New Italian Food Wiki: Help it Grow!

Yesterday was the start to a relatively hectic week here in Italia. My first week of work with food producer/distributor Ferrarini! Ferrarini produces and distributes all of the most prized delicacies from the region of Emilia Romagna, amongst the most well known, Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Balsamic Vinegar from Modena and Reggio Emilia (amongst many more).

What is my role in the company? Well, aside from being an entry level marketing intern, which in the states would mean clerical work and answering phones, I am helping the company expand an exciting new project called I Sapori della Nostra Terra (translated as The Flavors of Our Land). The project, put simply, is an innovative combination between wikipedia and trip advisor, guiding italians and foreigners alike into the extensive world of Italian food products.

While the site is relatively new, and I am working hard to increase the amount of English translations, I strongly suggest you folks take a look at the awesome work that is coming out of this thing. You have to create an account, but it’s really easy. For those of you planning a trip to Italy any time soon, this site is also a great way to learn about the delicious food products you can find along the way in the cities you wish to visit.

Any suggestions/additions you have to the wiki site are definitely welcomed. To give your input, either comment on this entry or shoot me an email at michelleaspis@gmail.com! Thanks Grassroots Gourmet readers!

Mortadella: The Original Bologna

Yesterday I was taken to the small town of Casatenovo, a mere 30km from Milan, to the Vismara production plant, a large producer of famous deli and cured meats including Mortadella, Salami, Pancetta, and Prosciutto Cotto (cooked ham).

Mortadella

Being a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, I have seen my fair share of meat production plants, which are always an eye opening and sometimes alarming experience…but being a trained professional I put my apprehensions of industrial meat plants behind me and jumped in for the ride.

We arrived a bit late from Parma (after a grueling 2.5 hr drive) but quickly met up with the director of Production for an intensive tour of the plant. “A voi piace la Mortadella?” “Do you like Mortadella?” he asked. The truth is, Mortadella has never been one of my favorite Italian Salumi, made in a similar way as the hot dog, Mortadella is constructed from the fat of a pig’s throat, in combination with lesser cuts of the pork (including tripe, lean cuts, and sometimes unused organs). Of course there is the addition of various spices and pistacchio, but needless to say, this product is not easily loved by all.

He guided us through the production line, in and out a labyrinth of rooms that varied in temperature extremes; cold refridgerators, hot ovens, freezing meat grinders…my body was in shock.

I watched small cuts of meat travel up a ladder-like conveyor into a huge pit where they were then ground into a paste and spiced with a mixture of typical spices, including pepper, salt, coriander, myrtle, and nutmeg. The smell was surprisingly quite good. After the pieces of throat fat were cubed and added to the meat mixture, it was fed into large plastic packaging tubes (think enormous hot dogs) and sent into the dry ovens for a slow 24 hour cook.

Though I have seen what seems like an infinite amount of meat processing plants for products like Prosciutto di Parma, various salami, and Culatello, I had never seen the production of Mortadella and I must say it was definitely an experience.

Though Mortadella contains some choice cuts of meat, I must say that in comparison to the American bologna this is a 100% natural product, no nitrates in sight. If you’re a fan of bologna, it is worth your while to try the real stuff, while it is not a health option, it is definitely better for you than it’s fake, chemical filled cousin.

Mouth-gasmic Mozzarella di Bufala


Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, white stringy pillows of comestible bliss. This is not your ordinary tasteless zombie mozzarella, but rather a rich, flavorful cheese that can only be produced in designated areas of Italy’s Campania, Lazio, and Puglia regions.

Produced from the milk of a domestic water buffalo, the flavor of Bufala mozzarella cheese is much richer and creamier than its cow milk (Fior di Latte) counterpart. What makes this mozzarella so particularly special however, is its characteristic texture. Heating milk curd in boiling water (temp of curd must reach at least 180F), it melts and is pulled into the stringy recognizable mozzarella consistency. Formed into a large ball, the cheese is then hand pulled and thrown into a pool of cool water by the famous and well respected “Mozzarella Men”. Describing the scene, it was something of an Italian Willy Wonka.

After being formed into various sizes and shapes, the cheese is left to in a bath of salt water for a minimum of 4 hours to acquire its acidic, salty, and creamy taste. Mesmerized by the pulling and plucking of the cheese from its ‘mother ball’, I could barely wait to CONSUME.

Some Bufala Mozzarella Facts for the Ignorant Eater:

  • Never put mozzarella in the fridge, if its the fresh kind thats sold in a plastic bag full of water. In cold temperatures the cheese becomes dry and flavorless. It can last outside the fridge for 4-5 days at a room temp of 60-68F.
  • When cutting into a piece of fresh mozzarella, finding water in the cheese mass is not an indication of high quality.

Though this product has seen a lot of controversy in the past, with tainting and impure milk scandals, it remains nonetheless the pride of Campania. To be honest after a week of eating this stuff I can’t look at it for a while, but oversaturation of the product by no means it isn’t good. Mozzarella di Bufala Campana makes string cheese seem like a white stick of plasticized doom.

Foie Gras: France’s Deviant Delicacy

Foie Gras: Fatty Duck Liver

Foie Gras, a French word that rolls beautifully off the tongue but not so easily into the stomach, at least for some. Translated from French, Foie Gras literally means “fatty liver,” specifically speaking, the fatty liver of a duck or goose. Though the original notion of creating the delicacy was born in ancient Egypt, contemporarily, France produces the highest amount of this product per year (producing almost 19,000 tonnes and 78% of the worlds supply in 2005).

Both within France and abroad, this delicate slice of buttery liver is not only a prized delicacy but also a controversial culinary concoction. Topping the list of the world’s most disputed foods, Foie Gras has been continually denounced by animal rights activists who argue that its production methodologies are in violation of regulations that protect the humane treatment of animals.

What is it about Foie Gras that separates it so distinctly from other forms of liver preparation and consumption? What makes this product so abhorred by animal lovers and squeamish eaters? The answer is simple: production, production, production. Foie Gras earned its namesake because of the effects of intentional force-feeding (in French this process is called gavage d’oie) on the livers of ducks and geese. Force-feeding techniques are the key contributors in rendering an incredibly oversized and highly fatty liver, ultimately creating the rich, creamy and delicate texture of the consumable product.

Using specially designed machinery, a long feeding tube is inserted into the throat of farm-raised ducks and geese twice a day to fill them to capacity with a strict diet of corn. While producers claim that this force-feeding process is painless to the animals because they lack an esophagus and gag-reflexes the practice is nonetheless concerning, especially regarding the harmful effects of an oversized liver to the animal.

J.Barthouil's Foie Gras

Based on my prejudgements, it was difficult to enter the heart of a land that held foie gras to a different luxurious standard, and went against activists’ requests to cease its production. The duck farmer and producers at J.Barthouil were wary of the issues their product has caused, and are working hard to change its internationally notorious reputation.

In foie gras’ defense, we were told that ducks and geese are migrating animals, and therefore are naturally equipped to store fat for long periods of migration. Therefore, their livers are easily enlarged by the gavage force-feeding process. As far as the animal’s health was concerned, the producer at J.Barthouil assured us that, “If we were to let these animals free, thus stopping the gavage feeding techniques, their livers would return to normal in a matter of days.” This statement seemed hard to believe but was nonetheless accepted by the majority of those who listened.

On the company’s brochure, it is advertised that foie gras is “in fact the healthy liver of an adult duck or goose,” however, seeing the large, fatty, beige mass that they defined as liver, the optimal health of the organ was marginally apparent. Emphasizing the fact that animals are not stressed during this force feeding process, the producer underlined the fact that a stressed animal would produce a low-quality tasting product.

A Healthy Liver?

Not surprisingly, the producers at J.Barthouil lamented that while their product is made without the use of chemical additives and organic feeding, the foie gras itself cannot be registered as an organic product. Regardless of details in feed and the free-range living conditions of animals used for this particular company, it cannot receive an organic certification because of complaints made by animal rights activists.

It must be said however that the duck farm we visited in Domezain-Berraute was a small-scale production facility which allowed for ducks to roam freely in a large area of land before their ultimate fate in the gavage room. Unlike industrial manufacturing of foie gras, one could definitely acknowledge a different quality of care and respect that this farm had for its animals. The final consumable product however, was nonetheless created using the same basic methods of force-feeding.

Corn: The Main Feed

Entering the gavage room on the duck farm in Domezain-Berraute, the pungent and absolutely nauseating smell of the caged animals overwhelmed my senses. As my eyes began to water, the kind farmer boasted that the quality of his foie gras cannot be met by industrial manufacturers. While this statement was confirmed by my classmates, who happily enjoyed the fruits of the farmer’s labor, I could not help but ignore the underlying truth and reality that goes into making foie gras.

The facility was vast, and divided into small cages each housing seven ducks. The room was equipped with large industrial fans that the farmer told us were necessary to cool the animals who were overheated due to their extensively large diet. Looking up close at the animals, I was almost frightened by their size. Never had I seen a duck that large in my entire life. Their backsides almost sagged from their bloated internal organs. I continued to hold my breath.

Leaving the gavage room and liberated into the fresh air of the outdoors, we learned about the traditional conservation methods of foie gras. While it can be whipped into a mousse, packed into a confit, or preserved whole, the most important conservative is duck fat. It can be packaged into cans which extends the conservation of this product to well over a year or jars filled with the duck fat that can be kept for many months.

The final question of consumption remains that the disposal of the consumer, based on his personal preferences, beliefs and priorities. For some, specific issues of animal rights are not considered when eating luxury products such as foie gras, after all humans are carnivorous beings. The concept of consuming a fine delicacy holds high importance for food lovers, especially professional gastronomes therefore making the controversial debate surrounding foie gras seem superfluous.

Others however, dance to a different beat, allowing themselves to enjoy eating meat products while still remaining wary of the places from which these products come. Being that foie gras is a major staple of French cuisine, it would be useless to make a successful campaign to abolish its production altogether, but a knowledge about the facts that go into making a product of this kind is important to understand the origins and sacrifices that go into the foods we eat and the choices we make as informed consumers.

My liver hurts….and something tells me it’s not the fault of my lush-inclined habits.


A Slippery Slope: The Oily State of Louisiana’s Fishing Industry

Louisiana Seafood Products

As we have all been hearing about on the nightly news, the April 20th rupture of the Deepwater Horizons Drillsite off the Gulf Coast of Mexico is proving to become an incredibly challenging and traumatic event for local wildlife, fisherman, and the people of Louisiana. While this issue may not seem relevant to those living outside of this area, the consequences could be extreme, and ultimately effect every American seafood lover.

President Obama took a visit to the area this week to give a comment on the current state of the situation, stating that the spill is a “potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.”

Current Oil Spill Site

The map above was published May 1st, showing the oil that continues to spill from the rig at 5,000 barrels/day has hit the natural wetlands that make up 25% of America’s total wetland ecosystem. Aside from the various species of indigenous birds and plantlife that may be killed off due to the spill, it is the Seafood industry that will have to endure some serious economic travesties on account of this oily disaster.

Louisiana has a $2.4 Billion seafood industry, supplying not only the Gulf Coast with abundant amounts of Oysters, Shrimp, Tuna, and Crab, but also the rest of the United States. As of now, the seafood industry has been working hard to communicate that their fish is still safe to eat, however, as the oil continues to flow, industrial buyers are considering switching their business to North-Eastern fish distributors, for fear of safe products and rising prices.

It is hard to predict the true future of the Gulf Coast fishing industry, as methods to divert the oil flow are already underway. The important question is, are rubber booms sufficient enough to save the future of Seafood Gumbo? Only time will tell..

Better start praying...

For more information and updates on the current status of the oil spill, please visit: Here

Honey Tasting: Pooh Bear’s Paradise

Friday we were graced with the presence of a Piemontese honey producer (Miele Thun) that came in and gave us the low down on honey production as well as a very thorough tasting session. We tasted 9 different honeys, 2 cheeses made with honey, candied orange peels, and a honey mead alcohol that kind of tasted like lighter fluid…

Me and Honey
The tasting palate

p.s. The situation with the volcano and European airspace seems to be getting worse and without a clear end in sight. Will we make it to Spain? The uncertainty remains….

Professional Cheese Tasting: The Fundamentals

Though many people might think that wine tasting is the most complex form of high cultured experience, the world of cheese tasting is an unexplored gem that in fact exceeds the intricacies of the wine world.

In class yesterday we were given the pleasure of meeting Mr. De Riccardis, a professional cheese taster here in Italy, who gave us a detailed lesson on how to properly taste and evaluate top quality cheeses. For this particularly tasty lesson, we evaluated 4 different Italian cheese varieties: Raschera d’Alpeggio, Taleggio, Pecorino Romano, and CastelMagno.

Before I go into detail about each cheese, there are several rules for tasting and evaluating cheese properly.

First and most importantly, cheese must be eaten alone (no bread or wine) and using ones hands… forget about cutlery folks, this is the real deal.

1.) Evaluating Shape: There are 7 different shapes of cheese. These include

  • Sferic (stretched curd): ie Mozzarella
  • Oval: ie Provola
  • Cylindrical: ie Parmagiano Reggiano
  • Parallelepiped/Square Slab: ie Taleggio
  • Log: ie Goat
  • Truncated Pyramids: ie Valencay
  • Undefined Shape

2.)Evaluating External Surface:

  • Is the cheese with or without rind?
  • Smooth or Rough surface?
  • Crust with natural molds or no molds? (90% of molds come from Penicillin family)
  • Dry or Moist rind?
  • Paraffin wax covering?
  • Washed rind? Washed with water/brine solution

3.)Evaluating Undercrust: If the cheese has a present rind.

  • is the depth/distribution of the rind uniform? If the cheese fails this test then it cannot be considered a top quality cheese (though is usually still edible)

4.)Evaluating Colors of Cheese Paste:

  • Milk white, Greyish white, Ivory white, Straw Yellow, Orange (Mimolette), Bleu

5.)Evaluating Eyes/Holes:

  • Absent (Parmagiano Reggiano)
  • Round: (range from dot size-nut size) ie Swiss.
  • Lengthened Partridge Eyes: ie Asiago
  • Irregular: ir Roquefort

OK! so now that we know the physical regulations for evaluating cheese, let’s get into the good stuff. How does it TASTE! What I found particularly interesting for all of our tasting samples was that the smells of the cheeses sometimes differed entirely from their taste. In other cases, the tastes became far more complex and defined when tasted.

Raschera D’Alpeggio:

Raschera D'Alpeggio
  • Production Area: Piedmont, Italy city of Cuneo
  • Milk Used: Whole raw cow’s milk
  • Rennet Type: Calf
  • Average Aging Period: 7-8 Months
  • Production Period: June-September
  • Average Weight: 12-13 Kg

Personal Notes: This cheese is delicious, milk, and soft. Would have gone great with a Pinot Noir and a piece of bread but also was delicious on its own. Comparable in taste and texture to Asiago.

Taleggio:

Taleggio

  • Production Area: Lombardia, Italy
  • Milk Used: Whole raw cow’s milk
  • Rennet Type: Calf
  • Average Aging Period: 2 Months
  • Production Period: Year Round
  • Average Weight: 2.5 kg

Personal Notes: I really enjoyed this cheese, the texture reminded me of Brie… despite a somewhat strong smell this is a relatively mild cheese. Delicious

Pecorino Toscano:

Pecorino Toscano:

  • Production Area: Tuscany, Italy
  • Milk Used: Whole ewe (sheep) milk
  • Rennet Type: Calf
  • Average Aging Period: 3-5 months
  • Production Period: March-November
  • Average Weight: 3.5-4 kg

Personal Notes:
Personal Notes: This cheese has a texture similar to Parmagiano Reggiano but a much heavier taste. I don’t particularly like it but it can be good in certain dishes as it adds a particular complexity that can’t be found in Grana or Parmagiano.

Castelmagno:

Castelmagno:

  • Production Area: Piedmont, Italy
  • Milk Used: Whole raw cow’s milk
  • Rennet Type: Calf
  • Average Aging Period: 7-8 months
  • Production Period: July-Sept
  • Average Weight: 2 kg

Castelmagno is considered one of the most expensive and rare cheeses in the world. Sold at 60E/kg only 600-700 wheels are produced per year.

Personal Notes:Though this cheese is considered one of the most rare and expensive in the world, I couldn’t get myself past the first bite.. The cheese was so pungent it actually burnt my tongue, and though I tasted the mushrooms, the overwhelming taste of soap kind of killed my appetite. Others in the class seemed to like it though.

OK enough cheese for one day, but to say the least I had a very tasty lesson. The first of many “Quality Food Tasting” lessons that we will have throughout the course of the year. I am going to go and buy some cheese from the market across the street to continue my ‘studies’. I am a very good student. 😉