For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

November 13, 2012

Going in for a Kill

Being a hearty meat eater, I’ve many times pondered over whether I’d actually be capable of hunting down my own prey and doing the necessary “dirty work” in order to savor the end product. A beautiful steak is a beautiful steak, but before it sat on the plate in front of you to satisfy your lust for bloody juiciness, it was an actual living creature that hopefully had a happy life. My intention is not to raise a discussion on the moralities surrounding the issue, but I strongly encourage you all to reflect on it as I did a few days ago, when I found myself hunting wild boar, somewhere on the Piedmontese fields at 5.30 AM.

My excitement gave me no sleep the night before the big day. It was going to be my very first hunt. I flounced around in bed, restless, like a dog chasing a cat in his dreams. When the alarm rang, I was already up. Vincenzo, my hunting mentor, had knocked on my door earlier to tell me that he was waiting for me downstairs. I got dressed for the occasion; proper boots and other hunting gear. I ran down to the garage to help Vincenzo, I didn’t want to miss a single detail. He threw me an apple and gesticulated that I should hop in the truck, “Andiamo al bar”. For a minute I got confused, hunting under the influence of alcohol didn’t sound wise. My brain must have been still asleep at that point, since normally I know that ‘bar’ means a coffee shop here in Italy.

When we pulled over by the bar, it dawned on me. The rest of the hunting gang was already there, eating sweet puff pastry, drinking strong black espressos and talking wild boar talk. The vivid conversation came to an abrupt halt when I stepped in. A girl! A Finn! What? Why? I definitely created confusion in the highest degree. What a comical scene is was. An icebreaker was badly needed, so cracked a few stupid jokes with my mediocre Italian skills. It worked. I felt that most of the elderly men came around and accepted my presence. First test passed. I could enjoy my cappuccino with extra foam with comfort.

In a flash, we were back in the truck, driving on little curvy countryside streets. The air smelled of smoke and the fog characteristic for the region covered the whole landscape in its gauze. Vincenzo lit up his first cigarette of the day. No words were spoken – a moment of soothing tranquility. Just as I sat back relaxed to take a bite of the beautiful red apple that I had tucked in my pocket, Vincenzo made a sudden turn and drove off road onto the field. He had spotted five deer and was ready to get them. Before I knew it, there was a riffle horizontally right across my lap, “Can you shoot?” he asked me. My nervous laugher spoke for itself, “I can try”, I answered pathetically. Vincenzo laughed. He was only pulling my leg.  We had been too slow anyway, I understood, the deer had already lifted their heads. I assure you, I was now wide-awake.

We parked the truck on a field in the middle of nowhere. It was time to inspect the ground, search for paw prints and half eaten corncobs. Not a single trace would pass Vincenzo’s hawk eyes. There were prints everywhere, “only deer, damn it!” he grouched, “where are the fat bastards?”. After a while we spotted the first wild boar prints, “These are from last night though. See, the grass straw in the middle of the print is already standing up again”. Fascinating! Not only could Vincenzo tell how long it had been since the animal had walked there, he could also tell the direction it had taken and approximately how many they were. The city girl was stunned. We kept walking and I kept on learning more and more.

For a while I felt bad, worrying that I had brought bad hunting luck. We had walked around for hours and there were no wild boars insight. Maybe the others had caught them all during the time I was taught the ABCs of hunting. I was about to express my sincerest apologies, as the half time report echoed from the walkie talkie in Vincenzo’s pocket. It was something in Piedmontese, the local dialect with a slight French sound to it, but I understood that it was coffee time.

Again, the whole gang reunited at a roadside bar for a hot energy booster. It seemed that I hadn’t been the only one half asleep earlier on. The magnitude of gestures and volume of conversation had at least tripled. Many were also curious about why there was a Finnish girl tagging along. My reasons were simple, “I’m here because I want to learn everything there is to know about the food here and all details related to it. I love to eat and I’m extremely curious”. For a second, the elderly men looked at each other in silence. And then they all clapped my on the shoulder, “BRAVA!!!”. I believe it was the second test passed.

At 10.30 AM we were back on the hunting track and the sun was embracing us with its warmth. I was picturing in my mind how the wild boar would be dealt with once we’d caught one. I wasn’t quite sure how I’d feel about watching the beast getting killed. I don’t know whether it was the three espressos I had had within four hours or the adrenaline rush of the situation, but my heart was beating hard. I clung on to my camera with both hands ready to document each bloody detail. It was calm and the air stood still. The only sound I could hear were the bells around the dogs’ necks clinging as they ran frenetically back and forth with their noses in the mud.

At 12.30, like clockwork, rifles were stacked away. There was only one thing on everyone’s minds. Food. It was lunchtime. I must admit that it was the sweetest part of the whole experience. All the big, tough, manly men had a little cooling bag filled with nicely wrapped food items. Before I knew it, I was enjoying a full-scale picnic composed of leftover from the night before, cheese, bread, salami and other cold cuts. Everyone had something in their Tupperware that they wanted me to taste. Did I mind? Guess! I was having the time of my life, sharing food and talking about the wild. My hunger was satisfied and I was good to continue. I stood up so as to make a gesture suggesting I was ready to rock, but I was stopped by Vincenzo who handed me a plastic bottle, “Have some wine, my friend here made it”. Without hesitation I took a sip and handed the bottle to the man standing next to me, “No, no, it’s just for you. We’ll have some later”. With gratitude, I took another sip. “Brava Edith!”. A third test passed. Life was sweet.

A few hour later, still no wild boars. I could feel the hunters’ disappointment. Honestly, I was pretty bummed out too. I had prepared myself for a kill, physically and mentally. Nevertheless, I felt content. I had experienced something very special. It became clear to me that these Saturday early morning hunts were much more than just that. Being the inquisitive observer I am, in the end, I didn’t really mind just taking the experience as an anthropological inquiry. To perceive the different moods, roles, phases and routines within the group were utterly fascinating. Unfortunately, most of the dialogues didn’t open up to me as they were spoken in the dialect, but somehow I still understood. It wasn’t about what was said, it was the atmosphere and the experience as a whole that moved me.

As we hopped in the truck and drove toward Bra again, Vincenzo looked at me at asked “same thing next week?”. My response was positive. He smiled, I smiled. I got home, dozed off on the couch and dreamt of killing wild boars.

November 4, 2012

Food is Love

What a week! I’ve tried to grasp it, understand it and realize what transpired but I remain utterly amazed. Ever since I set foot on Italian soil I’ve been overwhelmed by the people, the food and the energy that surrounds me. Even though I spent months daydreaming about how it would be here before I actually arrived, I never imagined it to be like this. Officially, class hasn’t even begun yet but I’ve already been hunting wild boar for the first time in my life! (Stay tuned for more on that adventure)

Sure, I picked an exceptional time to start my year here. To be honest, I might not be fully sane nor sober writing this. Getting sucked in to the preparatory madness of one of the biggest gastronomic events in Europe (Salone del Gusto & Terra Madre) immediately on arrival certainly had its impact on me. Nevertheless, I’m fully convinced that I’ve found a place where my heart, my soul and my appetite will dance and laugh in delight, even when the “Salone reveling” will set.

In a nutshell, the Salone del Gusto & Terra Madre -fair was an absolutely dazzling experience. I couldn’t have wished for a better welcoming party. Actually, it’s better to call it a five-day long food orgy because that’s what it was: five days of joyous food-loving people, mind-blowing flavors and unforgettable taste experiences. Where ever I’d look there were smiling faces from all over the world, all reunited to eat well and enjoy the pure and simple things in life.  Half of the time I thought that I had died and gone to foodie heaven. I’m sure I’m not the only one still feeling a bit dizzy.

After day two, I expected the fatigue to slow people down at some point, myself included, but I was totally wrong. Sleeping was the last thing on everyone’s mind. Turns out, when you eat the best produce this world has to offer, you hardly need any sleep. Each time I was a little low or was lacking energy, one of my many new friends I had the privilege to encounter at the fair would come up to me with a bite of something so delicious that I was back in the game in a flash. A friendly tip: start your day by filling your belly with beautiful fresh mozzarella and topping it off with the most exquisite olive oil. You’ll be on cloud nine, I can guarantee that!

During the five days I was really racking my brain to understand what exactly made the event, in particular the atmosphere and the energy, so special. It turned out to be very simple. Food is love. And once you surround yourself with it and people who experience it as you do, you reach a state of divinity. What more do you need?