Monday, May 6, 2013

Squacquerone

Piadina with squacquerone and arugula, La Tua Piadina, Bologna
It's not every day that you come across a food with a name as fun as squacquerone. So when I noticed it on a menu in Bologna, my interest was piqued.

Squacquerone is a fresh cow's milk cheese. It's eaten when it's only a few days old. It looks something like cottage cheese, with curdy bits suspended in a milky slurry. The flavor is similar to cottage cheese as well, though it's a little tangier. It's typical of the region of Emilia-Romagna, and I saw it all over the place while I was there.

The traditional way to eat squacquerone is on a piadina: an unleavened flatbread kind of like a tortilla that you fill with cheeses, cured meats, and vegetables. At the piadineria (the name for a shop that serves nothing but a few dozen kinds of piadine), you're almost sure to find a piadina with squacquerone and arugula. It's a killer combo: the peppery arugula is tempered by the tangy, creamy cheese, all wrapped up in a hot, thin, soft yet crisp wrapper. Ultimate fast food.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Philadelphia


Everywhere I went in Italy, I saw Philadelphia cream cheese. It showed up in the refrigerated aisles of groceries in Venice and Rome. It was employed with arugula and speck in sandwiches served at rest stops along the autostrada. It even popped up amongst a dozen kinds of cured ham at a very high end food shop in Bologna (one that sells the same Roi olive oil and Carnaroli risotto rice that we do).

So what's that all about, anyway?

Friday, May 3, 2013

In pursuit of wild boar and ricotta

A bag of ricotta and the old castle: the primary attractions of San Gregorio
"Come," said Emanuele. "We are going to the wild boar festival."

So the two of us climbed into Emanuele's small white van and drove the narrow, winding, mountain roads to the nearby town of San Gregorio. "When I was a boy, my friends and I would ride our bikes to San Gregorio," he told me. "It was hard to get there, uphill the whole way. But going home again was easy."

The drive into San Gregorio was perfectly romantic. The town is precariously perched along the ridge of a mountain peak. A medieval castle still defends the entrance to the old part of town (though today it is guarded by policemen who tell you where to park). As we approached the town, passing under the branches of blossoming redbud trees and the tiny, bright green foliage of early spring, it almost felt as though we were driving into a fairy tale.

Walking the streets of the town was less romantic -- especially with Emanuele as my guide. He pointed out the tiny rooms protruding from the plain stucco facades of the houses. Originally, those rooms were the bathrooms -- or, more accurately, they were the holes in the floor where you'd squat and shit onto the street below. The stench must have been ripe in the summer.

The festival was simple. A dozen tents were set up around the perimeter of the town's main piazza. Most were selling knick knacks or local pastries. One or two were selling a handful of rough-and-ready dishes featuring the eponymous boar: pappardelle pasta with boar sauce; hunter's style boar; grilled boar sausages. The center of the piazza was filled with a few dozen large plastic picnic tables and a few hundred plastic patio chairs. A few hundred locals milled about. Every couple of minutes, Emanuele would run into some acquaintance, and we'd all greet each other, and they would chat for a minute or two.

It turned out the festival was not our primary goal. On the drive there, Emanuele told me he wanted to get me some ricotta cheese. "You have ricotta in US, but is not the same. Is not like ricotta we have here. I want you to taste."

Just off the main piazza, we entered a cramped butcher shop. Emanuele warned me it wasn't very hygienic. He wasn't kidding. The two butchers wore coats that used to be white before they were stained with blood. They did not wear anything to cover their heads -- or hands. I watched one butcher pick up an enormous slab of beef, set it down, select another cut of beef, wrap it in white butcher paper, place the package in a plastic bag, take money, open the cash box, give change, and hand off the purchase to the customer -- all without gloves, all without washing his hands.

In addition to meat, the shop sold a half dozen cheeses. Emanuele purchased a large tub of ricotta and we were on our way.

I wish I could tell you how gamey the boar tasted, or how luscious the ricotta was, but I can't. I didn't taste either of them. Shortly after getting the ricotta we left San Gregorio. As the sun set we drove back down the mountain to Tivoli to get a pizza. After dinner we forgot about the cheese. First thing the next morning, I took the train back to Rome and then a plane back to the US. Perhaps, remembering the dried blood caked under the fingernails of the young butcher who handed the ricotta to Emanuele, I'm just as glad I didn't try it.