Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Zen of Bread Baking – Yesterday Morning: I check in for a month’s worth of training in Classic European Breads at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. I am issued my uniform, apron and textbook, and meet my fellow students for the next four weeks. “A” is a baker from a cooperative in Mississippi. She has journeyed north on a fact finding mission as the co-op looks to expand their variety of fresh baked breads. She has long braids and a sunny disposition. “E” is a former computer consultant from Brooklyn. He is looking to gain some new skills and perhaps open a restaurant in the future. I’m a culinary enthusiast and, at the moment, a roving adventurer on leave from my day job. Consider us the Three Musketeers of the bread baking world. Although, perhaps not as swashbuckling.

“Chef” is an accomplished baker and educator, tranquil, whip smart, and a database of information on the techniques, ingredients, history and technology attached to bread. She walks us through the 13 steps of bread baking which are far more complex than most peoples’ typical, “go to store, purchase bread, and open twist tie.” It’s a little overwhelming, but the aroma of warm yeast and flour in the baking studio is intoxicating.

Then, she breaks the news to us. In addition to learning to bake French, German and Middle European breads, our “job” is to prepare the bread served at the school restaurant each day for lunch and dinner. I look at Chef skeptically.

“Are you sure we’ll be able to produce something edible?’ I ask.

Almost immediately, we dive head first into the rhythms of a professional bakery. We learn about yeast, flours and fermenting methods. We fold, we divide and we pre-shape. We take the dough’s temperature. We practice the motions of shaping bread dough, which is something like yoga with a purpose. And, perhaps most daunting of all – for anyone who grew up in the American school system – we learn how to measure ingredients on a balance scale with counter weights using the metric system.

Chef has zeroed in on the Zen of bread baking. She radiates calm as she manipulates unruly dough into perfectly shaped baguette loaves. She’s like a dancer, a sculptor and a chiropractor all rolled into one. I, on the other hand, am stilted, stiff, stressed out by the whole thing, and a little worried about those patrons who are probably scrutinizing the bread basket in the restaurant.

Oh ye of little faith. It’s a little like the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. In the course of several hours, we manage to shape, bake and score nearly one hundred loaves. We even roll out bagel dough for use in a subsequent class. Surprisingly, the end results all look pretty respectable.

I stumble out of the studio at about 3 in the afternoon, covered with a thin dusting of King Arthur Flour.

Today: I wake up realizing that my hands are doing this little pantomime of shaping a baguette. I’m wondering if I will be able to look at another baguette, and in fact, we’ll be making three versions of them, using different methods of fermentation.

I’m starting to learn my way around the baking studio and get familiar with the tools and ingredients. The school stocks many varieties of flour, including white, whole wheat, rye and others. Chef walks us through the physical composition of the wheat berry and the protein content of various flours. Bread dough has a higher protein content, which develops better structure in the final loaf.

We weigh out ingredients for three different baguettes and dump the ingredients into massive mixers that look like computerized witches cauldrons. Large batches of dough are combined and left to rest.

Moving on to bagels, we first boil the doughnut shaped beauties and then coat them in poppy seeds, sesame seeds or salt. They are popped into the oven for a quick bake before we return to the baguette dough and start to shape. E seems to handle the dough a little too roughly, but he’s got four kids, so that’s understandable. A is finding that mental connection to the process. I notice that she’s even closing her eyes as she rhythmically massages each baguette into a long serpentine shape. I’m still finding the volume and time pressures a bit daunting, and feel a little like Lucy Ricardo in the chocolate factory.

We continue to practice our scoring, and quickly learn that a baker must have cut throat instincts. A baguette requires five deep slashes with a razor to allow the loaf to bake evenly and blossom into that distinctive diamond pattern on top.

Filling the oven is an intensely physical task, as we position the loaves on large metal racks with rolling canvas that slide the bread into the hot oven.

By late afternoon, we are sitting around the bench to analyze and taste our finished loaves. We finger the crust and smell the aroma of the inner crumb. Much like sampling wine, we taste the loaves and compare the different flavors from mild to tart to nutty to slightly sour. It’s all pretty gratifying and although I’m exhausted, I think I’m starting to find that elusive connection to the “bread zone.”

Back at home, I compose a dinner sandwich of ham, Danish blue cheese and apple, captured within a hearty slice of my crisp, honey gold baguette.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, September 22, 2006

Palazzo Pitti and Pecorino

It is my final day in Florence, and I venture to the district known as Oltrarno, which means “across Arno.” This region on the south side of the riverbank was once considered the low rent neighborhood until the Medici Grand Dukes moved here in 1550.

Their base of operation became the Palazzo Pitti, a sprawling edifice just a short walk beyond the Ponte Vecchio. It is both a palatial royal residence and a gallery that houses the Medici collections, and I spend the morning admiring works of art created by Titian, Lippi, Botticelli, Rubens and Raphael.

Behind the Palazzo Pitti is the Boboli Gardens, which the Medici family first cultivated, and is now a rambling historic garden. There are elegant fountains, Roman statues, cypress trees, citrus trees, exotic grottos and song birds, which provide a welcomed respite from the automobiles and motor bikes of central Florence.

Shortly after 5:00 p.m. I find myself, quite by accident, in front of Cantinetta dei Verrazzano, via Taolini, where Massimo bought me the Tuscan bread on Thursday. I notice there is a wine bar attached to the bakery that wasn’t open yesterday morning. I recall Massimo telling me that the bakery is owned by Castello di Verrazzano, a winery in Chianti. It seems like providence to have arrived there, so I step inside.

An affable waiter with glasses, wearing a maroon bow tie and apron, welcomes and seats me. It is a long narrow room with a small outdoor café that opens onto the cobblestone street. The tables have white marble tops and glass cabinets cover one wall. Inside are all types of dusty, aged wine bottles from Castello di Verrazzano. There is the head of a wild boar hanging on the wall and what I suspect is wild boar prosciutto curing behind the meat counter.

The waiter brings me a glass of Sassello, a vibrant ruby red wine made from the Sangiovese grape. It is lush and aromatic with a deep essence of chocolate. For the accompaniment, he presents slices of Pecorino cheese on fresh bread. He brings a large rectangular honeycomb to the table and artfully scoops crystalline amber honey on top of the cheese. He shaves orange zest across the honey, and I am mesmerized as I watch the citrus oils mist over the creation. He finishes with a sprinkling of pepper.

The sweetness of the orange and fresh honey and the tartness of the cheese melt into the chocolate flavors of the wine. It is simplicity and perfection, and a most appropriate finale to my exploration of Italian cuisine in Florence.

Buona sera, Firenze!

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Gastronomic Walking Tour of Florence

The Cappella dei Principi is the mausoleum for the Medici family of Florence. Much of it is now supported with scaffolding, because the polished blue, green and gold marble had begun to fall from the walls. I accept the potential risk of a head injury and make a morning visit to the site, which is regal even with the scaffolding. Again, Florence’s finest Michelangelo is present with several sculptures that decorate the stone caskets of the family.

At 10:00 a.m., I am back at Apicius, the Culinary Institute of Florence, and meet Massimo Coppetti, my guide for a gastronomic walking tour of the city. Among other things, Massimo is the wine expert at the institute. He is about my height, with dark hair and an olive complexion. He was born in Florence some 40 years ago and for a time operated several restaurants before devoting himself full-time to culinary teaching. He learned to cook out of necessity, because his mother worked as an elementary school teacher.

We head out onto Guelfa, and Massimo starts with a brief overview of the Italian kitchen, reminding me that the cuisine is comprised of three distinct regions, North, Central and South and the Islands. He explains that each of these regions was also influenced by the ingredients of the area, the weather of the region and the countries closest to them, resulting in a number of distinct dishes and variations.

We make a brief stop at Mercato Centrale, the major food market of Florence, where I sample three regions of olive oil all noticeably different in flavor. I taste different cheeses, and we pause at the tripe vendor where Massimo outlines the different selections of Tuscan tripe and entrails that are sometimes served in panini. I take a pass on the tripe.

Next, we head towards the historic center of the city, and Massimo discusses how coffee and wine are extremely important elements of the Italian culture. We visit Caffe Giacosa where shiny attractive people are lined up at the bar to order coffee. Massimo and I order Completo Marocchino, or Moroccan coffee, made with chocolate syrup and served in a shapely glass tumbler (I learn that Italians are loathe to drink coffee out of a paper cup). Massimo explains that coffee and wine are similar in that you need to taste them for their distinctive flavors and essences.

In the different establishments and on the street Massimo sees different people he knows and greets them warmly. As we walk, he talks about how important it is to preserve the heritage of the Italian kitchen. At times, he wishes the country would provide more support. He sees himself as a culinary ambassador as he travels to different countries promoting the work of Apicius.

The next stop is Cantinetta dei Varrazzano where I bite into a large slice of salt-less Tuscan bread called Schiacciata, but known as Focaccia in other parts. It is dimpled, golden and tangy. In several shops he points to a seasonal variety of Tuscan bread studded with wine grapes and only available during the autumn harvest.

We continue along the streets of Florence and Massimo tells me how much he enjoys cooking with his wife. “It’s good for the marriage,” he says.

We visit a wine store where he outlines the four appellations established in Italy and explains the origin of super Tuscan wine. Then, he takes me to an establishment close to his heart, Procacci, established in 1885. It is all polished wood, marble floors and charming café tables. Procacci is a Florence-style delicatessen famous for its aperitivo – a glass of prosecco and a finger sandwich filled with truffle cream. Massimo orders me semi-dry bubbly prosecco which tastes of peach and the finger sandwich which he says is a secret recipe. He then tells me that he had his first aperitivo at age 15 with his father at Procacci. “I love this place,” he says.

The bell tower of the Duomo is heralding the noon hour as we approach our final destination, Gelateria Grom. There, he buys me three different kinds of gelato in a cup – fig, because it is in season, pistachio and something packed with bits of chocolate and biscuit, which is probably the Italian version of cookies and cream, but tastes far superior.

In two hours, he has done his work as an ambassador, and must hurry to an afternoon class. I am richer for it. We shake hands, and Massimo vanishes into the crowd of tourists.

In the afternoon, I cross the Arno River via the Ponte Vecchio and hike high up into the hills for expansive views of the old city wall and the domes and bell towers of Florence. I visit San Miniato al Monte, a Romanesque church build in 1018 that is reached by climbing hundreds of stone steps. It is dark, cool, and silent, and the crypt beneath the altar has a mysterious, age-old ambiance.

Returning to the city, I stop at the Museo di Storia della Scienza, where Galileo’s telescopes are kept, and have an early supper at Rititrare on Piazza della Signoria of ravioli stuffed with spinach and a dessert called a Fedora which is a bit like a chocolate beret filled with whipped cream.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Renaissance Pasta Chef

It is dark inside Santa Trinita as Florence begins another day. Only small votive candles illuminate the small chapels and frescos that grace the walls of the 11th century abbey. Outside, I can hear the buzz of motorbikes as the morning paces accelerates. But, inside Santa Trinita, I am blessed with a few moments of quiet reflection.

Later, I return to Apicius, the Culinary Institute of Florence for a class on the art of pasta making. Chef Roberto is back as my instructor and we get right down to the business of a bevy of pastas, Tagliatelle, Gnochhi di Patate, and Ravioli di Ricotta e Spinaci.

Once again, Roberto moves like a soccer player through the kitchen, as he sprinkles the lesson with food history anecdotes. I learn that pasta originated in the region of Emilia-Romagna and the traditional tomato meat sauce that now has many variations was created in Bologna and is the Sauce Bolognese.

The preparation of the sauce prompts a brief chopping competition. The base of any Italian sauce is carrot, onion, celery and olive oil. I prepare what looks to be a reasonably fine dice of the vegetables. Roberto then chops his vegetables twice as fine. I am appropriately humbled, but he explains that the vegetable base is now the same size and consistency as the ground pork and beef used in the sauce and it will cook more evenly.

We start the sauce to simmer and Roberto adds a sprig of rosemary. We measure out durum wheat flour – which has a sandy texture – into a bowl, add two eggs and begin to assemble the first pasta dough. Roberto tells me the rule of thumb for pasta is 1 egg for every 100 grams of flour. That’s all it takes – the rest is in the handling of the dough. We take turns kneading the dough gently, so as not to overwork it, and I am told to mix with only one hand. Soon, the dough is golden yellow and springy to the touch.

After the dough takes a brief rest in the refrigerator, we set up a pasta roller with a hand crank which clamps to the side of the marble counter. He teaches me how to roll the pasta sheet through the machine, draping the long end over the back of my left hand as I feed it through the rollers to get the desired thinness. It’s a bit like handling the old rolls of music for player pianos. Once the pasta is paper thin, I feed it into the blades and gather long, lovely stands of tagliatelle out the other end.

The stove burners are temperamental and Roberto is annoyed as nothing is heating properly. Still he manages to boil gold potatoes for the gnocchi, and then puts them in a low heat oven to extract as much moisture as possible. He explains that moisture will require more flour, and that would make the gnocchi tougher.

In between preparing bright green pesto sauce, he quickly demonstrates techniques for making little “ear shaped” pasta from a dough that consists only of flour and water. Using two fingers of his left hand to apply even pressure against a knife, he sweeps the knife over a tab of pasta dough and curls the circular shape over his thumb to get the distinctive ear shape. We roll out even thinner sheets of pasta for ravioli and space out dollops of ricotta and spinach along the sheet, blanketing the filling with a second pasta sheet to create the little pillows. Gnocchi dough is rolled into long ropes and cut into small, even rectangles.

Roberto is clearly passionate about pasta. The exercise seems to invigorate him. “I hope you’re going to make this at home, and not just forget about it after this class,” he says.

In the final assembly, he teaches me a trick to assure perfectly cooked pasta that takes on the flavor of the sauce. Rather than simply dumping hot sauce onto cooked pasta, he cooks the pasta partially, and then adds it to the simmering sauce with a bit of the pasta water. As the water boils off, the sauce thickens, and the pasta continues to cook. He assures me it will be perfectly done.

The table is set and the wine is poured. The ravioli is dressed in a delicate butter and sage sauce, the gnocchi infused with emerald green pesto, and the tagliatelle folded into sharp, meaty Bolognese sauce. The pasta, as promised, is perfectly cooked and the texture is firm but tender. The gnocchi is as light as a cloud. “You made this,” Roberto reminds me.

As I prepare to leave, Roberto again makes an appeal that I continue to practice my pasta. “Don’t let me down!” he orders.

Not to worry, Roberto. Pasta is at the top of my list.

In the afternoon, I seek out another classic – Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia. No matter how many times you have seen a photo, it is no preparation for the real thing. The statue of the biblical hero stands 17 feet tall and is awe inspiring. A masterpiece, indeed.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Cuisine of Florence and Tuscany

The heavy wooden door to the Dominican monastery San Marco opens at precisely 8:15 a.m. Founded in the 13th century, the Friars’ dormitories, or cell rooms, catapult me centuries into the past, far away from the clatter of modern day Florence. Each cell has a simple arched wooden door, a tiny window overlooking the cloister and a radiant fresco by Fra Angelico, depicting an event in the life of Christ. In all, there are 43 cells, each a rare gem of ecclesiastic art.

By 10 a.m., I arrive at Apicius (http://www.apicius.it/) for my class on the cuisine of Florence and Tuscany, and I meet my chef instructor Simone Riani. Simone is from Florence, and he began cooking as an apprentice at age 15. Today he is a chef at a restaurant near Palazzo Pitti and an instructor at the school. I will discover he is a modern Italian chef with a deep respect for tradition. Simone’s is less fluent in English, but we manage to communicate quite well, and he has a patient approach to teaching. He leads me back to the same galley kitchen where I worked on Monday and dons a tall paper toque.

We start preparation for dessert, Zuppa Inglese, translated as English Trifle, but it is different from the sherry and custard dessert I’ve prepared in the past. We mix a pastry cream on the stove, infused with vanilla bean, and soak crisp Italian biscuits in a clear cherry liqueur and Alchermes, a red liqueur with the aroma of nutmeg and cinnamon. The lady fingers are placed in the bottom of the serving dish and covered with the pastry cream, which is then sprinkled with shaved chocolate and chilled. Simone explains that Alchermes is a very old Italian liqueur that grandfathers would often drink at the end of a meal with espresso.

Pollo Fritto alla Fiorentina is actually fried chicken tenders, Florentine style, which means that sliced chicken breasts are marinated in fresh lemon juice, garlic and the best extra virgin olive oil. Simone tells me that salt, pepper and olive oil are the key ingredients in the Tuscan kitchen. In November, when the new olive oil is available, he says the food is soaked in it.

We assemble Minestra di Farro, which is a bean soup made with Farro wheat. This is a very old grain grown and used in Tuscan dishes. The grains plump fat as they are simmered with pinto beans, and the broth is scented with garlic, onion and sage.

Finally, we bread and deep fry the chicken, and assemble Fettunta o Bruschetta with bright summer tomatoes and basil, which Simone advises should be torn to avoid discoloring. Once again, the ingredients are seasoned with salt, pepper and an abundance of olive oil.

As we prepare to eat, Simone tells me there is a bit of a rivalry between French and Italian chefs. He says some Italians take offense that the French claim to have developed the recipes for béchamel sauce and onion soup when both actually originated in Italy. I decide to stay neutral on the issue. He explains his commitment to seasonal cooking, and how important he believes it is to cook the types of food that would logically be available in each season.

During the meal, Simone shows me a recently released cookbook that he and another chef at the school have collaborated on. The book is titled Innovations: New Appetites in the Tuscan Kitchen. It offers a series of trios – the traditional Tuscan recipe followed by his and his colleague’s modern variations on the classics. The photos are stunning, and the concept intrigues me, so I purchase a copy and ask Simone to inscribe it, which he does in Italian. I look forward to taking Simone’s new culinary interpretations back to my kitchen.

In the afternoon, Florence is jammed with tourists, professionals zipping through the streets on motor bikes, and shoppers crowding the high fashion shops. I squeeze into the Baptistry at Piazza di San Gionanni to admire the gold mosaic ceiling, and visit Orsanmichele, a small chapel that was once a grain market and now honors the 14 mercantile guilds of Florence. Winding through the narrow back streets of the eastern part of the city, I stop at Casa di Dante, a restored 13th century tower house which tradition says was the home of the poet Dante, author of The Divine Comedy.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 18, 2006

Apicius: The Culinary Institute of Florence

The entrance to Apicius, via Guelfa 85 in Florence, is slightly recessed from the street. I check in ahead of schedule and I am issued a pack of recipes for my classes and an apron with the name of the institution and a crown of fruits and vegetables printed across the top.

Apicius was an ancient Roman chef and the Culinary Institute of Florence is dedicated to his tradition. The décor is soft colors, light sandstone brick walls and modern modular seating. I am introduced to Roberto, my chef instructor who leads me to a bright galley kitchen that opens up onto a small patio. Our subject is Regional Italian Cuisine and we will be covering dishes from Milan, Lombardia, Rome and Sicily. I quickly learn that Roberto was born in Australia, but his parents were both from Sicily. He looks a bit like a pirate, with bearded stubble, hair in a pony tail and chef’s hat slung back over his head. He is friendly, athletic and full of information.

We begin by preparing a beef stock to use with several of the dishes. I dice the onions too small and they brown too quickly. Roberto is quick to remind me that vegetables should be cut evenly to cook evenly.

While the stock is simmering, we turn to Crostini di Polenta. Roberto teaches me different ways to flavor the yellow grain which will serve as the base for our crostini appetizer. Along the way, he peppers the conversation with Italian food lore. In “the old days,” polenta was used as the base for many savory meat dishes because it was portable, and easily cooked with water. It comes from the Northern regions like Milan that grow maize, while dishes like risotto became prevalent in regions that were favorable to rice. I clean chubby porcini mushrooms and learn to cut cap and stem lengthwise with the grain so they will not disintegrate. We peel tomatoes and sauté them with the mushrooms and olive oil for a topping for the polenta. The corn mash is pressed into a loaf pan and left to cool.

Saltimbocca in Roman Style is tender veal pounded thin, topped with fresh sage and layered with prosciutto. It is assembled quickly and put in the refrigerator for final preparation. Roberto has spent years working in professional kitchens and offers advice on ingredient preparation and timing the elements of a meal in phases, to assure final presentation of hot food.

Roberto simmers onions, oil and just a touch of wine for a saffron risotto. I notice that he’s not vigorously stirring the broth as I’ve always assumed one should do. In fact, he’s just letting it simmer off to the side, and explains that after the initial combination of ingredients, it is better to let risotto simmer gently so as not to release too much starch from the rice. He promises me it will be creamier, and that I’ll notice the difference.

Cannoli Siciliani is a southern Italian confection. We mix together dough that is moistened with Marsala wine and lard. It doesn’t quite hold together at first, but after a bit of rhythmic kneading from Roberto, it becomes smooth and pliable. I roll the dough into thin disks that are wrapped around metal tubes and dropped into hot oil. We remove the metal forms. For the filling, ricotta cheese is whisked together with shaved chocolate, candied orange peel, crushed pistachio nuts and just a hint of cinnamon. I pipe the filling into the golden pastry tunnels which now look remarkably like what I’ve seen in the top Italian bakeries.

For the final steps, the veal is sautéed briefly in oil and wine. The polenta is sliced into rectangles and deep fried in oil until it is bronze and crisp. We top the rectangles with the mushrooms and tomatoes and eat the crostini as the rest of the meal is completed. The taste is like the sun caressing the earth.

The food is plated and we sit down to eat in the dining area with a glass of red wine. The salt and sage of the veal indeed pops on the tongue, which is the translation for the name of the recipe. The risotto is creamy gold, you can taste the layers of cheese, wine and broth, and each tender pearl of rice is evident on the palate. The cannoli completes our cook’s tour of Italy – crisp pastry complements cheese and cinnamon for a sweet Sicilian holiday.

The meal is “buono” but I need exercise after such a feast. For the afternoon, I visit San Lorenzo, which was the parish church of the Medici family, Santa Maria Novella, with its mysterious Green Cloister painted with ancient biblical frescos, and Palazzo Medici Riccardi, the flamboyant palace home of the Medici for 100 years.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Venus on the Half-Shell and Pizza at Ponte Vecchio

I’m standing in the Piazza Della Signoria at 9:00 a.m. when the doors to the Pallazzo Vechhio swing open. This is the “Old Palace” built in 1322 which still serves as Florence’s town hall. It looks like a small fortress on the outside, but inside are palatial rooms decorated in grand style for Duke Cosimo I.

After that, it is a short walk to the Uffizi which was originally built as a suite of offices for Duke Cosimo’s staff. The Medici family turned the Uffizi into an art gallery, and it is now one of the oldest art museums in the world. People line up at the Uffizi like they’re selling tickets for a Beatles reunion. It just proves art appreciation is not dead. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you’ve got the greatest Renaissance art collection in the world. Fortunately, I’ve shelled out the extra cash for an advanced ticket, and the speed of entry is worth the price of admission.

I check out the gallery maps and make tracks to the Botticelli exhibit hall. I’ve probably had a crush on Botticelli’s “Venus” since high school art history class, and there she is, big as life in all her flowing golden hair and naked splendor. Here in Italy, the Roman Goddess of Love is an icon, and her face even graces the 10 cent Euro coin. If I were in charge, I would have given her the more prestigious 2 Euro coin. Botticelli’s colors are brilliant, even after more than 500 years, and the sweet-faced Venus looks serene as she is whisked across the Aegean Sea on an open clam shell by the winds, and sent into the arms of waiting nymphs.

Once you’re inside the gate, one can, and should, spend hours exploring the Uffizi. I emerge in late afternoon and head towards the Ponte Vechhio or Old Bridge that crosses the Arno River. It is the oldest bridge in Florence, built in 1345. Once it was home to goldsmiths and now is the place of business for jewelry dealers. The bridge is crowded with tourists seeking bargains, but I’m in search of an early dinner. I settle on “Golden View Open Bar Ristorante.” (http://www.goldenviewopenbar.com/) True, the name is hardly authentic Italian, but the dining room riverside view of the Ponte Vechhio is unmatched. Even as rain pours down, the mustard colored medieval workshops clustered along the bridge are radiant.

I order Chianti and Pizza Fiorentino which is adorned with mushrooms, proscuitto and Tuscan salami. The crust is thin and crisp, and the earthy mushrooms and salty ham do a bit of a Tuscan love dance on my palate. I conclude the meal with a Calzone Goloso, which I’m certain is dedicated to the Goddess of Love. It is a pastry calzone, stuffed with mascarpone cheese, covered in chocolate Grenache and sprinkled with pine nuts. The waiter gives me an after-dinner cordial on the house, a potent golden Limoncello, perhaps as a tribute to the goldsmiths of the Ponte Vecchio.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Escapade in Florence

Day One in Florence is full of flavor – medieval prisons, Renaissance masters, domed cathedrals, sheltered cloisters, rustic pasta and the best ice cream in Italy.

Using my most reliable form of transportation, I set out on foot for the Bargello, built in 1255 as the town hall for Florence. In the 16th century, it became a prison, and some notorious Florentine criminals were executed in the court yard. Today, it’s been handed over to the arts and is home to a collection of Renaissance sculpture, where there are a number of pieces by Michelangelo and Donatello. There’s an outdoor sculpture garden of classic figures that makes an interesting contrast to the infamy of the court yard.

Next, I head to Bar Vivoli on Via Isola delle Stinche to investigate the rumor that one can get the best ice cream there, not only in Italy, but the world. Is it hyperbole? Is it story perpetrated by the proprietor? There is, in fact, some truth to the tale. You might almost miss Vivoli if you’re not looking for it. There is a small neon sign above the door, and inside it has the trappings of a traditional ice cream parlor like wooden paneling and marble countertops. But, behind the glass freezer cases, Vivoli does keep a Renaissance treasure. A number of tourists have ducked in to avoid a few raindrops and are placing orders. There are several rows of hotel pans hand packed with deep chocolate tones, and pink, yellow and green varieties. I notice that there is not a single ice crystal marring the velvety mounds. I select Crema gelato for 2.5 Euros which I learn is Vivoli’s most-requested flavor. I let the first spoonful dissolve on my tongue. It is cold, smooth and luxurious, with strong flavors of pure cream and fresh eggs. I make a resolution to return each day during my visit to sample a different flavor.

My next stop is the Gothic church Santa Croce, where one can find the tombs of Galileo and Michelangelo. There are two quiet cloisters and some interesting frescos. Since I’m not on my usual exercise routine, I then decide to climb the 463 steps to the top of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral, or Duomo, of Florence. It is the tallest building in Florence, and the journey up is a work out. The reward is expansive views of the surrounding city and the Tuscan hills beyond.

I visit the cathedral museum. All of the key sculptures that once adorned the outside of the building are now housed here to protect them from the elements. The actual cathedral now has copies. I gaze at the Evangelists, The Virgin Mary and other Biblical luminaries who stare back at me with a slight look of detachment. There is also Michelangelo’s Pieta, which he actually intended for his tombstone, and used his self-portrait for the face of Nichodemas.

It is now dinnertime, the rain is constant and I am ravenous. Since it has been a sculpture day, I take a seat at a restaurant called Le Botteghe di Donatello, and order a serving of Tuscan Bread Soup and Spaghetti with Fresh Lobster. The soup is a thick, hearty stew of soaked bread, flavored with beans and vegetables. The pasta is brought to the table on a large platter, and there are actually pieces of whole lobster – in the crimson shell – scattered over the mound of spaghetti. There is a chucky tomato sauce which is seasoned with olive oil, garlic and red pepper, and it is a dramatic contrast to the sweet lobster meat. It looks like a challenge, but I manage to finish each strand of spaghetti and extract every piece of succulent lobster flesh from those shells.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

The Food of La Varenne

Thursday, September 15, 2006: We are assembled in the kitchen at La Varenne for our final master class with Anne Willan. We watch transfixed as Chef Randall simmers half-cut apples in butter and sugar until they are the color of mahogany for Tart Tartin, the French upside down apple cake. With elegant, precise motions, Ann demonstrates the preparation of the classic French pastry dough to top, or “bottom” the Tart Tartin – pate brise.

We divide into teams to prepare the lunch menu and several of us take on the individual spinach soufflés. We chopped spinach and onion extremely fine and whip egg whites into snowy, stiff peaks in enormous copper bowls using whisks with handles as long as flag polls. We fold the eggs whites into the spinach mixture, creating a billowy light-emerald froth. We watch the individual soufflés puff high in the oven, developing that distinctive stovepipe shape.

Over lunch, Anne mentions that the soufflés taste “just the way they’re supposed to.” It is high praise, indeed, for a group of aspiring gourmands. As we linger over lunch, she tells us stories of the classic French chefs – La Varenne, who created the great French cookbook, the famous Escoffier, who named his signature dishes after celebrities and Julia Child’s misadventures on live TV.

In the evening, we meet in the salon at 7:00 for our final toast and are each given a diploma – the Certificat Culinaire. Shortly thereafter we depart for nearby Joigny for dinner at the three-star restaurant La Cote St. Jacques. The meal is a supreme theatrical production, with exquisite crystal, one-of-a-kind china, more service staff than I can count, and about a dozen different food masterpieces from the tiny to the decadent. The standouts include a dark black pudding – sliced in medallions over mashed potatoes and apples – that is as delicate as a mousse, escargot with woody chanterelle mushrooms, tiny gnocchi and parsley cream, and a Burgundy chicken, cooked in a crock wrapped in pastry dough to seal in the moisture and flavor. Once cooked, the chicken is dressed with petite zucchini, potatoes and carrots cut the size of small pearls and a light champagne cream sauce. It is exquisite in its simplicity.

It has been an extraordinary week in Burgundy, learning from a culinary legend, eating fine food and cooking and dining with a memorable cast of characters. It is hard to leave the French countryside, but Florence beckons.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

The Soul of Chablis

Wednesday, September 13, 2006: Forget anything you think you know about the generic term “Chablis.” The real story is an age-old tale of a product that springs from the Earth.

We are standing with our guide in a Grand Cru Chardonnay vineyard on the side of a hill that faces the small village of Chablis in France. There are only 2,600 residents in Chablis, but they are caretakers of an ancient tradition. The vineyards surround the village. While one might find a grand chateau at the center of a vineyard in Bordeaux, here the village and the farmers are at the heart of wine making in Burgundy.

The carefully-trimmed Grand Cru Chardonnay grape vines run sharply up the slope in a slight diagonal pattern. I see a patchwork of shades of luminous green in the mid-morning sun as my eyes follow the layers of hills and valleys. Chablis Grand Cru is a strictly controlled appellation and the grapes produced in this small area are considered some of the best in the world. There are only seven Grand Cru areas that produce grapes of this caliber.

The Grand Cru grapes cling close to the hill, where they extract their essence. Here in Chablis, the vines are grown in dense plots on rocky, challenging terrain. There is chalky, white gravel and fossils in the soil as it was once an ocean bed. Our shoes are dusted with white pigment. The vines are clipped low regularly, and the grapes hang close to the soil. The vintners intentionally stress the vines, forcing all the energy of the plant into the grape.

The wine is a product of its environment. The grapes absorb the essence of the earth, the sun and the weather. The flavor of minerals in the soil and the sweetness of the sun are concentrated in the small gem-like grapes. There is minimal aging in barrels. Most of the work of flavor development happens on the vine during the growing season. No two vintages are alike, as the character of any harvest is wholly dependent on the weather of the growing season.

Back in town at the winery, we taste 2005 Chardonnay Chablis from the tank and use a long glass tube called a “wine thief” to extract wine directly from the barrel. There are wonderful flavors of citrus, sunshine, honey and mysterious mineral sensations signaling the origin of this classic French wine.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Croissants and Baguettes

Tuesday, September 12, 2006: It is quite warm for mid-September in Burgundy, but we are squeezed into a small, ramshackle and stifling hot room which houses the 17th century brick oven at Chateau du Fey. The oven fire was started this morning and is now well over 400 degrees.

Monsieur C is a spry and amusing young French gentleman, who is both a Master Boulanger and a Master Artisan Patissier. He is wearing a bright white baker’s coat and an enthusiastic smile. He begins our session by demonstrating the art of folding croissant dough and shaping it into the traditional spiral pattern. We learn that some boulangeries use margarine for croissants, which is thought by some to offer a lighter density. Croissants made with butter are rolled straight, and those made with margarine are formed into moon-shaped crescents.

His nimble fingers work quickly to roll the cushiony dough. It is a speed gained from experience. He typically starts work at 2:00 a.m. and prepares five hundred croissants a day in a nine-door oven on his premise in a nearby village. As Monsieur C works, orange embers glow inside the brick oven, and we feel a blast of oppressive heat each time he lifts the latch on the metal door.

Monsieur C explains that bread actually requires the simplest of ingredients. One needs only four items – flour, yeast, salt and water. Yet the results can be deliciously complex. He specializes in special dark breads and country loaves. We are invited to roll croissants and pains au chocolat, and to shape and slice hatch marks in baguettes. He sends batch after batch into the oven arranged on a craggy wooden baking paddle with a long handle that keeps him a safe distance from the heat. He teaches us to knock on the bread and listen for the correct sound to assess if the loaf is fully baked.

We return to the main house at the conclusion of the demonstration. The students of La Varenne bring a wicker basket layered with hearty multi-grain loaves, baguettes, croissants and pains au chocolat to the entry hall of the chateau where we sample the results.

I tear a piece off the end of a puffy croissant. The crust is a lustrous gold, and the inner spirals are sunny yellow. There is just a seductive hint of smoky wood flavor that melds with the overwhelming taste of warm melted butter as the tender flakes dissolve in my mouth. And, I suspect that I can taste a bit of Monsieur C’s joie de vivre, as well.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Cooking at La Varenne, Burgundy

Monday Afternoon, September 11, 2006: By 4:00 p.m we are assembled in the kitchen of La Varenne to begin a master class with Anne Willan. We are each covered with a white La Varenne smock apron. For me, this is akin to working with culinary royalty and it is mesmerizing to watch Anne and her colleague chef Randall demonstrate a variety of French dishes from the Burgundy valley. As they work with different tools and demonstrate preparation of each dish, they are a bit like the maestro conducting a symphony.

Anne and Randall walk us through an historic Michelin map developed by Monsieur Curnonsky, known as the “Prince des Gastronomes.” The diagram depicts the location all of the star restaurants and classic dishes found across the country of France in black type. The cluster of type in Burgundy is dark black. Why is Burgundy so famous for food? Anne says it is the ingredients, all of which have strict requirements for production. Chef Randall points out that Burgundy is known for the Holy Trinity of bread, wine and cheese, which really does explain why French food can be a religious experience.

After demonstrating several techniques, Anne withdraws and we are assembled into teams to prepare the evening meal. My partner from Canada and I agree to prepare the main dish. We walk to the garden with Chef Randall and pluck long, sun-drenched green and purple sage leaves from the herb garden. Shortly, I am pounding escallops of veal with a huge, scarred kitchen mallet that looks like it belonged to the Norse gods. Above the entryway to the kitchen, there is a color photograph of Anne, a French chef from the La Varenne professional school and Julia Child clustered around the same counter where we are working. They appear to be smiling down on us.

The final dishes are assembled for presentation and inspection. Ann provides pointers on proper use of plates and color – yellow plates are good for fish, incidentally, and decorative plates can detract – and how to arrange the food to be pleasing to the eye. The class is given a round of bubbly aperitifs and we adjourn to the dining room to enjoy our meal. The tender escallops of veal make for a rustic dish, and the taste of sage infuses the meat. The staff pours a smooth vintage of red Bordeaux with wonderfully intense flavors of mineral and earth, perfect for our French country dinner.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Market Day In Sens

Monday Morning, September 11, 2006: Following a breakfast of pains au chocolate and baguettes with butter and honey gathered on the estate of Chateau du Fey, we set out for the nearby town of Sens, passing plowed fields, neatly manicured gardens and shuttered cottages with lace curtains. Sens sits on the river L’yonne and was once a major ecclesiastical center. The primary structure is La Cathedrale Saint Etienne de Sens, a soaring house of worship with bright red doors and formidable hinges, ornate stained glass and flocks of pigeons. Construction began around the year 1130. While there is hardly a soul within the cathedral, there is great activity across the plaza.

Our first stop is the covered market where local fruits, vegetables, meat and fish are sold on Monday and Friday. We are told that market day is, in fact, a social event in the village and women even dress up to meet and chat with friends as they select fresh produce for the week. We step into the domed marketplace and people are everywhere, carefully examining fresh produce, many engaged in lively and intense conversations. It is clear to see that agriculture, food and produce is a communal event in the Burgundy valley.

The produce is perfection – ropes of garlic roasted the color of caramel, white and red radishes neatly stacked, earthy mushrooms, tiny lentils and piles and piles of curly bright green lettuce. There are neat stalls labeled with numbers and proprietor names, and I am fascinated by the selection of meats and poultry offered by the butchers. There is rabbit, duck, chickens from the Burgundy valley, sausage, terrines of many varieties and chicken aspic, a traditional French dish which is a rectangular loaf of golden gelatin surrounding fleshy chunks of chicken.

Lunch at a nearby bistro is reminiscent of my classes at the French Culinary Institute. It is classic traditional French country food served in the authentic setting and emphasizing local ingredients. There is a composed salad of marinated vegetables, tender duck confit with mushrooms and a magnificent Frasier Cake adorned with a ring of strawberries and raspberries and topped with pretty pink marzipan.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Dinner at Chateau du Fey

Sunday, September 10, 2006: I have arrived in the Burgundy Valley of France. Our minibus crawls up the driveway, and we are greeted at the door of Chateau du Fey by Anne Willan, noted cookbook author, food historian and founder of the prestigious professional school, Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne.

I’ve seen Anne on television numerous times, and I look forward to a week of learning from someone of her distinction. We only have a few minutes to drop our bags, and we are led off on an historic tour of the 17th century chateau. This is a working estate, and all the trees and plants are chosen to be edible. There is a chef on staff, several country dogs, and a number of students from La Varenne who are there to gain “the French experience.” We learn about the history of the estate, and stroll past age-old trees and hunting grounds where wild boars still wander. Along the way, we examine what is reported to be one of the deepest wells in the country, view a brick oven bakery and the ancient wine press that was once used by the estate.
Even the gardens are rich in history. In the herb garden, I take note of a pot of greenery labeled, “Julia Child’s Mint.” Anne takes us through the sprawling vegetable garden where we pluck raspberries and sample fresh peaches from the trees. She tells us the fruits taste better when they are “warmed by the sun.”

After completing the tour we are led to the subterranean stone wine cellar where we are given a talk on French cheeses by a local fromager. He teaches us about the origin of classic French cheeses, the different styles of cheese, and I learn that Roquefort is actually a combination of bread mold and cheese, and is described by the French as “parsley cheese” because the green flecks in the cheese resemble the herb. He serves us Roquefort that is buttery and sharply salty and seems to last forever on the tongue.

Back in the Chateau, the staff lays out a buffet magnifique on the rustic table in the entry hall, created with produce from the region or the garden of the estate. There is a vegetable tarte and a mushroom tarte, fresh pork from the local area, and cherry tomatoes from the garden adorned with sweet tarragon. We drink the local red wine from the Burgundy region, which is soft and full and converse over candlelight in the dining room as darkness falls outside. Finally, Anne leads us back to the parlor where we sample what she calls “sticky drinks” to conclude the evening.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Preview of Florence

There is a brisk breeze blowing through the streets of Florence and people are everywhere. I quickly scope out the Eastern part of the city in the late afternoon, and discover that there are medieval treasures around every corner. Just steps from the hotel is the Piazza della Signoria, where a copy of Michelangelo’s David stands, and the Loggia dei Lanzi built in 1382, which is an outdoor sculpture garden filled with classic Roman statues. I walk past the Duomo, the tallest structure in the city, where the sound of steeple bells ring through the piazza.

In the evening, I dine at the Brunello Lounge at the Hotel Bernini Palace, and the food is the type of artistry typical of the Florentines, or as my server tells me, “Just like a painting.” I enjoy a white prosciutto, full of fat, which melts like butter on the tongue. Then there are quenelles of soft goat cheese flecked with briny green olives with dried tomatoes, Tagliatelle pasta with porcini mushrooms and shavings of parmesan, and a wild berry crepe for dessert.

The beauty of Florence will have to wait for another week thought, as my next destination is Chateau du Fey in the Burgundy valley of France.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Buon Viaggio

September 9, 2006: We visit the ceramic center of Deruta in the morning and by early afternoon have arrived in Florence, near the end of our culinary adventure. I must say goodbye to Anne who is tall and elegant, Joyce who is brimming with superlatives, Gary who stirs the pot and Jessica who is the only public relations person I’ve ever cooked with, although I've known many who like to eat. As Joyce would say, it is an “amazing” experience to meet new people and begin to cook together and I will never forget our journey through Bologna and Tuscany and the exceptional meals we shared together. I wish you all Buon Viaggio and great food for a lifetime!

Most important, we all owe a debt of gratitude to our gentleman driver Romano who took such good care of us, and of course our host and instructor, Mary Beth Clark. She has been our interpreter, our translator and our culinary guide and has given us a great gift of herself, her love of food and the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany. It has been an unforgettable experience. Grazie, Mary Beth!!

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Baking in Siena

Friday, September 8, 2006: The medieval town of Siena sizzles under the bright sun. The streets resemble narrow alleyways that wind to the top of the hill. Siena experienced years of growth between 1260 and 1348. Near the center of town is Il Campo, the clam-shell shaped town square where the famous horse races are held each year.

I spend several hours exploring the Duomo, a gothic masterpiece cathedral begun in 1136. The marble floor of the Duomo is only uncovered once a year during September and October, and for once I am in the right place at the right time. The marble inlay floor is like a gold and black tapestry which depicts 56 scenes that illustrate the history of mankind. I visit the Crypt, only discovered in 1999, where there are beautifully colored frescos that might have remained a secret for eternity.

I move on to investigate two foods that are special to Siena. In a small shop near the Duomo, I find Panforte Margherita a thin, flat torte of golden paste enriched with molasses, nuts, citron and spices. The confection dates to the middle ages. It is chewy and spicy, similar to dense fruit cake or date bread. I walk back beyond the Duomo and stop at Nannini, a famous bakery in Siena. Tourists have lined up to sip afternoon espresso. A gentleman ahead of me on line purchases more than 60 Euro worth of pastries, that are wrapped carefully in cream-colored paper and tied with a red ribbon. There, I sample Ricciarrelli, a clam-shaped golden cookie, slightly larger than the French Madeleine, soft and cake-like and dusted with powered sugar. It is tender, crumbly and sweet – a perfect treat to top my visit to Siena.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

The Glorious Grape

Thursday, September 7, 2006: It is harvest time in Tuscany and the wine grapes hang fat and heavy on the vine. There are gently rolling hills bursting with Chianti grapes, Sangiovese grapes and fruit I’ve never heard of before, such as Foglia Tonda. I set out for a morning walk in the vineyards, admiring the plump clusters of fruit glistening in the late summer sunshine. The dark grapes are deep purple in hue, accented with shades of blueberry, amethyst, cobalt, and black. It’s like watching a dazzling kaleidoscope as the rays of the sun dance on the skin of the fruit. There are perfect clusters of green grapes and lovely pink garnet grapes use for lighter varieties.

The grapes of Tuscany are a revered source of food and drink. The vintner produces a spicy, intense reserve Brunello. I learn from the staff that there is no Brunello grape. The wine is made from 100 percent Sangiovese grosso, and must meet very specific and lengthy aging requirements before it can be dubbed a Brunello.

Out in the vineyards, workers are gathering the grapes into red tubs. On the hill beneath the villa, grapes are removed from the stems by machines, pressed through a crusher, and left to ferment in steel tanks. Nothing is wasted. Even the remaining skins from the grapes are distilled and used to make Grappa.

In the Osteria on the estate, the chef uses wine grapes as a garnish, a color accent, in reduction sauces and as a sweet surprise in pasty. One member of the staff teaches us to prepare sweet cake dough for dessert that is studded with dark grapes and anise. Thin slivers of veal are sautéed in butter and stock and dressed in a ruby-red reduction sauce of balsamic vinegar and wine grapes. Risotto is bathed in Brunello, turning a shade of rosy pink. The meal is an exuberant celebration of the vineyard.

At the end of our evening banquet, the table looks like a post-modern work of art, with wine bottles and decanters littered across the table, and more than a dozen, deep round glasses with just a hint of violet residue in the bottom. We marvel at the brilliant full Tuscan moon as we return to the villa to retire for the night.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuscan Culinary Journal

Wednesday Afternoon, September 6, 2006: We dine on a lunch of grilled vegetables and meats at a local restaurant, where the fire of the open brick oven permeates the food. Our driver then takes us deep into the countryside where we pass fields of sunflowers that have dried up from the summer heat and look like monks with heads bowed in prayer. There are hills upon hills, pheasants dashing through the fields and mustard colored villas with brightly-painted shutters. By late afternoon we pull onto a gravel road that runs alongside grape vines that are weighted with blue-black grapes awaiting harvest.

This is a 16th century Tuscan estate owned by a woman vintner who produces award-winning Italian wines. The business has been passed down from mother to daughter. She hires primarily women to produce her wines and is a pioneer in the region. The villa is an ancient structure of tawny brick, terra cotta tile and smart green shutters. Apple and pear trees dot the landscape, and there are groves of tall, stately Cyprus trees. By the pool, one can look out deep into the straw-colored valley of Tuscany where medieval fortresses cap distant hilltops.

At 5:30 we meet at the osteria for our cooking class, and are introduced to our chef instructor – a woman raised in Rome who is self taught. She is quiet and serious, but on occasion, will burst into a sunny smile. She teaches us to make a variety of pizzas, hearty Tuscan bean soup, salad and a creamy chocolate ricotta pie with bronze crust. Olive oil flows with each dish. The food is simple and robust, all featuring ingredients from the region.

Before the meal is served, we take our glasses of light, fruity white wine and watch a spectacular fiery sunset over the hills of Tuscany. We dine al fresco on the patio with the hill-top village of Trequanda beyond us, which was once inhabited by the Etruscans. We drink rich Chianti and toast our arrival in the country.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

The Master of Parmigiano-Reggiano

Wednesday Morning, September 6, 2006 We are greeted at the door of the production factory by a tall, friendly Italian gentleman with dark hair, chiseled features and taut muscles. He bears a striking resemblance to a stone statue of a Roman deity one might find in a piazza. He is, in fact a deity of the land. He is the cheese master at a Parmigiano-Reggiano production center, a short drive from Bologna.

Dressed in a long, plastic white apron, he offers a welcoming handshake and ushers us into the production center. Much like the seven labors of Hercules, the Master of Parmigiano-Reggiano must endure multiple labors to produce a cheese that meets the rigorous standards of the agricultural region. Inside the tiled production facility it is moist and humid. Using a process that began hundreds of years ago, the staff brings in the morning and evening milk from the cows, which is then heated. Massive copper vats are filled with the hot, milky brew and the cheese master and his assistants work rapidly, dragging large sheets of white muslin through the soup collecting the pale white solids that have accumulated in the tanks. At this point, the curds are flavorless. The cheese master then presses the solids firmly into round plastic molds which are left to dry for several days.

The large disks of cheese are cured for many days in a vat of salt water, about the size of a basketball court. A large mechanical system of hooks and open shelving is used to submerge the cheese in the salt water baths.

The cheese is stamped with a unique serial number and date, stored, and over time the rind begins to take on its distinctive copper patina. We are allowed a glimpse in the warehouse where hundreds and hundreds of rounds of cheese are stacked floor to ceiling and for months will age and season to perfect ripeness.

A staff member pulls a hefty round of cheese from the shelf and slices open the disk with a knife that looks like a large surgical tool. The deep amber rind is pulled away and we get our first look at the result of the cheese master’s labors. Inside, the cheese is wheat colored with a soft, quartz-like texture. We pull off large chunks from the wheel by hand, and take a bite. The Parmigiano-Reggiano pops on the tongue and offers many dimensions. It is sometimes crunchy then smooth. Creamy and then salty. There are dry mineral undertones and flavors of toasted bread. And, it is fresher than anything of its kind I’ve ever sampled at home. It is certainly the food of gods and a Herculean effort from the Master of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bologna Culinary Journal

Tuesday, September 5, 2006: This is a story about pasta on the table. Thin pasta, thick pasta, gnocchi and lasagna noodles. It is the story of a skill that was once passed from one generation to another, but someday might be forgotten.

I watch as a tiny, compact woman with steel-gray hair, kind eyes and formidable hands rhythmically cracks eggs into a well of flour in the center of a wooden board. She plunges her hands into the pool and carefully and methodically she works the bright orange yolks and flour into a sticky paste and then a firm, pillow-like dough.

Our instructor explains that this woman of Bologna practices what could be a dying art. More and more Italian families now eat fresh pasta made by machine. The craft of pasta by hand is too time-intensive for most. The woman tells us in Italian that her daughter doesn’t make pasta, but sometimes, her son and grandchildren will attempt it. She has been perfecting her craft for more than two decades and learned it from her own grandmother.

The first batch of dough is now soft and pliable, the color of golden sunflowers. She sprinkles just a touch of flour on the board – always the right amount – to soak up any excess moisture. The wooden board absorbs the rest. She takes a long rolling pin – the length of a yardstick – in hand. It is beveled smooth by years of use. She possesses the skills of an athlete, a musician and a surgeon, rolling with speed and precision, keeping perfect tempo, carefully assessing the dough, shifting it, applying varying pressure to the rolling pin until the pasta is the desired thinness. I am given the chance to try my hand at rolling. She gives my work a friendly nod of approval, but fingers conditioned by years at a keyboard can not possibly produce the same quality results. Eventually, the plump pillow of dough is transformed into a long thin sheet, the texture of smooth leather, but the weight of a fine fabric – extremely light and almost translucent.

She makes a second batch, this time adding spinach, massaging the green leaves and eggs into the flour. The bottle-green sheets of pasta are sliced into large rectangles for lasagna. Finally, she manipulates potatoes that have been pressed through a ricer, eggs and flour into gnocchi. She rolls the dough into long strands of rope and cuts off small rectangles. She teaches us how to get that distinctive gnocchi shape by pushing the individual rectangles down the tines of a fork.

The final presentation of the gnocchi is perfumed with sage, and is all the more satisfying for the history and artistry it imparts. And now, she has passed on the tradition of hand made pasta to me, a mere visitor in her homeland.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Bologna Culinary Journal – Monday, September 4, 2006: I rise just before 7 a.m. and prepare for the day. It doesn’t take long, since my choices of attire are still limited. It is a short walk down the street to the Piazza Maggiore, an enormous open square lined by churches and palazzos and guarded by Neptune’s Fountain. At 8 a.m. Bologna is still a sleepy Northern town, with just a few pedestrians and pigeons in the piazza.

I return to the lobby of the Hotel Roma where I meet our host and instructor Mary Beth Clark, a charming and gracious woman who is the founder of the International Cooking School of Italian Food and Wine. She will be our gastronomic guide through the week. I am joined by a selection of fellow Americans hailing from Washington DC, Charlotte, NC and Los Angeles, CA.

Mary Beth leads us across the Piazza, and through a narrow passage and we begin exploring the food markets of Bologna. We stop first at a cheese shop. Bowls of creamy white cheeses, some soft and some with curds, and large golden disks of Parmigiano-Reggiano are clustered in glass cases. Slabs of pink prosciutto, which must be cured for at least 300 days, are strung together and hung from the ceiling. We visit fruit stands where the aroma smells like a heavenly orchard and watch butchers at work swiftly dissecting whole chickens. We even pause to inspect the wares of a purveyor of horse meat. Around every corner there is something for the eyes to savor, as we watch the artisanal craftsman of Bologna’s food market begin a new day.

Our next stop is an historic palazzo just minutes away from the market where we will work for the next several hours. Mary Beth leads class in the professional kitchen and we are joined by an Italian chef, an assistant and a valet who attends to our every need. Throughout the day we learn about typical ingredients, scents and flavors of the Italian kitchen. Intoxicating aromas of seafood, fresh rosemary, red wine, olive oil and chocolate and hazelnut fill the air. The yolks of the perfect brown eggs are deep orange, likely due to hens fed a diet of corn and sunflower seeds.

The staff carefully demonstrates the culinary techniques of Italy and we all take a hand in the process. While most of the instructors speak little or no English, by watching and observing their handling of the food, I begin to understand them. I am discovering there is, in fact, an international language of food, and it is one of passion, instinct and mutual reverence.

By mid-afternoon, we sit down to an extravagant luncheon at the palazzo around a beautifully set table decorated by our valet with luscious ripe summer fruits – peaches, plumbs, strawberries and red currants. There are four courses with perfect wine pairings. The food is sumptuous, the wine flows freely and we enjoy learning more about each other over an exceptional meal.

One last biscotti accompanied by a lovely sparkling rose wine, and it is time to conclude. After a brief stop at the hotel, where I learn my luggage has been delivered, I spend the remainder of the day with camera in hand exploring the medieval city of Bologna, which by late afternoon has become a bustling metropolis jammed with people and motor bikes. Warm sunshine bathes the piazzas. I walk to the nearby Bascilica di Saint Stefano, which was built during the period XII – XVII. The ancient stone holy place was formed from four Romanesque churches and has a stately, two-level cloister where I spend some quiet time reflecting on the events and aromas of the day.

Darkness falls, and I take a seat at one of the cafes on Piazza Maggiore and order a glass of vino rossa (the two words I actually know how to say in Italian). I sip my wine and watch as tourists eating gelato, students, lovers, beggars, adventurers and philosophers wander by enjoying the warm summer night. A bulging three-quarter moon peaks into the piazza, illuminating the fortress-like exterior of Basilica di San Petronio, much as it has done for centuries.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Bologna at Last – Sunday, September 3, 2006: That’s what the poster on the wall proclaims as I exit the shuttle bus and entered the airport terminal to claim my luggage – which hasn’t arrived with me. But, this journey is about food, and not travel disasters, so enough on that story.

There is an enormous, glowing half moon in the sky as my taxi driver speeds me to the Hotel Roma in the historic district of Bologna. We quickly cut through some routine residential areas, and enter the narrow streets of the ancient city. It is very late on a Sunday evening, but there are people about, some on motorbikes. There is stone, and brick, and a large tower up on the hill that I need to learn more about.

My fellow class mates at the International Cooking School of Italian Food and Wine have long since gone to dinner, but my host has arranged for the hotel to provide a cold buffet for me. Once settled in the room with my meager belongings, I feast on salty prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, bread, green salad and white wine. After the drama of my journey, it tastes superb and feels very welcoming.

Tomorrow morning, we meet for a tour of Bologna’s food market and our first cooking class of traditional Italian and nuova cuisine.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Road to the Italian Kitchen: So far, the journey to Bologna has all personality of a grease fire in the kitchen. As one might expect, the culinary standard of the dinner on my flight from New York to Paris was nothing short of alarming. I had high hopes when the flight attendants actually passed out printed menus in the coach section. These were roundly dashed when the meal was presented – a tiny sliver of chicken sitting in sweet potato soup and shellacked with something billed as chipotle sauce. This was washed down with a fine California Shiraz called “Fish Eye,” no year of vintage provided.

Not long after, a poor gentleman in the cabin suffers a small stroke. This forces the captain to make an emergency medical landing in Dublin, Ireland, where we are seriously delayed awaiting refueling. Upon arrival in Paris Charles De Gaul, I miss my connection to Bologna by about two-and-a-half minutes, and the next flight is not until after 8:00 p.m. I have been told that I attract crises. I’m beginning to believe that urban legend …

So, how to kill seven hours in the airport waiting for the best Italian food of my life? Food, or perhaps high end toiletries are the only options, so I head for the only restaurant in sight, “France Café.” I’ve got to hand it to the Parisians. Even their fast food has a wholesome, rustic quality. I order a baguette mixte, jambon et frommage (that’s ham and cheese to the rest of us) and a glass of vin rouge. The baguette is crunchy and the ham smoky and tender. Even the wine is far superior to last night’s juice. Keep in mind, that I’m sitting in an airport, so all these comparisons are subject to jet lag and hallucination.

I finish off my airport café dejuener with a tarte au pomme and café au lait. The individual tarte is nicely topped with caramelized apple slices, and the café au lait is strong, bitter and frothy. Meanwhile, the world is checking their luggage before my very eyes.

I probably won’t make it in time for dinner at the top restaurant in Bologna. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they offer takeout.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, September 01, 2006

Exit Corporate America, Enter Emilia-Romagna: Call it what you will – sabbatical, hiatus, or time-off for good behavior. No matter the phrase, here are the facts. For the next seven weeks I’m on leave from corporate America, and diving toque first into the tastes, aromas and textures of the global culinary kitchen. The first stop on my gastronomic odyssey is the International Cooking School of Italian Food and Wine in Bologna, the capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region. Bologna was established by the Etruscans in about 534 BC, and Emilia-Romagna is a rich agricultural region that produces tomatoes, onions, cereal crops, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Lambrusco and Sangiovese wines. La Cucina Italiana! At the moment, it still seems like a distant dream, but it’s just a jet ride away. Next stop, the ancient city and food of Bologna!

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved