Wednesday, October 19, 2011

AmorOlio at Villa Campestri

I'm in Vicchio di Mugello, a tiny Tuscan town about 30 minutes northeast of Florence. The hills are perfect for long walks, the pasta is delicious, and the olive oil is like nothing I've ever tasted.  A cold and windy winter is just around the corner, so luckily there are no American film crews and no huge tour buses clogging the roads.

Thanks to the very generous Paolo Pasquali and Nancy Harmon Jenkins, I'm tagging along as an assistant for AmorOlio, a week-long immersion in olive oil culture and Tuscan cuisine. This visit has proved quite timely, as olive oil makes headlines in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

In the past three days, we have inspected olive groves and visited traditional mills where olive oil is pressed. Through lively tasting sessions, we have discussed the taste of great oil, the different ways it can be spoiled (heat, exposure to oxygen, and light), and how to educate consumers without condescension.  Of course, we have cooked every day to test food pairings with dramatically different oil styles. It's been a great post-graduation trip to decompress from culinary school while still staying inspired by food.

Here are a couple photographs from our time so far at Villa Campestri.

 Green olives one week before harvest

The set-up for olive oil tasting 

 A meat counter in the San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale in Florence. 
The market is a great place to learn food vocabulary, like hen (gallina), turkey (tacchino), or rabbit (coniglio.)
It's also reassuring to see that "Hot Dogs" are the same in Italian. 

 The gorgeous colors of the produce section

 Back at Villa Campestri's kitchen, Samuele puts the finishing touches on dessert: 
olive oil cake with ricotta and wild berry coulis. 

 Chef Jerry holds a beautiful example of a porcini mushroom. 

 In Florence, chocolate truffles come in a too-cute cupola box. 

 Porcini Mushroom Risotto with a glass of Vernaccia in hand

Villa Campestri Olive Oil Resort, my home for the week. 
(I'm still pinching myself!)

I've learned a lot about high quality olive oil; it can be sweet, grassy, peppery or lemony. It can be structured and complex, like wine. It can also spoil rancid or get moldy if it was poorly pressed or improperly stored. Bright green at first, olive oil will lose its color- and its healthy polyphenol properties- as it gets older or if exposed to high heat during storage. If you have a bottle of nice olive oil, use it! Olive oil is best fresh. The longer it lives in the cabinet or by the stove, the less flavor it will bring to your plate.

I'm hoping to bring home a couple cans of high quality oil from Villa Campestri, named Olio di Cosimo for Pasquali's grandson. It's peppery, bright green, reminiscent of artichoke and a freshly-cut lawn. Once I get back to New York (Mon Oct 24th), I'm planning to make salad, some butternut squash soup, maybe even a pizza to find the best pairing with this delicious oil. Give me a buzz if you want to join!

With love, from Vicchio

Monday, October 10, 2011

Coming Full Circle: My Experience Raising Chickens

During the summer of 2010, I accidentally killed a chicken in my care at the CIA Student Garden. I carelessly left the roof of the chicken coop propped open with a pole, and when the wind started to blow, the roof came crashing down. I felt terrible, despondent even. Yet, it taught me that accidents happen, that farms are indeed places where animals meet their end. It's how the animals live and die while on that farm that really matters.

In any supermarket meat department, we find a wide variety of descriptors for the kind of life an animal has enjoyed: grass fed, free range, cage free, hormone free, pasture raised, even happy. While these terms can be confusing and often fodder for jokes about hipsters at Whole Foods in Portland, they represent an important step in the improvement of animal welfare on farms. Sure, these products are more expensive. But it's just like New York City real estate: if you want space, it costs money. It costs money to own the land to pasture, it costs money to tend it. That price pays people to help raise the animals, and to slaughter in a humane way.

I'm not starting a food revolution here. I'm mostly rehashing Michael Pollan points and figures from the film Food Inc. But thinking about this issue- how animals are raised for food- led me to the Deer Park garden to tend to the chickens in the first place, and eventually led to our construction of a new chicken coop and to a larger flock of heritage breed Buckeye hens.

Below I've compiled a collection of photos spanning nearly two years in Saint Helena- from the first time I collected eggs, to the slaughter and eventual consumption of our hens. Warning- there are some photos that could be unsettling if you're not used to seeing how animals go from farm to supermarket packaging. It may make you a little squeamish, but ultimately I hope to acknowledge the fact that an animal has died for my nourishment, and thus honor that animal. If I'm going to eat meat, I don't want to sweep that under the rug.

 March 2010: My first time collecting eggs

Douglas Hayes' hoop coop model we followed

The roosting racks across the rear of the hoop coop

The frame built by Chef Patrick Clark and Slow Food Napa Valley Chapter

Our frame in early spring 2011. 
(Look how bare the vines are in the background.)

The hoop coop starts to take shape with cattle panel looped over the door frame

Jack works on securing the chicken wire

Looking west through the coop, past our work shed and the pond

How to transport chickens in the backseat of your car

Happy girls with lots of room

Jack and the ladies 

Much more sensibly dressed than the first time I collected eggs...

The full enclosure, with padlock to prevent theft

A salad for our MyPlate dinner using soft cooked farm eggs

Learning how to cut their necks efficiently 

I learned to first bleed the chicken out...

...once the head is removed, the chicken is dunked in a scalder, 
a hot water bath that loosens the feathers

After about a minute in the scalder, the chicken is placed in a plucker, 
a spinning bin with soft, rubber fingers that remove the feathers. 

Learning how to finish the process

After ice chilling and air drying in the refrigerator. 
Check out how narrow their breasts are- not your average supermarket bird.

A chicken broken down into eight pieces, with the remaining frame

A whole hen Chef Bill Briwa roasted in his ACAP class at Greystone

Bringing it all full circle, thankful for the experience.

Thanks to all the friends who guided and supported us along the way- Douglas, Jorge, Brett and Alejandro; Dianne Martinez and Dr. Chris Loss of the CIA; and Adam Burke and Jack Gingrich, who took care of the girls at their home in Deer Park. And to the next class of students at Greystone: I hope a flock of hens returns to Deer Park next spring!