When Wine Takes Over

Lambrusco Grapes

In Italy’s designated land of pork and Parmigiano, there’s always room for a vineyard.While Emilia-Romagna might not be particularly well-known for having an extensive or flourishing viticulture, the region produces a large amount of Lambrusco and even some international grapes including Chardonnay and Cabernet-Sauvignon.

Working for Ferrarini S.p.A., a company with a lot of land producing a large variety of Italian specialty products (Prosciutto, Parmigiano, Balsamic Vinegar, Wine, etc.) I get the opportunity to follow the entire production process of these things on a first hand basis. Yes, I even get to taste the grapes from Ferrarini’s vineyards. I can’t exactly say my life sucks.

During the month of September into the beginning of October, the grape-vine reaches the height of excitement in its life. Kind of like graduating from high school, the grapes that have been in the process of growing the entire year, are now being picked and transformed in to bigger, better, and more alcoholic things.

Being an American, I have always romanticized the picking and crushing of wine grapes. Having seen that infamous “I Love Lucy” episode far too many times, I expected to see a group of ageless women in checkered dresses with handkerchiefs on their head, picking and stomping grapes to the beat of a distant accordion. Instead, I saw that the people harvesting grapes were actually students, round together every year to make a quick buck during the harvesting season.The harvest is 100% manual, which is surprising considering that Ferrarini has over 20 acres of their land designated for viticulture.

Because this area of Italy is not particularly famous for its wine culture, the general approach for wines from this area is quantity above quality. Lambrusco being the regional wine, is a simple table wine that pairs well with fattier foods, with a light carbonation and acidity that helps cut the heaviness of what’s being eaten.

Running around with Ferrarini’s enologist, Luca Torreggiani, I was filling pages and pages of my notebook with wine facts that any wine-dork/food-freak would find fascinating. A conversation with Luca, my comprehension degenerating with each sip of fermented grape elixir, I pushed myself to understand the intricacies of it all..

The Q&A’s with Mr. Toreggiani

  • Q: What is organic wine?
  • A: I am convinced that it can’t actually exist 100%. Sure grapes can be grown in an organic environment, without using pesticides, etc. But once they leave the vineyard, Sulphites almost absolutely have to be used in order to create the right fermentation environment for the wine. Sulphites are fundamental for extending the longevity of wine, as well as conserving it’s color and flavor. Organic wine? I’m not convinced.
  • Q: Why are grapes always grown on a slope?
  • A: Slopes are very important in viticulture. Especially for white wines. By growing the white wine grapes on a slope facing east, they are never exposed to the direct heat of the sun, and the flavors are not burnt or compromised. Red wines on the other hand need heat, so they are grown facing West on a hill to have the best sun exposure.
  • Q: How come drinking a sip of Champagne or other sparkling white wine makes me feel immediately drunk?
  • A: Well, it’s actually not the alcohol content of the wine that makes your head spin immediately like that, it’s actually because sparkling white wines or “Spumanti” have a higher level of sulphites that have that side effect.

Making wine is not a simple endeavor. It requires an extensive knowledge not only of climate (Ferrarini uses specialized technology to specifically monitor weather patterns), but also a good background in science, and a passion for the product itself. I have a passion for drinking the product, but something tells me that’s not enough to open my own vineyard. As far as a Grassroots Gourmet wine production goes, for now all we have to rely on is the moonshine eating away the plastic of my bathtub. I should probably just stick to drinking and enjoying wine, leaving the rest to the pros.


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.

A Pizza in Naples

Amongst the chaos of trash-littered streets, whizzing cars and vespas, and whistling men dressed in various shades of purple, in Naples, Pizza is king.

Pizza: a fantastical almost hypnotizing dish with baffling simplicity. Flour, Water, and Yeast are the main components to this traditional recipe that helped to put Italy on the map as one the world’s most respected food capitals. Born in Naples, it is here that pizza is not only a filling dinner, but a testament to the very heart Neapolitan culture.

Unlike other pizza variations, the Pizza Napoletana can be recognized by its slightly raised crust and chewy texture. This pizza is a bit more doughy than the Roman variation, which is typically flat and crunchy. The most typical recipe is the Pizza Margherita, which is simply fresh tomato sauce, Buffalo Mozzarella, and fresh basil.

La Pizza Margherita

Enzo Coccia, head Pizzaiolo at “La Notizia” pizzeria in the heart of Naples, explained with emotion the world of pizza that separates Naples from the rest of Italy. “In the 1980s, Pizza Napoletana became a mass consumer product, with pizzerias in the city growing from 250 to 1300 in just a few years. When a product becomes mass consumed, it loses its identity.”

While top quality ingredients such as Caputo double 00 flour, and San Marzano tomatoes go into making a top quality pizza napoletana, Enzo explains that the most important ingredient is passion and concern for the product itself. Coming from a family of pizza makers, being a Pizzaiolo for Enzo isn’t simply to pay the bills, but rather, as an homage to his family and to his city’s culinary traditions.

He also added that the right oven is key in creating the perfect texture and “cottura” (baking). At La Notizia, the oven was one of the restaurants most serious investments. Costing almost 15,000 Euro ($18,000) the oven was constructed using bricks made with ash from Mt. Vesuvius, by hand. No electric $3,000 oven could replicate the pizzas that came flying out of Enzo’s oven of gold.

Not to mention, this was one of the most awesome pizzas I’ve ever had in my life. The slightly chewy and soft texture of the dough, the sweet and tangy flavor of the tomato sauce, the spice of the fresh garlic. My mouth was exploding in sensory ecstasy.

Ah, Naples… How I love thee.

And of course, a video because who doesn’t want to see me get violated by an overenthusiastic Neapolitan pizza man? Pardon the video quality my friend Alice is an idiot. 😀

Off to Campania: Eating like a Mob Boss

Bay of Naples at Sunset

It’s that time of the month again….No, not THAT one.. I mean it’s off for another gastronomic tour to one of Italy’s most beautiful and notorious regions: Campania. Campania, found on Italy’s southwest side, is home to a plethora of famous tourist destinations such as Amalfi, Sorrento, Positano, Capri, and last but definitely most notorious, Naples.

Naples Street View, Via Toledo

Travelers coming to this part of Italy are surely in for an eyeful of beauty, and a mouthful of food, but must definitely be cautious of their surroundings because despite the romantic landscapes, Naples and its surrounding cities are ‘littered’ (pun intended) with mafia violence and professional thieves. In Amalfi and other coastal tourist destinations in the area, the corruption in this region is hidden a bit more than it is in Naples; however, as a foreigner in Naples one must be incredibly aware of his surroundings and his personal belongings. Even Italians themselves recognize Naples (Napoli in Italian) as being at the crux of Italy’s mafia corruption. The Camorra (as is known the mafia in this region) is incredibly strong and while they probably could care less about a tourist, be sure not to get caught in the middle of a shoot out! (I kind of wish I was kidding.)

Nonetheless, aside from the professional pick-pocketing and potential stray bullets, Campania is home to some of Italy’s most famous food masterpieces, and thus the motivation for my arrival to the Heart of Darkness (to extend my hyperbolic attitude today).

What is the most internationally famous element of Italian cuisine? Pizza. Created in Naples in the late 18th century for King Ferdinand and his wife Margherita (hence the Pizza Margherita).

Traditional Margherita Pizza: Buffalo Mozzarella, Fresh Tomatoes, and Basil

Buffalo Mozzarella is also a key staple product in this region, despite recent tainting issues this sensually rich and flavorful cheese remains the pride of every Neopolitan. Here in Campania it is freshly made and enjoyed by all.

Mozzarella di Bufala

I will be gone until next Friday (May  14th), and will be leaving my computer at home because bringing it to Naples equivalent to having MUG ME tattooed onto my forehead. This should be true Grassroots Gourmet adventure.

The Amalfi Coast

Liguria: It Snows at the Beach?

My Ligurian longstay is over and I come home to Parma full of deliciously fresh fish and pesto. Ligurian cuisine is uniquely delicious in the respect that it is incredibly varied and incredibly fresh. Known for beautiful summer stops such as Cinque Terre, Genova, Portofino, and Portovenere, the Ligurian region of Italy is often frequented by Italian and international travellers alike….IN THE SUMMER!

The reason I emphasize the season so extensively, is because March is probably the absolute worst time we could have picked to do our week long gastronomic and tourism field trip in Liguria. Why? Well.. let’s just put it this way, Hurricane Katrina like winds, and Snow…at the beach. Almost no shops were open because only an absolute moron would go to the beach in bone-chilling temperatures. Despite this minor detail, we did get some sun, and on the days when the weather was sub-par, we ate like horses to make up the deficit.

Ligurian cuisine has gained international fame for products such as pesto, focaccia, olive oil, and white wine… however, the fresh products that are locally recognized are what really made an impression. We had plates of freshly grilled fish, simply prepared with a squeeze of lemon, delicious white wine, Sciacchettra (a dessert wine), and incredible artisan pasta. Haha are you hungry yet?

We also made a quick trip into Tuscany to see the production of a specialty product called Lardo di Colonata, made in the famous marble region of Tuscany, Lardo is basically large pieces of pork back fat cured in huge marble boxes (that looked like coffins) for 6 months in a bath of salt, garlic, rosemary, and a huge array of other spices. It was pretty heavy to eat but I never thought I’d enjoy a piece of plain lard as much as I did.. mmm gluttony.

For those of you backpacking travellers, I highly recommend coming to this area in the spring and summer seasons. I had to use my imagination to visualize what the city of Portovenere would be like with decent weather conditions, nice summer breeze, cold mojitos and suntans, unfortunately all I really knew was a deserted, windy, and rainy pirate town. Nonetheless, if you eat well, and are surrounded by breathtaking beauty, it becomes incredibly hard to complain.

Ligurian Longstay

Ciao friends, I am off to Liguria today for another 5-day field trip. Just wanted to prompt you because I will  be back with many surprises and interesting things to share. If you want to do a little research. Liguria is the home of the Cinque Terre (gorgeous cliffside towns), Pesto, Focaccia Genovese, Olive Oil, and white wine.

I hope to eat more fish, friuts, and vegetables than I did in Sardegna, but just in case I am bringing my Fiber tablets….for emergency situations.. use your imagination.

See you next weekend. ❤

Off to Sardegna: A week of Feasting

Tomorrow morning the UNISG group and I are going on our first culinary field trip to the beautiful island of Sardinia (Sardegna in Italian). We will be visiting various agritourisms, meat and cheese producers, a mask museum, wine producers, beer producers,  and dining in some of the most authentic and delicious places you could imagine.

Beach in Sardegna
Sardegna: The pink one.

I am just prompting myself, and of course my readers, for some of the things I will come across this week. Here is a list of websites of some of the places we will be visiting:







Sorry some of these websites are only in Italian, but you get the idea… I have been dieting for a week in preparation for this momentous trip, though I will most likely come back with zero pants that fit and a happily expanded waistline… ahh the life I lead.

Anyway, I’ll be sure to make one big mega post when I return of all the crazy happenings on the trip, but I won’t have my computer there with me (will I survive?) so you will all have to wait until I get back next weekend 😉

Until then, I’m off to dig into some real Grassroots Gourmet.