Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tasting The Tradition Of Italy—And Getting A Lesson On Authenticity, Freshness And Where The “Classics” Are Created!

By: Anne M. Raso

Being a fan of authentic Italian cuisine, especially fine cheeses and gourmet “salumi” like prosciutto, mortadella and Cotechino Modena, I was very happy to recently attend “Tasting The Tradition Of Italy” event given by The Italian Trade Agency and the Italian Association Of Geographic Indication Consortia at the Osteria Del Principe. Italian cuisine has become so widespread in the USA's foodie culture for the past 75-90 years—and it is arguably the most popular type of foreign cuisine that we have--yet there’s still so much to learn about quality and authenticity of the products Italy has to offer. Guest speakers were Pier Maria Saccani from AICIG, Mary E. Barham of the American Product Of Origin Research Foundation.
Pecorino Romano and Pecorino Toscana Cheeses

The ITA has 75 offices in 65 countries around the globe and is the Italian government agency entrusted with the mission to facilitate contacts between Italian companies and the rest of the world, while the AICIG’s main focus is dedicated to cross collaboration between consortiums, helping them to join forces and achieve their shared goals. Food press was able to “press the flesh” with makers of many fine and famous imported cold products--as well taste some hot classics created with products on display, including an amazing truffle risotto. I admit that I stuffed myself to the gills, but it was also a great learning experience as reps from the ITA and AICIG were on hand to discuss the strict guidelines Italian products have to adhere to in order to get labeled DOP/PDO (Denominazione di Origine Protetta or “Protected Designation of Origin”), TSG ("Traditional Specialties Guaranteed") or IGP (“Indicazione Geografica Protetta” aka "protected geographical information"). These are true hallmarks of high quality/authenticity!
Prosciutto Di San Daniele, Gorgonzola and Mortadella and more
So what did I chow down one? (As you might have expected, there was plenty of wine at this “Taste The Tradition Of Italy” event but I stuck with sparkling water—bottled in Italy of course—and concentrated on the food. Some of these Italian food items were classics most people--even non-foodies--have heard of because they are knows as the tops in their fields and appear on many menus. For instance, there was Grana Padano PDO--which is the go-to cheese that is grated and put on every pasta dish served at the Eataly cooking demos/classes. And there were what seemed to be the largest wheels of Parmigiana Reggiano and biggest full-size Prosciutto Di Parma I have ever seen! The prosciutto, which must have weighed in at 30 or so pounds, required the largest meat-slicing machine imported from Italy I have ever seen in order to slice it into paper-thin pieces! I admit that my favorite cheeses on display were the Asiago PDO, Fontina PDO, Gorgonzola PDO and Mozzarella Di Bufala Campana PDO. Journalists were given handouts and a presentation on each type of meat, cheese and condiment served and learned about more about each Italian region the items are produced in. For instance, we learned that Parmiggiano-Reggiano PDO is made in a region to the left of Bologna and that it must be aged a minimum of a year. The color of the cheese and how it “breaks up” changes the longer it ages, and it is had the most nutrients and nuttiest taste when served after 30 months of aging.
Chianti Classico Olive Oil
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI has been regulated in Italy for 33 year now and is made from the alcoholic and acetic fermentation of grape musts. A prime batch is deep brown but clear and bright and should taste bittersweet but balanced. Chianti Classic PDO is an extra virgin live oil made in the region between Firenze and Siena made with four kinds of olives grown on local plantations: Frantoio, Correggiolo, Moraialo and Lecino. It smells of both olives and fruit and has a grassy taste with hints of olive leaf, artichoke and thistle. That eternal favorite Mozzarella Di Bufala Campana PDO is made from whole water buffalo milk and it becomes lightly elastic during the first eight to ten hours after production. The traditional shape is round it has a glazed white outer coat which a delicate taste. It is actually made in several regions in the South Of Italy, not just Campania.
Prosciutto Di Parma PDO
Prosciutto Di Parma PDO is a dry cured ham from the Parma region (naturally), which ranges from pink to red when sliced vertically—the savory white parts of fat is meant to be eaten and not cut away. Prosciutto Di Parma PDO must be aged at least 12 months after initial salting. Asiago PDO is made of cow’s milk and is made two ways: D’Allevo which is aged a minimum of 60 days and had the smell of yeast, dried fruit and sometimes boiled chestnuts, while Press Asiago PDO is only aged 20 days has a very gentle taste like yogurt or butter (the holes are smaller than in the D’Allevo as well). This cheese has come into an insane level of popularity in the US in the past 15 years and is made in the provinces of Vicenza, Trento, Padova and Treviso. The super-popular Pecorino Romano PDO is a cooked hard-paste cheese made from the Roman Ewe’s milk. It needs to age a minimum of five months to be a table cheese and a minimum of eight month to be a grater cheese. It is made in Sardegna, Lazio and Grosseto. A perfect Pecorino for the table is aromatic and slightly sharp while for the grater it is sharper with a more intense fragrance.
Grana Padano
So now that I have learned my “foodie” lessons on the “best of the best” Italian food traditions and what separates “the boys from the men” on authenticity and quality, I hope to do several more walk-around tastings where I learn about each item’s production process as I go along. It’s great to know that the ITA and AICIG are doing their part to assure that the highest quality products make it into American kitchens! They make educating the food press (as well as the consumer) fun and they’re always about tasting an item while one learns the “back story” on tradition, ingredients and quality control!

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