Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Pleasures and Perils of Food

I woke up this morning –late late morning it must be said—to the aroma of onions and tomatoes. Saturday must be ragu day for somebody. Well, it just confirms what every cook and wine geek says--that the sense of smell is as important as the sense of taste. (Hmm. I’m employing a lot of dashes in my writing today. It just makes me feel so breezy and carefree when I do that, like somebody who wears a lot of silk scarves). Back to my point about the sense of taste. The other afternoon I took a cooking class in which we made gnocchi, small potato dumplings. Let me tell you that gnocchi is A LOT of work. The biggest bang for one’s buck was putting a couple of little leaves of basil on top of the layered gnocchi/tomato sauce/mozarella. That millisecond of work made the whole kitchen smell like a summer garden.

Cooking classes seem to be a growing trend in Italy. Week-long courses are readily available and some are tied in with agroturismo in which you live in somebody’s home in a rural setting. For me, the afternoon class was really enough to give me a taste (if you’ll pardon the pun) of Italian cooking basics. We met at the language school, Madrelingua, (which I am enjoying and would recommend, so I've linked it) and the six of us that comprised the class took a ten -minute walk to the home of our chef-teacher. She was a young woman, obviously enthusiastic and well-organized. She managed to coordinate the tasks so that we ended up with gnocchi, polpette (meatballs) and tiramisu. Unfortunately she was one of those fast talkers who was extremely hard to understand. (She was speaking Italian after all). It’s a good thing that a cooking class is mostly demonstration or I think we would have all been totally mystified.

The most interesting aspect of the class for me was checking out the gadgets she used which were dedicated to very specific tasks. To puree the tomatoes she had something called a passapomodoro (which would be translated I think into "tomato pureeifier"). It looks like a salad spinner with a crank that pushes the juice and pulp through mesh, leaving the seeds and skin. The other item resembled one of those hand-held cheese graters, the ones that look like a garlic press except that the holes were large. This is actually a potato press. You put pieces of cooked potato in the storage area and squeeze the handles. The potatoes get extruded through the holes and this is how you get them ready to be mixed with eggs, flour and parmesan for the gnocchi batter. Now I understand why the one we have back at the apartment didn’t work so well with parmesan cheese. Generally I’m very much opposed to having gadgets around the house that only do one thing. They take up a lot of space that we don’t have. However, I can definitely see the advantages of both of these. I was very interested to note that the CD’s and books in our teacher’s house were mostly devoted to punk musicians. I like imagining her making gnocchi for Sunday dinner to a Sex Pistols soundtrack.

When it comes to food, every tourist, traveller or expat is thrust into a situation which requires diplomacy or (for the brave or foolhardy) honesty. I’ll always remember meeting the daughter of my landlady when I was studying in London. Her name was Pam. She was about five years older than me but seemed like she was about forty-five. After hearing that I was from the United States she said, “I don’t like your bread.” Well, how would you feel to be blamed for the processed bread of an entire country ? This was 1978 after all, well before artisanal bakeries starting popping up all over the States. I have to say that my relationship with Pam was never very good. I don’t think I could ever quite get past being unjustly linked to Wonderbread.

It was quite a different story the other day, in terms of food diplomacy. We were talking with an Italian friend who lives in our neighborhood and she told us about a wonderful butcher a few blocks from our house, a very traditional place and well-regarded. Oh, and they sell horsemeat exclusively. I want to bring this to your attention so that if you come to Italy and see a store called Equine Macelleria you will know that it is indeed a horse butcher. Equine isn’t a family name. Our friend was quite enthusiastic about the product. It is easy to prepare, strong-flavored but tasty. And all of a sudden I am hearing my husband say in a bright, enthusiastic voice, “We’ll have to try it !” At least I think it was him. In real life he is not this keen to try things like horsemeat. He can be quite fixed in his views and he’s not afraid to take unpopular stances. (He has been known to say that Ella Fitzgerald lacked gravitas. I mean who on earth criticizes Ella Fitzgerald ?) But as I said, residing in another country can bring out the diplomat in a person.

Am I perhaps being closed-minded ? Should there be more horsemeat in our country instead of less? Kentucky’s economic base could be greatly expanded. I’m picturing KENTUCKY RACEHORSE JERKY: They thrilled you on the track. Enjoy them as a snack ! Oh gosh, did I really write that ? Please forgive me, especially my horseback riding friends, but I’ve been having trouble sleeping so my mind has been wandering and not into very profound territory as you can see.

It occurs to me that I did not mention that the friend who waxed poetically about the horsemeat had invited us to dinner this weekend. Wouldn’t it be something if she served horsemeat due to Bill’s keen show of interest ? We discussed this later on and he referenced Anthony Bourdin’s travel/cooking show in which he eats scary food. I reminded Bill that Anthony Bourdin gets a zillion dollars to eat bunny ears or whatever. All we have is this blog.