Friday, August 24, 2012

Meet Me In Pair-eee

If you read my blog regularly, I think you can tell that I've been overjoyed to have some of the experiences that I have. I've really been blessed to continuously have my mind blown by areas I've seen and people I've met. Obviously, I can't even start talking about the food I've had too or else we'd be here all day. Along with these fabulous experiences, I also can't get used to the fact that we're so close to so many incredible countries that are a quick train or plane ride away. It's just so different in Europe. I mean, the entire country of Italy is just slightly bigger than California and that's one state in the US. The way they do things over here simply caters to one's experiences in life vs. their job or financial status or title. That said, when presented with the idea of going to France for a weekend last minute, I jumped on the opportunity…even if it meant missing two days of school. See, you can do that when you're an adult paying for it yourself instead of mom and dad, tee hee. 

Trisha and I have become good friends since being in school and I really feel lucky to have met her. We couldn't be more different as people yet we have formed a bond that is really special. I think we've both learned things from one another based on how different our past is and how we grew up; things of that nature. It's been a pleasure getting to know her and I know that we'll be friends for a long time. We'd talked about doing something awesome on our last weekend before heading off to stage but we couldn't decide on what! That's when her husband, Tim, called her and said he was able to get away from work for a few days and he wanted her to meet him in Paris! Um, hello romantic. She was beside herself with excitement yet torn as well because he wanted to meet that very weekend we talked about going away. She didn't want to lose a last weekend with me yet was dying to see her husband, of course. Well, being the amazing guy that he is, Tim decided to have me come along for the trip and I almost fell over when Trisha told me. In a matter of a week, our plans were set to fly out to good ol' Pair-eee from Thursday through Sunday. 

We were delayed for quite some time in the Milan airport that Thursday, which killed a fun, girly afternoon we had planned with each other, but it didn't matter. We were going to PARIS:
When we finally arrived, we navigated our way on the trains into the city and, when we came out of the station, we looked up and saw the Eiffel Tower first thing:
It was so awesome. Our hotel was close to the station and my heart just about stopped when I saw the place. It was absolutely gorgeous:
This place was SO nice and it was directly in the center of everything! I definitely had my 'Pretty Woman' moment, although I didn't jump on the bed like I should have:
Heehee! The place we really wanted to try for dinner, Ferdi, was booked for the night so we went to a spot near the hotel which turned out to be so douchey, we couldn't even stay. The people were so rude to us that we had one drink and left! We ended up finding a cute little brasserie that was much more fitting for us. We had a good meal and nice wine, just what we were looking for.

On Friday, Tim's flight wasn't getting in until around 1pm so Trisha and I walked all over to see as much as we could in a short time. We started with a simple breakfast at a cute placed called Bread and Roses near the hotel:
I really wish I could have that exact scone every morning for the rest of my life.

We continued on from there to try and catch whatever sights we could within walking distance:

Allison, I spotted something very special just for you and something very special just for me:
We even found a little bit of Canada (where Trisha is from) in Paris:
As it edged closer to Tim's arrival, we made our way back toward the hotel and stopped for a glass of wine at a super eclectic, cute cafe where the server was friendly and animated:
We both couldn't believe we were sitting in Paris! We had an awesome talk while enjoying the peaceful little side street and it felt like such a French afternoon, really. We headed back to the hotel so Tim and Trisha could meet up and we went our separate ways before coming back together for dinner that evening. I was so happy for the chance to get to know Tim more. I'd briefly met him before so it was really nice having the opportunity to spend time with him. We had a lovely glass of wine before going to dinner and I just enjoyed myself so much. At dinner, the server oddly put the menu board on the seat next to me when we sat down so we figured she was trying to make me feel more included with a date of my own. Awwww…:
The food was terrific and, of all things, they had the most delectable and perfectly done rice pudding I've ever had. We hadn't ordered it but the server brought it along with the desserts we did choose because she said we simply had to try it. She was right. I've been thinking about it since, no joke.

After dinner, Tim brought us to a spot he'd heard about where you can have drinks while looking out at the Eiffel Tower. Though it's mildly cheesy, every hour the Tower lights up all sparkly for a few minutes so I took a photo trying to capture what I could:
We had such an awesome time over the course of the night. I really, really enjoyed myself and was so happy to share that time with Trisha and Tim! They're amazing people, through and through.

On Saturday, the three of us had brunch together before Tim and Trisha went off to enjoy their "date day/night" together. We ate in an area (the name escapes me) that felt much more "real" in terms of being in France. There were no tourists roaming around and it felt like we were right in the middle of normal Saturday activities for Parisians. There was one street that was basically a big market full of everything you could want. The smells alone were fantastic! Lots of delicious croissants and pastries being baked, chocolate, fruits and vegetables… I could've gotten myself in trouble if we stuck around there much longer. After brunch when we branched off, I decided to just wander around aimlessly and get myself kind of lost. I like to do that kind of thing vs. have an agenda or itinerary because I think you often see so much more of a city outside of the normal tourist spots that way. I've also been to Paris a couple of times so I felt like I wasn't missing out on the "must see" sights or anything. 

When I found my way back near the hotel, I was SO excited to walk down the Champs d'Elysees and see all of the Tour de France finish being set up! I couldn't believe I was in Paris on the very weekend the Tour was coming through to finish. It killed me though because we had to be at the airport far before the teams would come cycling through so I was very, very sad to miss it. It was the coolest thing ever though to see things being put together for it:
That, in itself, was a really neat experience for me to have, especially on my own. I spent the entire day out and about so I decided to head back to the hotel, shower and take myself out to dinner. Ferdi, the restaurant we wanted to try before, had an opening so I took it. I'm so glad I did, too. It was totally delicious! It's Spanish food, something I've been craving like crazy since being in Italy, so I was excited. I ordered a mojito and it ended up being one of the better ones I've had, go figure! I asked the server if it was tapas style and if I should order a few things and he said "yes, definitely!" so I ordered two things to start before a "bigger" main dish. Um, the portions were huge, people. I'm a big eater but this was a lot, even for me! I started with the manchego cheese with peppadew peppers and these marinated tomatoes in vanilla infused olive oil with black toast:
I absolutely couldn't stop eating those tomatoes. You'd think the vanilla would be so odd, a reason I ordered it actually, but it was completely addictive. It's so different than anything I've tried before and I wanted to keep eating it forever. I got the pork skewers for my main dish with mac and cheese, both of which were divine. I cracked up when they hit the table though because the mac and cheese was like a casserole dish that could feed three people: 
I did some damage to it, I won't even lie. 

I walked around a little after dinner and caught another lovely view of the Eiffel Tower before heading back to the hotel:
I enjoyed my date with myself, I must say!

The weekend went by much too quick, as they usually do when you're having such fun. I can't believe Tim offered to have me along and his generosity was overwhelming. I feel so lucky, I really do. The best part? I was hopping a plane headed back to Italy. Now, that's cool. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Study Of Calabria & Basilicata

I found after going through studying Calabria and Basilicata that I have a whole new place of interest in Italy based solely on the cuisine! I can tell you that fish in Italy is spectacular. Yes, we have wonderful fish in the US, particularly lake fish, but the fish here is so unique and delicious. You can really begin to tell the difference in flavors as you eat more of it and I'm even learning how to identify some fish by their skin alone. It's been so great! You eat a lot of raw fish in Italy, something I discovered during my trip to Sicily, and it blows any sushi I've had out of the water. Ami, aren't you dying to eat it?!? I'd force you to if you came to Italy with me, FYI. The cuisine of both regions is similar with just a few slight differences.

Calabria is known for three things: fish, pork and eggplants (of all things!). The pork items in Calabria are outstanding, really. One of their best sausages is called 'nduja and it's made of lard, liver and pig feet spiced with chile and grilled. Yeah, not exactly on the Weight Watchers program. I'm telling you though, it's spectacular. Capocolla and soppressata are also two other sausages native to Calabria and I love them both! Capocollo is made with meat from the neck (where the name's from) and shoulder and it's seasoned with salt for eight days then soaked in red wine and pepper. Soppressata is made with lean pork meat, cut and mixed by hand. It's then seasoned with cumin, pepper, chile and red peppers. 

Calabrians use a lot of the "poor" meat from the pig in attempts to be as economical as possible. A perfect example is a dish called morseddu which is a ragu made of boiled pig and calf liver, heart, tripe, lungs, sweetbreads and spleen which is cooked in tomato, herbs and chile. I know this sounds horrific but some of these organ meats are truly delicious. When you think of the history as well with people not being able to afford meat, it makes it somehow seem even better because you understand the real value of stewardship, in a way. 

The most common fish in Calabria is swordfish. In fact, it's known as the "city of swordfish"! They use a lot of anchovies, sardines, pike and cod, as well. Three preparations are most popular for fish, in general: alla ghiotta (stewed with lemon, oil, capers, garlic and parsley), alla marinara (stewed with breadcrumbs, tomato, black olives, capers and chile) and alla riggitana (cooked with onion, white wine, bay leaves, capers and parsley). I think all three dishes sound incredible. Is there anything better than simple things like lemon or garlic? Mustica is a dish of baby anchovies preserved in salt and pressed with chile pepper and fennel seed. The paste is then served spread on homemade bread and drizzled with olive oil. It's considered the caviar of the poor and actually most often served for breakfast, of all things!

As mentioned, eggplant is the third most important thing in Calabria. It grows well there due to the dry climate, high temperature and nearly calcium-free soil which is ideal because it helps prevent buildup of the fruit's bitter juices. Eggplant is originally from China but was brought to Italy by the Arabs in 1400.  So crazy how that can be when the crop has become the most important thing in an area of Italy!

In Basilicata, farming and agriculture are the base of the economy. Olive oil is the key ingredient in everything and you'll find it present in all dishes. Unfortunately, Basilicata suffers an intrusive presence of neighboring regions because it's subjected to other influences and traditions. However, there are two universal specialties that Basilicata is known for: lucaniche and salumi. Back in the day, Roman soldiers forced inhabitants to pay taxes with sausages because they were made with only top quality meat. Interesting fact, eh? I'd gladly pay the government in sausages instead of money, that's for sure. 

A very particular and AWESOME thing from Basilicata is peperoncino di denise which is red bell pepper that's mixed with chile and it's most often ground and dried. It's incredibly potent but the fragrance and taste are terrific. They season a ton of stuff with it throughout Basilicata. 

Chef Gaetano Alia did our chef demo for the day and I was all kinds of happy that he brought some of these treats for us to taste! As we were being introduced, he was actually whipping up a red pepper jam to top some caciocavallo cheese he brought for us. Um, this is how I like to start the day off:
It was soooo good. It was sweet and tangy, perfect to compliment the cheese. It's really a good thing that stuff like this is only given to us in "taste" form because I'd eat my weight in it. 

I was also really intrigued by mustica when we studied it so I was psyched that he brought some freshly made for us to try:
You actually see the eyes and everything, eeek. It's very, very potent but absolutely delicious. I can't say I'd want to wake up and eat it for breakfast but I'd gladly sit outside midday and sip a strong white wine along with it for a snack.

The third thing we got to try was the 'nduja and I looooooved it:
The orange slice on top made it even better. The acid cut through the richness of the sausage without interfering with any of its flavor. It was very spicy and so delicious! 

The defining moment of the demo for me was when Chef Gaetano pulled out this sucker:
Whaaaaat? This is a fish called pesce spatola and it's in the swordfish family, of all things! How creepy looking is that thing?! They swim very far down in the ocean which is why their eyes are so big. I have never in my life seen a fish like that. Once again, it keeps right in line with the uniqueness of fish in Italy…

The chef also brought candele pasta for us to try which is super thick and long. You break it by hand before cooking so it has this nice, rustic appeal to it. He cooked it with a very simple sauce made out of the 'nduja and I died and went to heaven:
The spiciness was so perfect! I'm telling you folks, I'm digging me some Calabria and Basilicata. The next time I travel in Italy for fun, it'll definitely be a trip planned by region. I can't wait to one day explore so much more of this country! I think I'll need to run another marathon just before so I properly plan for all of the calories I'll ingest daily. That's my kind of livin'.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Field Trip #4: Liguria

Oh, I get so excited to write my posts about our field trips! They're just so amazing and I try hard to share even a fraction of them with you guys through writing and photos. The anticipation of our day each time we board the bus that morning is so fun because we never know what we're in for! Each field trip so far has had its own remarkable qualities and this one was no exception.

After learning more about Liguria, I was pretty psyched to actually see it. Liguria is where the famed (in recent years) Cinque Terre is like I mentioned before so I was ready to see it with my own two eyes. We started the day out going to see a mussel farm and learning about the process of cultivating and farming them. Mussels are a recent new love of mine in the past couple of years and I surely haven't known how they make it from the ocean to my plate. Well, now I do! 

First of all, we did go to a farm so these are not wild mussels. They're certainly from the ocean but they're strategically placed there to grow. A couple of facts for you, mussels are basically a filter of the ocean. There is so much bacteria and pollution in them that they need to be treated well before consumption. You can eat raw mussels but it's highly advised against unless you fully know that the source they've come from is super reputable. Anyway, I was shocked to find out that mussels take 1 1/2 years to grow before they're ready to be harvested. They're also hermaphrodites, haha! 

This little place we went to was so neat:
The men were honestly working so hard! It was HOT out, too. Tell me this isn't neat to see:
These mussels come straight out of the sea, are treated on site and people come through in droves to buy them. We got to go into the "factory" part of the facility and see the steps they go through. There really isn't much to it at the end of the day. They're brought inside in the crates and put into the large blue bins to be washed, soaked and put through a UV process to kill all the bacteria. Afterward, they're put through the conveyor machine to be rinsed once more, then bagged. It's a much faster process than I thought:
It's so quick, in fact, that none of this facility is refrigerated or air conditioned. There's no need simply because all the water used is super cold and they are sold that fast. Isn't that just awesome?! I swear to you, if I had a place near me like this to buy mussels, I might turn into one due to how often I'd eat them. After seeing the whole process, the guys at the facility prepared a tasting for us and I was happy as a clam (er, mussel?!):
I didn't expect this in the least but I was definitely wanting to try them. I could only think of Flex back in NYC and drool at the mere thought so this was exceptional. Simply steamed with a squeeze of lemon juice and served with focaccia and wine?! Um, hell yes. I couldn't believe I was eating mussels we just saw pulled out of the water. Is anyone jealous yet?

After this wonderful start to the day, we were off to lunch in Riomaggiore, one of the five towns in Cinque Terre. Much to my own surprise, I stayed awake on the drive and wow, am I glad I did. I only managed to get a couple of photos from the bus but it was enough to make me awestruck: 
I'd also mentioned before that I looooove pesto and Liguria is where it originates. Guess what I had for lunch? No, not nachos from Cilantro, Rachel…PESTO:
And wine. Again. Yessss! That's what I'm talkin' about, school director folk. 

After lunch, we met the most lovely couple who own a vineyard in the mountains and they took us to taste the wine they produce. It's a very specific wine called sciacchetra and it's specific to Liguria. It's a very potent, sweeter wine but it's absolutely fantastic. Normally, I don't enjoy the after dinner type wines but this was really smooth, not overly sweet and very good:
I didn't realize we'd get to do a tasting but I'm happy we did! Afterward, they took us to the vineyard and woooow:
The couple lives there on the vineyard property and the grounds are SO beautiful:
We stayed for a while talking with them and it was really great. Once again, this is another couple who exudes love and passion for what they do that's actually tangible. The man told me that he worked all his life in a factory and it wasn't nearly as hard as the work he does on the vineyard. However, "his spirit was never alive before and it is now, amongst the vines". I mean, who talks like that?! People who ARE alive, that's who.

When we regrettably had to leave, we were off to our final stop for the day. We'd be going to see a former ALMA graduate who owns a pizzeria in the province of Parma. He spent some time with us talking about pizza and his love of it which I surely do relate to. He makes a very particular type of natural yeast dough and it's the strangest thing! When you look at this pizza, the last thing you think is 'light':
However, you bite into it and it just deflates and it's this airy, fluffy texture that you totally don't expect! Not to be a critic or anything but it was super bland. I think the dough really needs salt because it honestly had no flavor. The cheese and sauce were awesome, though.

As you can see, it was quite a day for us. I really enjoyed this field trip particularly and I walked away feeling like I learned quite a bit. Being able to have an experience like that and see what we did is phenomenal, through and through. What a beautiful day!