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.

This Little Piggy

5 December 2012

Chef Claude Bosi watches as a pig is butchered, Friuli

Chef Claude Bosi watches as a pig is butchered, Friuli

It’s that time of year: as winter sets in and we huddle around our fireplaces (or hot radiators) I often think of pigs. In Italy and other countries where people still keep a pig for home use, killing time is nearing. Traditionally, in pre-refrigerator times, the pig was always slaughtered in early January or February, when the air was cold enough to stop the meat from spoiling.

The pig was a crucial member of the farm: by keeping them fed all year on home-grown corn and kitchen waste and scraps (the perfect recycling machine), families watched as their pig fattened, imagining the bounty of salt-cured and fresh meats the animal would bring them. To some families this was one of the most valuable assets they had.

Pigs are revered in Italy

Pigs are revered in Italy

No wonder that, despite keeping the animals close at hand, in pens just behind the back door, they rarely give their pigs a name. One old man I met in Calitri, in the mountainous inner region of Campania, proudly took his pig for daily walks on a leash ‘to do his business’ yet he was scandalized when I asked what the pig was called. “Pigs don’t have names,” he grumbled, as he scratched the giant pink animal’s tummy like a dog’s.

The culatello aging cellars at Antica Corte Pallavicina

The culatello aging cellars at Antica Corte Pallavicina

The tasting dish of culatello of three ages at Antica Corte Pallavicina

The tasting dish of culatello of three ages at Antica Corte Pallavicina

In a recent visit to Emilia Romagna for the food and wine fair, Enologica, the pork cuts on offer were many and included a few surprises. I had feasted on Antica Corte Pallavicina’s platter of aged culatelli before. This salt-cured heart of the pig’s hind leg is known as the king of salumi, and is matured for many months – even years – hanging in the moist and mouldy cellars of the atmospheric palazzo on the banks of the Po river. Of the three ‘vintages’ I was offered this time (18, 27 and 37 months) I preferred the 37-month culatello made from the leg of a black pig. It was sliced paper thin and draped softly on the plate. A deep rose madder, it regaled us with mellow flavours of caramelized sweet molasses and earthy, truffley leaf-mould to complement the pork’s fine character.

Amerigo's polenta with sliced pig head meats

Amerigo's polenta with sliced pig head meats

At the historic trattoria, Amerigo 1934, in the village of Savigno, near Bologna, a seasonal recipe celebrated the ‘day of the pig’s investiture’, or slaughter-day. “We always feast the pig’s killing with this dish which features all the parts of the animal’s head: cheek, tongue and eyes, sliced paper thin over steaming hot polenta,” explained the patron. Not for the faint-hearted, this winter warmer came steaming hot, with the polenta basted in the pork’s fatty juices.

The baby suckling pig at the Mark Hix restaurant, London

The baby suckling pig at the Mark Hix restaurant, London

Parma ham and artwork

Parma ham and artwork

In London too, the pork season is in full swing. At Hix Oyster and Chop House, baby suckling British pig is on the menu, the whole animal roasted to perfection with crisp crackling and tender meat inside. It’s served on a life-size board with waxy potatoes, mustards and sauces to accompany it. Prosciutto di Parma from Manicomio featured at an elegant wine tasting at the Saatchi Gallery organized by Goedhuis Fine Wines, sliced on Italian machines brought in for the purpose. I had just visited a prosciuttificio near Parma, to watch the hams being made, so I was happy to be able to keep feeding my habit.

the aging prosciutti are tested frequently, Parma

The aging prosciutti are tested frequently, Parma

China on my mind

7 October 2012

My summer’s travels stretched as far as China this year, a first visit to this amazing country. For anyone interested in the minutiae of daily life, as I am, China offers a fascinating range of customs and cultural differences. I think I was most struck by the warmth of the women (foreign women seem invisible to Chinese men), who would come right up to me in the street and want to be photographed with me, and by the way that the Chinese seem refreshingly free of the ‘demons of self-regarding’ that plague many in the Western world. Wherever we went in China we came across people old and young out in the streets, courtyards and parks doing whatever they like to do best: singing in a choir, taking ballroom or traditional dancing lessons, practising Tai Chi or gymnastics. All levels were welcomed, with no shame attached or felt by those who weren’t that good at it. Quite a lesson for the rest of us to pluck up our courage and go for it!

Chinese Ribbon Dance

Chinese ribbon dance, Harbin

Women playing mahjong, Harbin

Women playing mahjong, Harbin

As for the food, it was wonderful everywhere we went. I fell in love with the vegetable cookery: silky sweet aubergines, Lilliputian cucumbers small enough for a doll’s house with their own miniscule flowers attached, and bitter greens dressed with scented jasmine blossoms. Beijing can rightly claim Peking duck as its own: the wood-oven version is far superior to anything I’ve had in the West…so many new foods to try and enjoy: I look forward to going back soon.

Traditional dance lessons, Harbin

Traditional dance lessons, Harbin

Pina’s Sicilian Food

31 July 2012

Nur Du. Photo by Ursula Kaufmann

Summer in the city. The Olympics have brought far more than sport to London this year. The skies may have been gray but the city’s programme of cultural events has been radiant, with special exhibitions, concerts, theatre and dance contributing to the impressive 2012 festival.

Pina Bausch’s company was invited by Sadler’s Wells and the Barbican Centre to present an unprecedented sequence of dance pieces created by the late German choreographer, who died in 2009. For the first time, World Cities 2012 assembled ten pieces Pina and her company produced over 25 years in collaboration with international cities, including Santiago del Chile, Los Angeles, Rome, São Paulo, Istanbul and Hong Kong.

I managed to buy last-minute tickets to nine of the ten dance shows. Needless to say, I was particularly keen to see the two based on Italian cities. Palermo Palermo was the first Pina Bausch work I ever saw, in Milan in the early ‘90s. It knocked me out then and I was anxious to see it again. A wall of huge breeze blocks shields the stage from view as the piece opens. After a minute of silence, the wall implodes, crashing back on the stage in what must be the most dramatic start ever to a theatrical performance. The dancers spend the next 2 ½ hours acting, speaking, playing and dancing among the ensuing rubble.

Food appears fairly often in the Cities pieces, but never more poignantly than in Palermo Palermo. The company, who researched each of these works on location before they were choreographed, must have been struck by food’s vital role in Sicilian society. In Palermo Palermo, food is more than just something to eat. It’s a central part of the fabric of life, and a key component of the mosaic that Pina assembles through little vignette scenes to make her final picture. These moments punctuate this piece; here are a few of my favourites.

A woman walks on stage with a handful of loose spaghetti tucked under her arm like a newspaper. She pulls out a single strand and declares: ‘questo spaghetto è mio spaghetto’ (this spaghetto is my spaghetto). When I saw it in Milan, the line was delivered in Italian and sent ripples of laughter through an audience unused to thinking of spaghetti as anything but plural. Dominique Mercy, the company’s present director and one of Bausch’s longest collaborators, takes that motif a step further: he stabs his nude torso repeatedly with the thin pasta sticks as they snap under pressure into shorter and shorter lengths.

Two men in trenchcoats squeeze a lemon onto their hair before combing it back like brilliantine. In another scene, a man living like a hermit in a closet heats an iron. He turns it hot-side up and fries an egg on it. That’s the art of getting by with what you have – l’arte di arrangiarsi – that flourishes in Naples and Sicily: there’s no limit to the inventiveness of necessity.

A man throws tomatoes at a woman’s face as the violence that lurks beneath the surface in this piece bubbles up. A place is set for dinner on the ground, on a block of the fallen stone, with a plate of pasta positioned at its centre. A mangy dog appears and hungrily feasts on the meal. A man eats into two apples poised perfectly on a woman’s breasts. A woman hacks away at something: she has hollowed a loaf. She stands, fits the loaf onto her foot like a shoe, and strides off. Another woman sprinkles sugar on her lips and calls: ‘kiss me’ to a man passing by.

A couple appear. The man is dressed, as Pina’s men so often are, in a dark baggy suit. The woman acts aggressively towards him. He shakes his left sleeve and two salamis roll to the ground. She berates him again. This time it’s packets of ham that fall from his right sleeve. Again and again the gestures are repeated until the floor is littered with meat packs that have appeared from his trousers, coat and back. When he has nothing more to hide, the couple march off and the scene ends.

Palermo Palermo. Photo by Joachen Viehoff

A line of women, each with an apple balanced on her head, link arms and sway to the beat of a Sicilian funeral march. In another monumental group scene, the company assembles like the striking labourers in Pellizza da Volpedo’s iconic 1901 painting, Il Quarto Stato. Slowly they advance towards the front of the stage with the swinging arm movements of peasants sowing grain, only here they’re scattering the domestic detritus – plastic bottles, odd shoes and food wrappers – that has become the jetsam of the city’s streets.

Each of the ten works was performed just twice over the month’s run. It was thrilling to be able to spend so much time with this remarkable, vibrant company whose brilliant creator was never far from anyone’s thoughts.

Como el Musguito. Photo by Bo Lahola

Note: the photographs are courtesy of the Pina Bausch company, Tanztheater Wuppertal. www.pina-bausch.de/en