Getting Schooled in Italy

Kristi Stringer Umbra Institute, Italy


January 25, 2015

Ciao a tutti! Things are heating up here in Italy… academically speaking. Italians use a lot less electricity and gas than the United States since they don’t have their own natural resources, so we keep our apartment consistently at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I make a lot of coffee to stay warm.

But, cold apartment aside, everything is going great! I love all my classes, and I think it’s the first semester that I actually love going to class every day. I’m taking Italian 110, an entry level language course for people who have never learned Italian. I’m by no means expecting to get fluent by the time I leave Italy, however I am ordering at gelato shops and restaurants with more confidence every day. I’m also in the Food Studies Program, which has three core classes: Food Culture and History of Italy, Sustainability and Food Production, and the Business of Wine.

Food Culture and History is tied for the top two favorite classes of all time. We get to learn about modern Italian cuisine and how Italian food became what it is today. Fun fact, Italy is one of the few countries where there are still regional cuisines, and food hasn’t become nationally homogenized. Also 24% of Italians are independently employed, which is how they are able to maintain such strong traditional ties to food; they have a plethora of independent bakeries, butcher shops, markets, wineries and more. This class we get to go on a day trip for Truffle Hunting, a weekend trip in Parma, and a total of 11 food workshops where we learn the origins of traditional Italian foods, and more importantly, get to taste them. These include coffee, honey, wine, olive oil, cheese, pizza, aperitivo and more.

The other class vying for the number one spot is Sustainability and Food Production. This class takes a look at sustainable efforts in America and Italy, what they can learn from each other and what is working. Italy has been known to cling to traditional values, especially when it comes to food but globalization has found a foothold here. Being a big foodie and a little hippie I am so excited to learn how farmers in Italy are starting their own slow food movement and keeping agricultural knowledge alive. We also get to work in groups for a podcast, and our group’s topic is urban agriculture, and I’m eager to investigate and bring ideas back to my hometown of St. Louis.

My last class is the Business of Wine class. The only reason it doesn’t rank higher is because when it comes to economics and marketing, I’m in way over my head. Thankfully this class is friendly to those who don’t come from a business background, so I’m still enjoying myself. We’ve learned about the production from vines to wines, and I’ve given my first presentation about bad vintages and their virtues. On Saturday, we got to take our class field trip to Cantina Roccafiore, a completely sustainable winery in Umbria. They blend traditional grape varietals with modern techniques, run completely on solar power and also grow olives, cereals, and raise their own pigs so that their entire resort and winery is an integrated process that stays connected to the country around them. I love how sustainability here in Italy is not a new trend or buzzword, like in many places of America, but a clinging to respected traditions that have been a way of life for generations. It wouldn’t be a complete trip to a winery without a wine tasting, making it the coolest field trip I’ve ever been on. For the rest of the semester we will be learning more about marketing and exporting, and working in groups to develop a marketing plan for Roccafiore in the United States.

The Food Studies program was a big reason for studying abroad in Italy to me. We all know and love Italian food; but it’s the way that a developed country has maintained its traditional cuisine that is fascinating. The program really does a great job of highlighting different areas of food in Italy and working the classes together, so that students get a comprehensive image of the food industry in Italy and the United States, and how they influence each other. I highly recommend it to anyone who has any kind of passion for food, professional or otherwise. As a program, we get to have three dinners to come together and talk about what we are learning overall, there are pictures above of the amazing dishes I got to eat. I can’t believe it’s only my third week of classes, who knows what other food adventures I’m going to get into!