Curious Appetite

Month: November 2012

Rare and protected foods in Italy- not alfredo.

Every stage of my Italian life dives deeper into the underbelly of what makes this culture tick, a new breakthrough is made every month or so, a new language barrier has been breached. And this applies also to my understanding of Italian food.

The basic level is understanding a real pizza (no tomato sauce base or thick deep pan crust here), a real plate of pasta (made fresh and with minimal ingredients like cherry tomatoes, garlic and olive oil- no Alfredo sauce ever) and that Italians actually drink beer with their pizza, not Chianti.

Then when you are here for a bit, and if you are a wanna-be food anthropologist, you’ll see that pizza and pasta really isn’t truly Italian. You’ll learn about food from the Renaissance  (wild boar cooked in a cacao spiced sauce), cakes and breads made from wild chestnut flour, foraged porcini and truffles, heirloom beans, salami made from cooked blood and pig hearts and cheese made from rare species of bovine and mountain sheep in obscure villages. This is what makes my heart flutter. This is what proves to me that Italy is a gift to the world. And the best place to live.

There are consortia, funded partly by the chamber of commerce, local governments and agricultural ministries, that PROTECT these ancient foods, and provide a means for these precious commodities made since centuries past; to survive and be cultivated for generations to come. This is what blows my mind about Italy. That here the government takes an active role to protect biodiversity in agriculture and food culture. And the aggressive stance against allowing GMO’s to be grown in the region and demanding labeling of incoming food products from abroad. How can a country like Italy be so deep in recession and so backwards in certain ways- yet is more advanced in food democracy than a supposedly free and democratic country like America where none of these protocols exist? Hey America, just label it already!

In the Fall, cities across the boot celebrate the harvest of countless foods and hand-made products like cheese, preserves, dessert breads, etc. They are put out on display at events and sagre (local fair) in piazzas and open-air markets, with live traditional folk music and dances, with wine (variety is according to the region, or the district even) that was just pressed and fermented weeks ago. And here is a little collection of what I have discovered so far:

Heirloom beans from Lucca (Tuscany)
Aged Pecorino Toscano at a farmer’s market, so nutty and full of umami.
Biroldo (salami made from the scraps we would normally throw out like blood, heart, other organs and random face parts)- centuries old Tuscan delicacy
Panetone (big sweet bread made during the holiday season) but this one was made with Marrone del Mugello- an ancient breed of sweet chestnut that only grows in the Mugello district of Tuscany. Italians are now brewing beer with this nutty thing!

Il Cariton! This is a dessert typical to Piedmont- the slow food capital of the WORLD! This is made with some unique grape varieties that are like a cross between a cherry, strawberry and raspberry! Believe it or not, this dessert is being safeguarded as a sort of endangered cultural food. Italians do not let old traditions die.
You know its Fall and you’re in Tuscany when you see this dessert on display and at wine festivals. Its a bread (la schiacciata, which literally means smashed or squashed) with the new ripe and ready sangiovese grapes from the region! I consider the presence of la schiacciata col’uva an interlude to new wines about to be released.

Want a taste of a secret Italian dish? Try out this recipe for la schiacciata con l’uva (taken from

  • 1 package active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 3 tablespoons Chianti or other dry red wine
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 3/4 cup warm water (110–115°F)
  • 2 1/2 to 3 cups Italian “00” flour or half all-purpose flour and half cake flour (not self-rising)
  • 1/4 cup fine-quality extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Tuscan)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 3 1/2 cups Concord or wine grapes (1 1/2 pounds)
  • 1/2 cup sugar

For instructions:


The Slow Food Movement- digestion after attending Terramadre

Calabria representing at Salon Del Gusto

One of the things that was on my “Pros” list when I decided to move to Italy was the fact that Italy is home to the Slow Food Movement, an organization that supposedly embodies an ideology I wholeheartedly subscribe to. Which is the notion to avoid a fast food life and the temptations of commercial food while demanding a food supply that is clean, good and fair.

Every year there is a “conference” in Turin (within Piedmont): the very  region where this movement was born. The conference, Terramadre, is advertised as “a gathering of Slow Food certified producers, tasting workshops of safeguarded regional Italian and international foods, round-table discussions of delegates from NGO’s from all over the world to plea to us their slow food manifesto and inspire the public with news, injustices, triumphs and happenings in the food world.”

I was tickled pink for weeks leading up to this conference. I was finally in Italy during the time of this conference I’d dreamed of attending for the last few years. I attended Slow Food events in Seattle and basically begged them to let me volunteer for them in the hopes of one day giving a real hand to the cause.

And now, living in Florence I received approval to write an article about the event. I was so proud and full of excitement and hope. Only to have all my ideals of the movement shredded to smithereens upon my arrival at the entrance.

The event online stated that there were 2 events both in association w/ Slow Food. Terramadre, which was the one with workshops, food for thought discussions and Ted-like talks. And then Salon del Gusto which was this big food and wine tasting convention. It’s 20 euros to get in. Unless you’re a member, then it’s 10. In addition to this entry fee, most stalls charged for a tasting, and there were hundreds of stalls.
What upset me the most was not the price gauging, but the exclusivity of the event and the organization. It was a mad house with hundreds of people herding around like sheep trying to get a free sample- and few people actually available to educate or talk about their “slow food” products.  The stalls were in 3 categories. Orange stalls were Slow Food Presidia who are apart of projects to safeguard foods that are historical and typical to the region, thus continuing its slow food tradition and culture. I.e. ancient apple varieties of Piedmont, pistachios of Bronte, etc. There were MAYBE 20 of these.

Then the rest, which were the bulk of the stands, were seemingly commercial food producers who may or may not support the notions of Slow Food, who probably paid for their stall in order to get consumer exposure, make some sales and raise brand awareness. Another kicker was the massive corporate sponsorship like Samsung, Fiat, Canon and others.

I was sick to my stomach. This is supposed to represent SLOW FOOD.  Sustainable, small models for food production, yet there were tons of commercial multinational corporations present and ones that had nothing to do with food. Samsung- really? What appeared to me was that really the 20 euro entry fee, did not go to the programs like Slow Food Presidia, but more than likely went to all the commercial production of the event. Should we expect that Carlo Petrini (the founder) is turning sour from this commercial mockery of the organization’s founding values and ultimate expression of “selling out”?

Basically, Salone del Gusto in Turin is a glorified food expo.  Isn’t this convention supposed to educate the public about slow food? Wasn’t it supposed to be about slowing down from globalization? How can you continue to position yourself as a grassroots organization and a non-profit?

And the talks on biodiversity and land grabs? Among the zoo of people in this expo arena, there was only  a few rooms shoved in a corner giving these talks with a maximum capacity of 100 people- when the attendance of the event was 100,000. How on earth could you educate any of those people in those tiny rooms? And to make matters worse, I was sometimes one of the few spectators beyond press that attended the talks. I felt like no one cared- not the public and not even the organization itself.

Beware people. People who have true hearts for the matters that plague our food cultures. Some organizations are just in it to make a dollar and make an industry off of “care marketing.” I know the disappointment and shaming should be directed to the companies responsible for this food mess like Monsanto and McDonald’s and the policy makers that allow their profits and monopolies to be possible, but we have to keep the institutions in check that are claiming to defend us- and demand that they stick to their stance. That they remain noble and not succumb to the temptations of money and manipulated success.

Slow Food International, this is my open letter to you. I know you need money to survive, but I think there is a better way. I think you can not rely on commercialism and still have a big impact. I still believe you have fantastic programs and initiatives and think you could be more successful with them, I am afraid that by having certain corporate sponsorship some projects or ideals could pose a “conflict of interest.” towards your goals of creating a food system that is fair, clean and good. For everyone.

I hope you appreciate the points I have made and continue to strive for integrity and consistency not for public approval, not to retain your supporter base- but for the sake of this planet and the causes you attempt to stand for.

Thank you to every one of you who took the time to read this.

Forever dedicated to the food fight and the future of our planet,

Curious Appetite.

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