Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Typical Day In Good Ol' Colorno

A bunch of you guys have asked me about what life is like outside of school here so I thought I'd put together a fun a little post about it! Yes, we're busy 90% of the time with classes and the ambiguous schedule we keep (ohhh, Italians...), but we do get to do some fun stuff, too. I get so excited if we end a class 15 minutes early or anything of the like so I can possibly squeeze in an extra gelato before they close. Today marks one month of being in Italy and it's pretty insane how fast this month has gone by. I thought it was a good enough amount of time to 'report' on my daily shenanigans here!

I've explained that Colorno is small but let me tell you about it, in all seriousness. First off, there are two main restaurants - a pizzeria and a little, rustic joint that serves great pasta - and one pub. These are the three big going out spots and it really is hilarious the amount of times we've been to all of them already. There are a handful of cafes - 'bars' as they're called here, not to be confused with booze joints - and a nice supermarket (that's closed more than it's open so it's always a mad rush after school to get there) so, really, we have all that we need. It's a very sleepy little place to live and I totally love it. It's the complete opposite of NYC and I really needed the change. To go from frantic, chaotic life on the go all the time with any/everything at your disposal to the quiet, patient, calm nature of this town has been totally awesome for me. It's helped bring a lot of the old Valerie back in good ways and I've been relaxed and really laid back since settling into life here. There are so many days where I don't even look at a clock, I just sorta live. That's what I've been hoping to find in myself for years now, I just didn't realize how taxing NYC really can be. Here in Colorno, I even sleep better than I ever have, truly. It's a lovely, little town that I'm so happy being in!

Each morning, I get ready for school and go up to Trisha's apartment for coffee. Usually, Mo joins us and the three of us have a nice start to the day. Then, it's off on our bike ride to school. This is us pulling into school riding over the cobblestones:
I took video of our actual ride but it refuses to upload. I've tried ten billion times so booooooo.

As I've mentioned before, our days are very different from Monday to Friday. We're always in this stylish getup, though:
Don't everyone jump at once asking me where to get that outfit. We're at the low level toques (chef hat) though which is actually pretty exciting. As an FYI, the height level of your hat determines your seniority in the kitchen so we're like little kids running around in our short hats, heehee. We start at various times based on what classes we have that day and if we're in the kitchen. For example, most Tuesdays we have Italian from 8:00am - 9:30am, history from 9:30am - 11:30am, the start of the chef demo from 11:30am - 1:00pm, break for lunch from 1:00pm - 2:00pm and then the rest of the chef demo 2:00pm - 6:30pm. Those days are super long, albeit awesome, so we're all pretty tired when we get home. However, that hasn't stopped us from working out or trying to keep some semblance of our normal routine from back home. It's damn hilarious when we do our group P90X workouts, that's for sure:
It makes me giggle thinking about it.

After we work out or do whatever after class, we usually make dinner as a family. This is what we look like heading home from the grocery store pretty much all the time:
Those bags usually hold a lot of prosecco.

For dinner, it's always me, Trisha, John and Gavin but Mo usually gets in on the action last minute, too. I can tell you this much, having a bunch of aspiring chefs get together and cook dinner is pretty darn delicious. The most excitement we've had in Colorno recently was going in on a little charcoal grill! I'm not even kidding, we've been so happy getting it. We'll all do different sides and get wine or beer and enjoy having the most delicious Italian ingredients at our disposal. Giovanni (John) does the grilling most of the time but, no matter what, it's always awesome. Then, we feast:
So folks, this is pretty much what life in Colorno is like! I do love this sweet little town, though. It's cozy, quaint and feels like our home away from home which is nice when you're far away from the people you love. I'm blessed to be building the relationships that I am with a couple of awesome people so, for me, life is amazing on all fronts. You can't ask for anything more!

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Weekend In Misano Adriatico

Everyone loves the weekend but man, are they so treasured for me these days. I used to think I was sooooo tiiiiired all the time during my work week but it was nothing compared to the energy being sucked out of all of us now. When the weekend gets here, it's awesome for two reasons: 1) we can rest! and 2) we have weekends free which means we can travel, woooo!

Before coming to Italy, Gavin had told me about this pro bike race in the beach town of Misano Adriatico that he was definitely going to see. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to tag along with him. When we finally got here, we set the plan in motion to go and I was so happy that Trisha, Mo and John decided to join, too. We rented a car (which was an experience in itself) and we were off! I don't care that Mercedes are so common here, I still thought we were pimps:
The town most popular near Misano Adriatico is Rimini which is known for their nightlife. Since that's only about 15 kilometers away from where we'd be, we figured it'd be a happenin' place to spend the weekend. As we got into town, I started to giggle because everywhere you looked, there were old people. Old as in retired senior citizens, just chillin' on the beach in their speedos. I kept thinking where are we?! When we got to the hotel, it was actually a sea of old people in the lobby. We all just kinda looked at each other and laughed. None of us cared because, no matter what, we were gonna have fun...and we did. Plus, this was the view from our room which is pretty darn awesome if you ask me:
We got there around 10am on Saturday so, after dropping our stuff off, we went to get a coffee (on the beach, might I add!) while we waited on the taxi to come get us for for the race:
I must admit, I was a little unsure of how I felt about going to the motorcycle thing but it ended up being so much fun. I'm not too into the speed bikes but, much like with any sport, it is just incredible to see what these guys do. More than that, it was awesome to see Gavin so in his element and enjoying every minute of being there. These guys go SO fast on the track and I asked him a million questions to find out more about it. I think he enjoyed going over all the info with me, too. :) Dudes are such dudes sometimes, I swear. 
Too quick to catch:
Sorry, but this kinda stuff really makes me laugh:
We really did have a great time at the track. I'm so glad I went to see something like that. On the way back to the hotel, we found a go-kart track and holy balls, we were like little kids. I actually volunteered to hang back and take photos while everyone drove and I'm actually glad I did. I cracked up watching these guys out there. I don't know if it was because we'd just come from seeing racing but damn, these kids got all competitive out there. They're so cute, though:
I took ten million pictures and it was way too much to sift through so you'll just have to trust me that it was awesome.

When we got back to the hotel, we all changed and got ready for dinner. Some of the Mexican girls that are in our class were ironically in the same town for the weekend so we met up with them before. It was an absolutely gorgeous night and I really loved how the little town looked at dusk:
We ended up having to separate for dinner because our group was too big so me, Gavin, Trisha and Mo had a completely awesome dinner, right on the beach:
I only thought this happened in New York but one of those dudes selling flowers came randomly walking through the restaurant and Gavin decided to buy Trisha and I roses. It was sweet. :) They were very pretty, too:
On Sunday, John and Gavin went back to the track for the day so me, Trisha and Mo spent the afternoon on the beach on and off. It was overcast in the morning but still so cool to sit outside on these beautiful rocks that kind of jutted out into the water. Trisha and I talked for a long time out there before we decided to go get lunch. Isn't this neat:
When we got hungry, we picked another wonderful looking spot for lunch and sat outside. In the words of Mo, it was divine:
We stayed on the beach until about 5pm and then had to go pick up the guys at the track and, sadly, make our way back home. Sigh... It was super fun to be off on our first weekend getaway and, the best part is, we all travel so well together! That's a big plus and a sign of true friendship, that's for sure. I feel like such a lucky gal right now. Italy suuuuure is nice... 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Study Of Friuli Venezia Giulia

Well folks, it's official. I've fallen in love and not just with Bryan. I'm in trouble because I've now got multiple people on my list in Italy that I'm in love with, the most recent being a woman. What am I to do?! I'll get to those juicy details in a bit…

Out of the gate, I knew absolutely nothing about the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. I admittedly had never even heard of it, eeek! Wouldn't you know that, so far, it's absolutely the most fascinating region in my opinion. FVG is in northeast Italy and it's heavily rooted in Austrian and Slavic influence which makes the cuisine super interesting. It's said that FVG is a place of 'harmonized diversity' in that all middle European culture is mixed together there. It's divided into four provinces and the Alpi Carniche is the primary mountain range surrounding the area.

For me, it's nuts that parts of Italy can have such drastically different food. I still can't seem to get my mind around it, especially when you do factor in the influences that come from places like Germany and Hungary. You forget exactly how big this world is. It really is amazing. In FVG, there are tons of traditional recipes that are so weird yet utterly delicious. I remember back in NY, we'd made this vegetable roll thing with many different sautéed veggies that we'd julienned and wrapped in phyllo dough. It seemed very German to me at the time and we actually re-visited it in the kitchen with Chef Bruno. As a side note, the actual dough used to make it is really cool and stretchy like pizza:
Since we'd used phyllo dough in NY, none of us had seen the actual dough made and it was nuts! Turns out the dish is native to FVG so I was sorta right in that it has German background. 

Anyway, some of the other traditional dishes are things like pig's knuckle, polenta and soups like jota and zuf. Jota is a poor man's soup made with beans, corn, turnips that have been fermented in grape skins (weird!) and milk. Zuf is a kind of soft gruel made with corn flour and milk, then baked. This kind of food appeals to me in the strangest way, I can't explain it. 

Prosciutto di San Daniele is typical to FVG and probably the second most popular prosciutto consumed in Italy. The process of preparing this prosciutto is extremely particular in that the pig's leg is massaged daily for quite some time, then it rests for three months and ultimately air dried and aged for a minimum of one year. The pigs are fed exclusively with corn and acorn, which gives this prosciutto its distinct flavor, and then the outside is covered with sugna, a mixture of lard, flour, salt and black pepper. This mixture protects the raw meat from bad fermentation while the flour, salt and pepper allows for proper air movement for good fermentation. It's an intricate process and highly regarded, as it should be! I have yet to taste prosciutto di san daniele but I really cannot wait to. The other prosciutto produced specifically in FVG is prosciutto di saudis which is preserved in brine for two months and then smoked for thirty days using only beech wood, pine wood and juniper. 

Heartier pasta is definitely a staple in FVG cuisine. Two recipes in particular, gnocchi di susine and cialzons carnici, were just ridiculous sounding to me. The gnocchi is made with plums (yes, plums!) and the actual center of each gnocchi is made up of melted butter, bread crumbs, sugar and cinnamon. Cialzons carnici is ravioli with a filling made of potato, fresh fruit, ricotta, pine nuts, spices, grated chocolate and biscuits served in melted butter with cinnamon, sugar and grated smoked ricotta. I mean, how insane do the two of those dishes sound?! I about died. I wanted to try that ravioli immediately. 

After studying FVG, you can imagine that I was so intrigued and excited for the chef demo to follow. I guess it's time to spill the beans about my newfound love, Chef Antonia Klugmann. People, I just can't explain the beautiful person that this woman is. Without even starting to cook, she had already captured my heart because she is a walking, talking example of how alive food and everything about food makes her. Her connection to the earth and to ingredients is really intimate and soulful. She views things like herbs and flowers as precious gems that she has the pleasure of using to create her art. She's exactly the woman I would kill to work around and for, in any capacity.

She began the demo by sharing some things from her garden with us that she'd be using to cook with:
There are several different herbs (that I failed to write down which I blame on my being gaga over her) I'd never heard of and it was lovely to see the pretty flowers too that she'd be using! After we'd passed around the tray of herbs, she said this is me on a silver tray and I share it with you. Cue teary-eyed Valerie. 

Chef Antonia's view is that territory and the land you use around you is deeply important in cooking, in addition to having an open mind. She said observation is a very good ingredient in cooking in that you should always be open and willing to embrace any experience in life as a way of enhancing the way you cook. I'm telling you, people…she cooks with her heart, fully and completely. She carries a small book with her everywhere that she jots ideas and thoughts in as they come, much like a writer or artist would do. She told us you cannot discuss creativity as being right or wrong in cooking; there is no scale of failure and that is what makes you free when you cook. Uh oh, teary-eyed Valerie is back. No, I'm not joking either when I say she made me cry. Is anyone really surprised by that?!

When it comes to her food, it was different than anything I'd experienced. It was whimsical, light and magnificent because it brought you to a totally different level with food. It made you feel the experience of eating and it involved all of your senses which created a completely lasting effect on me. One example is her cuttlefish dish with lemon "mayonnaise". It turns out that one day she'd made a mistake with a dish using gelatin and discovered a whole new world of what she could really do with it. She created a fake mayonnaise out of fresh lemon juice, gelatin and olive oil which might have been one of the more delicious things I've had in some time:
I couldn't believe she got a texture so like mayonnaise with a flavor that was out of this world, all containing nothing to do with mayo. 

Another dish of hers was inspired by a walk she took once in the springtime. She said she smelled violets and fresh grass and decided she "wanted spring in her dish" so she created polenta with sclopit and violets. Holy shit, people. This herb, sclopit, is astounding. It's like literally fresh cut grass! I can't even describe it to you. Tasting a bite of this was absolutely as though I was eating spring:
I can't articulate what that's like because it's fully a sensory experience. I mean, how often have you smelled fresh spring air and it's made you just smile? Well, imagine eating that. It was wild to me, intimate and really special. 

She did a homemade pasta dish that she rolled by hand and she wanted people to come up and help. I literally about flew outta my chair. I just loved her so much, she is remarkable:
It may look like worms but it was so so fresh and the texture of the pasta was to die for:
I think the greatest surprise of the day, and the prettiest plate ironically too, was the beef tongue. WOW, what an incredible dish. I can't even really describe how delicious and tender it was. The roasted pepper actually might have been my favorite part too which seem nuts since it's so simple:
This day at school is the reason I'm following this dream of mine. To see a woman like Chef Antonia walking and breathing her dream as her life's work is moving and inspiring. I immediately planned to go speak with Chef Bruno about possibly doing my stage with her and it turns out she's opening a new restaurant this September so she's in the middle of preparation for that. I was SO sad. However, she left a mark on me for sure and I won't forget her. I left school feeling so pumped up and just flat out passionate. It was a rush and that was the push I was hoping to feel here in Italy. Such a wonderful, wonderful day.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Family Meal & Wine Class

By the time we come out of this program, I think our brains will either be nice and full or nice and mushy. We're absorbing a lot of information and, at times, it gets taxing in a not so good way. While I completely love all of our classes, so far we've really only been cooking two days a week. Granted, those days are super intense, but I'm someone who craves that adrenaline rush and push in the kitchen. I really feed off of it so, when we're actually balls to the wall cooking, it's awesome for me. Most of the other things we're doing involve long lectures, which have to be translated from Italian to English, and it ends up being really hard to pay attention for that length of time. I think we all agree that we'd much rather lessen the lectures and be hands on. 

Part of our curriculum, in addition to normal kitchen days, is to be in central kitchen cooking family meal for all of the students and faculty. It's about 300 people overall so it's an exercise in producing large quantities of food from scratch in a time crunch. I actually enjoy that a lot and think it's great practice for us to simulate a restaurant scenario. I was on the salad station for our first day and we were doing panzanella, one of my very favorite things. We chopped and chopped vegetables forever it seemed but we made a delicious salad:
A chef from Tuscany (where panzanella originates) was at the school for the day and he came by to taste it. He told us we really nailed it and I thought that was a super nice compliment!

After central kitchen, we had our first wine class which I found really great. I liked the teacher a lot and felt like I learned a good bit even in just one class. We went into the school's wine cellar to pick a bottle out and got to do a tasting on the first day too which we all know makes me happy:
On these days, we get out at 5:00pm and we welcome it. That's the earliest we'll ever get out of class so it's appreciated greatly after all the other long days we have! After just that small tasting, my eyelids got heavy quick so it was nice to have an earlier evening to myself. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Study Of Veneto

Mom and Dad, how proud are you that I'm in school, actually attending the classes, AND enjoying them?! I know I know, it blows my mind, too. 

Veneto is the second region we've gotten into and, as one would expect, there are several interesting things to know about it. It is one of the largest and richest regions of Italy with over 5 million inhabitants and the Dolomoti Mountains are a dominant part of the landscape. Veneto is plentiful in unsalted water which makes for terrific agriculture. Veneto was primarily under Roman domination with influence by the Barbarians and Germans. Metaphorically speaking, Veneto is said to have its head in the mountains and its feet in the water of the Po River. Territory and geographical location have a strong influence on the agriculture and food industry, as well as on the cultural tradition. Venice is known as the "Pearl of the Adriatic" and it is also called the "bridge to the Orient" because of its commercial traffic to the east. Until 1796, Venice was one of the most important republics in Italy. 

Principal ingredients in Veneto are polenta, beans, cod and rice. Originally, polenta was prepared with spelt, emmer, buckwheat and legumes. After the discovery of America, yellow corn flour was first adopted in the Polestine area and then became popular throughout the region. It was actually adopted, though not accepted, by the poor because it was simple to cultivate yet they were forced to eat only this food because of their means. Sadly, pellagra disease developed due to the exclusive use of polenta creating a vitamin deficiency. It was destroying peoples' livers and resulting in death across the area. 

Beans arrived in the Belluno area around 1530 from the four of Spain. In reality, the introduction wasn't easy because of the beliefs about the low digestibility. It was ultimately accepted because it allowed for intercropping with other cultivations. Beans actually fix nitrogen into the soil which corn plants would absorb. 

Baccala, or cod, is a large part of the Veneto cuisine. Cod itself is called baccala but the actual 'baccala preparation' is dried cod that is decapitated, gutted and stored in barrels of salt. Stoccafisso is a cod that's dried naturally by air and on sticks. Both are eaten regularly across the entire region. An interesting sauce, associated with the poorer classes, that's used to preserve fish, is called saor sauce and it's made with fried onions, vinegar, pine nuts and raisins. Pig farming is quite important too throughout Veneto and a rich prosciutto is produced there called berico-euganeo. Sheep meat is also popular and often eaten smoked using juniper and beech wood, seasoned with only salt and pepper. 

One of the Venetian traditions that I found so neat is called 'la chiamata di marzo' which takes place on the last Sunday of February. All of the people of the mountains descend that day banging pots and pans so as to wake up the dormant spring. I just thought it was fascinating and I tried to imagine being a part of something like that. It must be something to experience it.

To bring Veneto to us by way of cooking, we had the pleasure of spending the day with Chef Enzo De Pra of Dolada Inn and Ristorante. He was really a neat man, so lively and spirited. He also took time to really explain things to us, even if it was in Italian:
What I found to be truly awesome about him is that, even after so many years of traditional cooking, he has embraced the movement toward a more vegetarian cuisine. Although the food of the mountains is rich in meat and cheese, he has taken on the understanding and importance of adjustment when it comes to a deeper focus on vegetarianism. Old school Italian guys aren't exactly known for embracing change, especially when it comes to their recipes, but Chef De Pra has done some really terrific things to showcase his ability to adapt. One of his recipes was classic minestrone soup yet, even with using all of the same ingredients, he focuses a bit more heavily on the greens and actually blends some of the fresh spinach and swiss chard together to create a thickener and beautifully colored soup:
I thought that was just awesome. A classic Italian recipe, revamped and escalated, not to mention delicious. His other dishes were fresh, yet rustic, and true to the roots of what he's known for many years. He worked closely with Gualtiero Marchesi, the famous chef who founded the school here in Italy who's known for taking Italian cuisine to a totally new level in terms of plating. He's the man who has taken a regular old Italian recipe and just twisted it into something gorgeous without ever changing the ingredients. An example was the white coffee mousse that he and Chef De Pra actually created together! It was such a cool idea. They infused the milk for the mousse with tons of coffee and then it gets strained out, keeping its white color, and it's a play on having a cup of coffee:
Cute that he serves it in an espresso cup. It was super fun to see this older man be so playful with food at his age and create new ideas out of old traditions. I really enjoyed this demo and what Chef De Pra brought to the table, literally and figuratively. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Getting Adjusted

Our first week of school was really eventful and tiring. We got thrown right into things so, when the weekend arrived, I actually canceled the plans I originally had to go to Florence. I felt like I should have my first weekend here to kinda get acclimated and adjusted to actually living in Italy. The gals I share an apartment with stuck to the Florence plan so I took advantage of having the place to myself to clean, really unpack and make myself at home.

Gavin and Trisha hung back in Colorno with me so the three of us decided to go on a long bike ride on Saturday to explore more of our little town. It was such an amazing day, really. The three of us saw beautiful things during our ride and I stopped to snap a few photos along the way:
I loved that blue building so much:
Look at these guys we ran into:
After our ride, we stopped for a few leisurely beers before heading to the grocery store. I'm telling you, I just can't get over the tomatoes in Italy. Again, zero modification to this photo at all:
Aren't they something else? How about the cherries:
Life is quite different here, that's for sure. I could become a vegetarian easily with produce like this. (Don't get too excited, Bryan.)

After we rested for a bit, the three of us went to dinner and then out to the pub. If we had any question as to where the pub is, we got our answer:
There literally are about three solid restaurants in town and the pub is the only "going out" spot. It's perfect for me though because it's a dive bar with all kinds of outdoor seating so you know I love that!

It was a really awesome, low key day and I'm glad I could spend it with Trisha and Gavin. I'm also really glad to have had some down time to rest and get acclimated to my new life a little bit. I'm still in awe of being here and that's a really neat feeling!