Exploring the Food and Culture of Florence
You might say that Italians live to eat. I might tend to agree! But behind every steaming heap of pasta served, you are exploring a bit of our culture and the Italian identity.
Many of our students love Italian food. Yet sometimes their definition of Italian cuisine may not necessarily be what Italians would consider part of their identity or culture. Chicken Alfredo and spaghetti carbonara with cream all come out of the immigrant homes of America, not out of the farms and villages to which Italians feel such a deep connection.
CET Florence has been running our Italian Food and Culture course for several years. However, we knew we wanted to extend this anthropological exploration of the Italian culture to a more hands-on culinary course.
Therefore, last semester, we reached out to the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell and, with their guidance and our own passion and expertise, we developed two new courses: Introduction to Italian Cuisine: Art and Practice, and Wine Studies: History and Culture of Italian Wine.
Understanding Italy through on-the-ground interactions
Our aim is to help students develop an understanding of the Italian culture and identity through immersive programs that combine theoretical classwork and on-the-ground research. This means that if you are going to study Renaissance art and architecture, more than half of the classes will be in Florence’s many churches and museums, and if you are going to be learning about Italian food and culture, an element of your study will be tasting and preparing the cuisine.
We set about developing a class that met the academic rigor of a professional culinary course. Using a collection of Cornell food-related syllabi as a model, we developed a preliminary syllabus. We knew lab work was essential—in fact, every week students will spend four hours in a production lab, cooking. Initially we had also developed a few courses on best practices in food management. However, we soon realized that in no way should our course be a food management course. We wanted to develop a course that captured the ethos of what food means in Italy.
At times our insistence on genuine Italian cuisine can even get us into a bit of trouble! For example, when learning about Roman cuisine, students will cook La Pajata, a dish that is in fact very hard to find in Florence. But as an essential dish of the Roman trattoria, I knew we had to include it. We want students to learn recipes that they wouldn’t see anywhere else. Even if it might require many hours of us searching for the perfect ingredients.
Students make these ingredients their own by cooking them, by combining the flavors that spark their own creativity. At the end of the course, students are given a mystery box of ingredients and are challenged to create their own dish by combining ingredients, flavors and ideas they have learned throughout the course and their time in Italy.
Our history is in our ingredients
When students arrive, their relationship to Italian cuisine may be similar to their understanding of Italians. They may see that Italians are passionate and loud, always waving their hands—but what they may not understand is how each region has shaped its people or, in culinary terms, has its own identity.
The terroir of Italy changes dramatically from the rolling hills of Tuscany to the rocky terrain of Calabria. In Trentino-Alto Adige you can still hear German spoken, while in Sicily the dialect still pulls Arabic words from when the region was the Emirate of Sicily. The contrast in the terrain and the complex and fragmented origins of Italy reflect in our cuisine and our wine. It is our goal to teach our students just how diverse Italy is.
Take, for example, the gelato. There is still debate as to who first invented the gelato: China or the Medici Court? What we do know is that Caterina de’ Medici is recognized as the first exporter of the Italian gelato culture to Europe. There is less debate as to which gelato belongs to which region. Florence, is known for the “buontalenti” flavor, named after the famous Renaissance artist Bernardo Buontalenti who cultivated his passion for desserts while inventing new gelato flavors of bergamot, lemons and oranges. Piedmont is known for the “bacio” flavor, meaning kiss, and is a delicious mixture of nuts and chocolate. Sicily is known for the “torrone” flavor based on almonds. Travel throughout the Mediterranean and you’ll find similar flavors, whether it be in Malta, Spain or Morocco.
We have built these courses also to encourage students to discover Italy. It is true: you are in Tuscany, you are in Florence—but Florence is not Italy. We have noticed that students often choose to travel beyond Italy during their time with us. It is our intention that these courses allow students to explore Italy as a whole rather than through the small cultural pockets they experience while abroad. And perhaps we can motivate a few not to travel to Amsterdam but to Sardinia or Val D’Aosta instead, and to begin exploring the beauty and contrast that is Italy.
As Italians, our relationship with food is tied to our families.
Culinary appreciation, not idealization
Another important facet of our course is moving students from glorification to appreciation. There is no attitude or food culture that is more correct than another, and no culture has hold over all things delicious. All you can do is learn, be conscious about your interactions within the culture and then choose what works for you. Take the tomato, for example.
In Italy we are very picky about tomatoes, and every region has a strong attachment to a specific type of tomato. There is the Pomodoro di Pachino, a cherry tomato from the village of Pachino, a specialty in Sicily. In Tuscany, we love the pomodori fiorentini, which are great for tomato salad. But neither of these tomatoes is good for making tomato sauce. Yet somehow, we have forgotten this fruit was originally from America, not Italy!
As Italians, our relationship with food is tied to our families. We pour our love into slowly braised ragú and rich panna cotta. For me, the quiet murmur and the loud bursts of laughter that flow from the kitchen to the living room are all essential parts of not only our big festive days but also our weekly Sunday meals. In Italy, food is not just nutrition for the body, but nutrition for the heart as well.
Exploring the diversity of Italian wine
Just as cuisine is defined by its regions, so too are grapes affected by Italy’s varying climatic and geographical regions. Our wines course takes both historical and regional approaches to teaching about Italian wines. We see how wines moved from Mesopotamia to the Greeks and then into Italy, but also we look practically at how Italian wines became a prominent presence in the international market.
We knew that to develop a strong wines course, we needed to focus on the technical aspects of wine. An expert in wine studies teaches our wines class, but we also have an oenologist teach many of the sessions to ensure that students not only learn about the variations of taste within regions in Italy, but also a bit about viticulture in Italy and the chemistry of winemaking. Students develop an understanding of how soils, environmental factors from year to year, and farm practices affect the taste of wine. Hence, because the soil differs so greatly from Sicily to Tuscany to Venice, so too the wine will taste differently.
We also try to impart to students an appreciation of how various farm practices affect these wines. We learn about Luigi Veronelli, a journalist and wine expert, who through his initiatives—both working with vintners to ensure adherence for specific guidelines, and with colleagues abroad—brought Italian wine to the international market.
Our goal is not only to develop students’ appreciation of Italian wine but an appreciation of wine in general and understanding of how different cultures interact with wine in different ways.
A lifetime of culinary exploration
Our students come to CET-Florence from a variety of backgrounds: language majors, European studies minors, or students at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell. These courses provide students with a culinary foundation to critically and competently speak about many aspects of food—whether that means knowing exactly what wine to order off the menu to best complement a meal, or to competently build a restaurant menu focused on authentic northern Italian cuisine.
We want these students to leave, with a taste of Italy in their mouth and their souls. Through these courses, we provide the hints for them to recognize what is behind our food. We’re sure students leave with a taste that follows them throughout their lives.