Student Blog: Food Science Course in Italy
quinn mcrae '12 - musical theatre
"Oh man! We're about to tour the Vatican. Do you know what that means for a Catholic-raised boy?"
Before I start into my memory log of 'the Italian experience', I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart; my parents, for teaching me that you have to work for everything that you really want (and for supplementing my depleted savings account before I left); Catawba College and the College Honors Program, especially Debra and Dyke Messinger, for their beyond generous contributions towards making this trip a reality; Mrs. Delores Imblum, probably the hardest working administrative assistant I know, without whom none of this would have been possible; One of my new best friends Mrs. Jan Sabo, who really made the trip more enjoyable than she probably realized; and I can't honestly give all this credit away without saying thank you to Dr. Sabo. Even though "it's your job" to go "above and beyond", etc., etc., I still have to say that we are closely connected because of our shared passion for the culinary world
and the science thereof. With this journey, I thank you for making one of my most sought after dreams come true.
Day 1: Catawba to Charlotte to Munich
I've been packing for the last few days. I know I have everything. Check. I said 'goodbye' to Shanna for the next week. Check. Oh, what the hey, I'll bake some cookies for the road. For the record, my last American meal was a Sonic burger and tater tots with a Cherry Limeade. Yes, I am that excited that I recorded it. What's that? Vanessa's having car trouble? I'm on my way. Nothing could stop me from being absolutely thrilled about what was about to happen.
Now, this is not just any college student about to embark on his first international travel, this is a college honors student who has spent years dreaming of traveling to Italy specifically, who thinks of food as a pure art whose home is in the Mediterranean. As horribly cheesy as this sounds, I can't tell you how many dreams, how many items on my life's 'to-do' list are about to be covered.
I don't think I really said much on the way to the airport, but I did have a prolonged 'freak-out' where I checked my bag for like 20 minutes for my passport. Got it! Everything else was going to plan as we arrived at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, except that there was a 9 or 10 kilo limit on carry-on luggage. But no worries, just a little rearranging of some day-to-day needs and I check that bag. C'est la vie; less to carry around the airport. We cleared the first of many security checkpoints, blasé. Then the first of many layovers; we better call the parents to let them know we made it. Hmmm, how do these EF phone cards work? Oh, well maybe we can e-mail them. But there's not any free internet working (I got used to this). I'm almost tired enough to nap and almost hungry enough to eat. Suddenly, an hour later, I'm on a plane. A
German plane – Lufthansa…"Willkommen" starts to play in my head.
Day 2: Munich to Reggio Emilia
Whoa! It's Sunday already??! We're over London?? I thought we were just in Charlotte. It is 2:30 am our time and 8:30 am Munich time. That's a little trippy, thank goodness I can sleep on planes. I woke up just in time for breakfast: a cold roll, some cold cheddar cheese, a fruit cup and some granola. I really should have taken Dr. Sabo's advice about getting up and moving around every so often. Six hours of the 30,000 ft high sensation is like over-extending all the muscles in your legs at once when you finally stand up. Ow.
And all of the sudden we're in Munich, there's snow on the ground and not a lot of people speaking English. The first thing I ever bought with Euros was two croissants crema for €2 each. That was probably way more exciting than it should have been; I broke a €10 bill and now I have some €1 coins!! Yep. For the record, the first European twin-look we got (you know, where they stare at me and my brother for a little too long and then suddenly have a clear moment of recognition) was on the bus to our plane. Also, while on that bus I learned that Italians (or at least some of them) actually say "say cheese" before pictures (in Italian of course; 'dica fromaggio'). After a few games of Bananagrams, we were off to Milan. On the shorter flight we were served a lunch of salami and cream cheese on focaccia, chocolate filled cookies and water. I thought, "thats
an Italian cold-cut? I'm going to love it here." Even the apple juice they served was so fresh that it made me feel bad for Juicy Juice.
The next thing I knew we were on a bus with our tour director Giorgio Osmani and bus driver Claudio headed to Somaglia. We were warned about how much we would love Giorgio. All true. He taught us some fascinating information about his homeland. We got some tidbits on history, geography, and a lot of politics especially. For instance, the Prime Minister of Italy is not nearly as powerful as that of Great Britain. Also, Italy has a President of the Republic which acts more like a King or Queen in that he or she symbolizes the nation rather than runs it. He then warned us about the Gypsies who will try to break your heart with pity stories so you'll give them some change.
Next thing we knew, we were at an Autogrill (like a café and convenient store in one) and it was time for lunch. There was plenty to choose from, but I knew what I wanted as I took inventory. I had to get some fresh Mozzarella and Prosciutto and any bread. So I did. I also tried sparkling water, but that didn't quite do it for me.
That night, we stayed in Reggio Emilia at an inn called Villa Giada but explored the surrounding area a bit before dinner. The next morning, my definition of 'continental breakfast' was rocked. On the bus towards Parma, Crystal volunteered to read the rules; pretty standard tour procedures and guidelines. We learned when Giorgio got back on the mic, that today (and every March 8th) is Ladies' Day. It is similar to Valentine's Day, except just for the women. The tradition is to buy your woman cheap flowers and show her extra respect that day. Soon after this we picked up our tour guide for the rest of that day, a nice older lady who guided us through tours of a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory and one for Parma Ham.
Parmigiano-Reggiano has been made the same way for over 1000 years; within 12 hours of the contributing cows being milked, the product has the fat skimmed off the top, is heated, incorporated with some of yesterday's whey and some enzymes, heated again, checked by hand for consistency, taken off the heat, lets the curds precipitate onto large stretches of cheese cloth, collected and placed in a mold. The next day the cheese rounds are put in a metal form with "hips" and the plastic mold which marks the cheeses production date and site. Then the wheels swim in a pure brine solution for weeks before being shelved and aged for anywhere from 12-36 months. This whole process was taken from ancient monks who developed it while working and praying. Now, I probably learned a bit of this from Food Network before, but there is so much
that they don't tell you. The cows are not treated medically, they are fed a specific grass and never animal protein. The cheese is also never treated. They use hot water and whey to clean the kettles, never cleaning chemicals. All the regulations over cheese making are overseen by a national operation to ensure quality: the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese Consorzio. They are the people that make sure the cheese is brined with only Italian marine salt and each round weighs 50 kg.
After we finally got to sample and purchase some cheese for ourselves, we were off to see how Prosciutto di Parma is made. I'll spare you the entire play-by-play, but the point is that Italian pigs are slaughtered the day their meat is used, the legs are trimmed, coated multiple times with a brine mixture and let age for months. This product is also closely regulated and tested, interestingly enough, with a pointed baton made from a horse's shin. Then, once more, we tasted and saw the natural beauty of food that is given time and respect.
And we're back on the bus. More culture lessons with Giorgio! I should apparently be looking for "Don Camino" books and films. Noted. He has plenty of knowledge about Po, the biggest river in Italy (followed by the Adige and the Tiber). It turns out we are going to have lunch number two at this country winery called Casale Del Gropponi. More hams and cheese with balsamic vinegar as well as some Malvasea and Lambrusco are served. After lunch we go to the cellar to see how they ferment, age and bottle their wines.
After that, its nap time on the bus until we get to see an old house that produces Aceto Balsamico di Modena - Not just your everyday, store brand vinegar. The real deal only has one ingredient – grapes. They are aged in barrels of different kinds of wood to give different flavors. The end result isn't really vinegar or alcohol. It's somewhere in between and it tastes delicious on ice cream, we learned. Naturally we made a purchase at the shop before leaving.
We finally arrived in Florence (or as they say there, Firenze), and checked into Hotel Delle Nazioni. Yes! They have internet! And so we had free time to get dinner and explore the city. A large group of us went to this little pizza joint near Il Duomo and then afterwards a little place called the Fish Pub. Getting back to the hotel, it hit me – we did all of this in two days?! It feels like I've been here for at least a week.
Day 3: Firenze
This morning we get a tour of the Duomo. Turns out "Duomo" doesn't actually mean 'dome' as we use the word. It originally comes from the Latin for 'home'. Then we bastardized the word to mean a round roof. Anyway, there is beautiful marble everywhere and priceless art everywhere etc etc. Speaking of priceless art, a group of friends and I went to the Uffizi gallery and saw some of the most epic and historic works of art in existence. We had to stand in a terribly long line for about two hours, but it was totally worth it. I think what will stick with me the most is walking into the room which housed the Birth of Venus. We've all read about it and seen it in books, but it really stood out in real life.
Sadly, I didn't get to see the roof of the Duomo or the Galleria Academia, but I'm not worried, because I know I'm coming back someday.
Day 4: Firenze to ???
OLIVE OIL TOUR!!! Learning about the production of native Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil at Fattoria Di Grignano was also life changing. I've heard chefs talk briefly of the near sacred process of its production and this was almost a mecca for any chef.
Day 5: Sienna and the hill towns of Tuscany
We had a morning drive to a mini tour of Sienna.
Day 6: More hill towns
Civita and San Giminagno are two "holes in the wall" that ended up being absolute gems.
Day 7: ROMA!!
Oh man! We're about to tour the Vatican. Do you know what that means for a Catholic-raised boy?
I made pizza in Rome. Kind of…
Day 8: Rome to Frankfurt to Washington D.C. to Charlotte to Catawba
Wow. I'm going home. It is unreal that I just experienced all this.
What we learned in art, archeology, history, culture, geography, politics, economy, psych, religion, philosophy, environment, and industrial can't be completely covered in this journal unless I publish a book. The feeling that eating seasonally and regionally, in the birth place of food, gives a diehard foodie like me is beyond Webster's lexicon. Not to mention getting a full time Italian perspective and opinion on what I was seeing, as I saw it was priceless.
So closes my whirlwind of a journal in which I attempted to bottle the essence of my experience. The best money I have ever spent. In. My. Life. I'd like to pretend I've done everyone who will read this a big service, but let's be honest; you can't do Italy justice with pictures and you sure can't call reading about it an adventure. To anyone who reads this and has any interest in seeing Italy – do it! It changed my life for sure and now, no matter what else I do or don't do, whatever I feel that I may have missed, I'll always have Italy.
Food Traditions Lab
How do I begin to describe Earthquake Cake to someone who never knew my grandmother, Betty Fonville Carpin ('Beba' to us)? It's just part of my upbringing, when it was someone's Birthday - Earthquake Cake, Family reunion - Earthquake Cake, Christmas - Earthquake Cake. Other than my own mother, Beba was one of the few Carpins that wasn't off-her-rocker crazy. She was a lovely woman and a good disciplinarian (raised 6 children, so she had to be). Anyway, Earthquake Cake was a huge family tradition and was always contributed by Beba. It was a dessert which defied my normal insatiable curiosity about food. I knew it was amazing – that's it. I had no idea what it actually was.
Well, now that I've build up enough anticipation, here's what it is; German Chocolate cake with pecans and coconut on the outside with cream cheese, powdered sugar and butter poured into the batter. It seems simple now, but back in my childhood, it was mysterious and I almost didn't want to understand it. Now, you know what kills me? I always imagined Beba with a fancy German Chocolate cake recipe that had been handed-down for generations in her family. Alas, after years of going without this delicacy, I finally looked up that old recipe and discovered – she used boxed cake mix. Drats. There were some dreams shattered in that moment. It's ok, though. I may not know where this tradition started before Beba, but I love it all that same. I hate to say this but it could have been straight from Good Housekeeping. Yikes.
BEBA'S EARTHQUAKE CAKE
- 1 box German Chocolate Cake mix (prepared as directed)
- 1 cup chopped pecans
- 1 cup flaked coconut
- 1 8 oz. package cream cheese – softened
- 1 stick butter - softened
- 1 box powdered sugar
- Preheat oven to 350°
- Grease a 13 x 9 cake pan with either Pam or butter
- Spread nuts and sprinkle coconut on pan
- Pour prepared cake batter over
- Mix butter, cream cheese and powdered sugar.
- Pour over cake batter.
- Bake for 45 min
PHOTOS: Food Science Course in Italy