Organic vs. Zero Food Miles

Based on targeted marketing and the preach of pro-environment organizations, we all know that eating organic and local foods are important for the health of our ecosystem as well as our intestines… But in the battle between local and organic, which is ultimately a more important philosophy to follow??

Let us create a hypothetical situation: I am at the grocery store, and I see a tantalizing mountain of organic cherries imported from Michigan. I think to myself “Oh good, I am going to buy these cherries because paying the extra $3 is worth it to help the environment and to evade Parkinson’s from pesticide ingestion!”

…..But wait, right next to the pile of organic cherries is another pile of cherries grown in a non-organic farm just a few miles from my house. Automatically one might think “No, these are not organic and the organic man would be mad if he knew I had the option to purchase the ‘better’ choice and I didn’t because I found a less expensive option”

Although the cherries grown miles from your house are not organic, they are local, which means the amount of fuel used to transport them to your grocery store was much lower than those flown in from Michigan. It seems that buying non-local organic vegetables kind of contradicts the purpose of buying organic and supporting the environmental movement in the first place.

So I ask my readers, what do you think is more important when buying produce? Local or Organic?

(of course if something is both local AND organic you find yourself in an ideal situation, though this is not always the case)

Spanish Basque Lands: World of Egg and Pork

After four days of chowing down on French delicacies I thought would never even get close to my dinner plate, we crossed the border into the Spain for our first day in Bidegoian to a traditional farm and producer of a rare breed of Basque pigs called, Euskal Txerria. In my days as a gastronomy student, I’ve been to a fair amount of pig farms, memories of eye wateringly pungent smells, metal gates, and shit-covered hay. Never in my life have I seen pigs as strange and ADORABLE as the pigs we saw here. Black and pink spotted little devils with ears so floppy they had a very limited visual plane.

After kvelling (my Jewish New York maternal side emerges) for an hour about how adorable these little oinkers were, we were then proudly presented with their ultimate destiny and true purpose for being on the farm: homemade Chorizo and Jamon! Never fall too in love with an animal you see on a farm because inevitably it will end up sliced into little pieces on your dinner plate. Nonetheless, the passion conveyed by these producers for their work, and also for their animals permeated into the quality of their products, and ultimately worked to alleviate the pain caused by eating the cutest pig I have ever seen.

Spending the night in San Sebastian, we were then introduced to the extensive cultural practice that is Spanish Basque cider at the local Cideria.  Made from fermented apples, this extremely tart beverage is drunk in continuation by locals of this area. Served from massive wooden barrels, the traditional way to drink the beverage made a lasting impression (until of course my vision was blurred as a cause of over consumption..oops) Opening a little spit on the side of the barrel, the cider came spitting out as we lined up to fill our glass. An important rule however, was not to fill our glasses too high because the carbonation goes away quickly. Therefore, drink small amounts, often. In fact we were told to go up to the barrel as often as we wished, which, was obviously greatly appreciated.

Waking up feeling like I endured a minor concussion, we promptly hopped on the bus again to the Spanish fishing town of Getara, watching the boats unload pounds and pounds of fresh sardines to be sold at the port. The sardines were huge!!

After a scrumptious fish-based lunch washed town with traditional Basque cider, we were off to a the picturesque Aroa vegetable farm to learn about an indigenous pea variety, Guistante Lagrima, which is sold to restaurants at a ‘humble’ price of 40 Euro/half kilo…. though the price seems a bit ridiculous, they were the most succulent, sweet, and crisp peas I have ever consumed. In the garden we were also given the opportunity to pick fresh arugula, a spicy lettuce variety, amongst other deliciously organic fruits and vegetables.

Changing pace completely, we hopped on the bus to yet another farm, however this one was like unlike any I have ever seen. Spread across acres of the Spanish countryside, I was refreshed to see a farm that went beyond industry that truly represented the love this family had for their animals and their main product: Idiazabal cheese. Made from raw sheep’s milk, the cheese was absolutely extraordinary, slightly spicy with a texture that mimicked Asiago. I couldn’t stop eating it. The animals on the farm seemed happy, and the sheep basked in the sun as we met with the cheese producers.

We then arrived in Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque country, unfortunately my impression of the city remains a bit sour because we stayed at one of the most unsanitary hotels I have ever experienced, located conveniently in the drug and prostitution center of the town. Unlike any other city in Spain, Bilbao is an incredibly modernized city, littered with strange and modern art sculptures in the city squares. Most definitely the most memorable moment in Bilbao was the Guggenheim museum, designed by famous architect Frank Gehry. There was an incredible exhibit of Anish Kapoor art that really opened my eyes to the beauty of modern and abstract art.

After one of the most eventful and exhausting weeks of my life, I happily returned to Parma (at 2am) and practically fell into my bed. I calculated the total hours we spent traveling on the bus and it came to about 50. Needless to say, I get chills down my spine at the sight of a tour bus, my ass is still shaped to the mold of the chair. Reflecting on the trip, my stomach is full, I am recharged, and ready to continue to eat my way to gastronomical enlightenment.

This is Grassroots, This is Gourmet.

The French Basque Country: My (in)Digestive Milestones

After a 19 hour bus ride through the French countryside (which was appreciated for a total of 3 hours until I began to question my sanity), I entered the French side of the Basque country. I say Basque country because really it is a land of its own, split by the country borders of France and Spain, the Basque people speak their own language (Euskara) and are considered an individualized people both govermentally, culturally, and traditionally.

Beginning in Bordeaux and the surrounding cities, we were graced with the pleasure of visiting vineyards in the famous wine country of Margaux including Chateau Rauzan-Segla, a beautifully secluded French Chateaux situated quaintly in fields of Cabernet grape vines that reached the horizon, not to mention the property was later purchased by Coco Chanel, that is to say, the quality of the product was nothing short of spectacular.

I was then given the opportunity to break one of my many gastronomic milestones on this trip, Oysters. Having worked in seafood restaurants in California, I always cringed when customers ordered the towering platters of freshly shucked oysters on ice. Amorphous amoeba-like creatures, eating them straight from the shell was never something I found incredibly appetizing. Nonetheless, in the French city of Arachon, I bit the bullet, grabbed a freshly cracked, still pulsing oyster from its crate and sucked it down with a squeeze of lemon. The saltwater and gooey texture overwhelmed my palate while my brain wasn’t sure whether to chew or just swallow the thing whole. Needless to say, it wasn’t my favorite, but appreciating the valor of the delicacy, I watched my other classmates around me slurp these little treats down with ease. Nonetheless, the location and our hosts were unforgettable.

My First Oyster!

The following day, departing from our airport-side resort (obvious euphemism) in Biarritz, we took another one of many bus rides to the small French town of Peyrehorade to eat one of the town’s famous delicacies, boiled and seasoned Pig Feet….at 9’O CLOCK IN THE MORNING!!!! ah, the torturous life of a gastronome and yet another culinary milestone for yours truly. Entering the restaurant, I felt like I walked into another world, a parallel universe rather, where everyone enjoyed drinking vinegar wine in the early hours of the day, accompanied by scary and unidentifiable cuts of meat. That is to say, we weren’t the only people privileged enough to dine on this treat, in fact these pig feet were flying out of the kitchen. (When pigs fly….)

To wash down my light breakfast, we took a quick walk through the morning outdoor market, and then without a moment to spare we went to an artisanal Foie Gras producer to taste and truly experience the product that has become so internationally controversial. Foie Gras, literally “Fat Liver” in French, is a product made by force feeding either duck or goose to fatten and enlarge their liver, making the product incredibly rich and buttery. Coming from California, this has always been a big no-no in our liberally influenced restaurants, and seeing the production, I quickly understood why. Though I tried the product, which tasted like liver flavored butter, I found it hard to disregard the somewhat inhumane way it was produced. We were assured that allegations of mistreatment by animal rights activists are based upon misunderstanding and ignorance, but nonetheless, I saw the farm and feeding machines with my own eyes, and I was still a bit skeptical.

After days of dining with live Oysters, Pig Feet, Fatty duck Liver, and Pate, I was more than ready to cross the border into the Spanish side of the Basque lands, to see not only how the Spanish territory influenced the cuisine, but also in hopes of escaping the products that were just a bit too adventurous even for someone with a bottomless stomach like me.

Delicious Granita: Overanticipating Summer

This winter in Parma has been absolutely brutal and seemingly neverending, just one week ago it snowed almost 2 feet. IN MARCH?!?!?! Ah, indeed. Though we joke that the winter will continue on until the proposed end of the world in 2012, the weather here is finally starting to show some promising upturns. SUN! (Can we say goodbye to our Seasonal Affective Disorder?)

As a tribute to the 60F weather and sun I am cherishing on this lovely Thursday, I figured I’d write a quick entry about Granita, a delicious summer Italian treat. Originating in Sicily, Granita is the what American’s know to be Italian ice (you know, that stuff Minute Maid sells in the squeeze tubes?). Anyway, made with sugar, ice, and various flavorings, Granita is basically my dietary staple in the hot months here in Italia.

Some of the traditional flavors are: Lemon, Orange, Coffee, Jasmine, Coffee, Almond, and Mint.

It can be eaten at any time of the day but a popular sicilian breakfast consists of a cold coffee granita and a brioche. Delish..

Summer please come soon. I am ready for my daily Granita.

Parmigiano Reggiano: Two Days with the King of Cheese

Another day, another delicious food excursion. The past two days here at UNISG we had the opportunity to study Parmigiano Reggiano in delicious depth, going to not only the production facility, but also specific regulation cow farms, the official Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, a cheese aging warehouse, as well as an international packaging and handling facility.

First of all, I must say that Parmigiano Reggiano is not the same thing as Parmesan ‘cheese’ gratings found in the little green Kraft can. Oh no, real Parmigiano Reggiano is a extremely delicate and well protected product, produced specifially in the towns of Parma, Modena, Reggio Emilia, and small portions of Bologna and Mantova. In fact, there are only 400 licensed producers of the product in all of Italy.

As Parmigiano Cheese buffs like to say, the production of Parmigiano Reggiano starts at the cow. In order for a farm to produce milk for Parmigiano cheese, it must feed it’s cows cereals and hay that is grown only in the region of Emilia Romagna. It is thought that by keeping this production completely localized, it is easier to regulate and maintain its quality standards.

Product Facts:

  • 2.7 Million wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano are produced per year
  • Each wheel weighs around 60 kg (almost 150 lbs)
  • An entire wheel costs about 500 Euros
  • To produce 1 wheel of cheese about 640 litres (169 gallons) of milk are required
  • Minimum aging period: 12 months, though it is usually not sold until 18 months of age.

Health Benefits:

  • Its extremely high in calcium: recommended to women with tendencies for osteoporosis
  • Something about the product’s composition makes it extremely beneficial for gastro-intestinal health.
  • Was the first cheese in space, given to astronauts to aide in bone/organ strength while in orbit

I don’t want t bore you with facts and figures, so I’ll leave you with some photographs of my experience in the past 2 days. To say the least, I have had enough Parmigiano Reggiano to last a lifetime, though luckily I don’t believe I will ever run out of the product, given that I live here in Parma. ohhhh the difficult life I lead.

And here are a couple of videos of my new best friend Parmigiano Reggiano:

Casu Marzu: Italy’s Forbidden Maggot Cheese

Just when I thought I was in a country full of edible delights, delicious pastries, pastas, cheeses, and wines, I come across a cheese that I only imagined to be true in my most vivid nightmares: Casu Marzu.

Casu Marzu

Coming from the beautiful and enchanting island of Sardinia, off the west coast of central Italy, Casu Marzu is considered a traditional delicacy. Let us first deconstruct the cheese’s name…..

Casu Marzu, is Sardinian dialect for rotten cheese (in Italian formaggio marcio). Rotten?! Absolutely. Though the cheese starts as a pleasant and delicious form of Pecorino, it then undergoes various processes of decomposition by being left outside for extended periods in order to reach its final and ‘perfected’ state. When the cheese is in it’s advanced stages of decomposition, the eggs of the Phiophila Casei larva species are implanted into the cheese and allowed to hatch. mmmm worms.

Piophila Casei Larvae Development

The worms are an essential part of the development of the cheese’s texture and taste. It is thought that as these larvae hatch and begin to eat through the cheese, they break down the cheese’s fats giving it an extremely soft and unique texture. The taste of the cheese has been compared to an extremely ripe gorgonzola…only without the blue veins and of course, the sanitary guarantee.

Aside from the disgusting, the cheese has been the topic of much controversy in Italy in the rest of Europe regarding issues of sanitary health and legality. It has been found that mass consumption (or any consumption in my opinion) of Piophila Casei larvae can cause various health concerns, including vomiting, bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, and gastric lesions. This is because this particular breed of larvae is somewhat resistant to human stomach acids, allowing them to live and reproduce for extended periods within the gastric system!!!

Regardless of its legal state, this cheese is continued to be produced in Sardegna, and can be found on the black market for double the cost of normal Pecorino cheese.

If that doesn’t tempt you enough, Casu Marzu might be the world’s only cheese that requires protective eye-wear. Casu Marzu is considered toxic if the larvae inside have died and fermented, therefore it is required that this cheese is eaten while the worms are still alive. It is important to note however, that these worms have the capacity to jump has high as 6 inches. If they make contact with the eye, they may lay eggs immediately and cause further vision concerns. Because of this minor detail, many prefer to place their slice of Casu Marzu in a paper bag in order to suffocate the living worms. Once the popping sounds of the larvae hitting the bag have subsided, the cheese is safe to eat.

Now you AND your dog can have worms!

I don’t know if this cheese concerns anyone else, but there is a distinct possibility that I will have to eat this next week on my field trip to Sardegna… basically if I don’t update in 3 weeks, I am either dead/hospitalized by cause of intestinal worm infestation..

Grassroots Gourmet folks, Grassroots Gourmet.

‘Tis the Season: Fresh Fruit in Spring

Being a Californian, I am totally spoiled by having access to delicious fruits and veggies all year long. But the Spring brings back some of my personal favorites to the farmers market.

Fresh Seasonal Strawberries
Fresh Seasonal Strawberries

To buy in Spring:

  • Avocados
  • Mangos
  • Pineapple
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Snap Peas
  • Apricots
  • Carrots
  • Mushrooms

God, there’s nothing like buying fresh organic strawberries off the little farmer’s stand on the street corner. As I see them all start to open their doors, I remember it’s almost summer!

Some of my favorite farmer’s markets this time of year include:

The Santa Monica Farmer’s Market

And various farmer’s markets around the OC that can be found here

Seasons Greetings and Happy Eatings! Enjoy!