My favourite new Italian word is chiocciola. Snail. The symbol of Slow Food and, this year, recreated in giant recycled plastic by Cracking Art to decorate the paths, walls and streets of Turin during the Slow Food Terra Madre Salone del Gusto (SFTM) event.
Once I had accepted the invitation to attend, I was determined to make the most of the expense (both carbon and cash – see previous post!) and planned to spend time in Milan and the hills of Cinque Terre too. Some tastes of my trip follow.
Cheese is an abiding memory of SFTM. Great piles of odd shapes, big balls hanging from the rafters, enormous wheels of parmesan, grey squidgy lumps piled of bracken fronds from France (formaggio de bocca), delicate slivers on wooden platters, the dark crusts on the rounds from Campagnia, huge holes in Emmentale, and pale oozey balls. Cheese from around the world was featured, but Italian cheese ruled. I ate a lot more cheese than I usually would (when in Rome…). The delegates’ canteen offered a big tray of chunks (yes, chunks) of parmesan and a soft ripe brie style cheese beside the selection of charcuterie. Restraint was required.
I loved the smoked provolone (and the odd lifebuoy shape when whole), but think some of the goat and sheep’s cheeses were my favourites. One day, I couldn’t make it back to the canteen for lunch, so snacked on a Pecorino sosatie beside the River Po instead. Did I say restraint?
The million or so visitors to the festival did not miss the opportunity to try new things and stock up on good, clean, fair, delicious food – within three days the Irish stall had completely sold out of the 350kgs of raw milk cheese they had carted across the North Sea!
Naturally, the world’s rarest cheese was there – from Montebore in Valle Nostra – made with 75% cow and 25% sheep’s milk, with a lingering flavour of chestnut. Loved the wedding cake shape.
Despite the fact that the central public gardens were planted with cavalo nero and the veggie patches we passed in the train were filled with kale and chard, it was a bit of a challenge to find greens to eat. Obviously at the SFTM, it made sense to showcase non-perishable produce during the five day festival, so that was understandable.
At lunchtime, the delegates’ (there were 5000 from across the globe) buffet featured a big bowl of green lettuce and maroon radicchio. After a couple of days of scrumptious pasta, couscous, barley salad, soups (and too much cheese), I simply ate the leaves, topped with a spoonful of farro (spelt) and drizzled with lovely olive oil and vinegar.
Luckily, our hostess, Franca Farinetti (probably the only vegetarian in the area!), has been a slow foodie since the movement began 20 years ago and cooked the most delicious cavalo nero and cannellini bean soup (all ingredients from their garden), when Ntombenhle and I arrived home exhausted after a day of long bus rides, lectures, tastings and meeting people.
In the stalls, I snacked on the biggest and best capers ever – from Sicily, admired purple potatoes and exceptionally long leeks, and watched weather worn women from Puglia as they deftly knotted tomatoes together.
In Turin, I ate caponata melanzane in Galleria San Frederico – not especially green, but veg
at least. On the sidewalk, a passing couple stopped and danced the Argentinian tango to the sounds of a student string band.
In the village of Corvara, I was thrilled to find wild oregano, mint, borage and dandelions growing beside the country lanes, so nibbled as I walked.
One day I picnicked on tomatoes and small Ligurian olives bought in nearby Pignone supplemented by the wild greens. A fresh feast.
There were lots of pink Cyclamen and yellow Crocus in flower in nooks and crannies too, but I didn’t think I could eat them.
On my last evening in Italy, my room featured a tiny balcony overlooking the street. While I could have eaten at one of the numerous cafes and bars in the neighbourhood, I chose to watch the sun set and the trendy Torinese emerge for the evening, from high, with a deli-bought radicchio, rocket, watercress and lettuce salad, topped with burrata and a slice of farinata. Perfect.
Pane, Pasta and Pizza
Italians eat a lot of bread – and pasta. With bread at every meal, it is no wonder that there was plenty on display in the white tents of Valentino Park where the event was held. Much of it made with heirloom grains to recipes handed down through generations. This was good bread. There was a vast selection of fabulous flours on offer too – farina della tradizione artigilana biologica – from which the various breads, pizzas and focaccia were made.
Popular fast-ish food for festival goers was thickly sliced of bread with slices of cured meat or cheese. Seldom any salad or garnish – perhaps just a drizzle of oil. They looked unappetising, but were very popular. The whole loaves of bread looked wonderful – piled in mounds. I tasted many tiny bits dipped into olive oil. Isn’t this bottle just beautiful? Holding very precious oil, obviously.
Biscuits are also an Italian favourite. Thin, flat and crisp ‘tongues’ flavoured with rosemary, salt or olives or long crunchy grissini – Stirati – extra-stretched bread sticks. Speaking of snack food, I found pesto crisps! How yummy is that idea? Come on Woollies.
One evening, the local branch of Slow Food organised pizza and beer in the Alba town square for the South African delegates. A mobile wood-fired pizza oven cooked to order while we were entertained by CoroMoro – a group of asylum seekers from across Africa who sing traditional Piedmontese folk songs and are a big hit in the region. It was wonderful.
I ate fresh ravioli with bright green pesto off a plastic plate from the pop-up Fior Fiore food stall where they promised (and delivered): ‘each product reveals its own character through its unique flavour, close links with its territory of origin and the passion of those who guarantee its existence every day: breeders, farmers, artisans and entrepreneurs united by the common goal of safeguarding the values of food in a modern culinary culture.’
Alice Bottignol, delightful daughter of our hostess Franca, had never heard of the Banting diet – just as well, as they eat pasta every day. On our last evening around the kitchen table, they gathered twisted zucchini from the garden to make a simple spaghetti dish, followed by a salad of just picked green beans and tomatoes. Epitomising good, clean, fair.
At the 5 Terre Hostel, where I stayed in Corvara, the owner Franceso loved to cook. Every evening he would announce his menu plans and invite us to eat if we wanted to. Penne with tomatoes, vegetable lasagne, risotto, spinach and ricotta tart or farro soup. Ideal after a long, steamy day hiking through the oak forests and olive groves between the villages in the 3 868 ha Parco Nazionale della Cinque Terre – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In Corniglia one lunchtime (I had walked from Manarola), I ordered spagetti vongole e lemone under a big plane tree in the small piazza. I know clams are not vegetables, but this dish is a favourite from my pre-vegetarian era so I decided to risk the karma since I was right beside the Mediterranean where the dish was born. It was fabulous, but not any more fabulous than any other pasta dish I ate in Italy, and I certainly don’t need to eat it again.
I then set off up the steep paths through the terraced vineyards to walk to Vernazza in time to catch the ferry back to Monterosso al Mare.
The five famous villages on the cliffs of the Med are car free zones. To get to them, you catch the train or the ferry or walk – or park your car high in the hills and take the steps.
I chose to walk the high contour paths, but there were thousands of stone steps to get down to each village – and then up again when you left.
Hard to imagine farmers carrying huge loads of grapes from these precarious vineyards during harvest time, but they certainly did before rigging up the rickety looking rails that do the job today. On the hike from Porto Venere to Romaggiore I came across the stone walls built at just the right height for the grape-laden to rest their load.
One lunchtime, I joined locals (some men in their overalls!) on the unpretentious deck of a trattoria for some very fine fare. I ordered trofie rucola, noci & scague di grana. Trofie is a small twisted pasta that is a regional speciality and usually served with fantastic pesto (I ate this in Milan). This one was served with walnut sauce, rocket and parmesan. Good lunch on a steamy day with cold white wine and a tomato salad.
Another evening, I joined new friends at the Hotel Paese and loved the ravioli with walnut sauce. A fellow diner had ribbons of pasta with wild boar – literally a sprinkling of boar. I do like how the Italians use meat as seasoning, rather than the main event. I wasn’t thrilled to spot the signs warning that boar shooting season started in the deciduous forests around the village that week.
Slow Beans – there was an entire bean section at Terra Madre! A fabulous celebration of lentils, beans, chickpeas – where crowds clustered at the booths – animatedly asking questions of the passionate producers and paying good money for bags of pale broad beans or almost purple chick peas. I adored the names – each one a speciality of a particular region – khaki coloured Malato o di San Guiseppe, Fagiola rosso di Lucca with burgundy streaks, pale green Fagiolo Gialet and small rust coloured ones from Fiamagnano. Many are Slow Food Presidia – set up to save and promote old varieties not in mass production.
In Piazza Castello one was invited to play with an array of legumes – colouring in outlines of farming scenes drawn on a table. A few volunteers patiently sorted all the mixed-up beans back into the various pots, so the next food explorer could play with their pulses too. Clever use of touch and smell to illustrate the importance of seeds as the first link in our food chain.
Farinata is a pancake-like creation made from chickpea flour. I like it a lot and enjoyed crisp, dark gold slices whenever I could.
Imagine my delight to discover il Teatro della Birre at Terra Madre – a forum for craft brewers to share their experiences and guide participants through the delicate flavours they had managed to extract from hops and what not. I tasted American, German and Belgian beers, and plenty of Italian ones – a few of my beer highlights follow:
At Terra Madre, passionate small, ethical producers abound. That is the whole point really. A young man introduced me to the Trappist brews – Birra Antoniana – from Padua. My favourite was La Torlonga, which uses Solina, an ancient variety of wheat that grows between 450 and 1400 meters, resists the intense cold and the snow on poor soils and is grown by only ten organic farmers.
It was hard not to judge the beers by their branding. The colourful folk art on the Czech Wild Creatures, the bold colours of Sicilian Epica, the enchantingly named Piccola Birrificio Indipendente. I certainly didn’t taste all that I admired!
One evening in Monterosso, after paddling in the calm, warm sea, I sat at a pavement café enjoying fresh focaccia and a glass of beer. I can’t remember what it was, but the waiter did explain its local origins with great enthusiasm. The café was closing in two days as the season was over – I felt fortunate to have been one of the very last customers.
Each morning for breakfast in Monticello d’Alba, Franca offered a big bowl of homegrown plums (prunes) and the very last peaches of the season. They have a special name this late variety, but I can’t remember it. A succulent start to the day.
The figs were almost over, but one evening when we were invited to join in the folk dancing at Cinema Vecchio (a bit like the Scottish reels we do in Dargle, so I fitted right in – thanks Lucinda!), someone contributed a big platter of fresh figs which we devoured with glee.
Did you know that apples originated in the mountains of Kazakhstan on the border with China? Or that 80% of the global market is represented by just four varieties? There are 400 varieties of apple in Piedmont alone, so imagine how many interesting ones there are in the world that are being lost, or just surviving thanks to small family orchards. Slow Food aims, through the Ark of Taste programme, to collect varieties that belong to the cultures of the world – record their existence, raise awareness of their extinction and ask everyone to do something about saving them, by telling their stories. The display of apples in the Saving Biodiversity Exhibition in Piazza Castello was simply beautiful.
Wandering on the fringes of Corvara, I admired plump pomegranates in driveways, and surreptitiously tasted a couple of grapes straight off the vine.
I loved the great heaps of nuts at the festival – pistachio, walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts. Almonds dusted with the herb savory were scrumptious, pistachio pesto was sublime. Most of all I admired the colours and textures.
Ice cream rocks in Italy. One of the first things Ntombenhle and I did in Milan was buy a couple to eat as we explored Navigli (the canals). Good but not incredible – probably catering to the tourists that thronged the city, even so late in the season.
In Turin centre during SFTM, Via Po became Via Gelato with a long string stalls selling gelati made from specific varieties of fruit and nuts. Everyone was invited to “taste biodiversity in one cup”. One could choose between Renneta or Gala apple (I chose the tart Renetta). I also chose Limone di Almalfi, Bonda Valley Romasin Plum, Bronte Pistachio from Sciliy and Piedmotese Hazelnut.
The weather was warm, the sun was shining, everyone was out eating ice cream, including me!
At every opportunity, I bought an ice cream. I managed to cram in four on my last afternoon in Italy – including Stracciatella.
Leaving Italy with a tummy full of ice-cream is jolly sensible, I reckon. But early the next morning at the airport I managed to squeeze in a fabulous arancini – fried risotto ball. Where in the world, besides Eataly could one order fresh mozzarella di bufala and arancini with a cup of breakfast tea?