A food and wine travelog by Carla Capalbo

Assaggi is Italian for ‘tastings of food and wine’ and the word sums up what I spend so much time on the road doing: visiting artisan food and wine makers, chefs and restaurants, food shops and markets, tasting and talking to them about their ideas, skills and products. Over the past 16 years I’ve spent far more time travelling than at home, sometimes letting 10 or more months go by without ever getting back to my own bed. As you’ll know if you’ve read my Italian food and wine guides or articles, I’m not interested in giving scores or reducing a great wine or dish, man or woman to a number or rank. This site is the perfect place to share my assaggi and travels with you, wherever they may take us.

Stop shaping us!

22 May 2014

Emilio Macìas’ Peruvian ceviche, of oysters, scallops and Nopal cactus, cooked in Faenza
Emilio Macìas’ Peruvian ceviche, of oysters, scallops and cactus, cooked in Faenza

Squid with white polenta at La Capanna di Eraclio, near Ravenna
Squid with white polenta at La Capanna di Eraclio, near Ravenna

This morning, reading the Guardian online as I usually do first thing, I happened on an article by Hannah Ellis-Petersen about the sickening reviews that have recently been written about the young Irish opera singer, Tara Erraught – who is currently starring admirably in the trouser role in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne. It seems that opera reviewers at several of the top British papers have been more obsessed with criticising the talented singer’s shape rather than praising her excellent mezzo soprano voice. It’s outrageous that this kind of sexism should continue to heap pressure on women everywhere, young and old, to conform to what this society considers the ‘right size’, especially when men are so rarely subjected to it.

I join the protestations of many of the world’s top sopranos upon reading these reviews: Let us be appreciated – and criticized if need be – for what we are able to do and say rather than how we look!

The shaping theme cropped up in the next article I read too, albeit in a more superficial and absurd way. It appears that William Sitwell, one of the ‘expert judges’ on BBC1’s British MasterChef, can’t stand square plates. I kid you not. “Sitwell…has called the modern tableware ‘an abomination’… and threatened to throw a square plate back at a contestant who used one in a recent show.”

New-wave pizza at Alce Nero Berberè, Bologna
New-wave pizza at Alce Nero Berberè, Bologna

Tiny raw scallops, La Capanna di Eraclio
Tiny raw scallops, La Capanna di Eraclio

The article then quotes Sitwell: “Food should be served on round plates and not a right angle in sight…A square plate is at odds with nature…Mother Nature produces ingredients that are many shapes – including round, but never square…The square plate is too frequently part of an armoury of a cook who is hoping to divert attention from their own inadequacy, in the mistaken belief that the squareness or indeed rectangular shape will lend the cook some kind of fashionable vibe. Except it is very much out of fashion, as pointless as the sprinkling of micro-herbs or grit…If you have square plates, now is the time to be bold and cast them out.”

Peruvian tiramisù of chillies, Mescal and chocolate, sprinkled with ground agave worms, by Emilio Macìas
Peruvian tiramisù of chillies, Mescal and chocolate, sprinkled with ground agave worms, by Emilio Macìas

The chocolate ball cracked open
The chocolate ball cracked open

Why should painting have been allowed since its inception to be framed by straight lines, but food not? The tension between a straight line and an organic form can be used to effect, and often is, by chefs the world over. Round plates are no guarantee of good graphics. TV programmes such as these are hardly citadels of fine aesthetics: the amateur chefs are pushed to the limits with the time restraints they’re dealing with. This type of visual sexism is yet another version of the kind of narrow-minded cultural prejudice I abhor. Creativity – like nature – comes in all forms: Viva la diversità!

Yoshihiro Narisawa’s oyster beignets, Tokyo
Yoshihiro Narisawa’s oyster beignets, Tokyo

North-South divide

27 March 2014

Meats are grilled in the fireplace at Osteria del Mirasole

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Emilia Romagna in recent months, on the lookout for both food and wine. If the foods are some of Italy’s best known – from Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Parma ham to aged balsamic vinegars sold in perfume-size bottles – the wines have revealed more surprises. Paltrinieri’s fizzy Lambruscos are scrumptious and  anything but simple. (Yes, Nick Belfrage, there is life beyond that plonk). I’ve been seduced by white Pignolettos near Bologna and red Sangioveses in the Apennine slopes from there to the coast. (For more on these wines see my recent Decanter article).

The house lasagne at Osteria del Mirasole, San Giovanni in Persiceto

A typical trattoria in Romagna

The only problem I have with this region is the food. It’s utterly delicious but so much richer than the vegetable-driven cucina I usually live on that after about five days I have to move on. I start craving the bitter wild greens and fruity olive oils of the south. I just can’t eat a butter-and-meat-heavy cuisine any more. Who wouldn’t be tempted by mountains of lasagne, or bowls of egg-yellow noodles topped with cheese? They go so well with wine, and vice versa. But a little goes a long way. So I pack my gastro-treasures into the car and head down to Campania, or to Sicily, where the food/wine-to-life ratios suit me best.

The Campiume organic winery is housed in a self-contained borgo in Romagna

Vineyards near Brisighella are carved out from the calanche rock formations in Romagna

Or to London where we live on home-made soups and vegetables punctuated by meals out at the city’s top foodie venues. There’s such good food and wine to be had in London these days, from the bold, Best of British at Margot Henderson’s Rochelle Canteen, to the Loire Valley specialities of the Green Man and French Horn, to Ottolenghi’s eclectic vegetable assemblages. You can get great nouveau-Peruvian food at Lima, funky East End minimalism at Clove Club, and top-rate Italian with an English twist at Theo Randall’s. And that does me very nicely for a few weeks until I start feeling the yen for a plate of pasta as only the Italians know how to cook it – never over-sauced or over-cooked – and I know it’s time to get back to Italy again.

It’s a MAD world!

30 August 2013

The tent pitched on some waste land

This week has been electrifying. Four days in Copenhagen, of which two at the amazing MAD Food Symposium, now in its third year. This year’s theme was guts, and it took a lot of them to put together the line-up of chefs, activists, foragers, farmers and other food-minded people who gathered in a circus tent pitched in an unkempt field on the outskirts of Copenhagen to attend. MAD is an invitation-only event drawing an audience primarily of young chefs from around the world, plus a smattering of food writers. Altogether there were around 600 people.

Chris Ying, David Chang and René Redzepi, the hosts

There was even a bagpipe to lead us into the final session

The brainchild of René Redzepi, MAD came together this year with co-curators Dave Chang and Chris Ying of Lucky Peach magazine, and with help from Ali Kurshat Altinsoy and Peter Kreiner. The format is structured: each speaker – and there were around 24 of them – has 30 minutes to make their presentation. In the middle of the day there’s a buffet lunch for everyone, cooked on the first day by the women cooks from Lebanon’s farmer’s cooperative, Souk El Tayeb (their motto is: make food, not war), and on the second by Mission Chinese Food, from San Francisco and New York.

Puglisi demonstrating that there is no foraged food at his restaurants

Big name chefs – including Alain Ducasse, Pascal Barbot, Alex Atala and David Kinch – were joined by others who are better known within their local communities: Margot Henderson (London), Christian Puglisi (Copenhagen), Barbara Lynch (Boston), and Ahmed Jama (Somalia). Cookbook author Diana Kennedy was the most senior speaker; schoolgirl blogger Martha Payne, the youngest. They all inspiringly recounted their lives in food.

Activism was strongly represented too: alternative Nobel prizewinner, Vandana Shiva, came from India to light the fire under the young audience with a rousing talk about fighting for the sovereignty of seeds and the importance of indigenous agriculture. She says our stomach guts are dying: much of our natural healthy intestinal flora is being killed off by the fluoride, pesticides, antibiotics and weedkillers that are now saturating the food and water chains.

Food historian Michael Twitty was illuminating about the culinary traditions the slaves brought with them from Africa to the US. And Roy Choi, from the poor South Central areas of Los Angeles gave everyone a lesson in how to do something about it: he fights poverty and lack of decent food in ‘the ‘hood’ by driving his Korean-Mexican taco trucks, or Kogi, into these culinary wastelands and spreading the word through Twitter…the long lines prove him right.

Roy Choi whets the audience’s appetite

I was particularly moved by the presentation made by Dario Cecchini, the colourful butcher from Panzano. I first wrote about Dario almost 20 years ago, in my Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany, and we’ve been friends ever since. With the artistry of a great showman he held the stage as he skilfully sliced into a freshly slaughtered pig to reveal its guts, all as he spoke eloquently of the importance of conscientious butchers, and the difficult but important role they play between life and death, death and life. Dario is a Dante fanatic, and he ended his session by reciting the Paola and Francesco love story from the Divine Comedy. “You may not understand the words, but you’ll get the passion,” he said. We did.

Dessert was fruit and sweet baby corn cobs

Heading back to the city after the Syposium

For more information about what I felt about MAD, see my article on Zester Daily. While I was in Copenhagen, I also ate at some of the culinary city’s top new restaurants. My favourite was Amass, whose chef, Matt Orlando, was formerly a sous-chef at Noma. I’ll be writing more about him and the others soon.