Basket Weavers- Artisan of the Month

Basket weavers,  the  artisan of the month, came to my mind when in need of a particular basket to carry 2 liter size  bottles.   When I began to fix our abandoned 500 year old house in Tuscany years ago  I questioned  my neighbor  where was the  best place to buy baskets.   I was surprised when Lina  suggested  that I go next door to her uncle who makes the baskets. You can order what you want in size, shape, color, strength and he could fulfill your request in a day or two.  It was hard to believe but she proved to be right and I became a regular friend and customer of Pietro.  I was fascinated with his ability to take my  order, then go out of his house and pick some branches from his willow tree or if needing a large basket,  some wild branches of  cane that grow profusely in our area. After a good soaking they would be ready to use.

Pietro weaving his baskets

When he passed away I asked Santina, his daughter,  who would now make the baskets?  I was afraid of the answer which I  often hear about the artisans of yesterday. “ Nobody does it anymore”. Sure you might find someone in a village that  continues this craft but not as seen in the past . Their tools were usually  a sturdy garden clipper, a bucket  of water and all kinds of pliable materials that were either  found in the woods are cut from the fields:  plant roots, trunk bark,  willow branches, honeysuckle reed, and to me many other  unknown  products of nature.

Elizabeth picking up orders for Villa Lucia

Pietro  would make house visits to fulfill orders.  He was particularly busy during the grape and olive harvest when orders for holding grape and olive baskets were hard to fulfill. I remember in the late 80’s during the grape  harvest all our baskets were made of natural products by Pietro. Today they are all colorful plastic containers  industrially made to mass product. I feel  fortunate to have a number of the beautiful artisan made baskets by Pietro.

Grape basket Pietro made for me

We had over a dozen of these harvest baskets, over 3 feet in height.

These are but a few of the baskets he made for me to meet my needs from a big weeping willow tree in  in his yard.   The dark color is the natural color and the white comes from young branches he had peeled to their white base. I loved watching him first make the base, creating a framework to meet my request and then  filling in the spaces with the chosen material using his creative skills.

laundry basket 3 feet high (3)

Drying fig baskets, 3 inches high,

laundry basket 3 feet high (1)

Laundry basket 3 feet high

not easy to find a basket for 2 liter bottles, only plastic for one liter bottles (2) 3 inch high basket to dry figs to fit all our fireplaces  (2)to fit all our fireplaces  (1)

Basket weaving may be one of the oldest  and widest spread crafts in the world. Its  origin is difficult to determine since  necessity made one creative with whatever product was available to make whatever was needed. A soft rush may make an angling basket for fishermen in Scotland, in Italy a basket for carrying grapes  and  in Japan the soft rush could be woven into a tatami, the traditional floor cover .

The craftsmen today may purchase  ready to use products such as natural reed, split wood ( flat, round, or even) which after  a soak in water  would be ready to use.  As for the exact shape and style, guess my option is to shop for it or settle for one of the industrial plastic mass produced baskets.

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Coffee bean roasting – Artisan of the month

In the early nineties, when I met the Slittis (see blog on chocolate making) I like most of the locals knew and appreciated the wonderful skills of Andrea’s father, Luciano Slitti, as a prominent coffee bean roaster and maker of custom coffee blends. Few knew that behind the scenes in the eighties, Luciano’s oldest son Andrea began specializing in  making chocolates. At the same time his youngest son, Daniele began to take over in specializing and in perfecting his father’s skills in roasting coffee beans and making coffee. Our cooking classes at the time had the advantage of seeing the production of both operations in action at the Slitti Café.

 

Danielle showing the two different beans and percentage used in their blends

Daniele showing the two different beans and percentage used in their blends

 

Daniele, in our coffee bean toasting class, explained the two most popular kinds of beans, Arabica and the Robusta. The Slitti family favors the Arabica, which grows in high altitudes is less resistant to disease and has more complex flavors. A good coffee bean roaster must take into consideration: where the bean comes from, its soil, environment where it was  harvested, the processing  method, geographical climate, altitude and characteristics of the plant. Poor growing conditions, cultivation or harvest of the product can strip beans of their quality. Most people are very familiar with similar important factors and conditions necessary when making quality olive oil. To be considered is  every aspect, the type of olive, its environment, climate, altitude, growing characteristics, how and when it was harvested and treated.

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The first thing a coffee roaster takes into consideration is the quality of the bean. There are many varieties of raw coffee beans to select from. It is the skill of the trusted roaster that ultimately determines the aroma, taste, body and roast of the finished product.  The bean before roasting has little inherent flavor. It begins its journey to coffee making with the simple heat stage when the bean absorbs heat, gives off excess water in the form of steam, and its dull green color begins to gain a yellowish tone. The coffee bean has great similarity to the olive, a bitter fruit before pressing, which releases its bitterness once it comes into contact with water and begins its journey towards becoming a great product.

The skill of the coffee grinder, like the skill of the olive presser, is important.  They determine how to grind or press their product to its best advantage. Coffee, for many in America, is an afterthought, a generic commodity rather than a gastronomic event just as olive oil for many is nothing other than oil to cook with or dress a salad. For Italians, coffee is their national beverage and olive oil is their national fruit.

Every Italian seems to have their favorite bar in the neighborhood that makes what they consider to be the best coffee, requiring a lush consistent reddish brown cream, with the flavor and aroma balanced to be able to note the freshly roasted coffee been. For them, that one shot of espresso is not so much a stimulant but represents an experience.

I did not understand for a long time but since living in Italy I have learned to appreciate and understand the Italian’s national beverage. I never understood the countless variables involved in mastering and brewing a perfect coffee or cappuccino. Countless times when out with my Italian friends, I failed to understand how they could leave a cup of cappuccino after the first sip and politely leave the premise so that the coffee maker would get the unspoken message.

Most italians can  tell just by looking at the coffee in the cup and the brownish cream topping that it should have, how well it was made. If it lacked the expected aroma they may leave  espresso untouched and suggest we go elsewhere. For fifteen years, I have seen our employee  leave our house every day to go for his cappuccino or morning coffee at a particular bar passing at least twenty other locations along the way. (blog on the Re of Cappuccino). This is typical of most Italians who appreciate and understand the making of a good espresso and cappuccino.

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Prosciutto making – Artisans of the month.

Our cooking class attendees had the occasion to visit both Parma and Modena in the gastronomically renown area of Italy,  Emilia Romagna.  It gave them the opportunity to view the production of the popular dry-cured ham known around the world as prosciutto as  it was done centuries ago.

At 9 to 10 months of age, pigs are killed at the slaughter house and cut up, weighing approximately 150 kg each. The hind legs weighing  on an average 10 to 14 kg  are then  dispatched to the factory for the making and storing in  climate control warehouses. Both Modena and Parma factories use the same method and the exact three  ingredients; salt, air and time to make their  prized product.

 

Parma cuts to verify they fed the pigs

This cut on the skin informs the consumer that these parma hams were producted from pigs that were raised and fed by the production factory

One difference is that Modena, with a  smaller number of production sights,  services prosciutto mostly to Italy and the European Community made from their own  local pigs.  Parma that has 10  times more the number of production warehouses has become  known  throughout the world for its dry- cured hams. To supply the demand Parma has to buy pigs from other sources. The animals  must meet certain required regulations to be accepted before production.

The first step is the salting of the leg. In Modena last month we noted the process of salting which involved rubbing a specific amount of sea-salt onto the leg, then after a week having it brushed off, then re-salted, and brushed off again.  The salting process of approximately three weeks was called the winter stage due to the coldest refrigeration period of production.

The salt is  used to preserve the leg against infestation, to give the prosciutto its silky texture, to keep it moist and to maintain the proper balance of sour and sweet. The legs were stored for about two months  of winter before being moved upstairs to the spring season in temperature controlled rooms  to meet the needs of the drying process and aging to start. After the process of salt absorption and weight falling, the leg will weigh approximately on an average about 7 kg.

The second ingredient, air, such as the excellent ecological  and climate condition of this region with cool temperatures and low  humidity, according to  the producers in Emilia Romagna, creates the ideal environment for aging of the ham. The only difference in method from centuries ago is when drying occurred in the open air, not having today’s computerized climate controlled rooms. The one advantage of the past is that when aging  outdoors one would not note as much as we did in our class,  the stench caused by the loss of humidity on the 20.000 legs left to rest in  one room for a few months.

Maile and Brian in the drying room last month

Maile and Brian in the drying room last month in Modena

Modena centuries ago, drying in the open air

Modena centuries ago, drying in the open air

The third ingredient, time, allows the proper amount of salt to be absorbed and its weight to fall both naturally and gradually to make a quality product. During the aging process the legs are lightly greased by hand with animal fat to close all openings, keep the prosciutto moist and prevent any small insects from penetrating the ham. In Modena a small one centimeter line between the outer skin and the fat was left to help in the aging process.

The aging of the legs takes place in controlled conditions at which time they are also  tested for quality and categorized according to its salt, humidity and protein content before allowed to receive the seal of quality. Both locations are controlled by their consortium, branded if qualified, along with the history of each leg noted for the consumer to consider prior to purchasing. No additives or chemicals are  added to the raw product, aged for a minimum of 10 months.

Parma cut shows that they produced but did not feed the pig

Parma cut shows that they produced but did not feed the pig

In a food culture nation such as Italy, the history of the animal  is important to the consumer. First of all each animal is branded with a tattoo when young on his hind legs. That will be the identification of that animal throughout the process of being made into a prosciutto.  Secondly,  labeling on each leg  verifies all steps in the process of production and demonstrates the history of the animal. In Parma, being that not all the animals were raised locally due to the demand of their prized prosciutto, the  factory that we visited also had a third requirement. They specified prosciuttos they produced coming from pigs they did not feed.

Each pig's hind leg is tatooed with a specific code that specifies the history of the animal from birth to the table

Each pig’s hind leg is tatooed with a specific code that specifies the history of the animal from birth to the table

Observed in our Parma class was  how the factory  differentiated  prosciuttos from animals  that did not have the advantage of having been fed the by- products of the parmigiano reggiano, that is made in the region. The whey and possibly some curd that is left from the cheese production is added to the feed of the pigs in this area.  Parma and Modena factories claim this rich diet of the cheese -makers by- products is a factor responsible for the high quality of their products which is not available to animals fed outside of the area.

I'm taking this one home

I’m taking this one home

Thanks, Uncle Jorge

Thanks, Uncle Jorge

The advantage of all this history is if there should ever be a question of quality, a producer could immediately identify the source of the problem and the animal that produced the product. Hopefully this century old tradition of prosciutto making will continue for future generations to enjoy a product that is high in nutrition, low in calories, easy to digest, and rated number one in the world.

Artisans of the month, the makers of “Parmigiano Reggiano”

The artisans of this month are the makers of Parmigiano Reggiano, which  I consider the king of all cheeses. Our class attendees visiting Emilia Romagna’s world famous caseificios this week, where the production of these 80 pound wheels takes place, were amazed at the labor involved, time, dedication and passion that the artisans have for this cheese  made as it was done almost 1000 years ago.  The monks of centuries ago needing a long standing cheese, came up with the method which remains today. The one difference is the quantity made today and the need for  larger equipment but the cheese continues to be made by hand as done in the past.

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The artisan maker begins his day at 4 am with the first arrival of the morning milk which is added to the milk of the night before that has been allowed to settle so that  the cream will separate.  The cream is then  removed to be used for other items such as the making of  butter.  After combining  the skin milk of the night before and the fresh  whole milk of the morning, the tedious process begins.  The cows, that are fed only grass and alfalfa and  kept in stalls, produce a  rich milk which results in the making of a great cheese. Being that the cows are milked daily, the production takes place 365 days of the year.

 

the two milks, morning and evenings

The two milks, morning and evenings

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Curds draining. Each batch makes 2 wheels.

 

The milk is combined into large copper cauldrons which allow the steam to circulate and control the  temperature. In the cauldrons is some whey from the previous made cheese which the  lactic acid  helps in the ripening of the process.  The only thing added to the milk is  rennet, taken from the stomach of a suckling cow that helps the cheese to curdle. The cheese maker then proceeds to work to separate the curd from the whey . It takes about  250 gallons of milk to make  about 80 pounds of curd.  The curd is raised manually and put into two canvas slings ( as seen in photo) were they are left to hang and the whey allowed to drip back into the cauldron.  Then the cheese master will  begin the process of putting the curd into its first form, a plastic circular mold with a weight used to force the liquid out.

 

 

placing the plastic ring

Placing the plastic ring

A  period resting  in a brine of  seasalt  ( as seen in the picture) helps to form the rind of the cheese which is edible considering there is no additive or preservation other than salt to maintain this cheese. Slipped into a metal  mold that punches out an imprint identifying the cheese by the month and day of  production, gives each cheese also its own number of identity.  Any problem related to the cheese can resort back to the day of production and the milk that produced it.  This is what is meant when in Italy it is said one wishes to know where, how, and the when  a food item was produced and by whom.

salt baths

Salt baths

Aging takes place in giant climate control warehouses which may store up to 10.000 or more wheels. This is the city’s blood life. It is mortgaged as in banking and when sold, mortgages are paid up. The cheese is produced, stored, control and tested regularly for meeting certain requirements before allowed to have the seal of quality. Aging takes a minimum of 18 to 2 years but aged for longer times depending on the use of the cheese. ( see photo of one dated 2000). This cheese that has less calories due to the skin milk used is popular in Italy as an eating cheese and used in cooking whereas around the world has become known basically as a cheese to grate. The Italian housewife buys the age of the cheese depending on its use. Although a lover of all artisan cheeses,  I do believe parmigiano reggiano has few rivals.

placing the metal ring

Placing the metal ring

Meaning organic cheeses

Meaning organic cheeses

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A cheese dated December 10th of the year 2000

 

Age identfied for the customer

Age identfied for the customer

 

 

age of cheese determines its use.

Age of cheese determines its use.


 

  • WATCH FOR NEXT WEEKS FUN AT THE B&B OF TUSCANY!!!
  • NEXT MONTH’S ARTISAN – PROSCIUTTO MAKERS
  • NEXT MONTH’S BOOK CHAPTER – 1960 – MY AMERICAN – AMERCAN TABLE

Umberto, Re (king) del Cappuccino

 

Umberto, named and honored as the King of Cappuccino started his training at age 14 and at age 84 continues to make his special coffees at his bar as he has done for the last 70 years, He is another one of my favorite artisans. Greeting the crowds that come daily for that special espresso or cappuccino will never allow him to retire. He exudes the passion he has for his work along with making people happy. Putting designs of hearts with powered cocoa for special ladies and for men, a certain male body part brings laughter every time. Only in Italy. He walks the room, adding extra warm or cold milk to those that might need an extra shot without asking, serving with a big smile. This week my friends and I were were about to leave when Umberto asked us to be seated again for he had prepared for us a special frappe, complements of the house, which was divine.

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When opening our Bistro in 1976, we were one of the first in Orange County, California, to have an espresso and cappuccino machine before they came into vogue. Although restaurants and coffee establishments may have added the machine still many fail to understand the importance of making an excellent cup of espresso. Establishments often may put their last hired and or least trained staff to make the coffee failing to take into consideration the basic principle that one must invest in and the practice needed to make that descent cup.

In Italy it is never considered just an afterthought and simple chore. For an Italian the most important person in an Italian food location often may be the coffee maker, a fanatic in taking his work seriously who may have spent hours passionately practicing to make the perfect coffee. The coffee maker’s role in most Italian establishments, at least until recently, often determines the success of a location.

In our restaurant we had an imported Italian coffee machine, an Italian trained waiter to make the coffee, Italian coffee imported from Italy, and still was told by my family members and Italian waiters that it was not as good as in Italy. For most Americans it was great. This led me to study what it could be that made it different than coffee in Italy. Could it be psychological? Could it be our setting in a shopping center looking out at a parking lot compared to a view of an ancient medieval hamlet, the magnificent piazza of San Marcos in Venice, or a sunset looking out at Mt Vesuvius? Our waiters were professionals having learned their skills in Italy. Our imported coffee and coffee machine were the finest made in Italy.

2014-05-05 03.39.57 (3)King of cappuccino

Months passed without a solution until a new Italian waiter joined us and ascertained the cause of our dilemma. It had to be the water the only factor we did not consider. Water is very important element in making a flavorful and balanced cup of espresso. It was the only variable that differed from Italy. Coincidentally, it was shortly after that when a notice was sent out to the residence of Newport Beach, California, to inform them that if anyone were to detect an unfamiliar taste in the water they should be reassured it was not dangerous to consume but suggested it should not be fed to domestic animals and especially detrimental if put into fish tanks. This may help answer that question always asked why does it taste better in Italy? Could it be the demands made by those having experienced quality in a food culture nation?

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Watching Umberto, Re of Cappuccino make a cappuccino will help one understand why this is considered a complete Italian’ breakfast to hold one over until their main meal for lunch. Italians frown on those that can end a great meal with a cup of steamed milk topping espresso. That is a definite “ no, no” against their dietary code.

 

Making the Tradizionale Balsamico di Modena

My love for the Italian artisans led me to my monthly blog being that many of them will soon be artisans of yesterday. When visiting them I am always sad to hear that youth may learn technique, but lack the passion of yesterday’s artisans. Alessandro Taccini, like his brothers, began making ceramics at age 12. The family bodega of 500 years may soon come to an end. Their children have learned the technique but they lack the passion to dedicate their life to this art.

Nino, one of the last copper artisans in Tuscany, learned his skills at age 12. Love and passion for his work, he claims, is why he continues to work at age 86. He speaks of his children who know technique but without passion he regrets will not continue this art when he is gone.

My mother at age 100 still can make pasta by hand as she did since the age of 8. She has taught me but I will never have the dexterity, speed, nor the love and passion to make it on a daily basis as she has done thought the decades. This too will become a lost art when mom and her peers are gone.

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I am happy to write this month about artisans whose passion for their work will continue as it has for 1000 years in Modena, in the Emilia Romagna gastronomical regional of Italy. Most families in Modena continue as did their ancestors the art of making the Traditionale Balsamico di Modena. TBM. On one of our last class visits we were introduced to a newborn, and told he would be the 7th generation making this medicinal product in their Modena family.

Pedroni

This product should not be confused with the industrial made balsamic vinegar sold commercially. The similarity of these two products is only one. They are both made from grapes. The vinegar is made by fermenting grapes (wine made sour) and adding such additives as sugar, caramel, molasses or other unknown products to give it flavor and masquerade its color. It is not aged in wood barrels, and has become at times a substitute for soy sauce.

The authentic TBM condiment is made by cooking white trebbiano grapes in stainless steel or copper Calderon, with low heat, never boiled or burnt. The product becomes caramelized as it reduces to about 50%, rests for about 24 hours, and soon after starts its journey to becoming the reserved TBM, taking 12 or 25 years. The process involves placing the caramelized (saba) sweet and cool product into a batteria, a set of 5-7 working wooden barrels of different woods, of different sizes. Choice of woods depends on the maker, but popular woods are oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, mulberry, and ash.

The biggest cask, usually oak, a hard wood, receives the new cooked must and begins the gradual acidification. The smallest cask is half emptied allowing the required annual refilling of cask from the biggest to the smallest barrel of different woods, giving off different flavors. To allow a little room for oxidation there is a small hole on the top of each barrel, the “bug”, which allows the saba to breathe and the maker to control the acidity.

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This process takes place in well ventilated lofts or attics in private homes in Modena (called Acetaia) that provide the required contrasting climates to make the finished product. Heat speeds up the evolution and the cold slows it down and stabilizes it. A small percentage does evaporate while aging. Gentle heat allows the yeast and microorganisms to survive. The gradual acidification in the barrels changes the product from amber in color to ebony. The time required changes the sweet must into a condensed exotic combination of sweet and sour flavors.

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After all these years, minimum of 12 to 25, to become classified as the Traditionale Balsamico di Modena, the finished product still must be tested and analyzed by a panel of expert judges before being allowed to be eligible to be put in the traditional, bulb-shaped like 3.5 ox bottle, recognized around the world as the reserved Traditionale Balsamico di Modena condiment. The 12 years product is recognized by its silver-white top and the 25 years by its gold colored top.Some acetaias may make a product in a minimum of 5 years, but they are recognized as a balsamic vinegar of Modena, therefore, to distinguish vinegars from the true balsamico one must look for the word traditionale balsamico di Modena with the DOC seal (denominazione, originale controllato) on the label. No two are alike due to differences in the production, use of woods and the skills of the maker. It is the only condiment in the world that is produced solely with the cooked grape musts with no additional additives.

Balsamic tasting class at Villa Lucia.

Balsamic tasting class at Villa Lucia.

Judges in Modena tasting and certifying the Balsamico.

Judges in Modena tasting and certifying the Balsamico.

It is only in Modena and Reggio Emilia where this product has been made through the centuries. It was first noted in 1046 as a product to alleviate childbirth pain followed by many other claims of medicinal cures. During the French Revolution it was auctioned off as a luxury item. In the 1800’s it was prized as a dowry for girls which is still practiced by many families in Modena today. It was Fini Federzoni of Modena that in 1912 made the first commercial product but still not that popular of an item. It was not until nouvelle cuisine in the 1980’s as chefs sought new flavors for the popular healthier cuisine that it became popular in the Western world. Today it can be used as a cordial, digestive drink and most popularly used by chefs of haute cuisine to use droplets of this expensive yet enriching flavor and taste to gourmet dishes.

Making Mozzarella

Making Mozzarella

Making ricotta in our cooking classes takes but a few minutes of labor. As for mozzarella, although not difficult to make, is much more time consuming. Because I can buy freshly made with raw local milk mozzarella directly from the producer minutes from the farm, it is more practical to do so, especially needing large quantities. I regret due to recent restrictions from the European Community concerning visitors at the production plant, it is no longer as convenient as in the past, but I have managed to work my way in with our class attendees on many occasions.

Only by experiencing the freshly made with raw milk mozzarella can one understand why most Italians do not consider commercially available mozzarella in the American supermarkets to be called mozzarella. The product has no similarities to the freshly made, soft, velvety, sweet, savory, chewable but not rubbery, made without preservatives, preferably to be consumed in 24 hours, true mozzarella.

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Watching the production in our neighborhood has been a highlight of our cooking weeks, when able to do so. All are amazed seeing the skillful cheese maker turn the morning milking of raw milk into small delicate balls of mozzarella. Knowing the proper temperature for heating the milk, the timing as to when to add the rennet that separates the curd from the whey, the amount of time necessary for the curdling, when to separate curd from the whey, all depends on the skills of the artisan cheese maker. With hands burning from the hot water needed before stretching the mass of gum like curd, he then shapes the cheese in the desired shapes. Our class experienced making individual golf ball size pieces, to tennis ball sizes as well as experiencing braiding the mozzarella as seen in the picture.

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After experiencing what we call real mozzarella, class attendees always comment as do the Italians when saying there just is no comparison to that rubbery dry industrial made mozzarella with many unknown additives for shelf life.

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A double treat is when the artisan cheese maker gave all our attendees a small spoon to get to taste the warm whey (that was separated from the curd) shortly after being converted into fresh ricotta. Again a new experience to those that have never tasted real ricotta. I do believe as do most Italians that the commercially industrial produced in the market products should be labeled as “an imitation”.

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