Student Blog: Food Science Course in Italy
zach mcrae '12 — theatre arts
"I had fresh mozzarella with prosciutto, a small baguette, some focaccia, a delicious tagliatelle in a cheese sauce and a cappuccino. I'm already living the dream."
Getting a bunch of students overseas on a custom trip takes a lot of great minds.
I'd like to first of all thank everyone who directly made this trip possible in the first place: Catawba College, Dr. Sheila Brownlow and the College Honors Program. Without you the class, well ... wouldn't exist. And the trip would only be a fantasy.
To Debra and Dyke Messenger, I thank you immensely for your generous donations to the school so that we may enjoy amazing educational experiences. For all the experiences I enjoyed I learned something new, and that's the best that I could ask for.
To Mrs. Delores Imblum, I know you have put so many hours into a trip that you yourself couldn't even attend, and I truly appreciate your work.
To Giorgio Osimani, our Tour Director extraordinaire, I thank you for your expertise and for showing all of us a great time.
To Dr. Mark Sabo and the rest of the Eating in the Arts & Sciences class, thank you for sharing such an experience with me and for offering all your friendship.
Finally to my family, primarily my parents, thanks for all the inspiration and showing me that a positive attitude can do more than just make things go your way, it can make dreams come true.
11:30am Munich time [about 5:30am Home (EST)]
Right now I'm on a nice small Air Dolomiti plane ready to go from Munich to Milan
Getting packed and ready went fine, despite all of my worrying. We got to Charlotte just fine, although at the airport I was surprised when the very tired German lady told me my luggage was too big and had to be checked. That wasn't in my plans, but I'm sure it'll be fine. I didn't have any security problems — which I always worry about for some reason.
The overseas flight was 8 or 9 hours, and boy did my butt hurt from doing literally nothing! I was between Quinn and some funny guy traveling with a choir to Hungary I think. Okay food. Stayed hydrated with water and juice. Not a bad experience at all. I saw The Invention of Lying — so good! And part of The Informant — pretty funny.
My first time seeing Europe with my own eyes consisted of snowy Munich, it was pretty.
Munich airport was big, impressive, free espresso machines — yay! Played banana grams, won 3 times!! (Some guy filmed us). Ryan and Carrie make plans for the ways we "the twins" could distinguish ourselves via Facial hair design. Carrie is simultaneously entertaining to me and yet very entertained by me — it still eludes me.
Now we're headed to Italy.
3:10 Italy time. Outside Parma.
Quick fill-in: Georgio is our tour director: funny, smart, and his English often sounds british — he must've studied from a Brit.
Just had my first meal in Italy. The bus stopped for lunch at an "Autogrill." This was like no other chain eatery I've been to. I had fresh mozzarella with prosciutto, a small baguette, some focaccia, a delicious tagliatelle in a cheese sauce and a cappuccino . I'm already living the dream.
It was a really cool place — a general store combined with an eatery, with an espresso bar like I had heard about. There was olive oil on the table if I recall. And a bunch of attractive Italian people around probably commenting on how touristy we all looked.
The grass is really green here.
Lesson from Georgio: Po river 652 km, longest in Italy (Tiber 3rd) ... leads into a history lesson about Italian government, faschism, kings PMs parliament ... fascinating stuff, and there won't be a test!
There's Italian pop music playing, by the way our driver's name is Claudio, and he likes cheesy Italian love songs and being Italian. I overhear Crystal and Jarrett discussing history, war, politics, the armed forces, ROTC. I'm already learning so much!
Past 10pm. IN the out skirts of Reggio-Emilia.
After checking in we walked through the streets of the city, and it was completely dead, apparently there was a big soccer game on. When we came back there were many games of Bananagrams to be played.
Then dinner was amazing! Courtesy of the hotel. It included:
Prosciutto con Parmigiano Reggiano, Penne Bolognese, Veal scallopini, Apple torte, Some very good red wine.
Time for bed, I planned on using my phone. Doesn't work at all ie. has no time, so there goes my alarm clock — ill use my watch and hope for the best.
Post day wrap-up: everything is old, SOS spots on the road, Barilla factory — apparently the biggest pasta maker in Italy. Everything is production.
Well, my watch worked thank goodness.
I need to call my parents.
Great breakfast: toast, croissants, and baguettes with jams, honey, something like Nutella, fresh fruit (clementines — a new citrus love of mine, along with perhaps the best pear I've ever eaten) great coffee (much darker than the typical American brew) and red orange juice which was love at first sip.
Today is Ladies' Day. Yellow flowers that come from the Mimosa tree are the traditional gift, and indeed some girls in our group were handed some at some point in the day, although I feel like somehow Jarret was handed some...
Bus ride to parma.
We stop to let on Melanie — a nice British lady who has lived in Italy for some 40+ years. Wow.
She quickly informs us that Parma is the Italian food capitol, and that because of the nature of dairy cows in the regional climate — "Cheese happens 365 days a year"
This tour was the kind that I had wanted to be a part of ever since I had heard about them on the Food Network. We saw the full, yet uncomplicated process of making Parmigiano Reggiano. I could tell you the process, but there are at least a dozen other journals in this collection that will likely tell you just that. You don't need me for that. What you need to know is that I loved every minute of it.
Let's get to the good part. After the tour there was a tasting. The cheese was delicious — so much aroma, I even learned to find the hint of pineapple in this god of cheeses. This was one of those rare moments when you know you are tasting something pure and good.
I bought two mezzo-kilos. One for myself and my brother, one for the parents.
Turns out this cheese is easily digested, even for those with Lactose intolerance. You gouge out pieces, don't slice.
Headed to Langhirano — this area was under water in the post-glacial period. The name possibly comes from "Lake of Frogs" its mountainous, snowy, and beautiful.
Here is a selection of important notes:
- This area of parma is supposedly the "Ham Capitol of the World"
- The River Parma runs through this area.
- Because of the wind flow from the surroundings, oak, chestnut, and pine scents play in the curing process of the ham, thus adding background flavor.
- The word 'prosciutto' comes form the Italian word for 'dried'
- The pig is indigenous to many areas of Europe, and still today many of these areas in the European Union send their pigs to Italy to attain the glory of becoming 'Prosciutti di Parma"
- Only Italian Marine salt as approved by the DOP is allowed to be used in this process.
- 'Sugna' is the name of the coating mixture used to cure the meat. Made of salt, minced fat, pepper, and rice flour.
- Traditional Italian men are said to say about prosciutto "The older and fatter, the better, just like women." Insert a clever "men are pigs" pun here.
At the end of the factory tour, we get a sampling, I sense a pattern. I had prosciutto (think of the most delicious cured ham you've (n)ever had), pancetta (a smoked pork belly similar to our 'bacon,' but unique), and capo ( a cut from the neck that has its own flavor and texture that I like quite a bit).
Were not done yet, not at all.
Next is a beautiful winery in the foothills.
We are treated to a wonderful lunch. Antipasti with balsamic drizzled Parmigiano, roasted peppers, all kinds of bread, and of course more prosciutto. There was a wonderful Lambrusco (a regional wine specialty) to go along with the meal. After they filled us up, we took a tour of the winery facility, and learned some wine science. Dr Sabo managed to describe fermentation in perhaps the most elegant way possible. If you know Dr Sabo, you know why I am being completely sarcastic when I say that.
So of course after all that touring and eating and learning in one day you'd think we were done for the day, right? Well, you'd be wrong.
Next we travel to the flat farmland area nearby to learn about the very cut-and-dry process of creating Balsamic Vinegar. It turns out that 'traditional balsamic vinegar di Modena' is made of nothing more than cooked juice from the grapevine nearby, aged in barrels ( I believe of the oak variety). That's all it takes. What creates character in the aging process is that the vinegar maker moves the product from bigger barrels to progressively smaller barrels (about 6 total, in this case), in a process that takes many months. We, as the tourists, got to witness this technology, and afterwards, got to taste a few different types of balsamic vinegar products:
- 'traditional' — a smooth, even, but strong flavor — 'condiment' — I don't recall how this is created differently, but it was a thicker product that I didn't like as much as the traditional
- 'extravecchio' — literally "very old" — it was molto delicioso, very complex
He even let our group taste an industrial, store-bought vinegar for a contrast. And boy was it a contrast — it was grossly acidic. And at the end, we were treated to a treat that I didn't know existed — Balsamic vinegar on vanilla ice cream. That changed my life a little — in a good way.
- Then it was time for more bus ride fun facts!
- Italy was united as a country in 1861
- The country is made of 20 regions
- 6 of those regions make >60% of the Italian GDP (mainly in production)
- I found that interesting, or I wouldn't have told you.
- The bus ride takes us to Florence, in the region of Umbria "The Green Heart of Italy"
My first night:
The Hotel is nice, but the beds are a bit stiff — is that a European thing? The Bathrooms are on the small side, but I was warned of that. I did not understand, however, that the shower floor may be one in the same with the bathroom floor. Hmm.
A number of us find 'Nuti Ristorante' and I enjoy delicious pizza, cappuccino, panna cotta, and great company. After the meal, we break up and some of us head to a bar that we were invited to by a very nice guy on the street "The Fish Pub" or something like that. Not much special here, just a place to see Italian people hang out. However, I took the opportunity to have my first ever (and completely legal) "shot." It was called a "tovello," I think. It was vodka and kahlua and delicious.
Overall it was a fun, social night, and it gave me a great outlook on the rest of the trip. And that night I was finally able to e-mail my parents!
The day started with of the famous Piazza di Santa Maria Novella in which lies the famous 'Duomo.' Saw the 'punto trevecchio' (old bridge), explored some of the many markets. I bought a lovely camel-colored cashmere scarf. By the way, it was a lot colder here than I expected. Later we break up into groups, and in the following free time I shopped around, split a delicious anchovie and caper pizza with Carrie Foster, and I saw the famous Uffizi museum. It was one of longest lines I've ever waited in — but the museum proved impressive — containing a little bit of Michelangelo, Raphaello, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, etc.
I got to see the fake 'David' – a copy of the original in another big Florentine Piazza. That was kinda cool.
Dinner was quite an experience. It was a classy but not fussy multiple course dining experience.
Antipasti included caprese, many cuts of dried pork as previously discussed, and my first ever liver pate, which was delicious. There was an abundance of delicious pastas, meats, and at the end a delicious plate of dessert selections. The meal felt like it went on for hours, but in a way that wasn't boring — it was fun, friendly, comforting, and family-building. Ask me about it in person for the best experience.
Last giorno in Firenze
After breakfast we all met up with Steve and his son Alexandro who were apparently to take us to a wine tasting. I was okay with this plan. The group splits in half and I find myself in a little bus driven by Steve going up a steep, rocky, winding road. Any discomfort this might cause is cancelled out by the fact that I was riding through the Italian foothills covered in vineyards and olive trees. I was really living a dream. Steve provides us with a little info about where we were, but honestly it was hard to take in anything but the view. It's hard to explain, but there was something unbelievably serene about that drive, it was picturesque to say the least.
When we reach our destination, we all head to a little dirt floor basement of an old complex that I recall but can't describe. So we are all seated around a huge wooden table to be treated to some Italian extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) on crusty bread, which is pure and delicious on its own. Steve then explained three stages of a (Chianti?) wine as he served us the respective glass. There was the annato, a wine aged for about a year; the riserva, aged for around 4 years; and finally the gran riserva, only bottled after 6 years of aging. The flavor of the wines smoothed out and got fuller as the age progressed. The aroma also matured and different scents showed themselves from flowery to woody to smoky, it was really interesting. After the red wines he poured us all a sample of a vin santo, something many of us had tried previously in the trip as a restaurant dessert. However, we learned that what those restaurants had
served us was a gross imitation of the delicious nectar we had just been allowed to sample. It was a delectable white that isn't allowed to age for very long. Yum.
After the tasting we were given the opportunity to buy some of the wine and /or olive oil we had just sampled. Many of us accepted such an offer. I sure did.
After this bliss (or maybe before) we were driven to a beautiful villa on a hill where it was flurrying but still bearably cold. This was our tour of olive oil processing. Call me a dork, but it was fascinating. We walked through the multi level process of picking, cleaning, extracting, processing and aging. This was something I had never studied before, and it was awesome to experience together.
We continued to drive up and down the twisty hills to our next destination — some kind of "cooking class" apparently. At this point we were still split up into two bus loads, and the two ended up at different houses. We learned a traditional recipe for homemade pasta and each of us made our own dough. I felt pretty good about mine, it came together really well. (All my time watching Food TV definitely helped here.) By the end of the 'class' we had all made a traditional filled ravioli and an angel hair.
After the creation, we all went upstairs into the kitchen/dining room of a very nice Italian woman who was cooking us a delectable dinner, while overlooking the gorgeous countryside. (Dreams do come true.) There was frittata, focaccia, pasta, lots of wine, our freshly made pasta, and super chilled tiramisu to top it off (just when we thought we were full). As a side note, I was the selected winemaster for the meal — I got to pour wine for anyone whose glass started to look empty. While we were thanking her for the meal and getting ready to leave, I was jamming out to some Dean Martin and some Mambo Italiano that was playing in the den. What a great time.
Food comas were coming upon a number of us as we climbed into the buses. In fact I ended up being a shoulder pillow/ serenader as my friends started to snooze on the way down the long and winding road back to Florence. What can I say? I aim to please. As we got out of the vans and walked back through the city, a few of my friends and I wanted to take our last chance to see the Duomo, so we broke off from the main group. Sadly the Duomo had rather restrictive visitor hours that day, so the trip instead was an opportunity for shopping and gelato (I bought gloves and a hat). Life goes on. There was a little socializing, and there was bed.
3-11-10 Headed to Sienna
We eat, we get to the busses. According to my journal, I got into a very meditative mood and thought about songs I would like to perform, how much I already miss dancing, etc.
When we arrive in Sienna, when, I learned that I love Sienna. It turns out the central Piazza (Il Campo) is where a famous horserace takes place, and one that is featured in one of my favorite movies, Quantum of Solace. The town is beautiful, like something out of Harry Potter, yeah I think some of the streets made me think of Diagon Alley. The view from within the Piazza is beautiful, something the rain couldn't even touch. We had a guided tour of a church built of stone that makes it look like sandwiched black and white layers. It was something to behold. Inside there was a library wing with breathtaking frescoes. Quite peaceful. For lunch I had a pancetta pizza with (Italian) soda, as well as these delicious sweet fried rice balls, I wish I could remember the name right now.
As we left Sienna, we learned that our next destination was a medieval town called San Gemignano. This destination was apparently a favorite from the previous courses' tour experience. It was very pretty, up on a hilltop with towers that are a favorite tourist spot apparently, but I was with the group that instead enjoyed the two Museums of Torture. Yeah, creepy. But it was fun and informative. And it really whet my appetite for a yummy panini and cappuccino. We had learned that that night we would be in a hotel that was secluded from civilization, so many of us shopped at the super market at the bottom of the hill (for dinner supplies).
That night was simply wonderful. We were in an old fashioned villa-hotel in the middle of nowhere. It was creepy at first, but we all got used to it soon. It wasn't long before we had a little Italian indoor picnic with cheeses, breads, olive oil, wines, sausages, and cookies. Lots of fun, lot's of talking and bonding. We were very surprised when we found out that behind an oddly out of place metal door on the wall, there was a mini kitchen! That would have been nice to now before we went shopping, but hey it was a great time, even without cooking anything.
After our little party, we were all pretty tired. Sleep came pretty quickly. What didn't come some so nicely was the chill of the morning. Now some rooms end up a little cooler than when you fell asleep. But this was FREEZING! Ryan, my roommate had scurried around to find the source of the trouble or fix the heater before I was awake. It was only after both of us were up and getting dressed that Ryan pulled back the drapes to find that the window was window had stayed open, not cracked, wide open. We could've sworn we closed it the previous night — a prank perhaps? But how? The mystery remains ...
Off to Perugia, and beyond.
After we cleaned up from the previous night, it was another breakfast, another busride.
Point of interest in Perugia — la Casa del Cioccolato Perugina. As compared to our previous food tours, this stood as quite a contrast. It was a massive factory with many workers (who were apparently unable to show up because of a public transportation strike), many areas, a little informational movie at the front of the tour, many automated machines and the smell of chocolate throughout. Not exactly the homey feel of a barrel collection in some guys attic. However, it was enjoyable, and almost everyone ended up buying some chocolate at the end.
We were then off to some mystery destination. After more driving, the bus stops essentially next to some big stone wall. This must be another one of those walled medieval towns like before. However, this town was unique, and it was only a means of getting to the real destination for the afternoon: Cevita — a castle-esque stone structure that is actually a small town out in the middle of a gorge which rivals the Grand Canyon just for its splendor. This was likely the most beautiful experience of the trip for me. The steep walk up to the town was its own little adventure, just with the anticipation and the beautiful views in panorama.
When we reached the town there was an ancient stillness about the area. I don't know how else to describe it. It just felt like you were somewhere untouched by the loud din of the outside world. I walked through the town with a part of the group, but there was little talking. The feeling of being there is just difficult to describe. Before my little group had to meet with the rest, we stopped for some delicious bruschetta cooked over an open fire — a very special experience all its own. I've gotta bring my parents here someday. I was even able to get away from everyone else for the last few minutes of being there and see a few more astonishing views.
After we digested our Cevita experience on the long busride we started to get excited for what was to come. When we finally made it to our hotel (somehow Claudio got our huge bus through those streets — kudos to him) we got our rooms, we all met up, had a little powwow, and then we were off for the evening. Somehow our exploration group became 10 of us, which is way too much, especially in that city. So after a few blocks of trying to please nine other hungry, curious travelers, I made the executive decision to split into two groups. It was one of my better ones. This way the really hungry ones split form the ones who wanted to explore a little more first. I was in the 'explore' group, along with Jarrett, Quinn, Kyra and Michelle. We were all given a map of Rome earlier which pointed out six of the must-see spots. In my mind I was wondering which I should try to see tonite and which ones could wait. However, once the explore group started talking,
we just decided to see them all. There were the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the Trevi fountain, and some beautiful statues and monuments. Amongst it all we found a restaurant where we all enjoyed more authentic Italian pasta than any of us could eat. The waiters were not having a great night, but we enjoyed it oh so much.
3-13-10 Day two of Roma
I would say the pinnacle of our tourist experience happened this day.
Let me break it down:
- Vatican museum: beautiful, so much art, old and elegant.
- Sistine Chapel: as beautiful as you would think, it was unreal being there, a tourist pool, but still amazing to be there (I saw my namesake prophet in a prominent position on the walls
- Saint Peter's Basilica: I'ne never had a more spiritual experience than after touching the feet of the Statue of St Peter. It was hard to take it all in.
- The Square: so many people, beautiful, sunlight, thrilling just to be there.
- The Colliseum: so old, learned so much, Giovanni (tour guide) was too cool for school
- The Forum: see Colliseum, I need to go back
- Pizza making: didn't work out like we all wanted, but we enjoyed a delicious meal as a family, with some wonderful dessert I couldn't even name.
That night I got to experience a sports/ karaoke bar, Italian style, and limoncello! I lead my part of the pack home, that was entertaining.
Woke up early to catch a plane and say goodbye to the best experience of my life. No, it was more like a See you later.
Food Traditions Essay
The first food that popped into my head when I heard "food traditions" was a simple yet satisfying dish — macaroni and cheese. However, the macaroni and cheese that my grandmother Betty Carpin made was not your average wimpy, soggy, "Easy-Mac." Oh no. This dish is a casserole of delicious, cheesy elbow noodles. I craved it like no other as a child. She (affectionately called "Beba") would contribute this amazing side dish to most any special potluck occasion. And my brother and I could never wait to get a spoonful.
This dish has made its way into many family meals in my life. I first tasted it as a small child, probably because it was not a vegetable. Its taste is one that brings a feeling of family. One of the best parts about the dish is that it is not complicated for the crowd-pleasing nature of the dish. I feel like I haven't had it in a while. Fortunately, our mother picked up the tradition and knows the recipe by heart, so even with the passing of our grandmother, this dish will live on, and I plan to ensure that.
Recipe: Beba's Macaroni and Cheese
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
- Boil 1 lb macaroni for 7 mi in salted water.
- Drain, put half in 13x9" pan.
- Salt, pepper, and dot with butter, cover with grated cheese.
- Repeat with next layer of pasta.
- Beat 2 eggs, add 1 can evaporated milk.
- Pour over pasta, then add regular milk till you can see the level of milk reaches just below top of pasta (around a cup)
- Bake 30-40 minutes until set, not runny.
PHOTOS: Food Science Course in Italy