In an effort to uphold my reputation as a crazy cyclist, the first thing I did upon arriving in Bra was to beeline to a second-hand bike shop and pick up a used bike. I am now the proud owner of an old school Atala, decked out with fenders, a bell and a basket. Fast she is not, but for 60 quid I could probably do worse.
The University of Gastronomic Sciences campus is about 6 km away from Bra, which is about the length of my old commute to the Fed. However, biking to class is considerably more difficult/hair-raising than going to the Fed because the route involves riding down a two-lane highway with a very, very steep, winding hill. Unless you are comfortable with biking downhill with lorries whizzing past you on a road with no shoulder, I don’t really recommend biking. As I flew down the hill this morning, I was traveling so quickly that my eyes were watering. To be fair, vehicles are courteous and do try to move to give you enough space, but there’s really not much room for error. Going back is even more hilarious because you now have to tackle going up the hill. Despite my best efforts, the bike slowly ground to a halt about halfway up the hill and I settled with walking the rest of the way up the hill. Perhaps I should have bought a bike with more than one speed.
Potential deathtrap? I thought about wearing a helmet but Valeria, my Italian flatmate, insists that no one aside from kids wear helmets in Italy. Also, it would ruin my hair.
The UNISG campus in Pollenzo is housed in the refurbished Agenzia di Pollenzo, built in 1833 for Carlo Alberto di Savoia, king of Piedmont-Sardinia at the time. As such, it looks like a castle, with turrets and an inner courtyard, and a church on the premises. About 4 billion euros were spent in restoring the grounds and modernizing the facilities for university usage, with funds contributed from Slow Food and local Italian governments. Today, the university serves 300+ students, and the grounds include a Michelin-starred restaurant (Guido), an upscale hotel, and Italy’s only wine bank, which carries and preserves wine from every producer in the nation.
Upon arriving at orientation, we were handed a sheaf of papers and a bottle-opener pen. This was followed by a round of introductions of important administrative staff and of ourselves. There are representatives from 13 countries in the cohort, and about half of us are American. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 4-5 of us are from the San Francisco bay area, a hotbed of progressive thinking and the stomping grounds of sustainable foods matriarch Alice Waters. Many people had experience in restaurants, either in the kitchen or front of house. Some of us had done previous research integrating food with other fields of study like religion or psychology. A few people were fresh out of undergraduate programs while some were making mid-career shifts.
For the afternoon session, Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, arrived to speak to us. If you are unfamiliar with his work, he is Kind of a Big Deal in the environmental sustainability and food sovereignty world, so it was nice that he was making an effort to meet us. He had just returned from Rome, where he met with Alice Waters and the mayor, and now he was asking us where we hailed from and how we’d heard about the UNISG program. Though Petrini can at times be rambling, he is a vibrant speaker and surprisingly clear and easy to follow, even for non-Italian speakers. “What is gastronomy?” he asked. “It’s not what you see on TV, with someone stirring things in a pot, that’s gastronomic pornography. Gastronomy is chemistry, how food mixes and transforms into a new substance. Gastronomy is history, the ties that bind communities. It is economics, the exchange and trade of food. It is politics, with wars fought to conquer land for food and coming battles over genetically-modified crops. Gastronomy is cultural anthropology, as we mediate our relationships with food.”
New books! The reader includes essays on subjects such as “Japanese Mothers and Obentos: the Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus” and “The Political Economy of Food Aid in an Era of Agricultural Biotechnology.” This is going to be a fun year.
After Petrini’s talk, we were invited to an aperitivo in the courtyard with the undergraduate students. Sparkling wine, salumi, breadsticks and a variety of cheeses were served. Serious class starts tomorrow morning at 9 am sharp.