Subscribe

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Entries in Italy (60)

Thursday
Nov282013

Parmigiano Reggiano Tasting

A Reposted blog entry from Mastro Scheidt Family Cellars

As a winemaker, we are built to talk about terroir. Terroir, is the French term to describe the place of origin, a unique set of descriptors for a wine from a specific region, vineyard, or vineyard block. Cabernet Sauvignon from a specific vineyard in Dry Creek Valley has a unique terroir different from a vineyard in Napa. 

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

In the same vein as a wine tasting, I attended a cheese tasting sponsored by the Parmigiano Reggiano Academy at Cookhouse in San Francisco. I didn’t know what to expect from a cheese tasting. I’ve been to countless wine tastings for 20 years, arranged by everyone from the local wine shop to events sponsored by a particular viticultural region. I always learn something, either about my own palate or about the wine being drunk.

Photo by The Cured Ham, Parma, Italy 2009

The focus of the Parmigiano tasting was to sample Parmigiano Reggiano aged 14-18 months, 24 months (Vecchio), 36 months (Stravecchio), directly from the wheel and incorporated with food. Chef Jordan Schacter of Jordan’s Kitchen in San Francisco, prepared an entire menu of Parmigiano heavy, small plates ranging from a Parmigiano crisp pizza to Parmigiano polenta topped with sugo. My personal favorite Parmigiano inspired dish of the night? Parmigiano and mushroom accented brodo.

Why would anyone consider Parmigiano Reggiano a homogenous branded cheese from Italy?

If I were to tell a fellow wine maker or sommelier that all Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for 12 months from the Sonoma County AVA is basically the same product, I’d get some real funny looks.

But that's exactly what many of us do when we speak generically of Parmigiano. And here's why...

An accurate definition of Parmigiano Reggiano and a good enough answer for most would be that Parmigiano Reggiano is produced exclusively in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna, on the plains, hills and mountains enclosed between the rivers Po and Reno, made exclusively of cow’s milk, made with natural rennet and aged a minimum of 12 months.

But the answer above only describes the minimum requirements to be called Parmigiano Reggiano. 

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

For the Parmigiano tasting at Cookhouse, the focus of the evening was on the age of the cheese, from 14 months to 36 month. Parmigiano at 36 months is certainly drier in mouth feel, has a more crumbly texture, and greater intensity of flavor that a 14 month old wheel. A 14 month Parmigiano could easily be described as creamy. Each cheese maturity level can also have different applications in the culinary world, with younger cheeses playing a supporting role in polenta, while a stravecchio parmigiano a leading role on a cheese plate with balsamico.

Beyond the sensory and maturity characteristics we focused on that evening, I began to become even more curious about the specific origins of Parmigiano Reggiano. 

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

384 dairies are responsible for all of the Parmigiano production, globally distributed, of which 34% is exported to countries like the United States. Each dairy produces milk throughout the year from various cows, in various regions, independently of each other.

Each dairy will have variations in cows, harvest, feed, temperature, etc.  Similarly in the production of wine, there are variations in soil type, fertilization, sun aspect, and temperature. Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 7 grown in Alexander Valley, while genetically the same as Cabernet Clone 7 grown in Dry Creek Valley will have dramatically different flavors even if harvested on the same day each year, even if only grown 5 miles apart. Conditions vary from region to region, town to town, winery to winery, winemaker to winemaker. In the case of Parmigiano, conditions vary from dairy to dairy and cow to cow throughout the region of Emilia Romagna.

If there are 384 dairies, how many different cheese makers are there? One for each dairy? Again, the analogy to wine makers is appropriate and accurate. No matter the minimum production standard, each cheese maker has learned a technique, timing, and “feel” differently than their counterparts at other dairies, just like wine makers. 

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

With all the potential variables for each wheel of Parmigiano, why do so many consumers and cheese mongers generalize Parmigiano Reggiano as some homogenized product; albeit hand-made and of the utmost quality? Various conditions exist in raising cattle as they do in winemaking; yet a sommelier would never consider all Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County homogenized. That would be blasphemy! It’s actually a disservice to generalize and homogenize Parmigiano Reggiano into a monolithic hard Italian cheese.

A few basic distinctions when consuming and buying Parmigiano Reggiano: 

  • Milk comes from Red Cows, Brown Cows and Holsteins. Certain dairies will stamp their certified Parmigiano wheels with a secondary brand, indicating place of origin and the type of cow used for milk. Red and Brown cow milk is more highly prized and more rare than Parmigiano made from Holsteins.
  • Cows are milked throughout the year, causing seasonal variations in the milk, spring versus winter milks, and the diet of the cows from dairy to dairy can vary. Each wheel of Parmigiano is stamped by month, to ensure the 12 month minimum aging requirement, but nothing more.
  • There is no legal certification beyond 12 months of aging. Dairies, exporters, and your local cheese monger may or may not know and is under no obligation to disclose the various ages of the cheese. However, there is an obvious difference in flavor, texture, and visual appearance between a 14 month and a 36 month piece of cheese. 

After a couple hours eating, discussing, and analyzing Parmigiano Reggiano I have a new respect, understanding, and inquisitiveness about The King of Italian Cheeses and the vast kingdom of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Just as I never take Cabernet Sauvignon from Dry Creek Valley for granted, I will never take another purchase of Parmigiano Reggiano for granted either.

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

Monday
May062013

The Cured Ham: Cochon Noir at Trelio

Last weekend, I attended a five-course dinner hosted at Trelio in Clovis, headlined as Cochon Noir. Each of the five courses was paired with Pinot Noir, a challenge to show off not only the cuisine and craft winemaking, but the mettle of the sommelier. If you want a complete visual record of the dishes that evening, check out @Trelio on Twitter, there are videos of each dish.

One particular dish that stood out in my mind that evening was the tortelloni. A single piece of stuffed pasta, filled with wild boar. Why does it stick out as a wonderful dish on a night when I should be drooling over someone making pate de champagne with truffle cream garnish and pickled mushrooms (which I absolutely love) or roasting pigs in Fresno or Clovis? 

Because Chef Mike made a pasta dish that was inspired and it excites me. 

I’m a pasta elitist/snob and very proud of it. Fresh pasta is fun to create and it’s inspiring to eat. The dish Mike created could have easily come from Tuscany or Piemonte. Perhaps a side note, but I was intrigued by a guest who commented on the use of tortelloni rather than tortellini; obviously a well-heeled individual who understands grammar in the Italian language; music to my ears as I’m surrounded by staff who care, Riedel crystal, white linen, and Laguiole cutlery. 

As the dish came from the kitchen and was presented to me, my eyes immediately captured the brilliant, solitary tortelloni on the plate. The dominant statement of the dish, the headline, was naturally, the tortelloni. The large, off white shape of stuffed pasta hiding braised wild boar stood proudly in the center of the dish. 

The pasta itself is comprised of two elements, not one; the pasta dough and the stuffing inside, each have texture and flavor to be appreciated individually and together. The pasta was cooked to an Italian, not American texture. The boar was braised similarly to that of a properly braised ultra-lean short rib consistency. Each individual element of the pasta was cooked properly. 

But this is where culinary neophytes could easily be swooned into devouring the pasta without taking in the supporting players of fava bean, caramelized shallot, and sherry browned butter. 

The minimal use of fava beans should be applauded, not only to add color to the dish, but to symbolically represent spring, a wonderful accent to the dish. The caramelized shallots showed through as a complimentary sweet and earthy combination of flavors to the wild boar stuffing. Finally the sauce of sherry brown butter, pulling together the elements of pasta, boar, onion and fava together with a roundness, a completeness that melds flavors together and doesn’t overpower any other element.

No, I didn’t forget the single piece of fried sage on top of the pasta.

Fried Sage: Texture, flavor, color, aroma. Singularly beautiful, elegant, delicate, small, and even slightly bitter as if to remind us that nothing is perfect, even this dish. Very symbolic. The most delicate item, the last item to be placed on the plate, actually becomes visually the first item to the eye and the highest item on the plate when you pay attention to the total dish. Indeed, visually, the solitary delicate green herb offsets the stoic monolith of white pasta, simply by being on top of the entire dish. The tortelloni dish is incomplete without this final blessing and delicate symbolism of sage.

The tortelloni dish had:

Layers of Flavor...sweetness, acidity, unctuous butter and hints of wild game

Layers of Texture...al dente pasta, the pop of fava, the smoothness of slowly cooked shallots, the crunch of perfectly fried sage

The Final Layer: Symbolism...A singular piece of Sage on top of the pasta

For this evening at Trelio and others, we must look beyond the primal eating of wild boar, the impact of the headline, or even the theme of the night, drinking Pinot Noir. We must instead delve into the philosophy of the dish, the narrative of the evening and the symbolism of the experience.

There were other food bloggers and Fresno foodies in attendance that evening, of which I shared my enthusiasm for this single pasta dish. Some were probably there for the wine, others for the food, perhaps others for a night out on the town.  Whatever their motivations, I hope each of the guests found what they were looking for.

I did.

Saturday
Sep082012

Verve Coffee, Santa Cruz

I’ve had Verve Coffee a several times in Santa Cruz at a couple locations, downtown SC and 41st Ave. Each time I’ve had espresso and each time I have been very happy with the result.

The crema on top is lovely. The espresso is always served properly, in glass. The espresso is never too hot or too cold. And the espresso is served with a short glass of sparkling water. I think I’m about to cry...I love espresso.

Verve Coffee Roasters on Urbanspoon

Tuesday
Aug072012

Osteria Stellina, Point Reyes

Osteria Stellina all the way out in Point Reyes is worth the drive for hearty Italian-inspired food. The short order review fo what I ate; bone marrow, a mustard green salad, and roasted lamb.

Certain details made the night memorable, like the preserved lemon on the bone marrow and the tenderness and non-fibrous texture of the greens, both unexpected treats. The warm simplicity of polenta, stewed greens and roasted lamb to finish made for an un-complex and hearty meal of fresh ingredients. 

The meal, from start to finish was very good. Not a single complaint about the food. Straight-forward preparations and very good ingredients make for a wonderful experience. But I do have a complaint about other reviews and perhaps other food critics about their reviews of Stellina.

For all the hype surrounding Stellina and the raves from critics, I found it hard to believe Stellina didn’t make their own pasta? Uh? I ate at the bar and asked specifically if the pasta was made in-house. The response was a flat, NO. “Our pastas are hand-crafted in Italy, although on occasion, we do make a spaghetti-like noodle”.

What?!

I thought the whole appeal of Stellina was about some hyper-local, hand-crafted cuisine? Again, I was a bit taken aback. I’ve read so much about Stellina that I made too many assumptions. I thought at the very least, the pasta would have been made in-house. And to me, the ingredients from “local sources” I guess only goes as far as the produce and protein, but not the grains and the wine? I know I can get polenta from a local source these days, but since it wasn't mentioned on the menu, I can only assume it was out of a 100 mile radius.

Make no mistake; I liked the food a lot. In fact, I was inspired enough by my main course of lamb, polenta, and greens that I had a dinner party that same weekend and made roasted Berkshire pork from CA, polenta, and greens as a tribute to my meal at Stellina.

Osteria Stellina prepares food I want to eat and the menu inspires me to cook. But let’s be honest as critics about what they do and don’t do locally. There’s nothing hyper-local about imported pasta and Italian wine.

Osteria Stellina on Urbanspoon

Tuesday
Mar132012

Little Italy, Bakersfield

As most readers know, I’m harsh, sometimes very harsh on Italian restaurants. I expect a lot. But I’m also fair and when an Italian restaurant puts itself out there as simply a family eatery with solid Italian American food, my expectations tend to be more reasonable. Little Italy in Bakersfield is exactly as billed, a simple Italian American family restaurant.

I could have gotten lucky with what I ordered, the penne (from a box) with bulk sausage in a tomato sauce, splashed with a little cream. But guess what? It hit the spot. The pasta was done properly, the sauce was well seasoned and certainly generous (meaning it was an American portion of sauce), and the sausage was good. I can’t complain. I’m not comparing this penne dish with one that I would have had in Naples for instance. I don’t compare Chianti with Dry Creek Sangiovese either, they’re totally different products. But this pasta could have been a disaster. The sauce could have been sweet or the bulk sausage, gristly. But no. The sauce had a tomato flavor rounded out with the flavors of fennel, pepper, and light spice from the sausage and incorporated together by the splash of cream.

I can’t speak to all the other choices on the menu or even if this place is consistent, but for that night, I had a solid Italian American meal at Little Italy in Bakersfield.

Little Italy on Urbanspoon