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.

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.


  1. Edith,
    I really enjoyed this piece. I was in the FCC class (Mar '11-'12). I was an "older" student but your words resonated so well with my experience. I am a "foodie" (a word that took on some negative connotation as my classes progressed) and had already begun thinking of where my food comes from and of the consequences of my eating habits on the food system before attending UNISG. The UNISG experience intensified that for me and I don't think I will ever be the same. I also struggled with the notion that some of my classmates were not there (apparently) for the education but for the food holiday but came to accept that each person experiences life differently and each must contribute to society in their own way.

    Thanks for your words (and thanks to Peter for leading me to them). This was a very nice piece.

    - Doug

    1. Hello Doug!

      Thank you so much for your feedback and thank you for sharing some of your experiences. May I ask, what have you been doing since UNISG? Were you already before/are you now working somehow with food?


  2. Edith,

    When I say I was an "older" student I meant really older. :-) I am a retired physician who after retirement decided to pursue my high interest in food and the food system as my second "career." I am not currently employed in food related work but rather am taking my time to find something that fits my interest most closely. I know that is a luxury that most of my fellow students didn't have. They needed jobs. I am staying involved with food and local food systems while I explore my options by serving on the Board of Slow Food Minnesota (Twin Cities) and on the Board of Just Food, our local grocery store co-op. Both of these positions expose me to local producers and enable me to work toward promoting local, sustainable food that is good, clean and fair.

    What are your plans after graduation?


    - Doug


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