Eric: Slow food & biodynamic farm

May 26, 2010

This morning we had a guest lecturer come to talk to us about the “Slow Food” movement, which believes that people should produce, purchase, and consume good food at a slower pace, and that it is good for the environment this way. I agree with some of his points, such as purchasing locally-produced food could reduce the impact on the environment, which he claims to be the primary source of pollution of the world. We then went on to olive-oil tasting, which was a pretty new experience for me.

We were given three different types of olive oil: olio di oliva (olive oil), olio extra vergine di oliva (extra virgin olive oil), and olio extra vergine di oliva Toscana 2009***. We tried them one at a time with a piece of apple (optional to eat in between different oil). According to the lecturer, there is an internationally-agreed procedure on how olive oil tasting works. First, you should warm up the olive oil by holding the cup in your hands. Ideally the oil should be at 28°C when being tasted. Warming the oil up helps it release its aroma. Next, smell the aroma and try to identify it with something you can remember (I had trouble with this part). Then, take a sip of the olive oil, leave it in your mouth, and suck in air so the oil could be distributed to different parts of your mouth. Since different regions of our tongue taste different tastes, it’s important for the oil to be tasted by all parts. Then you basically comment on the oil. I didn’t actually feel like I tasted anything that’s worth describing until the last one. As the lecturer put it, an oil produced in Tuscany has the characteristics of Tuscany, and I agree. When first in the mouth, the oil is a little bit sweet, but then it turns very bitter and then to spicy, or as the lecturer said, “very peppery”.

After the morning lecture, we had a little bit of free time before heading to the biodynamic farm Fattoria Cerreto Libri in Pontassieve. I made my version of pasta alla carbonara for lunch, which actually only consists of pasta (any long kind will do), egg, pancetta (Italian version of bacon), olive oil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and is super easy to make.

We took the train to Pontassieve, where the owner and her husband of the farm greeted us and transport us in pack of four or five in two different cars to their farm. For the first time now, I finally saw the Tuscany I imagined. There were hills full of grape and olive trees, and the owners live in those farm houses that are two hundred years old but just look like something you would want to live in. I totally understand why Frances Mayes, the author of the book Under the Tuscan Sun, had the urge to move to Tuscany.

The owner first showed us where the grapes used to make wine are left to ferment (huge tank and barrels in multiple rooms in the cellar). We were then invited to taste several wines produced on the farm. Now, we all know that in Minnesota it’s illegal to drink unless you are 21 or older. However, wine is considered a food in Italy, and I am also doing this for educational purposes. I will have to say that I am really not that much into wine, since they don’t really taste that different to me. Some are more bitter than the others, but I am not really getting the “sweet” part everyone else is talking about. Maybe it really is something I will have to learn to get used to. We tasted 3 different types of wine, the first of which is only served at the owners’ house and is not really for sale unless you have a 2-gallon container, while the other two are for sale. Along with the wine, they also treat us with what they called “snack,” and what I called a feast. I could very well have skipped lunch and still be full just eating what they have given us.

On the plate I got panzanella (a kind of bread salad), bread, prosciutto, and pecorino cheese, and it was really high-quality food. I seriously could use a nap after all the food and three rounds of wine tasting, which was the most alcohol I have had in my entire life in one single day by the way. There was one last wine to taste, but thankfully our professor suggested that we take a walk to the vineyard and around the olive trees. It was really cool seeing a real vineyard and all the olive trees. The owners were really passionate about the way they run the place, more than just organic and completely chemical-free. I especially like how the owners described their attitude toward farming, plants, and the soil: “the plants are alive, and they will choose what they want to take from the soil, just like we choose to take things from a refrigerator; and you can’t find pills in the refrigerator.” As human who are gaining something from the earth, we should be “custodians” of the soil, not destroyers.

***The European Union has a very strict standard on what can be called “extra virgin olive oil” and what should be called “olive oil”. Extra virgin olive oil is the “superior category (doesn’t mean good quality) with olive oil obtained directly from olives and solely by mechanical means” and must have a free oleic acid concentration of less than 0.8%. Olive oil is “oil comprising exclusively of olive oils that have undergone refining and oils directly obtained from olives.”Unfortunately this standard does not apply to oil produced or sold in the US.

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