Sep 132012

Logo for Parmesan cheeseI had already written about my doubts concerning terroir, using the example of parmesan cheese as a case study. I’ve just had an article on my research published in Petites Propos Culinaires. I’ll warn everyone that it’s a polemic, not an academic essay.  ZN

Find a copy of the article here. (Thanks to Tom Jaines for permission to make this pdf available. The article is copyright Petites Propos Culinaires.)

 Posted by on September 13, 2012
May 282012

A recent video about Rita Bordone, a popular Perugian fruit and vegetable vendor, has set off a chorus of people upset that she is closing her little shop in Via dei Priori to retire to the countryside where she has her gardens. I had the opportunity to talk with Mrs. Bordone recently and was shocked to hear about her youth (she is 73 years old).

Far from the healthy mix of foods in the so-called Mediterranean diet, the menu at Rita’s house when she was a girl was monotonous and insufficient. Her father was a sharecropper for one of the parasitic local elite landowners, and despite a rich piece of land, the children were always hungry. The primary reason was not too many children, but rather too heavy obblighi, or dues. Every month Rita’s family had to provide the baron with so many eggs, so many chickens, and a portion of whatever harvest was happening.

“We had lots of chickens, but I never ate eggs. We had to give most of them to the padrone, and the rest my mother sold in town to get money to buy sugar, salt, and soap.” Rita was pained describing her father weaving dried raspberry canes into the fig trees’ branches to keep the children from eating the fruit. “The figs were for the padrone,” she explained.

fruit and vegetable dealer PerugiaUmbria vaunts its past as a regione contadina, a farmer region. This is a serious misrepresentation of its past. Those who worked the land were not happy, independent yeoman but rather malnutritioned, exploited sharecroppers: Umbria was then a regione mezzadra. For whatever reason, Italians (and foreign enthusiasts of Italian food) prefer to forget or to remain ignorant of this past of inequity. I would argue that this is a mistake. Just as Umbrians should remember their past, Americans who envision some sort of Jeffersonian agrarian republic should remember that Jefferson was a slave-owning member of a landed, hereditary elite.  ZN

See Nicola Palumbo’s video here (only in Italian).

(Rita Bordone in her shop. Photo credit: Jess Paholsky)

May 222012
torta al testo

This blog has touched on the idea of “traditional Italian foods” a number of times, mostly in a somewhat heretical way. In a riff on Rachel Laudan’s fundamental essay on the subject (“A Plea For Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love Processed Food”), I would say that most traditional food, isn’t. Laudan gives a shockingly long list of traditional foods that have been invented in the past fifty years: Indonesian rijsttafel, the baguette, even fish & chips.

The dread “typical product” (prodotti tipici) pall has apparently descended on Perugia as well. This central Italian city is in the region of Umbria, still relatively poor in PDO (protected denomination of origin) products. In a letter  (dated 5 April 2012) to the organizers of the local sagre (country festivals often organized around a food product, e.g. Sagra of the Cornhusking, Sagra of the Onion), Giuseppe Lomurno, the assessor of Economic Development and Tourism, asked them to serve menus “characterized by the use of typical products of the province, leaving torta al testo as the basic dish.” Today (4 May 2012) a press release from the same office announced that this suggestion would become law, and that these festivals were moments in which to “reinforce the connection of the area, also with offering menus that privilege typical products and local drinks.”

Torta al testo literally means “cake on a tile,” though “cake” in Italian can refer to both sweet and savory breads. The “testo” is from Latin testu, which translates to plate or [ceramic] lid. Originally the dough was spread out on a terra cotta tile or a carefully seasoned field stone which had been heated up in a fireplace. Hot ashes and coals were spread over the top of the dough and the heat from below (the preheated testo) and above (the ashes and coals) cooked the dough into the torta, which because of the lack of yeast remained more or less flat (modern torta is about 2cm tall). The ashes were then brushed off and served. While enthusiasts see the torta al testo as a direct lineal descendant of a recipe in Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura, the procedure is general enough to be common to many cultures. Torta al testo is nothing special: flatbreads made in the same way (i.e. cooked on a tile) are found all over the peninsula. In Modena the name is cresciantina, while in Romagna it is known as the piadina; within Umbria the same recipe is called torta al panaro, torta sul testo, crescia sul panaro, and pizzo sotto lu focu.

Perugian restaurants divide the torta into pizza-like slices and then split the torta horizontally. A filling is piled carefully in between the two pieces of torta, resulting in a triangular sandwich. While ingredients can include fried bell peppers and onions, melted soft cheese, and prosciutto, the supposedly classic combination is Umbrian sausage and olive oil-soaked erba. This last ingredient—literally “grass” or “greens”—is actually a mixture of boiled chicory and kale, classic ingredients of the cucina povera (“cuisine of the poor”) of Umbria, which has become popular again in recent decades.

That the torta al testo is part of the cucina povera is something that almost all of the cookbooks surveyed make explicit. The pride in this simple-yet-hardy cuisine, born of necessity but enjoyed today because of its uncomplicated good taste, is a common theme in these books. My question is this: how traditional is torta al testo? While modern recipes call for wheat flour, yeast, salt, eggs, and even pecorino, the agrarian inquests of the nineteenth century make it clear that the torta al testo was made with water and mais flour, and very occasionally salt. While the modern version can be split and filled with other ingredients, the “classic” torta couldn’t be split because it was essentially a cake of polenta. Without wheat flour, there was not enough gluten to make the bread sliceable.

Thus the modern torta al testo doesn’t resemble its ancestor in ingredients, but the culinary meaning has undergone a shift as well. Far from being celebrated by nineteenth century Umbrian sharecroppers as a welcome, hearty meal, torta al testo was seen as a symbol of misery and penury, if not madness (too much mais flour caused pellagra, a scourge in Italy until the post-war period). It is ironic then that the torta al testo is seen as so typical as to be made an obligatory food at local festivals. Why did this re-invention happen, when did it happen, and how? I hope to give some answers to these questions in a paper for this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.   ZN


Rachel Laudan’s essay is available here.

Mar 212012
gmo mais

In April 2010 contrarian farmer Giorgio Fidenato posted a video on YouTube showing himself planting six seeds of a variety of corn called MON180, Monsanto’s YieldGuard genetically modified mais. While this GMO mais had been approved in the European Union since 1998, the lack of a clear application process for permits to use MON180 on one hand and the feet-dragging of politicians worried about public backlash for GMO approval made Fidenato’s act illegal. Ya Basta activists found the plants in August and cut down all of the corn in the field, leaving behind signs that warned of toxic contamination. Fidenato, who is an active anti-tax libertarian, vowed to continue to use GMO corn, his legal right he asserted.

It is difficult to know where to stand on this issue. Monsanto seems to be evil incarnate for the alt-food world, members of which check under their beds at night not for the boogieman but for the American agro-giant’s lawyers. The EU’s policy of a de facto ban until more is known about GMO plants also seems to be a good idea, but then (as James McWilliams points out in his excellent book Just Food), what about the known toxicity of insecticides that are sprayed on non-GMO fields? MON180 is in some ways more environmentally friendly as it needs much less pesticides: its cells contain a gene that expressed makes an insecticidal protein, Cry1Ab, spliced in from the genome of the bacteria  Bacillus thuringiensis. The European corn borer, a mais pest, eats the GMO mais plant and the protein attaches to its gut wall, paralyzing and killing it; the protein has no binding sites for mammals and so is completely harmless. While GMO opponents often cite a now much-criticized study on GMO mais pollen killing butterflies, it seems that GMO mais fields actually have a higher biodiversity than non-GMO fields, where toxic pesticides must be sprayed.

It is not our idea to be apologists for genetically modified organisms or their oligopolistic patent owners. But it’s not a cut-and-dry issue, even in Italy.  ZN

Mar 112012

I recently had the pleasure of a guest lecture for my course on The Business of Food in Italy, a lecture on the economics of wine by Dr.Stefano Castriota from the University of Perugia. Castriota described a European market which had too many incentives for overproduction. Wine consumption in Italy has shrunk dramatically in the past decades, contracting almost 60%, due to a certain extent to replacement by other beverages, but also to concerns about health. Rough “farmer wine” was a standard beverage for a hardworking peasantry in need of extra calories: no longer. The carafe which was always on the table is now absent. In its place is beer (and increasingly, artisanal beer, not just foreign lagers) or mineral water, as the decline of hard manual labor has been proportional to the rise in worries about alcohol and health.

The European Union had inadvertently promoted overconsumption in the past with Common Agricultural Policy subsidies linked to production, but the changes in the CAP for 2014 should help. Castriota pointed out that overproduction and decline in consumption has been around for a long time: he cited a paper by Charles Gide, entitled, “The Wine Crisis in Southern France” (The Economic Journal 17, no. 67). In his paper, Gide describes the problems of overproduction, market-distorting subsidization, and beverage substitution…in 1907! Castriota himself suggested that instead of useless policies like paying wine producers to rip out vineyards (only those who have the worst vineyards do so) and distilling excess European wine, the EU should focus on promoting wine education, as more knowledgeable drinkers will likely consume more wine.  ZN

 Posted by on March 11, 2012  Tagged with: ,
Mar 062012
Grain planted among trees with grape vines trained up them. With the kind permission of the Fondazione Lungarotti.

We’ve posted other modern pictures of the remnants of the agricultural system coltura promiscua (mixed farming), a system in which a polyculture of plants combine to make a highly productive field. The following pictures (used with the kind of the Fondazione Lungarotti) are from the early post-WWII period and clearly show the persistence of the coltura promiscua, as well as traditional winemaking methods (stomping grapes with feet). For more information, see our post on the coltura promiscua and visit Lungarotti’s Museum of Wine near Perugia, where these pictures can be viewed in context with many other objects from Italy’s agricultural past.  ZN



Woman harvesting grapes from vines grown around trees. With the kind permission of the Fondazione Lungarotti.

Coltura promiscua

Vines draped from tree to tree. With the kind permission of the Fondazione Lungarotti.

Grain planted among trees with grape vines trained up them. With the kind permission of the Fondazione Lungarotti.

Mar 022012
Terroir and the parmesan cheese production zone

Terroir is a French word which literally means “territory,” but which usually is used to mean “the taste of place.” Food enthusiasts claim that there is a combination of physical factors (e.g. soil chemistry, climate, altitude, precipitation, etc) and cultural variables (traditional practices) which together give food products a non-reproducible taste. I just finished reading Robert Ulin’s “Invention and Representation as Cultural Capital: Southwest French Winegrowing History” (American Anthropologist 97, no.3, 1995:519-527): the author suggests that Bordeaux’s primacy in the French wine world is due less to these natural/cultural factors and more to political-historical ones, among them the English occupation of the region in the Middle Ages and the ability of Bordeaux producers to get government recognition for the fair of 1855.

I am already quite skeptical about claims of food philology in Italy, i.e. that how food is produced now (and for whom) is similar in anything but the vaguest sense to production in the past. An example is parmesan cheese: what we know today as parmigiano-reggiano is an excellent cheese, but what connection does it have to the past? Until very recently, the cheese was colored/flavored with saffron and had a black paint made of lampblack and oil put on the outside. It was, until the 1960s, made with milk from a variety of cow breeds, among them the Bruna alpina and the Reggiana rossa. Now the black and white Holstein, a fantastic milk producer, is the primary source.

Terroir’s physical requirements convince me even less than the cultural ones. A quick look at the map below will disabuse the believer or some sort of soil unity inside the Black Line of the consortium’s official production area. There are many types of soils, and (given the mountains that are included) many types of terrain in that zone, with lots of variation as far as climactic conditions. Is terroir simply the invention of tradition? Does it serve a class function, a sort of distinction? Should we be ok with this fiction as long as it helps small producers? To be continued…  ZN

Terroir and the parmesan cheese production zone

What does terroir mean?


Feb 242012
herbs used by an herbalist

herbs used by an herbalistOur guide today to the Aboca Museum (a musem dedicated to herbal medicine run by the Italian herbal medicine giant Aboca) in Sansepolcro gave an interesting etymology which my special dictionaries later partially confirmed. Droga in Italian, and its obvious cognate in English “drug,” are both likely from Dutch or Low-German droge, which meant “dry” (compare modern German trocken). These were the dry contents of barrels, often the spices carried by the Dutch; as many spices entered Italy in specific and Europe in general first through the pharmacy and only later became part of the category “food,” this word was generalized to “medicinal substances.” My only doubt about all this semantic shifting is according to my trusty Barnhart’s, the word enters English between 1387-95, which does not correspond by any stretch of the imagination to Dutch dominance of the spice trade from the Far East. It remains an open question.  ZN


Feb 202012
Logo for Non c'era in Centro Perugia

Beer consumption in Italy has been relatively flat for decades but there seems to be an uptick, if not in consumption per se, then at least in interest. We’ve reported the University of Perugia’s center for beer research, but there’s something new in the center of Perugia. The name of the new pub is “Non c’era in centro” (There wasn’t [one, i.e. a place like this] in the center). The name is as awkward as the place is interesting. It has the modern elegance of an upscale wine bar, with a bright interior and colorful ceramic tiles attached to a white wall. But this place sells beer, not wine; or rather, it focuses on beer, as wine is available but seems rather marginalized.

The pub itself is part of a building that used to house Fabbrica Birra Perugia, which operated from 1875 until the 1960s, one of the many breweries which opened in that epoch, some of which are still open: Wuhrer, Forst, Dreher, and Peroni among them. While I found the food excellent (aside from too-sweet sauerkraut), this is not a restaurant review but rather (like our recent review of the Osteria di Pinocchio) a contextualization within Italian food history. The fact that a restaurant can open which both uses beer—foreign, artisanal, and even local artisanal—as its strong point, a place which offers pretzels and a variety of hamburgers as main dishes alongside the traditional fare available anywhere shows a pretty big shift in Italian food habits. The owner of Non c’era in centro has made a bet that there are enough culinarily bold Italians to actually fill his place most nights a week. Are the hamburgers exactly like they are in a hole-in-the-wall burger joint in the States? No, they’ve been “interpreted,” but that’s natural, unless one is obsessed with what I call “philological food.” I personally find this a refreshing change to the dominant “our cuisine is the best, period” attitude that has taken root in Italy in the past twenty years (fueled by too much fawning attention from American foodies). Kudos.  ZN


Feb 072012
Dario Cecchini

[This is an essay I wrote a while ago, trying to place Dario Cecchini in the Italian culinary tradition.]

Dario Cecchini is, according to the Los Angeles Times, “the world’s most famous butcher.” The New York Times, the Guardian, and countless other newspapers and general interest magazines, not to mention specialty culinary publications, write paeans to Cecchini. His butcher shop and his two restaurants in Panzano, a Tuscan hilltop town, are stops on self-defined foodies’ culinary tours of Italy. Cecchini is something of a showman and descriptions of him rarely fail to write about the “poet-butcher” quoting Dante while cutting up pork butts. The justification for the attention given Cecchini is not his ability to declaim the Divine Comedy but rather his able combination of tradition and modernity. Cecchini insists on using all the cuts of the animal on his cutting board, not simply the steaks and tenderloins. Using ancient Tuscan recipes for rendering the “inferior cuts” not simply edible but delicious, Cecchini catches two pigeons with one fava bean (as the Italian proverb goes) and claims to make butchery sustainable. This combination of presentation, delicious taste, and Tuscan tradition are the elements that appear most frequently in write-ups about the Antica Macelleria Cecchini.

The Cecchini family have owned butcher shops in the Chianti area for more than two hundred and fifty years. The eldest son always took over the butcher shop from his father, and many butchers from the area did their apprenticeships in Cecchini butcher stores. Dario Cecchini was not, however, supposed to be a butcher. He would have been the first eldest son in eight generations not to become a butcher, but his studies in veterinary school in Pisa were interrupted by the untimely death of his father. According to Cecchini, his mother cried when he said he was leaving his university studies to return to Panzano to become a butcher.

Dario CecchiniThis hybrid of veterinarian-butcher-restaurateur is not reducible to its parts as each informs the other. The butcher shop does not work to produce what is served in the restaurant; rather the restaurant serves what the butcher shop produces. This seems meaningless until one hears that Dario himself, despite being the son of a butcher, never had a steak until he was eighteen years old. This was because, just like the restaurants today, the family dinners were based on what was left over from the butcher had removed the salable cuts. The steaks, tenderloins, and other “premium cuts” were sold to customers, while the rest of the animal butchered was eaten by the Cecchini family.

These so-called “inferior cuts,” the muscles that were used the most during the animal’s life, are (says Cecchini) paradoxically the most flavorful because of the blood pumped through them. The popularity of the steak and the tenderloin are due to their tenderness and ease of cooking, rather than their flavor; taste, not tenderness, should be the prime factor in considering meat, given that we have teeth, says Cecchini. The pieces that Cecchini’s father used to bring home from the butcher shop were delicious but needed the right cooking to soften them up and exalt the natural flavor. These traditional Tuscan recipes are the same that are used to make what is served in the restaurants. The boiled beef knees are tough at first but after four hours on a slow boil with vegetables are a delicious treat. Other recipes come from the peasant tradition of preserving the various parts of the pig after the early January butchering. The parts that could not be used fresh were often salted then put under oil – the treatment that pig shoulders are given for Cecchini’s “Chianti tuna,” pork shoulders which after salting and boiling in wine are as tender as tuna.

The Macelleria Cecchini opens off of Via Chiantigiana, a small sidestreet near the main square. Entering one finds on the left a large glass display case with various meat products inside and behind it, on an elevated platform, the butcher (usually but not always Cecchini himself), with his knives and cutting board. The shop itself is tiled as butcher shops normally are, but the one long wall has a long table with samples of bread with herbed lard (what Cecchini calls “Chianti butter”) set out for visitors, along with a display of his other products (herbed salt, preserves). A large shelf accommodates hundreds of books and magazines on food and cooking in various European languages.

Directly off the butcher shop is a small prep room with a sliding door that looks like the tiled wall; it is a staircase that leads upstairs to the restaurant space that during lunch used to be called “MacDario”  (apparently a threatening fax from McD’s forced a name change). The eating space is hardly what you would expect upstairs from a more or less traditional butcher shop. The floors are made of basalt but the walls are white and the floor-to-ceiling cupboards that hold the extra plates look like Jackson Pollack painted them, splattered as they are with paint. The flatwear and plates are all modern, with not even a hint of the rough ceramic plates and carafes of other “typical” Tuscan restaurants. Another radical layout element is the main table. There are two small tables in corners of the room but the main dining area is dominated by a single, long table, at which guests are seated. This is in stark contrast to a “normal” restaurant where each party has its own table; Cecchini refers to this seating arrangement as a convivio, which is a name for a specific kind of Renaissance banquet during which disputations on philosophical topics were held in Latin.

Directly across the street is Solo Ciccia (“Just Meat”), which was the first of the three restaurants and the one that Cecchini himself feels is the best expression of his philosophy. The cooks arrive in the morning at nine and begin all the evenings dishes, many of which require long cooking to render them tender. The set menu is, as the name of the restaurant suggests, a meal of meat cooked in all different ways, all of them traditional recipes “modernized” by Cecchini. Solo Ciccia has two seatings, one at seven and one at nine, where, according to its menu:

This is the home of a butcher. All that you will eat is the fruit of my work and that of my family. You will not choose from a menu, though you will be treated well, and with great respect, if you return the favour. You will eat at a communal table, together in “convivio”. There will be six meat courses, chosen at my discretion, with seasonal vegetables, white beans with olive oil, focaccia, bread, cake, coffee, a quarter liter of our own wine, and after-dinner liqueurs. All of the above is to be had for 30 €, with nearly two hours at our table, at the end of which you will turn over your seat to the next guests. We do not serve steak.

Once again a communal table, though here four tables in four separate rooms. Up to eighteen people sit down at each table, practically guaranteeing that strangers will be mixed, and as large dishes are brought out they serve each other, as one would do at home.

Dario Cecchini’s philosophy is a symphony: intricate and admittedly beautiful combinations of several themes. His raw materials are not simply cuts of meat but rather animals. Cecchini is involved with the raising of the Catalonian cows and pigs that supply his butcher shop because respect for the animal is the first priority of any butcher. “Respect” is not an abstract term but means three things: a good life, a good death, and the use of the whole animal. Animals need to enjoy a good life with a good diet, in this case pasture as well as a mix of oats and barley. They also need a good death: the cows and pigs are not moved before slaughter, but rather slaughtered then shipped to the butcher shop. Finally, all of the pieces of the animal are used, not simply the most popular cuts; this gives meaning to both the life and the death of the animal in Cecchini’s eyes.

Local? A buzzword, but perhaps not an accurate measure of sustainability.

Dario plays the part of the virtuous butcher by cooking up everything but the cow’s moo, but he uses meat trucked in from Spain, from 683 miles away. This disregard for the fossil fuel conservation, his disregard of the logic of local, makes him just another faker, right? When asked Dario why he didn’t use local beef, and his wrinkles made plain that it was not the first time a locavore had put that question to him. “I could have local beef here in my shop and restaurant. I could buy local cows and have maybe not mile zero meat, but maybe two-mile meat. But that’s the problem: it’s two-mile meat, but what about the grain to make it?” The problem, as Dario explained to me, is that Chianti is Italy’s most famous type of wine. If you owned four acres of land in Chianti, would you pasture five or six cows, or makes several thousand bottles of Chianti wine? Four acres of wine grapes can make someone a lot more money than four acres of pasture.

This means feeding these hypothetical local cows lots of grain. Where is this grain from? From the Great Plains of Canada, the US, Argentina, and even India. Your cows are local, but all that grain they’re eating is not. And grain is an energy-intensive food. While a grass pasture doesn’t have to be plowed, planted, fertilized, or harvested, growing grain is an incredibly oil-intensive process. We think of a vegetarian diet based on cereals as more natural and low-energy, but I can tell you that growing grain the way we do now needs a lot of energy. Tractors have to plow the land, plant the seeds, fertilize, and harvest. That requires a lot of fossil fuels. So the Chianina cows may be local, but they grain they eat is from Argentina, Canada’s great plains, or even India.

Tradition and innovation: as Dario says, one has to be grounded like a tree, with roots in tradition, with branches free to grow in the contemporary world.  ZN


[Note: I wrote my M.A. thesis at Middlebury College on Dario. I've given several invited lectures and even have a short proposal for a book. Anyone interested in knowing more about Dario and his approach to making meat more sustainable can contact me or watch my interviews with him on YouTube (English transcripts available).]