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Posts Tagged ‘eating locally’

Dylan turned five, and Jim turned ninety.  We celebrated with them both.  It was a busy, delicious day filled with tasty tidbits—of both food and conversation.

Dylan and his parents live in a fourth floor walk-up in Trastevere.  Sarah offered me a cafe latte as soon as we arrived, which was welcomed on a blustery morning.  She had clearly been working for hours on the food, which was spread on their square table that sits invitingly in the middle of the open eat-in kitchen.  There were assorted sandwiches for the kids to scarf down, two kinds of chicken salad with greens, a cous cous salad, a hummus platter, sliced cheeses and salumi, crackers, two kinds of cupcakes, and, warming in the oven, pizza rossa (pizza topped with tomato sauce) and lasagna!  The party rolled along at an Italian pace, with people arriving as late as 12:30 for an 11:00 party.  The kids went from sandwiches to cupcakes to chocolates, in between sessions of semi-organized play, and the parents went from coffee and oatmeal cookies to wine and lunch. The crowd was made up of Arcobaleno and ex-pat community friends; most of the parents switched fluently from Italian to English, and the kids played together in a happy bilingual, prelingual, nonsense, and gestural chaos.  I tried to get a picture of the “fishing for chocolate” game, but only captured a bit of the party’s buzz:

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The rest of the afternoon was down-time for me, but Jack was ready for more socializing, so we invited Lulu up from apartment 1.   She and Jack play together so agreeably.  They played “store,” which involved emptying Jack’s clothing drawers onto the bed and making play money.  They drew and painted pictures of “ghosts eating people.”  They played “boat” in a printer box, and rode up and down the hallway on Jack’s scooter.  We made kettle popcorn, and Lulu told us that her dad is such a kettle corn expert that every kernel is popped.  She also told us it was her mom’s fortieth birthday.  Happy birthday, Anna!

After putting Jack to bed, and leaving him with his kitchen-intern babysitter, Jaimi, we went next door to the Ackermans’ apartment for a birthday dinner party.  What an honor to be Jim and Jill’s guests!  They are the most elegant, lively, curious scholar-artist couple, and they brought together some wonderful company. And Jill, who loves to help out in the Academy kitchen, cooked a fabulous, finger-friendly meal.

We started with steamed artichokes—it’s high carciofi season here in Rome—dipped in brown butter.  Next, along with Mona’s chestnut bread, Jill served her own fish stew, with a soaked crouton, flavorful aioli, tiny local clams and some small whole-roasted fish to lay on top.  Jeffrey managed to get a good picture of this dish:

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After arugula salad, before melon and crostata, and with vin santo, we read aloud some short pieces we’d brought with us to honor Jim—as a friend, historian, Michaelangelo scholar, man, artist or all of these together.  Since the text I read is in the public domain, and was the least personal, I’ll copy it out here.  It’s Lord Byron’s description of seeing and being in St. Peter’s Basilica, from Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Thou movest—but increasing with the advance,
Like climbing some great Alp, which still doth rise,
Deceived by its gigantic elegance;
Vastness which grows—but grows to harmonize—
All musical in its immensities;
Rich marbles—richer painting—shrines where flame
The lamps of gold—and haughty dome which vies
In air with Earth’s chief structures, though their frame
Sits on the firm-set ground—and this the clouds must claim

Thou seest not all; but piecemeal thou must break,
To separate contemplation, the great whole;
And as the ocean many bays will make,
That ask the eye—so here condense thy soul
To more immediate objects, and control
Thy thoughts until thy mind hath got by heart
Its eloquent proportions, and unroll
In mighty graduations, part by part,
The glory which at once upon thee did not dart,

Not by its fault—but thine: Our outward sense
Is but of gradual grasp—and as it is
That what we have of feeling most intense
Outstrips our faint expression; even so this
Outshining and o’erwhelming edifice
Fools our fond gaze, and greatest of the great
Defies at first our Nature’s littleness,
Till, growing with its growth, we thus dilate
Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, stanzas 156-158

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Today was beautiful.  Daylong full sun, a few big cumulous clouds drifting by, sandwiched between rainy days.  This morning I went on an epic shopping run, stopping at two open-air markets for fruit and vegetables, the GS supermarket, and a toy store (for the birthday party tomorrow), pulling my heavy cart behind me.

When I finally got home, it was time to go out again—to refuel with coffee before Jack’s playdate in the park.  I walked and Jack scootered over to the Academy bar, and while I sipped my esspresso, he scooted into the kitchen to say ciao to all of his friends there.

Then, we swapped the scooter for the bike and continued on to the sprawling Villa Pamphili park, where there were lots of huge tempting mud puddles for Jack and his friend Felix not to ride through, please!  Felix’s family arrived here this summer from Norway, for his father’s fellowship at the Norwegian Institute.  Jack and Felix are classmates, and both are learning bits of Italian at school.  They rode along shouting strings of nonsense punctuated with words like “basta” and “guarda!”

At the top of a broad hill, after climbing up and down through open gardens and umbrella pine groves, a new playground has been installed.  The boys had fun climbing and swinging.

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The other great thing about this park, besides the playground, the running paths, the beauty, the pond, and the people-watching, is the cafe at the top of the hill, Vivi Bistrot.  We went there with the hope of sitting at a table and having a warm lunch, but all of the tables were booked.  This must be a good spot!  All—or most—of the food they serve is organic, and they do their own baking.  They couldn’t seat us today, but we assembled a nice picnic out of pesto pasta with tomatoes, organic chicken wings, pizzeti (sandwiches made with pizza bianca), and some interesting juices.  The oddest item was a strange twist on American imports: a wrap containing “crudo & Philadelphia”—prosciutto and cream cheese.  Jack ate it, but I thought “yuck.”

Here’s the bucolic setting for this spot, which would be a nice place to have an aperitivo in the middle of an evening walk, or a quick jolt of cappuccino during a leisurely jog:

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Tonight, for a change, we’re going out for Chinese.

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My mind and time have been taken up with other writing projects during the past week—my dissertation, about which I won’t talk here, and my story/pamphlet for Bioversity, about which I will talk, at some later date.  But I have to steal a few moments from eighteenth-century literature to do some musing on marjoram.

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Every Wednesday night at the Academy, the RSFP kitchen cooks an entirely vegetarian meal with local, seasonal ingredients.  Last night, the highlights of the meal were hazelnuts (chopped on a bitter green salad with beets) and marjoram.

Marjoram is often thought of as a meat herb because it can hold its own alongside the most flavorful lamb or venison.  But last night’s main course was potato gnocchi with marjoram and chopped walnuts, pecorino and some wilted green (something chicoryish but not too bitter… plain old spinach?).  It was a risky dish, because the piny astringency and almost medicinal zest of the marjoram could easily have overpowered the humble little gnocchi.  That’s why I’d like to praise, along with the herb so evocative of wildness, the kitchen staff here.  Not only did they create delicate gnocchi for almost fifty people, but they seasoned it delicately with one of the strongest herbs.  The dish had to have been prepared with gentle fingers—to keep the gnocchi fluffy and to crush the leaves of marjoram without mincing out the flavor.  The wine pairing was exquisite, too: a slightly effervescent, green-grassy crisp white from Lazio.  Like a vinho verde, but even greener.

Thanks, guys!

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This was one of our most fun Halloweens, because of the bustling community of kids who live here in 5B, the family ghetto, the building adjacent to the main American Academy building, (where the best unkept secret is that we have the best apartments).  Halloween really started on Friday, before dinner.  The kitchen staff had prepared trays of bat- and ghost-shaped sugar cookies, icing, chocolate cupcakes, and frosting for a big decorating party.  (Knowing the kitchen-witches here, the ingredients were as local as could be.)

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The cupcakes were so crumbly that they required adult hands, so the Roving Locavore got to work:

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Cheers, Aurelia & Lisa!

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Mid-day on Saturday, Halloween proper, Jack and Lulu got to work on the papier-mache components of their costumes.  Lulu’s parrot head paint was drying, so she helped Jack paint his fireman’s helmet:

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After we returned from Halloween party #1, at Nico’s house at 4:00 (boy, was it a heavy candy-eating day!), the Academy kids paraded and trick-or-treated around the apartments and studios of the Academy building, where the fellows were dressed as witches, death in various forms, Bacchus, a princess, John the Baptist, devil & angel, and a fortune teller.

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the tube is for the milk-bottle O2 tank on Jack's back

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who knew that Dante had hooked up with a gondoliera?

Later, when the kids were spinning and running and staggering from their sugar overdoses, we had a potluck dinner.  Everyone loved the meatballs, sangria, and the zucca lasagna.  I made a pear-apple-almond crumble with mostly local or at least organic ingredients.

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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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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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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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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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