Nov 24, 2015

Will travel for cheese

If you've been reading this blog for some time, you're already familiar with the strangely obsessive relationship I entertain with cheese.

I have written many articles on this blog on the topic of my beloved dairy:
For the past 6 years I've been leading gourmands and Italy-lovers on food-themed city walks, and six months ago I launched a independent travel company with two other partners. Many of the adventures I lead revolve around cheese.

Over the course of the almost 7 years of blogging and food-writing, I have discovered that many of my readers and followers share my same cheese fetish. This means what I write about resonates, and that's a good thing. Did you know that casein, the main protein present in milk and in cheese, is addictive? That explains a lot!

Other good cheese-related news came early this spring when the pitch of a TV show I co-authored received a green light. And when I say co-author the show I mean that I also star in it. Guess what the topic of said show is? You guessed it.

The show has been taping for the past four months all around Italy. Episode 1 premiered on November 12 on Italy's prime food network Gambero Rosso. It airs every Thursday at 9:30 p.m. (competing against big TV shows like X-Factor) on SKY, the Italian digital satellite broadcasting service. We still don't have definite numbers for the ratings, but people have begun recognizing me in the street. I say that's a pretty good sign the show's being watched.

The show is called ABCheese (in Italian this wordplay works better because we start the alphabet 'ah bee chi'). Not much fiction (other than the fancy sponsor car I drive) – as I play myself: a food writer who's in love with cheese, and is dedicated to traveling around Italy in search of the country's best, most famous, but also more obscure, lesser known and ultimately most delicious cheeses, on the basis that "I have to try them all".

When I first started writing and teaching about food, the idea of a book immediately took shape, but nobody knew Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino, back then I had very little visibility and investors were justly skeptical. I remember how one big cookbook publishing company, turning down the manuscript, told my literary agent back then, "Unfortunately she is still a 'nobody', she should get a food show gig before we consider her."

Well, it only took a few years of hard work, hundreds of articles published, thousands of Likes and accolades, awards and the firm will to succeed... and here I am. Thank you! I owe it all to you, my loyal readers, who have always supported my writing and put up with my inconsistent updates and my cheesy slant.

The majority of my readers is overseas, where SKY Italia satellite TV does not broadcast. While waiting for new episodes to be streamed online and become accessible to a wider public, here's an episode a fan uploaded. There are no subtitles and it's all in Italian, but see this as an opportunity for linguistic practice. And to see me eat lots of cheese.

I hope you like it!

Nov 11, 2015

The food in my 'hood

I have written at length about the well-known food stores and markets in my fancy Parioli neighborhood, these are places which get constant attention from blogs and press. But it's the small, unpretentious businesses on my block that I find the most charming. Still managing to resist through the bad economy are a handful of small family owned businesses that manage to combat the growth and popularity of larger convenience stores and supermarkets. These tiny shops scattered on my block is where I buy most of my food.

New, younger businesses have taken over as older generations have retired or passed away, sadly changing the last remaining authenticity and character of this old part of town. This means that where the old tabaccaio used to be – selling cigarettes, lottery tickets and boxes of sea salt – now is a tattoo parlor. In place of a boutique where residents knew to find elegant interior design items and vintage wallpaper now is a hipster clothing store that I don't think is doing very well (it's always empty).
The Bangladeshi mini market that occupies the space once managed by a family-run photo developing studio (obsolete, the landlord branded it) is ok for quick emergency cleaning supply runs, but given their not-so-competitive prices, it's not really worth it.

Fortunately the best, more historical places still hold fast and provide us residents of the block with the best, most reliable service and constant product quality. And a good bit of neighborly conversation.

My shoe repair man Francesco, for example, where I take my boots and best leather shoes for a good buff or to fix a broken heel, is holding on by the teeth to keep his little shop open, because less and less clients prefer to fix rather than buy new shoes. But, boy does he know how to live: every year he takes the luxury of closing his business down for a week to go with his wife for "cure termali" at a spa town in northern Italy where he detoxes drinking special spring water.

Rosalba, the lady that sews hems and fixes zippers in her little workshop just up the road is a chain smoker, but her needle work is unrivaled. If I need a good replica of a designer item she can do that too, at an affordable price.

Then there's GioFerCas, a small family owned store that is a little bit of everything haberdasher-type place: a cross between a giocattolaio (toy store), a ferramenta (hardware store that also makes copies of keys), and a casalinghi – the place where you can get home supplies, from brooms and shaving cream to alkaline batteries and stainless steel pots. Patrizia, who now helps her retired parents, put on the best store front decorations on Halloween this year, and all the Italian neighborhood kids got heaps of candy.

The little "Pica Pica Porro" specialty store is where I get my exotic fruit fix. If I want avocado and dates, sweet mango and proper papaya, this is where I go. The sales are managed by the father and daughter in law, while the son (owner) is always out and about delivering groceries with his 1974 Moto Guzzi which I can hear roaring in the street even with my windows closed.

Antonio is the neighborhood fruttivendolo and his shop – once dubbed by us residents 'Bulgari' for what he used to charge for fruit and vegetables – has drastically reduced prices to reclaim customers back from the new Bangladeshi minimart competition. Antonio boasts the area's best seasonal produce (his clementines for example are the juiciest) sweetest on the planet. He's serious about seasonality and doesn't give in to the haywire primizia trend of selling produce out of season, therefore his fruit and vegetables are always top-notch. He also sells beers, a few bottles of average wine, fresh eggs, a few kinds of pasta and small choice of canned foods and bottled goods. When I get home late after work, it's great to pick up some rinsed and trimmed salad or pre-chopped minestrone, cubed pumpkin and cauliflower florets, which Antonio prepares himself. In case of bigger emergencies, his sweet Slav assistant delivers the groceries to your doorstep, for free.

My favorite neighborhood store is however Forno Nonno Franco.
As I approach my neighborhood bakery, attracted by the aroma of freshly baked bread, I know I'm in for a sensory overload and a long wait in line.

I'm here every morning to get bread and there's always a crowd elbowing to the front of the small counter. The bread is baked around the clock from dawn 'til sunset, and store opening hours reflect that. In the oven area works the young and passionate heir of retired baker Franco Fiorentino who opened the shop in 1994. His two sisters manage the front end dealing with customers. The three communicate, fight and laugh through a window that connects the bakery ovens and the actual shop, and through which the products are fed on large hot pans before everyone's eyes.

After 10 a.m. is when the place gets the busiest since that's when the hot loaves of Lariano, Altamura and Pane della Salute are ready, and sell still warm, in a matter of minutes. A thick crunchy crust conceals a fluffy, airy wholegrain crumb studded with assorted seeds. A large loaf of this 'bread of health', if properly stored, can last 4-5 days. In my house, it only lasts a few hours. As soon as I buy it, I break off the end and eat it in the street, still warm.

Besides the various types of sourdough, farro and grano tenero bread, the Fiorentino brothers also bake and sell different products, like breadsticks or low-hydration bread pockets filled with an ever changing selection of fillings that range from sautéed dandelion greens to pumpkin & gorgonzola. Their focaccia pugliese is award winning, as is the crisp "scrocchiarella" cracker-like pita, plus buns, savory croissants and ciabattas of every size.

The pizza romana stuffed with porchetta or mortadella is weighed, cut and wrapped in €1 squares ready at 7 a.m. for kids to stuff in their school backpacks for merenda (mid morning snack time). They even make a whole wheat or plain version without yeast called "suolo". The quality of their other types of pizza al taglio (sold by weight) is nothing short in terms of quality compared to the one sold in the more famous centrally located bakeries. Crisp yet chewy, it comes topped with good quality homemade tomato sauce, select cheese and fresh charcuterie. The choice is not ample but turnaround is rather fast.
And this is just the savory offer.

There's a whole universe of pastry that Forno Nonno Franco excels at, in which the strudel and artisan cookie galaxies shine the brightest. The other day I nearly threw a tantrum in the middle of the small store because they had run out of their cinnamon sablé biscotti. Mini crostatas filled with homemade jam; custard and pine nut torta della nonna cakes; lemon curd tartlettes, fried donuts and flaky sublime cornetti (forget the crappy industrial 'croissants' you find at coffee bars in the morning) are sold fresh daily. And there's always something baked new every day, so it's fun to walk in just to see what they've come up that morning. Oh, and the fridge in the entrance near the cookie shelf is stocked with bottles of fresh milk... and chocolate milk. Help!

The secret ingredient that makes the products taste better at this little neighborhood establishment is not a flavor enhancer – there's been lots of controversy around how commercially sold bread in larger Italian wholesale bakeries has been known to be spiked with a "miglioratore", a chemically obtained flavor improving agent. No, what makes this place really special is the courteous, friendly service. The girls are always smiling and crack jokes with customers, despite the frantic crowds pushing at the counter and lined up in the street. You can call ahead of time to reserve your bread should you be running other errands, and they will bake cakes and other typical Italian party food (mini pizzas, bite sized stuffed sandwiches, quiche and other snacks) on request.

Low prices, constant quality, wide variety of products and friendly service.
No wonder the cue outside is so long.

Opening image - All other photos in this post © Eleonora Baldwin