Wednesday, July 28, 2010

First Leg of the Euro Tour

I have been a terrible blogger and for that I am truly sorry. I had promised to give you all an overview of my trip around Europe and I have failed miserably. So here is a very brief, in my terms, overview of a wonderful trip that gave me an insight into thousands of years worth of culture and western civilization.
We started the journey on the train from the small town where I had been at school to the Grand City of Firenze, Florence to the rest of the world. Olesia and I dropped our bags with the restaurant that I would be working for after our trip had ended. The remarkably overpriced but of the highest quality in both service and food quality, Enoteca Pincchiori(Peen-key-or-ee). For those not in the know it is a Three Star Michelin restaurant that is hidden away on Via Gibelina near the center of Florence but far enough from the main attractions to not be littered with Tourists. It boasts the largest wine cellar in all the world with 250,000 bottles of the finest wines the world and Italy has to offer. I have to separate those two, the world and Italy, because Italians hold themselves to a different ilk than the rest of the world, they will hardly talk about wine unless using their language because of the subtle nuances that are lost in translation would discredit the truly amazingness of the wine. But more on that for a different blog.

Upon meeting the chef we had traveled for six hours by train with around 90Kg if luggage in a hurry because our plane was to leave on a day when the restaurant would be closed for a holiday unbeknownst to us. We left the school so that we could arrive on the Saturday prior to the Tuesday departure of our plane. Needless to say we were looking quite shabby, I had my long hair and full beard was sweating profusely, Olesia was glistening brighter than any Goddess I have read about and again we were carting 90Kg of luggage. Not exactly a great first impression I will admit but there you have it. The Chef, Italo Bassi, was so unimpressed that he would not even let me into the Kitchen for a quick tour but insisted that before I was to return if I still wanted to work I would have to pull a Samson and chop the mane and clean up the face, a polite way of telling me I looked like shit. Then he did has best to looked pained at the fact that BOTH my and Olesia’s Bags would be taking up about a square meter of an fairly empty storage garage just down the way from the restaurant. We shook hands with a promise to return in one month’s time and were off to the cheapest accommodations we could find in Florence, Camping Michelangelo. Not really as bad as it seems, it offers a spectacular view of the city was a few minutes away from the Piazza from which it gets its name, Piazza Michelangelo after the great sculpter, painter, true renaissance man Michelangelo Buonarotti. Plus we would get a chance to get used to living out of backpack and tent which we would get more than our fill over the next month.
Since we had a few unexpected days to kill we took the time to do a lazy stroll through Florence careful not to see too much because, after all, we would be living in the city for the remainder of our time in Italy giving plenty of time to catch the sights and culture of this amazing city. We walked along the river that flows through Firenze, the Arno, over the famous Ponte Vecchio, a place where the Gold trade flourished (forgive the pun) in Florence. We strolled through the courtyard of the Uffizi Gallery filled with statues of great Italians throughout the ages. Walked around but not up the Duomo thought we did not climb to the top, one because it is expensive, two there isn’t an elevator to bypass the 463 some odd steps, and three no Duomo, Chiesa or Church we have come across compares to the Duomo in Milan, atleast for all we had seen in Italy. So After a few days we packed up our backpacks and headed for the Airport in Pisa where we would Take RyanAir to Barcelona. The thing about taking a Budget airline like RyanAir is that they have a very strict policy on the weight of the Bags. There is a 15Kg limit on the Checked Bag and a 10 Kg limit on carry-on. The problem for the Traveler for one month is that you need to bring with you enough gear to live for a month and that tends to add-up in weight fairly quick. Olesia and I did some careful shuffling og our gear and distuibuted the weight as best we could. The loophole in all these weight requirements is that they don’t count what you can fit in your pockets. Being a fan of cargo pants and shorts I put the name cargo to the test. Our bags came out as weighing 14.6Kg for Olesia and 14.9 for Me. My carry-on weighed in at 9.5 and Olesia chose not to carry anything on. I made quite the spectacle of myself when I was going through security and pulled thing out of my pockets for a good five minutes, it was like watching a Clown-car unload its passengers. I explained in my very poor Italian that we were flying on a budget airline,(consisting of me raised my shoulders with hands splayed saying RyanAir) the security guard gave me an understanding chuckle as I and my bags turned out not to be carrying any WMDs. A few hours later we were off.

We chose to go to Barcelona first because we had friends that had spent a month or so circumnavigating Spain, we cleverly plotted that we meet up in Barcelona for some good old-fashioned fun and conversation that only had the American accent attached. We finally arrived at the campground at 10:00 PM a mere ten hours after our departure from Florence. We met up with our worried friends who thought they would be the late arrivals and began to wonder if they had the right campground. We pitched our tent had a quick dinner at the bar and started chatting about our travels up to that point. The next day we took as a day of rest because of the aforementioned ten hour voyage we had little intention of heading out to see anything, we would spend a week there and could afford a sun-soaked day on the beautiful little beach just down the way from our campground. We were happy to be with our friends Lyndsie and Avery, and they were happy to be with us. The next day we headed into Barcelona, because our campground “Camping Barcelona” was a bit of a misnomer and was in a small town 30 minutes by train north of Barcelona called Mataro(Ma-Ta-Row for the gringos, including myself, who mistakenly say “Ma-Tar-oh”). Our first goal in Barcelona was to take a walk guided by the Rick Steve’s Spain book Lyndsie and Avery had with them. Travelers from Washington are slaves to these books, but they do offer insight to a world we might have just offered a passing glance without actually knowing what we were looking at. After a walk around Barcelona we hopped on a Metro and headed for Gaudi’s magnificent posthumous contribution to the world La Chiesa di Segrada Familia. Apart from being the coolest, most interesting, and possibly being the only church I could see God calling Home, is that it is yet unfinished. Gaudi began working on the church at the turn of the twentieth century. I allows the modern person to see just what it was like back in the renaissance when similar buildings took literally hundreds of years to build and no one seemed to mind much because they knew that one day it would be a sight to behold, of greatness and glory. Unlike today when we throw up huge buildings in a matter of months. Gaudi knew that this building was going to take some time to build and lots of commitment he even had a school built on the site so that workers could have their families with them without hindering the children’s education. Let’s face it they would probably be continuing as the labor force to finish the church and the building itself is mathematically planned and perfect you don’t want any moron trying to finish such a magnificent piece of functional art. The design is exquisite, and organic using the mathematical truths found in mature, the Golden Rectangle the Phi Ratio ell carried out in grandness and beauty. You can see the time is well spent even though the building won’t be finished until 2020. Amazingly enough many of the original plans for the building were destroyed during WWII but contemporaries of Gaudi have salvaged the notes and some remaining blueprints and have survived so that the building once completed will still hold the original ideas that Gaudi set out to construct. A building that I have every intention of returning to see when it is completed.

The next day we went to the Picasso Museum. It was amazing to see that the artist had an entire career outside of the cubism and warped still lives that we are most familiar with. We saw his Art develop from early childhood through art school and into the autumn of his life where he explored pottery and drew very cartoonish pictures explaining simply that he had spent his youth exploring the classics, the art of the adult world that as he neared the end of his life he wished to return to the art of children that he had been deprived in his youth. A truly amazing collection from an artist that I found out I knew very little about. After the visit to the Picasso Museum it was off to see another of Gaudi’s works. It seems that Gaudi did some work in civilengineering as well as architecture. He developed a kind of modern community/neighborhood that was never to takeoff in his lifetime. The heighborhood consists of a few houses built in the famous Gaudi style which looks like a real life work of Dali with surreal building which appear to be melting back into the earth on which they were constructed. The reason this design railed was because the wealthy that it was meant to house did not want to live on the outskirts of the city as they do today but instead wanted to live in the center of the city, it would be too unfashionable to live on the outskirts of town amongst the poor. It is a true mark of the times where today the poor live in the center of town and the wealthy live outside of town away from the hustle and bustle of life in the city. Gaudi was definetly a man ahead of his time, even the benches of the courtyard of the were ergonomically designed so that these cement seats were some of the most comfortable I have sat on in Europe. The rest of the time we spent in Barcelona was on the beach walking through town and simply looking and taking in the beauty of the town that is both Modern and Ancient at the same time.

At the end of our week Olesia and I headed for the Airport and Lyndsie and Avery headed off to continue their journey around Spain. Ole and I Slept in the airport that night because the other thing about budget travel is that it usually leaves at ungodly hours of the morning and night. We didn’t really sleep because most of the good spots were taken so we unrolled our sleeping pads and slept on the floor. In a great turn of luck, Not, there was a power failure in the airport which scrambled the computers and caused quite a stir in the morning, Ole and I were then happy that we had stayed in the airport or we could have well caused us to miss our flight. The third thing about Budget flying is that the tickets are non-transferable and non-refundable even if it is the airports fault that you miss your flight. But we did barely catch our flight and we were off for Paris, France, incase you were confused. At this point I thing I will save paris for another blog because as per usual I have been a bit long-winded and am a bit tired of typing so…Ciao for now, I promise I will be quicker with the next post.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Final Test.

For the final test at ICIF I would prepare Crema di Fagiole Cannellini con Prociutto e Gamberi con salsa Basilico. Basically a Cannellini Bean paste with Bacon and Shrimp with a simple Basil sauce consisting of basil a bit of drippings from the bacon and some Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The Main problem that I had with this dish is that I could not for the life of me remember making it in any of the classes or even seeing it made. Then it hit me we had made the dish on our first day in the kitchen. We had run out of Cannelini Beans and used a kidney bean instead, the end result turned out looking like a piped out piece of dog poop with a couple of shrimp and a piece of bacon sticking out of it. Great, I thought, I have to make the dog poop dish. Pouring over my notes I could not find anything that would help me with the preparation, I only had a picture or two which would help me with plating but this was of little help because I had only my plate to go off of and like I said it looked like a soft-serve swirl of poo. I was not looking forward to this dish.

As per usual the test started late. The curve ball there were five judges instead of three as was usual or four as there should have been. The roster did not include a single chef, there was a reporter, two architects, the lawyer for ICIF and the director . A little unimpressive but also a bit intimidating because what is the Architect going to think about first and foremost? That’s right…the plating, bane of my culinary existence. I have really tried to pay attention to the techniques and flare employed by the guest chefs and feel that in some way I have improved in this regard, but I was still quite nervous. I meditated for a minute and decided that I would approach the dish in a straight forward manner. The Paste on top of a perfect crisp thin slice of baguette . The shrimp would be set atop the curl of bean paste, rolled using a Japanese method where by the tail is poked through itself making a nice little ball of shrimp with the tail splayed out above it. Two shrimps to each Bruchetta with a crispy piece of pancetta separating the shrimps. The sauce drizzled around the plate and over the top. As I served the Judges I brought out the Five plate but was rejected by one of the judges who was allergic to shellfish, Shrimp in particular. This was probably my fault seafood allergies are common, I should have asked before I served. I even had extra of the dish which had not been touched by the shrimp and I offered to go and retrieve one for him. He said that he was fine just looking at the other dishes, a dubious statement but followed with a kindly “It looks very good though”.

The next Curve ball came when we were allowed to select the wine that was paired with the dish. A show of confidence on the part of our sommelier professor the ever brilliant Gianni Lercara. There were two whites to choose from a 2008 Gavi, I like the name of this grape for obvious reasons. Now normally a young white has a fair amount of acidity to them which is a great way to balance the fattiness of the bacon and the saltiness of the bean paste and sweetness inherent to the shrimp the wine that I chose because I had an early course I wanted to choose something light though my dish was heavy on flavors and would have required a bigger wine. The alternative to this wine was a 2003 Chardonnay which if pairing this wine only with my dish would have been a perfect match but when thinking that I had a first course and there were some heavy red to come after my course I chose the Gavi, Explaining my choice to the judges as I have explained it to you all including the tongue in cheek remark about the name which they courteously laughed at. I knew I had chosen a wine that was inferior to the dish that I had prepared and it would not balance because this particular Gavi lacked the acidity and sapidity that I needed to properly balance the dish but there is a vertical aspect to the wines in a five course meal, Five different wines the first wine should not be a huge wine but I needed my wine to be just a touch bigger than it was to create a harmonious pairing. All of this aside I received a 27 on the scoring sheet and it was enough to pull my average to 26 for the course. A number I am told to be happy about but I do have a little bit of trouble gloating about only because I like to hold myself to a higher standard.

All in all, I have to say I have accomplished my goals for the scholastic part of my Italian odyssey. Here are flavors in nature which stand firmly on their own and don’t need to be complicated with a rack of spices added to them so that they no longer taste of the food but only of spice. I have worked to sharpen my pallet for the inevitable marriage of food and wine, the skills taught to me by Gianni I know will be invaluable for my future. He presented me with a new way to approach wine like an expert, not a snob, the characteristics of the wine that matter the most and the insignificance of being able to identify a certain smell like “Violets on the 24th of April just after a spring rain”. Poetic yes but it is sufficient to merely say “floral bouquet”. The fact that is a bottle of wine has a novel written on the back explaining the intricacies of the nose and pairing suggestions accompanied by a pretty picture they probably put more effort into the label than the wine in the bottle. Good wine does not have to cost an arm and a leg, true some really, really good wines have a hefty price tag but that is because of the effort to which the vintners go to in making the wine you are paying for their investment of time, love and energy. There are vintners out there that love their jobs and make the wine simply because it is what they enjoy doing with their lives and the modest price that they charge for their wines is proof of that. In the end that material objects that I take away from the school are a few recipe books completely in Italian and a Diploma that says I have completed the Master Course. But intellectually I take away so much more. Like a true Musician I have learned and am still learning the classical techniques and now comes the time to elaborate and improve upon the classical and make my own music.

My Only beef is that I did not become Fluent in Italian and still have a fair amount of difficulty speaking in general. But I am understanding a lot more and that probably had something to do with the classes I was offered even if it only amounted to about 3 hours a week for the two months. I’ll Just have to work harder when I go into the working phase of the odyssey. Sorry to have not written in a while but I have been Traveling around Europe to seek out more culture of the western world. Ciao for now, Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Lavazza is the largest coffee producer in Italy. In the world market they are second only to Starbucks but differently from Starbucks, Lavazza only deals in coffee. Our class went to the Lavazza training center f their largest of six production plants in the world. Every day coffee arrives from all corners of the world where it is blended according to very secret formulas thought up by the lab for maximum flavors. The whole process is Top secret aside from the guided tours. But they don’t allow any photographs of the processing because of patented technologies that only Lavazza uses. The tour was interesting enough but I was happy that it would be the last factory we would visit. In Italy it seems that every factory uses the same methods of production and storage and if you have seen one you have seen them all. But, of course you can’t know this until you have seen at least a few of them. The Italians thought they do not like to work a lot they do take pride in the things they do produce. If you think about it, for as little as they do work they manage to get quite a bit done which I guess is something anyone could be proud of.

When we arrived we were offered espresso and cappucino by our trainer. As we had to wake early for the trip to Turin, we were all Happy for the free cup of joe. After coffee we headed into the training classroom where at length we were given the over view of the last hundred years of the evolution of the company. Lavazza was started by Giuseppe Lavazza who opened a small grocery store in the heart of Turin. He had been to Columbia and fell in love with coffee. He sold the coffee in it’s raw green form for his customer s to take home and roast for themselves the problem being that if one cannot properly roast coffee then they coffee burns and tastes like merda(the stronger word for poop). Thus Signore Lavazza acquired a coffee roasting hand operated machine and became the first person in Italy to sell Pre-roasted coffee to the masses. He knew what he was doing so word of his coffee soon spread. He closed the grocery store in--- in order to focus only on coffee. The rest is history.

Since that first store Lavazza has tried to stay on the cutting edge, Devoting many of it’s resources to research and development of technology for the processing and packaging of coffee inorder to obtain the perfect drop. It is because of this that they opened the training center to educate, distributors supplies and baristi throughout the world. For your edification; the perfect shot of espresso is made first by choosing the correct roast for yourself be it Arabica Bean, Which is softer, a bit sweeter and containing less caffeine or Robusto which as the name suggests is bitter with stronger flavor and much more caffeine. The most common is a mix of the two, one hundred percent robust is really not drunk because it would be too bitter for the average consumer. Once you have selected you beans you must then select you roast. A rule of thumb is the darker the roast the stronger the flavor, less caffeine and vice versa. From here you have to think about the grind. This is tricky, you want the grind to be like a fine sand not dust but not too coarse either. The water should be able to flow throught the coffee with out clogging the fine holes in the dispenser handle but the maximum surface are of coffee must be exposed to the water in the minimal amount of time Ideally this “percolation” time should be no more or less than seven seconds before coming out of the handle in a continuous small stream. Once the perfect grind is achieved then you must thing about the portion of coffee in the dispenser handle. The Ideal shot will come from 6.5-7grams slightly less than a tablespoon. The coffee is lightly packed into the handle is affixed to the machine. It there is too little coffee in the handle the water will flow too quickly and sputter out of the spout which will ruin “La Crema” or slight foam that rests atop the perfect espresso. If there is too much coffee the stream will dribble out and the coffee will burn inside the handle before a decent shot is produced. The water must be sub boiling, at a healthy simmer between 90 and 95 degrees Centigrade (193-203 F) The water is pushed through the spout with a pressure of nine bar. 7 second steep and 25-30 seconds to stream out. Serving size about 1.25 ounce. For a cappuccino the milk should always be frothed from the top then gently stirred to ensure that the bubbles are well emulsified with the warmed milk and poured directly into the center of the shot and filling a 200ml cup. This gives you the best cup of Joe and concludes my talking about Lavazza. I know that this will help me to make a better cup of coffee with my espresso machine I hope it does the same for you. Ciao For Now, Stay Tuned.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Test No. 4

The Last test left before the final. I was given the task of preparing the main dish the name of which is Bauletto pesce di Acqua dolce con gamberi. Literally, Trunk of freshwater fish with shrimp. I was happy to be making this dish because again when we made it in class this one turned out the best of the fish dishes we had done that day. I was pumped. I cleaned my fish, Tourneed the Accompanying vegetables (Potato, Carrot, and Zucchini), had pine nuts ready to toast and toss with capers for the base on the plate. The Bauletto itself is pretty simple you take a Fillet of trout cover with parsley and marjoram finely chopped lay half of a fillet of salmon on top, then take a freshly peeled shrimp sliced in half and set apart so that you can roll the fish into a log which you put on oiled parchment and cover with foil. Here comes the gamble, you can’t see the fish you must cook blind first heating in a sauté pan and finishing in the oven. Being from the Pacific Northwest I take my salmon cookery very seriously it is easy to overcook even under constant vigilance let alone blind cooking. The test was to commence at 11:30 but as per usual it did not start until 12:30 and there was again only three Judges. I was pissed, one of the chefs had expressed concern that I had now started the fish rolls but I said to her through the interpreter “Look, this is a quick cooking dish the only thing I have to worry about is the vegetables which were already on the stove, and the judges aren’t even here. I am about to start the rolling process now but am in no hurry.” I had even made my simple sauce an emulsion of Olive Oil, Lemon Zest and Juice, and Fresh Dill.

Still it doesn’t bode well when the chef thinks you should have done something by now and you haven’t so I quickly made my rolls and placed them in their foil packages the last time I would see them before service. As 12:30 rolled around I put my pan on the stove for the initial heating I had four packages though only three would fit into a pan so I grabbed another pan for the last package and started it on a slightly lower heat worried about overcooking the whole time. I set the hot pans to one side and went about the task of slowly toasting the pine nuts so to soften and make them aromatic without burning them. I added the Capers just to heat them through. I had washed them thoroughly to remove the extreme salty flavor they got from being packed in large grain salt. When my time came I had everything ready to go. Pine nuts and capers down on the plate, Vegetables cooked and places on the plate the roll of fish out of the oven where, since sitting on the stove top so long I was sure they had overcooked, opened the package to find a perfectly cooked log o fish, I sliced into two parts and displayed in as lovely a manner as I can make, The chef comes back to me and says my portions are too big I need to remove half of the roll from each plate. A small speed bump but one that almost made me forget about my sauce of lemon and dill. I dash across the kitchen sauce my fish forgetting the fish is hot and the sauce is cold I should have put the sauce on the plate not directly on the fish. A rookie mistake but I was a bit frazzled at that particular moment.

I take the plate to the table there are two chefs and the director. One of the chefs was one whom I had previously presented my Eggplant Parmesan to so I knew she was a two star chef. The pressure was on, I explained my cooking methods and the different components of the dish trying to down play my tour née because it is an old school technique and I hadn’t made them since culinary school so I was a little rusty on the exact practice of making them. But they looked nice. I was worried as the two star took her first bite. She pauses, she closes her eyes, “Bravo, Le pesce e tanto morbido, Bellisimo” Good job, and the fish is so soft, Beautiful. She went on to compliment the sauce how it was creamy and lemon sweet not too tart. This was great news. The director did not come to school the next day so I had no idea how I had done on the test, I needed a small victory for my own sanity. The following day we got our scores. 29.3/30 A+. Perhaps lighting all those candles in the Cinque Terre might have helped. But Ciao for now, stay tuned for Lavazza, Italy’s number one coffee producer. Better than StarBucks???

Cinque Terre

Well, as much as I hate to say it, Good Job Rick Steves. The Cinque Terre was about as beautiful a place as I have been in Italy. It was picturesque. The narrow streets and the pastel colored buildings and houses were absolutely gorgeous. We had to cut our visit down to a quick two day whirlwind tour. The Spanish class finished their course and we had a great party for them Ole and I turned in early but we apparently were lucky. From the look of the aftermath, Tables turned over, bottles everywhere, everything covered in a fine dust from the fire extinguisher that they ran up and down the halls with spraying everything and each other. I will miss my wild bunch of Spanish friends but I have been able to get their contact info so I can write to them. If only they could read English, but that’s why they invented Skype.
Back to Cinque Terre, after four hours on the train we arrived at the train station in Deiva Marina. This is kilometers from the Cinque Terre and where we would be camping for the night. Once again, the Italian way with photography gave us the false hope of a beautiful campground with a pool, restaurant, and market. The pool was there but, if they had Alligators in Italy, I would expect one to be hiding in the murky algae filled water. The restaurant was closed and would not open until about 7:00PM as it was about noon we knew we would have to go elsewhere for a meal. The Actual camp site was a small patch of grass nestled between the little cabins that rented for four times as much. There were people from all over the world staying in the campground, Dutch, French, Germans, and many more. The lady in charge of the campground was extremely nice. She spoke a bit of English and would allow us to leave our bags near in the office after we checked out the next day and would deliver them to the train station when we returned from Cinque.
With nothing to do in the town, because like most towns it shuts down from 12:30 to 3:00 every day we decided to catch the train to Monterosso. The Largest and northern most of the five cities. Our first look at the Cinque Terre did not disappoint. From the moment we exited the train station we walked out on to a beautiful coast with sandy beach and little shops and every other person toting a copy of Rick Steves’ Italy 2010. We would soon find out that there were two Rick Steves’ Tours in town for the weekend and the Lemon Festival which we were never able to find. We found a small Focacciaria and ordered some Focaccia Bread made up like a pizza and two cokes. Batteries recharged we set out to explore everything that Monterosso had to offer. There was a breathtaking church of St. John the Baptist. A church which has Black and White stripes on the walls to signify the two different sects of monks in the town. The white are charged with protection of the living and the Black who care for the dead. The two sects worked together to build the church and protect the souls of the Monterosseans. Overlooking the town in a monastery of the cappucin monks. We went into this holy place and were transported into a movie. The Church was brilliantly lit up though the sky outside had grown dark with rainclouds being the altar the monks were practicing their chanting. It was a reverent experience to say the least. Close to the Monastery there was a cemetery that was beautifully adorned to honor the dead. Around the front side of the hill there was a beautiful view of the Mediterranean and looking down the coast it was possible to see all five of the little villages hugging the coastline. As dinner time approached we picked a restaurant out of the Book (when I refer to Rick Steves Italy I will address it simply as “The Book” to save some time.)

It was called L’Altre Mare and specialized in the seafood of the area. We ordered an appetizer of steamed mussels. First of all the bowl was freaking huge, easily over a hundred muscles which we greedily ate in a matter of minutes. But most interestingly is that they were amazing without butter and white wine they were steamed in their own liquor and were as fresh as can be gotten these days. For the next course Olesia ordered handmade Trofie pasta alla Genovese pasta with pesto to the non-Italian, Genova used to rule over the Cinque Terre and the rest of Liguria before the unification of Italy in the 1800’s. It was simple and delicious and tasted of fresh Basil, nothing else needed. For me, my inner-American yearned for a steak and I found one that I was familiar with, Bistec di Manzo con Pepe Verde. A juicy Filet of beef tenderloin smothered in a sauce of Ricotta, garlic and green pepper corns. I ordered the steak Al Sangue, Italian for bloody and as not displeased when I cut into the steak and saw a perfectly cooker blue steak. The sauce on top started out a brilliant white and when the steak was gone had taken on a pink hue. I was in heaven. To go with the dinner we had a half liter of the house table wine which was exquisite and matched the meal perfectly. After dinner we stopped at Enoteca Ciak (Chee-awk) where we purchased a bottle of the locally made Limoncino the local version of Lemoncello that some are familiar with. The recipe is; 1L of water, 1Kg. of Sugar, 16 Lemons zested and juiced, and 1L of High proof alcohol AKA moonshine. The whole lot is mixed together and set in a cold place to infuse then strained and bottled. When I get back to the states I will definitely be trying this one out and maybe before. We stopped and Ate Gelato in a little café deserted probably because it was not mentioned in the Book. The locals were bitching about the beginning of tourist season; I’m starting to understand a lot of Italian, but were at least happy that the rain which had been so constant over the winter and spring that most of the trails between the towns had been washed out and would have to be rebuilt was beginning to let up. A cost no one really wanted to bear but would because they didn’t want to have to take the trains with the damn tourists. After Gelato we headed back to the train station and for the campground. A day well spent, we had a nightcap of limoncino and sprite watched Sherlock Holmes in our tent and went to sleep preparing for the next day...

We woke up to find that it had rained over the night but the sky was now clear and beautiful. We would have a long day ahead of us because as it was Sunday I had School and a test on Monday and we still had four villages to visit before we could leave. The first stop was Rio Maggiore; Big River in the ligurian dialect though today the river has been covered over by the Main road in town was absolutely beautiful and is the southernmost town in the Cinque Terre. We walked down to the coast and had a cappuccino and espresso in a quaint little café by the water. The view was amazing and the coffee wasn’t bad either. Olesia had charged me with the Book and leading the tour of the day. We hiked around the town seeing another church and an amazing cemetery before arriving at the trailhead of the Via Dell’Amore. The road of love was built between Riomaggiore and Manarola the next town over in an effort to expand the gene pool which from the number of last names on the tombstones in the cemetery was getting pretty shallow. The nice walk is about two kilometers and is studded with locks purchased from the local hardware store and left as a sign of commitment between two lovers, there is also graffiti with names of couples from all parts of Italy and the world they have even gone as far as to carve initials and names into the cactus like plants that appear on the trail. The whole thing walks right on the coast offering amazing views and a pleasant walk to the next town.

Manarola, Big Wheel in the local dialect is a small town second only to Corniglia. What is interesting about this place is that like Riomaggiore the river that once flowed through the town has been converted to the main road but the river can still be seen if you look over the edge of the road and heard as you walk along it. Interesting to say the least. Here there is another church just as beautiful as the others and has one of the only frescoes done by a local artist apparently the locals are not known for their artistic abilities. But this fresco was gorgeous it was of Jesus as they took him down from the cross. Truly Awe inspiring. We took a trail near the church that went up and through the vineyards of Manarola everything was just starting to bloom and with a constant view of the sea it really felt like no other place on earth. The trail wrapped around and put us back into the center of town where we caught the train. Unfortunately our adventure was taking a bit longer than expected so we chose to skip over Corniglia and head right into Vernazza. From what we read Corniglia is the smallest town and has very little to do except it offers some very pretty views because it is set on the top of a hill. We’ll save it for next time.

Vernazza, Our last stop and another beautiful town with the oldest church in the area dedicated to Santa Margherita. The breakwater was a great place to lie out and soak up some sun unless the wind picks up and the waves start coming in. Then it gets a little dicey. We saw one group of tourists sunning themselves in the rocks when a rogue wave crashed on the barrier and soaked literally half of them the other half remained dry and laughing at their soaked companions what a difference a few feet can make. We were informed by the Book that in 2007 an American woman was swept out to sea by one of these waves and drowned a sad note for this beautiful town so we kept our distance. We stopped and had gelato at Gelateria Dell’Amore formerly named Gelateria Stalin because the founder had that unfortunate last name but the new owners still have the original sign as a joke about their father because just like most places in the town they are family run. The gelato is fresh made every day and comes in a variety of flavors Olesia had chocolate and cherry and I had Vanilla in Limoncino, a limoncino float of sorts. We hopped the train back to Deiva Marina and as promised the campground owners brought our bags to us at the train station and we headed for home. And of course being Sunday we had to pay the 30 euro to Nico for a cab ride to Cascina. I headed right to bed for the next morning’s test having had a full but restful weekend a much needed and welcome retreat. So once again Ciao for now, Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tests 2 & 3

Last week we had two exams one on Wednesday and one on Friday. They were rather uneventful and I have been beating myself up over them a bit because I passed by a good margin but by no means was I satisfied with the scores I received. The second test I was in charge of the Starter or antipasti. The dish I was to prepare was Parmigiana di Melanzan. Eggplant Parmesan to the English speakers. This is not the heavily breaded chicken substitute that we are familiar with in the states. It has all the same components but has a different and more elegant look to it. The third test I would prepare the Secondo Piato, akin to the Main Course that we are familiar with. My dish was Petto di Farona con Salsa di Pepe Verde, Guinea Fowl Breast with Green Peppercorn Sauce. This was a dish I had hoped I would get the sauce I have previously raved about in the entry “First we visited the farm and then we ate the critters” and finally I would have a chance to show what I had learned. But, first, more on the Second Test.

The Eggplant Parmesan, I apologize that there is no photo. I was in a bit of a hurry, I will explain. The test was set for as I was told 12:30PM we arrived at 8:30AM, as I started to put my Mise en Place together I found that the kitchen was out of a crucial Ingredient…The frickin’ eggplant. I was assured that the eggplant would arrive by 9:30AM. I thought “no problem, I have until 12:30 to prepare my dish I will be fine”, forgetting the fact that eggplant is full of water and in order to fry it properly the water must be removed by salting the thin slices of eggplant for over an hour. So as soon as I received the eggplant promptly at 9:45 I selected the best one of the lot, I pulled the case before anyone even had a chance to put it into the walk-in from the delivery truck. I cut the eggplant removed the skin in a striped pattern leaving some of the skin for color contrast, cut them into 1/8in. slices, salted both sides and set them aside to sweat hopefully more than myself. At 10:00 I was ready to start on my sauce. This was a pretty simple tomato sauce for which I chose three types tomato; Roma(cause the taste great but they only had two in house) Beefsteak(because I needed to extend the sauce) and cherry(to add some sweetness to counter the slight bitterness from the beefsteak). I finely chopped my onion and sweated it in a bit of olive oil being careful not to add too much oil so that the sauce would not bleed but remain whole and delicious. I had peeled and finely diced the tomato so it would cook down a bit quicker and release its secrets faster. I added the tomatoes and, over a very low heat, began the process of making an exquisite sauce. As the sauce did it’s job I checked on the eggplant, it was beginning to sweat but it still had a ways to go.

11:00 a pan of extra virgin olive oil sits on the stove top coming up to temperature I washed the salt off of the eggplant and pressed them dry between sheets of paper towel before dredging them in flour and dropping them into the hot oil. Instead of the normal stack of eggplant I had decide that I would make a small package out of the parmigiana, a technique I had been shown in class where the eggplant encases the sauce and cheese it is baked in a timbale cup and makes a, what I thought, great antipasto nice and light start to a five course meal. I had portioned the eggplant (the circles cut in half), the sauce was moments from being ready, the cheese, Mozzarella di Buffala(the real McCoy), was cut into small quick melting cubes. I went to look for the timbale cups we had used in class when the Chef said to me(I’ll paraphrase to make-up for the broken English) ‘This is a good presentation but it would be too small to serve as an Antipasto, this would be more appropriate for an Apperitve’. It was 11:30 by this point, too late to start another batch of eggplant since I only had an hour left and it would take that long just to sweat the eggplant. My portion size was off and time was running thin. Then came the Bad News.

Our guests had arrived in tow were two, 2 Star Michelin Chefs that would be judging our plates. The good news was that there would only be three judges instead of four which is the norm. I put the slices of Eggplant into 3 larger forms certain that if I stayed with the original dish I would be all right but I had to re-conseptualize my plating, never my long suit I was really sweating. As 11:50 rolled around they were calling for the test to begin and I still had a good ten minutes in the oven before I would be ready to go. So they sent out the person who was supposed to go after me at 12:00. I scrambled to find a plate three matching plates that would accentuate my dish in a rash decision I settled on three large Black Square Plates (A word on black plates, they were designed by the devil himself to punish inexperienced young chefs because when any light hits them the show every, EVERY; smudge, fingerprint, attempt at wiping an errant drop of oil, that there ever was on the plate, in its existence.) At 12:30 I served my dish to the panel, the first words out of the director’s mouth were this is that plate that was supposed to go first. From this point I was pretty much only seeing red, thanks for throwin’ me under a goddam bus. I seem to remember trying to defend my choices on Plate choice and plating in general, How instead of the traditional I had tried to make my dish eggplant parm with a secret because all of the sauce and cheese and Ham, I had used a piece of prosciutto cotto to keep the sauce and cheese in place during the baking process, was on the inside and the whole thing was topped with a trick from my Garde experience, A small rose made from the skin of a cherry tomato. All said and done Final Score 24.6/30, B -.

The next test was on the following Friday, I was quite excited about making my dish. The Fat Angel Franco Giacomino had shown me this recipe and I was chomping at the bit to make it for a test from the moment I learned it. This test would take place in the afternoon and would finish our day and week which would end in a party for the departing Japanese. The test was to start at 6:30PM but in the style of ICIF we found out at 5:30 that the test would not start until 7:30 I was unhappy because my balsamic reduction with fresh green peppercorn would have an extra hour to reduce and I was leery from the last test about when exactly to start my Guinea Fowl. For my side dish I chose to search the books given to me by the school for a suitable side dish to accompany this traditional dish from the region of Emilia Romagna, but this was to no avail. Being that it is the springtime and the height of asparagus season I chose to do a simple side of new potatoes skewered on a sprig of rosemary sautéed in butter perfumed with rosemary and garlic and a blanched asparagus lightly seasoned with salt and pepper.

My fears became reality as at 7:00pm we were informed that we should start service and there would again be only three judges two of which worked at the school. Lame, I know. With all due respect to ICIF I have seen haystacks more organized than they seem to be. I don’t mean to go off on a rant because they do provide some good things, but they are perpetually disorganized fall through on simple promises like “We will provide you with a new paper chef’s hat which you are ‘required to wear for tests and guests’ weekly.” (I have 2 in 6 weeks had to ask for a third.) I just have to keep reciting the Mantra taught to me by my father “No matter how crap the quality of the learning environment you have to maximize the learning experience”. But enough of that, back to the test.

7:00pm they tell us to start serving. I have seared my Fowl Breast and put it in the oven to finish figuring on 30 minutes plus until my dish, the third course, goes out. The oven is at an absurdly low temperature in order to keep it from drying out. The potatoes which were par boiled were in a separate oven to gain a nice golden brown. A pot of water set on the stove, boiling, ready to blanch the asparagus. And can you guess what happens next, Jessie who had the first course; a classic Piemontese dish of a roasted pepper wrapped a type of tuna salad and a pan seared sea scallop atop a bed of sunflower sprouts dressed with a blood orange vinaigrette. The funny thing about pan seared sea scallops is that after you sear them you can’t really say “Oh, you aren’t ready yet, just let me bring these to you when they have turned into, as the Spanish say, MIERDO.” Fifteen minutes later the judges were ready, and it was time to shine.

As my dish rolled around, the extra fifteen minutes had not helped my dish at all but thanks to a few techniques I have picked up over the years did not dry out completely. There was not much I could say to the judges aside from a few expletives that were rolling around in my head. They asked why I had only lightly cooked the asparagus, the judge admitted that he was used to asparagus that had been “cooked to death” I enlightened him to the fact that in the Northwest and my own personal preference is to have a bit of crunch to the asparagus to signify freshness. It is the peak of the season, when asked why I had not sautéed the asparagus in butter my reply was “I like the taste of asparagus, The potatoes were sautéed in butter, there is butter in the sauce that is on the Guinea Fowl, There is butter barded under the skin of the guinea fowl (one of those tips to keep meat from drying out). I wanted a fresh slightly cooked vegetable to give the customer some semblance of a healthy meal.” The guest judge, a wine producer, asked me if I knew where I got the Guinea Fowl. “Yeah, The walk-in in the back of the Kitchen”. “But do you know if the bird was caught and butchered locally?”. Here comes the sweet revenge that eased the pain of the bus treads inflicted two days before, “I trust that ICIF would only provide ingredients of the highest quality, the freshest and most local products available” The director’s eyes went as wide as saucers and I waited for her to choke on my over-cooked Guinea Fowl. One of the other chefs came to her rescue saying that, in fact the Fowl was raised and butchered on a farm near the school. I felt I had stuck to my guns, though in a restaurant setting I would never have served the plate as it was but I had no choice in the matter. I know if given another opportunity I would blow this dish out of the water. All in All 24.3 Another frickin’ B-, But I like to attribute this one to a bit of both my own problems and their tardiness. I think If things went as they were supposed to, were planned to, It would have at least been a B+ if not A-. But such is life. Ciao For now, Stay Tuned.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


On the first weekend of May Olesia and I made our way to Alassio. A small quaint town on the Ligurian coast almost in the middle between Genova and San Remo. It was absolutely gorgeous. We were going to be camping so most of the week while I was in school Olesia was looking on the computer to find a suitable campsite. We settled on “Monte e Mare” A camping resort that is stacked on the coast up the side the hills that line the coast and had access to a beach. Half of the beach was public and looked like a beach one finds in the Pacific Northwest, rocky with a little sand but mostly the sand was under the large rocks and was more fine pebbles than sand. The other side of the beach was private, meaning you had to pay to use it which is common for the area. But the price you pay allows for a truly fine sandy beach. It is also the side of a restaurant and bar called BABA Beach. The bar was extremely expensive; 8 euro for a cocktail, 5 euro for an 8.5 oz bottle of beer and the food which was simple went for a minimum of 10 euro per dish unless you wanted a Panini that was 8 euro. And if you used the private beach you had to get something from the restaurant, no packing in your own food or drink.
Across the water from the beach was Isola Gallinara or Bird Island as the foreigners take to calling it because of the Wild hens which have roamed the island since ancient times. It was once home to Monks and Religious personages like St. Martin of Tours. A Benedictine Monastery was built on the top of the Island and became the governing power of the western Riviera to Provence and Catalonia though all that is left of this once powerful monastery is the watchtower that sits at the highest point on the island. The Island is privately owned and closed to the public so we had to suffice with our view of the island from our campsite. But I hear that the island is for sale though a protected nature preserve.
A word on Camping in Italy. It is nothing at all like camping in the states, aside from the fact that you can set up a tent in a designated area. The campground came equipped with a small store two restaurants and three disco techs within 100 meters of the gated entry way. There were bungalows to rent for the many families that were staying there these all came with barbeques, a living room area and satellite TV. There were also Buildings that had all of the comforts of a hotel called the Riviera Suits. By no means roughing it unless you were in a tent because the tent areas were covered with rock like a large grain Gravel if packing light I urge you to remember your camping pads because the bare ground is very unforgiving. So, all in all, we were unprepared for this type of camping but still made the most of it.
We got there on a Saturday and spent most of that day traveling. From Costigliole you have to first take the bus into Asti, but on this particular day it was a national holiday so we had to call the cab driver Nico. We piled into his small cab with four of the Japanese students who were going to Milan for the weekend, which was OK because we were able to split the 30 euro cab fare. From Asti we hopped a “Regionale” Train to Genova. From Genova we got on an “Intercita” train to Alassio. The whole trip took about four hours and luckily the intercita train was late so we were actually able to catch our train otherwise we would have had two more hours added to our trek. As it was when we reached Alassio we had missed the bus to our campsite and had arrived right when it was time for the businesses and public services to take their 2 hour lunch break. So we walked around Alassio and looked at the beaches and closed shops. We walked until we reached the end of the beach and then headed toward the main road where we could catch a bus to our campsite. The bus came about a half an hour later and the bus driver was none too friendly when I tried to speak my Italian to him but we paid our 2.50 euro each for the fare which took us a whopping 2 kilometers to our Campsite. We set up camp and headed for the beach, the public not the private and waded in the water but it was pretty frickin’ chilly but still better than the Pacific at this time of year. After that we headed to the Private beach for a drink, There was only one person who spoke English and he was probably a cabana boy because he knew little about pricing or even what they had to offer. This is how I found out the tiny beers were 5 euro a piece so I only had one and Olesia settled on her 3 euro Fanta Di Arancia(orange Fanta), The weather was starting to turn a bit nasty so we left the beach and headed back to the tent. We went out for dinner at the restaurant in the campground. Olesia and I shared a plate of Brasaola a Salumi made from beef but is very good with a bit of olive oil and vinegar, salt and pepper. For the Main Course, Olesia had a Ravioli filled with meat in a Bolognese sauce and I had Bistec alla Milanese which if you ever order this you should know you will bet chicken instead of steak, a mistake I will not make again. After dinner we went back to our tent to watch a movie on the Itouch and go to sleep. The nightclub on the Beach had other plans though. They started to play top 40 Music and didn’t stop until the birds were chirping to welcome the rising sun.
Sunday, the camp had mostly cleared out aside from some of the blue hairs that were staying in the aforementioned Riviera suites. We decided to go into Alassio again this time we would walk the other way down the beach. We stopped and got some Gelato at a small stand and walked along the boardwalk then took the main street back to the center of town. We stopped by the tourist office to find out about the ancient roman road we had heard would lead us back to our campsite. We found the small bus that took us up the hill to an old church that stands at the gate of the road. It was a magnificent vista from which you could see the whole city and coastline. Walking along the road we were surrounded by the smell of the flowers that had recently started to bloom. The sun made and unexpected but welcome appearance and warmed us on our walk we passed the ruins of a monastery that dated back to the 3rd or 4th century. When we reached the campground finally we were presented with a locked gate. I looked for a place to hop the fence which was difficult to find because the whole thing was topped with barbed wire. I found a small place that was scalable and made my way over with a little trouble. Olesia decided to wait until I could return with a key. I ran down the hill only to find that everything had closed except the restaurant which would be closing momentarily. They told me to call the custodian of the camp from the call box on the front gate. I did so and after a long conversation of few words he was able to bring me a key to the upper gate. When I got back up the hill to the gate I found Ole reading wondering what had taken me so long. So we went back to the campsite had a snack of some prosciutto and robiola on the bread we had baked the previous Friday in class. We watched another movie and went to bed early.

Monday morning we headed into Albenga the next town up the coast toward Genova. We hoofed it because it was only about a kilometer from our campsite. The town was beautiful, we walked around and found a place to restock on meat and cheese made sandwiches and ate them in a piazza near the train station. We bought tickets all the way through to Asti because we would again have to make a tight connection made tighter because our train from Albenga was 25 minutes late, such is the gamble one takes with the Intercita. When we arrived back in Costigliole I had to hightail it back up to the school to take care of the Mise en Place for the next day’s lesson. I was glad that I had not missed any class because the Girls had decided to make a long weekend in Barcelona so they had not planned anything for me to do all by myself. The School had even said that I did not have to return for MEP but I could do it the next morning instead of Italian Class. Not wanting to miss Italian I did the MEP by myself and headed back to Cascina to hear of the girls’ wild time in Barcelona. That was the weekend in Alassio Ciao for now, stay tuned.

Ole Has put pics from Alassio on the Facebook Check them out if you wanna see what we did.