by Chef Wednesday Wild Wilson
My husband and I decided to take a trip to Italy in the early fall of 2006. Our plan was to eat our way across the country. We flew into Rome, where we spent a couple days, then took the train to Sorrento. Part of the ride was on a local train, which was a crazy experience. It went extremely fast and was very rickety with no place to sit. To make matters worse, we had too many packs, no place to stand, and jetlag had overcome us. But we finally arrived in Sorrento and eventually found our accommodations. My husband loves gelato, so we’d stop at every gelateria and get all these different flavors, each of us walking out with at least three flavors each. We always checked out the bakeries, too. At one in particular, in Sorrento, an Italian lady came out to ask if she could help us. My husband told her (he always tells people) that I’m a pastry chef. They got excited and pulled us in the backroom, where we got to watch them making some kind of traditional cookies all by hand, folding it all together in dramatic sweeping motions like they’d been doing it for a thousand years. A lot of the bakery items are fancy and traditional (I want to compare it to Chef Hall’s part of the baking program – mine is more of the foundation while his is more creative. I like to tease him that his part of the program is where the food color gets used). But it was surprising to me that all of the items in the bakeries were very classical and nothing modern.
As we visited different regions, I would see the same kind of regional cookies and cakes within each region. In Tuscany, riciarelli cookies. Cinque Terra is famous for focaccia bread. In Sorrento, the lemons are used for for limoncello. I knew that in Tuscany they don’t use salt in their bread, and I wanted to check this out. Salt acts as a dough conditioner and makes the bread more manageable. It also inhibits and regulates yeast fermentation, not to mention salt is a natural flavor enhancer. Sure enough, I found that the bread in Tuscany lacked flavor.
Throughout our travels, I was pleased to see how much my 12 one-hour Italian classes paid off. I did not want to be the naïve tourist, and I was determined to be able to speak with the locals. You can just see it in their faces — “c’mon, just try, make an effort.” I was surprised at how much I understood and I think they generally understood me. It made a big difference in how we were treated, I think.
As we toured the country, we would rent places where you could cook, then shop for our ingredients. The shops there are dedicated to different food items, like pasta, bread, or produce (note: they don’t like you to touch the produce, they get really offended). Then we’d go back to our place with our salami or prosciutto and cheeses and breads and olives (see – pictures of these spreads) and have a little feast. At one point, we stayed at winery just outside of Alba. The wine crush was happening just below our suite, and everything smelled like grapes. We would walk into town along roads flanked by vineyards, and we would eat the huge, deep purple grapes from the old vines that had recently fallen off. It was also the first time I’d ever seen a quince growing. It looked like a big, bulky pear. Sometimes you see quince on a dessert platter, but in their raw form, even though they are very fragrant, they have so much pectin that you pucker up. You have to poach them to eat them. They turn a beautiful rose color naturally.
In summary, I have to agree with Chef Hobson’s post. There really is no substitute for travel when your goal is to experience authentic regional and international cuisine.