Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Two entire days of cultural tours have just passed ... what a whirlwind! We’ve been to factories, farms, restaurants, been shown the most wonderful of products, treated like royalty, welcomed into 2,500 year old vineyards and driven all over the place in Giovanni’s bus.

A quick gloss ... today we visited a balsamic vinegar site and tasted the true ‘balsamico’, in three strengths ... the Red is only 12 years old, the Silver is at least 18 and the Gold is over 25. Each has its own characteristics and flavour notes ... the general consensus was that the silver was the best for both tasting and the most versatile for using with a variety of dishes. Most ‘balsamic’ on the market is adulterated or more of a ‘balsamic style’, not the real thing. Many of us bought small bottles of vinegar ... they’ll be enjoyed over the next week and a half as we all work our heads off for the Chefs at ALMA, each other and take more tours.

Another wonderful highlight today was our starting visit, to one of the co-operatives making Parmegiano Reggiano. We saw the entire process from start to finish, watched the Master Cheesemaker work his master’s touch, saw every part of the process and finally enjoyed some of the best cheese I have ever tasted in my life. Two and a half years old, right at the cheesemaker’s door, a perfect cheese under bright sunshine, with 'acqua frizzante’ to wash it down.
Parmegiano, in order to be the real thing, must be made under the strictest of conditions to earn the DOC recognition ... the farms for the milk must be within 20 kilometres of the cheese-maker, the milk must be delivered morning and night, the cattle must be fed no silage, only true hay and grass and some clean grains (nothing fermented, as silage is). The cheese is made with full morning milk and partially skimmed evening milk, and only rennet is added to get the process going. The cheese is salted by floating in a brine bath for about 20 days, and the rest of the process is done through careful ageing and rigorous quality control by an outside body dedicated only to quality maintenance. The real cheese is expensive, but it is, truly, worth it.

Later this morning we were welcomed to the extraordinarily-traditional farm of Massimo Spigaroli. This humble man is revered for his dedication to his various crafts (raising heirloom or traditional strains of vegetables and herbs, raising black pigs for the most traditional culatello, making mouth-watering sausage and prosciutto and running one of Italy’s best restaurants featuring all traditional foods he raises or makes on the farm). We were treated to demonstrations of culatello preparation, and a welcome, (before a truly divine lunch), of wine from his own heirloom grapes, and local cheese, bread and cured meats. This welcome aperitif was followed by a four-course lunch, featuring local (i.e. farm) dry-cured raw meats and gnocchi from his own heirloom products.

Yesterday’s tours took us to a ‘fosse’ (cave) used for ageing cheese. One of Chef Tomaselli’s charming contacts spent much of his day with us on Tuesday, welcoming us to his family’s historical vineyard, then to his wine-press, and then to lunch in his own home! There are very few people in the world who are willing, or able, to have almost 35 people pop by for a 4-course lunch in their home. Renata’s wife is a chef in her own right, and she and the family fed us on the finest produce and skill in the region. What a treat, delight, honour!
Afterwards we went back into town and visited his ‘fosse’ (cave used for ageing cheese) and enjoyed a cheese-tasting. Then a visit to the farm to see (and smell) the source of the raw material. Happy cows all ‘round/
The fosse has been used for over 500 years for this procedure, and is ‘loaded’ with cheese for about 3 months of the year (late August to early November), then the fosse rests and recuperates for the rest of the year. To enter the fosse, one climbs down a ladder! When the fosse is loaded with cheese, the top is sealed with parchment paper and a natural sealing substance around the edge, then the entire entrance is covered with about 30 centimetres of sand. The results are utterly divine. Now, stop reading this blog for just a minute and go get yourself a delicious snack.

These two days of touring have taught me several things ... the incredible value placed on freshness and locality of product here, the sense of maintaining centuries-old, or (in some cases) millennia-old systems and traditions, and an un-hurried pace of life which allows much time to make, maintain and celebrate community and family.
Aside from a couple of gaudy advertisements for Chrysler and Jeep, I have seen no advertisements for north american products of any kind here. No need, no desire; we’re not needed, actually. It is very humbling to come from a culture that really has nothing to offer here. So much for our sense of importance!

My end-question for today needs to be “How does the work of your life, in every facet, honour the lives of those who have gone before? How would they recognize themselves in what we do, ourselves and together?”

Tomorrow is our first time going into the kitchens at ALMA, and I’m excited! So, a good night’s sleep and ready to roll well before 9 tomorrow. Classes finish at 6:30 in the evening. My feet will be killing me.