COLUMBIA, Missouri — The MU food writers are hitting the trail for Florence and Siena, Italy, starting next week. I am excited to say that seven journalists–Chole Castelberry, Breckyn Crocker, Molly Curry, Christine Jackson, Elizabeth Johnson, Claire Lardizabal and Faith Vickery–are joining my class this summer.
We’ll give repeated and detailed attention to balsamic. To prosciutto. To pasta. Ditto, Parmesan. We will study intently the intricacies of panna cotta. It’s going to be a happy journey in food. One that will make you want to cook, or merely eat like a world citizen. Farm production, to food logistics and flavor. History, culture, and everything in between with evidence on the plate. I hope you’ll explore the region and our food stories as we launch this year’s series.
We arrive in Florence May 18 and began the blog series, Penne for Your Thoughts, just after. Thanks for following our coverage.
–Nina Furstenau, Instructor
CHIUSDINO, Italy—In Italy, being a Florentine from Florence, Romano from Rome or Milanese from Milan is more important than country of origin. This pride spreads to each of the 20 regions in Italy where each resident believes his or her region is supreme. In a country similar in size to the state of Florida, a 20-minute difference can mean a complete change in culture and cuisine. We see these differences in the most common Italian meal, pasta.
Pasta differences range from the shape, size, wheat content and sauce placed on top. Ingrained custom dictates what goes together and what would never be thought of as an acceptable dish. When we made fresh pasta for lunch at Spannocchia, an agro-tourism farm estate outside of Siena, it was understood the gardener’s sauce was the only acceptable option.
The farm of Spannocchia has a vast garden installed in parcels across their land. All meals are prepared in accordance to the season and what vegetables they are harvesting. When making the sauce, we were greeted with a large bowl of zucchini, carrots, peas, a bell pepper, tomatoes, an onion and cloves of garlic. The cooks followed no recipe or guidelines when choosing these ingredients. Rather, the freshness of each vegetable and the idea that it would combine perfectly in their sauce was key.
The vegetables were blended together in a food processor. Then the green puree with sprinkles of orange and red simmered in a frying pan with olive oil, mushrooms, salt and pepper. As a fresh aroma filled the air, tomatoes were added once the onions became translucent.
When the sauce was done cooking we tossed it together with the fresh tagliatelle noodles, adding basil and olive oil on top for last minute added freshness. Outside the window, the veggies were growing–this was a meal definitely suited for the environment.
CHIUSDINO, Italy- Black and white belted Cinta Senese hogs roam the flower-dotted fields of Spannocchia, an agritourism farm near Siena, Italy, in summertime. The heritage breed was brought back from near extinction in the 1980s by the efforts of the current owners of the estate and other interested parties. These hogs are raised organically until they are two years of age, and then used to produce the farm’s regionally-famous prosciutto products.
FLORENCE, Italy — What was placed before me at Trattoria San Lorenzo was a soup packed with steaming vegetables, not even close to simmering loosely in a pool of broth. Just a few simple ingredients–white cannellini beans, tender celery, carrots, chunks of potato and deep green kale–made this dish come alive with flavor. A bowl of warm and crunchy panne toscano, Tuscan bread, waited patiently to be soaked up in the thick and flavorful broth.
Ribollita, meaning “re-boiled” is a traditional stew famous throughout the central region of Tuscany. Combining a mixture of ingredients that are leftover from past meals creates this particular zuppa, or thick soup. It originated from peasants in the Tuscan region in the 13th and 14th centuries who used all of their resources to keep themselves fed when working hard all day. Any sort of beef, chicken or pork was mostly out of reach for peasants; it was served only to the wealthy aristocrats. Peasants filled up on any vegetables they could get.
The ingredients used in the Middle Ages are much the same as today, but now ribollita is a unique staple item of Tuscany that remains drenched in the history of the region just like that last bite of panne toscano soaked in a timeless flavor, centuries in the making.
CHIUSDINO, Italy – Upon our arrival on Saturday to Spannocchia, a 1100 acre self-sustaining farm estate in the Tuscan countryside, our group was met with a classic Italian family style lunch.
Spaghetti, salad, bread and potatoes were accompanied by the peaceful silence of the countryside, a polar opposite change from the bustling city life we had grown accustomed to in Florence the past three weeks.
Over the next week at Spannocchia, we will be learning of the farm’s history and sustainable agriculture practices. We will be eating meals prepared with ingredients grown in the expansive vegetable garden, vineyard and animal housing units.
The Spannocchia property was built in the 1100’s and was a large farm tended to by sharecroppers. It has since then been expanded and modernized but still holds many traditions of Tuscan farm culture.
With spectacular views and large family style dinners that carry on the tradition of the property, it is sure to be a week to remember.
FLORENCE, Italy—Early each morning a sweet aroma spills into the streets of Florence signifying sugary croissants and fresh pastries rising in hot ovens. Dedicated bakers begin their next day while most residents are still winding theirs down. Late night wanderer’s noses follow the fragrant path to a nighttime snack. In this moment, a transaction of pastry and cash takes place. Word of mouth gets you there, or maybe just your nose. For savy wanderers, suddenly, the city’s “secret bakeries” are no longer a secret
One night, a thick scent hit us strongly at Via Torta.”. Around the corner in a narrow alleyway, the buildings did not seem alive, nor was there any clear entrance. There was no visible sign hanging above; rather graffiti decorated the side of the wall in this crammed street. It was clear no business resided there. Still, an anxious group waited outside, sheepishly in small herds awaiting something.
Behind the thick white walls, wholesale bakers made their daily supply of goods to send to multiple cafes in Florence. Their purpose is not to conduct business at that hour. Rather they are there to bake for their real job. Still, they were prepared for the late night crowd eagerly awaiting a sweet treat.
We approached the one lit up window and a man quickly handed us a small bag with a request for three euro in return. We handed him the money, he quickly shut the window and we were off. Inside the white bag laid three perfectly crafted, warm and oozing chocolate croissants. The filling was smooth and subtle but still satisfied every cho¬colate craving. As we strolled home, feeling that enchanting aroma still around us, we devoured the most delicious midnight snack.
FLORENCE, Italy –
I have noticed many frequent happenings here in Florence in my time here. The church bells ring every hour, an adorable couple and their even more adorable dog sit outside the same café near my school everyday and the same gypsies hang around the same piazzas every day. I feel like I am becoming a part of the city, even though I have only been here for few weeks. I have even developed a little habit of my own.
I am a very frequent customer of the café, Moka Arra on the corner opposite my school and a very frequent eater of ciambelles. In Italy, ciambelles are the doughnut’s sister food and are similar in nature, except they are made with flour and boiled potatoes and covered with granulated sugar instead of a sticky matte glaze.
It’s hard to resist the glistening, fluffy, sugary goodness of the darn things. But here, breakfast time has a fairly strict code: ordering a cappuccino for instance, to accompany a ciambella after 10 a.m. is considered culturally absurd. I once ordered two in one sitting and got quite the look from the café owner. My stomach was happy; he didn’t seem to be.
My affection for the pastries will carry on despite the cultural difference, despite the stares. I will continue to enjoy them; my own personal frequency.
MONTEPULCIANO, Italy —
Salcheto Winery’s 2013 Obvius Rosato is a dry and fruity wine perfect for pairing with pasta. Notes of raspberry and strawberry make the Rosato a great summer wine, too. Made with Sangiovese Canaiolo, Mammolo, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grapes creates an appealing blend. No sulfates or other ingredients are added during the process.
Salcheto’s 2010 Riserva Nobile Montepulciano is a full-bodied red that pairs well with desserts. With notable legs, its thicker consistency and berry flavor derived from slightly over-ripe Sangiovese Prugnolo grapes gives it exceptional flavor. It is aged for 24 months in barrels and at least 12 months in the bottle before being made available for consumption.
Carlo Lanfranchi stands with the first stage of the prosciutto process. There are many steps in producing prosciutto including freezing, seasoning and drying out.
PARMA, Italy—The Italian countryside sends shades of green to meet the bright blue skies. Passing through, perfectly symmetrical lines of crops fill the farms that serve as resident’s backyards. Italy is known for fresh ingredients that grace local markets and each dish. Parma Ham, one product grown in these rolling hills is produced by 156 firms in the region. Salumificio La Perla is one of these few businesses.
Brothers Carlo and Fabrizio Lanfranchi took over La Perla from their father 25 years ago and have been dedicated to the production of the “prosciutto di Parma” ever since. Their family owned business consists of the factory and a kitchen and dining space for guests. After a tour, guests are invited to sit and enjoy a meal consisting of prosciutto and a pasta dish. A bond and a sense of passion fills the building as members of the family scurry around. While one employee speaks of their product, they may stop to introduce you to their father, mother or distant relative as they pass by.
Considered the backbone of Italy, family owned businesses have persevered. More than 70% of Italian employees work for private companies with less than 100 employees, over 50% with fewer than 20, according to the Bank of Italy Statistics. Some of the better-known family companies are FIAT, owned by the Agnellis, Pirelli, an auto parts store, and De Benedetti, Italian industrialists, engineers and publishers. The size of these companies compliments the Italian stereotype that family is everything. When times get tough, most Italians look towards their family to aid them in their financial struggles. Family members are willing to do what ever it takes to ensure their family member can stay on his or her feet. Lately with the advancements of Internet, businesses find it hard to afford setting up websites and keeping up with the digital world, according to The Economist website. Many families are looking towards outside parties to invest in them and, unfortunately, losing part of their ownership. This is causing a slow shift away from what were traditionally all-family operations.
Traditional Modena balsamic vinegar are sealed and ready for purchase at Acetaia Malpighi.
MODENA, Italy- A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine goes down, or so that’s what Mary Poppins cheerfully sang to young Michael and Jane Banks. The catchy melody danced through my mind as I held a small, plastic spoonful of black balsamic vinegar close to my lips while in Modena, Italy’s balsamic capital.
A quick tilt of the utensil sent a velvety stream of 12-year-old aged wonderment down my throat. I allowed the thick balsamic to coat my mouth and intensify in flavor before it hesitantly faded away. There was no need for a follow-up of sugar, this was the best medicine I’d ever tasted.
Balsamic vinegar throughout history has been known for its powers of relieving sore throats and even–believe it or not– combating labor pains. Romans used to drink balsamic by the glassful to maintain their health. With its a fantastic taste, I don’t blame them. I would gladly give up artificial cherry-flavored cough syrup for this.
These days balsamic is commonly used for flavor more than for its medicinal purposes. A couple drops of traditional Modena balsamic with ice cream and strawberries can create a vinegary sweetness that sends food lovers’ palates on an adventure. My first encounter with authentic, high quality balsamic was at a tasting held at Acetaia Malpighi, where the Malpighi family has been producing balsamic since 1850.
A traditional bottle of Modena balsamic is only made with the juices of Lambrusco red grapes and Trebbiano white grapes from the Modena region. After two days of cooking, the vinegar is put in barrels at room temperature to ferment. To be deemed traditional the balsamic must be aged in the barrels for at least 12 years and also tasted and certified by the Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP).
It’s a long journey for a grape to turn into Modena’s sweet nectar. But there is an old saying that things get better with age, and balsamic is no exception. Whether soaked up in bread, dressed over a salad, dripped over desserts, or poured in a glass, balsamic offers a variety of ways to be enjoyed, even if just by the spoonful.