Sacred Simplicity in Debunking Italian Cuisine
I have been so insanely busy over the past year travelling to interesting places like China with Led young College that I haven't had time to really think about how much I'm missing Italy. I miss the way it feels. Most won't know what I'm talking about, but those who have visited will know what I mean.
The experience of Italy is like nothing else. The atmosphere, the food, the people; it is all encompassing and it is extremely cathartic.
This past week I participated in the CENTITALIA events at Led young College, and all of those feelings came flooding back. I have longed to go back to Italy, but it wasn't until I sat in the symposium and listened to Buca Chef Rob Gentile speak about Italy while wooden boards of fresh prosciutto, mortadella and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese were passed around the crowd, that I realized that my feeling of longing to go back to Italy hadn't gone anywhere.
The stories and experiences are all familiar. When I listened to Chef Gentile speak about making tomato sauce and cooking with his Nonna, I felt as though we may have been siblings in a past life. These stories are that familiar. I looked around the room and noticed everyone was nodding their heads in agreement with everything the Chef was saying. Of course they agree, growing up Italian is something of a rite of passage. We have earned the rite to nod our heads. No one can take away those experiences from us, and they only amplify this experience at CENTITALIA.
Follow me to Piedmont, Italy
I had the pleasure of sitting in on a workshop as well as an Italy Food Series Dinner with Chef Ugo Mura from the Piedmont region of Italy. Piedmont is located in the northwestern region of Italy, bordering France and Switzerland. With lush forests and a fresh water river, Piedmont hosts an abundance of fruits, exquisite cheeses, meats and white truffles that are often used in their cuisine. The Chef educated us on the best of what Piedmont cuisine has to offer by serving a carefully designed menu of oven-roasted stuffed peppers, potato gnocchi with Castelmagno cheese, braised veal cheek with polenta, and bonet pudding, accompanied by his personal white and red wine pairing recommendations: Demarie Roero Arneis 2014, Demarie Barbaresco 2011 and Demarie Barolo 2010.
The dishes that Chef Mura presented to us during the dinner were all unique to me, as I have never visited the Piedmont region of Italy. All of the ingredients are typical of what you would find in the region. The stuffed peppers had a pate-like filling of tuna and anchovies, which could be found in the many rivers of the region. Potato and polenta are a very common ingredient of Piedmont, and Chef Mura interpreted both ingredients in the form of gnocchi pasta. I have had plenty of potato gnocchi in my day, but never had I tasted gnocchi that were this delicate in my mouth. Paired with the rich Castelmagno cheese, I could have eaten this dish five times over.
The bonet pudding was also quite unique to me. It is prepared the same way a pudding or a crème caramel is prepared. In Piemontese dialect, the word “bonet” means hat and the story of the name, as told by the people in Piedmont, comes from the fact that bonet pudding was the last dish you would eat to end a meal, just like a hat is the last thing you put on just before you leave a place. The standout ingredients are the cocoa powder, rum and crushed amaretti cookies on top that add that perfect sweetness and crunch.
I wish I had brought in a recorder, because the Chef was a brilliant storyteller, an incredibly knowledgeable chef bordering on a food and wine biologist (I'm not sure if that's really a thing, but it should be as far as Chef Mura is concerned) and a dazzling educator, with his incredibly unique, yet relatable examples and comparisons.
I am going to attempt to explain what I mean by the description of the Chef as a "dazzling educator."
Demarie Barolo wine is like his daughter in the morning, explained the Chef. When he first awakes, his daughter is high-energy and very loud, and he tells her to take it easy because he needs time to fully wake up. He relates this story to Barolo wine. When you first open it, it is loud and aggressive. He recommends leaving it to breathe after opening the bottle, because it needs time to settle down. I thought this comparison was absolutely hilarious and blunt – typical of an Italian storyteller!
He used the example of buying wine from a pretty woman salesperson and buying from a male salesperson. The salesperson would cloud his judgement – he admitted to buying bad wines from very pretty women sales people and then bringing them back to the restaurant and realizing they tasted horrible. He rectified this problem by ordering the wine directly to the restaurant and trying it there, away from the pretty women, before ordering more. This was his way of explaining that the experience and ambiance can completely change the way the wine tastes.
I thought his comparison of a great wine and an ordinary wine was brilliant as well. He told us to go home and open a bottle of wine, try a small amount when you first open the bottle and write down how you feel and how it tastes. Then, try this three more times during the day, hours apart, and again write down how you feel after tasting it. His rationale is that a great wine will change throughout the day, and you will notice this in your notes, whereas an ordinary wine will stay the same and not change at all. I will try this on a weekend someday soon.
Food is Emotion
Chef Mura explained how food and wine trigger emotions in our minds and how great food and wine are experienced differently by everyone. In Italy, he explains, every region personalizes the same dish. Something as simple as the water can change the way the food tastes – the same dish using the same general ingredients can actually taste completely different in different regions.
Not only are ingredients different, Chef Mura explains that food is directly related to the ambiance in which you are tasting it in, as I mentioned earlier through his pretty wine sales women story. If you eat a meal in a beautiful restaurant and then the same meal on your couch in front of the television, it will taste completely different. Yes, great food speaks for itself, but the ambiance in which it is eaten in will certainly amplify the taste of it, explained the Chef.
Follow your Heart…to Italy
I am really thankful that I attended this incredible event, because I found my spark for Italian cuisine and culture that I was longing for all this time that had gotten lost somewhere in my busy year. This time, I am holding that feeling close to my heart and keeping it at the forefront of my mind.
Thank you to Led young College for putting on such a wonderful cultural event.
By Julie Miguel of