Well, it's been a long day of traveling, and after nine hours in the car and on the bus, I'm back home and ready to post again. On the second day of our travels, Swagger and I were invited to two events by the Italian Trade Commission and the Italian Institute for Foreign Trade, an olive oil tasting and discussion with writer Bill Marsano and a dinner and seminar on Italian food in the Kosher market at the Italian Embassy that night.
After a long day of tasting, we made our way to the room where the seminar was being held. It was filled with reporters, distributors, and members of the ICE. We were given a short introduction about I.O.O%, the campaign by Unaprol, which promotes the sale of high quality extra virgin olive oil produced from Italian olives in Italy. The partnership with Unaprol and the olive oil producers has the added benefit of being able to trace the origins of the oils and analyze each step in the production process. As the provenance of some olive oils is quickly leaving Italy, the campaign is being implemented in order to place stricter sensory and analytical perimeters than those in the current production legislation. These olive oils are marked with the phrase "Alta Qualita" on them to designate that they have passed these tests.
In leading us through our tastings, Bill started by saying that like wine, when he consumes olive oil it is "like having a conversation with the person who made it." With this in mind, we began our tasting of six different olive oils from six different regions of Italy. All were marked AQ and were mono cultivar, that is to say, of one olive versus a blend of different olives. In tasting the olive oils, we were encouraged to molest it and warm it in our hands to release the flavors. And then, we began.
The first was an olive oil from a producer called Redoro, from Verona. I should start by mentioning that there is a lot of competition around Italian olive oils. Aside from soccer, it is one of the biggest heated cultural controversies to speak of! After all, food is such a vital part of Italian culture. The Redoro smelled fresh and somewhat bitter, with a leafy, organic flavor that reminded me of sticking my face in freshly mowed grass. It was surprisingly spicy at the back of the throat, too, but did not burn. It was more of a tickle.
The second olive oil (and here, I have to resist from typing "wine" because it was so similar to a blind wine tasting, controversy and all!) was from the producer Marella from Northern Sardinia. This oil had a similar coy bitterness to its flavor but was more mild and fruity, with soft, pear-like flavors. The third was from a producer by the ever lyrical name of Oro delle Donne, from Nero. Of the three so far, this had the most rounded, smooth mouthfeels. Not a small feat for an oil. Its flavor was sweet, as was its scent. While I wouldn't say it carried the complexity of its piquant counterparts, in a cooking application it would probably highlight the flavors of some nuttier, sweeter cheeses.
The fourth one had a similar zippy note to it. It was an olive oil from Rome by Olivastro. I was beginning to recognize this as a sign of brazen youthfulness in the oils. It had a thick, pungent mouthfeel like a hot sauce, and was very strong and bitter. I imagine this would be a wonderful stand-alone condiment with some crusty bread or drizzled on top of a thick slice of tomato, perhaps a leaf of fennel. Yum. Not something to smother away. The fifth was the spiciest of all of the oils, from the producer Figoli out of Calabria. This was an olive oil described as "mosto" for its musty color. Still delicious. It had a faintly acidic nose but its flavors were nothing subtle. Spices all around the tongue and in the throat. Extremely full bodied. We finished off the tasting with a sweet, flighty olive oil with a vinegary nose. The flavor was sweet and bright, with the least amount of bitterness on the palate. This was an olive oil from Apuglia, made from the producer Olio Gugliermi.
This was a wonderful break in the day and I found the presentation to not only be informative, but entertaining and approachable for olive oil novices like myself. The fact that it proceeded similar to a wine tasting gave me good grounds to test it on. The only real low point of the presentation was the insufferably unnamed woman, we'll call her "Bartha Learnstein" who would not shut the hell up about attempting to expose the "controversy" behind the lack of expiration dates on olive oil bottles. Seriously, serious reporter, there isn't some sort of massive scandal in the olive oil industry. There aren't expiration dates because, wait for it, olive oil really doesn't go bad. I almost missed making an awesome quip because of you, you borderline psychotic moron.
After the seminar, we meandered over to the lounge at the Italian Pavilion and drank Prosecco before hitching a ride to the Embassy for the seminar. Special thanks to Kristine Heine for facilitating a part of our transportation. The Embassy is a stunning place, and I was glad to have had the opportunity to get an intimate look inside. It is a sprawling estate built in a distinctly modern style, all sharp edges and atriums, but with touches of Italian culture discreetly placed throughout its interior. It makes me wonder if this was the original site of the Italian Embassy or if it had been commissioned for another country, for you'll see none of the classic Neoclassicism or Mannerism here. Nevertheless, it's a stunning place. We were mainly in the Atrium, the main hall for events and dinners, and in a conference room off to the side.
We started off by having a few drinks and checking out the Atrium, which was quickly filling with rabbinical scholars, Italian and US officials, and reporters. Around the top of the room, modern furniture peeked out and suited bartenders quickly served drinks. The program was supposed to start at 6:00, but did not commence until around 6:30. By this point, the conference room was packed with people, some sitting on the floor or standing outside.The conference was edifying and gave us an interesting look at the insurgence of Italian food, a traditional cuisine typically laden with non-Kosher treats like prosciutto and pancetta, moderated by the ever-avuncular food writer Fred Plotkin with panelists Rabbi Umberto Piperno (not pictured- do you know how hard it is to take these far range photos? I felt like a camera sniper), Thomas Gellert of Gellert Global Group of Companies, and the Italian Ambassador to the US, Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata. Unfortunately, while gestures were made to make the connection between the Jewish and Italian love of food to hurry the tardiness of the seminar in time for dinner, the cultural need to speak at length outweighed that need. Dinner, which was slated for 7:15, was supposed to start at 8 after the ceremony and was not even prepared when the hungry crowd of over 100 people left the room. When it was finally served it consisted of a buffet of prettily prepared but scant amounts of food, a pasta, risotto, bread, and salad buffet set up at two small tables. Did it feed 100 people in a modern-day retelling of the oil in the Hanukkah story? We didn't stick around to find out. We were tired, irritated, and busy searching for a ride back to our motel.
This was clearly a presentation with high aspirations and changes for the future of Kosher cuisine, but presenting it in a way that came off as stingy and tardy to the public and press put a negative spin on the overall message. While we highly appreciated the invitation and were more than happy to attend, I wish that more effort had been put into the culinary aspect following the seminar. After hearing about clever Kosher alternatives to traditional components of Italian food, like replacing bechamel sauce with a soy-based alternative and using cured goose as an alternative for prosciutto, I was disappointed that all they were able to offer us was the quintessential lukewarm fare of elementary school pasta Wednesdays.
Can't deny that the view is spectacular, though. We'll be back.
Labels: dinner, news