Zero Waste Update

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Happy 2019!

It’s the beginning of another year, and as usual it’s got me thinking about this past trip around the sun.

I’ve always thought of resolutions as wishy washy – statements promising to change your life in some grand way that seem to disappear as quickly as they’re formed – but in the past couple of years I’ve warmed up to them.  I like the idea of using the day as an excuse to step back and think: where am I now, where do I want to be, and how do I get there?  

Of course, I could do this on any given day during the year: January 1st is just as arbitrary as any other day.  But there IS something about the first day of the year, a day that is marked, fixed, and completely reliable – every 365.25 days it’s here again – that gives you that extra push to say, “This year, I will finally do it,” whatever “it” may be.  And hey, if you want July 18th to be your annual day of regulated self-reflection, go right ahead!

Sometimes the most important part about thinking about how you’re going to reach this “it” in the future is to reflect on the past, especially if “it” is a goal that is going to take some time.

For me, one of my long term goals is to waste less – of time, of food, of materials, of everything.  Last year I wrote a post about how I broadly want to do this (Waste Free in JP), and although my location has changed (goodbye for now peaceful, quirky JP) the goal remains the same…and I’m pleased to report that I’ve made a lot of progress!

These past few years, the idea of waste has made itself a permanent home in my brain. It seems I can’t do anything without thinking “Is (blah and blah) really necessary?”, whether it’s during a trip to the grocery store, buying something that I’ll maybe use only once, or thinking about something for too long, because wasting mental energy is a real thing, too.

And although this awareness is extremely beneficial in pointing out targeted areas where waste exists, it can also leave me feeling frustrated and defeated when I feel I don’t have a way of counteracting it.

And so I’ve realized transitioning into a waste-free lifestyle takes a lot of patience: I’ve accepted that it’s going to take time, and that I can’t make the transition all at once, as satisfying as that would be.

I can, however, swiftly knock out several wasteful habits with some simple changes, especially with the aid of a few zero waste products to hold my hand along the way.

This past year it’s been so exciting to see more and more zero waste products popping up, and at first glance, I want them ALL.  Like any new trend (that this has become a trend at all makes me very, very happy), marketers have quickly picked up on what works best, and when I see the buzzwords “zero waste” or “waste-free” I’m instantly drawn in.

But this reminds me of a funny phrase my cousin used the other day to describe our other cousin: “He’s a maximalist minimalist,” i.e. he wants to live like a minimalist, and so he keeps buying all these minimalist products that will help him “achieve” minimalism.  It’s completely counterintuitive!

It’s important to remember that, in this way, buying zero waste products can also be wasteful.  Again, I always go back to that question, “Is it really necessary?”  I may like that reusable set of wooden utensils, but why buy it when I already have a perfectly good spoon, fork, and knife at home?  They’re pretty and have a natural ~earthy~ look, but for me they’re also completely unnecessary.  Buying products based solely on the “zero waste” label without attention to what you already have wastes not only materials, but also money.

But every once in a while you come across one of the good ones, a product that integrates easily into your lifestyle specifically, one that is worth buying, and that can really have a huge impact on the amount of waste you’re generating.

Over the past year I’ve acquired a few of these products that I’ve come to really love, and I wanted to share them with you all, and also get your ideas for some things I’ve been looking for!  This is a list that is personalized to my habits, so you may have no need for some of these.  All items are either reusable substitutes for single-use products, or products made from recycled materials.

One last note: if you’re currently finishing up using a non-reusable product (still have some shampoo left in that bottle, or some plastic wrap on the roll), don’t use this as an excuse to ditch them and run: that just results in more waste!  Finish using them first, then when it comes time to replace, try to do so with a zero waste product.  It can be easy to get excited about making these changes all at once, but it’s worth the wait.

Zero Waste Products I Love

Toiletries 

Shampoo, conditioner, and soap: Lush bars

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Lush has an entire “Naked” line, featuring products that are package-free.  Like everything at Lush, they’re free of harsh chemicals, they smell AMAZING, and I have the strange urge to eat them…don’t tell me you’ve never thought their wedges of soap look like cheese!

At $11.95/bar they’re more expensive than a bottle of shampoo, but these will last you much, much longer.  A friend gave me my first set for my birthday this past June, and 6 months later I JUST finally had to buy a new shampoo bar.  I still have about half of the conditioner bar left.  Part of the reason they’ve lasted so long is that I don’t get them directly wet – they recommend getting your hands wet first, and then using them to create a lather.  They’ll last even longer if you dry them off after.

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Waste-free Lush store in Milan, Italy

I love the “Honey I Washed My Hair” and “Avocado” scents, but it’s best to go into the store and find which one speaks to you 😉  If you don’t already have something to store bars in, I recommend getting some of their reusable tins.  I relied on these for the past 3 months traveling abroad and what’s even BETTER is that they’re bars – not liquids – so you can bring them in your carry-on!

My hair has gotten so much softer (and their scents last much longer in my hair) with these, AND I completely cut out at least 4 plastic bottles a year.  It’s a win win…win: for me, the environment, and Lush, since I’m now a lifetime buyer.

Toothbrush: The Giving Brush

htb1z1azqpxxxxayaxxxq6xxfxxx5_1024x1024_2x_9fd79b7e-1e21-4fee-bb86-d9bc4401a281_530x@2xI’ll admit it, this purchase is a result of an ad on Facebook – they know what I want!  If you don’t mind the plant-based bristles being bright rainbow colors, you can actually get one of their compostable bamboo toothbrushes completely free (the more ~classy~ colors are available in sets of 3 for $6.99, still way cheaper than your conventional plastic toothbrush).  Alternatively, you can sign up for their subscription program where you can get 6, 8, or 12 brushes a year – enough for the whole fam!

This is a quick fix to eliminate a triannual plastic purchase (yes, I had to look up what the dentists recommend), and it’s especially important considering “North America alone wastes over 1 billion toothbrushes” (Foreo).  Click here for more information on the harmful effects of conventional toothbrushes.

Face mask: Franklin & Whitman

Skin care is always a frustrating topic for me, as my family is “blessed” with a lovely history of reoccurring acne.  As a result a lot of the products and prescriptions I’m forced to use to manage breakouts are not waste-free, so when I do come across something that works, and is sustainable, I get really excited.

Franklin & Whitman have this incredible recycling program for their bottles: once they’re empty, just ship them back to them and they’ll give you a discount code for your next purchase!  The more bottles you return at once, the higher the discount you get.

What I found even cooler is that they use packing peanuts that dissolve when under warm running water!  That’s huge, given that the styrofoam normally used to ship fragile goods is non-reusable, and is proven to have devastating long term effects on our health and the environment.

Awkward footage of the dissolving peanut, too cool not to share!

oaklane-min_2048xThese factors alone are enough to support a company like Franklin & Whitman, but it helps that their products are also effective.   While I’m unable to use solely their line of skin care products to completely manage my stubborn acne, here I’m recommending one of their products that has offered me EXTREME relief: their Oak Lane Face Mask.  I specifically recommend this for anyone suffering from painful, inflamed acne: it offers me immediate comfort and visibly cuts down on redness and swelling in a way that nothing else I have tried has.  Their masks come in powder form, so I recommend also purchasing their reusable Mask Bowl Kit if you don’t have something similar already.

I use this mask at least once a week and it’s incredibly relaxing. You paint it on your face with a brush and it slowly hardens, leaving you looking like a monster but with smooth refreshed skin just 15 minutes later!  If you don’t suffer from acne, they have many other types of masks to fit your skin type.  Like Lush, I think I’m hooked on this one.

Kitchen

Coffee Cup: KeepCup

I have gotten more compliments on my adorable little coffee mug than any article of clothing…or any aspect of my personality, for that matter.  People love it, I love it, it’s great.  I don’t drink a lot of coffee quantity-wise, so I got the smallest size possible 1) because it’s adorable and 2) I’ll be forced to order a small coffee every time and save money on caffeine I probably didn’t need in the first place.

We’re all aware that single-use cups are extremely wasteful, and if you’re a regular coffee or tea drinker, this is such an easy way to cut back on the one million disposable cups that are used and discarded every minute around the world (KeepCup).

KeepCup sizes are barista-approved, so there’s no frustration at the bar about having to adjust the milk or coffee quantities…and you can completely customize your mug down to the size and lid, bottle, and grip color and material.  Mine is small enough to carry around with me constantly so I never have to worry about having to use a single-use cup.  And again, it’s just so dang cute…

Countertop Compost Bin

img_0626If you’re not already composting, start there first 😉 My family signed up for City Compost this past year and every week our bucket is picked up and replaced with a new one.  We keep their large bucket in the garage and instead keep this smaller one in the kitchen.  It’s right next to the sink, so even my father (as much as he doesn’t want to admit he’s doing something good for the environment) cannot escape its stare.  Small bits of leftovers on dirty plates and veggie peels made while making dinner are easily scraped in, and once its full we add it to the garage bucket.  It makes it incredibly convenient and it doesn’t even smell!

Flexible food storage: Bee’s Wrap

img_2511This photo shows just how flexible Bee’s Wrap is – there’s an irregular-shaped loaf of bread inside, and the wrap stores it nice and tight.  Like styrofoam, plastic wrap is extremely hard to dispose of: it doesn’t degrade, and when it inevitably ends up in the natural environment it is often ingested by birds or sea life whom mistake it for food, bringing the toxic chemicals inside with it.  Read more information about the negative environmental impact of plastic wrap here.

Bee’s Wrap is handcrafted in Vermont and is made from organic cotton, beeswax, organic jojoba oil, and tree resin.  Not only are they available in a variety of beautiful prints and shapes customized for bread, cheese, small snacks, and more, they’re also washable, reusable, AND compostable.  They even have a slight honey smell to them!  Plus, Bees Wrap will never stick to you like that pesky plastic wrap 😉

Favorite Zero Waste Kitchen Tool: Immersion Blender

613vty5fxwl._sl1000_If it wasn’t already obvious that my friend Becca and I are just a wee bit similar, the fact that an immersion blender was on both our Christmas lists says it all.   I’ve only used it once so far, but I’m already in love.  It has the power to turn anything into creamy, velvety goodness, and it’s the perfect way to use those leftover veggie scraps.

img_0627It got its debut with a mixture of butternut squash, a few potatoes, a knob of ginger, onion, asparagus stems leftover from Christmas dinner, and some cinnamon, salt, and rosemary.  I roasted the butternut squash first, boiled the potatoes and asparagus, and then combined everything in a large soup pot with the softened onions and seasonings.  After adding some water to thin it out a bit, I whipped out the trusty immersion blender and it became a thick, smooth soup in a matter of seconds.  You would never know that all those veggies snuck in there.  With some olive oil drizzled on top, it’s like I was back in Italy.  They just do soup so well…

I’m most excited about using this for soups like this, but you can also make smoothies, ice cream, shakes…basically anything you would make with a blender, but you’re not restricted to that small bowl.  And if you don’t already have a blender, this is far more versatile!

Napkins: Cloth napkins & markers

img_6579This is more of a “creative solution” rather than a specific product I can link.  It was something I came across while living with a family in Sicily, and it’s incredibly simple: replace paper napkins with cloth napkins, and use clothespins (or wooden rings) to mark whose is whose.  If you’re okay with not washing them every single day (how dirty do they really get?), just snap on the clothespin and put aside for your next meal.  The family I stayed with drew cute little designs on the clothespins and washed them every couple of days.  It saves countless paper napkins every single meal, and if you have family members who grab a handful of the disposable ones each time they really only need just one, this will make a big difference.

Accessories

Phone case: Pela Case

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I don’t normally go through a lot of phone cases, but when it was time to replace my grimy old one of 4 years, I figured why not replace it with one that is eco-friendly?  Pela Cases are made with plant-based materials and are completely compostable.  They have beautiful colors and get the job done, which is all I really care about with a phone case!

Calendar: Maria Schoettler Seasonal Produce Calendar

This is included here because 1) Maria Schoettler’s illustrations are absolutely beautiful, and 2) she uses recycled paper and compostable plastic to package her art.  I came across this calendar the other day and had to have it: each month has vibrant seasonal fruits and veggies – it’s more a piece of art than a calendar, so I’ll be keeping it for much longer than just this year!

While I’ve made great progress replacing single-use products with less wasteful or zero waste options, and have learned about many amazing sustainable brands, I’m on the hunt for more.  These are a few products I’m having trouble finding waste-free or sustainable replacements for, and I would love any suggestions:

  • Deodorant
  • Toothpaste
  • Makeup – coverup and mascara
  • Reusable planner (there are a few erasable ones out there, but I haven’t found one I’m that excited about)
  • Any other sustainable brands you love!

So if you’re like me and trying to waste less these days, I highly recommend starting a similar way: mentally go through your day and jot down any sources of waste along the way.  Although it’s important to point out the small things, focus more on the big things –  things you continuously use or use a lot of – and do some research to see if there’s a way to replace them.

When I do this mental exercise, the list gets smaller and smaller as time goes on, which is very encouraging.  The efforts I’m making to waste less are working, and with this goal always in mind tangible effects keep my motivation up. This year I’d like to work on being more sustainable in my clothing purchases, choosing to buy from companies that use recycled materials or visiting more second-hand stores.

Small changes, one at a time, in our own households are what can make the biggest differences.  Let’s hope this is a trend that lasts, because our planet needs it!

Are you also trying to waste less?  What challenges and/or successes are you experiencing?  Do you have any favorite sustainable brands?  What products are you having the hardest time replacing with a sustainable alternative?  

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La Ricotta in Traduzione con Masseria Sgarlata

To taste fresh, hot ricotta is to experience the transformation of a pure ingredient at its finest.   

Simply put, that’s what ricotta is – a transformation of milk – in fact, it’s what all cheeses are. 

Like many food staples of cultures around the world, cheese emerged as a way to preserve a fresh product farmers had in abundance but could not afford to waste. With a little salt and heat, the fresh milk could soon last for months instead of days, and cheese-making began.  

This idea of this transformation was first introduced to me by my hosts, Francesco and Carmela of Masseria Sgarlata, where I spent a week this past October immersed in the art of ricotta at their farm in Scicli, Ragusa.  

We were seated around their tiny kitchen table enjoying another late-night meal after a long day of work, and as what usually tended to happen the conversation turned to cheese.  

I had just spent the day peering over the shoulder of Francesco in the latteria, eyes-wide and following his every move as he did what he does best day after day.  I listened intently as he patiently explained step-by-step the process of making fresh ricotta, jotting down notes in mix of Italian and English as I began the first of many translations, in the meantime carefully side-stepping the hot, boiling cauldron of milk and trying not to disturb their work in the small square room.  In the winter, the latteria is a warm haven, heated by the burning stove.  I can only imagine what it’s like during the hot Sicilian summer.  

In recent years, Masseria Sgarlata has been put on the map.  People from all over the world, let alone this region of Italy, come to learn about the traditional ricotta process that used to be so prevalent in this part of Sicily.  Today, as Francesco sadly tells me, it is a dying art: so many farms have had to give up their family’s tradition for economical reasons, or simply lack of interest in carrying on the craft.  

But it is alive and well at this family-run farm, and truly family-run it is: Francesco, the oldest son, is the main cheese-maker, cranking out fresh ricotta, caciocavallo, and other traditional cheeses day-in and day-out; his younger brother, Albino, handles the administrative aspects and spends his days delivering their products to their client’s front doors in addition to some small local shops, in the meantime studying to become a vet and caring for their farm animals; Carmela, Francesco’s partner and the main face of their store-front, dining, and customer service, tells me their father, Angelo, works the longest hours of them all, waking up at the crack of dawn for another day passing on his father’s tradition with a palpable sense of pride.

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This, among other things, has made Masseria Sgarlata unique, and they frequently receive visitors from all parts of the globe, bringing with them a universal appreciation of cheese and an admiration for the family’s commitment to the art; however, they also bring many different languages, an aspect that has proved challenging when the family tries to share their story.  

Hiring a translator is a quick fix, but it’s not the same: the story of your grandparent’s work and passion becomes warped and less genuine when interpreted in the voice of someone else.  And it’s this, plus my desire to learn about cheese-making, that brought me to this small town near the southern coast of Sicily.

Just a week before, I had no plans for this portion of my trip: I was in Partinico WWOOFing on an olive grove and was filling things in as I went, not wanting to feel constrained by plans I could’ve made back in the US without knowing where things may lead.  As had been the trend throughout my 3 months in Italy, it was thanks to a chain of wonderful, extremely helpful people that I found my (semi-last-minute) way to Masseria Sgarlata.  

My friend Cristiano, whom I had been connected with in Boston via Slow Food, shared with me the name of a restaurant he thought I might be interested in given its commitment to sustainability and local sourcing, and a necessary stop on one of his tours with his company Food.Stories.Travel.  

In planning my visit, I spoke with Roberta, author and co-owner of said restaurant, Il Consiglio di Sicilia, and mentioned my predicament: I had about a week to kill between the northern part of the island and when my aunt would arrive in Catania, and I was looking for a place to stay nearby their area of Donnalucata.  After explaining my interests and what I was doing here in a speech in Italian I have memorized word-by-word at this point, she said she had the perfect place in mind.  

A few days later, I was speaking to Carmela on the phone and confirming that I would arrive next week.  I was ecstatic! I would stay in their guest room and spend the week with them at their masseria (farm), learning about their cheeses in exchange for a little help in the kitchen and some English lessons…because anyone, especially a native speaker, can teach English!  I was a little nervous about their expectations for this, as I have had no formal experience teaching English before, but as was a common theme throughout my trip, I went with it. 

The consolation that I would be helping them eased my worries: with many visitors coming more and more frequently from England, America, and other English-speaking countries, they had a need for an organized, clear step-by-step process of the discourse they usually give to their Italian guests that would allow them to side-step the use of a translator and share their story themselves.  

Back at the dinner table after that day in the latteria seeing the process first-hand, the steps swirled in my head.  I felt bursting with information and wanted to know every detail down to the most minuscule, out of pure curiosity but also out of determination to accurately portray what Francesco had so patiently dictated to me.  As I’ve learned, you can’t pretend to understand a process without knowing it from the ground up.  My notes on my phone where scattered, and I was full with follow-up questions: was a specific type of salt required?  What were the different roles of the enzymes he had mentioned?  And at what point did this process differ from other cheeses?  

With this last question, I was greeted with a little confusion, and it wasn’t because of translation.  

Across the table my hosts boldly stated: “La ricotta non e’ un formaggio – e’ un sottoprodotto di latte.”  

In English, “Ricotta is not cheese – it is a by-product of milk.”

This wording was interesting to me.  The word “by-product” implies that its creation was not intended.  According to this phrasing, milk was the main goal, and ricotta was just something that…happened.  

It’s funny to think of it in this way, as ricotta is the most popular item they sell at the masseria, and it hardly seems like an after-thought.  

But traditionally, that is exactly how ricotta came to be, and when I look at the steps not in the mindset of a consumer but of a farmer who is trying to make the most of what he has, I can understand how ricotta itself exists out of necessity, out of using what you have in abundance down to the very last bit, in the conservation of a raw product, and not letting anything go to waste.

Every morning at the masseria begins the same: Francesco heads to the latteria where fresh milk from their cows in the stable next-door is ready to be transformed.  

The preparation depends on the day – maybe its caciocavallo or provola this time – but ricotta is always on the list, and orders are tacked onto a bulletin board as calls arrive on a phone that seems to never stop ringing at all times of the day.  

Milk is the main star here, and its quality is integral for whatever it will be transformed into.  At Masseria Sgarlata, they do not pasteurize their milk – i.e. it is not heated to 70 degrees to sterilize it.  They prefer to keep it in its natural state, and complete rigorous, regular testing to make sure it is healthy and safe for consumption by checking its bacterial content every 15 days and monitoring the health of their cows.

The process of making ricotta comes down to its name: ri-cotta, which literally translates to “re-cooked”.  To put it simply, milk is heated (1st cooking), and its leftover liquid is then re-cooked (2nd cooking).  Voila!  Now you know how to make ricotta!  

Turns out it’s a little more detailed than that, and it takes years to get the perfect touch.  On this day in the latteria Francesco is accompanied by Mario, Carmela’s cousin, who started a few months back and is still learning.  “If it turns out bad, it’s because Mario made it; if it’s good, it’s because I made it,” Francesco jokes. 

Francesco and Mario explaining how each cheese-maker has their own signature – no cheese is the same!  I promise I know how to say more than “Si”…

It’s with this light-hearted tone that we begin, and I’m ready to take notes.

La prima cottura – the first cooking 

img_7381The fresh milk is poured into a large cauldron and heated over a wood-burning stove that is poked, prodded, and fed throughout the process.

For its initial cooking, the milk is heated to 38 degrees Celsius, the same temperature that it naturally comes out of the cow during milking.  This temperature is important to activate enzymatic processes and prepare the milk for what is added next: rennet (il caglio).  

Rennet is a natural mixture of proteins and enzymes found in the intestine of different mammals, and is necessary for the cheese-making process, although interestingly enough there are vegetarian and vegan options, as a similar compound is also found in the leaves of some plants in the artichoke family. 

Regardless of its source, rennet causes milk to curdle, and once added it goes to work for an hour generating the curds.  Curd formation is necessary to achieve the proper elasticity and desired structure for a cheese.

Once the curds have formed, they are broken up with a whisk-like tool, and water at 100 degrees Celsius is added.  While mixing slowly, the curd precipitates at the bottom.

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This is the point in the process that becomes specific for ricotta: the first cooking has resulted in two products, a solid (the curd, la tuma), and a liquid (the whey, il siero), that now need to be separated.  

The curd is put in a big canister and left to drain.  It’s put aside for now, but this curd is extremely important: later on it becomes the starting point for the rest of Masseria Sgarlata’s cheeses.  

Ricotta comes from the whey, a cloudy liquid that doesn’t look like it holds much promise for creating much of anything.  And it’s exactly this that makes seeing ricotta appear from seemingly nothing so magical.

After filtering the whey to remove any remaining pieces of curd which would disrupt the creamy, smooth texture of the ricotta, it is transferred to a large pot and put on a stove.  Now begins the second cooking of the milk.

La seconda cottura – the second cooking

Once over heat, large-grain sea salt is added to the pot, as well as fresh milk.  This process is known as “enriching”: it adds fat to the whey that previously left in the form of curd and gives the resulting ricotta more flavor.  

The mixture is stirred constantly over heat until it reaches about 86 degrees Celsius, and now we wait.  Our heads bent over the bubbling pot being ever so slightly stirred, the suspense builds as we await the first glimpse of ricotta.   

Magically, bit by bit, small white flakes slowly bubble to the surface from seemingly nothing.  In that humble opaque liquid has occurred a complex series of chemical reactions invisible to the seeing-eye, and with a delicate balance of temperature and a fine hand we now have the first few pieces of one of the most pure transformations of an ingredient.

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The foam (la schiuma) that has collected on the top is skimmed away, and the moment has finally arrived: my first taste of the freshest ricotta imaginable.  A terra-cotta bowl is filled generously to the brim, the ricotta still steaming.  I taste it first by itself, and it’s incredibly light – both in flavor and weight – tasting simply of fresh milk.  I tear up pieces of bread (Francesco says it’s a must) that soak up the liquid like sponges, and slowly eat spoon after spoon with the warm bowl in my hands.  The ricotta is ready, and the pot is removed from the fire.

While I’m happily snacking away, the ricotta is gently collected in slatted-baskets so as not to disturb the fragile structure of the newly-formed product.  The vertical openings allow excess liquid to drain, keeping behind only the light and airy ricotta. 

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The fresh ricotta is placed into plastic baskets with vertical slats that allow the excess liquid to drain

These days, Francesco explains to me, they use plastic baskets out of convenience (which are able to be re-used and recycled), but traditionally ricotta was collected and stored in artisanal bamboo containers known as le cavagne, samples of which are on display throughout their dining room.    

One by one, the filled baskets are put in a tub where the liquid (the leftover whey that did not become ricotta) collects in a bucket.  This is called il siero scotta – loosely translating to “cooked whey” – and fed to their animals who happily accept the nutritious leftovers.  Like all of the bits and pieces of food scraps at Masseria Sgarlata, they find a home with their happy cats, dogs, chickens, and horses.

After all this it seems like the curd from before is the by-product, as it is dealt with only after the starring ricotta is finished, but Masseria Sgarlata makes more than just ricotta.

In the most important step for making the rest of their cheeses, the curd is cooked for around 2 hours to jumpstart the fermentation process.  The hot environment is a perfect balance, acting to prevent bad bacteria from flourishing and allowing good bacteria to do their job.  

After two hours, the curd is removed and left to dry for up to 24 hours, depending on the season: in the summer, the hot temperature causes fermentation to occur more quickly, i.e. the bacteria convert the lactose in the curd into lactic acid at a faster rate.  It takes an expert to know when the appropriate amount of time has passed.

When the curd reaches the right point (usually dictated by its acidity), it is ready to be transformed, and is cut in thin slices in the stacio, a container where it is worked.

Boiling water is added, and a tool known as la manuedda, a stick made of wild olive wood, is used to stretch the cheese.  The temperature of this process changes according to the desired cheese.

This process warrants some muscle: the cheese is stretched over the wood, requiring a firm hand but also an intense attention to detail to avoid overworking that would compromise its texture.  The obtained product is shaped either by being placed into rigid wooden squares where it is rotated over the course of several days to achieve a uniform block, or shaped by hand into the traditional ball-shape tied with a string and hung over a rod to dry.  In fact, this is where the name “caciocavallo” comes from – cacio, meaning cheese, and cavalllo, meaning horse, for when two cheese bundles are strung together and hung over a rod…traditionally carried by horses!

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La salamoia – salt water bath

The shapes are then put in a saltwater bath (la salamoia), where they soak for a period of time determined by the dimensions and type of cheese: a half-kilo of provoletta, for example, requires four hours in saltwater, while caciocavallo at fifteen kilo remains submerged for fifteen days in saltwater.

From one simple ingredient – fresh milk – Masseria Sgarlata creates ricotta, tuma, provola, mozzarella, burrata, straciatella…the variations go on.  Turns out milk is much more interesting when given a little salt, heat, and time.

It’s my last day at the masseria, and it’s also a Sunday, their busiest day of the week.

In addition to making and selling their cheeses, Masseria Sgarlata also hosts le degustazioni (tastings) every Sunday, which can attract up to 40 or 50 people at a time.

The place turns into a restaurant, with a staff of just 4 managing the hustle and bustle: Carmela and her helper, Giusy, shuttle plates of cheese, grilled meats, and salads back and forth from the kitchen, while Francesco and Mario fill the terra-cotta bowls with piping hot ricotta, at the same time keeping up the daily operations of cheese-making in the latteria.  I try to be helpful by washing the seemingly endless barrage of dishes, but I don’t know how they do it.

Their days are long, but they still find time to innovate: Carmela thinks of creative ways to spread their message, even hosting groups of hyped-up kids for birthday parties, where education is still the focus, and Francesco experiments with his cheeses by adding local ingredients like wine and fresh oranges.

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The dining room where they host tastings (degustazioni)

“Non e’ lavoro”, I remember Francesco telling me one of my first days there.  It’s not work.  It can’t be, he goes on, or else you wouldn’t last: you have to love it.  It’s this passion and dedication, coupled with a never-ending work ethic, that keeps them moving forward and passing on their grandfather’s tradition.

It’s time for me to leave – my aunt and her friend are arriving soon in Catania, a short 2 hour drive away – and I don’t want to go.  My cheese education was just a small part of my week in Scicli, where Carmela and Francesco gave me a glimpse into their life in this small Sicilian town, from foraging for wild asparagus and rare mushrooms, wandering the quiet church-filled streets at night in search of just one open restaurant, and spending hours at the table talking and laughing about who knows what until midnight (I don’t know when these people sleep).  I felt a comfort and sense of welcome I’ve never experienced so far from home, and a way of life I could get quite used to.

My week at Masseria Sgarlata turned into so much more than just “killing a week” between plans.  It’s sometimes the most last minute, unexpected things that turn out to be the best.

La Raccolta delle Olive con Olio Taibi

La storia – the story 

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Montaperto is a small town perched on a hill, home to less than 500 inhabitants and  surrounded by a rolling landscape that I have come to love during my short month on the island of Sicily, both the hills and the sea seemingly always off in the distance.  The village is the former home of the Taibi family who have been producing their award-winning Olio Taibi extra virgin olive oil since 1867.  Giuseppe, the family’s 4th generation member upholding the craft, is giving me the grand tour.

The village is part of the province of Agrigento.  Originally named Akragas by the Greeks, one of the island’s many conquerers, the region is famous for its temples.  During the day, they are crowded with tourists; at night, empty and illuminated by spotlights that create a stark contrast against the dark night sky and the city behind.  Looking up from the wheel of a car on the windy roads below, you are constantly reminded of just how ancient this area is, and the mosaic of cultures – Italian, Greek, Arab – that have all contributed to the rich and diverse history of this much sought-after land.

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Valle dei Templi

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City center from afar

I’m here to witness the olive harvest, la raccolta delle olive, and we’ve decided to make a pit stop on the way to the groves for a brief tour of the hometown of the Taibi family.

We park in the town center, a picture of small town Sicily in all its glory.  There is 1 church, where Giuseppe was married and where his two daughters were baptized, and a small bar that is currently visited by 4 men sitting in plastic chairs, snug in their pants and jackets on this sunny, 75 F day, chatting with the steady breeze floating their cigarette smoke through the air and looking perfectly content to remain there all day.

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Quiet and peaceful Montaperto

Around the corner on a quiet, bright street exists Giuseppe’s childhood home, the “Cortile Taibi” sign faded from the sun and just barely legible.  We can hardly walk a few feet without coming across an old family friend, and we’re soon whisked away with the promise of fresh ricotta.

Through the back door, I’m handed the treasured cup of warm ricotta that has just arrived from the shepherd, my first taste of the cheese at its peak freshness and a precursor to the weeks to come, slowly savoring each tiny spoonful as I take in the scene.

As has become quite common during my time in Sicily, I find myself the only woman surrounded by men discussing matters in a dialect I can’t understand.

Sicilian, which is considered an entirely separate language from Italian, is full of softer, blended “sh” and “ju” noises, and when spoken quickly as a native speaker in any language does, it bares almost no resemblance to Italian.  The first time I heard it I just stared, fascinated…and completely oblivious.  I try to listen in and understand bits and pieces.  They’re talking about the year’s olive harvest, and you can tell they are excited to see Giuseppe is back home even for just a bit.

It’s one of those moments where I can’t believe where I am, what I’m doing, or how I got here.  This is what I had been after: discovering the life of a producer, the purity of ingredients, and an authenticity I could not have witnessed if I had not reached out to Giuseppe almost a year earlier.  

This is where the roots of the Taibi family lie, and where the story of Olio Taibi begins.

When I find a food I love, I want to know everything about it.

This particular love, of the bright green fruit juice that is the living, breathing soul of Italian cuisine, is of recent discovery.  Up until I was unexpectedly launched into its world through my job at Eataly, I had never thought much about it.

Growing up, olive oil played a minor presence in my family’s kitchen.  My blended background of Scottish, Irish, English, German, and Italian lent itself to dinners representing a hodgepodge of foods and dishes that I loved for the simple reason that they were homemade, familiar, and comforting.  Like many Americans, a bowl of salad at dinner was accompanied by the choice of a variety of cream-based, store-bought salad dressings, and any form of cooking that required oil usually employed the canola or vegetable varieties.

When I did start shopping for myself, occasionally buying olive oil for the vinaigrettes I discovered were far better than any other store-brought dressing, the bottle I plucked off the shelf was usually a matter of price.  I would never even think to look for a harvest date, let alone the country of origin.

These details have now become so ingrained in my brain that I can’t imagine going backwards.  To put it bluntly, I’ve become a bit of an olive oil snob, but to be fair, with my training at work, it was inevitable.  I drank the Kool-Aid, or more appropriately (and literally), I drank the olive oil. 

I started working with Giuseppe as a part of my local producer-liaison role at Eataly.  Being a native Sicilian whom also happens to live locally in Lexington, MA, Giuseppe has a unique perspective to offer.  He is of course an expert on his own Italian culture, and having lived in the US for several years now, he has a deep understanding of the American market.  His proximity to Boston also means that we see a lot of him, personally hand-delivering his orders and always sticking around to demo his product for a few hours.  In addition to keeping up his family’s tradition, he is also an accomplished engineer, and juggles these two careers while traveling back to his hometown every year for the harvest.  

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Giuseppe at his family’s farm in Agrigento

When I decided to spontaneously extend my trip to Italy from 5 days to 3 months, I had little idea what that time would entail.  Food, yes…but how?  My new fascination with olive oil made one thing obvious: I wanted to witness the harvest, and I was hoping Giuseppe would let me tag along.  I crossed my fingers and prayed my long, rambling email explaining my trip and desire to visit his farm would be warmly received.

And it was!  Giuseppe enthusiastically responded to my request, and just like that I had my first real plan for this trip.  Since I now knew I would definitely be going to Sicily, I decided I wanted to do it well: I chose to dedicate a month to the island, without a real plan in mind.  But with Giuseppe’s advice over the next few months of where to stay, what to see and, most importantly, what to eat, I soon had a jam-packed itinerary of farms and producers to visit.  I was so excited to see his work in action and spend a month immersed in a place I was told would be a completely different world than the mainland Italy I’d become familiar with. 

I arrived in Agrigento on a cool, rainy afternoon, uncharacteristic for the island which is known to have the most sunny days in all of Europe.  “When it rains in Sicily, we run inside,” the owner of the agriturismo told me, a sentiment soon echoed by many Sicilians I’ve met from all points of the island.

As a result the olive harvest was delayed.  What typically begins in mid-October, the harvest has been arriving earlier and earlier each year with the change in weather.  We would have to wait for the soil to dry out, an otherwise extremely muddy venture within the groves.

I welcomed this delay: it meant that I would need to extend my stay in Agrigento a few days longer, giving me more time to explore and learn about the history of the beautiful land that bears the fruits I had come so far to learn about.

While we waited for the land to dry, Giuseppe showed me around: Valle dei Templi, the historic city center, a seafood feast in nearby Porto Empedocle with his childhood friend and bestman, a breakfast of traditional pastries filled with pistacchio cream and the shiny, colorful marzipan fruit…it was my first glimpse of Sicily and I was so grateful for my own personal guide.  

We also visited Il Giardino della Kolymbetra, home to the largest variety of ancient citrus I have ever seen.  It’s here that I met Enzo, its caretaker, who handed me fruit after fruit, naming the different varieties with ease – lemons, persimmons, oranges – as we walked through the garden.  He has a profound knowledge for the plants, and is a dear friend of Giuseppe.  He is also in charge of looking after the Taibi olive groves.  There’s a sense of trust in caring for his land and Giuseppe acknowledges this, “I knew he was the right one for the job.”  The upkeep for a garden like this with so many different varieties, in addition to the olives, is no small feat, and it’s all Enzo. 

The delay of the harvest gives me a glimpse of the month to come, and I’m thankful I gave myself so much time to explore the island.  I’m immediately taken with its biodiversity and natural beauty, the prickly fichi d’india sprouting up everywhere, scurrying lizards warming in the sun, and gigantic, prehistoric-looking plants.

The sun has been kind to us and after a few days, the land is dry enough to begin the harvest.  

Il Processo – the process

La fattoria – the farm

IMG_1226We arrive late around noon after our visit to Montaperto, the azienda a short drive from the village on the hill.  The workers have been hard at work for several hours by now having begun in the first warm rays of the morning around 7:00am, and we immediately head off into the trees to catch them before they break for lunch.

As we make our way, our feet crunching down into the soil, I realize the importance of waiting for the land to dry, and how difficult this work would be otherwise.  Even after several days of patient waiting, the soil is still slightly damp and soft – smelling, looking, and feeling of pure health with its rich darkness – but the past few days of warm sunlight have cracked it dry enough to allow the passage of boots and tractor.  

We walk through the groves in search for the crew.  It’s my first time being surrounded by so many olives, the branches heavy with hundreds, bright green and ready for harvesting.  

Giuseppe examines the trees and points out the different varieties.  Sicilian olives are most commonly of 4 types: biancolilla, nocellara, cerasuola, and giraffa.  At Olio Taibi they cultivate the first two: biancolilla and nocellara. 

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Top: narrow biancolilla; bottom: rounder nocellara

Although on the tree both are visibly the same brilliant shade of green, upon inspection one can immediately notice the difference: the biancolilla smaller and more narrow, the nocellara larger and fuller containing enough fruit to brine and pop one after another for the perfect snack.  

While grown together in the fields, alternating the variety in each row, the olives at Olio Taibi are pressed separately in their transition to oil.  This creates a monocultivar olive oil, a rare practice in an industry where most oils are multicultivar and consist of a blend of a farm’s varieties.

It is not to say that one is better than the other – it of course depends on the production of the farm and the desired taste, among other factors – but it is something that differentiates Olio Taibi from other olive oil producers, and something I have come to appreciate while trying to get a hold on this huge world of olive oil I had no idea existed. 

Why press olive varieties separately?  By doing so, the identity of the olive is maintained from farm to bottle: you can take a sip and assuredly say, “This is the taste of the nocellara olive.”  Side by side with a different monocultivar oil, you can learn their subtle differences and discover their pure taste unique to that particular olive.  

For example, while Taibi’s biancolilla oil “exhibits fruitiness, green grass, almond, sweetness, bitterness, medium pungency, and notes of red pepper,” the nocellara oil is “decisively fruity and peppery” – it all comes down to the olive variety.

The contrasting tasting notes of the oils also make it easier to understand their uses and inspirations for a wide variety of dishes: in general the delicate biancolilla is perfect for dishes typically paired with white wine such as salads, fish, and cheeses, while dishes that can hold up to stronger flavors – red sauces, roasted meats, and pastas – are perfectly paired with the more robust nocellara. 

There’s a reason why it helps to compare olive oil to wine: the two are very similar in their reflection of the terroir of the land, and their uses are equally as diverse and complex.  In my opinion, tasting the simplest and most pure varieties first – in this case, a monocultivar oil – has been a great way for me to get my footing and understand what I do – or don’t – like.

As I’m holding each variety in my hand, rolling the olives around between my fingers, the surreality of the moment hits me.  These two names – biancolilla and nocellara – have become so familiar to me in Boston, repeating them with ease in my communication with customers and typing them in my orders to Giuseppe – yet up until now they didn’t mean much.  Now that I’m here, in Agrigento, touching the very olives that will become the oil on our shelves, I have a new found appreciation for the little green varieties in my hand. 

This daydream is interrupted by a faint buzz emerging from the trees that was unnoticeable until now: it’s the sound of the spiratore, the shaking metal rake that knocks the olives from their branches, and this, accompanied with the faint chatter of the workers, tells us we are near.

It’s to my pleasant surprise that the harvest has begun with the biancolilla olives.  It’s my personal favorite of the two, each opening of the bottle warranting a wiff of the pure scent of freshly cut grass of which I can never get enough, and I’m excited by the inevitable future of tasting it newly-pressed at the end of the day.

The crew at work is a small one for a job this large, but they work efficiently from tree to tree.  Two are armed with the spiratore while the others manipulate the nets that catch the falling leaves and fruit.  Once the tree has been sufficiently cleaned of its olives, they gather the nets, pouring their contents with a satisfying rumble into a large crate on the back of a small tractor.  It is the job of one worker, Enzo’s son, to drive back and forth between the groves and the main house to deliver the full crates of olives.  

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Harvest in progress

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Enzo and his son transporting the olives

Giuseppe chats with the workers in Sicilian, and from what I can gather it has been a good morning: they’ve already collected 4 crates and are moving along nicely.  

I too spend some time talking to the crew and am warmly greeted when they discover I am from the US.  “America!  You can do anything there!”  The utopian ideal of the land of opportunity and freedom still holds true.

Besides Enzo, his son, and a man with a loving nickname that I can’t remember who are all native Sicilians, the remaining workers all hail from Africa, making up a growing population of migrants on the island.  One speaks English very well and tells me he is from Guinea along with his friend, and the other young man is from Mali. 

He describes a life dictated by the seasons, a life known well by those who live on the island and make a living off of its fruits.  When he’s not working on the olive harvest in October, it’s almonds in July, and pistachios and grapes in September.  The rich variety of foods cultivated in Sicily and their punctuated harvesting lends the opportunity to work the land throughout the year, floating from farm to farm with the changing crops as their picking time arrives.  

There’s a palpable sense of respect during the harvest: for the olives, for the land, for the process in which they play a crucial role, and for each other.  Giuseppe’s relationship with his workers is close, and he recognizes the value of being present.  He explains it not only keeps them on their toes, but also lets them know he appreciates their work.  

And it’s tiring work, but they seem happy.  When asked if he likes the Taibi olive oil, one worker says it’s delicious, so fresh. “It’s beautiful out here.”

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The crew

Despite the demanding motions of reaching and lifting, there’s an air of relaxation and time seems to pass quickly as they joke around with each other in a mix of their native languages and the Sicilian dialect, which they tell me they’ve picked up despite trying to learn conventional Italian.   

I spend the afternoon wandering around the fields, wielding a bucket and attempting to be helpful by picking off any remaining olives after the workers have passed through.

It’s therapeutic work: I’m enveloped in my favorite kind of weather – the perfect combination of hot sun and cool sea breeze, the ideal recipe for olive growing – left alone with my thoughts amongst the trees.  I feel as if I could do this for hours.

While in my zen-like state, I come across some critters.  

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Photo obtained from http://www.oliotaibi.com, since my iPhone didn’t do it justice 🙂 

The farm is entirely organic, and it’s obvious: there are happy caterpillars climbing the trees, the soil rich with worms and other creepy crawlers that would otherwise be absent with the use of harsh pesticides.  Giuseppe is on a mission to get a photo of one of the many butterflies flitting around, perched in a rare moment on his olives, and he stops everything to quietly crouch with his phone, snapping away.  

Choosing to be organic can be a risk given the challenges facing olive oil producers today.  Without the use of pesticides, some organic Italian farms have been subject to the wrath of the fly that threatens the world supply of olive oil.  The fly transmits Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterium that spreads Olive Quick Decline Syndrome (OQDS) from tree to tree, wiping out year’s supplies of olives all over Italy, especially in the stiletto-heel region of Puglia.    

 

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The characteristic mark of the fly

It can be daring for organic farmers to leave their entire harvest vulnerable to the fly, but for Olio Taibi and many other organic farms around the country, it is the right way and thus the only way.  But it’s not pure luck that the fly has not plagued the Taibi olives as organic pest control is possible, and Giuseppe has taken active measures to prevent their infestation through the use of natural traps.

In 2016, olive oil production in Italy alone was down almost 50% (ABC News).  The fly has been a major contributor, but it is not the sole reason.

In terms of predators, other than the fly olives are relatively care-free – their bitterness and hard, pitted-centers make them unpalatable to birds, for example.

Weather remains the biggest threat, and olive oil-producing countries around the world are all feeling the effects of climate change.  Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Spain, to name a few, all have the ideal environment for oil production, but recent changes in weather patterns have caused their yield to suffer. 

Uncharacteristically wet summers provide a constant threat of rainstorms that prematurely knock the olives from their branches, or an excess of fluid that produces fruit containing more water than oil.  

As I mentioned, it virtually never rains in Sicily, the long, hot, dry summer and breeze from the Mediterranean perfect for cultivating olives.  In Agrigento, beginning the harvest at the right moment in October, before the rain arrives, is essential.  Although the harvest was delayed a few days this year because of rain, Olio Taibi was lucky in that the olives remained strong on their branches, not many lost to the harsh rain.  

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A year without olives in Partinico – the trees can cycle between years of productivity

In contrast, just a 150 miles away from Agrigento on the northwestern coast of Sicily in Partinico, the Taylor-Simeti family at Bosco Falconeria, where I WWOOFed for 2 weeks after my time with Olio Taibi, is having a year without olives: the summer was simply too wet and humid to produce the fruits.  But they’re not perturbed: it is common for the trees to fluctuate in productivity from year to year, and last year’s ample harvest produced enough to fulfill this year’s orders.  

Those making a living off the fruit juice will have to deal with more and more challenges as conditions change, but this year’s harvest is living proof that staying ahead of the game is possible, and I feel fortunate to have been able to visit during such a plentiful year at Olio Taibi.

Since everything is organic at the farm, you can technically eat anything that grows out of the ground (within reason), and we find our lunch growing amongst the trees.  

Often viewed as a weed due to its abundance and ability to pop up everywhere, buragine (burrania in the dialect) is a leafy green that grows throughout the Sicilian landscape and is characterized by its velvety, somewhat prickly, leaves.  We find ample bundles on our walk back to the house and within minutes in a sauté pan, its tough stems and large leaves wilt down like spinach, bright green and rich with nutrients.  

Our meal is quickly formed in a way that appropriately reflects the land around us, with olives playing the starring role: the burrania sautéed in (and topped with more) biancolilla oil, a few of their precious nocellara olives cured in water and bay leaf, slices of local cheese, and thin, crispy pane carasau from Sardegna.  It’s the way I love to form my meals at home – a few ingredients, things to pick and choose from – and there’s something so satisfying about eating a meal created by the very land surrounding you.  Washed down with an Aperol spritz, it was perfect.  

A quick espresso to wake us up from that post-lunch slumber-feeling, and we’re back out in the fields.  I continue my work hand-picking the leftover olives, and before we know it it’s 5:00pm: the day’s picking is done.  The tractor is loaded with the final crate of olives, along with the tired workers whom hop on the back for a ride to the main house.

It’s been a productive day: we have a total of 8 crates of olives, all of which are impressively stacked and manipulated onto the back of Enzo’s white pickup truck.  

An old bottle of grappa appears out of thin air and Giuseppe gives a quick toast for the day’s harvest.  The workers head for home for a restful night’s sleep before beginning early again tomorrow, while Giuseppe and I follow Enzo to the mill – the day’s work is not over yet! 

Il frantoio – the mill 

“It would be unthinkable for anyone to leave his olives at the press and go home until it was time to come and pick up the oil.  The journey from tree to oil jar must be accomplished under the padrone’s eye to insure that no olives are exchanged or subtracted, nothing added.  And so while the olive sacks stand in line, their owners gossip, play a hand of scopa, stretch their legs along the dirt road the leads to the highway, or catch a nap in their cars.” ~ On Persephone’s Island, Mary Taylor Simeti

It’s in this sentiment that we arrive at the mill, prepared to keep a watchful eye on our precious olives as they become oil.  I have been waiting to witness this process for months now, and I’m ready with my camera and a head full of questions.  

While some farms have their own mills to press their olives, the practice of using a shared mill is much more common.  Small- and large-scale producers, along with families making oil solely for their personal use, pay a fee to the local oleificio (oil press) to utilize their machinery.  Giuseppe has been using Oleificio Principe for years, and I meet the father, mother, and brothers who run the family business.  

Since it’s olive harvesting season all throughout Sicily, we’re not the only ones at the oleificio tonight, and we have to wait our turn.  It’s not a problem though, because it gives me time to sit back and observe an environment that I’ve come to love after visiting several oleifici over the course of my month on the island.   

Men, and a few women, arrive with their crates of olives in varying sizes and shades, grabbing a seat or standing in a circle with their arms crossed, chatting and sharing the woes and successes of this year’s harvest with an espresso in hand.  They pleasantly pass the time as they await their turn at the press in a loud room perfumed with the smell of olives, the machinery hard at work.  It’s an economical solution with a surprising social benefit, and a centralized location for all levels of production where producers can watch the transformation from start to finish.  

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Producers passing the time while their olives press at Oleificio Fidone in Scicli, RG

For small farms producing oil solely for their personal use, they await at the end armed with large plastic jugs that they fill with their fresh green juice.  Sometimes they produce more oil than their family needs, and the oleificio is able to buy it from them and sell it.  For larger producers that bottle and sell, their oil is stored in large metal tanks until packaging time.  In this way bottling, labeling, and shipping all occur at the same facility.

While organic farming in Sicily is widespread (1/3 of all organic farms in Italy reside in Sicily – The Sicilian Experience), not all the producers who utilize the shared mill are organic.  This means that all the machinery must be washed and rinsed as they switch from organic to non.  

Around 7:30pm our turn arrives, and I watch as all 8 crates are loaded onto a scale: approximately 2680 kg of olives.  This initial number is important, as it will tell us our yield at the very end.  Giuseppe says we’re aiming for a 15% yield with the biancolilla, an olive that has a higher pit:fruit ratio than the nocellara and thus produces less oil.  

This number shocked me at first – only 15% of the weight of the olives becomes oil?  That sounds kind of low, doesn’t it?  In reality this number is a fine balance, and a larger yield isn’t necessarily a good thing. 

I come to learn the importance of harvesting the olives when they’re still green, picked before they become ripe and a dark black color.  Riper, darker olives do produce a higher yield, but this is due solely to the weight of the resulting liquid, not the oil content.  In reality, oil produced from riper, darker olives has a higher content of water than oil produced from green olives picked before maturity – and we’re trying to make oil here, not water!

Picking the olives when they’re still green may not maximize the final volume of liquid you obtain, but several studies have shown that picking olives at this point maximizes the health benefits of the oil, obtaining an olive and thus an oil at peak nutritional value (“Monocultivar Olive Oil”, Gino Celletti).   This “sweet spot” of harvesting at just the right time changes according to the olive variety, so a crate of black olives isn’t necessarily an omen for thin, watery oil – just a different threshold for perfection.   

After weighing, the transformation begins: all 8 crates are individually poured into a metal cauldron to begin the first of a series of separations, this one serving to separate out any leaves or larger materials that have come along.  And what happens to those separated materials?  We’ll get to that later 🙂 

The olives are then passed through another pit onto a conveyer belt for a quick washing to remove larger pieces of sediment.  

Once the olives are removed from any leaves and dirt, they are fed into a compressor that gives them an initial smashing – pits and all.  Up until this point, all the machinery is outside the front door of the oleificio: it is now that the process moves inside the mill, the resulting paste fed through a pipe into the next container and the next series of machinery.

The next step is where the heavenly perfume of olives and their juices first emerges, and according to Giuseppe is the most important step of oil production.  La gramola, the massive machinery where the smashed olives are fed into, contains separate compartments each with their own rotating blade shaped in a specific way so as to not overheat the olives.  Again, we’re trying to make achieve maximum nutrition and flavor, and friction created from crushing the olives too harshly can result in a loss of both of these.

This process of grinding and mixing the paste is known as malting, and is where the actual olive oil is first produced.  I stand over compartments 4 and 5 that contain our olives, mesmerized by the repetitive motion and the sound and smell of the rich olive paste releasing its oils.  

Multiple producers can utilize the gramola at the same time, and a paper chart on a nearby desk dictates which compartment belongs to whom.  To a seasoned producer perhaps the difference between the olive pastes becomes obvious, but I can imagine how batches could be mixed up if you don’t keep that watchful eye everyone has been telling me about.  Good thing we’re in trusted hands at Oleificio Principe.

During this entire process while I’m snapping away photos and videos, Giuseppe pays keen attention to his olives, hand-picking any leaves that make it past the first separation and examining each step at work.  

The process finishes with a final separation, this time with a piece of machinery justly-named il separatore.  The separatore is made of two different centrifuges: one horizontal, one vertical.  The horizontal centrifuge works to first separate the solid (the olive pulp) from the liquid (the oil) in the crushed olives by utilizing their different densities.  A small tool then enters to extract the oil, and the liquid is left behind.  Passing into the vertical centrifuge, any residual water is separated from the oil.

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Il separatore, which separates olive pulp, pits, and residual liquid

We’re now patiently waiting by the spout at the very end for that first glimpse of bright green oil.  It emerges and it’s more luminous than I could have ever imagined. 

Giuseppe is ready with wine glasses for a much anticipated first taste.  It overwhelms my taste buds and coats the tongue without feeling heavy, accompanied by the characteristic tickly-throat feeling and resulting cough that comes from the healthy dose of polyphenols that make up an olive oil this fresh.  It’s the grassy flavor of the biancollila oil I know and love, but stronger and brighter (both in color and taste) than the bottled variety I first discovered in Boston. 

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My first taste of fresh-pressed olive oil!

At this point the oil is unfiltered and cloudy, different from the clear liquid we’re used to in the bottles we buy at the store.  This is just the first day of the harvest, and there’s a lot more oil to come: for now, today’s oil is passed into the storage tank in the back labeled “Olio Taibi Biancolilla 2018”.  It is eventually filtered and decanted, a combination that results in increased shelf life and the settling of remaining sediments.  The new harvest is then bottled and labeled, ready for shipping.

The final step tells us how we’ve done: the resulting oil is weighed and I watch the needle turn round and round from 100 to 200 kg and up as it pours into the tank.  

After a quick calculation, Giuseppe announces the yield: 15.3%.  With an aim of 15%, we couldn’t have done much better.  This amounts to approximately 400 L of oil, around 800 bottles, after just one day of harvest. 

I slowly sip from my glass, in awe of the process I’ve just been able to witness.  Just a few hours ago I picked the olives straight from the tree, and now they’re an entirely different product – once solid, now liquid; once inedible and bitter, now smooth and one of the most treasured staples in cultures around the world.  

I walk away with a small glass bottle filled to the brim with the fresh liquid, a gift for the road, and treasure the moment I’ll get to use it (which turns out to be a week later in Cefalu, playing the starring role in a meal featuring solely Sicilian ingredients, the perfect topping for a plate of pasta con tenerume – the leaves of the local zucchine lunghe).  

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Souvenirs for the road!

Giuseppe says we’re lucky – there have been times when he has had to wait at the mill until 2am for his oil to be ready, the lines long with producers.  Maybe it’s because it’s early in the season, or maybe other farmers weren’t as lucky.  

We surely feel lucky as we celebrate that night with his family, picking up a handful of varieties of focaccie and celebrating by drizzling the fresh oil pressed just an hour earlier over the warm bread.  Giuseppe’s father sits at the table and while the years have passed, you can tell the annual first taste of his family’s oil remains a special and treasured moment.  

You may be wondering what is happening to all these materials that are separated out along the way: the leaves, the pits, the water.  Having an interest in waste in food production, I was too, and when I asked one of the oleificio family members, he said confidently, proudly, and simply, “Con l’olio noi non sprechiamo niente”.  In other words, olive oil production is almost exclusively a zero waste process.    

The leaves form a nutritional snack for the island’s many sheep and pigs.  

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Olive leaves separated out during the process are fed to sheep and pigs. 

The olive pulp and pits (i nocellini) collect in two separate, towering piles outside the oleificio where they are later made into pellets and burned as biofuel by the companies that purchase them.

The only byproduct that presents a challenge is the residual liquid.  It cannot simply be poured back into the land for irrigation as it alters the pH of the soil and can result in sterilization of the land.  Some companies are able to take the liquid and produce biogas, but the majority of the liquid is diverted to cosmetic companies where they use it to create olive oil-based lotions, creams, and soaps.  

Think about how amazing this is: olive oil is produced all over the world in enormous quantities, and the process has almost no waste.  With such a large reach, one could only imagine its impact if the circumstances were otherwise.  It’s a theme I’ve found common to many other traditional food processes in Italy, and one that has been around for thousands of years.  It is embedded in the process, the culture of olive oil, and Italian food as a whole.  

It’s easy to get caught up in the romantic sentiments of a harvest like this, but as it is for any farmer, there are real challenges. 

In Sicily particularly, there are powers at work besides the weather and the fly that have the potential to prevent the success of an up-and-coming producer.  All too often corruption wins, and growing up with this in mind, Giuseppe settled in the US as a young adult, committed to make an honest living.  He has an ever-expanding list of ideas for his business, one that proves that high quality, extra virgin olive oil can and should be accessible for all, and has dreams of projects involving his home town.  For now he does what he can: make delicious, genuine olive oil, and share his story and passion with others around the world.

On my last day in Agrigento Giuseppe convinces me that it’s necessary for me to see the olive grove at sunrise.  I sleepily rise and start the car, the morning Rai radio program enveloping my ears with soothing Italian voices as I make my way to the azienda in the morning fog.  

It’s worth it.  The air is fresh, the olive leaves are wet with dew, and my feet are sinking more easily into the soil.  If you kneel down you can see a layer of fog between where the grass and the leaves begin, the branches sparkling with olives waiting to be picked.  The team is already working and they jump in where they left off yesterday evening.  I stick around to pick a few more olives, perfectly content.

My time with the Taibi family in Agrigento was exactly what I came to Italy for, and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Sicily, an island of wild beauty and welcoming, hospitable people.  I left with a suitcase full of oil to bring back home to my friends and family, and the excitement of continuing my journey spending time with producers, learning about the history, the people, and the land behind the cuisine I relate most to.  

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Links to explore:

Some of the best olive oils in the world have Lexington ties – Olio Taibi feature in the Boston Globe (June 2018)

Gold Award for Olio Taibi Nocellara Organic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil – New York International Olive Oil Competition (2018)

Silver Award for Olio Taibi Biancolilla Organic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil – New York International Olive Oil Competition (2018)

Check out this list of recipes that utilize Olio Taibi oils!

Terra Madre Salone del Gusto 

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Ciao from Italia!  It is already the start of my 4th week here in Italy, and I’ve been busy busy busy – moving from town to town, eating delicious food, meeting new people, being surrounded by beautiful scenery…life is hard.  

About a week ago I arrived in Sicilia and made the drive to the western coast to Agrigento, a small seaside city that is home to Olio Taibi, one of our olive oil vendors.  (Spoiler alert: next post will be all-about their beautiful harvest I took part in and my awe in witnessing the production of one of my favorite oils from start to finish!)

I am here on the island for the next month, and although I’ll be moving around every week or so, it’s comforting to be in “one place” for a while (if a large island can be considered “one place”).  Already I can tell you it is absolutely beautiful here, and I can’t wait to share it with you all.  

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves!  For now, picture this: I’ve settled into my current “home”, Fattoria Mose’, the grand, summer house of my host Chiara.  When I started this (these things take time, okay?!), it was a cold, rainy day and the olive harvest had come to a temporary halt.  I was seated in the living room with a cup of hot tea and a plate of biscottini by my side (how did they know what I want?).  To put it simply: the perfect writing conditions.

I relish this time to sit back and take it easy, to reflect on my trip so far and share it with you.  So, let’s head back up north to Piemonte, back-track a bit, and talk about the festival that made this entire trip to Italy a reality.

If you’ve been following along on Instagram, you probably know that I attended Terra Madre Salone del Gusto in Torino!  To sum it up in a few brief words: overstimulating, overwhelming, chaotic, delicious, informative, wonderful.  

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SF USA delegates are everywhere – Christina from NY and Catherine from DC!

I’m still digesting the insane amount of content, ideas, thoughts (and food…) I took in over the course of those 4 days, but I wanted to share some of my experiences while they’re still fresh in my mind.

I’ve been struggling to figure out a method to present this in a clear, organized way, as my experience itself was anything but (in the best way possible!).  The number of events I attended, people I met, new information I learned, is a lot, and I think it makes the most sense to present this in the way that I originally tried to understand it and its wonderful chaos.

Back in Boston, a few weeks before departing, I sat down and spent extensive time pouring over the list of events on the website, jotting down anything and everything that at all appealed to me.  Conferences on food waste, cooking classes, wine and beer tastings…let’s just say the list was very, very long.  As I was dumping all this information into one massive GoogleDoc that would turn into my lifeline over the course of the festival, I knew I would have to pick and choose – some events were at the same time and it would be impossible to go to everything, as much as I wanted to! 

I think it’d be an exaggeration to say I had a “strategy” for Terra Madre Salone del Gusto (from here on out referred to as TMSG), but this picking and choosing was definitely thought out, and it largely had to do with this year’s theme and structure.

Every two years when TMSG rolls around, a theme is chosen around which the events and topics of discussion are centered.  The theme must be global and representative of the current happenings in our food system, as everyone around the world is meant to take part.  And this theme does not begin or end with TMSG: the discussions and events began long before the actual festival, with chapters all over the world creating their own initiatives, and international challenges like last fall’s Eat Local Challenge and this month’s October EcoChallenge.  

This year, Slow Food International, the organizers, chose Food for Change.  What this means is that Slow Food has committed to a “global campaign to raise awareness about the relationship between food and climate change”.  Obviously, this is something that concerns everyone on the planet and thus is quite appropriate!  

In addition to this overarching theme, there are then 5 Thematic Forums in which the events and discussions can be further categorized.  This is brand-new for this year’s TMSG and, in my opinion, was a really effective way to organize the vast range of topics a hefty theme such as “food and climate change” can cover.  

More detailed information on the 5 thematic forums can be found here, but below is a quick rundown with some photos I took, and a summary of each area copied from Slow Food’s website.

To give you an idea of the physical setup of all of this: TMSG was held at the Lingotto Center in Torino (the same home as the 2006 Winter Olympics!), in 4 gigantic halls filled to the brim with vendor booths, eateries, discussion panels, and one 4-walled, closed-off exhibit for each of these thematic forums.  These were almost like “mini museums”, and had beautifully curated illustrations and statistics about each forum.  I really enjoyed taking my time and going through each exhibit, one by one, reading it up and down to get an idea of each of these areas of the food system and their impact on climate change.  

Thematic Forums

Slow Meat

The Slow Meat forums are focused on quality livestock farming, animal welfare, the importance of protecting biodiversity and native breeds and the problems caused by factory farms. Attention is also paid to the topic of food choices and awareness-raising campaigns that aim to emphasize the importance of more conscious eating habits.

Slow Fish

The Slow Fish forums give space to the relationship between the seas and the environment—from microplastic pollution to the risks generated by the overheating of the world’s oceans—as well as ocean grabbing and the challenges facing traditional fishing communities, the environmental damage caused by salmon and shrimp farming and certification schemes in the seafood sector.

Seeds

The forums dedicated to seeds explores rural seeds, the role of farmers who act as custodians of traditional knowledge and skills, the many types of food garden (school, urban, the Slow Food gardens in Africa) and soil fertility. There are also targeted meetings on spices, oilseeds and their properties and historic gardens that preserve heirloom varieties of fruits like apples, figs, bananas and oranges.

Bees and Insects

The forums on bees and insects look at the strong link between agricultural models and the well-being of bees, different apiculture models, different types of bee (black, stingless, etc.), honeys, the importance of insects to agriculture and insects as a “new” food source.

Food and Health

The food and health forums explore the impact of our food choices on our bodies and the consequences of widespread pesticide and antibiotic use in farming. They also look at salt, sugar and fat and the differences between industrial and artisanal products—which can we choose and how can we consume them to minimize the risks to our health?

From a visitor’s standpoint, having this set-up made the process of “picking and choosing” which events to attend so much easier.  

I wanted TMSG to be more educational than anything for me: I had a goal to make sure I learned as much as possible, in as many different areas as possible.  Having this set-up made it simple for me to say, for example, “Oh, I wrote down 5 events in Slow Fish and zero in Seeds, maybe I should attend this class on French legumes instead?”…because when else would I be able to learn about such a random topic?  This idea motivated a lot of my choices, and I started choosing as many unique, off-the-map topics as possible.

This is also why you might notice that I didn’t go to a lot of “Italian-related” events.  You might be thinking, “Uhh, you’re in Italy…why?”  This was done purposely, my thinking being: I’m going to be in this country for the next 3 months; TMSG hosts countries from all over the world.  I would have plenty of time to immerse myself in Italian food and culture in the coming weeks.  

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For now I wanted to use this opportunity to learn about the hundreds of other countries who came all this way to this northern Italian city to share their unique food items and stories they brought with them.  Who knows when (and if) I’ll be able to visit Uganda, or the Philippines, or Brazil, and talk to the very people who make these traditional products found nowhere else?  

Those are some of the factors that went into to choosing the events I attended, and even though I missed out on a few things I really wanted to go to (you can’t have it all!), I loved the ones I did attend.  And I definitely learned a lot of random things I never thought I would! 

The types of events at TMSG can loosely be broken down into three categories: forums/conventions, taste-workshops, and booths/food stalls.  Each of these relates back to one of the thematic forums mentioned above.  

One quick note about the insane logistics of this thing: the LANGUAGES!  As you can imagine, people from all over the world attended, bringing with them 100s of different languages…yet somehow we were all able to attend the same lectures and discussions?  The hidden heroes of this whole, gigantic thing were the translators.  Anytime a large discussion was involved, you had the option to put on a headset and program into 4 or 5 different languages, the magic-makers hard at work in their little booths in the back.  I can’t imagine the coordination this must’ve taken for a festival of this level, with this many events happening all at once.  So thank you, translators, for allowing all of us Slow Food enthusiasts from around the world to understand and participate!

Forums/Conventions

These ranged from 10-100+ attendees, held in panel-style where the speakers would each have the floor for 10-15 min, ending with an open discussion with the audience. I hopped around to a bunch of these; I will spare you from reading about them all, as I kid you not, I have 20 pages of notes, but there were two or three talks that really hit home for me.  Here are my biggest takeaways from those few!

Fighting Food Waste with Intelligence and Creativity.  

IMG_4382This was the first talk I attended at TMSG, and the one I was most excited about, given my work with food waste at Eataly and my overall general interests in the sustainability sector.

One of the great things about these conferences in general was the diversity of the panel members: to hear perspectives from countries from all corners of the world in regards to the same larger problem, and their unique solutions customized for their particular location, had a strong unifying effect and was very powerful.  On this panel alone were representatives from Italy, Senegal, Ukraine, the Philippines, and the European Commission.

Biggest takeaway: We’re all wasting food, but the causes of waste differ in the global north vs. the global south.  

This may seem obvious: of course the causes of a problem will differ from place to place; however, up until this point I had never heard it explained this concretely.

So what is the difference?  In the global north, the majority of food waste is due to overproduction and improper storage.  To put it simply, most northern countries are producing more food than is able to be bought and consumed in a timely manner before it goes bad.  

Why?  

For one, we live in a culture of overabundance.  This of course is a luxury, but it also results in huge amounts of unnecessary waste.  To bring up the topics discussed at another conference (We Are What We Eat), our “Fast Food Values” convince us that “more is always better” (Alice Waters).  

Think about your local supermarket.  There’s a reason why there are people working around the clock to stock shelves: people instinctively gravitate towards overflowing displays, and sales are shown to suffer if products are not stocked to the brim.  But what ends up happening to that overflowing display, especially if it’s something like fresh bread that has to be sold day-of or else it goes stale?  Is the gain in sales as a result of a full display worth the loss of what ends up in the trash at the end of the day?  This practice is obviously bad for the environment, not to mention bad for business: waste results in money down the drain with unnecessary production costs, disposal costs, labor costs…the downstream effects are huge.  

On the idea of storage, something as small as placing an apple next to a kiwi can cause unnecessary spoilage.  Did you know that apples secrete a chemical that accelerates the ripening of other fruits?!  You may notice this on a smaller-scale in your fruit bowl on the kitchen counter, but more importantly, businesses can easily suffer from large-scale spoilage in their warehouses before food even gets on the shelf.

Storage methods, purchasing habits, donation programs…these are just a few ways for businesses to minimize food waste.  It’s in their best interest to pay attention to things like this, as “every $1 businesses spend on food waste prevention programs saves $14 in operating costs” (Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Commissioner). 

While the causes of food waste in the global north are more directly related to business and purchasing habits, in the global south its mostly an issue of poor infrastructure.  This also means it’s an issue of food loss, rather than food waste.  

Why is wasting of food in the global south not happening at the level it is in the global north?  Panelist and chef Jose Antonio Miguel Melchor from the Philippines puts it simply: “Countries like ours cannot afford to waste food.”   As many food cultures originated and like many cultures, still practice today, his is one that has tended to stay true to its “nose-to-tail” style of cooking, i.e. using every ingredient from start to finish, simply because conditions (income, availability of food, etc.) do not warrant the “luxury” of a wasteful lifestyle.  

When panelist Cheikh Thiam, who left his home city of Dakar, Senegal to form an eco-village in the surrounding countryside, was asked to participate in World Disco Soup Day, an international event held by Slow Food where soup is made from scraps of food to raise awareness on food waste, he had to decline, explaining that in his village “after lunch, children go around with buckets and collect scraps to eat…We do not waste any food.”  A model that does well in the global north to reduce waste has no need in this area of the world.  

Food in the global south is not being wasted in the same way as it is in the global north, but it is still being lost – what does this even mean?  The idea of“food loss” was completely new to me with this conference.  

As moderator Ursula Hudson from Slow Food Germany explains: “Statistics about food waste do not include the food that is lost before harvest, i.e. food that is overproduced and left on the vine to rot- these are considered food LOSSES.”  

The level of food loss in the global south was detailed by Thiam: “Each year in Senegal, at least 88 tons of mangoes are wasted.”  He went on to say that this astounding number is actually “an underestimate due to travel restrictions that prevented proper measurement.” 

Infrastructure does not allow the harvest of these fruits in time, perfectly good food is left to rot, and a continent like Africa, which is completely capable of feeding itself, is forced to rely on imports, rather than exports (Thiam).  It’s even more ludicrous when you hear that 1/3-1/2 of all food is wasted in a world where hunger is rising (Hudson).  

Thiam brings up the idea that the entire concept of food waste is a result of a general undervaluing of food itself, and the loss of a spiritual connection to food that made up a large part of the culture of our ancestors: “We waste food because we take it for granted.  Seeing the colors, shapes, smells, and patterns of food and being overwhelmed – it’s not something that everyone shares.” 

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Tomatoes at Torino’s Porta Palazzo, the largest open air market in Europe!

Daria Malakhova from Slow Food Ukraine agreed: “If we loved food, we wouldn’t waste it.”  She explains the nostalgia that comes with the smell of a ripe tomato that doesn’t even come from the tomato itself, but the humble green stem at the top, which she says can be used for delicious broths. 

We’ve gotten spoiled with an overabundance of food: availability is another one of the “Fast Food Values” mentioned by Alice Waters, and it “makes us think we should be able to get whatever we want, wherever we are, whenever…it spoils us, the seasons stop mattering, and indigenous foods and cultures become irrelevant.” 

Malakhova goes on to say that “[i]t’s good to feel hunger sometimes, to eat when you want to eat, and actually enjoy looking forward to a meal,” rather than eating by the clock, or eating because it’s simply “time to eat”.

What I took away from all of this is that our approaches to solving food waste are going to have to be different.  There is no universal cause, and “we are all wasting” (Andriukaitis).  

Spreading an appreciation of food can be difficult, but in my opinion that’s what Slow Food is all about!  Just as the majority of food waste happens in our own kitchens, these spaces also have the potential to make a huge impact.  Whether its sharing your love of food with others, utilizing ingredients to their very end, or paying attention to what you put in the trash, your actions can have a huge effect on others – your families, friends, even the businesses you choose to buy products from.  Small changes can ripple upwards and it makes this seemingly overwhelming problem all the more tangible.  

Food and the City

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Back at Porta Palazzo in Torino, where thousands of fruits and vegetables from all over Italy are sold

“Today, about half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050, 66% of the human population will be urban, compared to 30% just 100 years earlier.” 

The major question of this conference was how, in this time of tremendous growth, cities and their surrounding rural environments can work together to maintain profitable relationships, and promote overall sustainable development.  To note, this panel was represented mostly by wealthier Western countries like France, Italy, England, Denmark, and the US.

Biggest takeaway: The involvement of public institutions is critical in linking city and country.  

More specifically, public institutions like schools and local municipal governments.

The idea of increased education at schools regarding sustainable choices was something universally discussed throughout TMSG.  I can understand why as, at least in the countries represented in the panel and most western countries, almost everyone goes to primary school: the potential to educate and instill sustainable choices at a young age is huge.  

Several discussed that school lunch is the perfect opportunity to do this. “If we were to spend just 20 minutes every day eating together at schools, that’s 1,500 hours a year to convince kids to make smart choices,” said panelist Kenneth Højgaard.

Højgaard is the chef and culinary entrepreneur of Copenhagen Food House, which was born with the purpose of improving the quality of public meals in the city – in schools, nursing homes, shelters, etc – as they make up over 80,000 of all meals served in a year.

In an effort to strengthen the relationship of the city with local farms and increase the quality of produce in these public meals, the Copenhagen Food House had a goal of going 90% organic – and in 2015, they were at 87% (Højgaard).  

Projects like this prove that a mutually beneficial relationship between city and country is possible; however Højgaard says he always gets the same reaction when he firsts presents this idea to public institutions: “We don’t have the budget.”  

He explains, rather comically, that these institutions then go through the 5 stages of grief until they arrive at acceptance: “First you need to convince them it is necessary, then you have to ignite a desire for change through first hand experiences, give them the required knowledge, show them it is possible through past examples, and make them proud of their accomplishments.”  

In the end, public institutions working with his organization have been able to drastically improve their food programs within their previous budget, and local farms surrounding the city have a reliable purchaser of their goods.  City and country are able to mutually benefit.  

Another model of school involvement is taking place in London at Burrough Market, where chairman Donald Hyslop has worked with local schools to sell produce grown at their own gardens at one of the largest city markets in the world.  In this way students are not only able to be actively involved in the growing process, but also able to learn valuable skills in communication and business.  Another point for school involvement!

On the side of local municipal governments, Chantal, coordinator of international panel of sustainable food systems, emphasized the importance of policy in the relationship between cities and country: “The city and country are becoming less dependent on each other due to globalization and industrialization, international markets, and price motivation, and this is all exacerbated by policies.”  

What we need instead, she goes on to explain, are policies that support this connection between city and country.  And how to we get these policies?  Through strengthening local level policies and developing regional food hubs that can “amplify the voice of cities in national discourse”.  This is key, as once these discussions are “at the national level, they can be better supported and more local level decisions can be enacted.”

She stresses the need to encourage “outside-the-box thinking…[as] new energy can bring up new ideas”, whether this new energy comes in the form of greater citizen participation, or a change in local leadership.  

This led to a question about how to integrate food policy in municipal governments if they’re not open to it, or if there is not a clear leader responsible for these policies.  Chantal stressed the importance of “building a culture of sustainability that lasts long term, despite electoral cycles.”  For example, there are some cities where trainings are run by citizens with long term staff to educate them on certain issues that are important to their city.  Having a training program in place creates a structure for when new officials are elected, and a standard for what is expected.  

She went on to boldly say that if that doesn’t work and they’re still not interested, there’s always the “do now and ask for forgiveness later” method – “They will become interested eventually.” 

As with any relationship, communication is key: city and country will need to maintain an open and frequent discussion to develop sustainable mutual growth.  While the two are different, they are forever linked, and rather than be considered separately, they should be viewed as one collective “agropolitan region” or “foodscape”, more terms I hadn’t heard of before this conference.  

“A foodscape is a real and metaphorical place that is the intersection of economic, political, social, and cultural factors that cover all production phases of food,” explains Ferdinando Mirizzi, a professor and chairman of cultural anthropology from Basilicata, Italy.  This inherently concerns both the countryside, where most food is grown and produced, and the city, where most food is consumed and sold.  

As any anthropologist would do, Mirizzi goes on to relate this to a more universal topic: identity.  

“There are no pure authentic food systems, like there are no pure identities.  Just like cultures, they’re not locked in and closed.”  In other words, a foodscape – made of city and country – needs to be viewed as having a constantly fluctuating identity that requires consistent reworking and tuning of its individual parts.  

“Food is the expression of the land, the soil, the ecological environment, the community of people who live on it, consume it, and sell it – the sum of collective individual identities” (Mirizzi).  

This level of fluidity is high in cities: “With migrant flows, we constantly take in new foods, flavors, and foodscapes.”  He brings up the example of the Mediterranean, where lemons, which make up a main staple of Italian and Greek cuisine, were previously unknown to these cultures before they were imported by the Arabs.  “Food is a social and cultural event from an anthropological perspective – through food we can understand the deep changes going on.”

We can only understand how cities and countries should work together by examining changes such as these, especially as the world continues to be redesigned by globalization.  He concludes by emphasizing the importance of going “back to local identities and stories to provide deep meanings of food within its own social communities.”  Only this way can we “increase the level of visibility of pipelines in the city to restore its relationship with the countryside.”  

Already the farm-to-table movement has gained popularity in restaurants both in the city and country, and these conversations are happening more and more frequently with CSAs, farm apprenticeships…the list goes on.  The interest in “where food comes from” is growing and models such as these prove that a sustainable relationship between urban and rural is possible!  

Other conferences attended:

Poison on the plate
From field to restaurant: power to the women!
Where do spices come from?
Excellent examples of sustainable nutrition in universities
Slow Food travel: travelling according to Slow Food
Women as agents of change: indigenous peoples’ food systems and climate change
Small-scale beekeeping
Indigenous chefs: why they are key players in the food system
Bread for change: how the world of bread changes and how bread changes the world
Climate change: how to face the biggest challenges of the coming decades
Small producers and big distributors
Food as a response to crisis

Taste Workshops

These were what I was most looking forward to, and I signed up for a bunch more when I got there once I realized how much I loved them!  They’re basically 1 hr long cooking classes held by different chefs, producers, even homecooks – any specialists in the specific ingredient or dish from their culture that they bring to the table.  This is where I really tried to take some “out of the box” classes, making sure to choose different categories of food from rice, coffee, chocolate, fish, and more.  

The art of Felitto fusilli

Canadian taste

Breakfast with the producer: chocolate from Colombia

The Philippines: a land of rice

Mountain fish with Artur Martinez and Marc Ribas

The beer terroir of Germany

Uganda’s diversity of bananas and millet

How to say coffee around the world

Specialty seed recipes

Almond sweets: from Asia to the Mediterranean

Booths/Food Stalls 

Walking around TMSG, this is what you had the most contact with: the insane amount of booths set up in rows across all 4 halls, beautiful displays of meats, cheeses, fruits, veggies, desserts, grains, wines…everything, from all over the world.  So many smells beckoning you to come closer and try – and you want to try EVERYTHING.  I’m glad there were 4 days to take this all in, to walk up and down each row, or else I would have just stood in the middle of it all, overwhelmed by the choices.  

Sustainability at Terra Madre

Exploring sustainability in Italy as a whole is a larger subject I am constantly researching during my time here, but I want to take a minute to address TMSG specifically.

As I’ve eluded, this was a rather large-scale event.  To give you a better idea, here’s this fun sign I found at the event!

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Translation: 1,000,000 people in Slow Food Network. 160 countries. 2500 local groups. 3000 gardens in Africa. 2000 school gardens. 500 Slow Food Presidi. 5000 Ark of Taste products. 1000 cooks in the Alliance. 70 Earth Market vendors. In other words, a lot of people involved!

In other words, a lot of people, products, transportation, resources, etc involved.  And that means the potential for a lot of waste.

I usually get bummed out going to a large event like this – a conference, concert, or baseball game – because it almost always includes the unpleasant sight of overflowing trash bins filled with plastic, food…not trash.  Really?  In this day and age?  Why can’t we have better systems for such huge contributors of waste like these?

Luckily, I was very pleasantly surprised at TMSG.  Guess what was the very first photo I took?

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Yup, that’s right – garbage bins.  Excited for the food and all, but look at this!

Being extra aware of food waste and waste in general these days, this was one of, if not THE first things I immediately noticed upon arriving at TMSG.

Waste collection procedures at events have always interested me – the logistics, if they really work, etc.  I was really impressed with the way it was done here.  Throughout the exhibition halls there were over 100 “ecological islands” (shown in the above photo) strategically set up between booths and eateries.

The variety of separation is one thing:  there’s organic, metals and plastics, paper, plastic, and non-reusable.  A whole other story is the fact that each station had its own volunteer there, all day, making sure you separated your items properly.  The volunteers were trained by Eco Dalle Citta and were mostly students from what I could tell.  I won’t stay they were the most enthusiastic (but hey, they’re in high school, what do you expect), but they did keep you on your toes!  I at first had no idea all the little plastic sampling cups were compostable, and they jumped on it when they saw I was headed for the plastic recycling bin instead.

On the walkway between exhibition halls, there was a huge display of TMSG and the University of Gastronomic Science’s (Slow Food’s University in Pollenzo) collaboration with Systemic Event Design (SEED) detailing all the ways in which TMSG was built to be a sustainable event.  I spent a lot of time reading this.  These are a few of the things that fascinated me! (All facts from Slow Food’s posters)

Materials

  • All food service items were made from Matter-B and cellulose pulp, provided by Novamont.  
  • To maintain cold chain during transport of food around TMSG, polystyrene crates are used provided by Corolla, and are reused by the restaurants that have prepared the meals.
  • All T shirts worn by staff were made by the company Iren using Italian cotton – organic and without use of pesticides and fertilizers.  Iran also provided all lanyards and are made from recycled PET
  • Benches are made from recycled steel by Ricrea and will be donated to the city of Turin after the event.

Food

  • Coffee grounds from all bars are recovered and reused as a substrate for cultivating edible mushrooms with Giardinone cooperative and Fungo Box project.
  • Working with Banco Alimentare, leftover food is collected at end of day to distribute to charities around Piemonte.
  • Napkins, tissues, and TP come from Lucart’s Grazie Natural line and are produced from reusable drink cartons.
  • Around 5000 bottles are expected to be uncorked at the Enoteca (wine bar)!  These are saved and reused to make panels and granules with Artimestieri.
  • Used cooking oil in the kitchens will be reclaimed by MPoli for use in production of biodiesel, glue, ink, and soap.

Waste

  • Every exhibitor received their own kit to sort their own waste within their stand.
  • Banners and signs were printed on PVC sheets which will be reused by women in Genoa’s Casa Circondariale to make new products like bags and placemats.
  • Stands are constructed using Greenpallet – sustainable pallets made by Palm – which will be used by Lurisia to transport merchandise.

There were countless other facts and statistics about power usage, transportation, and more.  As an event that draws 1,000s of people every other year, from all corners of the world, sustainable design like this has a HUGE impact, and is necessary for an organization like Slow Food committed to “good, clean, and fair” in our food system.  You can walk away from an event like this not only happy, full, and more knowledgable, but with the satisfaction that its environmental impact was minimized as much as possible.

This document is in Italian, but it contains an extensive description of these initiatives with SEED if you’re interested!

Takeaways

Can you tell I enjoyed this experience?  I loved being immersed in so many things I’m interested in for 4 days straight.  I’ll tie this up briefly because this has been a long post (and thank you for reading if you’ve made it this far!).  

In the “Food and the City” talk I mentioned, one of the speakers, Chantal, said, “Food is an entry point to deal with food access, poverty, public health.”  This so clearly sums up why I made the choice to get involved with food the way I have, and why I found this experience to be so rewarding and confirming of this decision.  For me it always comes back to this.  I believe that so many of our current problems come down to food, and these 4 immersive days proved that there are so many solutions out there.  I’m feeling optimistic for the future!

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This was just the first 4 days of my 3 month long adventure in Italy!  Continue to follow along on Instagram via @orchardeorto and @slowfoodboston, and stay tuned for posts about the olive harvest in Sicily and Tuscany, sustainability in Italy, and more!  Anything particular you’re curious about?  Ask away!  

Grazie ed a presto!

Gironzolando

The word “gironzolando” in Italian translates to “wandering”.

Why is this word relevant to my life right now?

I remember when I could chart out on paper exactly what I would be doing for the next 2-3 years.  I also remember looking at this list and feeling incredibly suffocated in the seemingly absolute certainty of a future I wasn’t sure I even wanted.

This past year especially, I’ve learned to appreciate the unknown.  I committed myself wholeheartedly to a career change on a whim, and have been enjoying just rolling with it ever since.  I like not knowing where my job may lead, what I’ll be doing on any particular day, or where I’ll be living in a year.  It’s exciting and challenging, and it’s allowed me to learn a slew of random skills I never thought I would.  It’s also allowed me the freedom to spearhead projects like The Grateful Bread and Eataly’s nationwide donation program, opportunities I would’ve never had if I didn’t just trust things would work out in the long run.  I’ve realized this uncertainty doesn’t stress me out – and that’s a good thing, because things couldn’t be more uncertain than they are right now!!

I’m headed off to Italy for the next 3 months, and my plan for when I return is…not quite materialized?  There are some big changes coming up, and although trying to navigate these changes has been frustrating, I truly am excited about not knowing.  I’m especially excited for the opportunity to spend these three months fully immersing myself in what I’m most passionate about.

But before I get into what on earth I’m doing in Italy, I wanted to explain some changes that will accompany this journey, more specifically how I’m choosing to document and share it with people.  It goes back to the nature of why I started all this, where I see this all going, and I’m really excited about it!

How A Hobby Becomes More

I first started my food-Instagram during my senior year of college when my roommate of 4 years (HI JESS 🙂 ) and I finally got an apartment.  It was teensy tiny, a 1 bedroom with twin beds less than 5 feet apart like our previous dorms, but it had a FULL KITCHEN and that’s all that mattered.  We ran with it and thanked the cutthroat, soul-crushing BU housing lottery for this Buswell beauty.

Jess and I were both food-obsessed long before we got this apartment.  To give you an idea: some college students go to frat parties on the weekends…my ideal weekend consisted of making dinner with friends on Friday, scoping out a new restaurant on Saturday, and trying to find the best coffee/pastry combo on Sunday (current favorites: Tatte and Flour).  If this makes me sound old and lame, I don’t care.  I’ve had this thought in my head for a while now that I’ve felt perpetually 30 years old for quite some time, and I’m okay with that!

My precious pasta-maker gifted to me by my cousins living in Italy soon became a source of entertainment for my friends and I.  We began cranking out homemade beet pasta, bright red with a creamy mushroom sauce, popping open a bottle of red wine from around the corner of one of our small, dinky apartments.  In an attempt to spice up our variety, we started having themed dinners – Greek, Indian, Chinese, pizza (yes, its own theme).  Then there was “Fall in New England”, which included pork chops with apples, mashed potatoes, Kimballs pumpkin ice cream, and the relaxing banging of harpsichord 17th century England in the background.  We entertained ourselves in our own weird way, and it was so much fun (and not much has changed).

This is what my college nights consisted of, and I felt comfort in being able to fully embrace what I actually wanted to be doing with my time: being around people I love, eating good food.

Back then, my account was called @racheatsfood.  I definitely put a TON of thought into that, can you tell?  As blatantly unoriginal as it was, it’s also a completely accurate depiction for where my head was at that point: I was still fully enrolled in my biology courses, I was in the pre-med mindset, and cooking (and food in general) was a hobby.  I didn’t think about it too much.  I viewed it as a much-needed break from the “pre-med bubble”, an entirely too real phenomenon that consumed me and my gen chem office hour-buddies for all 4 years of college. Taking photos of my food adventures and sharing them with other people was fun.  That’s pretty much all there was to it.

Flash forward to almost a year after graduation, when I had finally escaped the aforementioned bubble and had the headspace to think about pursuing what I really cared about.  I committed myself as much as possible to my role in sustainability and local food at Eataly, @racheatsfood became @orchardeorto, and this blog was born.

Which brings us to today!  I’ve decided to nix my personal Instagram account (@rorchard4, another jaw-dropping, original name) and commit solely to @orchardeorto.  I’m doing this because 1) it’s easier to maintain 1 account than 2, and 2) the reason why I had two accounts in the first place is no longer valid.

It’s the story of “hobby becomes real life”.  Basically, I feel that both of my accounts are slowly merging into one jumble of food, sustainability, travel, friends, family…also known as, my life!

I’ll post something on my personal account because it represents (for lack of better words) my personal life, but if it relates to food, should I ALSO post this on my food account?  Isn’t it a waste of time (and unnecessarily repetitive) to do both?  What’s the point?!

While before I felt the need to have an entirely separate account to document my passions and hobbies, this part of my life has become irreversibly more prevalent and thriving in my everyday life – in the best, most unpredictable way possible. It just doesn’t make sense anymore to keep ‘personal’ and ‘passion’ separate in this way.  I also originally thought people might get annoyed by the constant food pictures on my personal account, but hey, it’s my account, I do what I want!!

God knows we’re all constantly figuring out who we are, but at least in this aspect of my identity, the way I portray myself and my passions over social media, it is crystal clear to me.

It’s always been more about the story behind the food than the food itself (although of course I want it to taste amazing too).

Ever since I started using social media for food, I’ve always felt that I wanted to do more than just take a great picture and think of a clever caption to go with it.  I can appreciate good photography and admire those who commit to it, but truthfully I’m never too invested in the quality of my food photos: a quick ‘snap’ on the ol’ iPhone, now let’s get to eating!

I also don’t like to play with the editing too much.  If the lighting was bad, the lighting was bad – the restaurant was dark, we were seated in the corner, and I want to remember it that way.  The camera was slightly blurry?  It was probably because we were sitting by the ocean on a 90% humid day, the air full of salt and moisture.  Looking back on this flawed photo will bring me back to that day more than any perfectly crisp, edited photo (it will also always better succeed in making my mouth water for fish n’ chips).

I guess I’m more invested in the story behind a photo because, when it comes down to it, the audience for all of this is myself.  I’ve always viewed Instagram as a way for me to document my life in photos: I like scrolling through and remembering all the memories I’ve had, looking back on who I was with, where we were, how I felt.  If it feels fake to me, there’s no point in sharing it.

The story is the reason why I started this blog – to add more elaborate words to my photos, to expand on the things that I love – and I’ve found so much comfort in this flexible medium of words and photos.

The reason why I’m going on a tangent about all of this is because, as I mentioned, I want to use these next few months to immerse myself in my passions, and that includes eating food, learning about food, writing about food…you get the picture.  Before I leave the country, I wanted to make this switch so that when I arrive, I have a clear idea of how I want to be connecting on social media, and how I do not!

While I love using these outlets, I do sometimes get lost in the wormhole, left feeling bogged down by how wasteful and unnecessary they can be if used the wrong way.  I want the time that I do spend documenting my trip to be valuable and meaningful, adding to this journey, so I can focus on why I’m even doing this.

Which brings me to the next part of this entry…

Why am I going to Italy?

If you remember, way back in November, I was the US winner for Slow Food’s “Eat Local Challenge”.  The prize included a roundtrip ticket to Italy in September to attend Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, a crazy, gigantic, sensory-overloading festival of food, sustainability, and their present states across the world that spans 4 days in Torino – my kind of festival!

It’s funny how some things happen right when you need them to.  To be more exact, it’s funny how some things happen right when you need them to within minutes.  I had just left a rather confusing, frustrating meeting regarding my professional future and was distracting myself on my phone when I opened up the email from Slow Food International telling me that I had won.  It’s taken me this past year to realize that sometimes coincidences like this can mean something.

But 4 days in Italy?  That’s not long enough!  I’ve been trying to find an excuse to get back since I left, and it had arrived.  I was going to take advantage of it.  I began to think, “Why don’t I just stay…for a while?”  Without having any real plans in mind, I booked my return flight for December.

The first question I get when I tell someone about this trip is: Are you going for work?  My role at Eataly has always been very fluid (which comes with its advantages and disadvantages), and while this trip is on personal terms, it absolutely relates to what I’ve done thus far and what I’m hoping to expand upon in my professional career. And that is food and sustainability.  

The first few days of my trip will be jam-packed with it thanks to Terra Madre, but how could I spread this theme out for the rest of my time there?  I slowly began to brainstorm, and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I sat down and was able to more concretely plan out what I would actually be doing for these 3 months.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have met so many absolutely wonderful people through my job (Italians and Italio-philes) that have connected me with people they know, places I should visit, things I should see, that I feel almost overwhelmed with the possibilities.

Luckily, there is a wonderful resource called Google Docs to help me dump all this information somewhere and carve out some type of itinerary.  I’m fighting my overplanning-personality in an attempt to keep this spontaneous in nature, but I do have a rough outline of the regions I plan to visit and around when I want to be there.

For example, I knew that I wanted to go to places I didn’t get to my first time around in Italy, and thus Sicily was instantly on the list.  Who do I know in Sicily?  One of our olive oil vendors, and wait – they harvest olives in October in Sicily…can I visit them and witness the creation of one of my favorite products in person?  The conversations grew, the list grew, and I quickly had an outline of farms, producers, cities, and small towns from Piemonte to Sicilia where I had a connection.

At first I was struggling to think of what the goal of this trip would be.  How would I explain this to people and make them realize that this isn’t just a fun Italian jaunt for me, but actually is so completely relevant to what I want to be doing in my professional career?

To me it’s become obvious – what better way to understand food systems and sustainability than seeing it first hand?  And why Italian?  Because it’s the culture and cuisine I can most relate to at this present moment – what I view as a simple and, at its core, sustainable food culture that values what I value.

I’m now viewing this as my own little ‘culinary tour’ of some of my most favorite products I’ve come across, from olive oil to honey to salumi e formaggi, and time to learn the whole story: from the producers and vendors, the farmers, and the land or animals that created it.  It’s a time for me to devote myself to my creative and professional passions, and I couldn’t be more excited.

I’ve lived in Boston for almost 6 years now, the Boston-area for practically my entire life, and I’m feeling like a change is needed.  3 months away in Italy might be enough of a change for now, but who really knows. I’m open and willing to see where this will take me.

I’m luckily at a point in my life where I can drop everything and leave for this amount of time, which is a freedom I don’t take for granted.

The security of an apartment in a beautiful neighborhood on a quiet street with an easy commute and a short drive to my hometown, living near so many of my closest friends and being able to see them after work – these are all things I feel incredibly lucky to have had here in Boston and love about living here.  But I’m also feeling like I’ve gotten a little too comfortable for someone in their early 20s.  I have my whole life to be this comfortable; right now, I’d rather be challenged and uncertain.  It’s something I’ve found a lot of my friends are relating to lately in this weird, confusing, exciting, figure-it-out stage of life.

Sto gironzolando – I’m wandering.  Is that what I should tell Italians when they ask what I’m doing in their country for 3 months?  It may not be entirely true (is it still wandering if it’s not completely aimless?), but it’s very much my mindset, and the timing feels right.

Ciao for now!

Thanks for reading!  The majority of future updates will be posted via @orchardeorto on Instagram, with longer updates here.  I’ll also be writing a few articles for Slow Food Boston and sharing snippets on their accounts – go give ’em a follow! 🙂 

Waste Free in JP

…and other general life updates/efforts to create a sustainable life in the city!

It’s been almost exactly a year since I veered (very happily, willingly, and rather desperately) off the path towards medicine and into the world of food.  It’s weird to think that it was only one year ago I had just quit my EMT job, sitting at home and wondering what on earth I would do next.  I still remember the incredible liberation I felt once I realized that my passions for food and sustainability could be more than just hobbies.

It can be easy to forget how much progress I’ve made, but it’s times like these that I’m grateful I keep an obsessively-detailed personal journal full of rambling, half-cursive scribbles where I can be reminded so easily of the journey this past year has been.

Professionally, I launched myself into the world of food waste and have discovered that this is what I want to dedicate my career towards.  That’s no small feat, especially for me!! If you know me at all, you know that I constantly contemplate what I want to do with my life, where I’m headed next, and how I’m going to get there.   A year ago I knew I wanted to do something with food, but had no idea what.  The fact that I have narrowed it down to this one focus area since then is a very big deal for me, and speaks mountains about the progress I’ve made this past year.

My projects involving food sustainability at work are flourishing, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to see such tangible impacts: I see the leftovers, undesirables, soon-to-be-expired or already expired (yet perfectly edible) food that could have been wasted and left to rot in the landfill, and I have comfort in knowing that it’s instead being delivered to someone who needs it and will use it.  All those pounds of delicious fresh pasta, lumpy deformed potatoes, and “expired” chocolate (the idea that chocolate could ever expire is so ridiculous to me) are being eaten and enjoyed, as they were intended.

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An example of our beautiful daily donations!

It was inevitable that something I am so passionate about professionally has started to impact my life outside of work as well.  And this lies within the sustainable world of wasting less…of everything.

A few months back I came across this article about a woman who fit four years of trash into one jar.  FOUR. YEARS.  Think about how much trash you produce in a year, let alone a single week.  If you’re like me when I first read this, I wasn’t actually quite sure how much I produced…but now I was curious.

I took out my phone and started a new note, jotting down any sources of potential waste as I mentally walked through my day.  I already recycle and compost as much as possible, but there were still a few things ending up in the trash that I could easily prevent; things like paper towels, tea bag wrappers, receipts, small things here and there.  It was comforting to see that the list was short, but the few leftovers on the list were a direct and targeted way to show how I could improve even more.

For example, we already have reusable cloth napkins and rags in the kitchen, so was there really any reason for me to use paper towels, other than the fact that they were there, easy to grab, and I was probably just being lazy?  I could buy one of those reusable tea strainers for loose-leaf tea and cut out wrappers entirely, and I’ve already gotten a lot better at saying ‘no receipt, please’ when possible (especially necessary at CVS, sheesh).

Slowly this list has gotten smaller and smaller, and now I find myself incredibly conscious each and every time I go to throw something in the trash.  I just think: does this absolutely need to go here, and if it does, how can I replace it with something that does not?

To me the term ‘waste’ brings to mind the feeling of guilt.  It’s so easy to get caught in a routine, simply because it’s the easy thing to do, and yet you know what you’re doing, as you’re doing it, is unproductive or in this case, bad for the environment.   Even if you’re consciously aware of it, it can be hard to get yourself out of the habit.

Yes, trying to live with zero waste requires some time and attention, but a lot of wasting less comes down to small changes that make it easier for yourself…and for others!  Living with roommates or family members who may/may not be as conscious of the environment has shown me how you can take little steps to make it easy for everyone to contribute…even if they’re not fully aware of it 😉

Composting
One of the best, and easiest, things I’ve done to waste less is by starting to compost – and yes, it is possible, and very easy, to do in the city!  Luckily Boston is pretty environmentally-friendly, especially the neighborhood I live in (pretty proud of the ‘waste free in JP’ title), and so it was easy for me to sign our house up for a compost service.

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Bootstrap Compost was born in Jamaica Plain, and you can find their white vans driving around the city, picking up small white compost buckets off doorsteps in the Greater Boston area.  We signed up for a bimonthly service which is plenty for our household of 4, and comes down to only $6 a person per month.  Over the course of two weeks our bucket compiles our fruit and veggie trimmings, eggshells, teabags, coffee grounds, even meat and dairy leftovers.  It’s strangely satisfying to watch it fill up, and we joke about feeding it like it’s our own pet…weird, I know.  It can be impractical to start your own compost pile in your backyard if you live in the city (hello rats), so this is a great alternative that makes the whole process incredibly easy: just leave it on your doorstep, and a new empty bucket magically takes its place.

Some other great sources for composting in Boston:

Plus, a cool server to find compost pickups anywhere in the country!

How to easily maximize the use of your compost bin: keep it in your kitchen where it’s visible and staring you in the face as you make your meals.  Some compost bins aren’t sealed tightly enough and can smell, but get yourself a bucket with a solid lid and you won’t even notice it is there.  As I’m cooking I like to set another bowl on the table to collect all the scraps and trimmings, so that it’s as easy as opening the lid and dumping the bowl when you’re done.  If your housemates are contributing to the cost, they’ll hopefully be more motivated to actually use it!

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Keep an empty bowl nearby as you cook to collect scraps

Another added benefit: composting combined with recycling results in less smelly trash (no more food scraps sitting there for weeks), less trash overall (aka fewer trips lugging heavy trash bags out to the dumpster), and fewer trash bags used (aka less money spent on new bags, and less trash bags in the trash).  It’s such an easy way to get started and has so many positive downstream effects on the path of wasting less, of everything.

Recycling
I had a not-so-proud moment a few months back that consisted of a rather furious, rage-filled morning of fishing take-out containers, solo cups, and paper plates from our overflowing trash bin leftover from a party at our house the night before.  These were all perfectly recyclable items, so yes, I went through the trash.  It can be frustrating to live with others who aren’t as conscious about these habits, but like I said:  there are ways to make things easier for everyone.

For example, in my own household I noticed that a lot of our toiletries were ending up in the bathroom trash bin, mostly because we didn’t have a recycling bin there.  Even something as small as the trip to the bin downstairs can result in unnecessary waste.  So I put one of our spare Trader Joe’s paper bags next to the garbage to collect toilet paper rolls, shampoo and toothpaste bottles, etc. and voila, one more hurdle defeated, however small. 

Luckily recycling has become pretty commonplace; wouldn’t it be great if composting were next?

Being smart in the market and creative in the kitchen
The best way to cut down on food waste specifically is to avoid creating excess in the first place.  This comes down to only buying what you need, when you need it.  The Eat Local Challenge revealed a lot about my shopping habits, and one of my takeaways was to stop buying too many fresh items in one trip.  I’ve realized that, just based on my habits, I prefer making one meal at a time rather than meal planning, and things tend to go bad before I can use them all if I buy too much at once.

This can be really hard for me as I walk through the store with this or that recipe popping up in my mind, and being confronted with so many delicious fruits, vegetables, cheeses, breads, EVERYTHING that I want to try.  But I’ve started going into the store with the mindset: what do I want to make for dinner tonight and tomorrow, not for the entire week?  At least for me it’s luckily not necessary to think this far in advance, and I’ve found that I’m able to use more and waste less when I shop this way.

It also comes down to purchasing items that have little to no packaging, or items that have recyclable/compostable packaging when possible.  I’ve stopped using those little plastic bags for produce and just put them right in the cart – it will give you more motivation to give them a nice scrub before eating.   I also love, love that Boston has finally banned the use of plastic bags – yay, pretty reusable grocery bags!

When you get home and start cooking, try to use as much of the ingredient as possible, and if you can, create something new from scraps or trimmings.  This can actually be a lot of fun: it causes you to be creative and rethink some of your favorite dishes.  Pesto has become a common trend as a way of using bits of greens and herbs (carrot-top pesto and kale pesto are some of my favorites), but something even more obvious is using stale bread to make breadcrumbs, bread pudding, or thicken soup.

Speaking of soup: I can’t think of a better vehicle for food scraps.  The other day I was roasting some asparagus when soup came to mind.  We typically chop off the bottom 1/4 of asparagus due to its tough structure, but there’s still so much wonderful flavor trapped in those stems.  I added them to a pot along with some chicken broth, a chopped white onion, some peeled carrots (along with their peels), and simmered it all away with some thyme.  While the stems and carrot peels ended up in the compost at the end, their flavor was extracted up until the very end and added a whole other level to the broth.  I was beyond grateful to have it in my freezer a few weeks later when I came down with the stomach bug and needed some nutritious broth ASAP (it cured me, I swear).

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Veggie scraps make an amazing, flavorful broth

While we’re on the subject of soup, never ever throw away those leftover parmesan rinds.  Store them in your freezer and the next time you’re making a broth, throw them in to add delicious, cheesy, savory flavor…they’re gold.

These are just some little tricks that I’ve started to use in my kitchen to prevent food waste, and I’m learning more every day as I experiment with new ingredients.  The next time you go to throw out some food scraps, challenge yourself to think if you can reinvent them.  If banana peels can be made into chutney, anything is possible!!

Food waste, at the level it is at today, is a modern phenomenon.  Some of the most traditional recipes were made out of necessity, using only what was leftover in an attempt to preserve the last bits, really as a way to survive on what was left.

Preventing food waste comes down to treating an ingredient with respect.  Chef Massimo Bottura says that “by making resourceful even something that we usually throw away, you’re making visible the invisible.” When you utilize an ingredient from beginning to end, you pay homage to the land, animals, and people that invested their time and energy in its creation.  While a ripe, crisp apple or an aged piece of cheese may seem like a simple and trivial thing, in reality that piece of food took a lot of time and energy to create: from the warm sun that helped it grow, to the grass that fed the cow’s whose milk created that creamy flavorful cheese.  It’s our job to pay respect to these natural processes by paying attention to how we use our food, and to make sure that we’re using it to the fullest.

So I mentioned I wanted to waste less of everything.  So far I’ve just mentioned physical items, but I’ll briefly mention something I want to waste less of that isn’t as tangible.

From a more personal standpoint, I want to waste less time.  Especially with the weather lately (i.e. the sun long since set by the time I get out of work, the frigid cold that makes my hair freeze and my shoulders tighten), I want nothing more than to snuggle up inside and watch TV.  I love me a good Netflix-binge once in a while, but I’m also constantly aware of the hours better spent doing something else.  I could be reading all those beautiful cookbooks I own or walking to the library to immerse myself in some good fiction, breaking out my guitar and working on building those calluses on my fingers, or doing anything else that requires a little more stimulation than zoning out in front of a screen.  I could be writing more on this blog!  This particular post has been on my mind for months now, and I’m just now getting myself to finally sit down and write.

Sometimes it can take a lot of effort to get myself to do the things I’m actually passionate about, or that I want to get better at.  It’s easier to do the things we’re used to or more comfortable doing (like plopping down in front of the TV, or throwing the take-out container in the trash rather than rinsing it out and putting it in the recycling bin), but that doesn’t mean we should keep doing these things.  It’s just about being more conscious, and thinking, “Is what I’m doing productive and good (for myself, others, and the environment)?”

Living sustainably is all about making small changes.  The easier you make it for yourself and others, the more it will occur.

And who knows when your habits will rub off on others!  Case in point: I was so proud to wake up Christmas morning and see that my mom had made her own reusable bags for our presents (using adorable festive prints, thanks Joann Fabrics).  And I’m happy to say that my our compost bin is now full thanks to my roommates.

Who knows if I’ll ever get down to a mason jar’s-worth of trash, but I can try 🙂

What do you think you’re wasting in your daily routine?  Try making your own list, whether it consists of items that are physical, abstract, or both.  I’d love to hear from you all about your own journeys and suggestions on the path to zero-waste!

For those of you from Boston, have you come across any zero-waste stores or businesses?

 

Eat Local Challenge

ING_Banner1_Campagna-2017_MOBILEFrom October 16th to November 5th, I decided to pledge to Slow Food‘s “Eat Local Challenge”.  What’s Slow Food, you ask?  Just what it sounds like!

Slow food is the exact opposite of fast food.  The Slow Food movement began back in 1986 when its founder, Carlo Petrini, decided to fight back against the opening of a McDonald’s at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome.

I love that this is how it all began, because to me it shows what a unique country Italy is: can you imagine this happening in the US, or anywhere else really?  In a country whose cuisine is so dependent on fresh, simple ingredients, a business like McDonald’s threatens everything this culture has worked so hard to maintain: a traditional, simple cuisine that highlights food that is local and in season, food that has had time and energy invested into it, food that is transparent and delicious and untouched by complicated industrial production.  In other words, food that is “good, clean, and fair for all” (AKA Slow Food’s motto).

One of the things I loved most about my travels in Italy was this transparency in food.  As I’ve mentioned here before, I once took a cooking class in Vicenza where we began by walking outside to the market, deciding the menu based solely on what was available.  The question of the morning: what on earth would we eat with our rabbit ravioli?  A man working one of the many produce stands showed us some white asparagus that had come in fresh that morning, so white asparagus it was! It was that easy.

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Fresh white asparagus in Vicenza

Meanwhile in my little university town of Padova, I used to love visiting the Piazza della Frutta, oogling over beautiful baskets overflowing with heaps of bright, colorful fruits and veggies from just outside the city.  The perfect snack, a ripe piece of fruit, was always only a step away.

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Daily market at Piazza della Frutta in Padova

Before living in Italy, I honestly never heard of the idea of eating seasonally, but it soon became a part of my daily life.  For the first few months, I ate more radicchio than I ever had before (I don’t think I’d eaten any radicchio before this point, actually).  Why was my host mom always cooking radicchio?  Because it was winter and that was what was available.  She made salads, soups, and even savory tarts (man, I miss those tarts).  If my friends and I went out to a trattoria around the corner, guess what the risotto special was?  Risotto al radicchio.  Radicchio was everywhere, in all shapes and forms.  My eyes were opened to a whole new way of cooking focused around appreciating the versatility of an ingredient and taking full advantage of it when it was available, or as the Italians say, to fare la scorpacciata. 

Whether its in the fruits and veggies, the aged cheeses, olive oils, or balsamic vinegars, it’s not hard to notice (and taste) the time, attention, and care that Italian food has invested in it.  This is the main reason why I love it so much, and why the way I cook is so heavily influenced by this culture and my time spent immersed within it.

While the Slow Food movement originated in Italy, the strive to return to food that is wholesome and simple is universal.  Since its induction, Slow Food chapters have popped up all over the world in their commitment to conserve local food traditions.  There’s even one right here in Boston!

Ever since I first heard about Slow Food through my job at Eataly, I’ve really come to identify with it.  I’m now more aware than ever about where my food comes from, and I try to pay close attention to the impact my food habits have across all levels – from production, to transport, to dealing with leftovers and food waste.  It can be easy to commit yourself to these standards without really thinking about them, so I was really excited to hear about this challenge as a way to be even more mindful.

So, the challenge!  Here were the rules:

  • Eat two meals a week sourced with local, traditional ingredients
  • Eat only free-range meat raised in their region
  • Shop at a farmers’ market at least once a week
  • Buy no imported food or products made over 200 miles away

Admittedly, I didn’t follow this to a T.  The first two points were pretty easy: I had a lot of fun constructing recipes centered around local ingredients, and I don’t normally purchase meat anyways.  I don’t know if it’s because it’s fall now and farmers markets are more sparse, or because I was lazy and didn’t actively seek one out, but I failed at #3.  I’m only human!! The last point is where I focused the majority of my efforts: I truly tried to source my food from within this 200 mile range, and surprisingly it wasn’t that difficult.

As I started this challenge, I quickly realized this would be the perfect opportunity to conduct a sort of ‘self-study’ and really delve deep into every aspect of my own little food system.  How would this affect the foods I chose to buy, and where I chose to buy them from?   So over the course of the challenge, I made an effort to buy groceries from a few different stores to compare my experience: both in price, variety, and ease in finding local ingredients.  Here are those findings!

Store Comparison

#1 Whole Foods
Unsurprisingly, Whole Foods won across the board: for most transparent sourcing, availability of local products, and price (ding ding ding!).  Finding local ingredients at Whole Foods was always the easiest compared to the other stores I visited over the course of this challenge.  Whole Foods has a color-coded system where produce is labeled with a bright blue “local” tag along with the state it came from…ya can’t miss it.  I do applaud Whole Foods for this transparency because, even if I weren’t doing this challenge, I think I still would have noticed this tag and probably altered my choice of produce, opting for a more local option just because it was so in your face.  They have a huge variety of produce, so it wasn’t hard to find local varieties of the fruits and veggies I love, plus some new kinds I’d never had before.  It’s on the more expensive side, but fingers crossed their prices keep getting lower with this whole Amazon deal…

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From one of my trips to Whole Foods, and the ingredients for the butternut squash soup recipe below!

#2 Eataly
I work here so I’m a little biased, but I had to include it 😉  I think a lot of people are hesitant to buy ‘regular groceries’ from a place like Eataly.  After all, it is a specialty Italian market that focuses on goods that come from thousands of miles away.  BUT, this fact withstanding, their local selection is quite amazing and highly underestimated, particularly their produce section.  Every morning I witness the arrival of carts and carts of fresh produce, and one of my favorite things to do after work is to visit this section in the store and see what’s new.  The selection is constantly changing depending on the season, and I’ve across more weird, funky fruits and veggies here than I have at any other store.  Back in the spring I tried fiddlehead ferns for the first time, and now that we’re in the fall there are heaps of 5 or 6 different varieties of apples and squash that I’ve never heard of.   I like to stop by here at least once a week and pick up whatever is in season, forcing myself to figure out what to do with it.   I’ll admit it was difficult working here and not being able to buy my favorite Italian products during this challenge (particularly the cheeses), but I found some awesome local products from VT, MA, and NY that were just as delicious and fun to try.  Price-wise I’d say it’s comparable to Whole Foods, but I get that discount…ayoooo!

#3 Wegman’s
Wegman’s is slightly cheaper than the above two, but there was a huge difference in transparency in sourcing of their produce.  While Whole Foods and Eataly have tags clearly marking the location of the farms where it all grew, I noticed this information was severely lacking as I perused Wegman’s produce section.  I ranked this above Market Basket only because of the variety of produce available, but I found the two to be equal in terms of source information.  One area where Wegman’s was strong was the availability of local dairy products, cheese specifically, but I was surprised to find their produce section so void of information.

#4 Market Basket
Growing up in Massachusetts I have a soft spot in my heart for this place: there’s just something about those fluorescent lights and red and white detailing everywhere that brings upon waves of nostalgia and reminds me of trips to the store with my mom as a kid.  Although Market Basket is by far the cheapest grocery option around while still providing great quality food, I’ll admit I was pretty disappointed when I found out just how difficult it was to find local ingredients.  Exploring the produce aisles, there was really no labeling for where the food came from.  I even tried looking at the stickers on the produce itself, and often times I was still left wondering about its source.  The selection at MB also doesn’t really change with the season: the same staples are always available, and it doesn’t lend much to trying new things or focusing on what’s growing now.  I still love ya, MB, but your produce section needs work.

Takeaways
Overall I learned a LOT from doing this challenge, and it’s made it almost unavoidable not to pay attention to all this now as I walk through the grocery store.  My shopping habits have definitely changed for the better, and I’m excited to continue this awareness. Here were some of my biggest takeaways:

Shop without a list. One of the things I loved about this challenge was walking into the store not having a clue about what I would walk out with.  Who knew if I’d even be able to make that soup I wanted to try – would they have carrots that were grown within 200 miles? Entering the store with a clean slate, zero expectations, forced me to figure out what I would eat that night based on what was available, and I found I really liked shopping this way.  Having an open mind while shopping can lead to new and exciting meals:  it can be so easy to get into a habit of buying the same produce every week, but making an effort to stick to local, seasonal ingredients made me pleasantly venture off the course.

Go shopping more often, but buy less. This becomes especially apparent in regards to fresh produce.  Who says you need to stock up on everything all at once, often times once a week?  It’s convenient, but I’ve found it doesn’t really work for me.  I’ve found that I’m bad at meal planning for multiple days in advance.  When I buy too many different types of produce to last a whole week, it usually ends up going bad before I can even use it and that’s just a lose lose situation in every way: I lose money, and I lose out on a delicious meal that’s now gone to waste (at least it’s composted, but still!).  I much prefer going to the store two or three times a week and buying the ingredients for what I’m going to make that very night.  I like to think back to the piazze in Italy and think: what is here now and what do I want to make tonight?  

Source your food from more than 1 store.  Just because Whole Foods won this challenge doesn’t mean I’m going to exclusively shop there now (HA, I would go broke).  I’m not giving up on Market Basket just yet: it’s still a great option for non-perishables and pantry staples.  But when I want fresh produce, I’ll go to places like Whole Foods because of their quality and local options.  And when I need more fresh bread, I’ll stop by the bakery at Eataly after work.  Pick and choose a few places that have their own strengths. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with this many options, take advantage of it!

Eating local doesn’t always mean spending more money.  I think this would have been more apparent if it was still farmers market season, because it really is true: local food, produce specifically, sold at a local shop or stand can be a lot cheaper than anything found in the store.  It’s not always the case, but then again, you’re paying for quality and, in my opinion, you should never sacrifice quality when it comes to food.

You don’t need to eat “all local” all the time!  And often times, you just can’t.  For example, olive oil?  I don’t know of many olive groves within 200 miles of Massachusetts (if you know of one, hit me up).  Some products just don’t grow here because of the climate, but that doesn’t mean you should stop yourself from enjoying them.  I’m not going to stop buying all bananas, pineapples, and other tropical fruits because those are some of my favorite foods and I don’t want to torture myself.  But what I am going to try to do is eat less of them.  What I started doing during this challenge and will continue to do is opt for a more local, seasonal fruit or veggie instead.

All in all, my biggest take away from this challenge is this: when you can, eat local.  And when you can’t, just choose wisely.  Pay attention to where your food comes from and its path from farm to fork.  It shouldn’t be too convoluted, but if it is, maybe it’s a sign you choose to source from somewhere else.  Because even in this day and age of industrial processing, I’ve learned that it is completely possible to live by the rules of this challenge.  And it’s kind of fun!  So take a moment to be conscious, make an effort to truly feel good about the food you choose to eat and buy, and do as the Italians and slow things down. 

To tie this challenge up, the recipe section!  Here are some things I made over the past few weeks to pull together all these local ingredients I found (highlighted).  Because it’s the fall, there are a lot of pumpkin, squash, and apple recipes.  Now that I’ve done this, I’m thinking of replicating the challenge in each season just for fun.  Enjoy and happy cooking 🙂

Butternut squash soup

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I adapted this from a recipe from Food Republic and had to change a few things because, interestingly enough, the carrots in the grocery stores here all come from California!  So instead, I used radishes which came from Massachusetts.  This combines so many delicious fall flavors: butternut squash, apples, ginger…add some crispy kale and salty pumpkin seeds on top, and dip with some warm toasty bread?  It really hit the spot as the weather started to get cooler and the nights longer.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 1 medium-sized butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 1 bunch radishes, diced (save greens for salads)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
  • Splash of dry white wine
  • 5 C of water
  • 2 apples, peeled, cored, and cut in quarters
  • 1 tsp salt

To make: Melt the butter butter in a large soup pot, add the onion and sauté for 5 minutes.  Add the squash and radishes, sauté on medium-high heat for 10 minutes, stirring often.  Add the garlic and ginger, sauté until fragrant.  Deglaze the pan with the wine, cooking for 1 minute.  Add the water, apples, and salt.  Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil, then reduce to medium-low and let simmer, covered, for 20 minutes, or until squash can be pierced with a fork.  Let cool for 5 minutes, then use an emulsifier or glass blender to blend the soup.  (Funny story: I have neither of these, so I used a handheld mixer and hot soup spattered EVERYWHERE 🙂 But it worked!) Add a pinch of salt and pepper, and top with crispy kale (roast w/ olive oil in the oven) and pumpkin seeds.

Applesauce

 

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There are 3 apple trees that line the side of the house I grew up in Chelmsford, and this year was the first time we could actually eat their apples.  They’re small with rough, spotted skin, but they’re also tart and delicious, and the most local product possible!  I kid you not, our black lab Ronny is visibly fatter now because he can’t stop eating these apples.  He will eat 5 in a row, laying in the driveway and munching away contently.  With the apples he didn’t happen to scarf away, my mom made cinnamony, apple sauce that quite literally tastes like home.

Ingredients:

  • 10 medium-sized apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 C water
  • Lots and lots of cinnamon

To make: Combine all ingredients (excluding 1 C or so of the chopped apples) in a large pot and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat and let simmer until desired thickness.  At the very end, add in the rest of the chopped apples to add some crunchy texture.

Apple crisp

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One of my favorite ways to bake with apples in the fall, my mom always seems to make this for me when I come home for the weekend.  I immediately associate this smell with home and remember all the times I used to steal the crisp from the rest of the dish.

Ingredients:

  • 7-10 medium-sized apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
  • 3/4 C brown sugar
  • 1 stick melted butter
  • 1 tbsp cinnamon
  • 3/4 C flour

To make: Lay sliced apples in a flat baking dish.  In a separate bowl, mix together brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, and flour.  Crumble mixture over the apples and cook at 350 for 45 minutes, or until crisp is “crisp”.  A scoop of vanilla ice cream is a necessity 😋

Pumpkin biscuits

I made a big batch of these the other day and ate them for breakfast for at least a week.  Fluffy, savory, and buttery, these are amazing with honey and sea salt on top.  Although I cheated and used canned pumpkin, I’m including this because you can totally make this from scratch using a local pumpkin.  Next time 😉

Ingredients: (adapted from Better Homes & Gardens)

  • 2 1/4 C white whole wheat flour
  • 2 tbsp packed brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1 C canned pumpkin puree
  • 3/4 C buttermilk
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • Sea salt

To make: Preheat oven to 450 F.  In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.  Add cubed butter and use a pastry cutter or fingers to mix into flour until evenly distributed.  In another bowl, whisk together pumpkin and buttermilk.  Add into dry ingredients just until incorporated.  Place dough on a lightly floured surface and pat into a 1-inch thick round.  Using a circular cookie cutter (or a mug/cup), stamp out biscuits and place on an ungreased baking sheet.  Brush tops with melted butter and sprinkle with sea salt.  Bake for 12-15 minutes.  Best served warm, cut in half with honey and a little more sea salt.  These also make delicious vehicles for breakfast sandwiches – fried egg and bacon? Mmm.

I smothered my new Best Bees honey from MA on these, and I’m hooked.  Honey is one of the best local products you can use – it’s not only good for your neighborhood bees, but also strengthens your immune system and helps to fight allergies.  And I love how their label tells you exactly which flowers the honey came from!

Pumpkin risotto with mushrooms and sage 

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Making risotto is something I save for nights when I want to relax and invest some time in the kitchen.  I made this on a cold, rainy Sunday evening and this cozy atmosphere coupled with the smell of sautéed onions, wine, and sage made me veryyy happy.   Again, this would be another opportunity to make your own pumpkin puree.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 C Arborio or Carnaroli rice
  • 4 C chicken broth (usually 1 box)
  • 2 C mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 bunch sage leaves
  • 1/2 can of pumpkin puree
  • 1/2 C grated parmigiano reggiano, grana padano, or similar-type local cheese  (+ extra to top)
  • Balsamic vinegar to top

To make: In a large sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the onion, cooking until translucent (5 mins).  Add the rice, toasting for a few minutes.   Reduce heat to low and add 1 C of chicken broth.  Once rice has absorbed majority of liquid, add another cup and repeat until all 4 cups have been added.  While rice is absorbing liquid, in another pan sauté the mushrooms and sage with olive oil.  To the finished risotto, add pumpkin and cheese, mix until incorporated.  Serve risotto topped with mushrooms and sage, sprinkle with cheese and a few drops of balsamic vinegar.  For leftovers, make arancini (rice balls) by coating with egg, bread crumbs, and frying in olive oil.

Grazie per leggere, a presto!

I Gusti dell’Estate

CIAO.  It’s been a while.  This summer has been so busy and yet the entire time I was thinking, “Man, I really want to write more on that thing I started a few months ago…”, but it just never happened.  I think I was waiting for a ‘theme’ to write about, and of course I think of something just as it’s coming to an end:  the flavors of summer, i gusti dell’estate.  So now that we’re here, at the end of summer and the beginning of fall, I figured it’s better late than never to write a summer-themed post.  ‘Cause I can’t let go, not yet!!

Summer is and always has been my favorite season.  When I was in school, this was a given because…no school.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think a kid has ever had another favorite season.  The competition is weak when paired against sleeping in and not doing homework for 3 months straight.  But even now that I’m out of school and working a regular job where I can’t just do whatever I want for the entirety of June, July, and August, summer still remains my favorite season for so many reasons.

Growing up in New England you learn to love little bits of all the seasons.  Yes, we may complain about it, but even winter is magical, especially in December when you get that first smell of snow in the air and twinkle lights appear on every corner.  But there’s just something about summer that makes me incredibly nostalgic and appreciative of nature, and the entire season I just want to be outside as much as possible.   To name a few of these “somethings”: the light and chirping of birds that wake me up too early in the morning but I can’t be mad because it’s beautiful out; how the air can be both hot and sticky and envelop you in a suffocating yet oddly comforting hug, or cool and fresh and smell like the sea or fresh cut grass; the feeling like I’m absorbing every bit of sunshine and warmth as I lay in the sand after floating in the waves off my favorite beach in Gloucester; and the way evening summer light makes everything look hazy and golden during my favorite time of the day throughout the entire year.  I could go on forever, and I’m sure you have your own list of feelings/smells associated with summer that bring a smile to your face just by thinking of them.

But by far, the tastes of summer are what make me cherish every second of this season that is far, far too short.  These are some of the tastes that have become inseparable with summer to me – flavors that, when they hit my taste buds, instantly bring me back to one of those long summer days.  So let’s all have a little crying-fest and reminisce about the foods we will miss the most as summer comes to an end.

Kimball’s ice cream

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People who know me knew this would be #1.  Kimball’s is ingrained into my summers like watermelon and corn on the cob are to the fourth of July.   Kimball Farm is (only) open from mid-April to Columbus Day weekend, and I feel like every time I’m there I’m thinking about how little time I have left.  I kid you not: on Columbus Day last year my family and I made our last Kimball’s pilgrimage (dogs in tow, this is a family affair after all), and after ordering and savoring every last bit of our ice cream, my dad proceeded to order $80.00 worth of half-gallon buckets of chocolate ice cream to hoard for the winter.  And the funny thing is that this doesn’t warrant strange looks from other people, because they get it.  They’re probably about to do the exact same thing.

Us New Englanders are ice cream people.  Funny story: my grandma moved from upstate New York to an assisted-living center nearby, and she’s continuously baffled by the amount of ice cream her fellow residents consume (“Every single night!!”).  But when you’re surrounded by farms like Kimball’s that make the creamiest, most heavenly ice cream known to man, it becomes a part of your culture.  When my friends from high school are home, it’s where we meet to catch up.  It’s also one of the first places I bring my friends from out of town, and so many of them have become as obsessed as I am (sometimes I think they’re visiting me just for Kimball’s, but hey, I can’t blame ‘em).  It’s one of the few things that my entire family enjoys: it can actually get my 19 year old brother to tag along with us.  That’s the power of Kimball’s.

If you haven’t had it, I highly recommend it.  My favorite location is the one in Carlisle, MA because it’s still just a small farm stand on the side of the road (no hoopla like zip-lining or hot air balloon-riding like the soon-to-be amusement park in Westford).  My favorite flavor by far is mocha almond assault (coffee based w/ fudge swirls and chocolate covered almonds), but when I dare to venture off, vanilla blueberry crumble, coffee oreo, and pumpkin are close seconds.

There are only a few weeks left until Columbus Day, and I’m already thinking about how I’m going to savor every last bit of the hot apple crisp with a scoop of pumpkin ice cream that I’ll have to bid adieu until next year.

Anything from our CSA plot

If you haven’t heard of CSA before, it stands for “community-supported agriculture.”  There are many different forms of CSA: sometimes a local farm grows the vegetables for you and you pick up a weekly assortment, or alternatively members are given their own farm plot where they can grow whatever they please.  The latter is what my family (aka my mom, aunt, and I and the freeloaders who feed off our labor) has in our hometown.  Back in May we spent the whole day roto-tilling our little plot, pulling up the incredibly dense weeds and grasses that grew since last summer.  We planted rows and rows of squash, tomatoes, carrots, beets, swiss chard, kale, strawberries, watermelon, eggplant, and peppers, and it has been amazing seeing this little jungle grow.

This past July I moved to Jamaica Plain, and every time I visit our plot I am baffled by the amount of food I’m able to take home (and grateful that for the entire summer I don’t have to spend a penny on produce at the store).  Back when I was living at home, one of my favorite things to do after dinner was drive over to the farm and walk the pups on the bike path as the sun set, hearing the faint static of the power lines standing tall against the brilliant pink sky.  The mosquitos were out, the crickets chirping, and we would leave with the promise of at least 3 baskets full of goodies.

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Being a part of a CSA forces you to be creative in the kitchen.  My weekly challenge after visiting our garden is figuring out what the heck I’m going to do with all this kale (so. much. kale.) or whatever vegetable happens to have sprouted up like wildfire that week.  I often feel like I’m on an episode of “Chopped” as I stare at the bounty of bright, colorful veggies and think how I’m going to transform them before they spoil.  It’s made me even more appreciative of eating seasonally and learning how to take advantage of what you have, when you have it.

Often times I simply eat things the way they came out of the ground: I can’t bring myself to cook the bright, plump tomatoes and so I usually end up taking a bite out of them as if they were apples, or (my favorite way) tossing them with a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and leaves of basil pulled from the pot of herbs I keep on my back porch in JP.  This smell of basil with fresh tomatoes is another smell that I immediately associate with summer, and I wish I could bottle up that earthiness and have it year round.

Another way of utilizing all these veggies is simply throwing them on a baking sheet with olive oil, garlic, and some of your favorite herbs (I like thyme) and roasting them in the oven.  It’s my favorite thing to do with summer squash, eggplant, zucchini, or beets.  I like to roast up a big batch of them and throw them in salads for the week, or just eat them plain.

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My go-to for breakfast is whatever green I have an abundance of that week (usually kale…) with a fried (or hard-boiled) egg, and a piece of yummy toasted, buttered bread.

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Sometimes I feel like transforming these ingredients a little more and I’ll make things like kale pesto or zucchini bread.  If you think zucchini bread sounds weird, I highly recommend you give it a try because it doesn’t taste at ALL like zucchini and it’s incredibly moist.  I’ve included at the bottom of this post some of my favorite “recipes” (aka list of things I like thrown together without measurements) that are a step-up from eating these ingredients straight out of the ground but still highlight their natural flavors.

Fish & Chips

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From Mac’s in Wellfleet

I can’t eat this unless I am within 5 miles from the beach, it just doesn’t feel right!! I find it hard to order anything else whenever I am in Gloucester or the on the Cape especially.  It’s as if I’m one of Pavlov’s dogs and I’ve learned to associate the salty air with this basket of fried goodness: I automatically crave it.

The Cape holds a special place in my heart.  At the mention of it, I’m brought back to when I was a kid when we used to rent a house for a week and play in the mudflats, digging for clams and scooping up crabs (one time holding them hostage in a tank in our room for days before letting them free, sorry crabs).  The air in the Cape just feels different: it’s cool and fresh, and you can immediately sense the difference when you roll down your windows going over the Sagamore or the Bourne, your lungs and mind clear with a week of relaxation ahead of you.

Although we rarely get the chance to stay an entire week on the Cape anymore, I still crave at least one “Cape day” every summer, and so my mom and I have made this a tradition every year.  We pick one of the many small towns, explore the beaches and shops, and when our stomachs start to rumble we venture out to the local seafood “shack” along the road.  If all your self-destructing heart desires is fried seafood, these little places with the Cape Cod-style siding I love so much will never let you down.  The acidity of the lemon and the bite of the cole slaw lighten up the fried fish and french fries, creating one heavenly bite that you just can’t recreate away from the ocean.  After dinner we usually make it just in time for sunset at our favorite beach in Brewster where you can walk for miles and miles during low tide.  This plus an overflowing waffle cone of Campfire S’mores (my go-to flavor if I’m not at Kimball’s) is the perfect ending to the day.  Fewer things make me happier than a day like this.

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Homemade peach pie

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If there’s one lesson I’ve learned it’s that coarse sanding sugar makes ALL the difference on pies.

More specifically, peach pie made by my mom’s friend, Margie.  She happens to live across the road from previously-mentioned favorite beach in Gloucester (not a bad person to know, right?!).  This has become a summer tradition for the three of us; we’ve (I’ve) started calling it “peach and beach”, and it’s honestly the main thing I look forward to when summer rolls around.  I’ve started associating Gloucester with this peach pie, and we laugh at how poor Margie has to bake one up every time we visit (or else we won’t come…true friendship).

We arrive at her condo around lunchtime, greeted by my favorite purple and blue hydrangeas in bloom and the salty cool air.  Usually the pie has already been made, and it sits on the stove torturing me with its buttery, cinnamon-y smell.  She makes incredibly flaky pie crust from scratch, fills it to the brim with the juiciest and brightest fresh peaches, and folds the extra pie crust into a lattice that she covers with coarse sanding sugar.  It’s absolutely beautiful and I have to photograph it every time.  I could start a collage with the number of peach pie photographs I’ve acquired…hey, that’s not a bad idea.

But we can’t eat it yet: it’s best enjoyed after a day at the beach.  We set up camp in the sand and spend the day in and out of the frigid Atlantic.  That first dive under the waves is always bone-chilling, but you just have to do it: after that, I could float in those waves for hours.  This past summer we did just that and didn’t realize how far off shore we had drifted, almost getting caught in a rip-tide. WHOOPS.

Needless to say we earned the peach pie that day, our arms and legs pleasantly sore from treading water.  We returned to her condo tired and slightly burnt, ready for the much-anticipated treat.  All this build-up just makes it taste that much better.  Sitting cross-legged on her back deck, generous slice of pie and scoop of homemade (!) vanilla ice cream in a bowl in my lap, the cool air of the marsh giving my slightly-burnt skin a pleasant chill, I am at my utmost happiest.

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Man, why does summer have to end?!  I feel like I need one last beach day (preferably with peach pie) to say goodbye to the ocean.  The memories these foods evoke are some of the most powerful memories I have.  But part of what’s great about living in New England is that the next season has its own unique tastes, smells, and activities that I love (almost) equally as much.  It’s already started to get cooler here in Boston; the mornings have that crisp feel and smell, and it makes me crave apple crisp and walks with my dogs in the cranberry bogs surrounded by bright red and orange leaves.  I can no longer walk around Jamaica Pond until 8 or 9 PM, but the early setting-sun does give me that cozy feeling of hibernation and the desire to bake or use the crockpot, which also makes me very excited (I’m an old woman at heart and proud of it).  In the meantime I’ll soak up as much as is left of summer – the sun, the sea, and these flavors with such wonderful memories attached.   So ciao for now summer, ci vediamo in un anno!

Favorite recipes from CSA ingredients: 

Kale pesto

Use a food processor or blender to grind a bunch of kale.  Add in a handful of nuts (pine nuts, walnuts, or almonds) and small hunks of parmigiano reggiano or grana padano.  Continue to blend, pouring in olive oil until smooth.  Add a pinch of salt to taste.  I made a ton of this and poured it into an ice cube tray.  Now I can pop one out whenever I have a craving for pesto…which is pretty much every day.  It’s especially great for breakfast on toast with a fried egg. Yum.

Kale chips

Preheat oven to 375 F.  Tear kale into smaller pieces and place on a baking sheet with olive oil, garlic powder, salt, and pepper (or whatever spices you like).  Cook, turning occasionally, until kale is crisp.  This stuff is ADDICTING.

Kale salad

As you can tell I have an extreme abundance of kale in the summer! This is one of my favorite salad combos: kale, apples, almonds, goat cheese, and dried cherries.  Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Broccolini with figs and almonds 

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I used dried figs but fresh figs would be even better.  You can also use any other type of dried fruit or nut for that matter!  Roast broccoli in an oven at 375 F with olive oil and garlic.  Add in sliced dried figs and chopped almonds.  Perfect combo of sweet, salty, and crunchy.

Balsamic Swiss chard 

Super easy and my favorite way to eat Swiss chard (also works great with spinach, kale, or beet greens).  Heat olive oil and minced garlic in a skillet, add greens and sauté until wilted.  Remove from heat and add a splash of balsamic vinegar (the good stuff like Ina Garten would approve of).  Throw in some chopped almonds.

Spring rolls with peanut sauce

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These are fun to make and are perfect for throwing in a BUNCH of vegetables.  Chop up desired veggies into long slices (cucumbers, squash, spinach, kale, carrots, etc all work great).  Pour an inch of warm water into a sauce pan and place rice paper wrapper in, letting soak for a few seconds until soft.  Transfer to a plate and add in veggies.  This is the hard part:  roll it up like a burrito as best as you can (mine are always a mess, but they taste good so I don’t care!).  Dip into peanut sauce (whisk together some peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar, minced garlic, and chopped peanuts).  My friend and I once made these and brought them on a hike, which proves you can and should eat them ANYWHERE.

Pasta salad with roasted corn and cherry tomatoes (adapted from a magazine that I can’t remember the name of, whoops!)

Boil a pot of water for your favorite pasta (I love this with farfalle) and prepare the vinaigrette and veggies as it cooks.

Mustard vinaigrette: Whisk together…

  • 1/4 C white wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp dijon mustard
  • pinch of salt and pepper
  • 2/3 C extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small shallot, diced
  • zest of 1 lemon

Roasted corn: Place fresh corn on the cob under the broiler.  Watch and turn as it browns on each side.  Let cool and use a knife to slice off kernels.

Slice 2 handfuls of cherry tomatoes in half.

Once the pasta is al dente and drained, add in the vinaigrette, corn, and tomatoes.  Add a handful of basil leaves, or a little goat cheese to bring it all together.

Blueberry zucchini bread

Recipe here.  I just remembered I have a loaf of this in the freezer and immediately put it in the fridge to thaw.  Guess I know what I’m having for breakfast tomorrow 😉

Chocolate zucchini muffins

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Recipe here.  Last but not least, some chocolate!  These not only got my coworkers seal of approval, but my DAD’s as well.  That’s a big deal considering the man only eats red meat and potatoes!  I may have failed to tell him they contain zucchini until after he took a bite, but he had to admit they were delicious, despite his perplexed look (he may not trust me with food ever again). They’re ooey gooey and chocolatey and a great way to get rid of those giant zucchini.

Thanks for reading!  Comment below with your favorite summer foods, I’d love to hear your feedback 🙂

La Frittata

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The frittata, or as I like to call it, eggs with all the random stuff in my fridge that I need to get rid of!  Roasted in a skillet and mixed with eggs, cheese, and a few spices, and you would never know that that broccoli had been sitting in your fridge for almost a week.  Sneaky sneakyyyy.  A frittata looks impressive with its golden-brown glow and artful display of vegetables, but is incredibly easy to make and also light on the wallet.

Frittata translates to “fried” in Italian.  If you’ve never had a frittata before, it’s like a crustless egg “pie” or quiche.  Think of how you would make an omelette but skip the step of folding it over, and boom you’ve got a frittata!  We typically think of eating these for breakfast or brunch, but in Italy they are traditionally eaten with lunch or dinner.  This is because eggs are rarely eaten in the morning in Italian culture.  You’d be hard-pressed to find eggs being served at an Italian cafe for breakfast; instead, the Italian-way consists of some biscotti, a pastry (like un cornetto, the Italian-verison of a croissant), and an espresso or cappuccino.

When I arrived in Italy, one of the first questions my host mom, Nicoletta, asked me was what I ate for breakfast.  Although I did enjoy having eggs pretty frequently back in the US, I wanted to fully embrace the typical Italian breakfast.  Every morning I would come up the stairs from my room to their small but cozy kitchen, an Italian talk-show playing on the radio, to find my breakfast arranged on a placemat, which my host father, Antonio, lovingly insisted on preparing himself every morning: a yogurt, some biscotti, a piece of fruit, and sometimes (to my pleasant surprise) a piece of a pastry or cake that my host sister had made.  Let’s just say I didn’t miss eggs at all.

When I did have eggs in Italy, my host mom would usually make them in the form of a frittata as an accompaniment for dinner – Vuoi anche una frittata?  Hers were a simple fried egg with salt and pepper; however, if they were the main course of the meal  veggies, meats, and cheeses were added.

It’s up to you (or your fridge!) to decide what you’d like to add to a frittata.  I’m convinced you can put anything in these and they will taste good.  I’ve made them caprese-style (mozzarella, tomato, and fresh basil), southwestern style (avocado, red onion, tomato, cheddar cheese), or simply just peppers and onions.  You could also throw in chopped-up meats like bacon or prosciutto, or add some boiled potatoes if you want something heartier.  I recently made one with spinach, onions, and cubes of parmigiano reggiano (aka my favorite cheese and something you will be seeing a LOT of on this blog), and it was GOOD.

I used to only make these on special occasions like Mother’s Day (great for breakfast in bed!), but now that I’ve realized how easy they are to make, they’re one of my go-to recipes for those slow, weekend mornings when I want to take my time and make something different.  (Because anything is better than my typical breakfast, a lovely yogurt al commuter rail).   Something about taking the time to chop the vegetables, whisk the eggs, and watch it all come together is very relaxing to me.   My favorite thing about these is the golden edges and peaks in the middle as the eggs and cheeses brown under the broiler, and the bright, mosaic display of veggies on the top.  The most satisfying thing is to cut into the piping hot frittata and remove a triangular piece of savory, golden-brown deliciousness.  And if you add cheese you get that heavenly, ooey-gooey cheese pull.  Yum.  This is one of the simplest, most budget-friendly dishes I know, and the end-product is pretty dang beautiful!

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You can also lay the vegetables on top for a more dramatic display.  Just think of what some roasted asparagus would look like…I think I know what I’m doin’ next. 

I’ve found that the best way to make frittate is to use a cast-iron skillet.  If you don’t have one of these, you can use a sauce pan – just make sure you don’t put it in the oven if they have a plastic handle!  That’s what makes a cast-iron such a great tool – being able to cook something on the stove and finish it in the oven opens up so many possibilities.  Random note: I recently came across this really helpful video (click here!) on how to use and take care of a cast-iron skillet (which made me realize everything I’ve been doing wrong, WHOOPS).

This is the first “recipe” I’m posting.  I put recipe in quotes because it’s really more of a suggested list of ingredients and steps that you can choose to follow, or not!  I personally kind of hate following recipes, and tend to use them more for getting the technical aspect down (like what temperature to set the oven at, or visual queues for when things are done cooking).  Unless I’m baking something, I don’t use conventional measurements – just keep pourin’ that olive oil or grating that cheese until it looks right.  I’m a big believer in crossing your fingers and hoping for the best!! That’s how you learn, and in my opinion it gives everything you cook a more personal touch.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons of olive oil (for the skillet)
Chopped vegetables and/or meats
Pinch of salt and pepper (plus whatever spices you feel like)
Cheese (if desired)
2 eggs per person
Splash of milk

Steps

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
  2. Add the olive oil to skillet, and heat on medium-low.
  3. Once the skillet feels warm to the palm, it’s mix-in time!  If using raw meat, add that first and sauté in the olive oil.  Once cooked, remove and set aside for later.  Then sauté any vegetables.  Whatever you decide to add, make sure to season it – throw in some salt, pepper, and whatever other seasonings you feel like.
  4. While the mix-ins are cooking, whisk the eggs and milk in a bowl.  Also add any cheeses and pre-cooked meats to the eggs at this point.
  5. Add the egg mixture to the skillet, and stir to distribute the vegetables, meats, and cheeses.
  6. Leave it alone! As the frittata cooks, bubbles will start to come to the surface.  When the sides begin to solidify but the top is still runny, place the entire skillet in the oven. If you’re using a sauce pan that has any sort of plastic on it, do not put it in the oven – flip the frittata onto a plate, and then place it back in the pan to cook the other side for 4-5 minutes.
  7. Cook in the oven for around 8 minutes, or until the eggs are set.  You can test this by using a knife to cut a small slit in the middle – if there is still liquid, it needs more time.
  8. In the last minute or so, turn on the broiler and watch like a hawk.  One minute it’s yellow, the next it’s burnt! Keep checking in and remove when it gets nice and golden brown.

This is best served hot, but you can keep leftovers in the fridge for a few days. Reheating eggs might seem weird, but I promise they still taste good!

And there ya go!  This whole process takes under 30 minutes, and this is a great way to highlight seasonal vegetables and test out combinations.  My favorite way to eat frittate is with a slice of toasted bread and some fruit.  The perfect breakfast for a day off 🙂 Enjoy!

Welcome e Benvenuto!

Orto translates to “orchard” in Italian.  “So the name of your blog is Orchard and…Orchard? Seems a little repetitive, huh?” Yes, it’s repetitive, but there are reasons behind it! Let me explain.

For one, my last name is Orchard.  We all know what orchards are – those big open fields where things are grown, and where New Englanders in flannel shirts flock to in the fall to pick apples.  The relevance of my last name was never really something I thought about until it was recently brought to my attention by a career counselor.  After sensing my obviously profound confusion, he said, “When people come to me unsure about what they want to do, I often suggest taking a look at their last name.”  I couldn’t help but laugh when he said this, and at how remarkably true this statement turns out to be. Who knew that I could have avoided all of this confusion if I had just looked at my birth certificate! Haaaaa…

It does seem that the path that I’m on now has been staring me in the face for quite some time but, for many reasons that seem stupid now, I’d been ignoring it or pushing it aside.  I went through college and this past year since graduation convincing myself that I wanted to become a doctor.  And I’d pretty much had everything in place!  I got my biology degree, I registered for the MCAT and was taking a prep-class, and I started training to become an EMT.  Yet the entire time, I had a horrible feeling that I was headed towards something I didn’t really want.  Romantic thoughts would constantly bubble up about pursuing a career involving food (or anything else, really) but I pushed them aside, convincing myself that these were interests that would be better off as hobbies.  Doubts would come to me daily, but in the end I always told myself that it was natural to be unsure.  After all, medicine is a big thing to commit to, but I would be helping people, challenging myself, and I’d probably be pretty good at it.  I’d learn to deal with the lifestyle if I was making a difference.

Unfortunately this shoveling-away of doubt blew up in a pretty dramatic way.  I started my job as an EMT and barely finished two weeks before I had a complete mental breakdown.  Yay! It took being exposed to the medical field in arguably the most extreme way possible to show me that I didn’t want to do this.  A lot of the nature of the job struck me as futile – sure, we’d patch someone up and be on our merry way, but chances are this person was in such poor health overall that they’d need an ambulance again sometime pretty soon.  I would sit in the back of the truck thinking about everywhere else I’d rather be, and I felt like I was wasting my time.  Why was I forcing myself to do something that I was clearly so unhappy doing?  I couldn’t find a good answer to that, so I quit.

I was freeeee! I no longer felt stuck, and I can’t describe how amazing that felt. Admittedly I was also a little terrified – what on earth was I going to do now?  I did know what I was going to do that day though, which was eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (still the most comforting thing I know) and binge-watch “Chef’s Table” on Netflix.  I watched wide-eyed as these chefs talked animatedly about their work with such joy and passion, and I decided that I was done trying to pursue a career in medicine that, although prestigious and rewarding, I constantly needed to convince myself was worthwhile.  I took a step back and thought about what I’m truly passionate about, and the answer was always the same: food, food, food.

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I’m slightly obsessed with the culinary world. Let me give you some examples to show how true this statement is:

  • My family avoids giving me the clicker because they know I’m going to force them to watch episode after episode of “Chopped”.
  • While I was studying abroad, my friends and I planned our weekend in Paris entirely around where we were going to eat instead of the, I don’t know, “sights”, I guess you could call them. “Oh, yeah the Mona Lisa was cool.  But remember that falafel place?  Best I’ve had in my life.”
  • If we’re hanging out, chances are it’s going to involve food; either I’m hijacking your kitchen, or we’re crossing another restaurant off the massive list I’ve compiled on my phone over the years.  You’re going to eat, cook, or watch someone cook, and you’re going to like it!

Food is my favorite way to learn about another culture.  It’s my favorite way to bring people together, and it’s my favorite way to destress. So, needless to say, I really like food. It seems pretty obvious that this would be something I’d want to pursue further, but it was only when I escaped the “pre-med bubble” and finally had time to think about where my interests truly lie that I seriously began to consider something involving food as a possible career option.

Now’s probably a good time to explain the Italian part of this blog: the orto.

Italian culture plays a huge role in my life, but that wasn’t until a few years ago.  Like many Americans, I can tell you the rough percentage of Italian blood that runs through my veins (around 25%).  My father’s mother’s parents, the Peressini’s, arrived at Ellis Island from a tiny province in northeastern Italy named Majano.   Unfortunately this part of my heritage has been lost throughout the years; I didn’t grow up speaking Italian or making homemade red sauce on Sundays.  My immersion into Italian culture didn’t begin until I got to college when I decided to take introductory Italian.  I almost took Spanish, but (and this is embarrassing) after reading Eat, Pray, Love, I decided Italian was where my heart was really at.  Plus, I am Italian!  (Sidenote: I’ve since realized that my life is reflecting the events of this book more than I’d like to admit, as I also traveled to India this past January…does this mean I’m going to Bali next??)

Eventually this led me to Padova, Italy where I studied abroad during my junior year.  I lived the life of an Italian every day for 6 months, and like most study abroad students, I loved every single minute.  My host family and I would share stories over dinner (in Italian), I took classes of culture, history, and language (in Italian), and watched movies with my friends (also in Italian).  I fell in love with the culture and, of course, the food.  To this day there is nothing I find more relaxing than sitting in an Italian piazza sipping spritz, munching on salty chips, and playing cards as the sun sets.  I love that the Italian language has such specific, memory-evoking phrases to describe food – my favorite being “fare la scarpetta” which describes that incredibly satisfying way to end a meal by using a piece of bread to mop up all the juices.  To me it seems that Italians share the same love as I do for good food and the powerful memories that surround it, and this shared appreciation is what continually draws me to Italian recipes and culinary traditions.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep Italian culture alive in my every day life.  I started working at Eataly thinking it would be a temporary job between EMT training and my internship in India, but 6 months later and I’m still here!  I’m not sure where this will lead, but I know that I love working with people who love food as much as I do, and for a company that is dedicated to the things I hold most important.

Eataly is a part of the “slow food” movement which began in Rome when locals protested the building of a McDonald’s. If only that would happen in the US!  Slow food is all about providing food that is “good, clean, and fair for all.”  So, quite literally the opposite of fast food.  This means taking the time to know where and whom our food comes from (the farmers, animals, and land), and eating foods when they’re meant to be eaten (like giant, misshapen tomatoes in the summer when they’re brightest and juiciest).  The Italians even have a word to describe this attention to seasonality – scorpacciata – which literally translates to “big feed”, but actually represents the idea of eating as much as possible of whatever is in season before it disappears. At work I’m exposed daily to slow food in-action.  Just yesterday I got to meet a representative from one of our coffee producers in Western Massachusetts and learned about how they are dedicated to sustainable, fair bean production with their farms in Africa and South America.  I also get to taste cheeses from all over New England and learn how to make bread!  This job honestly doesn’t feel like work at all, but instead like some kind of endless Italian food tour where I get to learn new things every day, and I love it.

This exposure to slow food, accompanied with my recent obsession with Michael Pollan’s work, have me thinking a lot about our food system.  I started The Omnivore’s Dilemma with a pencil in hand, underlining what seemed to be every other sentence.  Who knew the corn industry could be so interesting?! Reading about the unnecessarily complex path from farm to table in our culture has left me frustrated and confused.  Why does the US have such a weird relationship with food?  Why is it so hard for us to know where our food comes from?

Based on my travels in other countries, this problem seems to be uniquely American.  In Italy, I took cooking classes where we walked out to the market and bought the asparagus and rabbit for our fresh ravioli.  We chose those ingredients not because we had a specific menu in mind, but simply because that’s what was available that particular day.  I saw the extreme of local-eating when I WWOOF’ed on a vineyard in Tuscany and our host prepared a meal consisting of vegetables and wine produced entirely on their own property.  This introduced me to the concept of “terroir” which reflects how the land, wind, water, and sun impact the vegetation produced in a particular area, and I’ve yet to have a more earthy glass of red or vibrantly herbaceous olive oil.  In India, it was as easy as walking down the road – I watched as a family worked to cut and clean the chicken (blood, guts, and all) that we had for dinner that same night.  These meals remain to be the best I’ve had in my life, and I think this is largely due not only to the freshness and simplicity of the ingredients, but also to the consciousness of knowing exactly where each item came from.

In the US it seems that we’ve moved away from this close relationship with our food, sadly mostly due to economic interests.  To briefly summarize a hugely complex system: the government subsidizes corn and soy, so we grow a lot of corn and soy.  We then have to do something with all of it, so we feed it to our animals (which we then eat, indirectly eating more corn and soy) and create a bunch of processed foods.  This is great for the farmer (whom can now make a better living), and great for supply and demand, but devestating for pretty much every other party involved.  Not to mention the effect this has on our soil and the various plant and animal species involved (I could go on for days, but I’ll restrain myself), but in terms of human health, we’re eating a whole lot of two ingredients that provide virtually no benefits; yet somehow, they make up almost every single item that lines our supermarket shelves.  We’re known as a nation of overeaters but paradoxically, we’re undernourished.

Although there has been a lot of progress in moving back to farm-to-table and promoting the food justice movement, the majority of America relies on these cheap alternatives, simply for that reason: they’re cheap, and they also happen to taste good. The strain on the healthcare system created by a diet high in processed foods (obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, to name a few) is enormous, and will only continue to grow if our culture doesn’t adopt a more transparent, sustainable method of acquiring food.  For the sake of our health and the health of our environment, something needs to change in our unnecessarily muddled food system.

And that’s what I’m realizing I’d like to get more involved with.  Rather than treating people clinically, I’d like to prevent people from getting sick in the first place.  And when I think about what has the biggest impact on our health, the answer here is undeniably (again): food, food food.

There is a sign across from my desk at Eataly whose gravity and relevance didn’t hit me until recently: “Eating is an agricultural act” (Wendell Berry).  We can’t think about the food we eat without adressing where it comes from, and this has profound effects on our health.  In other words, it’s all linked – our health, what we eat, how we obtain our food, and how we treat the environment that provides us with it.  As I’ve said, this has all been (quite literally) staring me in the face this whole time!

Basically, I’m slowly discovering a way to combine all of the things I’m most passionate about – food, health, environment, and culture – and this blog is a way for me to explore this further.  I’ll mostly be sharing some of the Italian-inspired recipes I’ve come to love, along with the stories that transport me back to the people and places that have had such an impact on my journey with food.  These recipes usually have a few steps involving simple ingredients, partially because I’m a little lazy, but also because things with few ingredients and steps tend to taste better.  My belief is that, contrary to what it may seem in our country, food doesn’t have to be complicated!  There’s a reason why nature works the way it does, and my hope is that our culture can move back towards that.

So, hopefully “Orchard e Orto” makes a little more sense now?!  I hope you guys enjoy what I decide to post here, and get a better idea of the power of food and the importance of paying more attention to its source.  I’d love to hear from any of you whether it’s feedback, your own journeys with food, or just to say hi.

Grazie mille, e mangiamo!

Rachel