Monthly Archives: May 2016

Speak the tongue, taste the food

By Vivian Farmer

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Zucchini with their flowers at Mercato di Sant’ Ambrogio. Photo by Vivian Farmer

FLORENCE, Italy– The produce under the outdoor stalls at the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio is not in even shapes. Lemons are bumpy and still have the stem and leaves attached. The zucchini still dons its flower tops and there are small woodland strawberries the size of your thumbnail. I wandered through the stalls listening to the Italian around me and trying to decipher the price signs and wanted to ask so many questions. But I was nervous to try the few Italian phrases I know.

Question 1: What is that meat?

Inside the building portion of the market, vendors sell meat cheese and seafood, some that I recognize, many that I don’t. There is also a little café in the middle where patrons stand and sip espresso while reading the paper. I peered through glass cases at rabbit covered in spices and whole fish of all sizes with their eyeballs and scales. I still hadn’t interacted with any of the vendors. While walking past the pungent seafood and tasting salami sample slices, I searched for a little courage to speak to a vendor. The shop vendors at the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio have limited English and I didn’t know how to open the conversation at the cured meats and cheese stand. The Italian man behind the counter spoke first. He smiled and used the English he knew to ask what I was looking for. I used the few Italian words I know and lots of hand gestures.

Question 2: Is the meat man flirting?

I laughed as the Italian man behind the display fed me samples of cheese, salami, and prosciutto on pieces of bread he had ready. I tried a soft cheese that when spread on bread, looked like fluffy icing. It was light and refreshing and the perfect pair to salty salami. My fear ebbed away as we tried to understand one another. “Vorrei prosciutto e….” I pointed at the cheese. The vendor smiled and scooped a ladle-full into a plastic container. “Grazie!” I thanked him.

Question 3: Why did I fear the language?

We left to see another market in Florence as I thought of other things I wanted to talk to the vendors about. How do you cook rabbit? Do the small strawberries taste different from the larger ones? And what do Italians use the flowers on top of the Zucchini’s for? It’s intimidating to encounter a new language. The sounds are difficult to catch and more difficult to pronounce. But attempting a word or two opens up opportunities (especially opportunities to try samples of new foods). I plan to be less worried about my lack of Italian and just try.

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A (study abroad) family outing

By Jenna Severson

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Breath stealing views of Cinque Terre. Photo by Jenna Severson

CORNIGLIA, Italy-This past Friday, our study abroad group had the first full free day off of the trip, so we decided to cross an excursion off of the long list of things we wanted to do in Italy – Cinque Terre. A few days prior to this trip we decided it would be fun (and cheaper) to plan a picnic with fresh bread and meat from the Mercato San Lorenzo after the hike as a little reward. When Friday morning finally rolled around we collectively dragged ourselves out of bed and were on the train leaving Florence by 6 a.m.

In total the trip from Florence to Manarola, one of the Cinque Terre coastal towns, was around three and a half hours. As excited as everyone was to be on our first train in Italy, sleep eventually won out and by the last hour of the train ride almost everyone was snoozing on their backpacks.

That rest came in handy.

Our hike from Manarola to Corniglia was excruciating and several times we thought about just passing out in the middle of the trail and calling it quits. Through the tiredness and extreme leg workout, we pushed through and ended in the quaint, pastel-colored town of Corniglia just in time for an afternoon picnic.

We stopped in a hole in the wall market and chose Italian beer, mozzarella, juicy tomatoes and pesto so green you could tell the basil was fresh. These ingredients were all we needed to have an intimate picnic between the seven of us. We spread our food across a small patio overlooking the sea and dug in.

Breads were dipped into the pesto, custom made sandwiches were created and each ingredient was enjoyed as if it was the finest meal we’ve ever eaten. During our lunch we shared stories about ourselves and our hopes for the future and hesitantly joked about how sore we were going to be the next day. I basked in the sun and inhaled the slightly salty essence of the Mediterranean Sea as I relished the focaccia bread with pesto, tomato, prosciutto and mozzarella.

I’m not sure if it was the death-defying two-and-a-half-hour hike that held breathtaking views or the deliciously cozy moment shared between new friends, but that day trip was pure magic, something that comes a few times in life and is too unique to ever be replicated. The strength and energy needed for the hike heightened my senses in a way that made the tomatoes taste just a little bit juicier and the company a little more valuable.

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Bright flavors, sun, and exhaustion on the Cinque Terre hike. Photo by Jenna Severson

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I like pig thighs and I cannot lie

By Zara McDowell

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Ham curing at La Perla Salumficio in Parma, Italy. Photo by Zara McDowell

PARMA, Italy- The sound of loud air conditioning units and smell of raw meat fills the air of the Parma ham factory, La Perla Salumficio, owned by brothers, Carlo and Fabrizio Lanfranchi.

Prosciutto di Parma can only be produced in the Parma region of Italy using pigs born and bred in central-northern Italy, by law. After 2,000 years of this style of production, 160 families now carry on the tradition. Each year, ten million pieces are produced in Parma and the Lanranchi’s create 50,000 of them.

Visitors this day are greeted by Carlo, sharply dressed in a purple button down that pokes out of his white lab coat; he is sporting a warm smile as he rolls out a cart full of hairnets and white robes to cover our clothes.

Next, he opens a heavy industrial door to reveal many pink and red pig thighs hanging from a rope on long silver poles. Carlo proudly explains the following steps of the Parma ham curing process.

  1. First, during a 20-day period, sea salt is added to the thighs, the only additive that is allowed. The thighs are massaged to spread the salt evenly.
  2. Second, the meat dries an additional 90 days. We see this stage as Carlo leads the group around a corner, and a new aroma somewhat like Thanksgiving greets us.
  3. The thighs are then washed in hot water (40 C, 104 F).
  4. Around the next corner, hundreds of rows of hanging meat cures for a minimum of one year of aging.
  5. Then, the exposed end of the hams are covered with a layer of lard and sea salt in order to prevent the external layers from excessive drying.
  6. In the final stage, Carlo sticks a hollow probe made from horse tibia bone into five spots on the lard-covered end of the ham. He smells the results with his 1-million-euro-insured nose to determine if his masterpiece is complete. His nose expertise developed over 30 years of working with Parma hams.

Another bonus to visiting here (with a reservation) is that Carlo and his crew welcome you to their upstairs dining area with a three-course meal after the tour. A fresh plate of prosciutto, melon, bottles of water and wine, Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar are on the table as bottles are popping and forks are clinking on the white square plates. Everyone, in awe of the spectacular flavor of the prosciutto, sits a little straighter as a plate of spinach and ricotta-filed ravioli, accompanied by grated Parmesan, comes out of the kitchen. Dessert includes a plate of chocolate squares, lemon and fruit bars.

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The tasting tables are neatly set at La Perla Salumficio in Parma with prosciutto, melon, bread, wine and water. Photo by Zara McDowell

In the dining area, Carlo points out a picture displayed proudly on a table. Carlo and brother Fabrizio smile in the frame next to fellow American, Guy Fieri.

Carlo makes sure to eat at least one piece of his Prosciutto di Parma each day, unless he brings it home to eat, then he will have it twice, “I can never say no to a good piece,” Carlo exclaims.

And, it turns out, neither can I. The fresh prosciutto placed on a slice of bread with a sprinkle of Parmesan is irresistible.

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Here’s the scoop

By Zara McDowell

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A well-crafted gelato cone from Gelateria Santa Trinita. Photo by Zara McDowell

FLORENCE, Italy- Neatly stacked pink and brown cups line the back shelves of the Gelateria Santa Trinita, awaiting customers to pick their flavors. The gelateria, open for eight years, typically has eager crowds choosing from the classic choices-cioccolato, crema and vaniglia (chocolate, cream and vanilla) among many others. I ordered un piccolo cono con Santa Trinita e cioccolato with a trill of excitement, not knowing quite what the Santa Trinita flavor was (cream and Nutella).

Even the momentary delicacy of gelato has its base in a solid routine. Crema and sorbet are the two foundations for a gelataria’s final masterpieces. The gelato chef here arrives at the the Piazza Dei Frescobaldi at 7 a.m. to prepare the crema gelato that is ready by the time the store opens.

The sorbet gelato chef arrives at the Gelateria Santa Trinita at 9 a.m., and begins preparation for the fruit sorbet. Some sorbet flavors include fragola (strawberry), kiwi, limone (lemon) and pompelmo rosa (grapefruit). The gelateria’s fruit flavors vary as the fruits of the season change.

With a gelato shop on every corner adhering to a similar routine, it is evident that Italy enjoys their gelato precisely made. The Gelateria Santa Trinita, on the opposite side of the Arno River from the Duomo, prices its gelato ranging from 1,90 for two flavors and up to 8 for three flavors and larger portions.

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1400 stairs and a room with view

By Nadav Soroker

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The small town of Groppo nestles into the hills above Manarola, one of the five villages that make up Cinque Terre or “The Five Lands,” a UNESCO world heritage site on the Liguria coast of Italy. Photo by Nadav Soroker

VOLASTRA, Italy – Hiking Cinque Terre sounds like a great idea, an understatement in reality, but it definitely doesn’t feel like it coming up the hill from Manarola, the second of the five towns in the national park along Italy’s western coast. Every view you see of the terraces of grapes and vegetables and olives spilling down the hillside beneath you, over small stone shacks with shadow blackened doorways, is gorgeous. However, you spend your time looking at the next step to come, wiping sweat from your eyes and cursing the more fit, middle-aged Australian banking couple on holiday who are putting you to shame. Even worse is how nice they are about it all, and well informed too of the apparent 1,400 steps we are hiking up.

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The trail that leads from Manarola to Corniglia, two of the five villages of Cinque Terre, ascends a steep incline of allegedly 1,400 steps up to the small town of Volastra, passing small stone buildings, terraced vineyards and olive gardens along the way. Photo by Nadav Soroker

I am not convinced that any sane person would actually have anything to do with this ancient, god-forsaken path until I see a sun-browned figure off to the left in one of the olive terraces fixing a wooden stake fence. That luckily means we are close to Volastra, the peak of our efforts and where the trail levels out. Almost immediately we struggle into the tight alleyway leading up into the town where we dead end into a small foot path with a fountain, a defibrillator for the less hardy, and a blessed market shop blowing cool air and proudly displaying a fridge with a selection of drinks and water bottles the size of a large cat.

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Across from the fountain and the defribulator that welcome hikers into Volastra is another type of salvation: small market that offers bottled water, soft drinks, fresh fruit, and traditional deli offerings like meats, cheeses, and olives. Photo by Nadav Soroker

Two lovely ladies, who might be angels, staff the small delicatessen counter and collectively speak about zero English – not that you would expect them to – but fully understand our desperate panting and flushed red faces. A hike well worth the effort, though If I was less exhausted I would buy some of the delicious olives waiting in big bowls in the counter.

Instead, we proceed to enjoy the most delicious beverage of our trip to date: water from a cheap plastic bottle to replace the sweat pouring from our brows and down our backs, as we look down at the small town of Manarola where we started, now way off in the distance.

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Traditional Italian meets it match

By Hannah Dustman

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Fresh fruits and vegetables fill wooden crates on the uneven cobblestone streets of the Mercato di Sant’ Ambrogio. Photo by Hannah Dustman

FLORENCE, Italy – Stepping into the Mercato di Sant’ Ambrogio and Mercato Centrale San Lorenzo in Florence is a step into the colors, sounds and tastes of Italian culture.

Even at first glance it is easy to see that these markets are filled with fresh and home-grown produce, baked bread still warm from the ovens, wheels of different cheeses and meat of all shapes and sizes hanging from the rafters.

However, the markets’ main purpose might just be to preserve Italian culture, especially in an age where convenience and ease is continuously valued more than authenticity.

The Mercato di Sant’ Ambrogio has traditionally drawn Italian locals, many speaking only in their native language, while the renovated and more modern Mercato Centrale San Lorenzo attracts locals, students and tourists alike.

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Dried herbs and spices hang above a bright and neatly constructed display of homegrown produce sold in the Mercato Centrale San Lorenzo. Photo by Hannah Dustman

While it caused controversy at the time, the original San Lorenzo outdoor market was closed in January 2014. After renovations, the Mercato Centrale emerged as a two story indoor and outdoor market in a beautifully restored building four months later. Now sporting cafes and restaurants as well as food stalls, it is an inviting showplace.

Yeah, this is culture worth preserving.

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Stealing a pizza-my-heart

By Jenna Severson

 

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Pizza creation at Gusta Pizza, Florence. Photo by Jenna Severson 

FLORENCE, Italy – Alrighty readers, people say true Italian food is on a completely different level than American Italian food. There are pictures that compare the two. There are even shows that go in depth on the traditions and values of Italian cooking. But hearing or reading or seeing it doesn’t even come close to immersing yourself in it.

These first few days have been a whirlwind of walking and eating and then more walking. It’s been pretty overwhelming trying to take everything in, but one observation that has been very apparent is that food in Italy is treated as its own culture. Fresh ingredients are revered and you can see the passion of what cooks make through the quality of the food.

Tonight the study abroad group ventured across the Ponte Santa Trinita and found ourselves at Gusta Pizza, an establishment that was highly recommended by past study abroad members. When the restaurant opened at 7pm there was already a line in front of the door and wrapped around the corner, signaling that this place means business.

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Capers, basil and mozzarella. Sigh. Photo by Jenna Severson

The restaurant itself is relatively small and very quaint in more ways than one. Gusta’s menu only has eight items and the types of pizzas are traditional and simple. The cooking area is next to the cash register and there is a singular pizza oven. This open viewing of the creation of the pizzas shows that the makers don’t feel the need to hide their process behind the wall. In fact, Gusta Pizza is set up to showcase the dedication that is put into every pizza.

That last sentence applies to many other places in Florence. Restaurants give their guests a metaphorical peek behind the curtains, revealing the prowess of the chefs and the pride in the food they are making. Creating and providing food for another person is more than just a transaction in Florence – it’s a connection between the creator and the person eating the food.

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Bagging up cultural differences

By Hannah Dustman

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Colorful groceries, Florence. Photo by Hannah Dustman

FLORENCE, Italy – I bought several apples, a couple of ripe bananas and a soft loaf of bread on my first trip to Conad, an Italian grocery in the historic center of town, totaling just around €3.

I always thought traveling, especially abroad, would be expensive. But a carton of raspberries was roughly €2 and I have paid upwards of $4 for approximately the same amount at home. Even with the exchange rate favoring the euro, this is nearly half price at $2.28. Additionally, a box of Conad brand pasta was only 44 cents. While it is relatively inexpensive to buy pasta in the U.S., it is not usually 44 cents-cheap.

Another thing I learned from my first visit to the Italian grocery store was each shopper bags and weighs their produce and adds the price label themselves before going to check out. Being unaware of this, I had difficulty understanding what the clerk was instructing me to do. It was like he was speaking a foreign language…oh wait.

“I’ll know better next time,” I said with a nervous smile, not in Italian. Back to the moment at hand, I bagged up, reminded that I was half way around the world.

 

 

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Five things I didn’t know about Italy, no wait, six

By Raina Brooks

FLORENCE, Italy—There really are people singing opera in the street outside of restaurants in Florence. I remember watching the Disney movie “Lady and the Tramp” as a child. As the two dogs ate their pasta at an Italian restaurant, there were opera singers in the background. The portrayal was pretty accurate, who knew? Sometimes what you may believe to be a myth is actually true.

All in all, having been in Florence for two days, I have already learned that places abroad may not be as you expect. Coming in with an open mind has aided my experience thus far.

Five things that I did not know before I came are:

  1. Authentic food may not be in touristy areas (some restaurants have been “Americanized”)
  2. Gelato is life changing (one of the best food items I have ever tried)
  3. The sandwiches are humongous (may account for two meals)
  4. Student-run facilities actually have good food (Although MU’s campus food is sometimes….lacking, students attending Florence University of the Arts can actually cook!)
  5. You will never be able to taste everything (there are so many unique foods, and a gelato place on virtually every block)

What with the opera, that makes six things I didn’t know so far. Give me a few days, there will be more.

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Not your mama’s Italian- making do in Florence

By Vivan Farmer

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Desperate times call for fast-food, even in Florence. Photo by Vivian Farmer

FLORENCE, Italy – My first meal in Italy was a hodge-podge of gas station like food. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t Italy. I arrived in Florence around 5:30p.m. With my suitcase in tow, I traversed the city to my find my apartment. The sidewalks, so narrow that my suitcase blocked the entire span, and cobblestone that felt dangerously uneven, cars, bikes, buses, and mopeds weaved around pedestrians. On my way to the apartment I could smell bread, cigarette smoke, and a damp, cool, mustiness rolling off a stone building.

Exhausted and hungry, I left my luggage in my apartment and then hit the streets to find sustenance. My roommates arrived earlier and were already out at dinner. I looped around the unfamiliar terrain, looking for any convenience store. I am used to the luxury of driving to WalMart at any hour of the day or night and finding almost any comfort I want, but in Italy, things close early. That’s part of the charm—shops close early so that friends and family can gather and eat dinner together.

The charm was lost on my hungry stomach.

The sun was quickly setting and I knew I was an easy target for theft at night as I was alone and in an unfamiliar place. I was beginning to think I would spend the night hungry when I spotted a convenience store still open. The shelves were sparse and contained a smattering of dried goods. Italian cookies, jams and jellies, breads, and ramen noodles made up the majority of the food items. I chose a loaf of bread in purple wrapping and a jar of peach jam. I then stared at the corner of wine selections until the attendant asked if I needed help. I asked for a cheap wine and he pointed to a 5€ bottle of red, I didn’t register what kind. To top off my little dinner, I grabbed a packet of Swiss cheese labeled “Special Toast”. I spent 13€ total. Italians can eat better on less but the bread and jam filled me up and, along with my “Special Toast” cheese and cheap red wine, this was my first foray into Italian food. This was not the Italian dinner I was dreaming of but hunger made it taste plenty good.

 

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