Vito." With a chuckle, he asked, "you know what it is?"

Again, my reply was, "no." I know approximately nothing about cars.

But in the end, it didn't matter what it was. It was an automatic, and I'd get it at the same price as the smart car, so unless I wanted to return another day to switch for a Smart car, it was the Mercedes or nothing.

Enter Ugo.

Ugo surveys the countryside in the hilltop town of Castelvetro in Modena
Turns out a Mercedes Vito is a nine-seat van. I named him Ugo. He would have been called Hugo, because he is huge, but he is Italian and therefore called Ugo. He has a long scrape over each of his rear wheels and a dent in the front and back bumpers. He is perfect.

Together with Ugo, we drove along narrow paths clinging to mountainsides, we wended our way across centuries-old villages, and we passed through fields of olive trees and grape vines and fruit trees erupting in white and pink blossoms. It was a pretty remarkable trip, and Ugo made it possible for to visit all of the beautiful people and places we saw on the way. It felt a little silly to have such a large vehicle for just two people, but I think it worked out much better (and probably much safer) than if we'd had the little Smart car, after all.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Bologna pasta primer

All over Bologna, you see pasta. The serious food shops with bountiful cheese counters and a dozen kinds of cured hams hanging from the ceilings have displays full of fresh pastas. Most bakeries have a selection of bagged dried pastas behind the counter - and not necessarily the fancy stuff. Down the street from my apartment there's a little shop that sells nothing but homemade fresh (uncooked) pasta.

Pasta here is usually made with egg, so it is very yellow in color. (Sometimes it's made with spinach too, so you see a few green pastas as well.) All pastas start with the same dough. If you just cut the dough into long, thin strips, you've got tagliatelle. If you leave the strips fatter, you've got lasagna. If you decide to stuff your pasta, you can make little navel-shaped tortellini, or large navel-shaped tortelloni, or occasionally triangular ravioli. Most displays include several varieties of tortellini and tortelloni with different stuffings: ricotta, truffle, speck, pumpkin. Waverley Root writes of a report that lists more than 600 varieties of pasta; the choices are endless.

Choosing your pasta is only the first step. Each kind is traditionally served with a particular sauce, too.  Here's a quick primer of Bolognese pasta and sauce pairings:

Tortellini: this most famous of Bolognese pastas is classically stuffed with a mix of prosciutto, mortadella, veal, parmesan cheese, and perhaps a dash of nutmeg. It is served in chicken broth (tortellini in brodo) for a delicate yet rich soup.

Tortelloni: a common stuffing for tortelloni is ricotta and spinach. This is typically served with a simple sauce of butter and sage.

Tagliatelle: these long, thin strands of pasta are the classic pair for ragù (tagliatelle al ragù) - what the rest of the world would call a Bolognese sauce. This is a rich sauce made from finely chopped veal, pork, butter, onions, carrots, and just a tiny bit of tomato.

Friday, April 5, 2013

How to make French toast in your apartment in Bologna: an illustrated guide

1. Buy bread at Atti.  Discover that it is delicious but that you have way too much. Decide to make French toast.

2. Buy milk and eggs at the grocery.

3. Remember that your apartment is not equipped with a bread knife. Buy one at the 99 Cent store.

4. Dig through all the cupboards in search of a bowl large enough for beating eggs. Above the stove, find a large tupperware that will suit this purpose. Also find a large frying pan. Consider this a major success, given that your previous inventory of pans consisted of one large pan for pasta and one metal cup for boiling water.

5. Turn on some music (preferably Beethoven piano sonatas). Slice up some strawberries, sprinkle them with sugar. (You did remember to buy strawberries this morning at the Ugo Bassi market, didn't you?)

6. Assemble all your ingredients and tools. Now you are ready to begin making French toast.

7. Slice the bread. Mix together the milk and eggs; one recipe I found online suggests 1 cup of milk to 4 eggs, but just guesstimate it. Soak the slices of bread in the egg mixture for at least 5 minutes - after all, this is crusty bread, and longer soaking means more custardy toast. During this time, heat the frying pan. Use a paper towel to grease the pan with some of the sunflower seed oil you found on top of the fridge.

8. When the pan is sufficiently hot, cook the French toast. Flip it when it is ready. It is ready to flip when the underside looks like the piece in the lower half of this photo.

9. When the French toast is cooked, carefully arrange it on your plate to look like Australia. Top with strawberries. Eat.

Repeat steps 7 (from the part about soaking the bread in the egg mixture) through 9 as necessary.

10. Realize you still have most of half a loaf of bread remaining. Wonder what to make next.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


Everywhere you look at markets and grocery stores and floating vegetable boats there are piles and piles of carciofi [artichokes]. Big and small, green and purple, whole and trimmed and just the hearts. I forgot to pack my Personal Artichoke Chef to prepare them all for me. A rookie mistake; I won't make it again.

Last night I ate my first artichokes of the trip. (Unfortunately, they weren't nearly as pretty as the ones in the market, so I don't have a picture.) We picked them up from La Baita, an excellent little cheese, meat, and dry goods shop in Bologna. The hearts were simply prepared with olive oil and vinegar, and yet they were so outstanding that they forced you to sit up and take notice. Bright, rich, acidic, supremely flavorful. Best artichokes I have ever eaten.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Things I've seen in groceries

Milk boxes filled with milk to eat, not drink

Apparently, gluten free is a Thing over here, too.

"Organic meat? Sure, it's over there, between the chicken and the horse."

Juice boxes. Filled with wine.

In the cured meat counter. I don't know if this is fun or creepy.