Saturday, April 30, 2011

Rain Rain Go Away!

I have barely left the building for a week now. A cold misty fog has descended upon Guardiagrele bringing with it a widespread melancholy. It's hard to believe that it's spring right now, it's cold, damp, and depressing.

Today is the last day for two members of our kitchen team. Arcangelo (Peppino and Angela's son) is going to France to work for the summer season, and the other stagista Matteo is returning to school (thank god). However, we acquired a new stagista today. His name is Mierko (I think that's how you spell it) and that's about all I know about him so far. He's ten times better than Matteo already, he seems eager to work which is good. It will be nice to have someone share someof the grunt work I've been doing for the past month or so.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I'm on the Right Track Baby I Was Born This Way

Tonight I came into work totally refreshed from my midday break and got a surprise. Luca was exhausted from all the manual labor he had done during his time off (fixing up his house, lugging big slabs of steel for construction) so I was put into command up until dinner service started.

I was put behind the helm of the entire station and had to prepare an eggplant cream for later, an eggplant tomato sauce for family meal, i had to cook the pasta for family meal perfectly and make a separate dish of fariccello e asparagi for the Chef. Chef usually doesn't eat what the rest of us eat for family meal because he is on a strict no salt/no fat diet after he had a heart attack a year ago. During all this I also had to help set the table and make sure bread squares that were toasting in a hot pan weren't getting burned. All the while I have no help from Luca who keeps yelling things out at me like: "The eggplant is burning" and "don't forget the unsalted water for the boss" and "watch out! the bread is burning! turn the fire! turn the fire!" (Turn the fire is his Italian way of saying turn down/turn off the flame) Granted he's saying all these things right behind me, easily within distance to lend a helping hand. But that's the point i guess. He knows I could do his job, now he's making me do it and he's giving me pointers so that I move better, think faster.

It was pretty cool to be honest. I hadn't actually cooked anything since I had been here. I plated, sure, and that's always fun for me, its like painting but with food. Cooking is different because it comes with responsibility. I was responsible for making a meal for my fellows here at Villa Maiella. People who eat pasta every day and know how they like it. I also had to cook for the boss man himself Chef Peppino Tinari. I was very nervous about that one but he enjoyed it, as did everyone else. There was not one piece of my pasta still left in that pan after family meal. I had a little warm bubbling of pride about it.

Luca and I also got to talking about restaurant ideas while were stuck sorting through garlic for a while. He asked me if I knew what I wanted my place to be like and I honestly didn't know where to start, from concept to location to design. He told me that "you need to start at the begining. What is your menu going to look like." I knew all along the menu would need to be made but my idea seemed such a dream that I wasn't thinking about that sort of thing in the present. That was an idea for down the road.

But even so, I have a few ideas.
I want the place to be called L'Orto or Il Giardino (they both mean garden, well...Orto means specifically vegetable garden)
I want a bright feel about the place, windows, a see-in kitchen where my customers can watch the magic happen.
The menu would be italian influenced but i want to use other flavors from the mediterranean,
there will be full sized menu items and then can be items on the menu that you can order as a tapas. certain dishes can be made into tapas and vice versa depending on how hungry you are.

I have tons and tons of ideas for this place th atI really need to start putting down on paper but first I have to graduate from culinary school. So, school now, big dreams after. But I'm going for it!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Buona Pasqua! Tanti Auguri!


The Easter holiday has come and gone and I must admit I am breathing a sigh of relief. This was my first Easter that I remember on record and it wont be easily forgotten. I usually barely even notice the holiday when I am in the States, except of course when I try to score chocolate off of my Christian friends. It comes and goes quietly.

Not here. Italy does Easter in a big way. There are two days of celebration instead of one, Sunday AND Monday are national holidays. I was told that Easter is such a big celebration that Italians get Monday off to recuperate.

How Italian of them. A holiday from a holiday.

For these past two days the restaurant was so incredibly busy that each service felt like we were going into battle. People were coming in and out of the kitchen during all hours, friends and family members of Angela and Peppino. There was twice the amount of food to be prepped and an anxious energy in the kitchen. Personally I prefer when the restaurant is busy but boy am I exhausted.We had a pre-fixe Easter menu. Here it is::

Menu Degustazione
Entree di benvenuto
A puff pastry filled with egg and cheese***
Bianco di tacchino al profumo di arancia su insalata di finocchi
White turkey cooked with orange zest over a fennel salade
Vitello al pepe aromatico di Sarawak
Veal crusted with Sarawak pepper
Con indivia croccante e maionese all'olio di vinaccioli
with individual crackers and mayo
eCannolo di frittatina
a thin omelet filled with ricotta cheese and sauteed asparagus***Brodo all'Abruzzese
Traditional soup of broth and noodles***
Timbalino con ortaggi
Individual eggplant lasagna's stuffed with vegetables, mozzarella and herbs
o
Chitarra al ragu di agnello
Pasta cut by a "guitar" with a lamb ragout***
"L'Agnello"
Costatine alla brace e coscia al gineproLamb two ways. Grilled lamb chops and shoulder cooked with juniper
***
Fragole, meringhe e millefoglie
Dessert: fresh strawberries flavored with lemon juice and rose water, and a "thousand layer" cake ***e per concludere
Pastiera e Pasta mandorla
To finish, a traditional almond cake

Tomorrow we all get a well-deserved day off and somehow I promised Chef Peppino that I would go with him to climb the mountain (La montagna delle Maiella) at 8am! That was a bad move, I haven't been sleeping great the past two days and my body is aching from the extra long shifts. The only thing to do now is get a good night's sleep and prepare myself for the mountain that awaits me in the morning.

Buona Pasqua a tutti!

Friday, April 22, 2011

They Come in Meters?!

Today marks the first day of the Easter celebration.

The kitchen was bustling with activity as we all prepared for the days to come. We are open for lunch on Easter Sunday and Monday (which is also a holiday here). Luciano had his son with him today, so for the entire morning we had a very smart and hyperactive six-year-old running around. He looks just like Luciano, and was the smartest ball-breaking little kid I've ever seen.

The dish I spent the most time prepping today were called timbalino. They are miniature eggplant dishes that are encased in fried eggplant and then layered inside with sauteed vegetables, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and basil, and three layers of thin pasta. They look absolutely delicious. We made about a hundred of them and I hope I get to try one.

Tonight we all had an evening off. I hung around my room for a while and then motivated and went for a run. Running here makes me appreciate my surroundings so much more than when I am stuck in the kitchen all day. Don't get me wrong, I love the kitchen, but the natural beauty here is astonishing and always makes me stop and stare at it all. Between the mountains which till are frosted at the peaks, to the villages on the hilltops, to the olive groves and the forests. It's all magical. Yes I miss home, I miss a lot of people whom I love. However, my run today put it all back into perspective. I live here for now, in this magical and breathtaking Italian village. I am doing what I always dreamed of, living my life as a cook in an awe-inspiring place. I just have to keep myself outdoors and spend as little time as possible in my lonely hotel room.

So, for my night off tonight, after the run I met up with Luca and our new stagista Matteo. Matteo is 17 and is studying at a culinary school in Pescara. He is worthlessly slow and more than averagely stupid. Unfortunately, he is not a favorite around Villa Maiella but as fate would have it he is already set in inherit his own restaurant from his parents. Go figure.
Anyway, we three decided to go out to grab something to eat. We ended up at a very busy little pizza place where we ordered a meter long pizza. Yes, they came in meters. That's three feet for the Americans. The waiter actually brought out a wooden plank that he had to hook on to the empty side of the table in order to serve this thing. The pizza was great, although we waited over an hour to get fed. I snapped a picture of this giant pizza with Matteo's camera phone so hopefully I will have photo to share in the next day or so.

Until then, it is another busy day tomorrow. Luca and I have to make 300 ravioli in preparation for Sunday so I must say, Buona Notte!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Prep

Easter is a few days away and all of us at Villa Maiella are gearing up. We started this morning by cleaning and breaking down a whole mess of chickens. I got the lovely job of cleaning out the cavity's and taking out all the organs.

In America the job of cleaning chickens is not only gross, it's dangerous. Not to harp on the vileness of food in the States but raw chicken is really one of the most dangerous foods to handle and there are so many rules on cooking it that you would think its a hazmat issue. Not here. Here the chickens don't even look the same. The meat is darker, and the skin and fat has a yellow color to it. The first time I saw a chicken at a butcher shop here I was shocked at how different it looked from the Perdue packaged chicken in the American super market.
**************************************************************************************

I just got home from the dinner shift. The service was slow but we were doing a lot of prep for the next few days.

I hate when service is slow, it gives me too much time to think. Recently I have been growing anxious about the next step in my life. I literally don't have a home at the moment, all my things are in various storage facilities in Colorno, New York, and South Carolina. I don't have anywhere to return to really. It is exhilarating to have this kind of freedom, and unnerving at the same time. This is all I've ever wanted, the ability to go with the wind and move around as I please. My career will allow for this, you can be a cook anywhere in the world. My only problem is that I have no idea what I want.

Do I go back to New York and begin my career as a cook in the most cutthroat city possible?
Do I move to South Carolina where my parents live and work in a seasonal beach town?
Do I stay in Italy and continue working in my isolated little village?
Or is there an entirely different option that I have yet to stumble upon?

I have one month today until I have to return to Colorno for my finals and I am starting to feel the pressure of needing a plan. Soon I will need an answer and I am at a complete loss.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Guacamole

Today I had a very unique culinary experience. I introduced my co-workers to the wonders of guacamole!

Yes, guacamole. That ever-delicious green concoction that all lovers of Mexican food voraciously devour by the bucket load. how, do you wonder, did i end up making this beloved food item for a kitchen staff of extremely talented Italian chefs?


It all began with a case of avocados that showed up almost a week ago. During one of my many trips to the fruit and veggie fridge I spotted them, inconspicuously hiding in the bottom right corner. Immediately I was enthralled. Avocados? In an Italian kitchen?

I did some asking around and found out that this was the first time they had even thought to order them from one of their suppliers and they had absolutely no idea what to do with them. Patiently I waited until finally Arcangelo brought one upstairs today and started playing around with it. There was a brief argument when I tried to explain to them all that an avocado is a fruit and not a vegetable, and on the subject, so was a tomato. This did not go over well. They all laughed at me and told me that of course a tomato is a vegetable and that the same went for avocados...silly American.

However, I got the last laugh when, after Arcangelo put out a passionfruit/mango salad with a cannel of plain avocado, he became frustrated and gave me the rest of it to play with. I immediately spooned out the insides into a bowl, cut up from tomato, red onion and garlic and went to Mexico! A little lime, some pepperocino for some heat and there we had it, guacamole in Abruzzo. Most of the staff had never had it before, the only person who seemed to even know what it was was Angela. She was extremely excited that I had made it and explained to the rest of the clueless that this was a traditional Mexican antipasto. She made everyone try it and although it seems to not please the Italian pallet the same way it does an American or Mexican, some of them really liked it.

This was the first thing I had ever made for them. Something I never would have imagined I would have made for them. I felt pretty proud of myself that I knew more about an ingredient (any ingredient) than these people. It just goes to show that the more you experience, the better you get. Another bonus was that this was the first Mexican food I have had since I left the States.

It felt great.

I could almost hear the waves and taste the Corona.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Getting Bored

i'm starting to get bored to tears with myself. All day, every day, I am alone. Sure I have the guys at work, but most of the time they speak their Abruzzese dialect that I can't understand and I am left alone with my thoughts....a scary thing.

I am doing the same things over and over again to entertain myself. Blogging, working on my final paper, surfing facebook, watching movies and t.v. online, reading. Sure it's all great, but what I really want is to just hang out with a bunch of friends. I miss the apartment in Colorno, even though we drove each other crazy it was nice to have company.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Italian Farm Animals

Food Inc - Official Trailer [HD]



I've been thinking a lot about the experiences I have had with food production in this country (Italy). I have seen farm, after farm, after farm and one thing strikes me. The Italians do not produce their food like we do in America. They put so much of themselves into their work, they care for their animals, they tend to their crops for hours each day, they work the land with their own hands and they do so with pride and satisfaction. To them, the quality of the food they produce is a direct reflection on them as a person, there is accountability and there is pride. There is also an extreme aversion to anything that is not local. There are products in Italy that barely get shipped out of the region of production into other regions, let alone into any other countries. Some Italians wont eat anything that has been frozen. You can even find on many restaurant menus a little symbol that indicates to a customer when an ingredient has been previously frozen. This is unheard of in the United States. We aren't even made aware when we are eating a cloned animal or a genetically modified vegetable ( concepts that are also alien to the Italians).

Food is not a science here, it is a craft and an art. This is the way it should be!!

I feel so strongly about this, and my passion for farm-to-table and sustainable food is growing the more I learn about the subject. I don't pretend to know everything about how our country got to this point in food production, I also don't pretend to have any realistic ideas on how I can change the way things are; however, I plan on using my role as a chef to tell this story. I want people to understand what I have been learning here: that food is a labor of love and that animals are the best when they are happy and clean and healthy and allowed to roam free and live as they were evolved to live. A farm should be self-sustaining and have a variety of crops that change with the seasons. Food, and healthy food should be one and the same.

If this country can produce its own food this way, AND be considered a country to have some of the BEST food in the world, then why can't we do it in our country? Our country, that has an abundance of land for farming and grazing animals, has lost its farming tradition. We have lost our foods soul, and until you can bring that back I am certain that we are all doomed. Check the obesity levels, check the rates of childhood diabetes. These aren't accidents, this is evolution telling us that we've gone horribly wrong.

http://www.certifiedorganic.bc.ca/rcbtoa/services/corporate-acquisitions.html

Friday, April 15, 2011

Down On The Farm

Tuesday I finally went to see the farm.

It was a beautiful sunny day and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I went with Arcangelo during our break in between lunch and dinner.
Their family's farm is one of the happiest farms I have ever seen. All the animals are free range, when we rolled up we were greeted by a herd of sheep and goats all grazing lazily. I asked Arca if he was ever worried that they would run off and he laughed.
"of course not!" he said "we have the dogs and the bells."
All the sheep and goats had big bells around their necks, creating with their movements a messy chorus of chimes.The farm actually has a lot of dogs considering that there aren't that many animals to be looked after. One of the dogs had just had puppies as well, they were the cutest little things and I was tempted to take one.


There was also one baby goat that fancied herself a dog. She was born a month ago and Arcangelo told me that her mother abandoned her so he had been feeding her by bottle every day. Because of that, she didn't graze or spend much time with the other goats, she preferred to follow the humans around on their chores and stay very much under foot. The day I went Arca let me feed her so for the rest of the time we were there the baby goat acted like my shaddow, following me around and rubbing her little horns against my leg insisting upon attention.

I spent most of the time playing with the dogs and the goat while Arcangelo and his grandfather (also Arcangelo) tended to the pigs. The pigs are the main focus of the farm. The goats and the sheep are never eaten, the pigs however are slaughtered every winter so that the restaurant can produce its own salumi and cured pork products. It was interesting, I found out that the Italian government gives subsidies to farms that have a certain number of animals, so when Peppino wanted to start a farm he bought the sheep and the goats simply to reach that quota. He now tends to them as a hobby, a labor of love, so that he may keep his beloved pigs.

The farm was great. I really enjoyed seeing how a small family could run a successful restaurant as well as keeping a farm running. Both jobs require a tremendous amount of work, commitment and time. I suppose when you are so passionate about it, the work is easy to do.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Perfect Bliss

Monday was my day off

I went for a walk into town and discovered that it's even more dead on Mondays than it is on Sundays!
Thankfully there were a few places still open, including a cute little local food shop. I talked to the man behind the counter a little and told him I wanted to buy a selection of meats and cheeses that he would consider to be the most traditional from Abruzzo. I ended up with two different types of pecorino cheese (a sheepsmilk cheese that the locals go crazy for around here) and two different types of pork sausage, along with a jar of antipasto agrodolce. I then took my bounty back to the hotel where I raided the kitchen for some bread, picked up an open bottle of wine I had in my room and grabbed a book, my journal, and a blanket. The perfect picnic was what I had in mind, and I knew just the place for it. About ten minutes by foot from Villa Maiella there is an olive grove that overlooks a farms and rolling hills as far as the eye can see. I found a good spot underneath an olive tree, spread out my blanket, and laid my feast out before me. I spent the afternoon lazily reading the first chapters of Elizabeth Gilbert's new book Committed, sipping wine and enjoying the warm sun on my face.
The food was incredible!
The two pecorino's I decided on could not have been more different and yet both were divine. One was younger, softer, creamy with a slightly sweet and grassy taste. The other, more aged, stronger in taste, salty, tangy and crumbly. The two sausages as well displayed the vast differences between two similar products. The main difference was that while the first had a synthetic casing and implemented the use of preservatives, the second was completely natural, made down the road (literally) and had a natural casing. The first was harder, much better for slicing than the other which melted in your hands. The first was more meaty, with a higher percentage of meat to fat that made it a little chewier, but not in a bad way. The first was mild in flavor, very easygoing on the palate, it would definitely be a crowd-pleaser. The all natural sausage was fatty, and delicious. I could still smell the pigs when I ate it, and the scent lingered from the oil on my hands for hours. A smell I will never forget after this trip. I have seen so many pig farms and eaten so much pork product since being in Italy I could pick out pig smell from any other scent in the world. Perhaps not an important skill, but a skill nonetheless.


There is something magical that happens when you eat outdoors, something pure. I considered this experience research for the final paper I must write on Abruzzo and its unique cuisine. Nothing could have been more perfect than eating locally produced cheese and organic meat with my toes in the grass from which it was all born. I felt completely alone sitting in that orchard on top of the world, and yet, I was happier than I had been in a long time.
It was truly my idea of a perfect day. video

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sleepless in Abruzzo

I can't sleep. I hear the bells toll from the church next door marking down the hours. Despite my busy schedule and daily physical exhaustion, I haven't been sleeping well since I arrived at Villa Maiella.

I have a lot on my mind I suppose. I keep thinking about my future and what I will do after graduation. I think about what I will write for my final paper and what I will cook for my practical final exam. I dwell on the past, as most people do in the lonely hours before dawn. I listen to the birds outside and hear the dogs barking and wonder if anyone else is listening as well. It is definitely lonely here, not that I'm complaining. I feel so blessed to be here, I'm living my dream and couldn't be doing it in a better place. However, this is a small town and I am an outsider. Not only that but my entire world here is located in one building. Work, home, they are only two floors apart. I go for runs to clear my head and escape the feelings of entrapment. The landscape here is so beautiful that I often find myself pausing during a run just to stare at the mountains.

It's nearing four in the morning and I am no closer to sleep than I was at midnight. I have big plans for tomorrow, exploring the town on my day off, perhaps even venturing to Pescara to walk on the beach. We'll see what actually happens when I wake up dog tired and lazy. Here's hoping...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Chicks and Bones


Today was a great way at work. The weather was pretty dismal, it was as if Spring crept back into its cave and gave us winter again. The sky was dark gray and the wind and rain was whipping past the restaurant windows. If it wasn't for the buds on the trees you would never know it was spring.

One of the great things about spring at a farm to table restaurant is that all the animals have their babies. Chef has been incubating chicks in his apartment and seven hatched in the past two days. It was incredible to see. They are so cute; I finally understand the significance of marshmellow peeps during Easter time!

Today was also fantastic because I de-boned a whole lamb by myself for the first time. It was pretty great getting that skill under my belt. I want to be really good at it by the time I leave. Arcangelo is the one who has been teaching me butchering and he is extremely patient. Everyone at Villa Maiella is so helpful I have no doubt that I will be ready for my finals in May. I just have to keep the eye on the prize.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Una Sera Perfetta

Another day off and I spent it entirely in bed. I was feeling lazy today after quite the night out last night. Unlike most of my Sundays spent in this country I had a full and exciting day. It started with work, of course. Sunday is our most busy day and we were all sweating by the end of service. We got out around five and I decided to make the most of my night. I showered, got all done up and took myself out on the town to see what Guardiagrele really is. It turns out that the stroll by sunset is a very popular concept here because the streets were packed with people. Groups of old men, hoards of teenagers, and couples strolling hand-in-hand. After walking down the main street I stopped and sat at a park bench in the only park in town. It was great for people watching and I even got a little writing done. As the sun set I searched for a place for a single gal to get a glass of wine and a bite to eat. I even brought a book with me in anticipation of a dinner alone. What I got was an entirely different story.

I found what must be the hottest spot in Guardiagrele. It had a crowd of people milling around outside and lively music coming from within. With a bar stocked with crostini and prosciutto I decided to stop in and see what it was all about. After one glass of white wine I met the town crazy. An old white-haired man with a barely audible voice was on me like white on rice. I couldn't understand a word he whispered but his hand gestures suggested that he wanted to take me to his place. Needless to say I was in need of a white knight at that moment, and I found one. Another gentleman at the bar kindly told him to bugger off, which he did thank god! This man turned into a one-man welcome wagon and introduced me to all his friends. He was a nice guy, nearly forty and uncharacteristically polite for an Italian man. He didn't hit on me, he asked me a ton of questions about being a chef and about my life in general, and not once did I feel uncomfortable. The only down side was that he was a little too old and bald for my taste, but hey, no one's perfect. After toasting with champagne for his buddy's birthday he and a smaller group of people, two couples and another single guy were heading off to dinner and asked me to join.

Somehow in just a few short hours I went from being the obvious stranger in a town that knows everybody, to a new friend and dinner guest. The dinner was delicious and I even went and talked to the chef for a little while. All the other guests were intrigued about why I am here, and they asked me if I liked each dish we had. It seemed like I was the topic of choice at dinner, I felt extremely welcomed. At the end of the meal my escort paid for my meal and we all went to a bar down the street. It was around the second beer there that I decided it was time to head home and call it a night.

This may sound crazy but I can't even remember the guys name. He told me once and after a while I felt rude to ask again. This is a small town, I'm sure I will run into him again at some point in the next two months.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Guardiagrele

I took a run through town today. The weather is finally getting nice enough to permit outside activities like hikes, runs, and some exploration of my surroundings. This town is a humbly beautiful story-book town complete with cobblestone streets, old buildings and charming caffes. Although it could be mistaken for any other European town what makes it unique for me are the mountains. you can see them from almost every part of town, towering over it like silent white-haired giants. I can't wait for my day off on Monday to get to explore a bit more when the shops and restaurants are all open.