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Archive for August, 2006

About two days into France, I realized why Marie Antoinette lost her head to the guillotine.

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The French simply cannot live without bread. The baguette appears like magic on the table during every meal – yesterday’s leftovers lightly toasted and spread with fresh butter and jam for breakfast, filled with meat and cheese for lunch, and sliced thinly, resting in a wicker basket at dinnertime.

French bakeries amaze me. Sure there’s steamy fresh loaves in the window early morning each day, but most bakeries fire up the ovens again just before dinnertime, so that workers on the way home can also purchase a warm, yeasty loaf. Some even squeeze in a third round somewhere between morning and evening. With all of this activity, the bread ovens in France seldom grow cold. Who needs plastic bags of Wonder Bread, when you rarely have to walk more than one or two blocks to purchase your warm baguette? Not to mention that the price is usually well under one euro. Maybe I should drop a suggestion note off to Balthazar in Soho, where a baguette baked earlier in the morning (and thus no longer toasty warm) costs about two dollars.

But back to my original point, I’m not sure what would happen if the bread supply in France suddenly dried up. Anarchy? Mayhem? Surely some sort of revolution would ensue, not unlike the first time around. Around 5 p.m. or so each afternoon, the wonderfully comforting smell of fresh bread begins to waft through the streets of France, and you can almost see the French noses turning slightly upwards as if to sniff out the nearest bakery. And besides the classic long baguette, bakeries peddle their product in shapes and forms of all kinds, in addition to sweet rolls and savory slices of homemade foccacia and pizza…a flour wonderland!

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When you purchase a baguette (or two or three), it’s generally handed over to you with just a small piece of paper wrapped around the middle for your hand to rest on. A good number of loaves don’t make it home intact, though. It’s a common sight indeed to see French citizens of all types, tearing off bits of bread and munching as they walk through the streets. In Nice, I passed a group of punk kids loitering on the sidewalk, dressed head to toe in black with sullen expressions to match, passing a baguette round. Somehow, I just can’t see that happening with a group of young American hooligans. Dude, I’m so over Cheetoes. Um, no.

But all of this leaves me with one last point. Dare I suggest to all of the carbophobes out there that perhaps bread does not make you fat? Given that we’ve already established that French women do not get fat, and I’ve seen many a French woman wolfing down whole baguettes, I think it’s finally time to welcome back bread to the American table. Atkins diet be gone!

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Spotted on a wall near the University in Parma…

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I’m not sure what it says, but I get the ‘boycott McDonald’s’ bit, and I’m assuming that the rest is the usual hoo-ha about animal rights, worker rights, and nutritional rights. From what I understand (and partly from what I observed) Europeans are in the midst of a new onslaught of obesity-related diseases, just like Americans. While their obesity rates are nowhere near ours, they are quickly growing. (Pun somewhat intended.) This is mainly due to an abandonment of traditional lifestyle and cuisine in favor of more American-style eating of processed foods on the go.

One interesting thing to think about is that America basically invented industrial agriculture. We also invented the official ‘organic’ movement, as a means to clearly label products that were grown outside of our conventional, pesticide-laden factory farming standards. While travelling through Europe, the organic label doesn’t exist so much. Some countries have their own words to indicate a naturally grown product, but chances are a lot of Europeans are still eating naturally, since most small family farmers don’t use pesticides, animal growth hormones/antibiotics and never have. That’s not radical, that’s just their tradition. You go to the market early in the morning, you purchase fresh bread, cheese, meat and produce from the actual artisan who made or grew your product. Of course, these traditional ways take time, not to mention cooking skills. Hence the emergence of indoor supermarkets and fast food chains.

I am encouraged, though, that with global organizations like Slow Food, young Europeans can be educated about simple, healthy, delicious eating. Each country has such a rich food tradition… it would be shameful to instead consume calorie-laden, nutritonally deficient food with roots no deeper than a good advertising campaign. The McDonald’s boycott is the first step!

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Long time, no post…

Blame it on the French. Not only are their internet cafes very expensive to use, but the keyboards are funky. Certain letters are rearranged, as well as other symbols like commas and apostrophes. While that may not sound so bad, it´s a big problem if you´re a fast typer that can type without looking at the keyboard. Basically, it reduces even the fastest typer to a two-finger pecker. Oy.

Anyway, though I´m in Barcelona now, I will try to play catch up for a bit… After leaving the Lucca/Florence area, I took the train north out of Tuscany towards Modena, which is in Emiligia-Romana. Modena is perhaps most famous for being home to the Ferrari factory, and of course, everyone’s favorite vinegar — balsamico di Modena. While I know I complained earlier about the hordes of tourists roaming the streets of Florence, Modena was the exact opposite. Since the heart of the old town is fairly small, there were not mant tourists at all, and nary an American. The setting is traditional Old World — winding alleys, arched porticos over wide sidewalks, and ancient churches scattered here and there, with one main cathedral…

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and a grand plaza in front of said cathedral…

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Someone told me in Florence that the further north you travel in Italy, the more European and more wealthy the citizens become. Definitely true. Modena is lined with lovely stores, none of which I could afford to enter. (It helps that Italian stores display price tags on the clothes in the window, which immediately lets you know if the store is in your league or not.) And besides Ferraris, the streets are lined with more than a few luxury cars. Come evening, since Modena is not so much a tourist destination, many restaurants close up shop, leaving cafes and pizza shops to choose from. So my first night in Modena, it was pizza and house wine. I forgot until the waiter plunked down the little quartino in front of me what house wine means in Emilia-Romanga — lambrusco! I know poor lambrusco has a not so great reputation in America, but truts me, it can be delicious! (Lambrusco is a type of red grape grown in Emilia-Romagna that is made into either dry or sweet wine that is slightly sparkling and served chilled. In other words, completely unique.) I once met a woman who described Lambrusco as the syrupy sweet plonk she and her friends would drink at the beach in the summer, in the same category as Blue Nun or Lancers. Personally, I think a dry Lambrusco is terrific in the summertime. Being that it´s red, it stands up to heartier food a bit better than most whites, but since it´s fizzy and cold, it´s very refreshing. And it goes great with pizza! And in Emiligia-Romana, it’s what most wine stores peddle.

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Modena is also where I discovered that Italians employ silverware in their pizza consumption. The small round pizza is served intact, with no precut slices, so you have to attack it yourself with knife and fork. Anyway, I think it was Edna Lewis who said in reference to pairing food and wine, “If it grows together, it goes together.” Europeans have had centuries to perfect their regional agriculture and winemaking. It sort of makes sense that regional food and wine tend to match together, since each has surely influenced the development of the other over the years. Hence that Lambrusco goes so well with pizza, as well as cheese and cured meats, which are both Northern Italian specialties.

Like most cities and towns in Europe, rather than rely upon a grocery store, there is generally a large open-air market. Open mornings only, the market in Modena offers the typical array of meats, cheese and seasonal produce, along with heaps of balsamic vinegar, fresh pasta and lambrusco. One thing did catch my eye, however. At the Arthus Schwartz talk I attended a month or two ago, he made a really big deal about how superior San Marzano tomatoes are and how rare they are in the United States. He even said that there’s some debate as to whether or not the San Marzanos being peddled in Italy are genetically related to the real thing. I can’t comment on that, but if you’re ever in Modena and want to whip up a traditional tomato sauce by hand…

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Modena is also ideally located between two other notable cities in Emilia-Romagna — Parma and Bologna, both of which are about a half hour´s train ride away. Any foodlover knows Parma. For that matter, most Americans know Parma, since Parmesan cheese is a staple of many households. The other famous food product is, of course, prosciutto di Parma.

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As for Bologna, you might be familiar with Bolognese sauce for your pasta, or perhaps the much corrupted lunchmeat American supermarkets ply schoolchildren with. Yes Bologna has amazing cured meats, and no, none of them are like supermarket baloney. Bologna also has the most amazing array of fresh pasta I’ve ever seen. Windows display hand formed tortellini and gently rolled balls of long noodles, with loving explanations of each product.

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Both Parma and Bologna offer more friendly deviations from Modena´s slightly chilly character, and Bologna in particular is like an eccentric old aunt that doesn´t care what anyone thinks of her. While most Northern Italian cities and towns are picture perfect, Bologna has a little bit of a haphazard character. Since there is a large university in Bologna, the sidewalks are lined with scooters and mopeds.

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The streets are a bit dirtier, there are fewer open spaces, and even the main cathedral lacks a facade past the first 50 feet or so. Most churches and cathedrals are built out of stone or brick to be sturdy, but the main beauty comes from the often ornate facade that’s slapped onto the exterior later. It´s sort of surprising to round the corner into the main plaza in Bologna, and see a huge cathedral (I think the third or fourth largest in Italy) that is mainly built out of drab maroon brick. It´s as if the building is declaring, Take me or leave me!

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I had delicious meals in Parma and Bologna both. I won´t go into too many details, other than both meals involved savory cured meats and fresh pasta. I could live forever on good bread, cheese and cured meats.

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