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Archive for October, 2009

IMG_2239 Italy’s Parliament voted unanimously this summer to recommend that UNESCO list the Mediterranean diet as endangered, so that it might be protected and preserved as a part of cultural heritage.IMG_2499

I’m interested in this public declaration, in part, for its semantic implications.  Can a diet be treated as an aesthetic or religious object, or as a plant or animal species?  In fact, the Mediterranean diet is all of these things.  Italians are rightly proud of their food, and of their heritage. Diet here is interwoven with cultural practice, with religious ritual, with craft and design, and with plant and animal species that have an intimate connection with both the geography and the history of Italy’s distinct regions.

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Of course, the natives of this boot-shaped land could describe the complex set of cultural practices that is the Mediterranean diet better than I, an outsider, and a barbarian American, could.  But I’ll offer a few arguments, anyway, in favor of designating this diet an endangered piece of cultural heritage.

The Mediterranean diet is interwoven with national and regional identity.  This goes deeper than the kind of identity declared by small towns with billboards at their borders declaring them the pistachio capital of the world.  It’s an identity that has less to do with marketing, and more to do with the deep emotional ties of childhood memories, in which food and family are tightly woven together.  Particular foods and foodways are tied to family traditions, religious rituals, and to regionally specific cooking styles.

When I was at the Bioversity offices yesterday, I met one of the senior scientists there, a man named Stefano, whose work as a scientist and educator about agricultural biodiversity perfectly aligns with his passion for food and food memories.  In our brief conversation, he gave me many examples of the Mediterranean diet as cultural heritage and as endangered.  When he was a child, he said, the whole neighborhood would get together in someone’s garage to peel, cook, and bottle tomatoes for use as sauce.  While he was living in Africa, his homesickness took the form of a craving for the comforts of pasta. His mother and sister write down the recipes and menus of family meals; these recipes are their family scrapbooks and triggers to memory.  One of these recipes is for a stew containing 57 varieties of wild leafy green.  (Surely this recipe and the knowledge of how to find, much less cook, 57 varieties of wild green are endangered!)  Another recipe is for quince jelly.  How many quince orchards have you seen lately?

These foods and practices—this cultural heritage—is endangered for several related reasons: the globalization of simplified diets based on cheap, and less nutritious, commodity crops; the lure, or necessity, of convenience foods for working mothers who don’t have the time or inclination to hunt out 57 varieties of wild green; the encroachment of fast food into the diets of children; the loss of food and cooking knowledge through the generations.  One of the terrible consequences of the loss of food practices is that the actual foods can be lost as well.  Many of the crops that have sustained peoples all over the world for millenia fall under the new designation of “neglected and underutilized species.”   This is how food as a cultural and aesthetic practice shades into an endangered species.

Another, no less important, reason to preserve the Mediterranean diet is that it works.  People have thrived, and not been prone to cardiovascular disease or obesity and its consequences, on this diet for many generations.  This is because of the intrinsic nutritional value of the foods themselves, and it is also because of the set of cultural rules that guide eating.  The people here eat small portions, a variety of vegetables, whole grains, fish, and cheese, meat, and wine in moderation.  No cappuccino after lunch, no hard liquor before dinner or gelato in the morning… the list goes on.  And dessert is often fresh fruit.

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Farro.  It is one of the oldest domesticated crops.  One of its varieties, emmer wheat, has been found in archeological sites dating back 15,000 years.  For millenia, farro fed the peoples of the Mediterranean and the Near East as a daily staple.

What is it?  The short answer is that farro is a variety of wheat.  The long answer is botanical and semantic.  Farro’s difference from modern, commonly grown wheat, is that it has a strong hull that doesn’t just fall off during threshing.  This makes farro require extra work in processing, but it also relates to farro’s hardiness.  Farro has survived so long, and continues to be cultivated, because of its reliable yields in the mountainous regions of Italy.  The name farro is translated variously into English as einkor, emmer, or spelt because it generally signifies all of these varieties of hulled wheat.

The Italians use the dried, oblong, amber-brown grains in a variety of food preparations—from minestrone, to cold grain salads, or breads and pastas after the grains have been ground into flour.  When eaten whole, in soups or salads, farro is cooked al dente, so that it has a toothsome springiness.

This springiness is one of the reasons I love it.  I love it for its versatility, its deep nutty, wheaty flavor, and its incredible nutritional punch (it has more than twice the protein and fiber of the most common wheat, which loses even more in refinement).  I love farro, too, for the role it could play in a future of sustainable agriculture.  It is a low-yielding crop that likes craggy hillsides, and arid spots, in addition to sun-and-rain-drenched fields.  That first characteristic is why it is virtually unknown in factory-farm-happy places like the Midwest U.S., where high yielding crops rule (but not for long, we fear, because of their reliance on costly inputs and/or bioengineering).  These latter characteristics, and its nutritional content, are what have made it a staple crop in the past and what may make it a necessary crop in the future, when climate change forces us to use these hardy ancient crops that can survive where g.m.o.s can’t.

I’m going to quote a long Wikipedia paragraph, because I like the description.  Even more, though, I love the vocabulary lesson:

Like einkorn and spelt wheats, emmer is a hulled wheat. In other words, it has strong glumes (husks) that enclose the grains, and a semi-brittle rachis. On threshing, a hulled wheat spike breaks up into spikelets. These require milling or pounding to release the grains from the glumes.

Wild emmer wheat spikelets effectively self-cultivate by propelling themselves mechanically into soils with their awns. During a period of increased humidity during the night, the awns of the spikelet become erect and draw together, and in the process push the grain into the soil. During the daytime the humidity drops and the awns slacken back again; however fine silica hairs on the awns act as hooks in the soil and prevent the spikelets from reversing back out again. During the course of alternating stages of daytime and nighttime humidity, the awns’ pumping movements, which resemble a swimming frog kick, will drill the spikelet as much as an inch or more into the soil.

Fascinating.  But what’s to be done with this clever grain?  Tonight I cooked some soup, the basis of which was farro mixed with green and red lentils.  I especially love a lentil soup jazzed up with lemon, sweetened with carrots, and spiced with cumin.  Mona and Chris and their crew in the Rome Sustainable Food Project kitchen have been making some amazing salads with farro.  My favorite, so far, included fennel roasted with chopped whole lemons (rind and all) and tossed with some chopped bitter green, farro, salt and pepper, and plenty of flavorful olive oil.  At a potluck at one of Jack’s school friend’s apartments, I tasted a warm farro salad featuring roasted, nicely caramelized chunks of zucca, the ubiquitous big orange squash in the Roman markets all fall.  This cool Halloween weekend calls for farro with something orange….

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As we rode the train north-east, from Rome to Venice, we passed through Italian regions famous for their food and wine.  And really, which ones aren’t?  One sight that struck me again and again was the smallness and odd shapedness of, and variety of growth on the fields.  They reminded me of Vermont.

Why is this interesting?  There is a correlation between the size and shape of the agricultural fields, the omnipresence of them over all kinds of landscape, and the presence of produce like this in the markets:

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treviso

I’ve been interested in the fact that there’s so much great variety at these street markets which are all over the city.  Why are people in many different economic situations able to buy a variety of leafy greens or tomatoes, for example, when in the U.S. the less well-off are stuck with processed food at their local markets?  One explanation is that Italy has a culture that values food, and that the rituals and culture based on food are stronger than the modern urge for convenience.  Another explanation is that lots of agricultural land has been owned by the church for a very long time, and is leased to people who farm relatively small plots.  This means they don’t pay a premium for land, and therefore don’t have big profits as their only care; the small scale also encourages crop diversity.  And I guess there’s the geography of the place—no great plains to cover with corn; mountains; and a strong sense of regional identity. Wine culture has something to do with it too; food and wine are seen as something special and are historically connected to national and regional identity.

The economics of food in the U.S. is a real problem.  Because of the perversity of the farm subsidies, which go toward commodity crops and wealthy farmers, non-nutritious processed food ends up being a lot cheaper than good, whole food.  Because organic food and “unusual” produce is more expensive and less available, it is seen as elitist food.  There are changes that could be made: government support for small farms growing diverse crops, and for the creation of farmers’ markets in many more places; revamping the farm subsidy programs to provide more help for small food producers and less help for the factory farms.  I really think there’s hope, if the government can ever break the power of the strongest lobbies.  But the other problem, which relates to the comparison with Italy, is that the U.S. doesn’t have a food culture.  Food isn’t really valued for itself, doesn’t have a lot of history or ritual attached to it (except on holidays, when the tradition is to overeat), and isn’t passed down through the generations as a set of rules, knowledge, and values.

Convenience encroaches here, too, though.  I see people in the park where I run gathering wild edible greens and mushrooms.  They are all over 70, as is, I think, the farmer-couple I like to buy from at the market.

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Going to Venice for a long weekend is like being transported to a different realm.  In this immersed city, we immersed ourselves in grand-scale Renaissance art, long winding walks, gelato, spritz (Amaro—a bittersweet red liqueur—and prosecco), and seafood.  What everyone says about the acoustics stands out as a strong sense memory: without the sound of cars, the ear hears the click of heels on stone, voices talking, murmuring, laughing, and the soft splash of water against stone and brick.  True, there are motor boats, but their rumble is nothing after the roar of Roman traffic.

We ate well.  Oh, yes we did.

On the first night, we turned the corner from the little alley where we were renting an apartment (with 5 others from the American Academy), and happened upon Paradiso Perdito, a wonderfully unlost paradise of seafood, pasta, off-beat music, and attractive diners and servers both young and old.  Here’s a sampling of that meal.

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antipasti

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vino di casa pump

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frito misto

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amazingly flavorful garlicky pasta with a never seen before crustacean

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squid ink pasta

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Jack fell asleep on my lap.

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see the rosemary sprig?

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nicely boned

Other highlights: The dolci, which we all agreed were better than any in Rome.

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how many pistachios are in this torta?

This place especially, which Lisa discovered at 7:30 one morning, by following the aroma of buttery baking, had the most amazing almond croissants we’ve ever had.  They weren’t overly sweet and flabby like so many, but were improbably both dense and flaky, and were almost savory in their delicate sweetness.

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bread turtle?

I didn’t actually take any photos of anyone eating gelato, because I always had a drippy cone of my own to control, usually with some combination of fruity and nutty.  My favorite duo: cherry and hazelnut.  Jack’s favorite: strawberry and cherry.  But this is the place to get it:

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We happened upon this graffito, which to me says, “Is this a gelato I see before me?”

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We also saw lots and lots of art.  Jack was inspired to do some painting, and then ran off to chase pigeons.

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We took one gondola ride, but it only went across the Grand Canal, took two minutes, and cost 50 cents.  Still, it seemed to make everyone happy.

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Susanna & Stephen

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Peter

Our last meal was at the Anice Stellato—the Star Anise—and it was a meal to remember.  I wasn’t so good at photographing every plate, but my favorite dish was a lamb tenderloin rolled in crushed pistachios.  Oh, my….  The wine, a local carmenere blend, and an antipasto plate called sarde in saor, with sardines, polenta, and pickled onions, also stood out.

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Jack enjoyed hanging with the grown-ups.  And I think they liked his company too.

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Aurelia, Jack, Richard, me

(For more photos, check out my Flickr page.)

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Tomorrow morning, transit workers are striking across Italy, but we have 9:50 tickets to Venice.  Word on the street is that we’ll be fine.  Eight of us from the Academy are renting an apartment for the weekend.  I won’t be bringing my computer, and will probably not be blogging.  But not to worry!  I’ll be keeping a food diary—and not one in the style of a dieter.

Other tidbits of interest?  I just cooked a simple dinner for myself and Jack made of mostly local things purchased around the neighborhood.  I sauteed peppers, onion, rosemary, and proscuitto.  I scrambled local organic eggs.  We ate warm pizza bianca from Panificio Beti.  I like that they put coarse salt on top. I opened some Lazio wine, but it was corked.

For dessert, Jack ate Greek yogurt with honey, and I ate a ciambellina vino rosso.

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I also started working on a new project today, as a volunteer for the Diversity for Life campaign.  In order to promote knowledge of the importance of agricultural biodiversity for the health of people, cultures, and the planet, they are launching an oral history project in Kenya and Italy this year.  (Other places will follow.)  For these oral history archives, school children will record interviews with their grandparents about what foods they used to grow, cook, and eat.  The aims are to foster an interest in old food traditions and in the foods themselves, to help the kind of agricultural biodiversity that’s been almost lost to monocultures and convenience food continue to thrive, and to encourage a reliance on varied diets which are more nutritious and can be grown in ways that are healthier for the planet.  I’ll be writing the pamphlet that will be distributed to school children in rural and urban Kenya, and which explains the project and the value of maintaining both agricultural biodiversity and continuity in the regional culture as it relates to food.  A lot of American school children could benefit from a similar campaign!

This weekend, though, I’ll be walking around beautiful Venice, taking notes about a very different kind of food culture.

Ciao!

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ciambelline

These are complex subjects in Italian life.

There are many tacit rules that guide coffee culture (observance of which would be to the benefit of American coffee drinkers).  One rule, which I just broke—knowingly, so does that make it ok?—is that no milk should be consumed after lunch.  A cappuccino, or a caffe con latte, is an appropriate breakfast or late morning drink.  One should drink it standing at a marble bar, or sitting briefly while eating a small pastry and talking a lot.  (Addendum: what we call a “latte” contains an amount of milk Italians would think obscene.  A twenty-ounce cup of hot milk with a bit of esspresso served in a paper cup and called a “venti”?  Horrors!)  After lunch, the only acceptable coffee behavior is to drink a caffe (espresso) or a machiato (espresso dabbed with milk foam).

Today, it’s about fifty degrees outside, and I’m wearing a long-sleeved but thin cotton dress.  I was cold, and I just didn’t think an espresso would do the trick of warming and comforting me while also giving me the jolt to go on with my dissertation-writing (or blogging, as it may be).  I asked Gabriel, the Academy bartender, for a cappuccino, and received a look that combined raised and furrowed brows.  Ah, well.  I’m a barbarian.  (Addendum #2: I bought the dress in Vermont, and it has a Vermont theme: deer.)

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self-portrait in deer dress

Alright, on to the cookies.  Again, a comparison with cookie culture in the U.S. is instructive.  A sugar-heavy blob the size of your palm receives the name of “cookie” at home, and might more properly be called “unhealthy meal-replacement item” because why eat a meal when you have a quarter-pound cookie with your venti latte?  Here in Italy, cookies are called biscotti, and they are more like delicately sweetened, tiny, crunchy biscuits.  With my misguided cappuccino after lunch, I nibbled a pistachio biscotto that tasted like lightly sweetened crushed pistachios, with a hint of butter.  It was just perfect.

The biscotti above are of a particular species of cookie called ciambelline.  They’ve been catching my eye here and there for awhile, because they are usually labeled ciambelline al vino rosso, and they look like little doughnuts.  I finally bought some the other day, at a nearby family-run forno (bakery/oven) called Panificio Beti.  (Addendum #3: the breads are all displayed on a low counter behind the glass, and beneath each type is a list of the ingredients, which are few and of the best quality.  I like this kind of proud transparency.)  They had on display five different kinds of ciambelline: vino rosso, limoncello, walnut, anise, and one other which I think was just a savory version of vino rosso (no sugar).  I asked for uno per tipo.

Back at home, I brewed some coffee in my beloved Bialetti, and broke off a bite of each.  Not having had them before, I was pleasantly surprised.  They were hard, not chewy, and they had just a trace of sweetness.  Traditionally, they are made with olive oil in place of butter, and are served after dinner with sweet wine, in the regions of Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio, where Rome is.  These are cookies I’d like to have around at all times.

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3 liquids

Olive oil, coffee, negroni.

They may not all be essential, but they are omnipresent.  Start the day with coffee, brewed in a bialetti, and poured into a mug of warmed-up milk:

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Sometime during the day, eat a meal involving big glugs of olive oil: salad, pasta, soup, pizza bianca?

Late on, pour a negroni: equal parts Campari, gin, sweet vermouth, on the rocks, with a twist of orange if you’ve got it.

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What a Saturday!  Jack and I started the day with Harry and Ramie at Dolci Desideri: cappucini and cornetti (one with marmalata, one whole wheat with bitter honey) for the moms, frutti di bosca (wild berry) muffins for the boys.  Then, in the 39-degree-Fahrenheit chill, we walked around the block to the outdoor market on Via Nicolini.  First, we went to one of the small organic farmers’ stands.  What’s in season at this farm near the airport?  Dandelion greens, chicories, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, various hard-skinned squashes.  I bought some of almost everything, and she stuffed some fresh herbs in my bag for free.  At the next stand, we bought apples, plums, pears, and broad beans.

Back at the Academy, we stopped in at the bar, and Alessandro made Jack some hot cocoa.  He doesn’t know how lucky he is.  The ingredients were whole unpasteurized organic milk, house-made chocolate ganache, and house-made marshmallows.  While he worked, Alessandro told Jack, in Italian, about his pet turtle.

Lunch at the Academy, served at one, was phenomenal as usual.  The dessert was an incredible taste sensations.  “Outrageous,” according to one diner.  There was a sweet crumbly shortbread style tart crust, in which was a warm custard flavored with—or really just subtly evoking the flavors of—honey, lemon, pinenuts, a few raisins, and something else more evanescent.  What was it?

Unbelievably, we did more eating as the day went on.  Some of our next door neighbors with young kids came over for dinner.  I roasted a bunch of the veggies I’d bought, and tossed them with pasta, rosemary, olive oil, and grated pecorino romano.

Nick and Rena brought dessert: a Dolci Desideri cherry-infused chocolate cake that seemed to be half crumb, half ganache.  Jack and Lulu licked all of the plates clean:

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I’m not sure what the goggles were for.

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Everyone says it’s impossible to get a bad meal in Italy.  That’s not true.

After spending a wonderful morning in the galleries of the Museo Borghese, feasting our eyes on the Caravaggios, like his “Self Portrait as Bacchus,” and on the sculptures Bernini carved—improbably rendering marble as smooth and pliant as flesh—we took the bus back to Trastevere in search of a good lunch.  You can’t tell by the facade of authenticity, or by the menu, or the prices, or the aromas coming out of the kitchen.  But some meals are disappointing.  The pasta was greasy, the porcini were soggy, the stew was bland, the antipasti boring.

But we did see some other interesting sights.  An ivy covered house:

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Marcus Aurelius’s copycat version of Trajan’s triumphal column:

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and some black laundry items hanging out:

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Today is Saturday.  We have big plans.  We’ll start at Dolci Desideri with Ramie and Harry, and then go to the market around the corner to buy some veggies for tonight’s dinner.  Then, I’m getting together with my new friend Ruth, who works for the non-profit Diversity for Life, an organization that promotes education in agricultural biodiversity (mainly in the U.S. and Africa, where it’s most needed).  After that, Jack and I will meet up with his friend Dylan for some play date fun.  Then dinner… what will I cook?

The day started off with a beautiful sunrise:

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we went

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we

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The other day, Jack and I went to a corner of the Bass Garden far away from the windows of the library.  We sat down beneath the olive trees and umbrella pines, and started to pick through the grass for pine nuts.  They kept falling from the trees as we foraged.  There were so many, but they were tricky to find by sight alone, because their black striations make them blend in with the shadows of the grass blades.  We found more by feel than by sight.

Jack decided to plant one, excited about the (far off) possibility of growing a tree.

planting a tree

We gathered a big bowlful, but they’re not easy to eat.  The shell is so hard, and the nut so small and soft, that we often end up crushing the whole thing with out nut cracker.  Oh well. The novelty of it is fun.  And when we do get a whole nut, the taste is so nutty, with no bitterness.  There’s a touch of astringency at the end, but mainly the taste is of a toasty oil.  That’s not something you notice in a handful of frozen pine nuts thrown into a Cuisinart for pesto.

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