Monday, March 26, 2012
Among the professional skill sets I’ve developed over the years (being able to eat six meals a day; asking total strangers if I can visit their homes; accepting invitations to places like Iceland) I am proud to say that I can ‘do’ a food fair in a fast, efficient and totally productive way.
First of all, I know which ones to go to, and which ones to avoid. For instance, this week is Vinitaly. The mega wine fair located in Verona draws zillions of food and wine professionals from around the world - including many of my best friends and colleagues. But I don’t go. It scares me. Why? a) too big; b) too commercial; c) not my subject.
What do I like in a food fair? Artisanal is best. I love to talk to the people actually getting their hands dirty making whatever it is I’m tasting. This is why I love the Salone del Gusto, even though it’s become almost overwhelmingly huge. I also choose to visit smaller events, about topics I don’t know a lot about, so that I can learn something. Which is why I attend things like last year’s beer fest in Rome.
One of my favorite yearly visits is Taste, in Florence. It’s got everything I like: small in scale, highly curated and every single stand is manned by someone making something I want to learn more about. Founded by food journalist and self-styled gastronaut Davide Paolini, Taste is located in the super cool Stazione Leopolda in Florence and brings together about 250 producers, hand picked to represent the best of what’s happening now in Italy, food wise.
But still, even at an ideal event like Taste, you need a plan of attack. Believe me, it’s very easy to wander aimlessly, nibbling and sipping your way from one booth to another. Not only do your feet tire, but your mind and palate can only take in so many flavors, colors and textures.
This year I have to admit that I was a bit selfish. I decided to focus my energies on the products that I would be exploring in my Food Workshops back in Rome: olive oil, balsamic vinegar and grappa. I pretty much avoided the beer stands, only because I had been to so many beer tastings this past year, that I already knew what they were presenting. I also cut out cured meats, cookies and pickles. Why? Because, as I explained, you have to have a plan. If I wanted to stay on track, I couldn’t be distracted. Something had to go, so sorry to the the meat/cookie/pickle brigade.
Another thing I like about food fairs, is visiting with old friends. At this point, in my career in Italy, I know a lot of the better known producers. But since they are scattered throughout Italy, fairs present the perfect time to catch up, and get news about their new products.
Here is a brief photo report on some of the highlights.
And sorry, but I couldn’t figure out a way to include free tastes.
Terre di Grifonetto; An Umbrian olive oil producer. I love the fact that some of the most interesting people and products I discover at fairs are often the ones that are just around the corner from our home. Grifonetto is producing three types of oils, Organic, Blend and a monocultivar. Interesting to taste all three and compare. Loved the Monocultivar (Agogia), with it’s intense grassy finish.
I’m a big fan of Leonardi, one of the better known balasmic producers of Modena. Their line of products include everything from every day condimento to 20 year old barrel aged riserva. I didn’t need to taste their products, since I knew them already. But I did anyway (who can resist a tiny spoonful of 20 year old balsamic?) I also couldn’t help stopping by to oggle at their newest offering: rhinestone studded bottles and boxes. Rhinestones? Really? I was told it was to appeal to the ‘foreign’ market. (i.e. Chinese, Russian and Middle Eastern). Oy! (by the way, the cheese on the right? Random, totally fantastic aged pecorino in such small production it will probably never be exported out of Tuscany. Sorry about that)
Giusti is another of the biggies in balasmico. And I wanted to taste their range. But as so often happens at these fairs, the guy manning this stand someone didn’t think I was worth his time, and so totally ignored me in favor of talking on his cell phone. His loss.
No. I did not stop to taste this sexy looking piece of ‘nduja. Didn’t want to start the day with a mouth full of hot and spicy fattiness, when I knew I’d be trying more delicate olive oils. But I’m sort of sorry I didn’t.
Zafferano Puro in Fili: This saffron flecked honey is the type of original, inventive and delicious product I love to discover. Besides being beautiful, you could really taste the saffron suspended in the thick golden honey. Although I tasted it straight up, I was already thinking how wonderful it would work drizzled over fresh ricotta.
My friends from Fratepietro were there. Stopped to chat and admire their huge, green orbs of Bella Cerignola.
Schooner. LOVED this stand. Fish usually isn’t on my radar, and processed less so. But this company was making ‘sopressa’ out of octopus, sword fish and bacala. Not only gorgeous to look at, it was delicious, thinly sliced and drizzled with olive oil and a bit of grated orange peel.
Pastificcio Benedetto Cavalieri is my favorite pasta maker in Italy. From Puglia, his traditionally made and dried pasta is what I would use every day if I could get it. Happy to see he has a new product: whole wheat pasta. I figure if anyone can possibly make a whole wheat pasta I like, he can. Will let you know as soon as I get a chance to cook it up. (by the way, they also win the prize for only producer I know to still refuse to have a web site).
Like I said, I tasted a lot of balsamics. This one - Aceto Modena - which I’d never heard of, was outstanding. I tasted their entire line, and particularly liked the Oro Supremo, which is a slightly acidified grape must. It had the complexity of an aged balsamic, but retained the fruitiness of the grapes.
Forno Barni. Ok, I lied. I said I didn’t taste any sweets. But how could I pass up this gorgeous torrone? Packed with pistachios, hazlenuts and almonds, it comes from a small bakery in Prato. Not anything like industrial torrone, the nougat was soft and the nuts crunchy and fresh and the entire thing tasting of honey. Lovely.
La Vecchia Dispensa is my favorite line of balsamics. Family run, they produce small batches and are constantly innovating, but in a traditional way. Was really happy to try their newest products, fig and cherry compotes, blended with balsamic. Perfect (as you can see here) with pecorino.
Mazzardo There was not nearly as much grappa going on as I would have liked. But what grappa there was, was the best. I’d never heard of Mazzardo, so was happy to try their line. Best? The amber colored aged (36 months) Le Giare Gewurztraminer: smooth, floral and just a bit woody.
Taste happens every year, and is open to the public. The great thing about it - unlike other food fairs - is that as you leave the fair you pass through a store where all the products you've just tried are conveniently for sale. So if you do go, bring an extra suitcase. Just saying. (remember, I'm the expert)
While in Florence for Taste 2012 I was a guest of Pitti Imagine, the organizers of this yearly event.