Terra Madre in Torino: Hookie Lunch featuring Wild Mushrooms and Wild Boar

•November 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Megan and I played hookie to squeeze in an extra meal – lunch in central Torino, at a seemingly nameless restaurant serving specialties of the Piemonte region.  In a small room we sat at the last open table, just inside the door, and had a front row seat as two waiters squeezed around a bar laden with wine bottles, platters of tiramisu, assorted cheese wedges and hand-grater, fresh loaves of breads, and even a stuffed badger, snarling at the door.

There seemed to be no telephone, no manager, and no bartender — the waiters disappeared through a very narrow doorway (which must have been the kitchen) but no sound emerged, no clanking dishes, no machinery.  As if by magic, the waiters would reappear, practically gliding, laden with course upon course of food and somehow serving all of the tables wine, fresh bread and grissini (thin breadsticks, like fresh baguette crust twisted into a stick), pastas and entrees from a hand-written daily menu, and dessert and coffee.

We chose to begin with a roasted garlic bagna cauda drizzled onto roasted red peppers – bagna cauda literally translates to warm bath, and is used to describe the warm savory sauce of garlic and anchovy that serves as a centerpiece for raw autumn vegetables.  Megan chose fresh pasta with wild mushroom sauce and a glass of the house white wine; fhe brilliant yellow noodles were tossed with soft, flavorful wild mushrooms, cooked to the point of complete tenderness but avoiding sliminess, and infusing the dish with the earthy flavors of the forest floor.  I selected Piemontese wild boar with polenta, and a glass of the house red wine. The polenta was also a vivid yellow (I can only surmise that the grains used for both pasta and polenta, corn and wheat respectively, are freshly ground and lovingly cultivated).  The wild boar yielded a thick, beefy gravy that was seasoned with juniper and plenty of black pepper, and the polenta below it slowly, slowly, slowly absorbed the moisture of the boar’s sauce; the last few bites were delightfully dry, like a perfectly cooked brisket.

While we both would have liked to have another glass of wine, and perhaps the cheese and meat plate, or dessert, we reined in our appetites and returned to the conference by way of an outdoor market.  Autumn squash, radicchio of several types, handcrafts of wool and organic cotton, handmade soaps, tinctures, tonics and teas, and even dried borlotti, canellini, black, and garbanzo beans.

Terra Madre in Torino: the International Buffet

•November 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

 

The lunch buffet at the Terra Madre conference was clearly designed to appeal to multiple nationalities while showcasing some regional Italian specialties.  On each day, there were at least two vegetable and grain dishes (rice, and another); green salad, and both raw vegetables and cooked vegetables; fresh whole fruit (from bananas to ripe yellow plums, what a treat!) and fresh bread; sliced cooked meats and sliced salumi; large slabs of mortadella, studded with lard and pistachios, scored with criss-crossed cuts so that a toothpick served to extract a cube; large rich cheeses, presented in the same way – whole, loosened from the rind and partially cut into cubes, gently oozing as the temperature warmed from several thousand people talking and eating.

A co-delegate checked all of the buffet lines (4, I believe) to make certain she was not missing anything – but at that point we had been well-fed for days, perhaps even overfed, and I surprised myself by being content to sit and help the woman next to me by holding her baby while she fed her toddler girl.  The toddler is named in part Terra Madre as she had been in the womb when her mother delivered the welcome speech two years prior – I recognized her from a video clip I watched online.  I also met a baby named Pippin – his grandmother (in attendance with her two daughters, hailing from coastal Oregon) explained the provenance of his name, a reference to a seed-grown apple tree or, as she put it, ‘something good that sprouted by chance!’.  I admired the round-headed, smiling wonder hanging in front of his mother’s heart, and chatted with the women about their lives and business on the Oregon coast.

Coffee

Coffee turned out to be a culture shock to the Americans at the conference.  Italian styple espresso, of course, is brewed fresh every time, by its very nature a quick exchange, a sip, tidy up, and grazie.  It seems Italians don’t carry coffee with them; they enjoy a brief stop along the way, with a friend or co-worker, or alone, and really only sit for coffee after a meal, if even then.  But American coffee is a BIG cup, often bottomless in a restaurant (and just as often served in single-use Styrofoam – argh), or its something we carry with us in our adult sippy cups (reusable or single-use to-go mugs).  As much as I love espresso, I longed for a larger cup and a brimming Americano, espresso enlarged with hot water…but never did find one.

 

Terra Madre in Torino: Salone del Gusto

•November 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Imagine a convention center, filled with rows upon rows of Italian regional specialties and available for sample or purchase, abuzz with Italians (and a few other nationalities as well) eating, drinking, strolling, chatting, and ducking outside to smoke.  It is the Salone del Gusto, and it is a world of food ranging from sea salt, balsamic vinegar, gianduja (hazelnut chocolate), prosciutti, Parmigiano and all the famous cheeses.  When one thinks one has tasted all of Italy, one realizes that the Salone del Gusto is not just Italian regional specialties, but includes many other European countries, and indeed representative foods and drinks from around the globe.  One might need a quiet cup of mint tea.  Unable to find mint tea, instead I tasted a raw-milk provolone cheese, one version aged six months and one version aged two years.  The 24 month cheese changed the meaning of sharp Italian provolone for me; it sparkled and sang in my mouth, and its rustic shape and imbedded cord begged to be slung over a shoulder and carried away.

Overwhelmed, I noticed that some stalls featured the Slow Food Presidia emblem — these are items from around the world that have been identified as totally unique and culturally important, items in which the Slow Food Foundation has invested time and energy (and money) to preserve, document, and encourage continued production.  I toured these items, enjoying the native dress and languages of people from South America, India, Greece, Japan, Oceania.  Dazed, I happened upon an artisanal Italian brewing company called Birra Pasturana, and tasted their wares. In his halting English and my entirely food-based Italian, we ‘spoke’ of the importance of quality lupulo (hops, ironically Cascade, which is considered an American hop for its market-shifting role in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale) and he told me of resting a beer in a white-wine barrel for six months – they call that one ‘the Mummy’ because it rises from the tomb at the end of its aging.  I asked about their method for making a peach beer, and I’m not kidding, he began with ‘…we take the wagon into the peach orchard…’.  No food-grade flavorings there.  I felt refreshed.

Refreshed enough to buy some oysters from Brittany, France, pulled alive out of wooden crates and pried opened right in front of me.  Seasoned with lemon juice and aimed down my gullet, the pulsing oyster could only be described as More than a Mouthful – I had to chew to get it down, and while technically it was probably dead by then, it was still pulsing as I swallowed. I realize now that I prefer a smaller oyster; and perhaps I am not prepared to eat oysters standing right in front of the oystermen themselves, chewing and choking and trying to swallow.  Unfortunately the tequila bar was not handy.

Terra Madre in Torino: A Series

•November 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I was fortunate to be sent as a delegate from Slow Food USA to the Terra Madre conference in Torino, Italy at the end of October.  The conference included 4000 delegates representing 150 nations, along with tasting sessions, workshops, and work and educational sessions on a variety of food and stewardship topics.  I was awed by the scope of the Slow Food movement and its worldwide participants; I am proud to say that I count myself and my friends and colleagues here in Central Virginia as members of that movement, and feeling part of an international whole is a delightful feeling for a local foodie.

 

The following posts will describe parts of my experience, mostly from the food angle.  For more information about the conference itself, check out http://www.terramadre.org.

CSA Work Day at Appalachia Star Farm 5.22.10

•June 2, 2010 • Leave a Comment

For many years I have admired the CSA bags of Appalachia Star supporters.  Strawberries!  Asparagus!  Blueberries!  Perfect little zucchini!  When I heard the news that Roundabout Farm wouldn’t be continuing its CSA program this year, it gave me the opportunity to reevaluate the CSA model in our lives to see if it was still the investment that made sense.  We are avid market shoppers, hitting the City Market around 7:30 each Saturday we are in town; the Wednesday ‘Farmers in the Park’ market occurs just 2 blocks away from our home, so a midweek afternoon outing couldn’t be more convenient.  Also, last year we dug a 5 ft wide, 25 ft long garden in our side yard and had a pretty good time with greenbeans, tomatoes, basil, tomotillos, and ground cherries.  Without a CSA we wouldn’t starve, for sure — but the skill and the grace that Kathryn and Michael and their kids bring to the City Market and to their CSA production just seemed like something we wanted to get closer to.  I feel I could identify their kale in a line of anonymous greens (heirloom variety Red Russian, frilled edges, not overgrown nor bitter, happy to hail from hilly Nelson County).  Finally, now that we’re all living in town (including a former Country Mouse), we need distant destinations to satisfy our urge to drive out into the hills – especially on graduation weekend.

We loaded up the truck to go to the farm for a CSA work day on Saturday 5.22.10, bringing some cold tamales from the City Market and a couple of other odds and ends to nibble along the way.  We drove past Seaman’s strawberry fields, which are surrounded on all sides by misty blue mountains, swathed in fog on that drizzly day.  Several times I thought we had missed a turn, or turned wrong, even though the roads all looked familiar from a berry-picking expedition several weeks prior.  When we turned in to Appalachia Star, we saw Michael and a few other CSA members hoeing a potato field.  however, after greeting us Michael asked us to start harvesting asparagus.

Unlike most vegetables, asparagus are a perennial plant, taking 2 to 3 or more years for a patch to really get rolling.  The rhizomes gradually spread underground (I’ve been told they even naturalize in the sandy soils of the Tidewater), and the resulting asparagus become larger and larger each successive year (I think).  Michael asked us to harvest any shoot that was the requisite length – about 8 inches – and to snip out any teeny, tiny asparagus that just take energy that could be going elsewhere.  Michael showed us how to squat, feel downward along the stalk to find its intersection with the ground, and use the angled harvesting knife to slice it off clean and even.  The shoots were surprisingly difficult to see against a mottled backdrop of hay and other organic matter; I helped Geoff spot them, and held the bucket, while he squatted and sliced.  Lincoln rode on my back in the frame backpack, pretty content except with the brim of his hat, which was irking him.  Occasionally we found a black and yellow beetle that Michael had instructed us to squash with our fingers; more often I found its black eggs, which just wiped off with a little effort.  Some asparagus were only as thick as a single chive (those were dispatched as a waste of energy) and some were thicker than a thumb.  Some tall, some short, curved, straight, green trimmed with purple; the best way to see them would have been to lay on the ground at the bottom of the hill and look up to the mountains and the sky.  Michael told us that they harvest asparagus every day, sometimes twice a day, because they grow so quickly.

After completing the asparagus project (temporarily, at least) we moved down the hill and into the bottom of the potato field.  The potato plants were several inches high, rounded green leaves edged with purple, surrounded by weeds.  A job that looked like it was going to be very tough turned out to be quite gratifying because the ground was easy to penetrate with the stirrup hoe.  A stirrup hoe is a hinged metal ring on the end of a long handle; the ring drops into the soil and dislodges the weeds as the hoe is pulled back and forth in the dirt.  The only thing to be careful about was the baby potatoes underneath, or any late-sprouting taters that hadn’t poked their greens above the soil yet.  Michael asked us to mound up the soil around each potato, an activity that is said to help the potatoes grow a bit larger before breaking out of the ground.  Time to start thinking about potato salads, croquettes, roasted underneath whole chickens, gratins with cream, and as a garnish for a chilled nicoise salad.

I stepped away from the potato project before it was complete (diaper emergency) and Lincoln and I lingered by the truck as it started to drizzle, and then rain.  We were sheltered by several trees, and ate our lunch, and just looked around at the Bertoni’s home, complete with chickens, ducks, a guard dog, an elusive cat, soft-sided greenhouse full of seedlings, and several fields full of vegetables-to-be.  We listened to the birds and watched the rain roll in and obscure the mountains in front of us; the sounds of stirrup hoes and conversation floated up from the potato field, and I entertained the idea of walking around on my own, but didn’t really feel like pulling the backpack on again.  We had already planned to hit a brewery on the way back to town – either Devil’s Backbone, Blue Mountain, or our favorite Starr Hill – and in the end we would decide to drive up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway because Lincoln was asleep in the carseat.  Although the views were very limited (at some points, we couldn’t see ten feet in front of the car!) the drive was beautiful and mysterious – winding roads, green green trees and grass, and lots of falling-down buildings to wonder about.

What have we received in our CSA?  So far this year:  asparagus (!), radishes, kale, swiss chard, braising greens, beets, Napa cabbage, garlic scapes, head lettuce (several), dill…it has all been delicious.

Why I walk downtown on Wednesdays (Ascention of Tanginess)

•May 18, 2010 • Leave a Comment

On Wednesdays I saddle up the stroller and walk to the downtown mall; every Wednesday when I get home I am all charged up about life and food and walking in Charlottesville.

Firstly, Wednesday is donut day downtown.  That is, the Carpe Donut mobile is parked in the Wachovia parking lot for most of the day.  While I don’t always get a donut, it is always an option, and it is a sweet that I feel good about feeding to the big little guy Lincoln.  In terms of a small business with a big heart, Carpe Donut is my favorite (not to mention that Matt has been incredibly generous and encouraging when we have collaborated on food events).  In my opinion, this town could use more businesses like that one – committed to quality, flexible yet consistent, appropriate to any occasion.  All their hard work means that there is absolutely no guilt in eating a Carpe Donut!  In fact, I find the opposite to be true — I feel that we should all be eating more donuts, knowing the ingredients are conscientiously sourced and prepared by hand (and donut machine) and seeing such innovations such as composting, recycling, and biodiesel become part of the business model.  Thank you, Carpe Donut.

I’ll usually pop into the library while I’m downtown, get some books, and see someone I know – last week it was Natalie Russell, editor of Edible Blue Ridge magazine.  With two children and a magazine to edit, publish and distribute, she and husband Steve must feel the daily juggle even more keenly than I do.  I had been thinking of Natalie and her encouraging, understanding vibe as I have had to pass again and again on writing assignments of late; my plan to call her to thank her, and to deliver the news that we have child care two days a week (thank you, Angel and company!) was not necessary as I was able to deliver it in person, and hang out with the kids as well.  Thank you, Russell family.

Lunch while downtown is a no-brainer — last week I tried Cinema Taco and found it very satisfying.  Lincoln and I shared a burrito and met a nice person on the patio — suprise, his middle name is Lincoln.

On the way home I swing by the pickup spot for my raw milk share.  That share is through Silky Cow LLC run by Nathan Vergin (e-mail silkycowfarm @gmail.com for information).   We get a half gallon a week, which I consume essentially myself (actually, the cat and Lincoln both get some sips).  I have made yogurt (and one time an incredibly refreshing yogurt drink, accidentally of course), butter and buttermilk, and a fantastic cream cheese  that also yielded whey, which I have used to make lactofermented pickled grape leaves.  More importantly, I drink a small glass of milk when I am hungry, or thirsty, or tired, or if I can’t sleep — it just seems like a perfect food, nutritious and wholesome and without any downside to drinking it.  Prior to the raw milk, I wasn’t drinking any milk at all, not even in coffee.  Now I enjoy noticing the seasonal change in flavor as the herd’s feed changes from wintertime hay to sharp spring grass and, now, to mellower, more mature grasses that are on their way to drying out for the summertime. The milk also ages in my refrigerator over the course of a week, but it doesn’t sour like commercially pasteurized milk (that is, all at once, totally and repulsively); rather, it is a gradual loosening of its flavor and an ascention of tanginess that edges the milk closer to savory dairy products, like creme fraiche and sour cream.

While we’re strolling downhill, thinking about milk, Nathan and Amy and Amy’s brothers rumble by in a Suburban and stop to say hello.  They pull my milk out of one of four or five coolers in the back of the truck, pass it to me as we exchange greetings, and then they roll on up the street to drop the rest of the milk at the drop spot.  Thank you, Vergin family and Silky Cows.

I continue home along Meade Avenue, carrying the cold, cold gallon of yellowish milk and looking forward to my liquid snack.  A couple people honk, but that’s no surprise – the milk is really good looking.  When I get home I’ll shake the milk to distribute the cream and butterfat, then pour my portion into a large earthenware bowl with a spout on one side.  Gradually the butterfat will rise to the top so that I can skim it off to make butter and buttermilk in the food processor – this week I think I’ll add some garden chives, green onions and lemon zest to the butter, as well as some salt.  The cream will rise to the top of the milk, and I’ll skim that as best I can and label the jar in the refrigerator.  Wish I had an ice cream maker!  Maybe this week I’ll try straining the milk to get the butterfat — I’ve been rereading the ‘Little House on the Prarie’ series (seriously) and Ma always skims the new milk, then sets the pans aside.

As I pass Meade Park I notice that the vendors for Farmers in the Park are setting up already (it’s nearly 1:30, edging into naptime and Lincoln is nodding off), which reminds me that I should get out and stroll again this afternoon to check out the market.  Geoff and I have talked about making Wednesday night Taco Night – getting some seasoned taco meat, tortillas and salsa from the good taco people at the market, and adding perhaps a green salad from our garden, or some soured cream, to round out the meal.  Thank you, market vendors (and especially the taco people!).

So that’s why I walk downtown on Wednesdays.  I break a sweat on the way there, find some lunch and a donut, check out books and network with other foodies.  On the way home I admire gardens, pick mulberries and pick up milk, and get a sneak preview of the market.  Lincoln enjoys the vibrance of flowers, people, food and drink, streaming by him at a palatable pace.  All this, before afternoon nap.  Thank you, Charlottesville.

the Makings of a Meal: Spring Equinox at the Ivy Inn

•March 22, 2010 • 2 Comments

At first glance the deer-fenced beds at Harvest Thyme Herb Farm outside of Staunton, VA seem just as barren as the rest of the landscape looks on this gray March day.  Sure, the Blue Ridge Mountains provide a regal backdrop to the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley, but the earth is still reeling from the 56 inches of snow that blitzed the area this winter.  As testament to the wild winter, a huge bed of rosemary still stands upright, but on closer inspection the stalks are brown and a bit curled at the end, and proprietor Dierdre Armstrong admits that when rosemary looks dead like that, it’s usually…dead.  A huge lavender bed is all elbows and broken arms, with plants hollowed and cracked in the middle and rough around the edges.  In this late winter landscape, what in the world will be for dinner?

Dierdre and Phil Armstrong are not dismayed; their porch and basement filled with fluorescent lights and adjustable seed-starting tables are jammed with life, and shelves of dried herbs and heirloom seeds hint at the off-season activities around here.  Among the treasures, beans from Wise County via the visionary chef Sean () in Charleston, SC; Italian heirloom seed varieties carefully labeled and stored in a rolling card catalog, and a green called () that Angelo has specifically asked them to grow for him.  Dierdre likens the () to tumbleweeds, and describes  how it dried up and rolled away the last time she grew it.

After offers of coffee and muffins, including a homemade Rosemary and Apple jam, Dierdre and Phil lead us outside to scout for food to serve on Saturday, March 20 at the Spring Equinox Farmer Dinner at the Ivy Inn (just a few days from now).  I’ve been invited along on this journey as a scribe and helper; I dutifully snap photos and make notes, wondering where it will all lead but knowing that proprietor and chef Angelo Vangelopolous and chef Mike Perry will work their magic and find some spring food among the last vestiges of winter.

First Dierdre digs for sunchokes (or Jerusalem artichokes), something they planted to hide their inherited compost pile from the neighbors:  Sunchokes are the tuber of a sunflower-like plant, and while their cultivation is as passive as food can possibly be, the flavor is remarkable enough to spark some excitement from the chefs.  We move up the hill to what will become the squash, bean and corn, or ‘deer candy’, beds.   Growing all around us are some resilient ‘weed’ cresses — creasy greens among them — that Dierdre identifies and we dutifully taste.  Marked with delicate white flowers (imagine, flowering at a time like this!) the cresses are added to Angelo’s list from which the final menu will be crafted.

We move on to the perennial herb bed, which is the first bed that they installed and already shows signs of life this year.  Green onions, chives, and wild arugula are bravely bursting into the early spring, and the existing thyme and sage plants also show signs of life.  Dierdre calls out quantities of each item that will likely be available, and Angelo just nods — he’s feeding 75 to 80 people, and will be using his skills to make these precious morsels stretch to include all his guests.  Fortunately, early spring greens have a lot of flavor.  The word we keep using is ‘assertive’.

The Armstrongs show us their Parsnip Palace, and the new neighboring Carrot Condiminium.  These root crops grow the best in loose soil (the opposite of red clay) and are often grown in barrels or in raised beds; the Armstrongs have the added challenge of several large Black Walnut trees, which essentially poison the soil around them and make in-ground cultivation impossible.  So they have raised their parsnip and carrot beds above the ground level, and hemmed them in to protect from deer.  When Dierdre digs her hands in the soil and pulls parsnips, Mike actually cheers.  What a treat to have this time of year!  Usually parsnips would only arrive later in the spring, but these have overwintered in the ground and are super super sweet.  Angelo makes a note of it with a smile on his face.

On the ride back to C-ville we go over the menu, and I hear the wheels turning and churning as the fellows work out what to serve, and how, and with what.  Sounds like the parsnips and sunchokes will be available in some quantity; creasy greens, chives, green garlic, thyme, flatleaf parsley, and perhaps some wild arugula will also bless us with their presence on Saturday.  Perhaps most importantly, both the growers and the chefs have resolidified their enthusiasm for working together again this season.  I feel like I have witnessed a seasonal resolution, renewing the commitment to fresh, beautiful food and to the creative preparations that showcase it.  It’s no small thing.

 
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