Taste of Firenze
If I didn’t paint the picture clear enough in my previous post, Florence and the food industry are no joke. I had been looking forward to Taste of Firenze since we first booked this trip- admittedly, I only had an idea of what this event entailed. Chris and I walked to into the convention center on a Saturday– bustling with very important people, dressed in such style, I knew again that we were instant outsiders. We quickly realized that this event was only open to culinary professionals- buyers, suppliers, and high profile restauranteurs. So, I did what I know best- fake it until you make it. A few white lies later, and the first time the “I’m a chef” card worked in Italy, we were “buyers” of the industry, and we were in! I felt accomplished… until we found ourselves in the middle of this hustle of important people having important conversations, with a strong sense of purpose. We did not have a purpose here… but oh my gosh was there a lot to see and taste. We walked around the convention center aimlessly a few times, and I only mustered up the confidence to grab a few samples of Italy’s finest. I felt so out of place, I was not on my game. Chris and I left, out of sheer hunger, and I, once again, questioned it all.
Take two: Monday rolled around and I had been staring at my fake “buyer” badge for the past few days, wishing I had a reason to wander the convention halls and discuss big business deals with these stylish Italian food gurus. Realizing that the event was now open to the public, I decided to try this whole Taste Firenze thing again, and on my own. Sometimes, when you’re feeling the least confident, you need to throw yourself in full force and just shake things up. So I did. I took on Taste, this time with a little more eagerness and a friendly smile on my face- at least I can always rely on that, right?
I was in a good position this time- not an annoying American exchange student walking around pounding free samples, but not a long winded buyer trying to strike a deal. I used what food knowledge I had- and thanks to my previous employment and forever obsession with Sur La Table, I was able to spot a few brands that I had sold at the store. I used this as my icebreaker. The product sellers were impressed that I had a little previous knowledge of their goods, and talked to me more about what they had to offer, and what their company was about. I spent a few hours chatting with some awesome companies, I tasted everything, and I ended up learning a lot. Mission accomplished.
I sampled all of Italy’s finest cheese, truffles, wine, balsamic vinegar, charcuterie, olive oil, pesto, espresso, sun-dried tomatoes, and even some vegan salami… not good by the way. Here are my favorite take aways from Taste of Firenze.
At Taste, I probably drank enough EVOO and balsamic to make a jar of salad dressing, and by far my favorite vinegar was Giuseppe Giuisti of Modena, which happens to be the oldest balsamic vinegar company in the world- from 1605! The man who spoke to me was a 17th generation ancestor of Giuseppe, and was excited that I was somewhat familiar with their product. The art of making vinegar is one of the oldest traditions of Modena, and one that was passed down by word from son to son, until someone finally wrote down the secret to a good balsamic: “choice of grapes, quality of casks, and time.” The quality of the cask is determined by two aspects: type of wood and age of the cask. Each batch of vinegar is aged in a series of barrels, based on what flavor notes they are trying to achieve: Chestnut is rich in tannins, and helps the vinegar develop a deep color. Mulberry is a porous wood, and therefore helps enhance concentration and speed up the reduction process. Cherry sweetens the vinegar, and oak adds a more aromatic vanilla perfume. The older these casks are, the more flavor they have developed, thus the better vinegar they produce- the Giuisti family still use barrels that date from the 1800s. I tasted practically their entire portfolio, from young, tart and acidic, to the longest aged, syrupy and sweet. Each balsamic had its own flavor profiles, and should be used accordingly. The younger, more bright vinegars are the ones that you’d use on a salad, or to dip your bread in (FYI- not an Italian thing! Typically, bread is only served with olive oil). The vinegars that are aged longer have a much sweeter and richer flavor, used to drizzle on fruit, or to compliment something rich like foie gras.
Olive oil is to Italy as butter is to France. It is very rare that you find an Italian recipe that calls for butter, something my American taste buds are still accepting. At Taste, I sampled olive oil from all over Italy- Puglia, Sicily, Tuscany, Calabria, and more. Each producer boasts that their region creates the best olive oil. The flavor profile and quality of the oil depends on two key factors: where the olives are grown (the terroir), and the varietal of olive. My newly acquired, but very limited olive oil knowledge is all thanks to a sweet little boy from Puglia, who was representing his family’s company with his parents. His parents didn’t speak English, so props to them for putting their son’s English skills to use! I sure was thankful. Puglia could be considered the olive oil capital of Italy- almost 40% of EVOO produced in the country comes from this region. I learned about and tasted two varietals of olives: Frantoio and Cellina. Frantoio olives produce lighter, more delicate oils- used for things like fish and salads. Cellina olives are a little more intense in taste, and can stand up to dishes like beef and mushrooms. Most of the olive oil we eat today is from a variety of olives, regions, and sometimes even countries, and the more I researched this facet of the industry, the more overwhelmed I became with it’s depth and history (this is basically my sentiment towards everything I’ve learned in Italy so far). However, it was fascinating to scratch the surface of the EVOO world, especially when taught by a 12 year old.
By the time my stay in Italy is over, you might be able to hang me up and cure me like charcuterie. The amount of cured meat I have eaten in two weeks is impressive, and I have no intention of stopping any time soon. Prosciutto is the king of Italian cured meats, so much so that there are laws and protections that ensure it’s authenticity. There are two regions in Italy that are legally allowed to make Prosciutto, Parma and San Daniele. The main differences are in appearance: San Daniele prosciutto is pressed and flattened, and keeps the trotter in tact- shaped similar to a guitar. Prosciutto di Parma is round and shorter, because they do not press for as long and they also remove the foot. The differences in flavor are subtle, and TBH, I’ve never met a piece of prosciutto I didn’t like. I inquired about the different ways I saw the meat being sliced- either by hand with a long knife, or with a meat slicer. Obviously, either way you cut it, it’s good, because: prosciutto=good. Most Italians have a preference, but both ways are considered acceptable. Slicing by hand produces a slightly thicker, meatier bite. Slicing on a machine allows you to get as thin as possible, creating a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Either way, as long as it finds it’s way to my mouth, I am happy. Now, who knows how I can smuggle one of these bad boys home?
I loved learning about the history and details of some of Italy’s most valued products but truthfully I just really like eating it, and thats okay too sometimes. In the tradition of honesty blogging, by the time I’ve finished writing this post, I have sufficiently bored myself to death. I hope you find a little bit of good information in here, but I think I have spiraled down a rabbit hole in a serious Italian food knowledge binge. Before I lose my taste for digging deeper into this never simple food culture, I’m going to go back to eating all of the goodness for a while, though I now have a whole new appreciation for these amazing crafts. The more you know, the better it tastes.