Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Day 10: Laura and Mino's Risotto party and the magical calling of Piedmonte

Day 10: Laura and Mino's Risotto party and the magical calling of Piedmonte

Cafe visited: Il Salotto (4 star. Good coffee. Friendly service.)

Laura and Mino are the couple who owns the vacation rental in which I stayed in Alba. Before I left for Italy, I asked Laura via email for restaurants recommendation for risotto. I told her that I love risotto, and for this trip, not only I want to go to restaurants for good risotto, I also want to take cooking class and learn how to make it. Laura told me that she and her husband, Mino, love risotto and they make risotto regularly! She invited me to their home for lunch and they would show me how they make their risotto! The hostibility of Italy had already extended to me before my trip even started!

Morning coffee

Our lunch party was at 12:30pm, so I had some time for my morning coffee! Today, I went to Il Salotto. Their coffee was pretty good. However, here in Alba, I still like Fiori and Vergnano better.

Risotto lunch with Laura and Mino

Laura and Mino are retired and currently live in a nice home outside of Alba. They waited for me to start the cooking so that I could see how it was made. We were making two different kinds of risotto today. One was a simple cheese risotto, and the other one was a sausage and greens risotto. (I'm so sorry, Laura. I forgot the name of the cheese and the vegetables. It was so good that all I remember was eating the risotto!)

For the cheese risotto, we used leek and cheese, and for the sausage one, we used sausage that was previously sauted, the greens, and chopped onion.

Just like the risotto that Alessandra showed me yesterday, Laura and Mino put a bit of water into the onion when sweating them. We also used beef stock for both risotto. Laura used the back of the neck and the butt meat for the beef stock. We didn't add any wine into the risotto, though. And... Olive oil only. No butter at the begining.


While Alessandra cooks her risotto for 15 minutes and then rests it for 5 minutes, Laura cooks hers for 18 minutes, and rests it for 2 minutes. Both have a total of 20 minutes. When the cooking part was done, we covered the sausage risotto, and for the cheese risotto, we added the cheese and a bit of butter, mixed it up, and then covered it.


And when the resting was done, Whoa La! We had two different kinds of delicious risotto! The sausage was meaty and chuncky, and the vegetable was slightly bitter and crunchy. They two fromed great contrast both in flavor and texture, and with the creamy rice as the foundation. Yummy! And for the cheese risotto, it was super creamy and slightly pungent from the cheese. This cheese is a little bit stronger than the cheese that we used yesterday, and created a risotto with a different flavor profile. Both dishes' rice was cooked perfectly. Really delicious.


After the risotto, we had some cheese and jams. Laura and Mino also made dessert. Red wine poached pear! They were so delicious!

Then we had espresso! :-) Laura suggested me checking out the Slow Food university on my way back. Sounds like a great idea! We ended our wonderful lunch party after the coffee so that I could check out the university before it closed. It was such a wondering lunch! Thank you so much, Laura and Mino!

A visit to Slow Food University

The slow food university is very closed to Bra, where Slow Food's headquarter is. If you are not familiar with the Slow Food movement in Italy, there is a lot of information online about it that you can find. Basically, back in the 1980s, when McDonald's entered Italy and wanted to open a store in front of the Spanish Steps in Rome, a group of people gathered in front of it to protest and wanted to defend the traditional Italian food and slower pace of way of life. The movement has since spreaded out all over the world. There are Slow Food chapters in many different countries and there is bi-annual Slow Food conference in Bra.

The school's campus is not big but really cool to check out. There were classes on-going, so I didn't take lots of photos there.

There is a beautiful church just outside of the university. The interior of the church was even more stunning than the exterior:


I wonder what it is like to study here. If I learned cooking here, how would that change me? As I walked by the class room and looked inside, I saw a beautiful calligraphy of the words Slow Food in Chinese: 慢餐. That was awesome. I saw quite a few Asian students there, too.

A magical journey back to Alba

On my way back from Slow Food University to Alba, I started feeling anxious. This is my last night in Alba. Tomorrow, I will go on to Emilia-Romagna. I was feeling separation anxiety. Beautiful land, wonderful people, and amazing food. It was hard to get myself ready to say GoodBye.

It was raining when I was at Slow Food University but when I left, it had stopped. When I was driving on the highway, just as I was amazed by the landscape, the sun broke out of the clouds and casted right in front of me the most beautiful rainbow I had ever seen. By the time I found a spot to park and came out to take a picture, part of the rainbow had already faded. :-(

I couldn't help myself and got really emotional as I continued driving back to Alba. I was feeling something that was really raw and powerful. "Is this a sign? Is this land calling for me? Is this where I find what I'm look for?" From the first moment I saw the hills of Piedmont, I could feel something inside me changing. As I started interacting with people here and built connections, I found myself falling in love with this place more than any other place I've been to. All the specialty food that Piedmonte has to offer are what I really love. Tuffle, chocolate, hazelnuts, risotto, and Piedmontese beef. And let's not forget the bright orange eggs, cheese and Tajarin. As much as I love San Francisco, I couldn't help but started thinking about moving to Piedmonte.

However, moving to a place is not just about taking what this land has to offer, but also what I have to offer her. What can I bring Piedmonte and the beautiful people here? That's when I stopped fantasizing myself moving here starting a new life. (Talking about midlife crisis, eh?)

My fascination and love for Piedmonte is now planted deeply within me. This seed has started to grow and will continue after I get back to the States. What will it grow into? Where will it take me? My life has been changed forever. I can feel my heart beating in a different rhythm. Now that I've seen what life can be for me, my perspective has changed. Maybe I will stay in the Bay Area; maybe I'll move to the east coast to be close to my sister's family; maybe I'll move to Piedmonte; maybe I'll be in other places and find a way to introduce people to the beauty of Piedmonte. I don't know.

I will follow my heart. It already knows where I need to go. For now, I am not ready to move here because I have nothing to offer. When I am ready one day, I will be back, and I know this rainbow will be here to welcome me.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Day 9: Cooking class: Learning to cook the perfect risotto and more from chef Alessandra at Agriturismo La Torricella in Monforte d’Alba

Day 9: Cooking class: Learning to cook the perfect risotto and more from chef Alessandra at Agriturismo La Torricella in Monforte d’Alba

The day has finally arrived for the cooking class! I have always thought that my risotto was really good until I came to Italy on this trip and had amazing risotto one after another. What is the secret to a perfect bowl of risotto? Today, I will learn from Alessandra, the Italian chef behind the restaurant at La Torricella in Monforte d’Alba!

The cooking class started at 9am. It took place in the kitchen of La Torricella in Monforte d’Alba. Before I left for this trip, Joost’s sister told me to check out the town of Monforte d’Alba, so I was really happy to have a chance to check it out on my way to the cooking class.

La Torricella is on top of a hill, and as I was on my way driving up to the place, I was just stunned at how beautiful this area was. I made several stops on the way to take some photos.


Once I arrived at Agriturismo La Torricella, the view was even more breathtaking. What a way of life they have up here! Here is a panoramic view from La Torricella. Click on the photo to view it in full size. The next time I come to Piedmont, I will definitely stay here!

After I parked my car, as I walked up to the property, an old man greeted me. He turned out to be Alessandra’s father! I didn’t know how to say cooking class in Italian. What to do to ask for directions? I suddenly remembered the word “cucina” as kitchen in Spanish. (From the company in San Francisco, La Cucina) Maybe this would work. I said “cucina”, and he understood right away! Haha! He pointed me to the building at the top. Alessandra’s brother greeted me as I entered the building and took me into the kitchen. There I met Jane from Chicago, who is staying there for a full Piedmonte experience and at the same time, helping out with English/Italian translation. Turned out, I was the only student that day! I will get Alessandra’s full attention!

Alessandra came out and greeted me. She speaks really good English. We had no problem communicating with each other. All of them are so friendly and down to earth. We briefly discussed what we were going to make that day and we started right away.

Menu will be: Risotto with truffle, Coccotte with truffle, Porcini mushroom Tajarin, Ravioli with fontino cheese filling, and hazelnut cake for dessert. We will also make Focaccia bread.

We first started with the stock for risotto. We will cook this for 2-3 hours before the stock is ready. I’ve always used chicken stock for risotto in the US. Turns out, in Piedmont, people mostly use beef stock instead. Clear beef stock though, not the brown beef stock we see in the US. We used beef shoulder meat for this. She also told me that for good broth, we put the meat in before we start heating the water. For good meat to eat, the meat is put in after the water is boiled. In this case, we added the meat when the water was still cold. We also added leak, carrots, bay leave, black pepper corn, juniper berries and a bit of olive oil and salt before the water was boiled.

20 minutes in, the kitchen was filled with the aroma of the beef stock as it boils.

Next, we prepare the filling for the ravioli. We used a local Piedmonte cheese called Raschera. It is a mild semi-hard cheese that is very creamy and with a sweet flavor. So delicious! I hope that it is available back home in the United States. Alessandra told me that the smaller the holes, the better the cheese. Good to know!

The cheese was cubed and then, yolks, flour and milk were added together into a small sauce pan. The color of the yolk was deep orange. So beautiful. She told me that for this type of eggs, farmers fed the chicken with carrots to get this color. For those of you who keep chicken and get your own eggs back home in the Bay Area, give this a try and let me know if you get yolk in this color! I’ll buy some from you! To cook this filling, instead of a double boiler, Alessandra used a stone block for indirect heat! So fancy! I need to go find a block of stone like this when I get home.


While this is cooked, we started with the dough for the pasta. White flour and semolina flour were mixed together, and then eggs were added to it.


Then we started kneading the dough, let it rest for 10 minutes, and running it through the pasta machine.


While we were cooking, Jane was kind enough to help me with picture taking. I think these are the first set of photos that I am in them on this trip! Hahaha. Thanks, Jane! Great photos. I love them! She also took the first photo on this blog post of me loosening up the tajarin.

Then, we started with the ravioli making. It was not as easy as it seems. LOL. I had a lot of fun doing it, though.

We then also started on the hazelnut cake, which is another regional specialty in Piedmont. There are so many regional specialty in Piedmont, my God. LOL. How many trips do I need to make here to try all of them? Then we came back and cut the pasta into Tajarin. In the meantime, we also started on Focaccia. So busy!


By now, a good two and a half hours have past. During which, Alessandra’s husband, Francesco came in and said hi with their baby daughter. Such an adorable Italian family! We took a break and had some great espresso. This is an Italian morning through and through!

It’s now time for the risotto! Woohoo!

We started with chopping the onion really finely. Much more finely than what I was doing back in the US. This is something that I’ve noticed in all the risotto that I’ve had here. I almost never saw big chunk of onion in my risotto. Actually, if I didn’t pay attention, I wouldn’t even have noticed onion pieces in the risotto at all.

Next, we sweat the onion in olive oil and water! Yes, you heard it right. Water. Aqua. H2O! She said that we don’t want to burn the onion so adding some water will mellow down onion’s strong taste and make sure it doesn’t get burnt. I also asked her if people put garlic in there, and to my surprise, Alessandra told me that Italians nowadays do not use garlic as much anymore. To most people, it is just too strong of a taste. In many dishes, onion is as strong of an ingredient as it goes. Also, there is no butter in the pan yet. I usually put butter and olive oil without water. I guess it’s time to try risotto Piedmontese style after I get back. I’m so excited about trying this method.

Next up, the rice. I’ve noticed a few different kind of rice for risotto. Mainly three types: Arborio, which is the one that I always used in the US, Carnaroli, which is the one that we are using today, and then Vialone Nano, which has a smaller size kernels. Alessandra told me that she always uses Carnaroli. Vialone Nano is mostly used in the northeast region around Venice. All three can be used for risotto though, she said. I’m going to give carnaroli a try when I go back to the US. After the rice was toasted for a while, a small amount of white wine was added.

From here, she put in 4 ladles of the beef stock and just let it cook. She was so casual about it, too. No standing next to it and stir constantly. Once the stock was reduced, she put in a couple more ladles, stirred a bit. and then let it sit again. After the rice became twice as big, she started to stir it more. 15 minutes in after the stock was added, she turned the heat off, added some butter and parmesan cheese, covered, and let it sit for 5 minutes.

And how did this risotto turned out? Perfectly! Oh my God. I am getting the same kind of sensation as the risotto I had in Venice. Really creamy but still slowly flow-y after stirred. The rice was al dante. It was just perfect. So this is how you make a perfect bowl of risotto!

And of course, we shaved some white truffle on it, too.

After the risotto, we finished making pasta, ravioli, coccotte, and hazelnut cakes.

Everything was so delicious! I was so stuffed at the end. During cooking class, I discovered that they also make their own wine! Alessandra offered to give me a tour of their winery. It is amazing how much work they’ve put into this land, and all these passion and care show in their food and their wine. Part of their vineyard is inside the Barolo zone, so they also make Barolo!

When we walked outside, the sun is starting to show. The view was amazing.

Inside the winery, Alessandra’s sister is packing some large jars with their wine for local buyers. We also walked down into their wine cellar and saw the aging of their wine in wood barrels.


As the day came to an end and I waved them good bye and drove away from their house, I knew that this experience has forever changed me. Through their warm and welcoming spirit, I am feeling the effect of the land of Piedmonte and the energy behind the food and the people here.

Food is where the culture shows itself in the rawest form. With local ingredients, people developed different cooking methods and styles to adapt to the weather and the seasonal availability of produces from the land that they live on. I am so glad that I had this opportunity to spend a day with Alessandra and Francesca’s family as they welcomed me into their kitchen. Next time I come to Piedmont, I cannot imagine anywhere else to stay except here. (They also operates a B&B here.)

The drive back to Alba and a visit to the only tower open to the public in town.

As I drove back to Alba, the landscape continued to stun me. It’s beauty was beyond anything that I have imagined. How can a place be this beautiful? It amazes me that tourists aren’t all over the place here yet. The best kept secret in Italy.


After I got back to Alba, I went up to the only tower that is open to the public and snapped a couple of shot of the town of Alba in the evening.


It was cold and windy on top of the tower. When I got back to the apartment, I ended up with a headache and a bit of fever. I hope that I didn’t catch a cold. I decided to go to bed early and hope that I’ll be able to sleep it off and feel much better tomorrow morning.