Student Blog: Food Science Course in Italy
Danielle Roman '12 — undeclared
"These sculptures were so accurate down to every little vein in the hands and neck, each curly lock of hair, and even individual teeth. It's just so incredible. I was in awe that words cannot capture."
Whatsa Matta You?
This experience was made possible through the help and support of several very special people. I'd first like to thank Dr. Sheila Brownlow and the Catawba College Honors Department for offering this wonderful opportunity to travel abroad, as well as substantial financial support that made this trip affordable. In addition, a special thank you goes to my loving parents, Michael and Joan Roman, for meeting the majority of my financial needs concerning this trip, as well as being extensively supportive throughout the entire process. Their encouragement to pursue this opportunity and their endless help and advice along the way made this trip go smoother than it ever would have been otherwise. A special recognition goes to Ms. Delores Imblum for her considerable administrative and logistical support in preparation for this trip. Her endless efforts made the whole preparation process painless and stress-free.
I would also like to thank Dr. Mark Sabo for his willingness and enthusiasm to travel abroad with our class. Many professors would not have had the same attitude towards traveling with students; however his outlook on the trip made it a fun and enjoyable experience for all who were involved. Finally, a very special thank you goes to Giorgio Osimani for being a wonderful tour director. His guidance, knowledge, and humor, made this trip an unforgettable, once in a lifetime experience. There wasn't a single question that he could not provide an informed answer for, and yet he was also a never-ending source of entertainment. He made this cultural and culinary adventure truly memorable. I cannot thank all these people enough for their part in my life-changing experience in Italy.
Saturday March 6, 2010
I'm on the plane to Italy!! (Well, this plane is actually going to Munich, where we'll catch our connection to Milan.) We hit some traffic on the way to the airport, but we made it in plenty of time. Terminal D is apparently the international terminal, so I felt like a tourist before we even left Charlotte. We were some of the only Americans in the whole terminal. Everything was so strange to me when we first boarded the plane. Because Lufthansa is a German airline, they offer German Magazines and newspapers, as well as make all their announcements in German first, then in English. It also caught me off guard that everything is written in German first and English second (as opposed to things in America being written in English first, and then Spanish). Suddenly I'm the one speaking the foreign language! That's not something I've ever experienced
before. It seems like such an obvious thing, but its weird experiencing that for the first time.
The dinner on the flight was very good. I had to smile when the flight attendant first brought it to me because it looked so small. The salad container was about 3 inches by 4 inches (four leaves of lettuce, half a cherry tomato, and 3 miniature croutons). The salad was the same size as the brownie we had for dessert, and the brownie was a normal sized brownie. However, the meal was just the right amount of food to fill me up. My main dish was pasta with an alfredo-type sauce and sundried tomatoes and a rosemary roll. Of course it was my luck that I would be seated to the left of a lefty, so we bumped elbows the whole time. I couldn't help but think of Gabe because he always scolds me for sitting on his left at meals. Another thing that caught me off guard was that it is customary to serve wine with dinner, and with no drinking age in Germany, they gladly serve it to anyone who
wants it. Since I'm not 21 yet, it was very foreign to me to have someone offering me alcohol without any interest in my age.
I guess all there's left to do is sleep. We have screens in the back of the seats in front of us where we can watch movies and TV or listen to music, but mine isn't working at all. It restarted twice and now it's frozen completely. So I guess I'll just sleep. And I must say, I have the coolest sleeping gear ever: an orange and teal eye mask, a zebra print neck pillow, cheap airline headphones (if I plug them into my armrest, I can still listen to music even though my TV screen doesn't work), and the gray and orange blanket the airline provided. I will just be the picture of beauty!
Sunday March 7, 2010
We're in the Munich airport. We were served breakfast on the plane before we landed. It was small, but again, just enough. There was a fruit cup with pineapple, mango, and half a strawberry, a whole grain roll with jelly, a piece of cheese, a Nature Valley granola bar, OJ, and coffee. It was a well-balanced meal that was just the right size. Sleep was not common among everyone. I took two Tylenol PM, so I got a decent amount of sleep. I was definitely grateful for the eye mask, neck pillow, blanket, and headphones, no matter how ridiculous I looked. I'm sure the jet lag will catch up with me, but for now I'm OK. The Munich airport is very ... European. The first store I saw was a lingerie shop and there are smoke lounges everywhere. I'm told we have them in American airports too, but I've never seen one and they're everywhere in this airport. Each
cigarette company has their own smoking lounge. In addition, there is a napping area with long benches that you can lay on and relax or take a nap. The interior design of the airport is also very European: streamlined, compact, modern, and almost entirely made of glass and windows. I was surprised by all the snow on the ground, but then again, it is Germany in the winter. As we were landing, I could see all the little snow-covered German villages and towns. It looked like a children's book: cute little snow-covered cottages and farms.
P.S. Zach found some 70% cocoa chocolates at a service counter. It was so delicious! Sorry Hershey's. This is way out of your league. WE also played an epic game of Banana grams. The Asian tourists in the airport were so fascinated with it that they videotaped us playing!
Giorgio picked us up from the airport in Milan. He seems to be a fun character, but he also seems to know everything there is to know about Italy. We stopped at an Auto Grill, where we had our first meal in Italy. It was the most stressful process! Giorgio tried to explain to us what to do, but we still weren't really sure and nobody spoke very much English, so I ended up getting the same pasta that the four people ahead of me ordered. It was actually very good, though. I had tortellini with a cheese sauce and a bottle of water (7 Euros). I also tried a Pocket Coffee, which is basically a chocolate covered espresso shot (it has actual liquid inside). That definitely gave me the boost I needed! On our way to the hotel, Giorgio gave us some general information about the area we are in, as well as Italy as a whole:
- The first area we are going to is the heart of Italian food and production of goods. In the Parma region, they make everything from cheese, balsamic vinegar, and ham, to helicopters and cars.
- We crossed the Po River, which is 652 Km long, making it the longest river in Italy.
- Italy is slightly bigger than New Mexico and can fit inside the USA 33 times. However, Italy has one sixth of the USA's population (versus one 33rd of its size), meaning Italy has a much denser population.
- The government of Italy is similar to that of the USA. It is a democracy with a prime minister (similar to the US president, except the prime minister has no authoritative powers, except during national emergencies) and parliament with deputies (equivalent to US congressmen). This structure is based off of the foundation set forth by the Roman Empire (509-514 BCE) when it functioned as a democracy. Italy also has a president of the republic, which is similar to the king or queen of Britain, who serves only as a figurehead. This strict democracy is in place to avoid a repeat of the fascist government established by Mussolini.
- From 1947 up until ten years ago, there were 66 different parties represented in the Italian parliament. This changed when a new law was passed stating that you must have at least 4% of the population's support in order to be represented in parliament. This narrowed parliament down to 12 parties that can, which can be categorized as "Center-Right" (Republican) and "Center-Left" (Democratic).
We had dinner at the hotel this evening. We were served a traditional four-course Italian meal: appetizer, pasta, meat, and dessert. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't started running a fever. When we got to the hotel I wasn't feeling well, so I took some Advil and lay down for a little while, hoping it was just due to almost 24 hours of traveling. But by about half way through dinner I could tell that I had a fever, which significantly hindered my appetite. Nausea and feverish chills do not make for enjoyable meals. My latest temperature reading was 99.9°F. I just hope a good night's sleep will clear this up (and I hope I don't get Claire sick tonight, because we are sharing a room and she already has a cold to begin with).
Monday March 8, 2010
I woke up this morning with an even higher fever of 101.7°F. I didn't sleep very much at all. I was up about every hour and a half. I was to the point of being so feverish that I was hot and cold all at the same time and my whole body ached, no matter what position I tried to sleep in. I stayed on a steady regiment of Advil all day, but it just barely took the edge off, and I slept on the bus as much as I could. Today was factory-touring day. Of course we were not told that we would be going to the mountains for this, or that none of the factories would be heated, so most of us did not dress appropriately, and I we were all very cold for most of the day.
Despite my sickness, the factories were actually very interesting! I really enjoyed the tours. My favorite, hands down, was the Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese factory. Here are some notes I took throughout the tour:
- This cheese has been made the same way for over 1000 years, and there are very strict laws in place ensuring the process remains the same.
- "Caseificio" is the process of turning milk into cheese. The milk must start this transformation within 2 hours of milking; therefore the factory can only be supplied by local dairy farms.
- Molds, insects, and bugs all contribute to the cheese-making process. They are not nearly as uptight about cleanliness and sanitation here. This process has been working for over 1000 years, so it can't be that unsanitary.
- Milk that is delivered in the evening sits until morning, when the fat is skimmed off to be churned into butter. This semi-skimmed milk is mixed with the full cream milk of the fresh morning delivery of milk to make cheese (about 1100 liters of milk per day). The milk is separated by supplier and is tracked throughout the entire process.
- The milk is heated to 33°C and the cheese master adds 33 liters of yesterday's whey and 22 grams of Renate, which is an enzyme found in the 4th stomach of calves.
- The mixture is churned with a large whisk to break up the curds so that each grain can absorb as much whey as possible. Then the entire mixture is reheated to 44°Reaumur (about 55°C).
- The cheese master feels the grains to see if they're ready, then turns off the heat and all the curds settle to the bottom. They are scooped up with a wooden paddle into cheese cloth. Each batch of curds are cut in half and put in separate cheese cloths. The curds are then transferred to wooden cheese boxes where they begin the drying process. Each wheel is marked with the date it was made and the number of the supplier.
- The cheese is then transferred to metal containers lined with a plastic template that imprints "Parmigiano Reggiano" into the sides, as well as where and when the cheese was made, and where the milk originally came from. From this, you can fully trace the origin of every single wheel of cheese made.
- The cheese then soaks in a salt bath that's 100% saturated with salt, in which the cheese expels most of the excess whey. The salt can only be Italian marine salt. Each wheel weighs about 50 kilograms, but they still float in the salt bath.
- After about 22-23 days, the cheese is removed from the alt bath and put in long-term storage areas to age. From here, they give respect and time and let nature take its course.
- After a year, each wheel of cheese is checked by the cheese master. He uses a mallet and hits the cheese in 17 different places around the sides. If it sounds even all the way around, then it is suitable for long term aging. But if there are any dull-sounding spots, then there are air pockets inside the cheese; it must be sold within 12-18 months of the time it was made. This cheese is called "mezzano". The rest of the cheese will be aged for 24, 30, or 36 months. The longer it ages, the stronger the flavor of the cheese (after 36 months, the cheese is suitable for the lactose intolerant because all of the milk proteins have been completely broken down).
- This whole process was developed by monks who reclaimed the land and turned it into pastures where they could graze cattle (pushing the sheep to Tuscany). The cows, to this day, eat a very specific diet of medicinal herbs, clover, barley, oats, and vegetable pellets. They are never fed animal proteins or silage, nor are they ever treated with antibiotics or medicines. The cheese is never treated in any way, other than salting. The kettles are only cleaned with hot water and whey, never chemicals. The cows and the cheese can only be from the region of Parma. Good cheese smells like pineapple, nuts, and fruit. The whey can be cooked again to make ricotta, when means "re-cooked". The whey can also be used for healing purposes. Its high calcium content can be used for helping to heal broken bones by soaking the effected limb in hot whey.
- Serving and storage: open cheese and pat dry. Gouge, don't slice. To store, wrap in a damp tea cloth, seal in plastic, and refrigerate. If it dried out, grate into an ice tray and freeze. This can be used in soups and as toppings on pasta dishes. The rind can also be used in soup, as well as for children who are teething.
We were offered samples of the cheese after the tour. It was absolutely delicious!! We were told that we can take it back to the states with us if it is vacuum-packed, so I bought a kilo of the cheese that's aged for 30-months. It was my favorite. I know my family will love it! We're a big cheese family. And I can't wait to share a little taste of Italy with them. The food here just doesn't even compare to what we have in the states. American food is definitely cheap food, and the quality difference shows.
Next, we went to a Parma Ham factory, where they showed us the process for making prosciutto:
- Prosciutto is dried pig haunches (back legs). The pig must be an Italian White Yorkshire and must be 160 Kg at one year old.
- The pigs are stunned before slaughter to avoid stressing them. If they're stressed, they'll release a hormone that ruins the meat.
- The meat is wet and dry salted with 100% Italian marine salt.
- The process, like cheese-making, is all about respect and time. It goes as such: 5 day salting, 15 day salting. 20 days of rest, trimming, 80 days rest, bath, 3 months rest, sugna (sp?) coating (minced pork fat, pepper, salt, and rice flour) placed over entire ham by hand to soften and protect it, and then the maturing process that takes 20 months. The total process takes 24 months. A shin bone of a horse is used to test the hams' smell. The bone has no smell, nor does it absorb smell, therefore it is a neutral tool that can be used to check the scent of the ham.
- Authentic Parma prosciutto is branded with the Ducal Crown, a five pointed crown. With the bone still in the ham, it is sold to a market from the factory for 12 Euros per kilo, meaning each ham is sold for 150 Euros.
Our third stop was an authentic balsamic vinegar factory. The process went as such:
- It is a six-barrel process, with barrels made of specific types of wood and arranged largest to smallest. The process takes a minimum of 12 years, with the gold seal vinegar taking 25 years to make. The factory we were at had balsamic vinegar dating back 60 years and actual barrels dating back to the 19th century (the older the barrels, the better).
- This balsamic vinegar actually contains no alcohol or vinegar, although it does involve a fermentation and reduction process.
- The balsamic vinegar begins as grape juice the largest barrel. From here, it gradually works its way though all 6 barrels. As evaporation occurs, the level of liquid in the barrels goes down. Beginning with the smallest barrel, liquid is poured from the next biggest barrel into the smaller barrel, filling it up. After this has been done with all the barrels, the largest barrel is topped off with fresh juice.
- For 12-year-old balsamic vinegar, six 100mL bottles are made from every liter of grape juice. For this reason, along with the years of labor it takes to produce this vinegar, the price is quite high. It costs 40 Euros for one 100mL bottle of 12-year-old balsamic vinegar. It costs 75 Euros for one 100mL bottle of 25-year-old balsamic vinegar.
After the balsamic vinegar tour, we had a tasting of the vinegar. First we tasted balsamic vinegar that you would find in the grocery store. It was very acidic and pungent and did not taste good at all. Next, we tasted four-year-old traditional balsamic vinegar. It was much less acidic, but still had a distinct, almost bitter flavor to it. Next was the 12-year-old balsamic vinegar. This vinegar was noticeably thicker and somewhat sweeter.
Finally, we tasted the 25-year-old balsamic vinegar. This vinegar was almost the consistency of molasses, it was so thick. Many people thought enjoyed this vinegar, remarking that it was much sweeter. Perhaps it was because of the residual flavors of the other vinegars, or maybe the fact that I was sick, or even the fact that it was served plain, but I could not stand any of the vinegars we tried. I can't handle the smell of vinegar anyways,
so tasting it was a big step for me, but I absolutely hated them all. At the end of the tasting, they served us the 25-year-old vinegar over ice cream. Many thought it tasted like caramel. By then, I was at the point where I just needed the flavor out of my mouth completely, so I ate the plain ice cream around the vinegar as much as I could and threw the rest away. I couldn't stomach the thought of having that flavor in my mouth all the way to Florence.
Our first evening in Florence, we were on our own for dinner. Giorgio walked us to the Duomo from our hotel, pointed us in the direction of some restaurants, and sent us on our way. However before they left, Dr. Sabo and Giorgio walked me to a farmacia to see a "chemist". By the time we had gotten back on the bus at the balsamic vinegar factory, I was crying from being in so much pain. The Advil had only taken the edge off and I was to the point of barely being able to swallow, so Giorgio agreed to take me to a farmacia in Florence (Giorgio freaked out at the sight of my tears, insisting that I "stop crying right now and smile!"). The farmacia was an adventure because I could not speak any Italian and the chemist could not speak any English, so Giorgio translated for me as best he could (it's hard to translate medicine names). I told Giorgio my symptoms, he translated,
and then the chemist held up medicines that he thought would work, while Giorgio tried to explain to me what they were. We finally settled on an antibiotic that Giorgio recognized as a common one, along with a medicine similar to Sudafed. Since I couldn't read anything on the boxes, I had Giorgio go over the dosing instructions three times to make sure I got it right. Then 11 of us (students) went off to dinner.
For dinner, we found a small pizzeria (that turned out to not be small at all. It had multiple rooms connected through what seemed like a maze). The guy that sat us also gave us a card for his buddy's bar, trying to talk us into going after dinner. At this point I was in no position to eat, as I could barely swallow, so I ordered a cappuccino, hoping the heat would sooth my throat. However, the restaurant was running a deal that you could get a drink, an entrée, and a dessert for 10 Euros, so everyone else took that deal. I had a slice each of Zach and Quinn's pizzas, just to get something in my stomach so that I could take my medicine. It was very delicious. One was tomato and mozzarella and one was spinach and Italian sausage (real Italian sausage!!). For dessert, people ordered a variety of delicious looking desserts (none of which I partook in, but was
told that they were amazing). There was Tiramisu, panna cotta (a white cream custard with dark chocolate sauce on top), and biscotti dipped in a pungent golden wine. Afterwards, most of the group went looking for the bar we'd been invited to, however I came back to the hotel to get some sleep.
Tuesday March 9, 2010
We spent the day in Florence. The high today was a toasty 6°C, so my first order of business this morning was buying a scarf. It's probably the best thing I've bought so far because I would have been pretty miserable without it (and it is beautiful!). After all, we woke up this morning to flurries; and might I add that it apparently hasn't snowed in Florence in 13 years, let alone in March! I finally slept soundly last night. That antibiotic seems to have significantly reduced my fever practically overnight. I'm still taking steady doses of Advil, but today when I take Advil, my fever actually goes away.
Our day started with a guided tour of Florence. Wow, this is a beautiful city! The tour started at the Duomo (word meaning "house" or "home" that was adopted to refer to a church), which seems to be the central building of Florence. Both the inside and outside are magnificent! I've never seen such detail on such a large structure before. Every little piece of the exterior could be a work of art in itself. The actual dome was completed many years after the rest of the structure, simply because they didn't have the technology to build it. After years of having a gaping hole in the roof, the city finally held a competition to see who could come up with a design that would be feasible and structurally sound. The contest was a success and the dome was finally completed, although several different
methods had to be used in order for the dome to be sturdy. Many years later, Michelangelo, a native of Florence, painted the inside of it, and that is a sight to behold! It is so beautiful that it is beyond words. In addition, there are several paintings and sculptures throughout the church. The most interesting feature, besides the dome, is the clock on the end wall of the church opposite the alter. It is a 24-hour clock notated in Roman numerals, but it does not depict actual time (as we understand it today), but rather it follows the path of the sun from east to west. Because of the orientation of the church and clock, the clock actually turns counterclockwise in order to follow the sun. It is very unique.
Our tour continued through Florence. We crossed a famous bridge that actually has stores along the sides (expect in the very center). It was really interesting because you didn't realize you were in a bridge at first. It just seemed as though you were walking up a slight hill, until you get to the center and realize you're over the river. From there we walked past the Galleria degli Uffizi, a famous art museum in Florence. Right next to the Uffizi is a square where the David originally stood (the actual David is now in a museum, but a replica stands in its place). I never realized that David as actually posed holding a slingshot and a stone, which of course makes perfect sense now that it's been pointed out to me. I had just never thought about it before. It was also interesting
that Michelangelo made David left-handed because Michelangelo himself was left-handed. I thought that was a cool artistic touch. It seems like such a trivial detail, but that those things are actually very important to artists. Many artists take pride in which hand dominates their creativity. There were several other magnificent sculptures lining the square, as well as a fountain full of sculptures both of marble and copper. The sculptures depicted many well-known gods, mythical characters, and Biblical characters.
Our tour concluded back at a leather shop, where we were treated to a leather demonstration. I think we were more excited for the warmth and shelter from the elements more so than the leather, but it was still very interesting and useful information. The gentleman doing the demonstration first showed us the process for making leather jewelry boxes modeled after one made for an Italian princess to remind her of home. It involves fusing several layers of leather together through a process of applying moisture and heat. The genuine boxes are very sturdy, but are made of nothing but pure leather. There is no glue or structural lining to support the box. It was actually very beautiful, but outrageously expensive. A small box, about 4 inches by 6 inches, was almost 500 Euros! The second part of the demonstration instructed us on how to tell pleather from leather. Although smell is a tempting criterion, this is
not reliable since the smell of leather actually comes from the chemicals and polishes it is treated with, not the leather itself. Therefore pleather can come out smelling exactly like leather. We were told that the only way to tell is the back of the leather because the back of leather is suede. Suede will not rub against itself smoothly, so if you rub the backing together and it catches, then it is real. This turned out to be a helpful hint later in the day when Carry went shopping for leather gloves.
From the shop, Giorgio led us to a semi-enclosed market where we would have some shelter from the rain/snow, but my group was a little intimidated with ordering from the sandwich shops that were there because we had no idea what anything was or what anyone was saying. Therefore we decided to venture out and find a local pizzeria, and we happened upon "Mama Toscana's" pizzeria. Happy to have my appetite back, I split a Mama Toscana pizza (mushrooms, Italian sausage, and mozzarella) and had a cappuccino to warm up and sooth my throat (it has still been pretty sore today, but the fever has subsided). After thawing out, we ventured back into the elements and braved the street vendors. I purchased an Italia soccer zip-up jacket for my little brother, who is an amazing soccer player. Armed with my newfound insight on leather, I also bought an Italian leather wallet for my dad. It was much cheaper to get it at the street vendor than
in the leather shop we were at, where the nicer wallets started at 38 Euros a piece. Carry bought some BRIGHT blue leather gloves. They are really cute and definitely make a statement, which suits her just fine.
Our last stop before dinner was the Uffizi. Being a future art major, I was really excited for this museum. The line was the better part of an hour, but it was at least covered. Of course a covered walkway right next to an art museum where hundreds of people are waiting in line is the ideal spot for local artists to set up shop. There was everything from oil paintings to water colors to caricatures. I couldn't resist the temptation and finally bought a small watercolor of the Duomo. It was totally worth it to support the very talented local artists and come home with an original watercolor from Italy. That will be framed when I get home. The museum itself was very impressive, but somewhat overwhelming at the same time. The ceilings were all ornately painted, the halls were lined with statues, and the walls were lined with paintings. The very first exhibit was probably my favorite, as it
was sketches of plans for the painting of Dante in the Duomo. I love seeing the thought process that goes into a piece of art, almost more so than the finished product. All these magnificent artists seem almost surreal from the masterpieces they've created, so to see a little piece of their thoughts is an incredible experience to me. It was also a lot of fun to discuss all the art with the rest of the people in my group and attempt to interpret what we were seeing. There are two observations that stick out to me the most. First of all, it's interesting to see how the baby-faces developed over the course of history. The older paintings of baby Jesus depict him with a grown-man face, which is a little eerie. But as the paintings progressed, the babies looked more and more like babies, with rounder faces, big eyes, rounder noses, and small mouths. These faces looked distinctly different. The
second observation was that John the Baptist always had tattered clothes, scraggily hair, and a tired look on his face. We're curious as to why this image of John the Baptist is so prominent because it was consistent in every painting we saw. You could pick out John the Baptist a mile away every time. In the words of one of our group members, "he looks like he needs a cigarette".
After returning to the hotel to freshen up, Giorgio led us all to the restaurant for dinner. We were starting to seriously question Giorgio's navigation stills until he told us that apparently there are three restaurants in Florence all with the same name. We did finally find it, and what a decadent dinner it was! Everything was served family style in the traditional four course Italian structure. The appetizer was prosciutto, bread and olive oil, cheese, and a chicken liver pâté (I think). The second course was pasta. We were served penne pasta in meat sauce, ravioli, a flat pasta with veal meat sauce, vegetable stew, and white meat soup (at this point, I was already filling up, so I was trying to limit myself to a small scoop of each, just to get the flavors). The third course was meat. The platter of meat they served us
contained five meats: beef, lamb, veal, pork, and rabbit. Although I feel a little bad about it, I actually really enjoyed the rabbit. It was like a really tender, juicy white meat turkey. The final course was dessert, and it was absolutely decedent! There was a fruit tart, panna cotta (white cream custard with chocolate sauce on top), biscotti with dessert wine to dip it in, cream puffs in chocolate sauce, a nutty tart, and a layered pie. We were also served a very sweet, delicious dessert wine. This was quite the meal! The only incident (involving me) was Giorgio pouring wine on my face! I had made some sassy remark and he came over and threatened to pour wine on my head, but had his thumb over the bottle. Well someone distracted him, his thumb shifted, and I ended up with wine on my face! I laughed it off in good fun, but if it had gotten on my clothes, that would have been a different story.
Wednesday March 10, 2010
Today started out even better than yesterday! I can now function only taking Advil before meals to help with my throat, but other than that, I'm functioning pretty normally. Today was our winery and cooking day, and oh what a day it was. We took vans up one of the mountains surrounding Florence to an estate where wine and olive oil are produced. The estate was enormous, with 120 rooms, a vineyard, and an olive tree grove. The front yard of the estate was adorned with exotic trees, a sign of wealth in the time it was constructed (just as sports cars would be today). Steve was our tour guide, and he did a wonderful job of leading us through the processes occurring at the estate. First he took us through the oil manufacturing process. Here is some information from the tour:
- There are 600 different varieties of olive trees in the world, 12 of which grow in Italy. Three of these varieties are blended together in specific proportions at this estate.
- Olives directly off the trees are not good to eat, as they are very bitter. However, if you crush fresh olives, the oil is very good for your skin (but beware. There is one variety of olives that have purple oil and will stain your hands purple for days).
- Most of the oil made at this estate stays within the local community. These olives have a much lower acidity and they are picked younger, when they are smaller and have an even lower acidity. The oil is also made on site within hours of the olives being picked, therefore there is little time for the olives to oxidize, which would also raise the acidity.
- The people who pick the olives can request a certain amount of the oil produced from the olives they picked that day. This contributes to the oil staying within the local community.
- Production process: the olives are picked, washed, and crushed (pit and all) into a gruel. This gruel is churned so that the oil may absorb the flavors from the pulp, but not too long to avoid fermentation. The gruel is then pressed, which is a two-step process of squeezing the liquid from the solid pulp (which is recycled as fertilizer) and then sending the oil through as centrifuge to separate the oil from the water. Small particles are filtered out in a stronger centrifuge, and then the oil undergoes a final filtration to remove the molecules of water that cloud the oil and make it spoil faster.
- The oil is then stored in large clay pots for the first few days after it is processed. The oil used to sit in these jars much longer (before modern filtration) in order to let the water and oil separate naturally. The water would eventually sink to the bottom where it could be drained off. This process would take about 3-4 weeks.
- In Tuscany, for every 100 Kg of olives you harvest, you get about 15 Kg of olive oil. In southern Italy, the olives are much bigger, which yields more oil, but also a more acidic product.
Next, Steve led us through the wine-making process. Here are some notes from that:
- Grapes are picked very rapidly (as opposed to oil picking, which is a slow, gentle process); therefore usually young high school and college boys will be hired to do this picking.
- Production process: The grapes are separated from the stems, are crushed, and undergo the first fermentation. The grapes must be left with their skins at the beginning of the process in order to absorb the red coloration and antioxidants contained in the skin. The skins are filtered out and the juice goes through a second fermentation.
- Because this is a small farm, they can take great care in using a better organic process with minimal use of preservatives.
- After the fermentation, the wine is aged in barrels. There are three different qualities of wine that undergo different aging processes. Wine that is aged for one year is aged in large barrels made of a wood that can be used for up to 30 years. The wine that ages a minimum of two years is aged one year in the large barrels and then one year in smaller barrels made of a more expensive wood that can only be used three times before it must be replaced. The highest quality wine is aged for a minimum of three years only in the small barrels. In addition to aging, the wine can also be mixed with wine from previous years to change the qualities of the wine.
The wine tasting was after the tour. We sampled each of the three wines that are produced at the estate. The first wine was very good, had a light somewhat fruity taste, and a light smell. The second wine had a distinctly stronger smell and had a very complex flavor, presumably due to the ageing in two different types of barrels. The final wine had a very pungent smell and taste, but it was delicious and of a noticeably higher quality. We were also served bread with olive oil from the farm drizzled on top. The oil was fantastic! It really wasn't oily or heavy at all and the wine actually brought out the flavor of the oil even more. After these samplings, we were able to sample one more type of wine that is traditionally a dessert wine, since it is very, very sweet! This wine is made
from grapes that grow at the top of southern facing hills, as these grapes get the most sun for the longest period of time, making them sweeter and of a higher quality. This wine is aged in a very small barrel for a minimum of 6 years and has an alcohol content of no higher than 14%. We learned that this is the wine that is supposedly served with biscotti as a dessert (which I've seen twice now). However restaurants usually use a knock-off wine that is really strong and really sweet, which is exactly what we were served on both occasions that we ordered this dessert. The real stuff is absolutely delicious, not too strong or too sweet. It is definitely still a dessert wine however, and you wouldn't be able to drink very much of it before you'd had enough. To conclude our tasting, Steve serenaded us from the stairwell (where his voice resonated beautifully). He sings for the opera and he is very talented. We
then had the opportunity to purchase the wine or olive oil. I bought a bottle of the highest quality wine and a bottle of olive oil to bring home to my family (to expand the taste of Italy that I'll be providing for them. If only I could take home some prosciutto; that would round out the experience).
We then piled into the vans to go make pasta!! Half of us went with Steve, and the other half went with his son Alex (the apparent heart throb of every girl in that group). We made pasta dough from scratch. Half of this dough we used for ravioli and the other half we used to make fettuccini. The ravioli was stuffed with freshly cooked, chopped spinach, ricotta cheese, grated Parmigiano, a pinch of salt, and freshly ground nutmeg (I had never seen a fresh nutmeg before!). After we were finished, we went upstairs and enjoyed the most amazing home-cooked meal! We had pizza, zucchini quiche, stuffed tomatoes, and wine. Then our host cooked the pasta we made and served that to us as well. Of course I was already stuffed before we even got
to the pasta. She even served us Tiramisu for dessert. WE determined that we have a second stomach for dessert, because no matter how full we are, there is always room for dessert!!
It was back down the mountain afterwards. I had a wonderful conversation with Steve the whole way back, while the rest of the van slept off their food coma. He told me about how he came to live in Italy and it was the cutest story I've ever heard. He told me how he moved to from Wilmington, North Carolina to Italy after college for a girl and just grew to love the country. He spends his time giving tours, singing in the opera, and giving private music lessons. He lives in the mountains with his son and he tours with the opera occasionally. He just seems to be living such a wonderful life. We also talked about Tuscany. We discussed how the roofs of all the houses are made of terracotta tiles (which is mandated by law now in order to preserve the look of Tuscany since tourism is such a big part of the industry) because the ground is so full of clay. Also, because
of all the clay, the only plants that really grow in that soil are grapes and olive trees because they are relatively hardy plants (which Tuscany seems to have taken full advantage of). I asked about the traffic laws, which turned out to be more of a suggestion than anything. However people here don't seem to get as upset about other people being in there way as Americans do. There's really not much road rage. Everyone just does what they have to get to where they need to be.
The evening in Florence was going to be spent climbing the Duomo; however it was closed when we arrived. We decided instead to do some shopping until we couldn't stand to walk anymore, and then turned in for the evening, venturing out later only to get a gelato fix.
Thursday March 11, 2010
Today was our "Explore the Tuscan Countryside" day. Our first stop was Sienna, which would have been more enjoyable if it weren't heavily snowing/raining/wintery-mixing. But it was a beautiful city nonetheless, so I can't imagine what it must be like when the weather is nice! Our tour guide was absolutely adorable! She told us about the horse race they hold in Sienna twice a year (July and August) and it is the most ridiculous sport I've ever heard of in my life! Basically, everything that is normally illegal in sports is encouraged and promoted in this race. Teams and jockeys are expected to bribe one another to try and win. The jockeys have whips, but they are not allowed to whip the horses, only the other jockeys. You only get paid if you lose because the
winner has to pay everyone else. However the winner enjoys weeks of festivities following his victory. I also liked how each section of the city has its own symbol (all of which are animals) representing their community, making this already small city an even more close-knit community. Also, Sienna is the only major city in Italy that is not built on a water source. It became a prospering city through banking. We also toured the cathedral in Sienna, which was magnificent! It was made with alternating stripes of black and white marble, making it a very distinctive, unique cathedral. The interior was even more magnificent. This was one of the only churches to allow pagans to help adorn the church as well, making the décor of the church very eclectic and interesting. The floors of the entryway were all done by the pagans and depict pagan stories and images. These contained the original
form of graffiti (graphite lines to distinguish the shapes of the figures in the images). The walls were covered with religious paintings and sculptures, some done be Michelangelo. The ceilings were a dark blue, similar to the night sky, with stars in them. This motif has been used in interior decorating before because I recognized the design immediately as one that my friend had in her bedroom as a child. The building also had beautiful gothic architecture, my favorite style. The pointed arches and domed ceilings were magnificent. There was also a room off to the side that had been originally constructed as a library, but it was never filled with books. Because there were never many people in the room and no candles were burnt in it, the paintings on the walls and ceiling have remained strikingly vibrant. It was more beautifully preserved than anything I've ever seen from that time. After the tour,
I spent the rest of the time in Sienna thawing out in a little sandwich shop on the main square.
After all the heavy meals I've had this week, it was refreshing to have a tomato and mozzarella sandwich and a warm, rich cup of mocha hot chocolate (although I found out after the fact that I really missed out on the art exhibit in the city hall across the square. I'd forgotten about it, but Claire said that it was really an experience).
Our other stop for the day was a small town called San Gimignano (which I'm still not exactly sure how to pronounce). It is a little town up on a hill that is encircled by a wall that served as protection in the past. The town is known for its multiple towers, built both for protection and as a symbol of wealth (the richer you were, the taller the tower you built). The city had about 60 to 62 towers, but only 13 or 14 remain today. The tallest one has been converted into a museum and you are also allowed to climb to the top of it and look out over the city and surrounding countryside. The other main attraction is a torture museum displaying various torture devices used throughout the ages. The majority of the class chose this attraction (although afterwards I heard mixed reviews about whether
or not that was a good idea. It seemed to make most people squirm more than anything). Carrie, Claire, Mrs. Sabo, and I decided we would check out the tower and museum instead. Of course we didn't think about the fact that both Claire and I are afraid of heights, but it was still a very enjoyable experience. The museum portion was filled with religious artwork from the city dating back many centuries. It was actually really fun to walk through the museum and attempt to interpret the art since nothing was written in English. Our favorite challenge was deciphering these panels that seemed to be depicting stories of saints and bishops. The problem was that we couldn't figure out which order the panels were intended to be read, so we weren't really sure the order of the story. However, we came up with some pretty creative ideas of the events of the stories and which order they occurred. On
the way out, Claire tried to ask the gentleman working in the gift shop what the stories really were, but he didn't speak enough English to be able to accurately explain them (However, Claire has taken note of the names of the people and says she will look it up when we return to the States. So I'm interested to see what the real stories are). The view from the tower was absolutely amazing! The climb was a bit of a struggle for both Claire and I. The stairs were those metal grated stairs so you could see through the grates all the way to the bottom. But once we got to the top, we realized that the climb was totally worth it for the view. We actually saw Vanessa, Ryan, and Katie standing on a lookout point along the outside walls. It was also neat to see how the countryside transitioned from
snow-covered mountainsides to green grass valleys. Afterwards, Mrs. Sabo split off to go shopping and the three of us just wandered through the side streets of the town. Walking past all the little houses and shops, it was fascinating to imagine living here. We even found the local dentist's office, as well as a cute, peaceful little park that we meandered through. It was just relaxing to have a break from the fast-paced, showy tourist sites and just enjoy a regular little Tuscan town.
On our way back to the bus, the Carrie, Claire, and I stopped in the grocery store and split the cost of a loaf of bread, a piece of parmigiano reggiano, a small assorted meat platter, a salad, and a bottle of wine. Since we would be spending a long relaxing evening in the hotel, we decided we would have our own little Italian feast. This Italian feast went perfectly with our Tuscan hotel in the countryside. This hotel was absolutely magnificent! Our room (Claire and I conveniently ended up in a room together, so Carrie came over and joined us for dinner) had rustic tile floors, wood beamed ceilings, a canopy bead, stained glass, and rustic dark wood furniture. In addition, the whole bathroom was done in cream-colored marble. It was like a Tuscan retreat. We enjoyed our feast (conveniently the guys' room next door had a kitchenette that had plates and silverware we could use), played some Banana grams,
and hung out with the people in the rooms next to ours. It was just a really fun evening of unwinding and enjoying everybody's company.
Friday March 12, 2010
Today was "travel to Rome" day. We had a beautiful breakfast in the poolside restaurant with panoramic windows. It was almost surreal watching the sunrise from the poolside of this hotel nestled in the Tuscan countryside. If I ever pictured the perfect get-away, this might very well be it. After breakfast, we hit the road. Today involved lots of traveling, which was actually nice because it gave us some time to catch up on sleep (a precious commodity on this trip). We did stop in a few places along the way. Our first stop was Perugia, where we toured the Perugina Chocolate Factory. This was an interesting addition to our trip. My first reaction was that this tour didn't really seem to fit with the context of the rest of the trip. All the tours we've done so far involving food have focused
on the traditional methods for producing this food. They were the traditional processes and ingredients that have been used for hundreds of years. This factory, on the other hand, was about mass producing chocolates. They said on the tour that one third of the chocolates in the world made by this company come from this factory. Most of the process is automated and strictly controlled. We viewed everything from afar and were not shown the intricacies of the processes. However, someone pointed out to me that this shows us the other side of the food industry. We already saw small farms and locally made food. This tour showed us how a local company can merge with an international company (Nestle) and mass produce food to be sent to other countries and be sold at an affordable price. Perugina has maintained it signature chocolates and images, but they are now available to a wider consumer base. In this sense, it's good to
see this side of the food industry. I was somewhat disappointed, though. We were walked through a simple museum section and told basic facts, and then we walked through a specific walkway and watched the processes through glass. Many of the employees weren't there today because there apparently was a transportation strike and most of the process was contained within automated machines, so there wasn't much to see except some chocolates going by on a conveyor belt (which you really had to search for to see at all) and some finished, packaged chocolates being packaged for shipping. Don't get me wrong, the chocolates were delicious and I bought quite a lot to bring home with me, but overall, I just wasn't very impressed.
Our second stop, on the other hand, was probably one of my favorite stops so far. We went to the city of Civita de Bagnoregio (Hilltop City), which can only be accessed by walking through another little town, across a very long bridge, and up a very steep hill. The hike, however, was totally worth it. In addition, the clouds broke for a few hours, and the countryside was magnificent. I couldn't stop taking pictures, it looked to beautiful, and it actually got warm enough to take off my coat!! At first, the city itself seemed a little eerie. Everything looked dark and we weren't really sure anything was open, but it was lunch time and we were determined to find food. Crystal, Carrie, Vanessa, and I went exploring in search of sustenance. We finally
saw a sign for "bruschetta, vino, e olio" and it had an arrow, so we turned. We came up to a door, but everything looked dark, and just as we were turning to leave, a man opened the door and invited us in for bruschetta. It was a little strange at first. The guy didn't speak much English and there was no music (you don't realize how awkward restaurants with no music are until you experience one), so we stood in awkward silence for a few minutes. The guy introduced himself as Fabrizzio and gave us a tour, and then it all started to make sense, and we actually had a really good time. It turns out that this restaurant has been in Fabrizzio's family for 1500 years. You can see on the walls the tool marks where they carved part of the room out of the side of a rock. In the back, there is still the stone wheel and basin where his family used to grind olives to make olive oil (he has an olive tree farm in the valley and
he still makes and sells his own olive oil). A donkey was used to move the stone that would grind the olives. He sat us down at a table (there were only three tables in the whole place and that's really all there was room for) and served us a candlelit lunch. We had bruschetta toasted in a brick oven, organic wine he made himself (he insisted we have his wine with the meal and would not take no for an answer), and some sort of cookie for dessert that his grandmother had baked. It was a great experience and we were having a lot of fun, when he asked us where we were from. Carrie said Baltimore, and Fabrizzio's face lit up. He pulled up his sweater and revealed a bright orange Baltimore Oriels t-shirt, at which point Carrie started freaking out! Apparently there's a family that lives in the town that moved there from Baltimore. Fabrizzio grew up with their daughter, so when she went to Baltimore to visit family, she brought
him back a Baltimore Oriels t-shirt, which he just happened to be wearing today when we happened to stumble upon his little restaurant. It was so incredibly coincidental, it was weird, but that pretty much made our day (especially Carrie's).
Speaking of making people's day, on our way back to the entrance of the city, we stopped at the "WC" to use the bathroom. Well we were a bit shocked to find a room with a sink and a hole in the floor. At this point Crystal had flashbacks of her trip to the Ukraine and started freaking out, insisting that she had to use it, for old times' sake. Carrie followed suit, claiming that she couldn't pass up the cultural experience. Well, while Carrie was in the bathroom, we ventured around to the other side of the building ... and found the girl's bathroom ... with a real toilet. Carrie wasn't exactly amused with that news.
The walk back across the bridge and through the little town to the bus was equally beautiful as the walk there. It was just such a beautiful, relaxing few hours out of our trip that we could really absorb the beauty of the country we're in. More bus-riding ensued, with our final destination being Rome. We arrived after dark and checked into our hotel. I am sharing a room with Lori and Carrie on the first floor (a welcome relief from lugging luggage up stairs). We had the rest of the evening as free time. Giorgio showed us the location of all the landmark fountains if we wanted to walk around and see them all (they are especially beautiful at night). We only have one day in Rome, so what we don't see tomorrow we won't see at all if not tonight. I, unfortunately,
was exhausted and had very sore feet, just from all the walking we've done this week. A few others were in the same boat, so our group decided we would only walk to the Trevi fountain and get dinner. I ended up doing so with Katie, Ryan, Vanessa, and Carrie, which was good because Ryan has the most amazing sense of direction that I've ever encountered. He told us where to go and we followed, and we made it everywhere perfectly. The Trevi fountain was indeed beautiful at night. We all threw coins in over our shoulder, so hopefully we will all get to return to Rome one day. We also walked to a square that Ryan wanted to see, which was also really neat. It was full of street side cafés, artists, and various entertainers (including girls dancing with flaming ropes). We found an elegant little restaurant for dinner. We split a bottle of wine and an appetizer of mozzarella balls. I ordered a four cheese pizza as my entrée,
which was delicious, but gigantic (I ate about half of it). Then we split Tiramisu for dessert. All of it was delicious and very high quality, elegant food, and we only spent 20 Euros per person (which isn't bad for all that we got from a restaurant in the middle of the city).
Afterwards, we returned to the hotel to relax and get some sleep. I attempted to take a shower, but the "shower" was a shower head in a bath tub with no shower curtain. This made it really difficult to shower without getting water all over the bathroom, so my shower turned into more of a bath. I can't really complain because it was amazing to relax in a bath after walking so much to get to Civita de Bagnoregio. I had terrible shin splints by the end of the day, so the hot bath was a wonderful way to end the day.
Saturday March 13, 2010
Today was absolutely amazing and a wonderful way to conclude our trip!! Getting up this morning was pretty painful. The extensive walking and lack of sleep has definitely caught up to me. In some ways, it would have been nice to have gone to Rome at the beginning of the trip because it is such a big city with so much to see, but by this point in the trip, I just don't have the energy to see everything I could have seen. I would have loved to have walked to all those fountains last night, but I was just so exhausted and sleep was more of a priority at that point. But Rome was still surreal. What caught me off guard the most was just that it's a real city. It
has a population of about 7 million people. I guess my studies have always focused on Rome during the Roman Empire, so I've just always had this picture in my head of Rome as it was during that time. Rome is a normal city, though, just older. But it is really cool at the same time because there are ancient ruins and huge monuments sprinkled throughout the city. You'll just be walking down what looks like a regular city street, turn a corner, and there's the Coliseum. I just couldn't imagine driving by the Coliseum on the way to work every morning. It's surreal.
The experience of seeing places and things that you've studied for years in real life is absolutely amazing. On top of that, Roman Renaissance art is probably my favorite type of art to study and ancient Roman architecture is fascinating to me, so visiting the Vatican and touring the coliseum and the forum were experiences beyond words for me. I took over 500 pictures in the Vatican and Coliseum alone, and I took another 150 pictures of the Forum on Carrie's camera because my camera battery died. The Vatican was a huge sensory overload. Every surface of every room was covered with exquisite art, from the walls to the ceiling, to the floors. There were intricate tapestries, incredibly realistic statues, and beautiful mosaics. I was just in awe. I have always been drawn to realistic art and people are probably one of the hardest subjects to accurately depict. So
to see the Sistine Chapel, where 200 different people were painted on one wall alone is mind blowing, but the statues are even more impressive to me. It's hard enough creating a two-dimensional rendering of a person, let alone a three-dimensional sculpture out of marble. It just boggles my mind how these artists could stand in front of a block of marble and know what to leave and what to chisel away to end up with a beautiful work of art at the end. These sculptures were so actuate down to every little vein in the hands and neck, each curly lock of hair, and even individual teeth. It's just so incredible. I was in awe that words cannot capture. Saint Peter's Basilica was a whole other experience in itself. First of all, there were various moments of excitement when I saw places and items I'd seen in movies before (Angels and Demons, specifically). But the real moment of ultimate amazement was when I was informed
that all the surfaces in the whole Basilica were made of marble, including the "paintings". There actually aren't any paintings in the Basilica at all, but you'd never know if no one told you. The "paintings" are actually inlaid marble mosaics, but even from a few feet away, these mosaics are indistinguishable from paintings. That was probably one of the most (if not the most) impressive artistic methods I've ever seen.
Lunch in the Vatican was an adventure. Well, first of all, I mailed postcards from the Vatican that have Vatican postage on them (I'll get home before they do, but it's still really cool). Then we went around the corner to this little sandwich shop for lunch. Unfortunately, the woman working there did not speak a lick of English, so it was a struggle to even get any food at all, and figuring out what I owed was another whole adventure in itself. A businessman in the shop finally had to translate for me what she was saying so I could pay her what I owed. And after all that trouble, I didn't even like the sandwich I got, but it was nothing a cup of gelato couldn't fix!
After meandering around for a little while, we were off to the Coliseum and the Forum. Apparently Rome is a hot spot for EF Tours because we saw some groups wearing their awesome blue and orange EF backpacks. If only we could have been that cool. I really enjoyed the tour of the Coliseum. Between the architecture, the history, and the sheer size, I was just in awe. I thought it was so interesting to learn about. I don't really like history in terms of dates and generic events, but I love learning about the people side of history. One of the things that totally fascinates me is actually how the history of a culture is reflected through the progression of their art and architecture. The Coliseum is a reflection of Rome at its prime. It reflects major advances in technology (its design is identical to modern day football stadiums, complete with a retractable roof and reserved seating, as well as
an intricate maze of underground passages and trapped doors) and the structure of society. This tour was also nice because we were given time to stand and take in the whole experience (unlike the Vatican, where there was so much to see and so many people moving through that we were sort of rushed through everything).
We then walked a few blocks to the Forum, which was another amazing historical site. We were able to walk around in the area where Romans used to spend their everyday lives working and socializing. It was the center of political and social life for them. I stood there imagining what that place might have been like at the time. Of course here, I was most interested in taking pictures because the weather was beautiful and it was the perfect time of day (about 4 or 5pm) where the lighting made everything appear even more spectacular. Again, this tour was nice because we were allowed time to stop and take it all in.
After our tours, we really didn't have much time to do anything but walk to the restaurant for dinner, but we dd have a little bit of leeway. Claire, Vanessa, and I were sick of walking around in a huge group like a bunch of tourists, so we found our own route to the restaurant. We even found a little park in along the way. It was a lush oasis in comparison to the city surrounding it, so we took a moment to wander through it. We made it to the restaurant just after everyone had taken a seat, just in time for the pizza making to begin. We were all anxious to make pizza, so to prevent people from jumping over one another we started at one end of the table and worked our way down. Well, about half way through, the manager informed us that we were over our limit and no one else would be allowed to make pizza. He claimed that EF had drafted a new contract with the restaurant stating that only 3 out of every
10 students would be allowed to make their own pizza. Needless to say, I was pissed! It's not like it was that huge of a deal, but the whole point of going to this restaurant was that we would be making our own pizzas and Dr. Sabo had been talking about this experience since the second week of school, so I was really looking forward to it. Giorgio was extremely mad as well and I really wish he'd chewed somebody out because, according to the contract he was given, not only was everyone supposed to make pizza, but we were also supposed to be served salad, which never came. I guess I felt that if we weren't going to make pizza, we might as well have found a restaurant with better service and better food. But we managed to enjoy the evening regardless.
Afterwards, a few of us went shopping in the train station (there's a shopping mall-type area in the station) for some last minute souvenirs and then we went in search of a bar. Our intent was not to get drunk or anything. I just wanted the experience of ordering a drink for myself from a bar, since I will not be allowed to do this in the states for a few years still. We found a sports bar, which was really cool because sports bars in Italy feature soccer, not football. There was a live band and a pool table and it was just a fun, relaxed atmosphere, so we hung out for a while, enjoying our last few hours in Rome. After I returned to the hotel, I went ahead and packed up everything, so I would be ready to go in the morning, since wake up time was 3:15.
Sunday March 14, 2010
I'm finally back at home on American soil. Today was a long day of traveling. The eight hour flight from Germany was painfully long. There were two crying babies on the row right in front of us and no TV screens in the back of the seats this time. I actually sat next to someone I knew this time (Quinn), so I at least had someone to talk to. We rocked out to some cool German airplane music through our armrests in order to drown out the babies, and we slept a good bit. WE actually successfully slept through every single meal that was served. This actually worked in our favor when it came to dinner because we woke up after everyone in economy was served and there were no more economy meals left, so we got business class meals, which were delicious! The
plane had a few TV screens mounted where everyone could see them that played movies, so we also watched a documentary on white lions (...it was kind of random). We all made it through security and customs fine. I had a moment of panic when we got to customs because I was worried that they might have a problem with things I was bringing back (cheese, wine, and olive oil) and I was concerned that they wouldn't understand my explanations. Then I remembered that we were back in the USA and everyone speaks English here! I got so used to being in places where people don't readily speak English that it was a strange adjustment being back in a place where everyone does. This trip was an amazing experience and I am so grateful that I got this opportunity. This trip has also confirmed to me that I will be going back at some point. It was just too amazing to be a one-time deal.
Eating is a social occasion in my family, especially dinner. The dynamics of dinner, however, have fluctuated over the years with changing careers and activities of my parents, my three brothers, and I. One recipe has managed to bridge the gap between all these changes: easy enchiladas.
Our recipe for easy enchiladas is a variation of the recipe found on the back of many enchilada sauce cans. We fill our enchiladas with chicken rather than beef for health reasons, as well as personal preference. We also substitute cream cheese for regular cheese in our enchilada filling to provide a creamer sauce within. What makes this recipe so easy, though, is that almost everything in the recipe can come straight from a can or package, making preparation time very minimal. Chicken is the only ingredient that may be purchased fresh and cooked; however we could even substitute canned chicken if time or budget were an issue. The fact that this recipe is so quick and easy, not to mention delicious, is the main reason why it has survived in our family for so long.
When my parents decided to have children, my mom thought it was best to retire from her job in order to raise them. Because she was home when I was younger, she usually had time to prepare a home-cooked meal for the family every night. This time as a family was very valuable. On nights that were busier, she would prepare enchiladas as a quick easy dinner, ensuring that we still had a home-cooked meal to enjoy as a family. This recipe was also a favorite on family vacations when we wanted to spend little time in the kitchen, but didn't want to spend the money to eat out. As time went on, us kids grew older and got more involved in various activities. With four kids going to four different soccer practices in four different places, a quick, easy dinner was essential for us to be able to get to bed at a decent time; therefore enchiladas saved the day yet again.
Our dinner dynamics drastically changed when my mom decided to return to school to get her teaching degree. She was a lateral entry teacher who was simultaneously working towards her Masters of Education. This left her little time to cook dinner on several evenings a week. At this point, all the children in the house were old enough to be responsible for ourselves and had very diverse schedules; therefore it was difficult to coordinate a dinner time between all of us, let alone find time to cook it. This is where easy enchiladas came to the rescue. On days where we could all coordinate a time to eat together, this was a wonderful recipe that was manageable within our time constraints. It was a family favorite and a nice reminder of the wonderful dinners we'd had together when we were younger.
Today, three of the four children in the family are in various stages of higher education. My two older brothers are now married, so family time is quite rare. On weekends or holidays where we all finally get together as an even bigger family, easy enchiladas again takes the spotlight. This recipe is easy to make in large quantities, so my mom can spend less time in the kitchen and more time catching up with her children. This recipe has been the perfect complement to our family's dining dynamics throughout the years and continues to be a much-loved recipe by all.
- Four 12oz cans White Meat Chicken
- 19oz can Enchilada Sauce
- Three 4.5oz cans Chopped Green Chiles
- 8oz Cream Cheese
- 8oz Shredded Mexican Blend Cheese
- 10 Flour Tortillas
- Heat chicken, green chiles, and cream cheese in sauté pan until cream cheese is melted and all ingredients are hot.
- Grease a baking pan.
- Scoop chicken mixture into tortilla shells and roll the shells. Place filled shells seam down in baking pan.
- After all the shells are filled, pour enchilada sauce over the enchiladas and sprinkle cheese on top.
- Bake at 350°F for 15 to 20 minutes, or until cheese is melted and food is hot throughout.
PHOTOS: Food Science Course in Italy