Monday, November 23, 2009

Hard Work, Seasonal Food, DOP

There’s an image of Italy that is popular in the north American mind ... la dolce vita ... not too much work, lots of fabulous food, wines, sunshine, the good life, everyone happy.

In all my time here I have seen another Italy, where people work awfully hard, sometimes for not much income, because of dedication to a craft or art, such as a food type or making something. This sort of life is greatly valued and honoured here in a way I don’t think it would be in north America.

Let me share three examples; asparagus, ham and cheese.

Asparagus here holds a special place in people’s hearts, particularly in the area of Bassano del Grappa. There is an asparagus festival, and the actually vegetable has been grown there since about the year 1220. The stuff has a “DOP” protection (Denomination of Protected Origin), guaranteeing that you are getting what you are paying for, and that the quality is high. It is not cheap, but it is very popular. It is carefully raised, and then, at the peak of quality, cut, carefully bunched and tied with ribbon (not string), proudly labelled and carefully shipped to market.

Prosciutto IS ham, and Massimo Spigaroli is the king of it all. He and his brother run one of Italy`s best restaurants where their prosciutto is featured (of course). It is, I will tell you from personal experience, absolutely marvellous! Massimo works at least 6 days a week, and many evenings, in a piggery. His pigs are the largest I have ever seen. He does all his own curing (slaughtering is done for him to HIS standard, higher than what is required), preparation, hanging, ageing and drying. He has a few assistants, but much of the work is done by him personally. Again, a DOP product.

Cheeses are one of Italy`s greatest delights ... hard, medium, soft, runny, new, aged, with a rind, rind-less, rolled in ash, bathed in brine ... there are hundreds of ways to make and age cheese. A favourite of mine here is a cheese aged for 9 months in a vertical cave originally dug by monks in the dark ages. The cheese is put into the cave by being carried down an ancient, rickety ladder and put onto wood racks, layer by layer, and between each layer the space is filled with sand that has been used to do this since time immemorial. Only one batch a year can be made. Or Parmegiano Reggiano, the best-known of Italy`s cheeses, I think, made in huge 60 kg. wheels and, after forming by the master cheesemaker, is bathed in brine for some days before making it to the racks where it will be gently air-cured for about 24 months. What we get in our stores in Canada, if it is true Parmegiano Reggiano, is DOP, of course. It is made from two slightly different kinds of milk ... half morning milking milk, and half evening milking milk, always from the same batch of cows which are never fed silage or hormonally-loaded stuff. The evening milk is partly skimmed, the morning milk not. If this sounds a little over-the-top, consider that this is what it takes to always, every time, have one of the best cheese products in the world. There are no days off for these folks ... the cows need to be milked every single day of the year ... and they are not bred for huge milk batches, like north American animals.

What all this adds up to is an entire country which truly pays attention to details, celebrates excellence and is willing to pay for quality. In Canada and the USA we have an attitude that cheap is good, cheaper is better, and that we have some sort of expectation that everything will be available all the time, with little or no season variation or restriction. AND we have a dreadful rate of obesity, heart disease and general lack of health! Many people under the age of 30 have almost no cooking skills other than the microwave or the telephone.

People here work VERY hard for the quality in their lives. Harder than in north America. But they have something that we lack, and have great trouble putting our finger on ... I think it is an awareness of what quality means, and the willingness, everywhere, in everything, to work towards it, maintain it and celebrate it. Cheaper is NOT better, friends ... we all know it in our bones ... quality is what we crave. We need to start our own cheese Olympics, so to speak ... if Ontario can have VQA wines, why not get going on the same quality celebration, and good-natured competition, that will start to make our food the absolutely best in the world, with local varieties and products known, sought and delighted in by all Canadians.

This is my little rant, folks, for a gentle but pervasive change for us all ... to start paying attention to what we eat, when we eat it, how we eat it and with whom. How do we celebrate, or at least recognize, the changing of the seasons in our lives as we go around the sun on our rock, together.

The photo today shows olives. Not a lot of olives. I was handed a bucket of olives and asked to remove the meat from the pits. This means that the olives we use in the restaurant are all pitted by me, carefully, by hand. What you are looking at, the little heap in the centre plastic bowl, is the result of over an hour of careful work.

Here is a little recipe for today ... very simple. It uses olives. Try this at home and delight yourself! It is our take on the open ravioli idea of Gualtiero Marchesi.

Start by making basic pasta, and roll it out into sheets. Cut into squares about 8 cm each. Reserve it on a tray under a towel, dusted with rice flour (so it does not stick).

Get some mushrooms (any kind will do) and after cleaning them, slice into fairly thin slices (about 2 mm thick), the whole mushroom if you can (with stem still attached to cap). Put these into a prep bowl and reserve. In another prep bowl have some roughly-chopped pitted olives available. If you really want the fresh adventure, pit them yourself.

Get water boiling for the pasta, well-salted (to sea-water salinity).

In a large sauté pan, get butter melted and gently browning. After the butter starts to brown, add the mushrooms and olives and sauté gently, adding a little salt and freshly-chopped rosemary or marjoram.

While you are doing this, throw the pasta squares into the water and cook them. Start this step AFTER the vegetables are in the pan, sautéing. This will take less than a minute.

Use a slotted spoon or spider to remove the pasta squares all at once and, WITHOUT rinsing, toss them into the sauté pan with the mushrooms and olives. Toss all together and remove from heat, letting the pan sit for half a minute.

Serve in the centre of large, flat plates, not piled too high, with a very little freshly-grated pepper on top.

Mmm, mmm ... good!

If you want to have a little meat, gently-sauted lamb works well, cut very fine (almost minced). Prepare this ahead of time, with the olives and the mushrooms. Add a few sage leaves, julienne, if you use lamb.

I have only a few days to go here. I will miss this experience SO much, but have loads of ideas to bring home and share. Stay tuned!

La luta continua ...