Monthly Archives: June 2015

Ciao Italy (through raucous sobs)

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MU Food Writers 2015 (left to right): Faith Vickery, Breckyn Crocker, Elizabeth Johnson, Claire Lardizabal, Molly Curry, Chloe Castleberry, Christine Jackson

By Molly Curry

CHIUSDINO, Italy – We’ve laughed. We’ve cried (looking at you, Christine). We’ve eaten more pasta than I had previously thought possible in such a short time. It is a miracle that we are not 300 pounds apiece, yet such is Italy, as we have learned throughout the month-long journey that was the Will Write for Food – Italian Edition study abroad trip.

Despite what you might think from the pictures, we learned a lot in between sightseeing and Instagramming our food. We learned about writing and history and how not to order food at an Italian restaurant. We learned about how a room filled with hundreds of pig’s legs hanging in midair can actually produce something as delicious as prosciutto, if you can still stomach meat after that. We might have even learned a little about ourselves during our time wandering through the winding streets of Florence, and later the beautiful, rolling hills of Spannocchia.

We have each grown, not only in our own ways, but together as a group. Imagine seven girls living in one house together for four weeks and somehow not ending in mutual destruction. This should go in the record books.

What’s even better than leaving this experience with memories that will last a lifetime is leaving with friends that will last a lifetime. We’ve been through so much together in the past four weeks, and I can’t wait to continue to go through life with these six amazing people by my side.

We would like to thank our teacher and veritable life coach, Nina, for everything she has done for us. Nina, you’re such an inspiration to us all. Thank you for your invaluable guidance through this incredible journey.

I guess I have to say goodbye now. All good things have to end, I suppose. But I refuse to say goodbye forever. Just for now. So until next time, ciao, Italy!

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Rolling with it

By Breckyn Crocker
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CHUISDINO, Italy– For many years I watched the methodical hands of chefs on the Food Network piecing together their favorite recipes while I sat on my indented couch, soaking in every measurement and ingredient like a sponge. Many of these televised dishes included various ways of making chicken. Roasted, boiled, fried, marinated, glazed, and barbequed, I thought I’d seen all this poultry staple had to offer.

But at Spannocchia, I was not in my living room at home but in the kitchen cooking with a master of authentic, Tuscan cuisine. And it just so happened chicken was on the menu for our feast that afternoon.

This was not an ordinary chicken recipe nor was it smothered in mozzarella and tomato sauce like I had expected from an Italian kitchen. The chicken was a succulent slice of meat stuffed with a simple omelet, fresh asparagus, herbs, and parmesan cheese.

Loredana Betti, one of the long-time cooks at Spannochia, had an artful way of preparing the chicken, better than any cooking show I’d seen before. She sliced the chicken out like a butterfly, set the hot Parmesan omelet on top, as well as fresh asparagus and herbs. Then, she rolled the chicken pieces and tied them with butcher’s twine like a perfect bow on a present.

The feast that afternoon included an appetizer of gorgonzola and pear crostinis, a first course of homemade tagliatelle with a garden-fresh pasta sauce, herbed zucchini as a side, and a light yet rich dessert of tiramisu. But out of all that heavenly deliciousness, my favorite part was the rotolo di petto di pollo or stuffed and baked chicken roll. The chicken was perfectly tender to accompany the juicy crunch from the asparagus as well as the surprise guest —the cheesy omelet. Maybe it was the simple ingredients that reminded me of my home that I love or maybe it was just the Tuscan version of chicken. In either case, when it comes to Italians and chicken, I’ve learned to roll with it.

Rotolo di Petto di Pollo
Stuffed and Baked Chicken Roll
Serves 6

2 large de-boned chicken breasts
juice from a fresh lemon
salt to taste
4 eggs
4 Tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 cup of spinach (or asparagus), cooked, and drained
small handful of pine nuts
4 Tablespoons olive oil
1 sprig rosemary
5 sage leaves
3 cloves garlic
8 ounces of white wine

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Cut each chicken breast in half. Take each half and butterfly it so it lays flat. Squeeze fresh lemon over the meat for flavor. Sprinkle chicken with salt to taste. Whisk the eggs and pour half the mixture into a frying pan and make an omelet. Repeat to make a second omelet. Cut each omelet into two equal parts. Put an omelet piece into each open chicken breast. Sprinkle the omelet with one tablespoon Parmesan cheese. Now add a quarter of the spinach or asparagus and a quarter of the pine nuts. Roll the chicken tightly closed, and tie it in three places with butcher’s twine. Put the chicken rolls in a oven-safe pan and add the olive oil, rosemary, sage, garlic, salt, and pepper. Cook in the oven for 40 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and pour white wine over the chicken. Place pan back in the back in the oven for another 5 minutes. Turn off the oven. You can either serve it immediately, or leave it in the oven (with the door open) until ready to serve. Before serving, cut each roll into several thick slices to show the interior layers and arrange on a large tray.

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Swirl, smell and sip–the MU Food Writers take on a proper wine tasting

By: Faith Vickery

CHIUSDINO, Italy— Contrary to American culture, in Italy a glass of wine is perfectly acceptable to consume at the ripe hour of 1 pm; therefore a proper wine tasting was certainly in order.

Jessica Haden, the Spannocchia farm intern director, placed a bottle of white, rosé and red wine, as well as some Vin Santo, a sweet Italian dessert wine, before us. All varieties were produced right on the farm.
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With a long-stemmed glass in our hands we were instructed to not sip or smell but look at the wine in our glass. Color, viscosity, and opaqueness all characterized the wines we were about to encounter.

The next step was to smell. We swirled the wine around in our glass to aerate and release the natural aromas. We learned not to sniff forcefully, but rather just breath with our nose over the glass. The white wine hinted at an apple scent while the rosé wafted floral. Our novice noses even picked up cloves in the red wine.

Finally we were told to taste the wine. To properly taste wine, we learned to coat the inside of our mouths to reach all taste buds. We discussed the acidity, the sweetness, and the finish of each wine.

Jessica referred to wine tasting as organoleptic, feeling something with all of your senses. I’d never thought of it this way but tend to agree. Next time you taste wine, don’t just taste, but see the vines, smell the grapes, and let the wine unravel it’s complexity right before you.

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From garden to table

By Claire Lardizabal
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CHIUSDINO, Italy – Mint perfumes the air as you walk through one of Tenuta di Spannocchia’s three gardens. The hard-boiled eggs at breakfast came from the hens, the salad lettuce for lunch was just picked this morning and the rosé wine served at dinner was vinted and bottled here just last year.

As you pass the four lemon trees and step into the garden below, the endless slope of vegetables and herbs can become overwhelming. What don’t they have? I thought to myself as we gingerly tried not to crush rows of potatoes, carrots and basil.

Carmen Zandarin is the mastermind behind all this and has been for the past 12 years. She runs and maintains the gardens with the help of eight farm interns a year. On Mondays, she walks through the gardens then discusses the following week’s meals with the kitchen staff, depending on what’s available for harvest. During our tour, she plucked pods of peas off the stalk and passed them along to my group. The peas were fresh, crunchy and sweet –the best peas I’ve ever tasted.
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For our cooking class, we were able to use peas, zucchini, onions and asparagus straight out of the garden to use as a sauce to go with our freshly made tagliatelle pasta. Here’s a recipe to try, and, as I learned from Loredana Betti in the Spannocchia kitchen, feel free to change out any of the ingredients to whatever you have at hand.

Salsa Ortolana: Gardener’s Sauce
Serves six
Courtesy of Spannocchia, Carmen and Loredana

1 zucchini, cubed
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bell pepper, sliced
½ onion, chopped
1 cup fresh peas
1 cup sliced mushrooms
3/4 pound fresh tomatoes, chopped
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Wash all the vegetables well. Combine the zucchini, garlic, bell pepper, and onion in a food processor (all raw) and blend until very fine. Place the mixture in a frying pan with olive oil, peas, mushrooms, salt and pepper and simmer for around 10 minutes, or until the onion is translucent. Add the chopped tomatoes to the rest of the sauce and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes over low heat.

This sauce goes great with tagliatelle or penne pasta.

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Nose to tail

By Elizabeth Johnsonimage-2

CHIUSDINO, Italy– The diagram started as a rough outline. Just a snout, two little ears, a big belly supported by four legs and a corkscrew tail. Looking at this sketch, many would see just that. A sketch of a pig. But here at Spannocchia, this sketch represents much more.

One by one, each part of the pig was circled and labeled. The face, the neck, the back, the lower belly and the hind legs. Each of these parts produces six very different, but equally delicious, meats. Today, our group of food writers had the pleasure of tasting each one.
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Jessica Haden, director of intern education for Spannocchia, encouraged us to feel and smell each piece of salumi, before we took our first bites. We started with the lardo, not to be confused with lard. This piece comes from the back fat of the pig. Pure white in color and tender, on a hot day this piece just seems to melt in your mouth.

Next came the pancetta. A piece taken from the lower belly that closely resembles an American breakfast staple. But unlike bacon, pancetta is neither smoked nor served in the early morning hours. Instead, it is peppered and cured to perfection – very different from the bacon back home, but just as tasty.

Then there was the capocollo. This is meat taken from the neck of the pig and enhanced with natural herb flavors.

Finally we arrived at everyone’s favorite part – prosciutto. The perfect combination of sweet and salty taken from the hind leg of the pig. The wonderful flavor of prosciutto and its longer curing process is reflected in its higher price.

The last two meats we tried, salame and soppressata, are on the more affordable end of the spectrum. They were mostly made up of leftover parts, such as the cheeks and smaller pieces of fat, and topped off with a peppery kick.

From nose to tail, each part was surprisingly delicious.

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Peasant food simplicity: delicious

By: Faith Vickery
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CHIUSDINO, Siena— We arrived at Spannocchia, what might be called a “modest” estate if you compare it to others in operation in the Middle Ages, for the last week of our month-long program in Italy. Estate and farm owner, Randall Stratton, took us back in time and explained how Spannocchia, now around 1100 acres or 1/10th of its original size, operated before modern times.

Mezzadria, directly translated as sharecropping, dates to the 12th century here. This way of life, where peasants split the production of their crops with the landlord in exchange for land and a place to live, greatly influenced Tuscan cuisine known for simplicity and regional ingredients. Ribollita , a traditional soup, for example, made with leftover vegetables and bread, was a common peasant dish that’s still popular today.

The practice of sharecropping ended after World War II and, according to Carole Counihan in Around the Tuscan Table, as many as six million Italians employed in agriculture fled to cities. And, as you may have guessed, they took their recipes with them.

So, if you were wondering where the term “peasant food” comes from or why Tuscan cuisine is known for being so simple, it all goes back to farms like Spannocchia and the century old practice of mezzadria.

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This little pig went to Siena

By: Chloe Castleberry
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SIENA, Italy–Bacon, salami, and prosciutto are all very delicious types of meat that come from the pig, but what many people don’t realize (or want to think about) is the process that that makes these meats that we so love to eat. At Spannocchia, about 75 pigs are slaughtered a year, in the winter, fall, and spring, at the age of two years old, unlike many commercial pork operations that slaughter pigs at six months old. Most of the breeding sows at Spannocchia have two litters a year, and gestate for just under four months.

The Cinta Senese, a heritage breed found in the Siena province, has been in this region for well over a thousand years.This type of pig resembles a wild boar more than a domesticated pig. It has a long snout, long legs, and long ears used for foraging. And, the breed has a distinctive belt-like (cinta) white marking around the shoulders.

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Living the quality life

By Christine Jackson

SPANNOCCHIA, Siena – If this trip has taught us anything (and it certainly has), it’s to better consider where our food comes from.

We’ve travelled Tuscany tasting products made by people who truly care about food and sustainable living. They do the best they can to grow and produce foods that not only taste good, but are responsible. They use products that are good for people and work in sustainable ways. It’s a more difficult, but the end result is worth it.

Giovanni Fabbri uses ancient grains and old ways of producing pasta. He makes far less in a year than major producers do, but he makes a better product that’s better for you.

Not far away at Pruneti Olive Oil Company, new and constantly evolving machinery produces olive oil without heat. The cold press technique gets less oil from the fruits, but the oil has better flavor and more nutritional value.

Are you sensing a theme here? I am. Quality, not quantity, is what makes things special here.

Now, sitting at a table at Spannocchia, a farm estate in the hills of Siena, we’re closer to our food than ever. Across the yard is a wall, and below that a vegetable garden that supplies fresh produce for the meals here. Up a winding gravel road, the piglets and sows we visited earlier are probably still roaming around and trying to beat the heat in their mud puddles. The bottles of olive oil on the tables are from Sicily, but only because 2014 was rough on the grove of trees you pass on the way to the front door. Bottles of the same wine that fills our glasses at lunch and dinner sit in the storeroom around the corner, waiting to be labeled, while a season of red wine waits a while longer in the huge metal vats.

Nobody here is producing massive amounts of food. But they’re producing everything at a high quality and preserving a culture and way of life far more satisfying than any convenience. Those pigs at the top of the hill were once endangered, but now have a population in the ten thousands. Other estates have been broken up and turned into resorts, but instead Spannocchia remains mostly intact and continues to produce while also educating lucky visitors like ourselves.

This is a life I’ve never found romantic like some people do. I want to live in a big city, and I’m not what you would call outdoorsy. But I’m starting to see the appeal of a place like this. Everything tastes better, and everyone loves what they do. It’s not a bad way to live.

Not everyone can do it, of course. The world has to be fed, and no one has figured out how to produce the highest quality and the highest quantity at the same time. But it may be worth the few extra dollars here and there to invest in these people, their products and the quality of the food you eat. And even if it isn’t for you, know that there is a difference.
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A suggested import

By Christine Jackson
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FLORENCE, Italy – If there’s a culture with as much of an affinity for the deep fryer as America, it’s the Italians.

This blog has mentioned the fried calzones, and Naples gave us a three-course fried meal (that no one regrets), but if there’s an item that seems State Fair-worthy, it’s the arancini. Arancia, the Italian word for orange, is pretty popular on menus around citrus-growing southern Italy, but don’t fool yourselves. Arancini get their name from the color of their fried exterior and their shape, not from any sort of nutritional value.

Originally from Sicily, arancini are perfectly portable and come in several varieties. The basic combination is risotto coated in breadcrumbs, stuffed with something and fried. The traditional filling is a beef ragu (a mix of meat, tomato sauce, mozzarella and sometimes peas), but prosciutto, spinach and cheese are all readily available at local stands.

Arancini are ideal for a snack or a lunch on the go. They also go for about three euro, which is nice if you’re starting to go broke near the end of your travels like we are. They either come in a ball or as a neat cone, served on wax paper or a napkin to be carried down the street or through the market. The ragu sticks to the risotto, making it a surprisingly easy street food to consume without making a mess.

It’s baffling that we’ve yet to adopt arancini in America. It’s a ball of fried starch filled with meat and cheese. Frankly, it’s amazing that we didn’t come up with that first.

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Do the lampredotto

By Claire Lardizabal
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FLORENCE, Italy—I took a deep breath and looked at the hot sandwich in my hands. Between a golden brown panino bun, smothered in parsley sauce, were the cooked innards of a cow stomach. I was about to take a bite of Tuscan street food, lampredotto.

Beatrice Trambusti asked me if I wanted it spicy. Beatrice, along with her mother and brother, opened the Lupen E Margo food stall 30 years ago near Mercato Centrale. I said yes, but only a little, as she added a teaspoon of green chili sauce. Beatrice handed me my lampredotto in a convenient plastic wrap with extra napkins.

Eating lampredotto standing up requires a certain grace. The local Tuscans stared at me as I tried to take a bite, then another, as chunky pieces fell to the ground for the pigeons to devour. I had to sit down to enjoy it.

At first glance, lampredotto resembles a pulled pork sandwich. The stewed tripe sandwich is made of the aburnasum, the fourth cow stomach. The lampredotto was once served as a peasant food, and was named after the lamprey eel that used to run rampant in the Arno River. The white, fatty parts are actually the outside lining of the stomach while the meat is the inside of the stomach.

The lampredotto was juicy and tasted like a cross between boiled chicken and pulled pork. The panino bread was soft and chewy, and soaked up the juice of the meat.

Lampredotto reminded me of something you would stumble upon after a night after the bars. The sandwich was tasty and filling, and something I would definitely eat again.

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