Curing is caring

Before the invention and widespread use of refrigeration, people developed a range of methods to help preserve their foods during seasonal scarcity. Drying, salting, curing, smoking and fermenting are all ancient techniques still in use today, giving us some of the most unique and flavorful foods in our diets. Think dried beans, smoked salmon, cured meats, coffee, chocolate, wine, beer, vinegar, yogurt, bread, miso, soy sauce…it’s an endless list. In some cases, these techniques weren’t just sought to preserve, but aimed at making ingredients more delicious or simply edible. If you’ve ever tasted a fresh olive before it being salted and cured you know what I’m on about.

Cured meats are one of the most delicious and fine foods man has come to create. A fresh piece of meat, salted and aged for months, can develop through time incredibly complex umami, savory, sweet and bitter flavors that simply were not there before. What happens? Basically, if the already existing enzymes in the flesh are brought to the right conditions, they begin to break down the meat’s proteins, fats and glycogen. These are transformed into amino acids, fatty acids and sugars. These compounds host all the flavors we love and over time magic happens. There is no cooking technique that can give a piece of meat such depth in flavor.

It is believed that the Celts, a culture that developed around the extraction of rock salt, were the first to experiment with meat curing. Today the tradition is rooted all across Europe. Italy itself hosts hundreds of different regional salumi (Italian for charcuterie). They vary according to climate, regional traditions and family recipes. Starting with smoked speck from the northern mountain areas, to super spicy hot sausages in the Southern regions such as Calabria. Salumi fall into two main categories, those made from a whole muscle such as prosciutto or culatello and those made with ground meat such as salame and finocchiona. To recognize an authentic well made salume there are a few tips you can follow:

  • The aging time is a good indicator, some products just need that time to develop, and cannot be made taking short cuts
  • The origin of the meat: if stated it’s usually a matter of pride, a specific breed, possibly even animals raised free range.
  • No additives
  • Natural casings: when talking of stuffed products, such as salami, the casings must be animal-derived, any synthetic casing does not permit the meat to breathe and age over time

The king of salumi is culatello, the most sought after cured meat made from the large muscle mass in a pig’s rear leg. It can only be made in a specific province in the central region Emilia Romagna, aged in 500 year old cellars for at least 10 month. When visiting this part of Italy make sure to stop by Antica Corte Pallavicina, a gastronomical temple producing what might be the best culatello on the planet, praised and shipped worldwide. They have stylish rooms and a delicious fine dining Michelin starred restaurant. You must of course visit the ageing cellars, which lie underneath the property and are filled with slow aged culatellos, labelled with the names of customers spread all over the world. Including Prince Charles and Alain Ducasse, for example…(http://www.anticacortepallavicinarelais.it/)

The art of curing meat sure is an old world tradition, luckily enough there are some great talents arising around the USA developing their own new styles and using local ingredients. Kevin Ouzts from the Spotter Trotter (http://thespottedtrotter.com/) makes incredibly authentic yet innovative salumi, bringing to Atlanta some real craft flavors. If you haven’t tried it yet make sure to get your hands on their ‘nduja (Calabrese style spreadable spicy sausage), but beware it creates addiction! Their philosophy is to respect the product they make throughout, from the humanely and locally raised pork, to organic spices and locally grown heirloom varieties of chilies! A rare exception of dedication to good food, made respectfully staying true to traditions but not being intimidated by trying new creative combinations.

dsc09035Salami ageing in a traditional cellar in Tuscany mb_food-160209-9-8Prosciutto di Parma slicingimg_4787Prosciutto di San Daniele ageing roomsdsc09602Salumi selection at Antica Corte Pallavicina

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Carbonara is one of Italy’s most traditional pasta dishes, that too often, when prepared across the globe, is not executed following the original recipe. The addition of cream or the absence of eggs (the main ingredient of the dish) can really spoil the essence of such a perfect classic.

The recipe is originally from Rome but a staple for Italian homes across the country. It’s origin is unsure, who invented it remains a mystery. Some legends want it inspired by the influence of American soldiers during WW2, that whilst stationed in Italy, came to cook with ingredients most familiar to them – bacon and eggs.

It’s definitely an easy and quick recipe to fix a delicious last minute meal with little effort. The sauce can be made in the same time you need to cook the pasta, a 20 minute job – classic Italian home ‘Fast Food’. And if you think about it, it’s really an Italian version of eggs and bacon.. just pasta instead of a biscuit or bread! Why not try it out for your next home cooked brunch?

If looking for lighter or vegetarian options follow the same instructions but substitute the pork with crunchy roasted veggies. The traditional recipe requires guanciale, spaghetti and pecorino – these are often substituted with linguine, pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano.

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Check out the recipe video: https://youtu.be/1CpXblcWPos

Recipe for 5

Ingredients
1 pack (500g – about 1 pound) spaghetti or liunguine pasta

For the Carbonara sauce:
5 Eggs
½ pound guanciale (pork jowl) or pancetta, diced
1 tbs Butter (not traditional but gives an extra creaminess to the sauce)
1/2 cup Pecorino Romano and/or Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese, grated
Salt and Pepper

Utensils needed
Large Bowl
Large pot
Pan
Large Strainer

Method
Fill the large pot with water and bring to boil.
In the mean while, dice the guanciale and cook in a pan at medium heat until crispy.
In the bowl lightly beat 3 whole eggs, 2 yolks, butter, half the cheese, salt and pepper.
Cook pasta in salted boiling water, according to recommended cooking time written on the box.
When pasta is Al-Dente cooked, drain and transfer directly into the large bowl, adding the crispy pancetta. Mix well and fast, so that the egg does not scramble, but evenly covers all the pasta with a creamy texture.
Place pasta in individual serving bowls and garnish with the remaining Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Buon apettito!

 

 

Very Vinegar

Whilst grocery shopping in the condiments isle have you ever stopped to think where our average vinegar comes from, how it’s made and which ingredients are involved? A staple food in most pantries across countries, vinegar is often taken for granted as if it were invariable, with no options for different varieties.

Apparently man has known vinegar for as far back as 2000 years, making it the most common acid-based ingredient worldwide. Different raw materials are involved in its production: fruit, wine, beer, honey, rice, molasses… each culture has their own. Historically, acidity in food was a consequence of preservation necessities, and often was probably achieved by mistake. A batch of wine gone bad for example. Today it has also come to play an important role in cooking – as one of our main flavors in the search for balanced dishes.

In nature, any sugary matter acidifies spontaneously – vinegar being the result of a double fermentation – through a process that is first alcoholic and secondly acetic. The name comes from the French “Vin aigre” meaning sour wine. Basically, once it has finished its alcoholic fermentation, wine left in contact with air turns sour. Sour wine is not, however, the same as fine vinegar made with care. Controlling the process means making sure the right bacteria are activating the fermentation.

A good vinegar isn’t made in a hurry, the process takes time and air exposition is essential. Once it has reached the right acidity, some of it is drawn off and more wine (or other ingredient) can be added. The process can be repeated indefinitely. This is why “mothers” can be passed on for generations. The “mother” is a gelatinous scum full of living bacteria which ferment vinegar (similar to the scoby we make kombucha with). Most retail vinegars are mass-produced, highly diluted with water, made from inferior wine or other ingredients using techniques that save time, but sacrifice quality. Luckily there are a very small number of craft vinegar producers that make incredibly high quality vinegars.

We have recently visited Josko Sirk in the far North-Eastern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia that makes a unique skin-contact grape vinegar. The Sirk family works very closely with the culture and territory they operate in. The vinegar production is just one of their many amazing projects – which include a traditional trattoria, an amazing Michelin star fine dining restaurant, guest homes immersed in nature and much more (visit http://www.lasubida.it/)
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This vinegar is made exclusively from local prime white grapes from the renowned Collio wine region. They make vinegar from the best grapes that would otherwise be used to make wine (indicating the quality of the raw material). It is very rare to find vinegar made from fresh grapes as its usually made from wine, most often from bad wine. The grapes used by Sirk are pressed and left to ferment on their skins in wooden barrels in the family’s all-wooden vinegar house. It is aged for 3 to 5 years. Just like any great wine, time is essential: it sharpens, matures and becomes grand. No other ingredients are added and the product is not diluted with water.

The quality of the grapes, the slow process and the presence of noble moulds convey a very complex structure, persistency and great minerality. The result is a fine product, an incredible ingredient to enhance dishes and balance foods. Strong and displaying character, it is at the same delicate and elegant.
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Bella Italia!

Italy is relatively small, roughly twice the size of the state of Georgia. Yet, it houses one of the most varied geographical conformations and climates. Result: an incredibly diverse territory, in terms of landscape, culture and of course food.

Diversity is also related to the fact that Italy, believe it or not, is actually a young nation, that was unified only in 1861. To give you an idea just 2.5% of the population used to speak Italian at that time. Up until then the territory had been divided into city-states, if not ruled by foreign powers. It was a land where identity and fighting with neighbours was the norm.

Italy is an incredibly rich land offering perfect pastures for animal raising and dairy products, grain prairies, rich soil for fruit and vegetable growing, olive trees, vines and the Mediterranean sea with it’s impressive seafood and salt productions. Incredible ingredients are the building blocks for a magnificent cuisine.

Italy’s eclectic food culture never ceases to amaze. You can go from eating sausage, sauerkraut and beer in the far north east, to eating couscous in Sicily, going back to alpine cheeses in Valle d’Aosta to buffalo mozzarella in Campania. You’ve got fresh egg pasta in the north and dry pasta in the south. Mineral wines grown on Vulcano soil, rich red wines from the heart of Tuscany and sea-influenced whites grown on steep terraces facing the sea in Liguria.

It is very common when travelling across Italy to notice that even between two bordering small towns, food traditions are extremely different and locals take a lot of pride in it, obviously describing their own cuisine as unique and better than all the rest.

Same thing happens with recipes. Take an internationally renowned staple pasta sauce such as Ragù alla Bolognese for instance. Ask anyone in Bologna and they will tell you about their own family version. There are those who add garlic to the soffritto and others who believe it’s blasphemy. Some will only use pork, others a mixture of pork and beef. Some will add mortadella, milk or, god forbid, cream!!

Don’t miss out on our Sunday Stories exploring one of the richest and most diverse food cultures on the planet.

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Italy is harvesting

It’s that time of the year. Italys countryside is filled with beautiful ripe grape bunches and busy winemakers picking, selecting and rushing back to their cellars to make sure all fermentations start as planned. The coming together of a whole year’s hard work in the field, a critical moment where all decisions and timings will determine the outcome of the year’s vintage.

2016 has been strange for wine production so far, lots of rain in early summer, and droughts in August. Climate unpredictability plays an important role in today’s winemaker’s jobs. Everyone was hoping for late harvest, but rain came and winemakers across Italy started picking.There were no extreme conditions though and overall it could result in a great year.

Italy has a long tradition of grape fermenting, making it one of the oldest places for wine production. The country’s landscape is very diversified and is host to plentiful vineyards and unpronounceable grape varieties, with a wider variation of wine styles than any other country. There are supposedly between 800 and 3000 indigenous grapes – although only 400 of these are authorised and classified in the appellation system.

We travelled across the country and visited some of the smallest and unique wine producers, who grow their grapes without chemical additions, who hand harvest the fruit and avoid the addition of selected yeasts, keeping sulphur additions to a bare minimum, if added at all. All the focus is on the fruit, the land and the vintage.

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82 year old Giuliano Anichini, checking the ripeness of his Sangiovese grapes in Panzano in Chianti, Tuscany. Vallone di Cecione Winery.
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Sangiovese grapes,  ready to be harvested. Vallone di Cecione Winery, Panzano in Chianti, Tuscany. 
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Ajola winery in Orvieto, Umbria. On the border between Lazio and Umbria, Jacopo, Gigi and Patricia, three young winemakers produce extremely special natural wines with no sulphites. Its a very small production of about 7000 bottles per year. 
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Procanico grapes, ready to be taken in the cellar to start fermentation. Ajola winery in Orvieto, Umbria.