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:
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.