Saturday, February 26, 2011

Italian Beer Series: La Ghenga (Montepulciano)

Birrificio L'Olmaia is located south of Montepulciano, in the beautiful Val d'Orcia. Producing largely classic brews using local products, the brewery nonetheless does not venture out too far from the traditional. Although right in the middle of Brunello and Vino Nobile country, the brewery does not incorporate wine products and byproducts such as grape musks into their product, a practice common to the more popular beer producers in the Barollo-producing areas in Piemonte. Instead, recently the brewery's claim to fame is its efforts to introduce Italian craft beer (or just their product, depending on how one wants to look at it) to a larger Italian audience through deals with chains such as Emisfero to sell their products using competitive pricing. (1, 2)

La Ghenga, a beer produced by L'Olmaia for such a purpose, is widely available in Vicenza and across the Veneto. I have seen the beer in grocery stores from Verona to Padova down to Rovigo. At 6 euros at a local supermarket, this artisanal beer is a relative bargain. However, this one is merely a mediocre beer in a fancy bottle. On pour, the rosy and cloudy beer produces a medium off white head with slight lacing. It is noticeably unflitered by the chunks of yeast that eventually settles in the bottom of the glass. The aroma is balanced with hops and malt, with a touch of overripe fruit. The taste starts with a bit of sweetness and tartness, but the unpleasant bitterness quickly overruns and overpowers. A good introduction to Italian craft beer due to its wide availability, but by no means the pinnacle.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

San Gimignano

Tiny, hilly crowded...I was a bit scared of going to San Gimignano. Everywhere you look, all you read about it is that its prettiness is hard to see through the crowds. The closer one gets to those towers, the more scared and excited one gets. But all the hype and impending disappointment were great: the town was amazing! Lowered expectations never fail to pay in great dividends. Small yet imposing and surrounded by fairytale hills all around, San Gimignano is just dripping with that touristic idea of "Tuscany". (An idea, I cannot lie, that I brought with me.) There were no crowds and the hills were great except for the lack of a "real" store and restaurant (this being low season, everything was closed.) I think three things were responsible for this: (1) I went smack in the middle of winter, (2) I arrived just as the sun was setting and the light was turning golden, and (3) and unseasonably warm winter kept the hills green without too much haze. Enough talk though, as we gloriously bask in the beauty of this small town-

Although the next day was cold and cloudy and rainy, nothing could have ruined the town for me as I freely walked around and had breakfast surrounded with nothing but silence.
Was the town really that special? Well, to be honest Arcua Petrarca or Cittadella can provided the same amount of charm and beauty at any time of the day and year. What the trip emphasized most was not that certain parts of Italy are more beautiful than the rest, but only that the country in general is beautiful, with some parts better at selling themselves than others. Which to some extent is good: let Tuscany have the crowds. It deserves it...and it keeps the rest of the country quiet. I will enjoy Tuscany when it settles down in the winter.

EDIT: Hey look!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sanremo and the Italian "Passion"

I didn't really pay much attention to the Sanremo Music Festival going on this past weekend, and I did not find out about the winner--Roberto Vecchioni's "Chiamami Ancora Amore"--until after the fact. To me, it's like a condensed season of American Idol with more reliable and better performers. However, after listening to the winning song, I am definitely hooked. Poetic, powerful, emotional, and quivering in anger and energy, the song embodied that typical Italian passion without resorting to the syrupy melodramatic overtones of typical Italian pop.

The Italian representative to this year's Eurovision on the other hand was also poetic, but succumbed to the stereotypical romantic passion. It has little of the passion in Vecchioni's song, but has all the Italian charm, slick, and sickly romance expected of anything "Italian". The song even features high notes meant to represent overwhelming passion, even though Gualazzi just yells through them. I heard the song first while sitting at a restaurant in Siena and remembered liking the song, until the screaming bits.

I guess the Italians feel compelled to throw this piece in to the Eurovision competition because it "represents" Italian "passion", and gives the best chance for winning the competition. But the song is trite and contrived. I would have gone for Vecchioni's song, but who wants politics, poetry, and philosophy in a fluff event like the Eurovision?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Il Mulino sul Po - Occhiobello (RO)

This Saturday, a friend of mine celebrated her birthday by inviting a bunch of her friends to a seafood dinner by the Po River. Occhiobello seemed to be a common ground for friends who live in Vicenza and Bologna: straddling the boundary between the Veneto and Emilia-Romagna; lying in the shadow of the A13 bridge that connects Padova with Bologna; located within the Veneto but speaks the Emiliano-Romagnolo dialect. The restaurant, Il Mulino sul Po, is not even on land, floating in the Po as if to emphasize that it belongs to no region.

Prior to coming to the restaurant, my friends all raved about the place. Not about the food--which is only "normale"--but the location, which apparently resembled a "floating gypsy camp". Everyone up and down the Veneto apparently knows the place for its casualness and friendly atmosphere. However, after arriving to the place, I was a little hesitant: two floating houses stuck together to form a single building. Bits of junk like chairs, bottles and wood piled everywhere. It really did look like a gypsy camp. Johnny Depp is going to walk out and offer me chocolate.

Inside however is not so bad. Light, airy, and the walls covered with doodads and grafitti left by customers, the place has the feel of a neighborhood joint or a community establishment. One entire wall is covered with business cards, another with paper money. A good view of the water, with the ugly banks framed out of picture. Once you are led to your seat, a waiter with a bulbous belly--they all had bulbous bellies; I think it's a qualification--throws a few shells of peanut on your table. (Really, throws.) The owner comes out, makes a few comments about the women in the group, and starts to describe how the whole process works.

The restaurant does not have an a la carte menu or a list of things being cooked that day. What they have in the kitchen is what they serve. For antipasti, there is a buffet of different types of seafood and salads. After everyone has their fill, primo is served: the two owners walk around with a pan and ladle out risotto or pasta. Some in the group tried to say no. After a couple of banters with the owners, they changed their mind and said yes. After everyone is done and bursting, five main courses are served: in our case, calamari, mussels, shrimp, scallops, and oddly enough, roast beef. There were no special way of preparation--hence, "normale"--but everything was fresh and good. After a few more rounds and refills, we end with a cheese plate, sorbeto, and coffee with grappa. All for 24 euros. Not bad. The food to me is good, but I have to agree that one pays for the atmosphere more than anything else.

To get to Il Mulino sul Po, you just follow the signs to Occhiobello. From the autostrada, the exit is right next to the town. If you are not using the autostrada, just follow the signs to Ferrara. Once in the vicinity of the city, Occhiobello is close enough (10 km) that you will see blue signs directing you to it. Once in the town, just head towards the river. You will see lots of signs for the restaurant. Opening times is 1200-1500 for lunch and 1800-2300 for dinner. Cost is 24 euros flat, and it includes everything. If you're in Emilia-Romagna for the food, highly recommend this place--a a taste of the seafood-heavy diet of the Venetians.

Charcutepalooza: The Bacon, Pt. 2

After a week of sitting in good amazing marinate, it's time for this bacon to get ready to be eaten! And just in time: the apartment is starting to smell like ham, which isn't a bad smell unless the smell starts to seep into your clothes and you start to get comments from strangers about your unique scent. Which is a good indication: if you start to smell like a pig, then you must be ready!

After sitting in its juice for a week, the pork has taken on the nice aroma and color of the herbs and spices rubbed into it. The mostarda sadly is hardly apparent. After a week of marinating, the sharp mustard smell is not there at all. Next time, I will have to increase the mostarda from two tablespoon to...heck, maybe the whole container. Also, after a couple of days of marinating a dark juice settled at the bottom of the pan , soaking the bottom half of the bacon. I freaked out--I thought the bacon started to go bad and the juice is its life oozing out of it. But after consulting Ruhl's book, I realized that the juice is natural, even desireable. So after a couple of days, I made sure to turn the slab over to let the top part get in on the action.

Washed a ready to go into the overn. The meat is far too thin to really hold a thermometer up during cooking, but I used it anyway and it managed to stay up.


Cooked, chilled, and sliced the next day. Really nice aroma of thyme, nutmeg, honey, and peppers. I was a little wary of the middle being cooked enough, but by the looks of it it's pretty darn cooked. The pink color is also very hypnotizing.

finally, fried bacon! OK, I burned it a bit, but still very good. Not sweet as expected, but smoky, with palpable hints of thyme and nutmeg. I think this would go well cooked in pasta...or just good traditional 'merican breakfast.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Italian Beer Series: Dreher (Milan)

OK kids, we're going back to the macrobrwers today! Dreher was originally an Austrian brewery, founded by Anton Dreher, inventor of the Viennese style. In time, Dreher expanded to Hungary and ultimately to Trieste, then also part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although the company has been brewing beer since the 17th century, they only moved to Trieste in the 1870s. Fast forward a century and a half, and the company was successful enough and the trademark entrenched enough that a conglomerate brewer, Heineken, decided to buy the brand, move the brewing operations somewhere near Milan, and most likely change the formulation to the point of Budweiser. According to their site, the beer is loved by Italians because it comes closest to their "taste". It is true that Italians are the biggest consumer of bottled water per capita in the world.

Such blah-ness requires a description composed of short, choppy sentences: insignificant, coarse head. Sharp hoppy scent. Clear golden color, strong carbonation and extremely watery consistency. Bitterness of the hops dominate, and slight sweetness, but overall has no taste--just water and hops. True to its watery nature, the bitterness does not last at all and goes away once the beer is swallowed. 4.7% ABV, and tastest all of the corn used to make it. Yum. If you are in search of this beer best described as "like making love in a canoe", stop by any old grocery store in Italy. It's ubiquity is both painful and numbing.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Nutella and the Lazy Man's S'mores

So I just stumbled on this today: Ms. Adventures in Italy and Bleeding Espresso are hosting the World Nutella Day, where across the world we collectively stick our fingers into the jar to get the last speck of the stuff stuck right at the bottom. (If I'm the only one who has ever done that, and the only who has ever struggled with too-short fingers longing for the bottom that is just too out of reach, then the world, apparently, has not lived.) I was first introduced to nutella (is it even a proper noun anymore?) when I was 9 or 10 in the Philippines, when a friend received a bottle from his parents working abroad. It was completely mind-blowing: spreading chocolate on slices of bread. For breakfast--waking up to candy bars! Who knew!?

But the apex of my nutella experience so far happened during sophomore year in college. Sitting around writing papers after papers during finals week, I had a sudden urge for s'mores. (I swear, it was the stress that was giving me the munchies and nothing else.) Toasting marshmallows and melting chocolate seemed too much work, and would take me away from procrastinating from my academic duty. But this did not resolve my hankering--the more I thought about the possibility of having s'mores but without the work, the more I wanted to find the solution. Fortunately, on my desk in front of me was a half-empty bottle of nutella, slowly being unconsciously consumed as a sort of ready energy source that does not require standing up. OK I realized, two out of three. (I have to accept the graham crackers as a given. All it really does in a traditional s'mores is to lie there and be slathered with sugar. It's, like, the epitome of lazy.)

Marshmallow fluff is another product that quite literally threw me into a whirlpool and made me question everything I knew about food. Previously thought of as cylindrical in shape, it shocked me that there could ever be such a thing as spreadable marshmallow. It's like sugar jam, except...well, really it's just sugar jam. Nevertheless, it completes the triad. I found the perfect lazy man's s'mores. And apparently, they're also vegan friendly! (Although, toasting the fluff and nutella kind of defeats the point of being a snack for lazy people. Putting any sort of fruit or nuts also requires work, and thus counterproductive.)

Long story short, my version probably sustained me for an entire month. It did not require me to go outside, did not require me to even stand up, and each bottle and a couple of boxes of crackers could last me a while. At first I thought that I would be sick of it by the end finals are over, but I kept eating it. However, the combination of laziness and a 400 calorie snack eaten two or three times a day didn't do well for my weight. I also stopped hanging out with my friends, going places, and seeing daylight. It was like a bad romance. From what I remember, during winter break I just decided to stay indoors in my underwear because I became convinced that my pants were trying to suffocate me. No, these s'mores do not cause paranoia and delusion, but one does try to come up with reasons--any reason--to continue eating them. Merely because I had to--picture a forced intervention--I moderated my intake and ultimately stopped eating them. After four years I am reminded of them again, and if not for the relative lack of popularity of the marshmallow in Italy, I would have ran to the store to buy the ingredients, make about ten sandwiches, sit in front of the TV in my underwear, and commence binging just for old time's sake.

Wanna hear more gruesome stories about nutella, or just awesome recipes? click the icon below to see other people's confessions of their addiction, and be part of an incredibly enabling community.

Charcutepalooza: The Bacon, pt. 1

Pink salt for curing finally arrived last Wednesday, so I was excited to start my weekend curing bacon for the first time. But the feeling as Saturday came nearer was more of apprehension rather than excitement. I guess it comes with making something traditionally seen or bought sealed in a packet, the production of which was a mystery to all except some guy named Oscar. I had no business making bacon, especially when I can just buy ready cut strips in the supermarket.

But after going grocery shopping for ingredients, I regained my excitement. Most of theingredients are fairly common, except I had to communicate what I want and know the words for things in Italian. But having to do so was both challenging and enlightening in that it made me realize that I actually kind of know Italian, albeit a little broken.

First, I had to order the meat. I went up to the counter and asked “se vende il stomaco di suino...per fa pancetta?” Did it make any sense? I have no clue. But the butcher said yes, and pointed me to another butcher. (It's Italy, after all.) I repeated the same request to the second butcher. A few seconds of misunderstanding and he said something like “pancetta”, picked up a piece of pork belly (which is also called “pancia”), to which I nodded in approval, and the thing was wrapped up in a jiffy. I guess “pancetta” applies to the cured as well as the raw version, unlike in the US where pancetta mainly refers to the cured and rolled type. Who knew.

Second were the spices. At first, I was going to stick to the list, but realized I didn't have any juniper berries, at which point I just said, screw it. I picked up green peppercorn in brine, which I had to soak for a few minutes to get all the acid out. I picked up thyme, not without a minute of panic: what is “thyme” in Italian? After a few seconds of looking, I decided to make it simple: thyme must be thyme-o, because everyone knows foreign words are merely English words with a forced vowel ending. And lo, I found “timo”.

I also picked up mostarda veneta. It looked like equal parts mustard and raw honey, so I decided to see if it will work. After looking it up online, I learned that mostarda doesn't actually have much to do with what we would consider mustard. Besides using mustard oil for taste, mostarda is mostly a sweet jam made of pears or quince that has an odd kick due to the spiciness of the mustard. I remembered trying something similar in Cremona, except the fruits were left whole instead of pureed into a marmellata. It's a weird combination, but after a good tasting with some crackers and cheese I decided that the mustard will go into the cure.

The preparation itself was a breeze. Since the meat was already trimmed and the skin removed, there was not a whole lot to do with it. (I could have trimmed it so that one side isn't thicker than the other, but I didn't really know what is the point of doing that.) The rest of the spices were mixed then rubbed onto the bacon. Bacon is placed in a dish, wrapped, tagged, then popped into the fridge to chill out and marinate.

Stay tuned next week, as signor Pancia gets a couple more rubdowns, roasted, then chilled for one more day before slicing and frying. I'm excited. Will it take on the sharp kick of the mustard? The sweetness of the honey? Or will it just taste like absolute garbage? We will see!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Winter Blues

It's cold, I'm sick, and looking forward to yet another weekend of laziness, brought on by my inherent fear of misreading the weather and going out with one less layer than necessary. Although it has been--and hopefully, will be--a relatively mild winter, the cold still gets to me, and the short days make daytimes spent inside cold offices seem such painful wastes of possibilities. I'm looking forward to warmth, sun, green, and the outdoors again. To outdoor grills, shorts and t-shirts, and knowing that the solution to weather-related discomfort is simply to remove another layer. To restaurants setting tables in the courtyard, cafes lit by dappled sunlight, and bars that cannot help but spill out into the lively streets. To pleasant walks, fulfilling jogs, and looking forward to leaving the office, knowing that the day still leaves one three hours of daylight to enjoy. Spring cannot come soon enough.