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 12, 2013

Third Publication in Est Elle Magazine + Cover
(November 2013)

October 7, 2013

The Result of Determination

There was one thing I promised to myself I'd do before the end of my very productive and inspirational internship at restaurant Chef & Sommelier. It felt like I had a mission, it was something I simply had to succeed with. Usually, if I seriously set my mind on doing something, I'll go through ice to reach my goal. As you might have read from my last post, I've been doing a lot of baking with sourdough during my internship. It's somewhat ironic that the task was handed to me since I'm the only one who can't eat the bread I bake. Gluten is my worst enemy. Regardless of this minor issue, I've thoroughly enjoyed baking and learning the very basics of how sourdough works.

It didn't take me long to ask my chef the crucial question "And what about gluten-free sourdough?". I assumed he'd tired it since his wife is also gluten intolerant. I started doing some research on it and found myself in a cyberspace maze of tips and hints, each trickier than the other. Frustration hit me. It all seemed too complicated and I thought, how fucking hard can it be!? So I did what I always do – I try everything, at least once.

My first trial didn't take me far or bare any significant results. Or so I thought at first. But actually it's the mistakes and the unsuccessful trials that take you furthest. That's how it works for me at least. I tried to make a starter with buckwheat and hemp flour and I asked my coworkers which one of them had the dirtiest hands. My chef had just been harvesting 45 kilos of celeriac, his hands would be perfect. Turned out buckwheat and hemp don't marry well. My chef had his doubts and expressed to me openly, but I had to try it for myself.

My second trial worked better. I used a mix synthetic gluten-free flour (potato starch, rice flour and what have you) and corn flour. The starter started bubbling slightly, but the water and the flour separated after five days. This time though, as the smell was correct (acidic notes of soured yoghurt and bananas) I didn't discard it. I added water, flour and heaps of determination. I also made another batch using buckwheat. I still had faith in it. I understood though that buckwheat is very dense and "heavy" so I only used 1/3 of it and 2/3 of synthetic gluten-free flour. I also added some organic honey this time.

A week later both starter were semi active, but I kept having trouble with some of the flour lumping on the bottom of the starter jar. My chef kept telling me that I need to be patient and give it time, but I was worried and wanted to boost the process. I added a bit of honey to both starter and did what I often do – forget things half way through the process because I see no results. This time though, it was exactly what the starters needed.

Last week, I think it was on Thursday, a Swedish lady Jessica Frej known for gluten-free baking came to the restaurant. I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed. It would've been so cool to show her my bubbly and active sourdough and feed her some freshly baked gluten-free sourdough bread. Half an hour before service I decided to take a look at the starters. Maybe, just maybe a miracle had happened.

There is a sourdough God after all! A miracle had happened. Both starters were extremely active and smelled perfect. No time to bake, but after getting permission from the sommelier, I showed Jessica my starters. She was as thrilled as I was.

After service at 2.00 AM I prepared the dough and let it rest over night. The next morning I came to work to a very nicely grown dough. I folded it into three cute little buns and heated up the oven. What followed is best left unwritten since words can't describe the joy I felt. I'll let this video speak for itself.

One word: Determination.

September 17, 2013

Morning Glory 

Wiping off the sweat from my forehead, I jump off my bike. Tuesday morning – a new week begins. Keys, where the hell are my keys?? I’m frenetically digging in my backpack.  Same thing every morning. There, I found them. The door opens. I’m still sweating.

“Good morning all! Nice weekend?” I greet my colleagues who are already fully concentrated on work. One is pulling off tender meat from the lamb leg that has been simmering in its own fat over night. The other is fileting trout that just came in as fresh as it gets. I receive no answer, just a firm nod, but I don’t mind. By now, I’ve learned that Tuesdays for chefs are like Mondays for normal people: Tired and moody. Better to simply let them work and start working myself.

A ten-liter pot of rye bread dough and a 2/2 GN-steel container full of beautifully risen wheat bread dough are waiting for me. Clothes off, clothes on. Quickly. One, two, three, four and five. I button up my mandarin collared jacket. Ready. Let’s go.

Rye bread, first up. I have to work carefully but fast: A seemingly impossible equation at first, but I’m getting better. After six weeks of doing it every morning, I should be better. The oven is already hot. I snap on a pair of disposable plastic gloves and gently push my hand to the bottom of the pot to grab the dough. There, now the firm yet soft dough is sitting on my hand. I need a moment here. This part is crucial: Under no circumstances is one to break the crust that has taken shape over night. Important rye bread cosmetics. Ok, time to do the lift. Steady now. My hand is just a tad too small, but I compensate with determination. I hold my breath for a nanosecond.

Damn it. A tiny part of the dough always sticks to the pot.

I’ll be better tomorrow.

I pat, I sprinkle flour, I pat again. I cut twelve equally big lumps. Cut, cut, cut, twelve times. The dough is sticky but I shouldn’t add to much flour. It’s perfect this way and it’s so alive. The mark from the cut disappears in split seconds. The dough keeps growing and expanding as I go.  A bit like a lizard that grows back its tail.

As much as I enjoy teamwork, this part of the morning is the best. I often get left alone to bake. It’s just me and a shit load of sour dough. Dough that technically is my worst enemy, dough that I can’t eat when done, but I don’t mind. I still give it my heart and soul. And it’s so worth it---

My thoughts stand still, I’m concentrated. I’m nowhere but there, here. Patting, shaping.  Salt, flour. There. Done. There are only a few things in life that give you the same utter satisfaction as manual labor does. To see the result of your own bare hands in a matter of minutes is priceless. Even though I’ve done it each morning for six weeks now, I still marvel over the little loaves of bread each time I make them. Such beauties they are.

Next up, wheat bread. No kneading at all – in fact, I barely touch it. It’s wet and elastic, almost wobbly, but it holds itself well. A strong smell of lactic yeast, bananas, yogurt fills the room as I pour the dough onto the wooden baking table. The dough is active all right. A complex gluten net formation is a very good sign. Long elastic gluten strings. I love to see them even though they are a threat to me health.

Dividing the runny dough was such a pain at first. Now, I’ve learned how to not get it all over the place. Scraping, cutting. I’ve become accustomed to use the bench knife as an extension of my arm. Scrape, snip, cut. Flour. More flour. Wet hands. It helps. Four mounds of dough, four bread loaves. I fold each dough mound four times and flip them over. My right hand rotates the dough as my left hand beats it gently – a wonderful exercise for your motor-skills. The bouncy, but tight dough bun is sexy as hell! I cover the beautiful sight with a handful of flour and under a baking towel they go.

At this point I’ve been working for half an hour. It’s the best Tuesday morning therapy. It gives my morning a rhythm, a continuity. I get to interact with something, use my hands and see immediate results.

I can only smile. I’m all doughy. The oven is still hot. I should run, take the rye breads to the oven, but I take a minute to enjoy it, taking it all in. When dough is involved even the chefs’ Mondays are filled with joy.

September 15, 2013

Publication in Est Elle magazine
September 2013

September 2, 2013

Finding Nordic Coconut 

It’s September in Finland. Nature is showcasing its abundance, it's harvest time, and the head chef Sasu Laukkonen and his team at restaurant Chef & Sommelier in Helsinki are enjoying it to the fullest. Since 1st August  I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the team as an apprentice. Yes, I have left steaming hot Italy, for the time being, in the need for fresh air, but also to put theory into practice. As we speak, I’ve been sweating and learning in the 9m² kitchen at Chef & Sommelier, alongside head chef Sasu for the past three weeks. Workingsixteen-hour  days, five days a week might scare most people off, but for me,even though it took some time to adjust, it has been a deliciously mind-blowing experience  and I still have six weeks to go..

Chef & Sommelier is much more than just a restaurant. Aside from it receiving the title “Restaurant of the Year” bestowed by the Finnish Gastronomes’ Association, I consider it a showroom of deliciousness, as the restaurant truly is a factory of new, exciting flavours with its ways of using Nature’s fruits. Sasu himself is the pioneer determining the restaurant’s firm philosophy. He belongs to a new generation of vibrant chefs who step out of their comfort zone, leaving pots, pan and knives aside in search for new edible delights to serve to the loyal customers. Many of those customers specifically travel  from places as far away as Australia, Korea and Japan,  to savour his creations. Believe me, he makes it worthwhile. Together with his farmer Janne Länsipuro (yes, he has his own farmer), Sasu and his team select their vegetables and greens from the very seeds. But it doesn’t just end there. A rigorous watering, farming and harvesting scheme has been put in place. Everyone takes part – naturally. This is about as intimate as one can get with the raw materials if you ask me.

When the final products start pouring into the restaurant, Sasu is like a proud father looking at his children. He smells, he tastes, he observes and then, he starts to cook. Magic happens. Watching him work is truly an inspiration. Since Sasu and his team have a firm rule on keeping food waste to a minimum, almost nothing is discarded. And why would you throw away carrot or beetroot stems anyway? Have you ever tasted one or the other? They’re delicious, just for the record.

But it goes beyond food waste. Since we just happen to find ourselves in the less sunny and warm side of the hemisphere, we simply don’t have access to certain raw materials that are taken for granted let’s say in Italy for example. It’s a fact and it doesn’t help whining about it. At Chef & Sommelier we just wine, we never whine. Sure it’s a bummer to not have lemons, artichokes, capers and coconuts growing in the backyard;  it would be nice. But what if I told you that there’s a Nordic version of each of these yummy treats? Read and marvel.

This is how it happened. If most people would have a fridge full of parsnip leaves (if they had kept the leaves to begin with) they would probably blissfully ignore them and end up throwing them away when they’re rotten.  Not Sasu. When he knew his precious parsnip leaves would only have a few more days left, something had to be done, quickly. Sauté and fry them? Been there done that. He needed something new. Ice cream? No kidding. He made the base using milk, cream, raw cane sugar and gluten free flour. Once done, he added a big bunch of parsnip leaves into the mix and switched on the blender. Vivid green and velvety. Just before pouring it into the ice cream machine he added a touch of caramelized butter to enhance the flavour – the secret ingredient? As the ice cream started taking shape and texture, a familiar smell filled the tiny kitchen. Could it be? Yes indeed. It was coconut. To check his judgement he had all of us taste it. It was coconut, no doubt about it. For the cherry on top, he grated some dehydrated parsnip from the late harvest last season. The result: a masterpiece that he baptised the  “Nordic Coconut”.

The Nordic coconut is just one of Sasu and his teamsgreat discoveries. Sunflowers picked when still about to bloom, preserved in oil before panfrying in butter, taste like artichokes; tagetes flowers that grow perfectly well here in the north have a citrusy flavour that easily replace the acidity of lemons; pickled dandelion buds are a perfect Nordic substitute for capers,and the list goes on. When curiosity meets talent and guts, anything is possible. Well, almost anything.
The work of a chef is extremely challenging, that has been made clear to me since the beginning. Numb heels, backache, cuts and burns are inherent, nothing to complain about. But the chef who wants to make it big today needs to not only master his kitchen but also become a farmer, a forager, a chemist, a fisherman, a researcher, a lean-mean-holistic-gastronomic-machine. The idea of a blurred threshold between the kitchen and the dining room has been Chef & Sommelier’s concept ever since they served their first customers in late September 2010. Today, Sasu is not only stepping out of the kitchen to personally tell the diners the story behind his raw materials. He  even stepss out of the restaurant to make the best food with the best raw materials. “There’s no other way, it’s essential and natural. How should I so it otherwise?”

That’s what he says, and I couldn’t agree more.

July 31, 2013

Dressed in White

It’s the day before the big day. All kinds of thoughts are running through my mind. Have I thought of everything? Is everything ready? Am I ready for this? I find it hard to keep my head straight and every now and then a feeling of exhilarating excitement blends with total panic. Whether it’ll last only a short while or an entire lifetime it’ll change me forever; nothing will be the same again. I guess a slight feeling of nausea is justified – after all it’s not something that happens every day.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Must-keep-cool-head.

I took the decision already a while ago, but it hit me only when I first tried on my outfit. Like many others, I’ve been dreaming about this day ever since I was a little girl! I guess I never thought I had it in me though. But it’s happening all right: There I was, standing in front of the mirror doing the fitting. White has never really done me justice, but it sure looked good on me now. My brother’s approving look sealed the moment. Of course he had to be there for this special occasion. After all, it’s thanks to him that I found this love that has been growing for years now.

The circle is complete.

I woke up early today. I hardly got any sleep last night. Today is my last day as a virgin. Tomorrow at 10 AM I’m stepping into a three-month long adventure: I’ll start working as a trainee at one of Helsinki’s finest and most vibrant restaurants. Yes, that’s correct. In less than 24 hours I’ll find myself sweating in a professional kitchen just like onions that I’ll most certainly get very intimate with. I can't wait to learn!

* * *

I have to say there’s something extremely solemn, almost heroic about wearing a cook’s coat. I’ve never worn any type of uniform before and its lure seduced me at once. Wearing it I stand straighter; I’m stronger somehow, yet nothing has changed. It’s just a white coat. And I’m just a newbie about to be thrown into a world I’ve only visited my imagination. Will the coat present me with hidden talents and skills? Remains to be seen. The idea of a Clark Kent/Superman -transformation amuses me thoroughly. Here goes hoping.

Every time I take a seat at a restaurant I try to get a glance at the people working in the kitchen. Often though, the magic happens behind closed doors and you never see the faces of the cooks and chefs working hard to serve you a delicious experience. Luckily, open kitchens are pretty common nowadays, even in Finland. When that’s the case I’m probably the worst dinner date as I end up neglecting the person sitting opposite to me – what goes on in the kitchen triggers my curiosity far more.

From tomorrow on the roles will be switched and I’ll no longer have to stay put at the table, waiting for the kitchen door to open to get a quick peek to the other side. I’m ready all right. Tomorrow morning, as some sort of giving away ritual, I’ll have coffee with my Mother before I hop on my bike and speed down Mannerheinmintie – the main road of Helsinki/my aisle. It'll be a once in a lifetime experience no doubt. I'm very honored to have been given this opportunity.

My love it strong, and this love will last. I’m certain. I might, however, throw up my morning cereals just before I say: “I do”.

June 23, 2013

When Local Turns Ethnic

I recently read in an article that, according to an Arabic proverb, homesickness starts from the stomach. Sure, I can relate to that. I have also read that globalization of food starts from our taste buds. Not a bad way of looking at it. It's proven that humans are constantly driven to look for new foods and flavors to excite our palates, but at the same time we tend to like what's familiar and thus deemed safe. There we have it: the omnivore's dilemma.

Numerous articles and books have been written on the effects and impacts that globalization has on our food system. Concepts such as Mc Donaldization, de-territorialization and ethnic foods set the tone of many of these works. Some scholars even argue that globalization is the number one cause of the demise of regional and local cuisines and culinary traditions. If the world we live in keeps getting smaller and smaller and culture is getting more and more homogenous, then why would food be an island and remain untouched by these forces? It's a legitimate fear by all means, but it's not all black and white.

Food sure hasn't been left unaffected, quite the opposite. Food has been traveling around the globe for centuries and is doing so as we speak. The fact that we no longer need to travel halfway across the world for a spicy Tikka Masala, a greasy Pad Thai or fresh sushi is just the simplest evidence for this argument. As a result of globalization, ethnic foods have comfortably arrived to us and become extremely common. We can both savor and prepare Indian, Thai or Japanse delights in the privacy of our own homes whether we live in Italy, the United States or Finland. So what happens to local cuisines and food cultures as result? Will they be gradually replaced and eventually forgotten? Or will they resist and prosper?

In countries like Finland, Thai food has become so banal that it might as well be considered Finnish by now. Similar trends prevail in the other Nordic countries. Of course the Thai food à la Nordique has little or nothing to do with real thing, but it seems not to be of concern. A modestly spicy coconutty sauce with chicken and veggies served with white rice is Thai enough for the Vikings. In fact, it's exactly what they look for to relieve their Thai -cravings. Consequently, these pseudo-Thai dishes have been to a large extent, if not totally, naturalized into Finnish food culture for example. Whether they can be called Thai in terms of authenticity isn't the point. Accepted and liked by the grand majority, these dishes are somewhere between ethnic and domestic. Prepared using Finnish raw materials, spiced up with imported flavors and reproduced in Finland, makes the result technically more Finnish in the end. Obviously it's more the idea of it than the actual food that has been globalized. Again, the idea of eating Thai is satisfying as it is.

But this is nothing new, nor is it about Thai food per se. Whether it's pizza, kebab, sushi or biryani, Finns have been stuffing their faces with foods from all four corners of the world for years. I would even like to go as far as to claim that most Finns have not eaten proper Finnish food in... yes, can one even remember? Can one blame them though? Real Finnish food has become rare for a number of reasons. First of all, many considers it to be too expensive. Secondly, Finland is geographically speaking one of the trickiest countries in regards to agriculture. To get Finnish produce the year around is close to impossible. Thirdly, we sure have the purest nature with its abundant fruits, but let’s face it, which average working Finnish adult has the time or energy to go foraging and exploring the many lakes and forests. It breaks my heart a bit, but so it is. Finally, in terms of availability, the number one sources of food in Finland are the two big supermarket chains S-Market and K-Market. These chains hold more or less the exclusive control of the supply and trade of commodities. As a result, an absolute majority of Finns buy all the same apples from Italy, peppers from Spain, meat from Sweden etc. For a people who used to be so in touch with nature we have went awfully astray.

Recently however, an intriguing trend has started taking shape in my country largely thanks to the hyped New Nordic Cuisine movement ushered by the success of Noma in Copenhagen three four years  ago. In tone with their Danish colleagues also Finnish chefs and food professionals started to rediscover the purity and deliciousness of their own land. And gladly, the masses have (finally) started to follow along the same lines. It's certainly very romantic and "authentic", some might even called it culinary nationalism at the get-go. The apostles of this "back to the basics" -philosophy might explain it as a counter reaction to both Mc Donaldization and de-territorialization, but most of all it's simply cool to know how things were done before and especially how these traditions can be upgraded and given new life today. Of curse it's also a reaction to the fact that for years, food culture in the respective Nordic countries was the last thing on people's minds. Something had to be done.

For years, if not decades Finns thought very little of their own food. Descriptors such as 'bland', 'uninteresting' and 'unworthy' were the rule. This isn't a simple reflection of a state of fact, but it's also directly linked to the Finnish modesty distinctive to our culture. What strikes me as extremely interesting is that only when recognized globally as something trendy, new and fascinating the Finns have started opening their eyes (or should I say mouths) to the pure tastes of their land – 'pure' being the key world. What was referred to as 'bland food' still five years ago is now upgraded to 'pure cuisine'.

This has globalization written all over it. When the rest of the world started craving for 'Nordic', only then Finns started to grow a taste for it too. 'Nordic' is becoming as generic of a term as 'Indian', 'Thai' or 'Japanese'. The concept of something 'Nordic' has become a commodity and people travel to Finland for a Finnish or should I say the  'Nordic' experience. Like I mentioned before, food hasn't been left untouched in this case either. The irony is that even Finns living in Finland who are intrinsically Nordic now seek to consume 'Nordic' food. It had to travel around the world before it started to be appreciated and perceived by the people physically living in the midst of it all. This is yet another perfect example of how an idea gets globalized and formed through a global lens.

So when I am asked whether globalization equals to the devastation of local food cultures, I'm not sure what to answer. In the case on Finland, globalization made the local somehow ethnic, hence something new and (re)appreciated by the locals. Maybe Finns nearly had to lose their culinary identity in order to find it. What isn't entirely sure though is the motive behind this sudden new love for domestic deliciousness. At a first glance it seems rather genuine and positive: Finnish food culture has never been as vibrant and alive as it is today. On the other hand however, I can't help but wonder whether it's just another ethnic food trend that just conveniently happens to be Nordic thus easily accessible and comfortable; familiar and new at the same time. Of course these kinds of claims of culinary hypocrisy would be crushed in a blink of an eye if uttered out loud in Finland. Most Finns have never been as proud of their food culture as they are now.

Still, I can't help noticing that the restaurants known for New Finnish/Nordic Cuisine in Helsinki still serve duck, snails and artichokes. Last time I checked none of these are typical for Nordic cuisine.

June 15, 2013

"Take it Slow" 
– Publication in Est Elle Magazine (Vol. 6 June, 2013)

To download article, click here.

May 28, 2013

The Fifth Quarter

I’m always hunting for new and unknown flavours. Luckily, I’ve never been a picky eater – an asset, for sure. As long as the treat handed to me is edible, my mouth opens. That’s how I’ve been taught and that’s my motto. It’s downright the best way to amuse your taste buds. The way I see it is that each new flavor adds vocabulary and nuances to my taste grammar. The fact that I’m also awfully curious just adds satisfaction.

Ever since I moved to Italy I’ve been extra diligent with my motto. Even the most suspicious foods have to be tried at least once. Surely ignorance is often bliss when it comes to the not-so-common-rather-strange-looking-and-smelly-stuff. Growing up in Hanoi, Vietnam I’ve learned that sometimes you’re better off eating first and thinking later. Savouring a well-made testina al forno (baked lamb brain) is far easier when you concentrate on the one you have the plate and not the one between your ears. Just saying.

In Italy going to the butcher’s is a lot more exciting than back home in Finland. Whole rabbits, whole roosters, brains, testicles, pig legs, ears are all nicely chilling there side by side. And internal organs! Never did I think how refreshing the sight of offal could be. Very soothing indeed. Yep, all there; kidneys; liver; intestines; heart. A bit like counting ten fingers and toes on a newborn. Or something.

Of all places in Italy, Lazio and especially the city of Rome is intriguing for its traditional cuisine. When we arrived to the region with the class last week, my curiosity for odd bits and new flavors escalated instantly. Offal, or quinto quarto as it’s called in Italian (literally the ‘Fifth Quarter’), happen to be both an important pillar of the Roman cuisine and a personal source of curiosity.

First, a quick peak into history: Paradoxically, the ancient Roman diet was predominantly vegetarian and seafood based. Butcher’s meat was only consumed when the animals that no longer served any other purpose were slaughtered. Back then, offal was considered both prohibited and refined food. Only around the 2nd century BCE, along with the early urbanization and birth of luxury foods, did meat consumption progressively start augmenting. The high-class gourmands of those times indulged themselves with extravagant offal dishes such as fattened goose liver with figs, rooster’s testicles and crest, swan and flamingo tongue, just to name a few. A hop and a skip later, a shift took place again towards the end of the 18th century and offal got downgraded as poor man’s food. Also the slaughterhouses and butchers were moved away from the city centre to the periphery for hygienic reasons and growing discomfort of having them too close the living areas. Letting blood run down to the streets of Rome just wasn’t acceptable any longer.

It was then in the late 19th century in the slaughterhouses of a specific “rione” (district) of Rome called Testaccio that quinto quarto made its way to the Roman tables. There the “vaccinari” or “scortichini“ (slaughterhouse workers who skinned animals for living) were paid not with money but with the animal parts most people regarded as waste – a thin comfort for hard labor. On the other hand luckily they did, as this fiercely developed the local food scene that we today know of traditional Roman cuisine.

Of course behind each vaccinari there was woman. It was the housewives and local osterie and trattorie (female) cooks that were forced to make something out of nothing using the not-so-appetizing odd bits. And boy did they do it well. Ears, feet, skin, tail, liver, heart, lungs and brain were all turned into succulent, robust comfort food. For anyone who has even remotely heard of Roman cuisine the word ‘vaccinari’ should ring a bell. The finger-licking full-bodied Roman cuisine classic coda alla vaccinara (slowly cooked oxtail in tomato sauce with onions, carrots, celery, white wine, guaciale, some add pine nuts, dried raisins and bitter cocoa, it works either way) is a fabulous invention created in the pots and pans of these Roman women. This popular dish is by the way probably one of the easiest ways to get acquitted with the delicious-but-sometimes-odd-world of quinto quarto cuisine.

Calling offal quinto quarto actually makes perfect sense: An animal when slaughtered is cut in half from nose to tail. You end up with two halves that are then both divided in fore and hind parts. Result, four quarters. The fifth ‘quarto’ is all that remains of the slaughtered beast: head, tail, legs, and internal organs – odd bits. Coming from Finland, if it weren’t for all my travels, I would’ve probably never encountered most of these bits in an eating context. In fact, many people in the Nordic countries are very sceptical when it comes to offal. (Finding deep-frozen blood used for pancakes next to ice cream in the super market however is totally normal, hmm).

Offal is seriously tasty and besides that an exciting challenge for any cook, amateur or professional. The odd bits are very heterogeneous in both taste and nutritional value, also in regards to cooking times and methods. Even though quinto quarto dishes are precious building blocks of traditional Roman cuisine, it’s not something the modern day gladiators eat every day. Sure, there are different reasons for it such as the organs’ toxin content, high levels of saturated fats and cholesterol etc. It’s a pity we hear less of how offal holds many essential lipids, vitamins and mineral nutrients. Offal is also gentle on your wallet as it's still the cheapest animal protein you can get. When you trust your butcher, go for it.

The quinto quarto dishes are the classic example of how poor man’s food has become an authentic delicacy representing the local culinary distinctiveness of a specific region. The dishes are comfort food at its best – a real Roman cult – historically linked to necessity and restrictions of the daily life once upon a time. When savoring these luscious and substantial delicacies you can say you’ve tasted tradition. Nowadays many of the dishes have, however, been transformed and updated to more delicate versions in order to make them more palatable and accessible for a wider range of people. But that’s the name of the game. Back in the days these dishes were the reflection of their time. It’s only fair that today you can find fresher versions of the old, which nevertheless still respect tradition.

Even though blood no longer runs down the sidewalks of Rome, sinking your teeth into pajata, coratella, testarella or la trippa alla romana still wakes up the barbarian in you. No wonder that in many cultures offal are considered ”good for men”. But one doesn’t need testosterone to feel like the rush. As disgusting as it may sound to some, I simply love eating slightly grilled bloody liver with my fingers, sucking the skull of a roasted lamb and licking the sauce of my plate of veal intestines with enormous pleasure.

When in Rome… these are some good spots for traditional quinto quarto cuisine. In Testaccio: Agustarello, Perilli, Oio a Casa Mia and Lo Scopettaro. In other districts: L’Antica Pesa, il Quinto Quarto, Giggetto al Portico d’Ottavia, La Sagra del Vino and L’Osteria del Cannellino. Outside of Rome: Osteria di San Cesario.

May 20, 2013

Lady Clementine

“Welcome to Calabria!” she shouts, as she steps out of her car, “Sorry for being late… you know how it is here in the South…” she continues with vivid gestures and a disarming smile. She is Cristiana Smurra, co-owner of the family run organic clementine farm Biosmurra right outside of Rossano in Northern Calabria. 

For Cristiana, clementines are a family affair. Her family has run the five-hectare farm since 1987. Four years ago, when she took over the family business together with her older sister Martina, the two ladies took the decision to go fully organic. “By no mean was it an easy switch” she recalls. And I believe her. As she shares with us the ups and downs they’ve encountered along the way to Bio, I couldn’t help but fix my gaze on her big rough hands. They were the hands of a true farmer. She was no average Italiana – that I could tell immediately. Behind her warm and soft persona lay a tenacious and hard working independent woman. A modern day Superwoman, fierce, beautiful, witty and tough skinned. Our group consisting of women only all stared at her flabbergasted with sincere admiration.

“Let’s have some clementines ladies, follow me”. I liked the sound of that, so did my classmates. As we walked towards the clementine plantations, Cristiana gave us an introduction to the characteristics of the clementine tree. We learned that the rootstock of the clementine trees are at least a hundred years old, the stems might be younger. “Can you see this cut?” Cristiana pointed at the lowest part of the stem. Indeed, one could perceive a sort of cut, like a scar on the very lowest part of the stem only a few inches off the soil surface. That was the old stump out of which new trees grow again and again. 

The clementine tree is a fascinating plant. The ones Cristiana grows are seedless hybrids of arancio amaro (bitter orange) and mandarino Avana (Avana mandarin). The more she told us about her clementines, the more I admired her. But neither for her knowledge in organic farming nor the savoir-faire running a two-women business, but for the love and caring she conveyed and expressed for her farm as she led our group through the various clementine species. Her rough hands gently caressed the leaves of each tree as she passed them by. She smiled at each orange blossom as if she thanked them for giving her fruit. Mesmerized, I followed her through the field. The air smelled citrusy and sweet – whether it was her or the fruit, I couldn’t tell. It didn’t really matter; I had already understood that they were one, Lady Clementine and her fruits. 

“There’s only a few trees that still bare fruit, the season is almost over. But I wanted you girls to pick some to take home so I didn’t harvest them all”. It suddenly hit me that we had stopped by a tree with its braches hanging heavy of glossy and radiant orange clementines. It all seemed surreal, almost heavenly.  Where was I, at the Biosmurra farm or the Garden of Eden? Was Cristiana Eve who tempted me with the almost perversely perfect clementines?  Would I regain consciousness and realize I’m standing in the middle of a clementine farm butt naked if I peeled one? I wanted to find out.

I spotted a clementine that had my name on it. Hello lover! What an exquisite clementine is was. I reached for it and gave it a tug. The fruits were so ripe that my move made ten other clementines fall all around me. Clementine rain! 

With the chosen one in my hand I heard Cristiana in the background “Mangia Edith, mangia!” Her wish was my command. The peel came off without any effort and I could instantly feel the lukewarm sticky juice running down my wrist and along my forearm. The smell of the clementine tickled my nostrils. It was Mother Nature’s own perfume. Wait. Are those angels singing in the background or is it just my mind playing tricks on me? Cristiana had selected this specific tree exactly for its distinctively aromatic fruits. Sweet and acidic, juicy and fleshy all in wrapped in a radiant orange coat. And it tasted like no clementine I had ever eaten before. The flavors were exceptionally intense and sharp, but very balanced and delicate at the same time. To say that it tasted like a clementine would have been a serious understatement.  The clementines I knew from before tasted nothing more than blandly sweet and vaguely acidic compared to these ones. I was able to taste the sun, the hills, the soil and the sea. Most of all, however, I could taste the love and devotion. 

Standing there surrounded by clementine tree with the warm spring breeze kissing my skin, with my fingers sticky and my lips slightly stinging, I felt like I could stay there forever and live happily ever after.  Eating the forbidden fruit certainly didn’t bring me back to reality, quite the opposite. In my mind I was still happily unaware of my nudity in that Calabrian La-la Land. My facial expression must have revealed my intoxication since I noticed Cristiana staring at me with content. No words were spoken but she knew that I knew. She was pleased, so was I. “Wait until you try our marmalades… ” she whispered and smiled.

May 8, 2013

Living Bra: Liberation Day BBQ

Better later than never!

I finally managed to make the very first Living Bra -clip. Hurray!
My intention with these clips is to show you little glimpses of my daily life and experiences here at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra.

Now some of you might remember my friend Vincenzo Graglia a.k.a the wild boar hunter. To celebrate the Italian Liberation Day on April 25th, I was invited for a big family barbecue at casa Graglia. Family, friends, neighbors and a Finnish girl gathered together around the table for good food, good wine and good vibes.

Fun, tasty and simple - the recipe for living 'bra' in Bra.

April 18, 2013

March 19, 2013

Playing (havoc) With Food

As a student in gastronomy at the dawn of 2013, I’d like to argue that there’s very little we do not in terms of food these days. In one way or another food is continuously played with. Whether it’s about the choice of snack on your way to work or about the pan-European debates around the Common Agricultural Policy due to be reformed this year, we are taking a part in the highly complex and multi-layered game called the Global Food System.

We have reached a level in the game where the playing field has become a serious labyrinth with dangerous twists and turns made even trickier by abrupt and complicated challenges extremely hard to overcome. Safe to say that food, as the basic nutritional substance that keeps both you and I standing, is something of an ancient understanding. I wonder what my late grandmother – a farmer’s wife and a mother of eight, who always advises me not to play with food – would think of it all if only she were still with us.

I am not entirely sure how it all makes me feel though. On one hand, it is fascinating and extremely interesting to be a player in this game since food is not only my field of study, but its importance and impact in my life stretches from it being my greatest hobby and passion to it being my future occupation and source of livelihood. On the other hand however, I have come across dimensions of this very game that make me physically ill. As most of us have learnt the hard way as children, even the most seemly harmless and innocent games can easily wreak havoc. Now a cruel and potentially lethal game might serve as an entertaining manuscript for a commercial teen blockbuster, but having it happen in real life – taking part of it either consciously or unconsciously, aware or not – is a whole different story.

It’s all very ironic and highly controversial to say the least. Food seems to be the coolest thing to play with. Food labs perform chemical experiments with it; food photographers enhance it to capture its beauty; food bloggers write love letters to it on Valentine’s Day. People dealing with food for a living have almost over night been turned into celebrated rock star-like idols. Unfortunately however, there is – as always – a far less sexy side to it all too. Never before have we had a global food system as rotten and infected as today. In Europe and North America the average plate of food travels around 2400 km before reaching our stomachs (Clapp 2012, I). One third of food produced for human consumption is wasted yet 1/8 of the world population goes to bed hungry every day (FAO 2013).

The facts speak for themselves: we are in the midst of a highly complex food crisis and the game is far from being innocent child’s play. These are heavy issues with a whole range of side effects such as the “unnatural coupling of food and global finance” (Ghosh 2010) and commodification of food causing detrimental effects such as asymmetry, volatility and ecological fragility are more and more present on the game field. At the same time the game is being animated and catalyzed by a wide spectrum of different food-related undertakings such as food styling, food TV, food festivals, food movements and what-have-you.

Here is when it all gets confusing: I thought the common rule was that playing with food was forbidden and wrong.

Come to think of it, I wonder where this staple rule comes from since people have been “playing with food” for as long as food has been a subject of trade and a product of global industry. The 19th century colonialism made Europeans and North Americans hungry for tropical luxury foods and the trading of temperate agricultural products, e.g. wheat formed the early trading companies (Clapp 2012, 24). By the end of the Second World War food was already seriously played with and used for all kinds of unorthodox purposes. The food game had become a powerful political and economical tool slowly developing and creating a serious global ecological crisis that no nation soon would have any control of. But was the game stopped? By no means. New rules, one more contradictory than the other, were added on injury to cover up the cruelty of the game. With the rise of the ‘foodie-ism’ and food porn in mid 2000s, people were blinded and distracted by the fun of it once again. What many foodies are happily unaware of is that they in fact are feeding the same cruel game. For them the game just has a different face.

As I teleport myself back to the mid 1990s and my childhood, I vividly remember getting yelled at in school because I had proudly created a piece of art out of the dry hard rye bread given to us at each meal. I remember observing my teacher’s raging facial expression and thinking that she just doesn’t get it, as she would go on and on about how children like me are dying of hunger in Africa and that I shouldn’t play with the food in that way. I wonder what kind of food games the children born in the 2010s will play and witness; which are the ground rules they will be taught in schools in terms of food. One thing is certain though, it seems that playing with food is precisely what they are encouraged to do.

It would be naïve to think that the nature of food would forever remain the same or that it would stay untouched by the forces that seem to rule the world as we know it. It is also rather ignorant to believe that old rules are always the best and most suitable. Playing with food, literally and figuratively, is de facto a lucrative business and is highly intertwined with global economy, politics and world finance. However, I do think that the Russian roulette driven by a handful of transnational corporations, the few private firms that hold the dominant role in the three main segments of the food game (input provision, trade and processing, distribution and retail) and control our global food system, is a dirty game gone way too far.

I am aware that I have presented two very different interpretations of what can be meant by the title of my essay. Some might even argue that the current food obsession in the creative sector has no direct link to the seriousness of the financialization of food. If there is something I have learned from the classes I have taken so far; it is that everything in the sector of agrifood and gastronomy is in fact about money and business. Why wouldn’t it be? I myself take part in it all by choosing to enroll to a Master’s program on food culture and communication. The University of Gastronomic Sciences in the picturesque town of Pollenzo is, after all, simply riding the same wave of the intensified and extended food game. When food is used, either banally for nutrition or creatively as art, there is a business and a market behind it. Whether it is about seeking the cheapest food in highest possible quantities or about exhibiting a dissolvable spoon made out of sugar, the food-related endeavors have global effects and there is a thin line between creative unconventional application of food and straightforward exploiting adulteration of food.

In class we were asked how we would feel if we were to give up imported foods. Some didn’t feel the least bit threatened by the idea. What if we would all be asked to actually follow the good old rule of not playing with food? If only more people would understand the danger of the food game we are all playing as we speak, consciously or unconsciously, maybe more people would rather obey to the good old rule than keep on playing. As a young and upcoming gastronome, I wish I’d have the recipe for a remedy. The situation can seem, and I regret saying this, rather hopeless. It seems like the forces feeding these two extreme scenarios where food is played with have gone way too far and are way out of control and out of reach for the average John Doe. I guess it is impossible to quit playing at this point. Playing havoc with food can be brought to a halt. That I do believe in. Whether it is yet another set of complex new rules, guidelines and regulations that will make it all better, I cannot say. My guess is probably as good as anyone else’s.


-CLAPP Jennifer, Food (Polity Press, Malden, USA, 2012).
-FAO 2013,, accessed February 24th, 2013.
-GHOSH Jayati, “The Unnatural Coupling of Food and Global Finance” Journal of Agrarian Change, Volume 10, Issue 1, (2010): 72–86.
-SAGE Colin, Environment and Food (Routledge, London & New York, 2012). 

February 9, 2013

Once upon a time in the hills of Piedmont…

Three months into the one-year master program at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG) in Bra, Italy and I’m sensing powerful forces, far more powerful than I ever could have imagined taking a hold of me. Sitting here in the kitchen of my little apartment in the heart of Bra seems so ordinary. Yet, I’m in the midst of a dynamic process colored by bittersweet growing pains and fervid enthusiasm, profound confusion and exhilarating enlightenment.

On the other hand, nothing in the aforementioned surprises me really. In fact somehow, I was expecting it. Still, it’s rather baffling to feel not only psychologically, but also physically the change – to touch it, to see it and to sense it daily in each little, seemly unimportant detail of my life. Some changes are more concrete than others: my waistline has taken a life of its own and the act of operating a corkscrew on a bottle of Piedmontese red wine has turned into somewhat of a spontaneous reflex. But these are mere side effects. There’s a whole lot more to it.

The laboratory – UNISG – that is molding overly exuberant and irrational foodies from all around the globe, turning them into aware and rooted new gastronomes is, as we speak, producing its effect also on this Finnish girl. It started rather automatically, triggering an overwhelming curiosity for what’s going on “behind the scenes” of the food industry. After only a few weeks of classes, I started seriously expanding my knowledge. The food I ate started talking to me and I was all ears. Then, naturally, the critical thinking took over. Questions, questions and more questions. So many questions that there wasn’t enough time to answer them all – there still isn’t. And then, something more substantial got activated. The more I learnt, the more some choices that had seemed harmlessly necessary suddenly turned into unethical and immoral behavior. Nothing about something as simple as food was simple any longer! And now, nothing is the way it was before. It might sound exaggerated but I truly realized that delicious food means so much more than the usual juxtaposed superlatives people use to define it.

Walking the 5,2 km to school every morning, I have the most delightful epiphanies (as I’m on the verge of a heart attack due to the semi-mad dogs barking and as I apply my new Italian skills screaming at the middle-aged man who almost hits me as he speeds passed me in his 1980’s Fiat Punto). I see farmers performing their daily routines; I see how the landscape changes with the seasons; I smell manure and start enjoying its pungent odor. Most of all, I feel connected to the land beneath my feet. Never have I felt as connected as I do now. Never have I felt so much gratitude to Mother Earth for letting me savor its exquisite deliciousness. Being able to walk on that coarse countryside road between the two Piedmontese towns of Bra and Pollenzo to fulfill my dreams of becoming a full-fledged gastronome is a gift and I’m a lucky girl. Yes, I’m aware of how this sounds, and no, I haven’t been touched by God. However, what is happening to me is in fact rather moving and phenomenal.

Most of the students at UNISG held food dear even before their enrollment. Some already have a solid background in gastronomy; some simply come from a family that cherishes good and honest home food. Then there are the few who mostly seem to be on an extended (rather expensive) food-related holiday in Italy. Each to his own.  The bottom line is that this opportunity really has the potential of a real opportunity. How and if one chooses to take or not, is another matter. As for me, I belong to the ones who cry of happiness when welcomed to the table at local hunter’s home to share a meal with his family. I also belong to the ones who from the beginning had no intention of letting anything pass me by. Everything needs to be absorbed. Nevertheless, to think that I might in the end actually be able to call myself by the g-word seems still hypothetical.

To me, gastronomy always sounded so awfully elitist and somehow unattainable. But since I’ve been a student at UNISG, I’ve realized that many people around the world calling themselves gastronomes are in fact as far from being one as Berlusconi was from being a credible PM. Jean-Anthelme Brilliat-Savarin aka the father of the discipline defines gastronomy as “the intelligence of knowledge of whatever concern man’s nourishment”. Now, if that translates into drinking Barolos and eating white truffles on weekly basis at Michelin star restaurants, and if the former ends up in nasty drunkenness and the latter in over indulgence, I’m afraid you might have misunderstood the early 19th century French epicure. I believe that being able to stick your fingers in soil, smell manure, meet farmers and recognize the scent of fresh grass in the high quality milk that they use to produce artisanal delights, is way closer to being a gastronome than staging any pretentious culinary extravagance. This is just my humble opinion.

It’s certainly possible that in nine months, when I’ll be done with the program, my friends and family might regard me as a picky food snob ruining perfectly decent restaurant experiences by asking the waitress for (too much) information about the life and origin of the cow neatly turned into an entrecôte on the menu. I might read this article again and think I was a deranged gourmand blinded by it all. I don’t think so though. Neither do I think I’ll ever go back to old habits. As much fun as blind tastings can be, I still prefer keeping my eyes open when it comes to the food I choose to eat and buy. I don’t think I’ll stop asking questions, however annoyed my companions might get. Reading labels carefully and thoroughly, asking even more questions when grocery shopping and trying to trace the origin of each food item has become a hobby, something fun, not something I feel pressured into doing. For this, I have the University to thank, at least to a certain extent.

Where I am now, sitting by my kitchen table in Bra, I might still be a bit raw and stringy.  But like a real robust Boeuf Bourguignon, I also need long simmering to get tender and juicy. My insatiable hunger for more will guide me and further deepen my knowledge. Who knows, maybe my Finnish inborn modesty will eventually allow me to call myself a gastronome. If it sounds like a fairytale, maybe I should just start believing in them again.

January 14, 2013

Tell me yours...

Special diets are nothing new. In fact, new diets seem to pop up like mushroom on a rainy day; some interesting, some scrumptious, some suspect and some probably lethal in worst cases. To me special diets have been a part of my life as far as I can remember. Gaining either in kilos or in knowledge has pushed me to try all kinds of things. Talking about diets, however, is a whole lot different today than it was in the past. I'd like to argue that before the word 'diet' was strictly linked to losing weight or keeping yourself fit. It was even a sensitive and a very private matter: being on a diet was nothingyou wanted to share with the rest of the world.

Safe to say, both of these aspects - the purpose of diets and taking about them - have changed. Nowadays, there might be little or even no correlation at all between diets and weight loss. Neither are they an embracing or an awkward topic of conversation, quite the contrary. Diets are "cool, hip and trendy". It's almost like having no diet at all is lame. Besides, following a specific diet can be both fun and challenging. In addition, diets speak for an individual's awareness, choice and identity in regards to food. Still, as it is with everything, this diet trend has its positive and negative sides.

On the one hand, people forced to follow a strict diet due to a medical condition; a food intolerance or obesity, can more openly talk about their rigorous food selection and thus get motivated and feel more comfortable with it. On the other hand, I feel like (medically conditioned) diets are not taken seriously any more. A person with a gluten intolerance dining out is suddenly considered as a pretentious narcissist making chefs' jobs annoying for no "real" reason: "She's just trying to lose weight or something" was, unfortunately, the response I got from my chef last weekend as I informed him about a customer's request to not have any croutons or breadcrumbs on her dish. I left my grouchy chef to solve this problem - his attitude - on his own. There was nothing I could say or do at that point to convince him otherwise. It's a shame since little did he know that lady in question was in fact celiac, and may I add, didn't really seem to care much about weightless or any other self- indulgence for that matter. Oh well.

...and I'll tell you mine

Like I said, being on a diet of some kind is as common for me as brushing my teeth before going to bed. Choosing to not eat a certain food item or not being able to eat one is like child's play - or so I thought. So seeing as I seem to enjoy testing all kinds of things on myself when it come to food, and because apparently eating isn't complicated enough abstaining from gluten and refined sugars, I thought I'd add a substantial challenge to my everyday eating habits. Why would I do that to myself? Why not! 'Why wouldn't I?', is a more suitable question I'd say. My reasons? For no extraordinary reason other than curiosity and over-eating during the holidays.

I decided to call it my "no SCAM month" (no Sugar of any kind, no Cheese, no Alcohol and no Meat). And no, there's not even a tiny part of me seeking to become vegetarian, vegan or sober for that matter. I simply chose to refrain from SCAM because of my genuine love for them all. If you don't see the point, it's fine, I won't hold it against you in any way. Neither will I encourage you to try it if it seems ludicrous to you. For me, it's like a game, a challenge to measure my self-control.

I had been through a month without alcohol before. It was tough, I won't argue the contrary. Okay, I'll be totally honest with you, I didn't last a whole month. But I did 26 solid somber days. It's still
something. Do I have issues with alcohol? No, I don't think so. I simply wanted to try the (in)famous tipaton tammikuu ("dropless January") many Finn do during the month of January (because they've most probably had a tad too much fun during Christmas holidays...). With the wary memories of that experience, I dreaded the 'A' in SCAM the most. Giving up meat, cheese and sugar didn't sound too bad.

A week into no SCAM, a friend of mine who was curious to know all about my irrational new diet came over. She was hungry. Luckily, I had some leftovers that would be fast headed up to tame her hunger as she would listen to my monologue. A quick stir-fry later we sat in my kitchen with a big steaming plate of food in between us. I gave her a fork and watched her eat with great appetite while I went on and on about my holidays. Somewhere between me describing the delicious tortellini I ate on Christmas lunch and the finger food I had cooked for New Year's Eve, I instinctively grabbed a fork to try whether my food was any good. One bite, two bites, mmm good, talking and talking... "Edith, what are you doing, stop!" I almost choked on a piece of reindeer meat. Damn it! Meat! I had accidentally eaten meat out of reflexes. My first reaction was to spit it out, but that seemed exaggerated. After all, it was reindeer meat brought from Finland by my dear Mother. And to think
that a minute earlier I had told her about my new month long diet. It was going be a lot harder than I thought.

After my reindeer accident I realized it. It's not about abstaining from whatever food item per se, it's about all the collateral social difficulties that come with. As long as you eat alone or prepare your own lunch box, pretty much any diet can be respected without a problem. But try attending a dinner party with all your individual restrictions and you'll probably end up not getting many invites in the future. Just saying... Now in my case, I'm lucky being a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences and being surrounded by people that are nuts about anything food related. My weird food behavior this month has been rather well received. Still, two weeks in my diet I've found it hard to lead a totally normal and ordinary life. My opinion about the importance of food from a sociological point of view is even further reinforced. Food is everything it really is.

Today my classmates and I embark on our very first "stage"/study field trip to the region of Veneto. The focal point of the trip is to taste the gorgeous products that the producers we'll visit make for living. Not only do we get the privilege to gain an insight on the quality, labor and efforts needed to provide the product, but we are also being welcomed to the everyday lives of these people. I seriously have a hard time picturing myself saying no to the adorable elderly man who offers me a piece of cheese made with his bare hands.  And if I would decline, I'd without a doubt seem arrogant, disrespectful and ungrateful. But what if I'd be milk intolerant? It would probably be an awkward situation too, but I'd have a solid reason from my abstinence. And we're back to my core argument. Maybe I spoke too soon. Maybe "voluntary diets" are still a hot potato. Maybe one still needs a medical condition to back up unusual food selection?

January 2, 2013

Christmas Italian Style

It’s 12 am. She’s running the show like she has done it forever, like she’s on autopilot, like she could do it in her sleep, so it seems. She’s giving orders, she’s checking, double-checking and triple checking each little detail. Everything has to be perfect. And so it is. In fact, no one makes a move without her consent. She’s the Mother, an Italian Mother – a concept unto itself. And it’s Christmas Day, December 25th.

Amazing Italian women in three generations.

 I find myself in the midst of Christmas hullabaloo at my Italian family’s mountain house in Valdipetrina, close to Città di Castello, in the region of Umbria. It’s my very first South-European Christmas.  Back home in Finland, this same scene took place the day before so I’m feeling slightly disoriented. Here, there’s no snow, no Christmas tree, but the entrancing smell of the oven roasted capon fills the house with its exquisite odors and leaves me no doubt that it’s Christmas. Different country, different day, but the heart of the celebration is universal.

* * *

Paola, the Mother, had started preparations early that morning. Even though I could’ve slept for what seemed like an eternity upstairs in the huge warm bed, a higher force made me wake up and carried me straight to the kitchen, for Paola had promised me the night before that she’d teach me how to make salsa verde according to an old traditional family recipe. Not even the sweetest sleep could ever top that.

Knowing my Italian mamma, I had a feeling that I’d walk into a kitchen where everything would be pre-prepared and fully under control. I was right. “Buongiorno Edith! Did you sleep well?”, I got the most loving embrace and kiss of the cheek. The tiny woman cooking in her pajamas, wearing a flower printed apron was the most adorable sight ever! I felt privileged to have been included, to be part of their Christmas tradition, to be there doing what has been done each year, each Christmas Day for as long as the family has existed.

After a quick shot of coffee it was time to get busy, “Edith take out your notebook and pen, you shouldn’t miss one single detail”. Yes Chef! Each step along to way to the final product was precise and handled with utter care: the fresh homegrown parsley, the core ingredient, had been washed and dried and gently swaddled in a white linen towel; the eggs were boiled and peeled and placed in an old porcelain bowl where three eggs fit like a glove; the anchovies lay in oil in a plastic container; the jar of capers was already opened and had a little silver spoon leaning against it.

Paola started picking the parsley leaves and asked me to remove the little hard yoke from the inside of the egg white, “you want to use only the leaves to get the bright green color, and the eggs, we’ll use it all, but in different phases, you’ll see”. I could only acclaim the accuracy of her technics. This recipe has been done exactly like this for decades, it was palpable. Her hands worked with admirable confidence, but on the same time, she was careful to make no false moves, as if her mother-in-law, the woman who had taught her, would be watching her every measure like a hawk. Also, now it was her time to teach. She made sure that the little Finnish girl far away from home would learn it all perfectly and punctiliously.

When all leaves were freed from stems, she took out a curious little devise, a type of manual grinder indispensable for the preparation of salsa verde. Little by little, she pushed down the greens leaves into the grinder, rolling four times clock wards and one time backwards, four times clock wards, one time backwards, repeating the movement over and over. Slowly, like falling snowflakes painting the landscape white, the vivid green grinded parsley covered the bottom of the glass bowl. Halfway through, she added olive oil “this will keep the parley from oxidizing” I smiled and nodded and made a little footnote to the recipe in my notebook. First she added the anchovies, then the capers and finally the egg white one by one, and then again she continued grinding the parsley. As a final step, she mashed the yokes by fork, not the grinder like she had done with all other ingredients. She mixed the yokes to the salsa and continued amalgamating the yoke by fork “I don’t want to see any yellow color, I want it smooth like silk”, so decisive, so determined. And I knew the secrets and all the little tricks and the detailed instructions.

Just as I thought that I had received the most precious Christmas present of all and I sat down by the dining table to fully digest the experience, a priceless scene took place right before me. So far, the kitchen had been the mother’s territory. The other family members, the father and the daughter, were busy wrapping presents and lively arguing to which of the two cars the gifts would be put in. They were suddenly very curious about what was going on in the kitchen. Honestly, I don’t think anyone could’ve resisted that heavenly smell. The capon was done and Paola had taken it out of the oven to rest before cutting. It tempted each living creature. Its power on the hungry souls in the house was undeniable. It was mother’s turn to take off the apron. It was the father’s job to cut it. As soon as she was gone, Massimo and Cecilia were like two little mice around the porridge.

“Vai via! Vai via, cazzo!” the father tried his best to keep his hungry daughter away from the crispy skin. But she couldn’t resist and neither did he have the heart to stop her. The two certainly took care that not a single little piece would go to waste. “Don’t eat the bird!” I heard Paola shouting from the shower upstairs. Safe to say, she knew her loved ones well. Massimo and Cecilia are too busy drooling over the delicacy that they didn’t hear a thing. Besides, I was the amused spectator of a lovely sit-com; I didn’t want them to stop. “This thing, I love it deeply. It’s dense, almost sticky, it’s my favorite, what can I say” Cecilia’s fingers and mouth were all caked with the caramelized capon drippings. “This is the best, best part of all, enjoy!” she fed me with a juicy piece of skin drizzled in jus. I felt perfectly at home to say the least. I knew that despite the “wrong” day of celebration, I’d be eating extremely well this Christmas, but after that teaser I was absolutely thrilled about the culinary experience I had in front of me. A very merry and delicious Christmas indeed!

* * *

It’s 13 pm. Only a few hours to go.

In Umbria, cappelletti a.k.a tortellini are an integral part of the Christmas Day lunch. I got my own gluten-free ones just for me!