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Posts Tagged ‘Rome locavore’

farroGarfagnana1

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….

IMG_2058

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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.

ciamb

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.)

dress

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:

licking1

I’m not sure what the goggles were for.

licking

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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:

ivied house

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

marcus aurelius

and some black laundry items hanging out:

laundry

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:

sunrise

we went

wewe

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.

pignoli

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Maybe it’s the weather.  (This morning, when Jack and I walked to the bus stop next to the Aurelian Wall, it was 41 degrees (F).)

It’s also the food.  The (nice) problem is that the food at the Academy is too good.  Sometimes, I just want to hole up in the apartment and eat a humble dinner that a kid can like.  I’m lucky enough to have a kid who likes some interesting foods, though he also loves pasta with olive oil, parmesan, and nothing else.

soup

One thing I’ve learned from Mona is that the traditional Italian diet is a peasant diet, and is based on the lowly triumvirate of greens, grains, and beans.  My soup takes two of those categories, in the form of farro, red lentils, and split peas, and swaps the greens for carrots and onions.  I also threw in some chunks of fatty pork belly (i.e. bacon) for flavor.  This is the easiest comfort food to make, and is good for locavores in the winter (I’m jumping the gun, here) because it involves dry and long-lived root ingredients.

Start by sauteing bacon, carrots, shallots or onions, and garlic.  Bring broth to a simmer, and pour in a cup of farro combined with split peas and red lentils.  Dump in the veggies, after they caramelize, and simmer until it’s all tooth-tender.  You can add more water or broth if it gets too low.  And you can season to your pleasure.  Tonight, because it was mainly for Jack, I just used a parmesan rind, salt, and pepper.  Other nights, I might have used a combination of lemon and marjoram or thyme; or cumin, cayenne, and coriander.  In any case, it will benefit from a drizzle of flavorful olive oil (my bottle says “gusto forte”) and a sprinkling of grated cheese.  Yum.

A chunk of bread and a glass of hearty red helps too.

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Fall fell in a swirl of branches, leaves, and whole trees.  Yesterday afternoon, we watched the pines and bamboo swaying in circles as the wind picked up.  Rain fell hard, and stopped quickly.  And then, the most magnificent double rainbow I’ve ever seen arched across the Rome skyline, and the mountains, free from the haze after a long hot summer, seemed etched into the sky.  This morning, the air was crisp, about 15 degrees cooler than yesterday’s, and smoke from burning piles of brush signaled the arrival of autumn.  We rode the bus to our usual stop, just past Piazza Ottavilla, where we saw a huge pile of downed trees and branches.  Later, I ran through the park at Villa Pamphili, and saw huge old pines and palms lying broken on the grass.

I had spent the morning on a long market circuit in Trastevere, stopping at my favorite shops: Antica Caciari for fresh ricotta, Canestro for organic cereals, grains, lentils, and peanut butter, and Antico Forno Roscioli for delicious bread and un cornetto integrale–a whole wheat croissant with bitter honey inside.  I knew I’d found an amazing baker when I saw the impossible combination of whole wheat flecks and buttery thin flaky pastry.  How do they do it?

I love walking around Trastevere because of its spider web of narrow off-angle streets that open onto beautiful architectural surprises.

Trast. arch

Rena sent me on a hunt for this place, which carries organic milk in a little fridge near the door.

checco

nut tart

Wow!  It looks pretty, but what would it be like actually to eat this nutty tart?

The Fontana d’Acqua Paolo, seen from the pedestrian bridge, Ponte Sisto, jutting up at the top of the hill, marked the line I’d need to walk to find the steep set of stairs that would lead me up the hill back home.

Ponte sisto

And now, the pictures we’ve all been waiting for…

Il Arcobaleno!

arcobaleno 1

arc 2

I’d been cooking dinner, when Jack, sitting at the high counter in the kitchen, said, “there’s a huge rainbow in the sky.” Uh huh.  I was busy.  But then, I decided to look, and couldn’t believe it.  We ran down the stairs, but not before Jack resourcefully thought to pull on his puddle boots.  We buzzed Lulu and Jesse’s apartment, and ran outside with them to stand in the street.  The rainbow made a full half-circle.  And then we realized it was doubled by a fainter, inverted rainbow above:

double bow

Peter called down from the terrace, where everyone else was watching it.

Peter on terrace

The view from up there was even more amazing.

arc from terrace

arc terr 2

Jack

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Yesterday, I attended a panel discussion celebrating the publication of the Encyclopedia of Pasta, by Oretta Zanini de Vita and translated into English by Maureen Fant. Also in attendance were Sheila Levine, the editor from UC Press, who co-founded that wonderful magazine, Gastronomica, which features stories about the intersection of food and culture; and Chris Boswell, the sous chef here at the American Academy, a former Chez Panisse chef who is passionate about things like heirloom wheat varietals, and who cooks us amazing dinners here five nights a week.  He co-founded the Rome Sustainable Food Project with Mona Talbott.

pasta book

The highlights of the discussion were the humorous bits.  The hundreds (or more?) of pasta shapes which have evolved over the past few centuries have names which carry stories—many of them humorous, and sometimes with political overtones, such as strangulapreti (priest stranglers), and sometimes simply naughtily ridiculous, such as cazzetti d’angelo (little angel’s balls).  Oretta’s book combines the lore and history of all of Italy’s known varieties of pasta, which she learned mainly through personal conversation and perusal of personal recipe collections.  Part of the value of the book, then, is that it captures in text an oral and manual tradition that is beginning to be lost to convenience foods.  There are also instructions for making all kinds of pasta, and descriptions of how they are traditionally served.

Oretta also has some strong opinions about historical chronology.  She said that not only were Italians making pasta two hundred years before Marco Polo was born, but that when Marco Polo got back from China, his mother probably served him a big bowl of pasta—an assertion she delivered with her characteristic exclamatory tone and gestures.

Then, we ate five or so takes on pasta for lunch.  My favorite was the lasagna—made with incredibly few ingredients: house-made lasagna noodles separated by thinly sliced, narrow zucchini and pulled smoked scamorza, a spun cheese like mozzarella but more flavorful.  It was a taste sensation to remember.

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File:Rosetti02.jpg

Here is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s luxuriant post-Romantic Persephone, holding the fruit that completed her curse and imposed the season of winter on the world.   Abducted by Hades, and held in his realm, she was tricked into eating four seeds of the pomegranate.  Every year thereafter, she was forced to spend four months in the Underworld.  During these months, her mother, Demeter, the goddess of fertility, who mourned the loss of her daughter, neglected her duties and let the fruitfulness of the world die away.

This fruit has incredible baggage.  It is associated with fruitfulness in many traditions, and carries the whiff of the forbidden in Greek myth and Hebrew tradition (some believe Eve ate not an apple but a pomegranate).  In a contemporary version of myth and the mysteries of the body—nutrition science—the pomegranate is again a hallowed fruit, worshiped for its antioxidants, the free radicals (a great phrase) that may help to reduce the likelihood of everything from heart disease to breast cancer from developing.  Many Americans spend as much on a bottle of pomegranate juice as they do on a bottle of wine, and feel just as cultured and more virtuous for doing so.

poms

The other afternoon, I thought I might be in paradise.  The sun was warm and the breeze was cool in the garden at the American Academy.  I lay down in the long grass beneath the long, bowed, branches of the pomegranate tree, which were heavy with fruit. I heard the happy voices of Jack and his friends, as they ran around, frolicking and gamboling.  (Here’s an opportunity to use that word unironically–almost.)  I reached up to pick the biggest fruit, and later on enjoyed seeing Jack discover all of the secret chambers full of sweet-tart drippy seeds.

open pom

eat pom

We seem to have avoided any curses, unless that thunder storm that woke us up this morning counts.

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