I'm still working on the book. Various friends who've walked this path before me have referred to this point in the process as "the black hole of despair," "why crystal meth was invented," and "the point at which you lay in bed at night wondering if you should just give back the money." All of those characterizations seem about right.
Writing a book is hard. Really, really hard. Don't let anyone tell you differently.
On the upside, I've been writing and thinking a lot these days about how I came to be a cook, and what I learned in my first years in the kitchen, and I thought of this courtyard.
I was on my junior year abroad, living in London, the first time I went to Italy. Everyone told me I had to go to Florence, so I managed to get there and stay in a hostel for a couple of nights. I was totally stunned by the beauty of the town. Just up the road from my hostel was this stunning courtyard, behind a cast iron gate, and each time I passed by I imagined the kinds of people who must live in a place like that, in a town like Florence, in a country like Italy. I was about twenty years old, and had never imagined that life could be lived in a place where beauty like that was so quotidian.
I remember hoping that perhaps one day I could live in a place as beautiful as the building locked behind that gate.
A few years later, I returned to Florence, to apprentice myself to Benedetta Vitali at Trattoria Zibibbo. For the first couple of months, she put me up in a convent in the hills above Florence, from which I could walk to work. I ate my meals with nuns, stumbling through conversations with them in my pidgin Italian, washed my clothes on a washboard in the courtyard, and slept beneath a giant crucifix in my sterile dorm room. It was amazing, but secluded and lonely.
Eventually, Benedetta moved me into town, onto Via dei Serragli, which is still one of my favorite streets in the world. I packed up my bags, was dropped off in front of the apartment and handed a key. I was so excited to be moving into the center of town, near museums and bookstores and cafes and non-nun-people that I hardly noticed where I was being moved into. It took a couple of days of exploration before I realized that my new apartment was in the exact same building I'd spent all of that time day-dreaming about when I'd first come to Italy. "Perhaps one day" had come a lot sooner than I'd ever imagined.
There's been a lot of this kind of serendipity in my life, and it helps to remember that. Especially when I'm deep in the black hole of despair.
Several people, after reading Cooked, have attempted to make Maiale al Latte, or pork cooked in milk, with varying degrees of success. I've gotten a bunch of requests for guidance, so even though it's hardly something I'd cook myself in August, I'm just gonna go ahead and give you all a recipe for it so you can experience the counterintuitive deliciousness that happens when milk curdles and caramelizes around slow-cooked pork.
Traditionally, this dish is made with pork loin, but I prefer it with pork shoulder because rather than toughening with hours of cooking, it relaxes and becomes tender.
6 pounds pork shoulder, cut into two-pound chunks
Zest of 2 lemons, removed in 1-inch strips (I like to use a vegetable peeler for this)
12 sage leaves
12 garlic cloves, peeled
1 gallon whole milk
Freshly ground black pepper, if desired
The night before cooking, season the pork generously with salt on all sides. If desired, season with freshly ground black pepper as well.
The day of cooking, pull the meat out a few hours before you're ready to start.
When it's time to start cooking, get out your biggest dutch oven (maybe two dutch ovens, if you've got them!). Heat it over medium heat, and when it's nice and hot, lightly coat the bottom of the pot with olive oil. Place as much meat in the pan so that it's packed in a single layer--no more--and the meat isn't touching, and brown over medium-high heat on all sides until it's nice and golden all around. You might have to do this in a couple batches.
When the meat is all brown, turn off the flame, tip out the grease and place the meat back into the pot. Now, it's ok if it touches, but it should still all be in a single layer, no more. If you have more meat than will fit in the pan in a single layer, use a second pan for the rest of the meat. Add the zest, the sage, and the garlic cloves, and then enough milk to go halfway up the sides of the meat. I usually will squeeze in the juice of half a lemon to get the curdling going faster, though the oil from the zest is actually enough to curdle the milk. So, do it or not--you can't mess it up either way. Turn the heat on, cover the pot (but leave the lid ajar), and bring the milk to a boil, then immediately reduce to a gentle simmer. The milk should be just barely active, so usually this means that the burner is on the lowest possible heat. Milk has a lot of sugar in it, and it will burn super easily, so turn it down!
It will take the pork shoulder at least three hours to become tender, so pull up a good book, or take this time to make some polenta, beans, or greens. Clean your kitchen. Sort through old family photos. Organize your spice shelf. Whatever you do, don't leave the kitchen, because you're going to have to do three things for the duration of the cooking to make sure things don't go awry:
1) turn the pork pieces--as in rotate them and move them around in the pot--every fifteen minutes or so so that they don't stick and burn,
2) scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to make sure that the milk, though it will caramelize and that is really tasty, does not burn,
3) constantly be adding more milk so that the total liquid level never is less an inch and a half up the sides of the pork.
After about 30-40 minutes, the milk will start to curdle and thicken, and though it looks really gross at first (Who am I kidding? It looks pretty gross the whole time), it will taste so so so so so good. But those curds are prone to burning, so take your stirring seriously.
When the meat falls apart to the touch--this might take 3 hours, or closer to 4, then it's done. Remove the pork from the pan, and do your best to skim off some of the insane levels of fat that have rendered out of both the pork and the milk. For something like this, the easiest way to do that (short of chilling the whole thing overnight and scraping off the cold fat) is to pour all of the curd sauce into a tall, narrow container like a measuring cup, and then use a spoon or a ladle to siphon the fat off the top. Once you've gotten the fat off (or most of it), taste the sauce and adjust the salt if necessary.
Slice the pork into portions, and serve with generous amounts of the sauce. This is traditionally served with polenta, greens, or white beans. I like it with a big pile of barely blanched green beans, so that I have something really fresh to eat alongside the super comforting, really cooked pork.
I purposely wrote the recipe for 10+ portions, so you'd have leftovers. For this much of a time investment, you should get a few meals!!!
A Whole Hog Demonstration & Dinner at Soul Food Farm
The nearly two years I lived in Italy in the early oughts shaped and inspired my approach to cooking and life as much as anything. I was extremely fortunate to have several people take me under their respective wings and teach me about Italian food history, traditions, and culture, but no relationship was as meaningful as the one I developed with Dario Cecchini, who welcomed me into his shop and his family with open arms.
Dario, the charismatic butcher profiled in Bill Buford's Heat, continues to inspire me daily with his commitment to his craft, to community and to preserving Tuscan food and cultural traditions. His incredible generosity takes many forms, but none so important as the way he mentors aspiring cooks and butchers. Over the years, Dario has had a long line of students and protégés in Italy, but he's also taught and encouraged many of our own favorite local butchers here in the Bay Area to invest in this craft. One of the his earliest students, Riccardo Ricci has been with Dario since he was practically a kid. Now a seasoned butcher in his own right, he's coming to the Bay Area for a visit and a series of events.
When Chris from Avedano's and Alexis from Soul Food Farm asked me to participate in a butchery demonstration and dinner with Riccardo on the farm, I leapt at the chance. I haven't been back to Italy in far too many years, so any time Dario or one of his butchers comes to town, I track them down so we can share a meal together. This time, I get to cook with Riccardo! Inspired by the traditional Italian sagra, or outdoor feast celebrating the season's bounty, we're throwing a Sagra del Maiale in honor of the glorious, versatile pig.
As the sun sets, you'll be seated at farm tables and enjoy a family-style dinner featuring all of Dario's classic pork dishes, including tonno del Chianti, fresh garlic sausages, and of course arista in porchetta. Using produce from the farm and other nearby purveyors, I'll be doing what I love to do most--making piles and piles of salads and fresh summer vegetable dishes to pass around. I'm even trying to cajole one of my baker friends into making us some special loaves inspired by Tuscan flavors for the feast. We'll serve bright, acidic wines to keep things fresh, and when the sun gives way to stars and a waning moon we'll pass out platters of biscotti and vin santo brought over from Italy by Riccardo before sweetly bidding you goodnight.
WHO: Riccardo Ricci, Chris Arentz, John Fink, Alexis Koefoed & me
WHAT: La Sagra del Maiale: A Whole Hog Demonstration & Dinner at Soul Food Farm
WHERE: Soul Food Farm// 6046 Pleasants Valley Road// Vacaville, CA 95688
WHEN: Saturday, July 14th from 5-10pm
WHY: To have endless, delicious fun with our friend visiting from Italy, and to share it with you!
HOW MUCH: $185 per person, includes butchery demonstration, recipe booklet, five-course family-style dinner, abundant wine (tax & gratuity included)
TO RESERVE: call or email Alexis at (707) 365-1798 or email@example.com
Tickets will sell out as we are limiting this event to 30 people, so reserve soon!
When I was first learning how to cook, Chez Panisse held a contest, open to all employees, seeking a better (tastier? more clever? more original?) tomato sauce recipe (using canned tomatoes) for use through the winter months. There weren't many rules beyond this: we were to use only ingredients that were readily available in the CP kitchen (i.e. local, seasonal and organic).
Having only just started to cook, I was too intimidated to enter myself and felt like I had too little authority to even try, but it felt like pretty much everyone else, from bussers and wine runners to porters and, of course, cooks, submitted a recipe. The prize was $500 and having your name on the menu every time the sauce was featured, so people got really into it, as you might be able to imagine.
Entrants were instructed to bring in their sauces for a blind tasting on a weekday afternoon, and a team of impartial judges (a.k.a. the chefs and Alice) set about the arduous task of trying the veritable panoply of sauces. Some had seasoned their sauces with dried oregano, others fresh marjoram. Some crushed their canned tomatoes by hand while others painstakingly seeded and diced them. Others added chili flake while still yet others channeled their inner nonnas and pureed their sauces, pomorola-style. It was tomato mayhem, and in the kitchen we were all atwitter, waiting to hear who the finalists were.
At one point, Russ came back into the kitchen to get a glass of water, and I'll never forget what he said when we asked him how things were going:
"There are a lot of great entries. So many, in fact, that it's hard to narrow them down. But it's a shame that some of the particularly good recipes were made with bad olive oil."
What they couldn't understand, and understandably so, was why all of the employees wouldn't have cooked with good olive oil, especially when it was always available to us to buy at cost through the restaurant.
While some of the chefs were able to imagine cooking a sauce made with bad olive oil with better ingredients at the restaurant, Alice, he said, in particular, couldn't get past it, because her palate was so sensitive. She couldn't separate the "what is" from the "what might be."
Never before had it occurred to me that olive oil, or any oil--the cooking medium itself--would have much effect on the flavor of a dish. This was my first glimpse of understanding that not only did it have an effect, but that as the foundational ingredient, the flavor of olive oil pervades every single molecule of a dish.
So, in the same way that an onion cooked in butter tastes different than an onion cooked in olive oil, an onion cooked in good olive oil tastes different (and in this case, better) than one cooked in a lesser quality oil.
So, before considering even one of the many political/health/outside reasons for using a better olive oil in your cooking, know that the way your olive oil tastes is directly related to how your food will taste.
Choosing an olive oil can be a daunting task. Just at my local food market, there are probably four dozen different brands of extra virgin olive oil on display. Then, there are all of the virgin and pure oils. If I hadn't had the good fortune of living in Italy, where I got to familiarize myself with some of the most talented oil producers throughout the country, I'd probably have adverse reactions to olive oil shopping, traceable back to the levels of stress they'd cause in my body. I mean, virgin or extra virgin? Italy or France? Organic or not? Is that olive oil on sale any good? Why is some olive oil $30 for 750ml while another is $10 for a liter? What is going on? And how can you tell the difference?
I get it. I mean, I usually know what I'm looking for and I still get an accelerated heartbeat every time I enter that aisle at Berkeley Bowl. Sheesh.
It's why when Jen asked me to help her learn how to choose an oil, I figured there must be more folks out there wanting to know the same information, and I took the opportunity to dive headlong into answering the age-old question of how to know what olive oil to buy.
How to Choose an Olive Oil
Taste. Taste. Taste.
Taste, not price, is your best guide in choosing an olive oil. This might require a leap of faith on your part if you don't know what you're tasting for. All of those words, like fruity, pungent, spicy and bright might seem confounding if you've never considered that olive oil can taste like much of anything besides, well, oil, but it's true, a good olive oil has multiple dimensions. The only way to familiarize yourself with them is by tasting, and paying attention to what you sense. If you taste something expensive and don't like it, then it's not for you. If you find a ten dollar bottle that's delicious, then you've scored! In this way, olive oil shopping is much like wine shopping.
Before you bother with anything else, taste and trust yourself. You have to taste, and ultimately, you have to let your own taste buds be the judge, because food is alive, and ever-changing, and inconsistent, and magical, and even an olive oil that I or another cook may rant or rave about is different from bottle to bottle, batch to batch.
I will say, though, that while it's harder for me to tell you what a "good" oil might taste like, it's fairly simple for me to describe a "bad" one. There are several main reasons why I won't buy an olive oil, including: bitterness (to the point that I'm coughing or gagging), overwhelming spiciness, a "dirty" or "smelly" flavor, and rancidity. These are all deal-breakers. There's a place in my pantry for almost all other flavor-manifestations of olive oil.
Once you are comfortable with a brand and you are confident that you know what a "good" oil tastes like, then hopefully you'll feel empowered to take a risk and try a different oil, and over time you can familiarize yourself with the characteristics of different oils and different regions. I've found that coastal olives produce milder, sweeter oils (like that Ligurian one below), and oils from the Tuscan hills are peppery, bright, and powerful. But even within a region, oil can differ widely, so again, we return to the ultimate arbiter to help us judge: the palate.
Ay, there's the rub.
How can you taste an olive oil before you spend twenty bucks on a bottle?
Well, you can't. So sometimes you have to take a blind leap. Some markets might host tastings or let you try a product before purchasing. Other markets will let you return items if you're not pleased with them. And finally, by all means, before spending big bucks on a bulk tin of oil, buy a small bottle to experiment with. If you don't go through olive oil quite as quickly as I might, it might be smarter to buy it in smaller amounts anyway (or to split a larger bottle or tin with a friend or two) so that you can use up the oil before it goes rancid.
For olive oil, unfortunately, the term "organic" is practically meaningless, since international regulation of organic standards is totally irregular. Unless an olive oil is coming from an organic farmer or producer who you are already familiar with, don't let this be an indicator of whether or not to buy (though I will say that the organic Costco oil is tastier than the regular, and when buying oil from a producer of that size, I'd prefer something to nothing in terms of regulation). Instead of "organic," there are a few other things to look for on the label of a bottle of olive oil that may suggest higher quality, including:
- A harvest date. Olive oil is good for about a year--fourteen months max--before it goes rancid. If you're spending thirty bucks on a bottle of oil, make sure it's from the current press. Olives are pressed in November, sometimes December, so the current press right now is 2011. The harvest date is not the same as the "use by" or "sell by" date, so take a careful look.
- A dark green glass bottle or a stainless steel tin. Keeping olive oil out of direct sunlight, and purchasing olive oil that has been kept out of direct sunlight are of utmost importance since the light accelerates loss of nuanced flavor and leads to rancidity.
- A DOP seal for European oils or a California Olive Oil Council (COOC) seal for California Oils. A DOP is a Protected Denomination of Origin, which is a type of government-regulated quality control that actually means something. Other examples of DOP (sometimes called AOC, DOC, DOCG, etc.) foods throughout Europe that you may be familiar with are Parmigiano-Reggiano, Chianti Classico, Jamón Serrano, and Prosciutto di Parma. The California Olive Oil Council is a trade association with certified olive oil standards meant to help raise the quality of California oils on the shelves, promote producers, and protect customers.
- A specific producer name and location. Though the location can be hard to recognize if you're not a pro at reading Italian addresses and deciphering all of the insane two letter abbreviations (FI = Firenze, SI= Siena, etc.), it's worth it to try, and to at least be sure that the oil is made in a particular place in Italy (or Spain, or France). As Tom Mueller writes, "Made in Italy" is not the same thing as "Product of Italy." Most of the big olive oil brands, like Bertolli and Filippo Berio have admitted to buying olives from other countries (such as Tunisia, Greece, or Spain), importing them into Italy, and pressing the oil there only to sell it as "Made in Italy." Though there isn't anything innately wrong with olives grown in any of those countries, since the fruit is picked and then transported over such great distances, it's safe to say that it's not at its peak when being pressed into oil (and imagine the fermentation happening on the bottom of those truckloads of olives!). Most of the small olive oil producers, like Capezzana, who I visited when I lived in Italy had their own frantoios (or olive mills) on the premises, so that olives could be pressed within hours of picking. Something like only four percent of olive oil exported from Italy is a made exclusively of Italian olives, so look for the name of the producer, the location, and/or the words "Product of Italy" to ensure you're getting the real thing.
Things that aren't a necessarily indicator of quality:
- Color of the olive oil. Light oils can be delicious. Dark, green oils can be gross. And vice versa. Color, in and of iteself, doesn't matter, so don't make a decision based on it.
- Unfiltered vs. filtered. Unfiltered olive oil is simply...unfiltered. Not better, not worse, just unfiltered.
- Single-varietals vs. blends. As with wine, a blend can be truly delicious. Just because an oil is made of a single cultivar of olive doesn't make it "better" in any way, so don't fall for that. Let taste be your guide.
What to do with it after you bring it home:
- Keep your oil out of direct sunlight. And don't store it above or too close to your stove, as temperature fluctuations will negatively affect flavor and encourage oxidation, which leads to rancidity.
Glossary of terms
Extra-virgin--this is the highest quality (and usually most expensive) oil derived from olives. Extra-virgin is always made by pressing raw olives soon after they are harvested. It's low in acid, and often offers the widest range of flavors, so it's best used unadulterated, in things like salads and condiments, since heating it up will change its chemical makeup and diminish its delicate flavors.
Virgin--this is also a high-quality oil, which is produced by the same exact methods as extra virgin. The only difference is that it tests at a higher acidity level so it cannot technically be called extra virgin. Virgin oils are also good for salad dressings, mayonnaises, condiments and light cooking.
(Pure) Olive oil--When a label reads "pure olive oil," or simply "olive oil," it usually means that the bottle consists mostly of refined oil, which has been treated with heat and/or chemicals to balance out the flaws and neutralize flavors, with a small percentage of virgin or extra virgin oil added back in for flavor. It's usually pretty light in color. Since it doesn't have much going on, flavor-wise, this oil is great for browning meats for braises and making anything long-cooked. I also sometimes use it as a base for mayonnaise and then go back and add good oil to finish. It's a great, affordable, neutral cooking oil.
Extra light olive oil--Similar to pure, but without any good oil added back in for flavor. This means that this oil is totally refined and basically void of any of the characteristics that make olive oil olive oil. It's not bad, just not really anything special. Would be good for browning meats for braises or slow-roasted anything. The "extra light" doesn't denote that it has any less caloric value--it's just as fattening as regular old olive oil.
Cold pressed--the olives and oil were not heated above a certain point during processing, resulting in an oil with more integrity of flavor and nutrients.
First pressed--the oil is the product of the first press of the olives. Sometimes olives are pressed a second time, and the resultant oil is of lesser quality (a second press will usually yield "pure" or "extra light" oil).
What & Where to Buy
What I use at home:
I'm always changing things up, based on availability, curiosity, the current state of my finances, and of course whim. But the one constant is taste--I won't buy crappy olive oil. These are all great olive oils that I rotate through the kitchen. I usually have a few on hand, but for most home cooks who don't toe the line of insanity like I do, one cooking oil and one fancy oil are enough.
Take a look at these oils, and if one seems to catch your interest, familiarize yourself with its label and maybe you'll find it on the shelf of your local natural or specialty foods store. If you trust me and my taste buds, spend the money, buy the oil, and bring it home to taste and cook with.
Where to buy olive oil:
Many of these olive oil producers sell to distributors who import throughout the US, so most of these are going to be somewhat easy to find in a shop like Bi-Rite, The Pasta Shop, Dean & Deluca, or Zingermans. In the Bay Area, local grocery stores like Rainbow, Berkeley Bowl, and Monterey Market have great selections of olive oil, as does Genova Delicatessen.
Even though I've noticed that Whole Foods has a huge selection of high quality olive oils, I wouldn't buy fancy oil there unless pressed to, because I think most of those bottles just sit on the shelves for a really long time, aging and creeping ever-closer to rancidity, which is inevitable in olive oil around the 14 month mark. Since you're paying a premium for good oil, it's worth it to make sure you're buying from a retailer with quick turnover.
I have my own issues with and try not to shop at Trader Joe's because of their lack of transparency, and their behavior throughout the whole Immokalee situation (even though I suppose it's technically been resolved), but I totally get that for a lot of people it's the best or only option, or that they just plain like it. The thing is, since most everything is a house brand there, there's no way of knowing what you're getting, really, until you buy it and taste. But since things are pretty affordable there, it's an easy way to put your taste buds to the test.
Olive Oils I Use & Love
- Katz: Chef's pick is a fantastic deal and well-balanced. I usually have a bottle of this around for both cooking and salads.
- McEvoy Ranch
- Yolo Press
- O Olive Oil
San Giuliano Oils: Affordable and relatively mild, these oils have been the mainstay cooking oils in my kitchen for the past few years. I like their pure and their extra virgin, as well as the delicious Cannonau red wine vinegar. I use the neutral pure oil for browning roasts, all-purpose, and things like mayonnaise base that I then finish with better, more full-bodied oils.
- Mastri di San Basilio: I particularly like Due Sicilie and usually have a bottle of this soft-spoken, yet delicious oil on hand for salad dressings and salsas where I don't want the oil to have too much personality.
- Olio Verde: one word--delicious
- Stephen Singer Olio: This is the oil that has been at the base of CP cooking for decades, though now there is a lot of California oil in that kitchen as well. My favorites here are the San Giusto and the flagship oil.
- Badia a Coltibuono
- Tenuta di Capezzana
- Frantoio di Sommaia
- Laudemio Frescobaldi
- Tiger Brand: This is a pure olive oil I LOVE to use for cooking because it's so neutral and affordable.
Francesco de Padova: The 5 Liter tin is a STEAL! Howard Case has had a relationship with these Pugliese producers for years, and imports these oils and sells them himself, keeping costs relatively low. I really like these oils--the pure is great for cooking and the extra virgin is a wonderful all-purpose oil.
Costa dei Rosmarini: I went through a seriously obsessive phase with this olive oil in 2004 and it remains a favorite.
Siurana olive oil: This isn't a brand, but rather a DOP. Kelly brought me some Siurana olive oil recently, and it's delicious. I'm not really educated when it comes to olive oils from beyond the borders of Italy or California, so this was a really great introduction to high-quality Spanish oil. Thank you, Kelly!
- California Olive Oil Council
- 8 Tips for Choosing and Using Olive Oil by David Lebovitz
- Yolo County Olive Oils: I've heard that Yolo Press makes some excellent, affordable oil, but they are all worth tasting.
- AmorOlio: Nancy Harmon Jenkins' Olive Oil Intensive in Tuscany
- Olive Oil Source: lots of great information if you have the time to dig around
Articles & Books
- Slippery Business by Tom Mueller in the New Yorker
- Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller
- Michael Pollan uses Organic Costco Extra Virgin Olive Oil for everyday cooking at home in an interview with Emily Thelin in the Wall Street Journal (I used to really raise my nose at this, but I have to say, for everyday olive oil, it's totally fine.)
- California's Olive Oils Challenge Europe's: Julia Moskin's excellent piece on California Olive Oils in the New York Times
- The Olive Oil Secret, a pretty good document with a thorough shopping and tasting guide
- Olive Oil: From Tree to Table by Peggy Knickerbocker
i forgot to write about the befana on january 6th. the befana is one of my favorite things about italy.
she's a fabulous old woman, not exactly a witch, who rides around on a broom and brings children presents on the day of the epiphany, which is january 6th. in italy, kids don't really get presents on christmas. instead, they leave out the biggest, most worn out socks they can find on the night of the 5th, along with a glass of wine and a plate with some delicious leftovers, and hope that she'll come fill them with candies, oranges and gifts (and not lumps of coal).
because she's extremely polite, she'll sweep your floor on her way out with your broom, too.
i love flickr. i was searching through my photos for a shot of the baroni stand at mercato centrale in florence, where paola and alessandro baroni have curated their findings of the rarest, softest, freshest pecorini toscani. i couldn't find one of my own, but lo and behold, this lovely shot was just a couple of searches away. i'd recognize that handwriting anywhere.
you might be wondering why i am suddenly so concerned with cheese as to write two very long posts about it. well, i think about cheese a lot to begin with, but now that i have this ridiculous cast on my arm and it's suddenly fuh-reezing outside, only one long-sleeved garment i own has fatty sleeves big enough to go over my chubs arm--the sweatshirt i got at the old artisan cheese shop on california st. 6 years ago. it has a cute little mouse on it, and it says j'aime le fromage in curlicue cursive on the back. i never get to wear this sweatshirt, and now i can't wear anything else.
ok, back to jean d'alos: he's an affineur--a dying breed--a man who takes good handmade cheeses and makes them really special by aging them with a craftsman's touch. one of the things that sticks in my mind from the lectures he gave is his acknowledgement of everything that women have done for cheese. farmhouse cheeses--specifically the comte that he is so famous for--were invented by farmwives as a way to make milk last throughout the winter. jean's wife pascale shares a lot of his work, and together they travel through the countryside to choose cheeses to bring home to treat and age in their caves...a.k.a. the catacombs beneath bordeaux. they do magical things like rub cheeses with piment d'espelette, sauternes, saffron, juniper berries, cayenne pepper, savory, and peppercorns, wrap them with burlap cloths, and wash them repeatedly with brine during the aging process. he even ages one of the crazy/famous jose bove's cheeses.
jean d'alos and his family are so very special because they still do things the old way. they give the cheeses the care and time they need to go from good to perfect. these days, most cheeses are made in huge stainless steel factories, and the art of the affineur is considered by most to be irrelavent. in this fast-paced world, who has time to wait two years for some comte (the most popular cheese in france) when you can buy a six-month one at the store for a lot less money? i encourage everyone to stop by a real cheese shop in your town sometime, and ask for cheeses that have been aged by a real affineur, or to taste artisan versions next to their factory-made counterparts. if my boo-hooing hasn't been enough to pursuade you, you will surely be able to trust your own taste buds.
though i don't recommend actually buying cheese any way other than in person, these websites are good places to learn a bit, and all of them have corresponding brick-and-mortar shops for you to check out:
formaggio kitchen (boston)
artisanal cheese (new york)
murray's cheese shop (new york)
cowgirl creamery (sf, pt. reyes, wash. dc)
zingerman's (ann arbor, mi)
and now, my favorite italian drink has its very own write up in the new york times.
i sit here, depressed and worried about money, friends, visas, this book, becoming what i want to become.
but really there is so much more.
a man at my work, with whom i usually don't get along, has an ailing newborn.
i don't particularly like him, but i have been sure let him know that i will do anything
i can for him, to make his life and his baby's
people are struggling with living so much more desperately than i have ever
wrestled with myself.
i want to go there to see.
i want to go there to feel.
i want to go there to understand.
i will probably never understand.
but i want to try.
i have no words for this.
reading is cool.
smallworldfeeling is cool.
the bumpy, bumpy bus is not cool.
but it snowed today and that's cold.
From a Tuscan travel brochure.
Spending a holiday by Mazzocchi-Marilli's like to find the hospitality of old friends. Beside you can feel an atmosphere of thoughtlessness and light-heartedness, which only a Tuscan farm can offer.
--from the Jan. 26, 2004 New Yorker
a few days before new year's, i went to the very south of italy (a town called montalbaro, in basilicata. the godfather was filmed not far from there.) with my friend, CB, to visit her best friend and family. i was stoked to go, because i haven't really explored the south, and i wanted to see what the food and people and land were like. i knew it wouldn't be the kind of traveling i usually do, because we'd be staying with a family, but i was excited about the change. so CB sent me out to buy the bus tickets--we were going to take an overnight bus because it was faster and more direct than the train--since the station is not far from my apartment. she told me not to buy return tickets, which i thought was odd. i ALWAYS get, if not a return ticket, at least a ticket out to my next destination (unless i am traveling on the train; even then sometimes i buy a return). i'm not saying i am the king of traveling or anything, but i know this much. she swore that it's not really the most popular route and that of course there would be return tickets. ok....
so we left on the night of the 29th and got there on the 30th. the people we were staying with were extremely generous and warm, but they had many visitors. the thing i learned about rural italy that i had forgotten last year is that people are awfully provincial and closed-minded. yeesh! from the second i got there, i became known as "The Iranian" and it took these people nearly a week to learn my name. now, it would have been one thing if they had stuck to their little prejudices about me being iranian, but i have the sad disadvantage of also coming from america. so i was also "The American." most of these people have never left the countryside, let alone italy, so.....let the gross generalizations begin!!! it was really too much.
not only that, but then they found out i can cook, so they tried to get me to make them dinner one night, which i would have been happy to do. except that, the only thing that most italians are more opinionated about than food is soccer, so no one could agree on what they wanted me to make, and we all know how i feel about picky eaters. so i said, no way, i am not cooking for you people. besides the fact that they couldn't decide what they wanted, those people had a major aversion to salt. the food there was ridiculously bland (i thought it was the entire region that ate like that, but it turns out that i just got unlucky and found the only family in southern italy who doesn't use salt), and i was always adding salt to everything. they told me, if i cooked, i couldn't add salt. they said salt is bad for you. i'm no doctor, but i'd venture to say that the teaspoon or so of salt that i eat everyday is a lot less unhealthy than the pack of cigarettes each of them was smoking daily. i rebelled and refused to cook. then they thought i was offended.
i wasn't offended, i was just sick of 20 people ganging up on me and judging my every habit: you take a shower every day? you're going to go bald! you put milk in your tea? disgusting! you eat ricotta with honey? nasty! (except that's one of the most traditional dishes in rome. hello, WHERE did these people come from?) you don't blow dry your hair? you are going to DIE! you want to eat a snack? you have the weirdest eating habits IN THE UNIVERSE! it was too much, and after 5 days, i wanted to leave. plus, i was behind in my work (big surprise) and i wanted to get back and catch up.
so i told CB i wanted to leave, but that she could stay if she wanted to. she is the least independent person i know, so i knew that she couldn't imagine taking the trip home alone. but CB had been busy while we were there. busy eating. and she had eaten too much, and become sick. first constipated, and then with diarrhea. our bus was leaving at midnight, but she still had diarrhea at around 4 pm and begged to stay another day. it would have been cruel to make her leave (even though there is a bathroom on the bus), so i agreed to stay another day.
finally, i woke up on the day we were to leave, saturday. CB had been so sure that there would be tickets, and no one had mentioned buying them, so i figured it would be ok. then, around 12.30pm, CB asks the mom to ask their friend who lives by the bus station to go down and get our tickets. well, not only are they sold out for that night, but they are sold out for 10 days. i almost fainted at the idea of staying there for another 10 days, and told CB that i had to leave. i nearly threw a fit. i told her i didn't care, and that i would take this extremely slow and uncomfortable train that they were all talking about. so she called the train station, but it was closed. everything in rural italy is closed, not only on sunday, but on saturday, too. all of the ticket agencies were closed, too. and of course this train station was totally from a wile e. coyote cartoon and the only train there was the kind from the 1800s where you had to pump it to get it going, and of course there was no automated ticket machine inside where we could buy tickets. there was a ticket machine, but it still accepted lire.
i told CB that i would buy the tickets through the internet. it was actually easy enough, and i reserved seats and everything. they even sent a confirmation message to my cell phone. ta-da! i'd never reserved online before (i am a little sketched out by the italian internet. italians are totally distrustful of technology. in fact, i read in the ny times not long ago that 2 out of 3 italians don't know how to use a computer. i believe it.), so it was a little weird not having a paper ticket, but i figured it would be fine. all of the people in that house were doubtful of my success, but i knew it would be fine.
at 12.30 am we went to the train station. our reserved seats were in car 5, seats number 75 and 76. the train came rolling up to the station: there were cars 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7. but no 5!!! there was no car 5! how were we assigned to car 5 when there wasn't one? this was ridiculous!!!...
to be continued....i have to go to work....
ok, i'm back.
we freaked out about there not being a car 5, and we asked the conductor what this meant. of course, the first thing he asked was to see our tickets, and i, with a broad smile and more than a little pride, flashed my telefonino in his face, with the message with out confirmation number blazing on the screen. he was like, what the heck is this? i smirked that it was our confirmation number, and shouldn't he type it into his little machine or something? well, he was not amused, and he told me to go into the station and print out a ticket. but of course, the machine in the station was from the 1920s or before, and had no printing capabilities. he gave up, and said we'd figure it out, so he put us in the conductor's car with ANOTHER couple who had been assigned car 5, and they had bought their tickets at the station where the train originated, when the train was out on the tracks! oh, italy. oh, italy.
so we started to commiserate with this older couple, and i said something like, "this would only happen in italy." of course the man got totally offended, thinking i am all america-is-the-best or something, and i spent the next 25 minutes trying to calm him down. finally, i succeeded, and we turned off the lights and tried to go to sleep, it being 1.30 in the morning. but of course, as soon as we started to nod off, the conductor came back and asked for my confirmation number. i gave it to him. it was something like ADW2RP, and he started punching it into his little keypad: A-D-W....wait a minute, there was no W and he couldn't figure out how to enter one. first, there was no car 5, and now there was no W. oh, italy. then, he started to curse at me and said that he'll be back.
we tried to go back to sleep, but he came back an hour later and had figured out W and said that i owed him 113 euros. excuse me, no ticket costs that much, plus i had already paid 85 euros on my credit card to get that reservation. i argued with him about it for a while until we were approaching the next stop, where he said he was getting off and would pass us to his colleague.
the colleague was a lot nicer and more understanding and explained that we were on a slow train (duh!) and that they didn't have the fancy computer system to process the online tickets. ok, that's fine. but my question is this: if you can't process the tickets, then why on earth do you make it possible to book the tickets through the internet?
furthermore, he told us that he wasn't even going to enter our code in anywhere, and theoretically when we got to florence, we could get a refund. this man, an employee of trenitalia, was telling us how to rip off trenitalia. oh, italy.
i asked him if i should print out tickets once we got to rome, for the second train, but he said no, it wouldn't matter at that point. so when we got to termini, which is quite possibly the most wonderful, beautiful, best train station in the universe, we had a little coffee and toast at my favorite little bar there, and then got on to the next train. immediately, we asked the conductor where we should sit, since we didn't have tickets, and he was like, "what do you mean you don't have tickets? get off the train and go print out the tickets!" but the train was already moving out of the station, so he told us to get out of his sight and go to the other end of the train.
so we schlepped all the way to the other end and waited.
finally, this younger conductor came and asked to see our tickets. i told him, "listen buddy, we have no tickets. sit down, we have a story." so he sat down and we told him the entire story, with lots of swearing and laughing involved. he was dying, and he let us slide, thankfully.
when we finally got to the station, we went to the ticket booth, printed out the tickets, and got them refunded. but i still can't figure out if it was worth it.
oh, yes, i almost forgot: pizza party usa! via helenjane