I just arrived in Bra on Tuesday afternoon after a very long and involved trip from Philadelphia that included planes, trains, and automobiles, and it already feels like I’ve been here for ages. I’ve already: taken care of bureaucratic paperwork (ugh); attended three days of school; ridden my new red bike down the hill to Pollenzo and back up (double ugh) to Bra a few times; gone to an aperitivo, a birthday dinner, and an ex-pat Thanksgiving; shopped at the supermarket, bakery, wine store, green grocer, and farmer’s market; purchased a cell phone; and got myself thoroughly lost in Bra, which is a feat in and of itself as this city is super tiny.
Though I’m still jet-lagged and feeling a bit inundated with new information, I know that my family and friends back home are waiting for this first blog post to hear more about what I’m doing here in Piedmont, so here are some primi assagi of my experience:
Bra / Pollenzo
Unfortunately I haven’t had much time to explore the historic center of the city of Bra, where I am living, as I’ve had class from 9AM-4PM every day this week, but my first impression is that though Bra is very small (population of about 20,000), it has a strong sense of place. Bra has been around for centuries and centuries, and was primarily a rural community during the Roman Empire and in Medieval times. In the 1700s, the city expanded and it became home to two perfect specimens of late baroque architecture: il Palazzo Comunale (Town Hall), and the Chiesa di Santa Clara. Bra is also home to a bunch of other architecturally interesting old building — one, la Zizzola, is octagonal and sits on Bra’s highest hill. I haven’t visited any Bra landmarks yet, so I’ll have to write about them more later!
The Braidese people seem to me to be very proud of the place they live in, and especially proud of their regional specialties like Salsiccia di Bra, which is raw sausage(!), Pane di Bra, a slow-rising bread, and Bra DOP Duro, a hard cow’s milk cheese. I do wish that we had a class on Bra at the University — when I was in Padova a few years ago, one of the first things we did at school was learn about the history of the city and its important landmarks, like the Cappella degli Scrovegni and il Santo. I suppose I’ll have to teach myself!
Pollenzo, where the University of Gastronomic Sciences is actually located, is about 5KM down the road from Bra. Technically, it’s a part of the city of Bra — to me, it’s like a hamlet of Hempstead on Long Island. Pollenzo is way teenier than Bra: it really just consists of a central piazza with a lovely church, la Chiesa di San Vittore, a few spindly streets with panetterie (bakeries), hotels, and tabacchi, private homes, and hulking over everything, the gorgeous buildings of the University, which brings me to…
University of Gastronomic Sciences
I literally go to school inside of a castle. In the 1800s, the king of Sardinia had a vacation home built in Pollenzo, complete with towers and moats, and this building is now the seat of the University of Gastronomic Sciences. It is sort of fairytale-esque riding a bike up to this campus in the mornings — the bright red bricks, the beautifully-kept green lawn, and the trees with fall leaves truly rivals Penn.
So far, I have been very pleased with how the University is run and how our classes work. On the first day, I was so impressed by my classmates’ introductions — there are men and (mostly women) from all over the world, from Australia to South Korea, from California to Ecuador. Everyone comes from different cultural and educational backgrounds — some have worked in marketing and communications (which makes sense, since our program is called Media, Representations, and High Quality Food) and others are wine connoisseurs and chefs.
Didactically, our program is broken into small chunks of classes: this week and next, we’re studying the Molecular Basis of Taste with Professoressa Gabriele Morini, who is a chemist and associate professor at the University. The class focuses on the language of taste and how our taste buds and flavor preferences dictate the foods that we eat. She is very charming and brilliant and presents her information well to a group of non-chemists! We are also now studying Sustainable Agriculture, Food and Wine Tourism, and Food Law — more on those at another time.
I am most excited to study with two professors later on in the Master: David Szanto, who is the head of our Masters group and will teach in January about Meaning and Representation, and Simone Cinotto, who is about to publish a book about Italian-American Foodways in New York in the 1920s (i.e. about my great-grandparents’ immigrant experience)
We also found out what our study trips are: First, in January, the Veneto region of Italy. February is Emilia Romagna in Italy, March is Macedonia (!), April is Calabria, May is Lazio, and June is a choice between London, Holland, and Finland.
One can’t help but eat well when attending a Gastronomic Sciences school, especially when your fellow students are preparing the food. After our first day of classes on Wednesday, the students from one of the other Master programs (Food, Place, and Identity, which started in May) prepared us a really ambitious and delicious aperitivo. There was great red wine from Piedmont, crazy bourbon cocktails, orange-fennel salad, mounds of local cheeses, and chocolate chip cookies with sea salt, to name a few bites and sips. Thursday was both Thanksgiving and one of my new buds’ birthdays, so we went out to dinner at Il Battaglino, a restaurant in Bra that has been open for about 90 years and is rated “charming” by the Michelin guide. They serve typical Braidese food, so I got to try the Salsiccia di Bra (delicious) and bites of another girl’s agnolotti dal plin, the one of the region’s well-known pastas. Another great part of going to UNiSG — all of my fellow students are adventurous eaters and happy sharers! On Friday, we celebrated Thanksgiving the real way with the Food, Place, and Identity students, who graciously invited us to one of their homes, roasted two massive special-ordered turkeys (they are hard to find here), and even made from-scratch versions of green bean casserole and creamed corn (revolutionary). Also a great bonus of living in Bra: the farmer’s markets. It’s possible to purchase truly local food here, thanks to the fact that the Piedmont region (even the area between Bra and Pollenzo!) is filled with farms. Above are some clementines from Calabria in the South of Italy.
Tomorrow I am going wine tasting with a small group of girls to a Barolo winery for a tasting tour, so I will have more to write about soon. Also for next time, some thoughts on the Slow Food movement and organization!