Gastronomy School is Serious Business

The view out the window from Aula 2, where we spend 6 hours a day in class

Classes at UNISG are held from 9 am to 4 pm, with an hour long lunch break at noon. Without too much self-incrimination, I will simply say that it has been a long time since I have had to focus so intensely, without the distraction of of the internets, on one subject for that length of time. This will require some adjustment.

There is no semester or quarter system in place, but rather, professors give lectures for a few days at a time whenever they are available (some are visiting from other universities) or periodically throughout the year. For the first couple days, we were lectured on traditional specialties from the various regions of Italy. The former yielded immediate payoffs as I went to the grocery store and began to analyse and recognise the breads and cheeses available here in the Piedmont region. Since we are in northwestern Italy in a cold, mountainous climate, the cuisine is characterized by robust dishes, the use of butter instead of olive oil (French influence), lots of antipasti, cheese and meat, and few pasta dishes. On Friday morning, one of my classmates brought in a couple local cheeses that we had discussed the day before, including a Bruss. This is a traditional Piedmontese cheese made by reusing the leftovers of different cheese that did not age well due to excess humidity or fermentation. You mix the cheeses into grappa (or wine or vinegar), and let it ferment, then beat it into a spread. Suffice it to say, I have had many very strong cheeses in my life, but this was the most intense, pungent cheese I have ever had, tart with the tang of fermentation. The hair on the back of my neck was raised, and you could see the noses wrinkle amongst my classmates. If I hadn’t known better, I wouldn’t have recognized the brus as cheese. American cheddar this was not. Unsurprisingly, Valeria (the native Italian) thought the brus was great.

We also had a lecture on the molecular analysis of taste, which is a throwback to high school chemistry class. Though people tend to simplify the perception of taste with a few adjectives (salty, sweet, earthy), there are chemical underpinnings for the way we taste foods differently, why sugar tastes differently than saccharine or aspartame. And there is still plenty of work to be done. For instance, we still haven’t pinned down the way miraculin (the protein in flavor-tripping miracle berries) works at a molecular level.

By the way, lectures are in English, but many of the lecture slides tend to be heavily in Italian. I am very glad I expended some effort in learning food vocabulary before I got here. And then there are some phrases that sort of defy translation into English, so I scribble down the Italian instead.

After class on Thursday, one of the undergraduate students informed us that there would be a special presentation by Domori, a very prominent Italian chocolate manufacturer. Most interestingly, Domori produces single-origin chocolates using one variety of cacao bean, rather than blends. Our presenter discussed how to produce chocolate, from roasting the raw beans to tempering the chocolate to create a lattice of stable crystals. We also had the chance to try several chocolates, and rank the characteristics of each chocolate on a tasting chart.

The first chocolate we tried was a piece of Lindt. Many of you know that I have never been a huge fan of chocolate, and this piece was pretty underwhelming: astringent and a little sour with an oddly floury finish. Then we moved on to the Domori pieces, sampling chocolates with different profiles, nutty and caramel versus fruity cherry and tart. Note that none of these substances were actually added to the chocolate, but you can taste different flavor notes simply from the pure cacao beans.

Then we came to the Chuao. This is a recent Domori creation, not yet on the market, and is made with a Venezuelan bean (90% pure Criollo) which was on the verge of going extinct before being rescued with careful grafting. I realize that I keep using superlatives (“this is the best X Ever. Of my life. Of All Time.”) but I swear I am not exaggerating when I say this is the best chocolate I have ever tasted. The chuao was intensely nutty and creamy, with no acidity, almost like milk-chocolate. It was perfect. A horde of my classmates gathered round the tray after the presentation and shoved as many pieces as we could carry into our bags. Below is the tasting profiles for the chocolates we sampled. You can see that the chuao ranks highly for milky, caramel, nutty and smoothness while having no citrus, astringency, bitterness or acidity.

Anyway, looking over the schedule for the next week, there is an exam and group project due this Thursday, along with a 185-page book. You have now been forewarned that blog updates could fall precipitously in the next couple weeks.

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