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.

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.