I cannot believe that the month of June is already over, and my magical, almost unreal, journey through foodie heaven has ended. I’ve been home from Italy for a week now, and I’ve been dying to share these unforgettable experiences and new insights since the beginning of the trip. But it seems every time I sit down to write, I don’t even know where to begin!
I’ve decided that one blog post can only scratch the surface of what I learned, and much more will trickle out in posts to come (Get ready for lots of yummy Italian recipes!). For now, though, a run-down on what I was doing and the major themes I took away.
(Agriturismo Manostalla, Alcamo, Sicily)
My three-week adventure across Italy was a University of Florida study abroad program–a class called “Italian Food: From Production to Consumption.” The title was spot-on: With 19 other students, our professor, his wife, and our native Italian coordinator, we toured a myriad of farms, food processors, and wineries, and of course tasted every product and feasted on the fresh local cuisine every day…all while soaking in the culture, history, and breathtaking views. (The photo above was taken in Alcamo, Sicily, FROM MY BACK PORCH.)
Sound like a good way to spend the summer? Ok, now multiply that feeling by 22,426,879, and you might come close to comprehending just how incredible and enriching this experience was.
Where we stayed
We stayed in agriturismos, which are like bed & breakfasts with restaurants, located on farms where they grow much of the food they serve. Essentially, they mean farm-to-table at its best, friendly families, and space to kick back with jaw-dropping views, or (if you’re me) play around and run along picturesque roads through the countryside.
What we ate
First, a disclaimer: These photos were quickly snapped as we were all voraciously reaching and digging in to our gorgeous food; there’s no way they can truly do the meals justice, but I can’t help but share some of them.
Lunches were typically at the wineries or local spots in town. Lots of thinly sliced ham, aged cheeses, and all the bruschetta your heart desired. My favorite lunch food was without a doubt octopus salad–first in Syracuse, then I managed to get it at least 3 more times before the end of the trip! Simply dressed in olive oil, lemon, and herbs, who would have guessed that these slimy, outlandish creatures could taste so darn good?
Then came dinner, which was a major festivity every single night. It was served at the agriturismos with only a few exceptions. We would sit at a long table together, pass food around family-style, and eat and talk and laugh for 2-3 hours. I know this isn’t practical for everyday life in our fast-paced world, but what a way to live. You can disconnect, enjoy and learn from the people around you, and really savor and appreciate your food. I tend to take that last one a little too far as it is, though. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was voted “Most likely to be the last one to finish a meal” at the end of the trip. What can I say? Good food deserves time.
Breakdown of a typical dinner:
- We started between 7:30 and 8 with bread, wine (pretty much all-you-can-drink throughout the meal!), and platters of antipasti, which could be anything from caprese salad to baked ricotta to mini lasagna or polenta with fish mousse–always fun and exciting to taste.
- Then came primo piatto, aka pasta time. And they did not hold back–sometimes we got two or three types just for that course! Spaghetti, lasagna, pappardelle, thick tubes, fat hollow twisties, thin curlies, and 100 other shapes you couldn’t name, paired with pomodoro sauces, pestos, cream sauces, olive oil, and often some veggies or meat thrown in too. It was a carb-lover’s dream.
Buying and eating locally is very important in Italian culture. In Sicily, pistachios are a major crop and therefore showed up everywhere, like in the pistachio pesto on the left. We even had a pistachio pizza on Etna! Also, it was common in Sicily to top pasta with dry, shredded ricotta (also above on the left). Why not Parmigiano-Reggiano? That’s from northern Italy!
- Next was secondo piatto, or the main course, usually a meat or seafood and vegetable dish or salad. Many nights were beef, sometimes pork or fish, and poultry made several appearances as well. I also can’t ignore those fresh summer veggies! Eggplant, zucchini, peppers, artichokes, tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes. Roasted potatoes were another favorite.
- Then for dessert: custard, tiramisu, gelato, sorbet, panna cotta, cake…You name it, we probably had it. It often incorporated fresh summery fruit, like cherries from the yard!
I wasn’t always up for the desserts (for me it’s almost always about the dark chocolate), but this was actually one of my favorites. Best gelato on the trip with simple and delicious fresh fruit. The kitchen staff had to send us away when we begged for more.
- Then came shots of limoncello or grappa, and finally coffee. (I passed on these.) After that we usually sat at the table for even longer and talked. Every dinner was truly something special.
What we did
The trip itinerary (or what you might call the steps to Italian food bliss) went something like this:
- 2 nights in Syracuse region, Sicily
- Swimming in the Mediterranean outside our agriturismo
- Sun-dried tomato production
- Fresh tomato production and distribution
- Nero d’Avola winery
The best of the best cherry tomatoes are just salted and left to dry in the hot Sicilian sun. Simple, organic, and LOADED with flavor and lycopene!
And don’t even get me started with the fresh tomatoes. These literally taste like CANDY, they’re that good. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the date tomato sugar content is actually around 11% (vs. 9% here in Florida), but the difference wasn’t sweetness alone. It’s incredible what the soil, climate, and care can do to the flavor. My tomato radar was constantly on for the remainder of the trip; I leapt on every opportunity to get these in my mouth…More pomodoro, per favore?
- 2 nights in Etna region, Sicily
- Almond production and processing
- Hike up Mt. Etna volcano
- Etna winery
- Pistachio produduction and procesing
- 2 nights outside Palermo, Sicily
- Street markets of Palermo
- Coffee processing
- Fish market
- Sea salt extraction
- Olive oil production
- Fish farming
- Winery in Marsala
Because of the ultra-dry climate of the region, Sicilian olive oil is robust and complex. No wonder they
drizzle pour it over everything.
- 1 night and day in Venice
- Fly from Palermo to Treviso
- Free night and dinner in Venice
- Most of next day exploring the city
- 3 nights in Vicenza
- Asiago cheese production in Asiago
- Sausage processor
- Cooking class
- Fresh stuffed pasta factory
- Grappa distillery
- Vineyards and winery
I loved cheese before I came on this trip (as you might guess), but learning about it from people who genuinely care, who devote their lives to upholding tradition and the highest standards, I not only have more knowledge but a greater appreciation for each type’s quality and uniqueness. My relationship with cheese has been elevated to a new level.
But seriously, even if you’re not as over-the-top about it as I am, how awesome is this asiago/grana padano aging room?!?!
I’m really disappointed we were not allowed to take pictures in the fresh pasta factory, Bertagni, because that was probably my favorite tour of the whole trip. Big machines mix flour and egg on the top floor, then roll out the pasta to the bottom level, where it is cut into specific shapes, filled and sealed. The fillings–spinach ricotta, butternut squash, eggplant, bolognese, and many other varieties–are made in essentially an oversized kitchen with the simplest ingredients possible. Some powder is necessary to limit water activity and prevent pathogen growth, but they make a point to use only the types that are naturally occuring in the other ingredients. They also discussed experiments with different types of grains, like farro and rye. I’ll be looking out for those–they make Trader Joe’s brand!
- 3 nights near Bologna
- Visit Bologna University and the city
- Parmigiano-reggiano cheese factory
- Balsamic vinegar production
- Lambrusco winery
- Visit Montechiarugolo castle
- Parma Ham factory
Parmigiano-reggiano production is very similar to that of grana padano but must adhere to stricter standards, and is therefore considered above other varieties. The cows must come from that specific area (around Parma and Reggio Emilia, hence the name) and and be fed a specific diet; the ingredients, technique, and timing throughout production must also be precise.
Even so, the process is surprisingly simple. Mix milk and rennet, collect the precipitate and press out the whey, soak in brine (did you know that’s how cheese is salted?!?!?), then dry and age. Don’t underestimate the power of simplicity in foods and cuisine. A few ingredients with the right care can really go a long way.
Balsamic vinegar was another product that I gained a whole new perspetive on. We tasted vinegars aged 20, 50, and even 100 years in various types of wood. I will never buy from the grocery store again.
- 3 nights in Tuscany
- Chianti wineries
- Free day in Florence
- Pecorino cheese production
- Brunello winery
- Visit Siena
- 2 nights in Rome
- Olive oil tasting in Sabina
- Last supper as a group in Rome
- Free day in Rome
- To the airport
Sea bass with artichokes and tomatoes. This dish had to be my favorite of the whole trip! (Well, at least my favorite seafood main dish. I don’t think it’s possible to pick an overall favorite). So much to love about everything on that plate.
The end for now
Summing up is difficult to do, because I learned and experienced SO MUCH. But, without a doubt, I will be bringing up some of these facts and philosophies in posts to come. The simplicity of the cuisine and focus on quality has shaped my own approach to cooking and eating. And there are some foods I already miss and have to recreate–baked ricotta, octopus salad, and creamy pesto pasta, anyone?
I’m happy to hear your thoughts and answer any questions! Comment below or shoot me a message. 🙂