Well it has certainly been a busy week here. Okay, I know what you’re thinking and yes I have mainly just been busy eating and getting ready to eat. But I actually had big goals of new content for you all, and then teachers gave us like a million projects this week! What in the world? What do they think we are here for, grad school or something? Sheesh!
Thank goodness we are off on our first study trip tomorrow morning. Bright and early! Seriously though, we are talking 6am bus leaves for the airport. Then its a two hour flight to the opposite end of the country, the beautiful region of Calabria! (Although its crazy to me that I can cross my home state in the same amount of time we can cross the entire country of Italy.)
Anyways, since I will be on a bus or plane from the crack of dawn on tomorrow, you get to meet a gastronome one day early. Today is one of our Marcos (we have two), Marco Pistagnesi. He is such a complex character, and I mean that as a complete complement. I remember thinking, the first day we met, this guy is so together how the heck did he end up with the rest of us crazies in the program. To be honest, for the most part, the rest of us are far from having our lives together (we are here to study food for Lord’s sake).
An incredibly intelligent human being, Marco has a double masters from Yale and a bachelors from one of the most prestigious universities in Italy. He has worked as an economic consultant for corporations and governments in London and Berlin (and other places he told me that I don’t remember), and dabbles in real estate as well. Oh and did I mention he is teaching himself how to play the cello? Told you, he is fancy.
Enjoy meeting Marco.
Hello, I am Marco, a previous economist, wishful wanna-be cellist, and gastronome in the making. My interest in food started, so to say, pretty early. As the family anecdote goes, my father (a trained sommelier) celebrated my first birthday by soaking my pacifier in a glass of champagne and then offered it to me. My allegedly blissful expression left little doubt about where life would eventually lead me!
Food has been a continuing, pervasive presence throughout my life. It is deeply rooted into my personal and family history in so many ways, that I can say it almost has a psychological, proustian element to it. My grandmother and her family, originally from Moncalvo in Monferrato, relocated to Le Marche (where I grew up), and there they developed a cake and pastry manufacturing business, specializing in Piemonte (a region in Northern Italy) localities. Years later, my father took up the wine section inside and so the business turned into a wide ranging trader/producer of Piemonte wines and sweets.
Growing up in this environment, my after-school time was spent at the “pasticceria”. While my hands would work on homework, my ears were more interested in the surrounding conversations about the next innovative product to create, or the next vineyard to represent. My grandmother complacently praising my father’s new Barolo variety, or crediting herself for the perfect balance of toasted almonds and dark chocolate aroma in the Amandovulo. All are images and smells forever stuck in my childhood imagination.
At home, my father was an ever-experimenting, inventive cook with a decadent streak to him (it was the 80’s after all!). I lost him as a child, but his ideas live on through my mother’s cooking, and onto my own dinner table, when I want to impress friends.
Although my father was more into creativity and experimentation, my mother (also a competent and dedicated cook) has always been keen on the variety of raw products and artisanal food. Tagging along with her and her friends on our frequent summer trips to Sicily, I experimented with things that have since become hot trends, such as learning how to forage wild herbs or make homemade salty ricotta.
Growing up, I dedicated a great deal of my time to meals and food. Nowadays, I still draw great joy from cooking meals for dinner parties. Since quitting an office life in London, I have had the opportunity and flexibility to experiment practically every day, coming up with my own creations, and always trying to balance inventiveness and nutritional value. My current favorite creation has been my oat and amaranth savoury muffins – I guess when you like oats but don’t like the porridge texture, you gotta work something out!
Of course, I also love restaurants, which I visit at least twice weekly. For me, a restaurant experience, no matter how humble or refined, always extends beyond the appreciation of food per-se. It is a chance to learn about innovative ideas, the chef’s personal history, the local ingredients being used, and the approach from the culture being represented. For example, I recently took an interest in modern Scandinavian cuisine. A brutally local, uncompromisingly seasonal approach that may result in the chef having little more than a cabbage leaf in winter at his disposal. I found the reduced use of ingredients, coupled with striking inventiveness, confusing at first, and quickly after, mind-blowing.
As a food-obsessed person, I like almost everything, no matter how bizarre or unusual, as my curiosity for human and cultural diversity looks through the lens of culinary diversity. Having to pick a few examples only, Natto is first. This is a Japanese delicacy consisting in fermented soy beans that, once served, are stirred up to allow the formation of what really is its signature feature: a sticky, stinky slime. After a failed attempt at it in Europe (where at a restaurant I found it inhumanly revolting), I developed a sudden, disrupting love for it when I visited Japan.
Switching to a less exotic example, I go mad for oven roasted, spiced-up, mixed vegetables (at least 4 different types) with homemade spreads, such as almond and anchovies cream, black eye pea and mint hummus, or the latest edition seaweed pesto. It might be simple, but the feast of different colours, textures, and flavours is quite possibly the most satisfying sensory experience for me.
Now a secret: we gastronomes are also allowed to have our own food dislikes but please, don’t tell anyone. For me, it starts with an unoriginal consideration. Industrial junk food is the number one thing I dislike. Not to say I dislike all junk food, some I find delicious and with traditional value in them. For example, I love the mayonnaise-ridden octopus balls in Japan, or the Acaraje’ in Northern Brazil, an orange fried corn flour ball filled with lots of heavy mischief. The point here is not the health or nutritional aspects, but the complete lack of symbolic/cultural element in industrial, supermarket junk food, which so directly mirrors the lack of sensory appeal.
To be honest, I also don’t really go crazy for liver, or organs in general. However, I consider them as a challenge to work on since they can be very important ingredients in pretty much any respectable food cultures, so I want to appreciate them! But there is hope: one time I was served at a party cured reindeer heart, a special Swedish delicacy, and I felt too bad to refuse. Surprisingly, I loved it!
And now here I am at UNISG, at last in an environment that is really natural to me. I am surrounded by fellow obsessive foodies, eager to be a part of the contemporary movement determined to change the many damaged aspects of the current food system and culture, and wishful to do something meaningful and with a marked social value to it. Combining this potential for impact and relevance with my long standing passion for food is really an ideal and blissful condition that I found here at UNISG.
See? I told you, a fancy character. I love these guest posts because they are really just insights into my friends that are new to even me. But more than that, I love the opportunity that I have to call out the accomplishments and character of these people. It makes it so clear not only the humility of people, but complexity to the people around us. Every week I think, “wow I never knew that!” as I proofread and post. To be able to compare your vision of a friend with their own vision of themselves. That’s a beautiful opportunity.
We are off to melt in Calabria and eat A LOT of good food. There are some amazing stories to come from this week and of course mouthwatering food pictures. Until then, stay hungry friends.
– The Very Hungry Traveler