Chef Essig's Travels - week one, Italy

Read all about Chef Aran's travels in Italy... use these links to jump to the day you need... or start at the bottom and read the whole story!

Day Eight: January 19, 2013

We pack our things and are off to Genoa today. About a two hour drive along the Mediterranean Sea on one side and alpine mountains on the other. As we get farther North and start to climb into the hills that follow the coast, it begins to snow. We pass many beautiful cities perched in the hills on the way. Arriving in Genoa we park the car and head out to explore this ancient port city that has not stopped growing since the 1st Century.

genoa commune

The city center is a mass of beautiful architecture, statues, and old frescos.

genoa centre

It is lunchtime here and after learning our lesson yesterday (to eat lunch before 1:30pm & restaurants close until 6 or 7pm) we stop at Risstorante Europa. We sit in the covered plaza eating and listening to a violin street musician play. For lunch we order a bowl of minestrone alla Genovese, spaghetti puttenesca, and tortellini champagne cream sauce with uvetta raisins.

minestrone

puttenesca

ravioli champagne

After a bennisimo meal, we are ready to walk it off, find more, and explore. We walk through a museum that hosts two statues created by Michelangelo's assistant.

mike's assistant

Leaving the museum on the opposite side awaits a gourmet market selling cheeses, local sausages, Porchetta-whole roasted, stuffed, boneless pig, chocolates, breads, and sweets.

genoa market

Besides the whole pig that is sliced to order, the most interesting thing was a buffalo mozzarella that is shaped in the form of a pig.

buffalo moz

Picking up a marzipan pomegranate for later and a few other sweets, we continue our exploration.

marzipan

The narrow streets that surround the city center leading to the port are filled with a wide array of food shops that display their goods in a way that it is hard not to walk into each one and try something.

genoa food 1

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genoa food 6

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genoa food 9

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genoa food 11

The port area has an aquarium, shops, and views are large cruise ships, fishing boats, and even an old wooden sailing ship that functions as a museum to the cities past.

There is one more thing I want to try before we leave this beautiful city and that is Cupin. Known in California and other places as Ciopinno, this seafood meal was originally created in the Liguria region of Italy by sailors who would take portions of the days catch, bits from what was in their nets, and create a meal that is hearty and simple but amazingly good. We walk directly across the port and after a great deal of searching find the perfect place. We are the only ones here since it is still early and ask the owner if they serve cupin. She says Pesco soppe, si. We sit down expecting that should be a fairly quick meal since it is soup. I was mistaken. What came out 35 minutes later was a huge platter of mussels, baby clams, huge crawfish, small shrimp, baby octopus, calamari rings and a half dozen whole, head on fish cooked in amazing tomato garlic sauce that had just a touch of basil and wine surrounded by olive oil drenched toasted bread. WOW! It was definitely worth the wait and search, and it was a great way to end our day in Genoa.

cuipin 1

cuipin 2

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Day Seven: January 18, 2013

We started the morning by driving 25 minutes to the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, walking the plaza, and admiring beautiful square.

leaning tower

After enjoying some gelato for breakfast, we head towards the Chianti Region.

gelato

Without a definite destination in mind we exit the highway. Within a short time we are transported into the picturesque hillsides of Southern Tuscany. Olive groves, wine vineyards, and beautiful villas fill the hillsides. We end up in the village of Passignanno.

passignananno

It is the off season (no tourists) so the town is completely quiet. We do not see a single person walking the streets, but the restaurants above the city overlooking the vineyards are the most beautiful location one can imagine enjoying a great meal and some local wine. This is Tuscany! Along the vineyards we see glass containers lining the rows. These are used to make Nocino. Walnut liquor that is made with unripe walnuts, grappa, sugar and spices. The mixture is combined and left to sit in the sun in the containers to blend. It is quite strong but makes a great Digestif.

walnut liquer

After a stop at at Villa S. Andrea (fabulous hilltop winery producing Chianti Classico DOCG) we head through the hillside and come to Greve In Chianti.

tuscany hillside

The town has a beautiful square with many wine tasting cellars and a butcher shop that dates backs back to 1729.

We stop into Macelleria Falorni and are immediately taken aback by the array of prosciuttos, salamis, boar sausages, and the wide variety of the highest quality cured meats Italy has to offer hung from the ceilings walls and displayed perfectly throughout the shop.

macelleria falorni

After some shopping and tasting we head down the square stopping into a few bakeries to sample some sweets and breads before we head back. We stop in the local market and head back to Viareggio. Tom (our GPS) leads us through the outskirts of Florence during rush hour, which was quite the experience. Surviving that nerve-wracking further lesson in Italian road rules, we pull into Viareggio and go to dinner in Pietrasanta. It is a beautiful town about 15 minutes away. Pinocchio Ristorante was recommended by our host and are so glad they did.

We start off with some small plates of Pasta Fried Shrimp served with Red Pepper Sauce and Fried Pecorino Cheese with an amazing Citrus Pepper marmalade and Balsamic.

pasta fried shrimp

Pecorino cheese is made of sheep's milk and is a prize cheese of central and southern Italy in this area down to Rome and even in Sicily. The combination of the acid from the citrus, sweetness of the pepper marmalade, and richness from the cheese is amazing.

pecorino pepper citrus

Squash Soup with Warm Parm and Olive Oil and a plate of Grilled Octopus with a wonderful Eggplant Parmesan and on the vine Seared Tomatoes comes next.

squash soup parm

octo eggplant parm

The Octopus is perfectly cooked to have a deep grill flavor but is still tender. Not an easy task! Bennissimo!!

After dinner we walk the square, grab a glass of grappa, and head back to the apartment to pack. Tonight is our last night in Viareggio. It has been a very eventful stay in the area and are thankful of all the experiences we have had. On to the next part of the journey.

Take me back to the top.

Day Six: January 17, 2013

After two long days in Modena, Parma, and Bologna, we decide to catch up on some rest this morning. Eva made a great American-style breakfast... you won't find bacon and eggs at any restaurant here. Breakfast fare in Italy is simple coffee, bread, and jam. After breakfast we head out for a drive along the coast north back towards Pontremoli.

pontremoli

The coastline is jam-packed with restaurants and small resorts so tightly bordered that you cannot walk between them. We see one public beach in a 20 mile drive. In the area also are many marble warehouses. To the west as you look at the tall alpine mountains you can see the quarries where these massive blocks have been removed to be used on floors, sinks, and statues all over the world. We pull into Pontremoli around 6pm. Tonight is the fire of San Nicolo. This festival has been a part of the town's history for over 500 years. San Nicolo is a Sicilian saint with a church named after him in the town. This church competes with another named after Saint Geminiano to see which can build the biggest fire. The crowd of over a thousand shouts Lo Lo Lo Evviva San Nicolo!!

fire

The celebration dates farther back to pagan times when worshipers would build huge fires in honor of the fire goddess during the coldest part of the year and in celebration of the changing of January when the days will start to get longer.

After the fire we grab some pizza. I learned that pepperoni is not sausage. It means red or green bell peppers. This we found out after receiving our pepperoni and Prosciutto cutto pizza. Afterwards we grabbed some gelato and head back to Viareggio.

gelato

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Day Five: January 16, 2013

It is a winter wonderland in Parma this morning. Four inches of fresh snow and still coming.

snow parm

We head out to a local dairy to see how Parmigiano Reggiano is made. We meet Christina, our tour guide who works for the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano. The consortium works to help educate and promote while helping to protect the rich history and importance that Parmigiano Reggiano brings to the area. We start our tour by putting on our sanitation garb. The plant is very clean, and production is in full swing at this time of the morning. This plant is owned by seven farmers who bring the milk here 365 days a year to be processed... even on Christmas.

parm production line

The cows used to produce the milk must be born on the farm of the owner for the milk to be used in making of this cheese. If the cow is not born on the farm, it must live there for a year before the milk it produces can be used in the process.

There are many requirements for the final product to receive DOP designation. Additional requirements are that the cows must be fed 70% hay, and 50% of that hay must be grown by the farmer. Cows can also eat soy, barley, and corn... but no silage. It is up to the farmer to determine the combination of feed the cows receive and how much through the year - which makes a difference in the end product. Each farmer is responsible for selling their cheese, so quality is important from birth of the cow to the final result.

Steam fills the plant from the boiling of the milk. This is the first step in the cheese making process. Rennet is added to coagulate the curds. Besides animal rennet, wild thistle or may blossom may also be used. In prior times, thistle branches would have been used to stir the milk causing the curds to form. One Master Cheese Maker per plant is responsible for this part of the process. They look at each 1200 liter vat and determine when it has been cooked enough and the curds are ready to be separated from the whey.

parm master

Prior to 1950, the heating of the vats was done by wood, which workers would walk a trench below the vats and keep the fires burning. Now the kettles are steam jacketed. Once the cooking is complete, the curds are gathered into a cloth using two sticks. It is amazing to watch how expertly the curds are rolled from a flat conglomeration into a tight ball. Also notice how their hands are in the whey. That whey is at about 212 degrees and they do not flinch.

parm gather curd

Once the curd is gathered, it needs to be cut into half. This is done -not by machine- but by hand. Each half will eventually produce a wheel of cheese.

parm cut curd

Once the curd is cut in half it is hung to drain slightly and then placed into the wooden molds with a weight on top to press out excess moisture.

hang curd

Next a band is placed around the cheese which gives it date of production. This is important because before it can be given the stamp of approval by DOP, it must be first aged for 2 years from the date of processing.

parm band

Once the band is on, a metal collar is placed around it and it starts the drying process.

band and dry

After the initial drying, the wheels are ready for a swim. They are placed into a saturated salt water solution and turned once a day to brine. This helps in the drying process and also prevents bacterial growth during the rest of the aging process.

salting parm

parm salt notes

Yes I am doing some work on this trip. Here I am taking notes like a good student!

Traceability is not a new term here. Each wheel is stamped with a code that tells you which pot the milk came from and which farmer and which cows. This mark lets the farmer also know which cheese is his when it is done aging as all batches may be different.

traceability

Once the wheels are brined, they go into the aging room where they are turned once a day. It was done by hand in the old days but now by machine.

parm machine

This dairy is owned by seven farmers in the area. There are over 280 farmers in the area that can produce Parmigiano Reggiano.

rows of parm

After two years the cheese is tested by certified testers. They place each wheel on a bench and tap it. Testing can be completed just by sound... similar to when you go to the doctor and he taps on you knee. Each wheel is tested and inspected before approval. Once approved it is given a blue stamp which means it can be fire branded.

parm dop brand

Some minor flaws are sometimes evident. Could be cracking or any minor imperfection. If these are found but the cheese is still deemed to be a quality product, the rind is striped by a machine and is sold as second quality or as locals call it "The Striped One."

parm dop 2nd

Parmesan is a perfect food. There are many healthy benefits, one being that it is lactose free. That's right... a natural cheese that is lactose free. It is also one of the fastest acting proteins having a 65% free amino acids and 1100 micrograms of calcium per 100 grams. If you would like to see more about the process visit http://www.parmigiano-reggiano.it/come/guida_parmigiano_reggiano/default.aspx.

Thank you so much Cristiana for the fantastic tour!

wall of parm

After our tour it was still snowing so we decided we should take the shorter way back to Viareggio. Still through the mountains so we were not sure what to expect. On the way we stopped at the top of the pass at a gas station. I had not had my coffee for the day yet so needed a jolt. You will not find any five hour old coffee here even at a gas station. We walk in and there is a coffee bar with an espresso machine serving Illy coffee. Customers come in grab a shot, a breather and hit the road. Also found it interesting that they had beer on tap at the gas station. You don't see that at a 7/11. We grabbed a bressola, arugula, and mozzarella sandwich with an espresso and hit the road. Oh thank heavens.

Once we were out of the snow and getting closer to sea level, we decided to "get off the beaten path" and check out something off the autostrade. We stopped in Pontemoli, a town that has roots back as far as 1100. Maybe older.

osteria street

We walked the river rock streets and came upon Osteria Della Bietola, a very small restaurant but very warm and welcoming.

osteria della bietola

Eva and I enjoyed a bottle of local wine and fantastic crusty bread. I had Testaroli, a local Lunigianan dish made by first making a thin pancake of flour, water and salt, cooking it in a cast iron skillet, then cutting the pancake into rectangles and boiling and tossing with pesto. Absolutely simple but amazing to have pesto with something that absorbs it so well... and with some Parmesan... WOW!

testaroli

For dessert we had some panna cotta with fruit and headed out to check out the rest of the town and the castle.

panna cotta

Making it back to the apartment finally I made dinner. Raviolis from Modena, salad and more sausage, cheese and bread.

Take me back to the top.

Day Four: January 15, 2013

We head out of Viareggio towards Lucca and then up to Modena today. The mountains have received some more snow making the drive a bit slower but very beautiful. We are meeting Alessandro Martini to learn about the process of making prosciutto. We arrive in Savignano sul Panaro about 30 minutes early, so we stopped at a local pasta shop.

pasta shop

Very much like a local bakery but specializing in fantastic pastas. Buying some fresh made tortellini we head to Prosciuttificio Nini Gianfranco.

pros sign

The plant specializes in the salting of meat. The plant has been in the family for four generations. To make the DOP Modena hams, they buy only specific breeds of pigs that are from the Reggiano region. The pigs must be fed a diet of barley, corn, and whey that is leftover from the Parmesan Reggiano process. These legs are the same that are used for making Prosciutto de Parma. The plant receives about 500 legs a week, but not all are accepted. Only legs that meet specific quality specifications are used. The ingredients used are very simple... pork, sea salt, air, and time. The legs are first placed on trays and given a coating of Sea Salt.

pros raw

pros stage 1

They are kept refrigerated and rotated through the initial process for three months. After the first three months the hams are rinsed and then taken upstairs to start the drying process.

stage 2

Throughout the drying process the area of the ham that has a fat covering is well protected. To protect the other areas a mixture of fat and rice flour is used.

sealed

The total drying time takes 17 months in order for the hams to receive DOP approval (Denominazione di Orgine Protetta).

stage 3

The DOP designation ensures that the product has been made by the highest standards and protects inferior products from being passed off as the same. This process not only helps consumers but protects the region's history, culture, and reputation for making only the best. Each room throughout the drying process has a very unique aroma. Sweeter, earthy notes grow more intense as we walk past the stages of aging. Certified inspectors come to test the product before it can receive the stamp of approval.

In order to test the hams they use a horse fibula bone and insert it into the ham.

horse tibula

Using only the sense of smell, the inspectors can tell if it was produced correctly or not. If approved, the hams receive the stamp of approval. Here is the stamp for Prosciutto de Modena and one For Prosciutto de Parma.

pros mod stamp

pros parm stamp

Allesandro was a fantastic guide. He was very passionate about the food, culture, and history of the area. At the end of the tour he told us about his friend who makes balsamic and gave him a call to see if he had time to show us around. Between 3-5pm. Perfecto! This gave us some time to go to Bologna and check out the city. If you plan on going to Modena, look up Alessandro for some fantastic insight into the area www.italiandays.it.

finished pros

Driving in and around Bologna is a test of nerve and special judgment. Downtown there are many places with no lanes and tons of fast drivers. The old city is surrounded by a stone wall and within its borders is a huge unending labyrinth of streets, shops, restaurants, gelaterias, and inspiring architecture.

bologna produce

We made a lunch out of various pastries, comparisons of gelato shops, some mini pizzas and a baba that was laden with so much rum we had to discuss which one should be driving. The streets, which seem to wind in a circular fashion, can lead you to wonderful food but also it is one of the easiest places I have ever been to get lost. After some wondering around and taking a couple busses around the old city we were left with a problem. Where the heck did we park the car?! There are so many streets and Fiats that look the same. After about 45 minutes of wondering, backtracking, and some LUCK we found the car and headed off to San Donnino. Lesson learned... write down the cross street of where you park if you are going to wander around a large unfamiliar city.

bologna downtown

We arrived at Acetaia Villa San Donnino to meet Davide Lonardi. Davide's family has been making Balsamico Tradizionale for three generations. I notice that his property is stunningly beautiful as we pull through the steel gate and up a long tree-lined drive. Here he grows grapes, wheat, walnuts, and many other crops. The grapes that are used for Balsamico Tradizionale are Trebbiano and Lambrusco. The grapes are harvested as late as possible in the season to get the most amount of sugar. Once pressed the must (juice) is immediately boiled for approximately 30 hours or until the must is only 30% of it's originally volume. After cooling it is placed into the barrels to start the aging process. Barrels are made out of mulberry, ash, cherry wood, chestnut or oak. Each wood imparts a different flavor and aroma. Davide takes us up to the loft to rows of batterias.

acetia batteria

The batterias are continually topped up into consecutive barrels until through the process of acidification, oxidation, and reduction of water volume through aging the balsalmico reaches its readiness in a minimum of 12 years. After 12 years it can be considered traditional, if aged over 25 it is considered Vecchio and some are up to 50 years old.

extra vecchio

Davide said he has one batch that was started by his grandfather that is over 100 years old! Balsamico Tradizionale is also a DOP product. There are master tasters who judge the quality of the vinegars and give it approval. Davide is preparing to be one using his past experience as a master sommenilier.

So how is all that balsamic vinegar supplied to grocery stores, restaurants and used on almost every menu you may ask. This is where the DOP designation comes into play. You can tell if the product followed the process just explained and is quality if it has the DOP designation. There are also hundreds of thousands of gallons of balsamic from Modena being produced which is a combination of grape must, white vinegar, and sugar and caramel color. If it is not DOP or if you buy it in the grocery, it is most likely made by this process. After explaining the process and the tour, Davide led us through a sampling of various Balsamic then trying some on some ice cream. Fantastic treat! Thank you Davide for an amazing experience. www.villasandonnino.it

aran and davide

We headed out towards Parma to find a place to stay and grab some dinner. We find a place called the Hotel Dado... a very new hotel with a risstorante. After cleaning up a bit we head downstairs for dinner. Risotto with asparagus and culatello, an assortment of local cured meats including culatello. Culatello is similar to Prosciutto, but due to the different climate and increased humidity of being close to the river, it takes on a different texture and flavor. Very good comparison and meal to end the day.

culatello

rissoto verdi

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Day Three: January 14, 2013

The first full day in Italy is one of relaxation. After the drive last night through the snow-covered mountains and long travels, we enjoyed sleeping in and then heading out to check out Viareggio. A ten minute walk from our apartment brought us to the Mediterranean Sea. viareggio

We headed down the boardwalk past a mass of restaurants and shops... and very few people as this is the off season. During the summer, the boardwalk would be packed full of beach-goers from all over the world. We are glad to be here this time of year when it is quiet and most of the people we encounter are locals.

Finding a restaurant between 2-5pm that is open is not an easy task. Most close by 1pm and do not re-open until about 6pm. We found one called Cafe 22 that served a fantastic plate of Tagliatelle.

tagliatelle

Tagliatelle is a traditional egg type of pasta from Emilia-Romagna. It is long and flat similar to fettuccine. The texture reminds me of the pasta my Grandma would make fresh and lay out to dry all over the kitchen on thin wooden rods. When cooked, it takes on a very porous and starchy texture which absorbs sauce very well. Today's special was served with a wild mushroom cream sauce. With a glass of Chianti and a couple of cookies, it made for a great first meal of the day.

Throughout the town of Viareggio there are many shops, restaurants, bars, and open markets. We made our way through the streets, and after many stops found a local market. Stocking up on some essentials including produce, meats, and wine (wine in the grocery store is between 1.60 and 3.75 euro). We continue our journey, stopping into a local bakery for a freshly baked loaf of bread.

We headed back to the apartment to drop off the groceries, planning on going back out to dinner. After a few minutes inside, the sound of rain and thunder changed those plans to a relaxing dinner in. Gnocchi with Bolognese sauce, fresh bacon, zucchini, and Finocchiona--Tuscan sausage of pork with fennel soaked in red wine and matured-- along with a local cheese, bread, sausage plate and local wine. LET IT RAIN!

local plate

There was no driving today which was great, but we have a long drive tomorrow, so I am off to rest.

Ciao for Now, Aran

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Day Two: January 13, 2013

It was breakfast in London,so had to get some porridge (see picture).

porridge

Once we landed in Milan, we took threw our bags in the rental car and took the city bus downtown to check out the Duomo Cathedral. It is one of the largest Gothic Cathedrals in Europe.

These churches were built to inspire AWE. Just seeing the detail in sculptures from the outside does that, but as we hear the bells ring throughout the main square calling everyone to mass and enter to the sounds of the congregation under the vaulted ceiling, I cannot help but be awed to the point of humbleness.

cathedral

As we leave the church, we head down through the piazza past thousands of shoppers and shops. Milan is a shopper's paradise. Luckily neither I nor Eva are, so we follow our noses and check out a couple of the local street vendors selling roasted chestnuts, sandwiches, and one with a very unique cracked coconut fountain.

chestnuts

coconut

We had to grab something for the road. Eggplant Parmesan reggiano pizza and potato, green bean, tomato and Brie.

pizza

If there was a rain dance for severe storms, all it would take is for me to make travel plans.

Two and a half feet of snow closing I-25 to Colorado Springs started my trip to Germany, tornados whipping around DIA started a trip to Mexico, and a freak freezing fog lined the roads when heading to Canada.

And so the journey begins.

This time leaving the US was not the problem. The three hour drive from Milan to Viareggio was an adventure as the mountains were receiving a good helping of thick snow. Being raised on icy roads and used to mountain driving made it easier, but being indoctrinated into the way the Italians drive mad it unnerving. Hard, fast, and close seem to be the way of the road... and not sure why they installed the turn signals in the first place.

Heading over the mountains, a car in front of us hit the ice and slid into the snow bank. We stopped and he was able to back it out and keep going. Not wanting to follow that move, we took our time and arrived in Viareggio at 1 pm. Here it is a downpour with very close lightning all around.

Poalo and Tania are our hosts, as we are renting their apartment for the week. They are a very nice couple and greeted us with a bottle of Chianti. Something that was very much appreciated to calm the nerves after the drive. It is a very nice two bedroom with a separate kitchen and nice dining room.

dinner

With a bottle of wine finished and a long travel behind us, time to get some rest. It has been a very memorable birthday.

Ciao for now, Aran

Take me back to the top.

Day One: January 12, 2013

From first receiving news of winning the competition presented by MINORS, I knew that this trip was going to be a culinary journey of a lifetime and wanted to share that with someone I look up to as being as a chef, a mentor, and a friend. Chef Walt Hawley was to be my culinary companion on this journey. Earlier this week, Chef Walt received notice that his operation needed him, and his presence was essential for the best interests of the company.

When duty calls, a leader answers. Being true to his professionalism as a chef and a leader Chef Walt will unfortunately not be able to make the trip as he will be taking care needs of his operation and helping his team.

We will miss you Walt and wish you the best of luck with endeavors at home. Looking forward to many more culinary adventures together.

Travel brings many things which we do not expect. Sometimes they are great experiences other times they are not so great. The only certainty is that things are not certain. Plans changes, delays happen and what you have in mind turns into something unexpected.

Without expectations and open to all that lies ahead we are off. Nine hours to London and three to Milan.

Take me back to the top.

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