As I said to my friend Jamie-Lee yesterday, I finally understand why people do juice cleanses. I’m back in a snow-blanketed Bra after my class’s first stage, or study trip, to the Veneto region, and I am still feeling full from all the polenta, pasta, risotto, salumi, cheese, and rich meat they fed us over the course of five days. As the haze of my food hangover lifts this Sunday, I thought I would write about our jaunt in the Northeast.
I was quite excited when I heard that our first stage would be in Veneto, because that is the region where I lived three years ago. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to Padova, una citta al misuro dell’uomo—I’ll have to go back to hang in Prato della Valle and visit my host family later on this year. Instead, our stage focused on two main areas of the topographically-diverse: the province of Belluno, which is close to the Dolomite mountains in the north, and the provinces of Treviso, Vicenza, and Verona, which are flatter and towards the southern border of the region. Because Veneto includes plains, hills, sea, rivers, and mountains, its gastronomy is particularly rich, including traditional dishes that incorporate all three of Italy’s primi bases: pasta, riso (rice), and polenta. You can see why we were overfed.
Stages are not just about sampling the fare of a region, though—they are an unmatched opportunity to visit producers, allowing us to see the theory we learn in the classroom in practice. Here are some highlights:
Our first stop was the Istituto Professionale e Tecnico di Stato per l’Agricoltura e l’Ambiente “Antonio Della Lucia,” a technical agriculture & environmental studies high school in Feltre, Province of Belluno. The school focuses on mountain agriculture and strives to increase biodiversity in the region, taking actions to safeguard endangered animal and vegetable native species. As the headmaster related to us, almost all the agriculture in Belluno now revolves around intensive industrial dairies, but despite this, the land in the mountains has been largely untouched and is thus very fertile and suitable to organic farming practices. The Istituto and its students—many of whom come not from the rural area surrounding the school but instead from cities—are now trying to create an organic agricultural district in the area, the only one of its kind. In addition, the Istituto is committed to raising heritage breeds, ensuring their future in the region. Being a lover of sheep, I was most interested in their project to save the Pecora di Lamon breed. In the 1950s, there were about 30,000 of these sheep (which look like rabbits!) in the region; now, only 200 remain. They are prized for their meat, milk, and wool.
Next up, we visited one of those intensive dairies we had heard about at the Istituto: Lattebusche (Busche, Belluno), which is actually the largest latteria in the Veneto region. One of the benefits of the University’s stage planning is that they do not only focus on sustainable, Slow-Food-esque producers, but also expose us to more industrial companies that are big business players, allowing for a point of reference. Lattebusche started as a dairy cooperative in the post-World War II years, when agriculture was still suffering from infrastructural destruction. Today, Lattebusche works more than 300,000 liters of milk a day, produces a whole range of milk, yogurts, cheeses, and gelatos, and is a leader in the dairy field. They owe their success to their eagerness to seek innovation and their attention to high quality products. Lattebusche’s signature product is Piave cheese, which they call the cheese that unites tradition and innovation. It’s a pasteurized milk cheese, aged for about a year, and they own the copyright to it. The process for making Piave is entirely mechanized: no human hands touch the cheese during its aging process, which is very unusual, as cheese wheels need to be flipped and smeared with bacteria as they age, and gave the cheesemongers among us the willies. One of the caveats of visiting a large industrial production center is that we weren’t allowed to take any photos in the plant, but I assure you that the machines that flip and baste the cheese were pretty wild. Piave (named after the river) itself is a mild, hard cheese with a nice dried fruit aroma and is available for purchase in the States at Whole Foods and DiBruno Brothers.
One of my favorite visits was Birreria Pedavena, a large brewery in Belluno that is uniting tradition and new marketing strategies. Pedavena was founded in 1897 by the Luciani brothers, making it one of Italy’s oldest breweries; for more than 80 years, the brewery made its super-premium pils style signature beer and was seen as a bastion of pride in the town. In 1974, following some financial problems for the brewery, Heineken bought out Pedavena; after 30 years, they decided to sell the brand and fold the factory. Following local upset and thwarted efforts by the public to keep the Fabbrica di Pedavena open, the building stood empty for a number of months. In 2006, though, a new company called Castello di Udine bought out Pedavena, giving its original roots new life. They brought back one of Pedavena’s old brewmasters to recover the recipe for Pedavena beer and to adapt it to modern taste. Now, the Fabbrica di Pedavena has four different distinct brands of beer, the most interesting of which being the Birra Dolomiti, a unique beer that is brewed only with Dolomite barley and water. Launched in 2006, Birra Dolomiti is inspired by the wine sector and focus on terroir. It is a Slow Food Presidium product thanks to its focus on local, traditional products and environmental sustainability. The Dolomiti pils is well-balanced, with a round body and a subtle hoppiness. Visiting Pedavena was a great opportunity to see the brewing process we learned about in our Beer Class in practice—we got to visit Pedavena’s original cooking room, which smelled of yeast and was like being inside a bread oven.
The only meal where I cleaned more than one plate at was at Locanda Solagna, a Slow Food Osteria in Vas. Owned by a lovely family, the tiny Locanda Solagna promotes local products and makes use of a kitchen garden for produce year-round. The highlight of our meal was super-fresh trout from the Piave river, served with broccoli raab and Slow Food Presidium polenta di mais sponcio, a heritage-breed corn.
On Wednesday we visited two very different farms: Azienda Agricola Nonno Andrea and Borgoluce. Nonno Andrea is a small (~125 acre) farm run by Paolo Manzan, the president of the Radicchio Rosso di Treviso e Variegato di Castelfranco IGP Consortium. Radicchio Rosso di Treviso and Radicchio Variegato di Castelfranco are two highly prized and protected regional products, known for their complicated growing process, delicate flavors, and in the case of Radicchio Rosso, adaptability in the kitchen. Rosso di Treviso is nothing like the radicchio you’re used to—it is barely bitter and its white and ruby leaves have a subtle sweetness and smooth texture. In fact, the part of Radicchio Rosso di Treviso that we eat is the second flower growth, protected by rough outer leaves and obtained after a lengthy process that includes a fresh water bath to reawaken the plant after two winter frosts.
Where Nonno Andrea focuses on one high-quality product, Borgoluce is a behemoth. Run by the royal-rooted Collalto family in Susegana for seven generations, the Borgoluce enterprise spans 3,015 acres of vineyards, crop fields, grazing pastures, woodlands, and olive groves. They grow vineyards of Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG, Pinot Grigio, Manzoni Bianco, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, and Wildbacher grapes; crops of corn, barley, common wheat, soya, sorghum and ryegrass; raise Limousin and Charolais breed cattle, Duroc breed swine, Mediterranea breed dairy buffalo, Haflinger breed horses, and Alpagota breed meat sheep. Their products include a range of Buffalo milk cheeses like mozzarella di bufala; salumis like soppressa and capocolla; corn flours like perla bianca polenta (a Slow Food Presidium). They even have an osteria and an agriturismo hotel, in which we spent the night. Borgoluce’s focus is on maintaining the biodiversity of the region through producing this wide range of quality products and through sustainable agricultural practices, as their bio-energy plant demonstrates. Because of the terrible weather the day we visited, and also because of the fact that our Master program focuses on Media and Representations, the Collalto family focused their presentation to us on the marketing strategies and production statistics, but as far as I could tell, this is one bourgeois farm.
We rounded off our visit to Veneto with a peek into two big players in the Italian wine and spirits industry: Nardini Distillery and Allegrini Winery. Located in Bassano del Grappa, Nardini produces, well, Grappa (and other distilled liqueurs), and has been doing so since 1779. Grappa is made from wine pomace, or the the pulpy residue remaining after the grapes have been crushed. To make their grappa, Nardini allows the pomace to ferment in large concrete vats. Then, the fermented pomace undergoes a steam distillation process from which results the liquid liquor. Some grappa is aged for at least five years in oak barrels for the brand’s reserve label; other grappa simply undergoes filtration and gets mixed with demineralized water to bring the alcohol content down to 50%. Our visit to Nardini was mostly focused, however, on the image that the company puts forth through its Massimiliano Fuksas-designed Bolle structures, which were built at the beginning of the new millennium to celebrate the the company’s 225th anniversary. The architecture was fascinating, but it felt like Nardini was putting on a bit of a smoke and mirrors show for us.
Our afternoon at the Allegrini Winery continued the Public Relations campaign of image-construction. Allegrini has only been around since the late 1960s, when Giovanni Allegrini became an innovator in the Valpolicella area. Back then, the focus was on the quantity, not quality, of Valpolicella wines; Allegrini changed this by moving the cultivation of vines from the valley floor, where they produced too many low-quality grapes, to the hills, where the quality of grape produced increased. He also introduced a different kind of planting system for the vine, providing better exposure to the sun all year round. Allegrini is now known for its Amarone wine, which undergoes a process known as appassimento, where the grapes are allowed to dry, traditionally on straw mats, before being crushed. This results in a luscious, full-bodied wine, due to the higher alcoholic content of the dried grapes. Our visit to the Winery was not so much focused on these technical points, though—they were briefly outlined during our tasting brunch. Rather, our tour was focused on the Villa della Torre in which Allegrini is now housed. Villa della Torre was built in the late 1400s, combining Renaissance architecture with notes of classical Roman style. The Villa is meant to enchant and captivate visitors, creating the quintessential, dreamed-of Italian experience wherein good food, good wine, history, art, and aesthetics meet. The villa was charming, and I appreciated the one taste of history we got during this study trip, but as a student of media and representations, I couldn’t help being skeptical of the fact that Allegrini was trying to pass off the 600 years of the Villa’s history as their own.