So, How Do You Study Food?

Kristi Stringer Umbra Institute, Italy


February 16, 2015

Midterms are this week, and they really put the study in study abroad. Also, I’ve had an incredibly full week as I explain below. One of the things I really love about the Food Studies program at Umbra is that they give you so many opportunities to engage with the community you are in in regards to your area of interest, and in Italy there is no shortage of people and places who want to talk about food. When I tell people I’m in the Food Studies program, they often think I just cook all day. There is so much more to food than cooking and eating, but that’s often where people’s minds stop. To illustrate how much more there is, here is a full week of events that I participated in for my classes, and only one had me help prepare the food.

Monday: Cooking Class

I started off the week by brushing up on my culinary skills. The eight members of the Food Studies program were invited to head to the Università dei Sapori, a renowned culinary institution in Umbra. The head chef Francesco Lattarulo brought us in to make three dishes, gnocchi alla sorrentinatagliatelle all’arrabiata, and lasagna al ragù all from scratch. Cindy and I were the pasta making duo, so we mixed eggs and flour to make the tagliatelle and lasagna noodles. It’s a very simple recipe, but it does require a lot of mixing, kneading and flattening in order to get the noodles tender. Other students helped make the gnocchi and sauces, culminating into assembling the lasagna for the oven. The main take away of the lesson was making things from scratch and using the best, freshest ingredients can make something as simple as gnocchi with tomatoes taste like a five star dish. It’s true, although some of the recipes required quite a bit of prep time, there was nothing that I as a home cook with rudimentary skills didn’t feel qualified to do. The entire time the students did the brunt of the grunt work, and it still tasted like something I would order at a nice restaurant. It’s what I love about Italian food. I ate 3 very full plates of pasta and still had enough lasagna leftover to take home, which was one of the best parts of the whole evening.

Tuesday: Fair Trade Chocolate Event

This was the only activity this week that was optional for me, but when something involves a chocolate tasting it isn’t really optional. The interns at a fair trade shop in Perugia, Monimbo, organized a documentary screening and chocolate tasting. The movie was “The Dark Side of Chocolate” and really opened my eyes about the issues of child slavery and labor in the cocoa industry and how many of the producers of chocolates that I buy from are willing to turn a blind eye in for profit. Considering Perugia’s history of chocolate, I feel this issue was especially relevant here. The event was held in an 18th century theater, which was quite beautiful and after we got to taste different fair trade chocolates as an alternative to the chocolate we usually buy. The chocolates were all delicious, and I could feel good about the product I was eating. I resolved to check out the fair trade shop and try new products that are ethically produced.

Wednesday: Olive Oil Workshop

Continuing with the theme of quality food, we were invited to Osteria a Priori, an excellent restaurant with high quality food from top notch ingredients. We had an olive oil tasting to determine the difference between a good and bad olive oil, and subtle differences of olive oils for different uses. But first we got to listen to Maurizio Pescari, our olive oil expert for the night, and his philosophy about food and life in general. He told us that il tavolo, or the table, was the symbol for Umbra because that is where the family comes together every night, no matter what. It is the symbol for relationships and community, and food is what brings people to the table. He also said eating was about habits. If we are in the habit of buying the cheapest olive oil we can, we will continue to do so because we don’t know any better. But if we start investing in what we eat, whether it be buying family produced olive oil or not eating at fast food places, we will get into the habit of doing it. When we tried the olive oil, we could immediately taste the difference between the mass produced olive oil, with olives from around the world and the local olive oils. Before this workshop, I didn’t really think I liked olive oil. Honestly, it didn’t appeal to me other than for sautéing things. However, I realized I had just spent my life eating the mass produced low quality products. The entire experience got me thinking about how little I know about the food I eat, and how much time and energy I invest in what I consume.

Thursday: Agriculture Center

The next day we took a trip as a class to the agriculture department, to hear from the faculty about animal production and sustainability. We are running out of viable farming land, and short of eradicating the world’s rainforests or completely forgoing all animal products, we need to come up with creative solutions to the problem of farming and raising livestock. Animals are not sustainable to eat, because they take up a lot of land (if they are raised ethically) and eat a large portion of the world’s crops that could be used for human consumption. This is one of the many issues that the faculty are attempting to resolve. It’s a bit harder for them, as they work out of a monastery that has been around since the 900’s, but they manage to successfully raise sheep and use their milk to make cheese. We got to visit the sheep barn, and see the new lambs. Afterwards we went to the cheese making facility and tried our hand at making some. While we waited for the cheese to harden, we heard from a local shepherd who raises around 300 hundred sheep along with his brother. He talked about how hard it was to wake up every day at 5:30 in the morning, milk the sheep twice a day and let them roam in the pastures and bring them back in at night. Farming or raising animals is an intense profession, and you don’t get holidays or sick days. He then talked about how hard it was to sell the cheese they make and the lambs locally. Most people don’t want to search out small businesses like theirs, it’s much easier to go to the local grocery store and buy the processed stuff. There are also regulations he has to follow since he produces raw milk cheese which are another hurdle. His stories really illustrated to me that when we see locally made goods and their often higher price tags, we don’t often associate it with the extensive time and labor that goes into making those goods without the resources of a wealthy company. After, we tried some raw, locally made artisanal cheese with wine, and I could immediately tell the difference, even from the cheese I usually buy here in Perugia. It was a very informative trip.

Saturday: The Butcher of Chianti

After a restful Friday I spent mainly planning my spring break, I rose early Saturday for a two hour bus ride into Chianti, which is geographical region, not just a delicious wine. We were visiting one of the most famous butcher’s in the world, Dario Cecchini. We arrived at his butcher shop in one of the most picturesque cities that I’ve seen in Italy. We were greeted with bruschetta with olive oil, and another with lard that had been seasoned with salt and pepper. I tried both, and was surprised at how good the lard was. We also got slices of salami, which were so good I had seconds, and then thirds even though in around an hour we would be having lunch at his restaurant. While we were waiting for Dario, AC/DC started playing and the best dressed butchers I’ve ever seen walked around helping local customers, refilling our glasses and slicing more bread and meat for us. The butcher is the hippest one I’ve ever been to, it felt more like a shop I would walk into in Portland, Oregon rather than small town Tuscany. Dario arrived with his wife, and I have never seen anyone personify Italy so well just in the way they were dressed. Head to toe, Dario proudly walked around in a red, white and green ensemble. He made sure to shake everyone’s hand and greet us individually. AC/DC was cut short, and his wife started to translate for Dario, as he spoke very little English. He talked about how butchering had been a profession that was passed from father to son for 250 years in his family; and that due to the extreme importance of killing animals for food butchering was often a profession that was reserved for the holy men of a culture. He showed us a placemat, on it a drawing of a cow divided into different sections and numbered. He said most people label their cuts of meat and they are ranked from good cuts and bad cuts. But he doesn’t think there is anything that is a “bad cut.” All cuts are important, and can be used for human consumption. For that reason, instead of the numbers describing the type of cut, they are the names of dishes he makes with that particular part of meat, to show the importance of using all the gifts that animal has been sacrificed for.

Afterwards we took the scenic route to the restaurant, which was on top of a really big hill. However, the views were spectacular, and we stopped at a local farm that grew olives, grapes and raised cows. We learned how Dario imports his meat from Spain, because it is too expensive to raise enough cows to supply his butcher shop in Chianti, considering the high price of the land. They are slaughtered before the meat is transported to Italy to spare the cows the long stressful trip. He then prepares the meat for local people and restaurants. After a long hike, and I mean hike, up the hill we arrived at a modern looking restaurant, Solociccia. It was a very clean, minimalist space decorated with orchids and antique looking meat cleavers. The waiters looked like they had stepped out of the latest issue of a hipster magazine, an odd clash within the traditional Tuscan landscape. Our feast started with pinzimonio, which is raw vegetables dipped in olive oil and a salt mixture. Our courses progressed to bruschetta with a meat ragu, roast beef slices, boiled meat with sliced vegetables on top and a meat and potatoes dish. They were all delicious, and made use of every part of the cow and pig. It was probably the most carnivorous meal I’d ever had in my life. We were then surprised with a light cinnamon cake and espresso to finish our feast. I might have had more than one piece, but it was too good not to indulge. Everyone napped on the way back, and I was so full I didn’t eat until breakfast the next morning.

I think that events like these are so important, and not just because I like to eat a lot of food. When you study food here, you take a holistic approach so that you are learning about the history of how the industry came to be, and also different ethical dilemmas that it faces. They also connect me personally to the food makers, and really force me to think about what choices I make when buying and eating food.

I leave for spring break on Thursday, so it may be a while until I post again but I’m sure I will have many adventures to write about! Until next time…