Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Field Trip #3: Tuscany

Welp, I think it's safe to say that my last post illustrates my excitement about all things Tuscan. I really couldn't wait for our third field trip because we'd be going to watch butchering in action AND get to see the cows, too. Yes, I know it seems sacrilegious to actually want to see any form of butchering if I also wanted to see the cows alive but hey, it's totally fascinating. Plus, I'm not a vegetarian so I don't get that icky feeling when I see meat being broken down. Perhaps I'm just able to pretend those sweet cows really don't have anything to do with the meat I'm eating…

We started our day off with the butcher but first, we got to check out one of the craziest preparations of pork I'll probably ever see. I didn't mention porchetta in my last post but it's another popular thing in Tuscany. Pork meat is rolled up with garlic and spices and then tied together with a covering of the pig's skin again. It rests for a while and then you have a lovely 'marinated' pork especially fitting for sandwiches. Welp, bet you haven't seen this mental image before whilst eating a delicious porchetta sandwich:
That pig face has haunted me, much like the brined pig head we worked with back in New York. Tell me this wouldn't give you nightmares (or will now after seeing it):
Ok, moving right along… I couldn't believe my eyes when we got to see one of the guys take down a side of beef. He's been doing it for 57 years and it shows. I had to take a short video of it because I was honestly flabbergasted by his speed. Definitely worth watching if you have two minutes:
Do you have any idea how sharp that knife had to be? Day-UM! Of course, right after that is when they take us to see the cows and pigs. Like I said though, I just compartmentalize such things because, when I saw those cows, I just fell in love. Fortunately for us, these are the fantastic Chianina cows that I mentioned in my last post and they are just wonderful. This farm in particular raises them in such a loving fashion, too. The woman told me that they talk to them, name them, massage them and simply spend time with them. They're actually like dogs in a way because they would come over to her when she called them! I thought they were so beautiful and I felt such love for them. Just take a look at how awesome they are, both video and photos:
I cracked up because, in the photo of just me with them, one licked me right up the back of my whole leg! It was hilarious. I guess they took a liking to me, too! 

After the cows, we went to see the pigs and I just died all over again. Pigs aren't exactly the most fun to visit because they're very temperamental and skiddish. I actually feel kind of afraid of them, honestly. You guys ever seen 'Snatch'? Yeah, the hogs in that flick are pretty much what I envision all pigs being like, eeek. These pigs, however, were the adorable "Wilbur" pigs that are so cute, you just want to take them home. They all move around so fast so it's tough to snap photos but I really giggled at these:
How cute are they?! Cute and delicious, right Erica? 

The whole farm was so beautiful, I swear. Before we got ready to leave for lunch, Chef Bruno pointed out that wild chamomile was growing right where everyone was standing:
Italy truly is like a magical land with fresh herbs growing all around you. It's awesome. As we were going to get on the bus, the lovely folks who own the place had set out snacks and homemade wine for us. People are just so kind and full of love here.

Our day started super early so I was ready to gnaw on one of those pigs if we didn't get to the restaurant soon. Um, it was worth the wait. We went to this little town called Monte San Savino and settled in for a good old fashioned Italian feast. This is what we sat down to immediately:
Drool. I keep mentioning that we have wine on our school field trips which just makes Italy even cooler. Anyway, they served very traditional items for lunch such as panzanella, braised beef "stew" of sorts with the Chianina (at this point I'm in full denial for sure that they're the same cows that licked me), homemade porchetta with lentils and the addictive cantucci I mentioned before (with vin santo, of course):
The owner, like every other person we seem to meet in this magical land, loved Chef Bruno and having us there. 

After lunch, we were off to the Ferragamo wine estate. Now, if you're me, you have no idea who the hell Ferragamo is or why this was such a big deal. I mean really, people. You're talking to the gal who pronounced Hermes "her-meez" forever and who has no clue what the heck Diane Von Furster-whateverthehell is. I got a little schooling on this one before we walked in, haha. Let me just tell you, holy crapola…what a modern, cool place to see. I'm used to visiting super old vineyards that use age-old techniques but this place was so neat. Check it (Ami, how awesome is the dude's shirt?! I almost asked if I could buy it right off of him for you...):
After our tasting, they showed us the property outside which is a very exclusive resort. Yeah, I could sip my vino out here for a few months:
Oh, look! Wild caper berries growing:
Surprise surprise, right? Amazing…

I don't know if you can tell but man, did we have a good day. You really can't imagine how blissful and relaxed you can feel until you're lucky enough to do something like we have on these field trips. After an early morning, loads o' beef at lunch and vino to finish it all off, I took a nice nap on the way back home but not before I saw the sun starting to set:

The Study Of Toscana

Studying about Tuscany is actually one of the things I'd been looking forward to the most since we began our history classes. I've never visited Tuscany and yet I've felt this draw to it for a long time. When Erica and I lived together, we even decorated our apartment in a Tuscan style and we both felt like it was the place we just needed to see at some point in our lives. This is actually the perfect time to mention that I found out my stage placement and guess what...? It's TUSCANY! Yep, I was pretty darn excited about that. I'll be living and working in the town of Lucca, ironically where Cesare is from, and I'm thrilled. The Tuscan cuisine is almost like Italian comfort food and I love every bit of it. It's rich in cheese and meat and the style is slower with a lot of love put into it. I sincerely look forward to being immersed in the culture and learning so much more about it.

An extremely interesting fact about Tuscany is that ages ago, salt was very valuable to the point that it caused fights between Florence and Siena. Over time, it was determined that salt would be saved for things like meat instead of common, everyday preparations like bread. That said, bread in Tuscany is still baked without salt and lemme tell you, it's just not good. The lucky thing is you can use it to sop up delicious sauces or even soups and it's fine but it's just so odd to eat unsalted bread... 

Speaking of soup, Tuscany is known for several of my very favorite Italian soups. Two in particular are ribollita and acquacotta. Ribollita, which actually means re-boiled, is a cabbage based soup with beans, parsley and pancetta. Acquacotta is basically a soup using all the leftover veggies you may have or whatever looks good in the garden that day. Both preparations are super easy but so delicious. The other thing native to Tuscany that I totally love is panzanella, or bread salad. I've made this a few times now and it's just so fresh and delicious with the cucumber, tomato, onion and basil. You add cubes of bread to it and toss everything with simple olive oil and red wine vinegar, that's it! The fun thing is you can make all kinds of panzanella, even in winter with squash and's a neat dish to play around with.

Meat in Tuscany is very important. The area is known for their Chianina beef which is the amazing breed of cow used in the region. There's a group of five cow breeds that are the best throughout Italy but Chianina are at the top. They're beautiful, all-white cows and their meat is tender, a touch sweet and delicious. You might know of the steak preparation 'fiorentina' which is a very large, particular type of steak. Back in the old days, people used to take the steak and leave it sitting out for a day before cooking it. I'm not even sure of the reason but ew. It's like telling me I can eat chicken not cooked through in Italy because it doesn't have salmonella. True, it doesn't, but there's no way I can get my mind around it so no thanks. Pork is not as popular but the cinta senese is the only native pig breed. It's specific because the meat is evenly marbled which is not typical of pork across the board. 

In terms of cheese, pecorino senese is the star in Tuscany. It's made from the milk of a single controlled flock of sheep that's been eating aromatic grass of the Siennese clay soil. It's then made by hand and the rind is treated with olive oil and tomato, then aged a minimum of one year. It's got an unbelievable flavor, very rich and much creamier than regular pecorino. It's not my favorite but it's certainly delicious. 

We all know I'm not a huge dessert person but I actually really love certain Italian desserts, the ones that aren't very sugary. A lot of pastry type desserts are made here with really balanced doughs that make them not too sweet. I'm a big biscotti person both because they aren't overly sweet and they're super crunchy. I'm such a sucker for anything crunchy so I can't stop myself if a place of biscotti are in front of me. In Tuscany, they make something called cantucci which typically have fennel seed and are soaked in vin santo, a particularly sweet and very strong after dinner wine. I absolutely love cantucci and we got to make them in class, too! It's dangerous to have them around me, just ask Trisha. We bought a box from the store and I think I might have eaten ten thousand in one sitting. It's her fault, though. She opened them before we even got on our bikes to head home. 

In terms of our chef demo for Tuscany, I thought I couldn't love a gal more than I did Antonia Klugmann but Chef Valeria Piccini might have edged her out of the running. Chef Valeria, from the famed restaurant Caino, was one of the most exciting and motivating chefs we've seen. She's brilliant, super tough and she makes incredible food. One of the most amazing parts of seeing all these guest chefs is that we are getting a better understanding of excess in the kitchen. Most of these chefs simply have the gift of knowing how much or little a dish needs to make it perfect. They know that one more pinch of salt will be excessive or one more dash of sugar will ruin the balance. It's really incredible to me and it's the thing I'd most love to master in the kitchen. 

My favorite dish of the day was her pecorino and pear ravioli. I felt like this was the most awesome example of balance because I could taste every single element in the filling, pasta itself and the sauce. Plus, the slight sprinkling of poppy seeds on top completely made the dish:
It may look simple but the intricacy of flavors was far from it. 

Another example of balance was in her foie grois mousse with strawberry. Now, I'm not a huge foie grois fan and it's tough for me to stomach a lot of times (except when it tops a steak like at Del Frisco, mmm) but holy moly, not this time. She made a mousse with the foie grois out of some egg white and spices and then topped it with a strawberry jelly for her squab dish:
She talked to us about the importance of balance here specifically so she actually made us each a bite of just the mousse and strawberry:
The tart, sweet strawberry completely cut the thick fattiness of the foie grois and made it delicious, especially for someone like me who doesn't care for it. This, my friends, is what makes you a terrific chef, in my opinion.

I could talk for hours about her but this post would be pages longer than it already is! I'll just share a few more photos because I think they speak for themselves:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Lazy Summer Sundays

I tell you what, I don't think there's anything better than lazy weekends in the summer. There's just a different feeling in the air when it's summer and even a different smell, especially back home in GA when aromas of fresh cut grass and grilled burgers drift by in the evening. I will forever smile thinking of pool days with Brant when we'd be outside from 10am til the sun went down, drinking beers, grilling out and eating his mom's delicious salsa that he still won't ever give me the recipe for. Don't worry, Brant...I'll get it out of you one of these days. The kid in me will treasure summer always and, I must admit, it's mighty nice spending it in Italy.

Trisha and I recently had a free Sunday afternoon and, given how tiring our schedule is, we really cherished it. We decided to take a ride to the store and see what fun summery things we could make to eat or drink. When we walked in, there was a basket of amazing looking pineapples and we both thought cocktails! We got some other fresh fruit and decided to make infused vodka and sit outside on her little balcony. When we got back to her apartment, we put on some music and got to chopping. You tell me if this isn't the most awesome pineapple, ever:
I assure you, it tasted just as wonderful. The mango and nectarine we cut up was fabulous, as well:
This is what I'm talkin' about:
We let it all sit in the freezer while we hung out and then John came over to enjoy the fruits of our labor, no pun intended:
You can probably tell that we have some fun together. :) It was such a perfect evening and we even got to see this amazing sunset:
I've been a little homesick recently and it's tough to be away from my friends and family during a season that just naturally lends itself to being together. Cookouts, live music, patio many things I love about summer and it's hard to be so far away from my "real" life with the friends I so enjoy doing these things with. I honestly just feel blessed that I've made good friends here who I feel are true and genuine. It eases the sad feelings a bit and that's a really good thing. 

At any rate, happy summer to everyone! I hope you're all doing something awesome with your summer weekends, too. :)