Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Simple Luxuries

For our two weeks in Italy, we will be staying just outside of Florence, in the neighborhood of Settignano. It’s wonderful to get away from the bustle of the city, and – while the restaurant options are limited – the food is truly revelatory. I’ll write about it quite a bit on this blog, but for a start I’d like to write about two antipasti (appetizer) dishes I had on two subsequent nights, both at Café Desiderio, a small restaurant in the town square. Each course used some of the most expensive and luxurious ingredients in the world. Truffles and foie gras, respectively.

Foie gras is made from the liver of a fattened duck or goose (I’ve already written some thoughts on the ethics of foie gras here, if you’re interested on my take), and is extremely rich and extremely wonderful (I’d eaten it once before, in NYC). On our second night at Café Desiderio, I ate an antipasto of toasted Tuscan white bread topped with chunks of foie gras au torchon (the term is French, and the foie was from a French farm. Most people, including most Italians, agree that the best foie gras in the world is made in France), a drizzle of olive oil, and Maldon sea salt.

In Florence and Tuscany, the bread is pretty different from what I think of as good European bread. My favorite crusty white breads are baked from biga (Italian) or poolish (French), doughs which are left to ferment for hours, days, or even weeks, and develop all sorts of complex, buttery, rich and hearty flavors. Salt is mixed in with the dough which intensifies the intoxicating tastes and smells. Tuscan white bread, however, is made with shorter fermentation times and no salt. I have to be honest, on its own it’s not my favorite. Fresh baked bread is always great, but without the salt the bread here is quite bland. The texture, however, is wonderful. After it’s baked, it starts going stale in a matter of hours (so far I’ve noticed that the better the restaurant, the softer the bread in the basket), but when it’s fresh it has a crumbly, crunchy, slightly chewy crust and an airy soft and spongy crumb. It also toasts beautifully (crisping up the edges of the crumb), and it’s a perfect platform to showcase other flavors without getting in their way. Like truffles. Or like foie gras.

At the café, the crunchy toasted bread was a wonderful textural contrast to the silky smooth foie. The foie gras was unbelievably soft and creamy (much softer and it would be a liquid), so that when I popped each bite into my mouth and chewed, the foie slipped around among the bits of bread, soaking into all the crumb’s pores, spreading out into every corner of my mouth. And oh lord, did that foie taste good. Rich and creamy and everything I love about liver with none of the unpleasant, metallic flavors it can take on.

The dish was topped with just enough ingredients to highlight the flavors of the foie without distracting. The oil (like most of the olive oil I’ve had in Florence) tasted of olives – briny and slightly vegetal, almost grassy. It contrasted with the flavor of the foie, while complementing its fatty texture. The salt was also essential. Salt belongs in almost every dish. It highlights and intensifies flavors by making certain aromatic compounds more volatile (i.e. more likely to disassociate and be tasted) and enhances some smells (and scent is inextricable from taste). I got this information, by the way, from this Q&A with Harold McGee, one of my heroes. His On Food and Cooking belongs on every shelf of everyone ever.

The salt was sprinkled on top of the foie gras. Sea salt is harvested in crispy thin flakes, so it has a great crunch and pop. Also, because it wasn’t mixed in with the foie, it created tiny pockets of intensified, salty flavor, dotted all over my tongue. Molto bene.

Then on the first night, I tried a crostono di tartufo (truffles on bread). It was, yet again, an extremely simple dish. Besides the side salad of arugula (nothing special), it had three ingredients: Tuscan white bread, salted butter, and summer truffles.

When the crostono arrived at the table, it was one big slice of bread, topped with truffle-specked butter. Truffles are a fungus which are prized both for their rarity (they only grow underground, in the wild, and must be sniffed out by pigs, goats, or specially trained dogs) and their unparalleled taste and smell. Truffles have a wonderful, flavor enhancing umami-ness (the fifth “savory” flavor found in cured meats, mushrooms, and MSG, for example) and remarkable subtlety. To infuse the truffle flavor into the butter, the chef at Café Desiderio let the truffled butter melt under a low heat, then resolidify, then melt again, then re-resolidify (gently dissolving the truffle's flavorful compounds in the fat). Molto, molto bene.

As I was taking in the dizzying scent of my truffley toast, the waiter pulled out a whole fresh Summer truffle and a truffle shaver and topped the dish with all those paper thin slices of truffle that you see in the picture. My oh my oh my. The taste was subtle (Summer truffles are less intense (and correspondingly less expensive) than their winter cousins, the Black (or Perigord) Truffle and the ultra-expensive White Truffle) but amazing. Earthy, slightly sweet, rich and gentle. And the texture was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten – soft and thin enough to almost melt in my mouth, but still firm enough to have a bite to it. I don’t have enough molto’s to say how bene.

In the past not-even-a-week, I’ve eaten some of the best food of my life. I can’t wait to tell you all about it. Ciao, tutti.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Simply Perfect

For the next two weeks, I’ll be in Italy with the Syracuse Library Science program. At my library blog I’ll be writing about the course, and reflecting on international librarianship. Here, I’ll write about the food.

When chefs talk about great Italian food, over and over they use the word “simple”. Simple does not mean boring, and it does not mean conservative, it means combining a very small number of ingredients into spectacular results. Eating this food, one can clearly and dramatically taste each individual ingredient, and so each one must be of the highest quality. In Italy, the farmer who grows the tomato, or the baker who makes the bread, or the butcher who cures the prosciutto is as much of an artist as the chef who combines them – each one building off hundred years of collective cultural memory and experience in the pursuit of perfection.

Last night, we ate at Obika, a restaurant which celebrates one ingredient which is singularly Italian, mozzarella di bufala (or buffalo mozzarella) – mozzarella cheese made from the milk of the water Buffalo. Buffalo milk is richer than cow milk, and results in cheese with spectacularly wonderful taste and texture.

At Obika, we started off with a tasting of two mozzarellas. The pontina bufala classica (on the left, above) had a stronger taste than the mozzarella we’re used to – both more gamey (like buffalo or deer meat) and more funky (like lovely stinky cheeses) – although it was still mild compared to a blue or a brie. The texture was what blew me away. The outside of the ball was about as dense and chewy as the white of a hard-boiled egg, while the inside was loose without being runny or mushy. It was a continuous network of porous, soft, delicious cheese (so it didn’t crumble or break), and the pores were filled with a marvelous briny liquid, so that each bite burst in my mouth – fresh and clean and dazzling.

The affumicata bufala classica (on the right, above) was a smoked cheese. I don’t always love smoked goudas or gruyères – they often take on an odd, tough, rubbery texture and the smoke flavor can be overpowering. This cheese, however, was marvelous. The smoke only permeated the outer layer, giving it a lovely smoky flavor and a tougher texture than the pontina. The inside was untouched by the smoke curing, and was a bit looser and softer than the insides of the pontina. Since it was looser, it held more brine, which helped soften the impact of the smoke. Like a beautifully cooked steak or a perfectly ripe plum, each bite was a marvelous balance of textures and flavors.

We also ate a pizza topped with buffalo mozzarella (plus tomatoes, prosciutto, and arugula). It was a good, if not spectacular pizza, which didn’t really showcase the cheese. My brother (the best pizza chef I know) once made a pizza topped with only buffalo mozzarella, his own sauce, and basil. It was marvelous. The cheese melted beautifully, so a small amount spread evenly over the entire pizza. The slightly gamey, funky taste permeated each bite, and the cheese protected the integrity of the crust by serving as a barrier to the wet tomatoes. It was crunchy and soft, salty and sweet, beautiful in its simplicity.

Finally, at Obika, we had desserts made with ricotta di bufala (buffalo ricotta). I had a ricotta mouse (sweetened with honey), similar to canolli filling. Like the mozzarella, it had a marvelous texture – at once creamy and slightly stiff. It was studded with golden raisins and toasted pinenuts, and topped with candied orange zest. Every ingredient was essential, and every one was perfect.

My dinner mate had a buffalo ricotta torte, which was softer than the cheesecake we’re used to, beautifully light in texture and rich in taste. It was filled with rasberries and served with a strawberry sauce.

It was a spectacular meal – delicious, exciting, and simple. I can't wait for the next one.