Oct 20, 2009

We have lots to thank the Italians for, especially from a culinary perspective. I also thank the Italians for their perspective on life: family, food, the sensual appreciation of life itself, but also hard work. Pleasure does not come without hard work. To combine hard work with 6 weeks annual (paid) vacation, that’s living! Enough of the wishing, back to the working.

This week I introduce an ongoing culinary series that will appear here periodically. I’ll be exploring the origins of much of the food we take for granted, but rarely experience in its true artisan form.

I’ve been working hard at sourcing pasta for G4U Market: starting with dried and expanding into the texture variations offered by fresh. It seems that, just like cheese, there’s a lot of OK pasta out there, but few great pasta reproduced in the true artisan style. So much of our culture is a ‘dumbing down’ seemingly for mass appeal, when in actuality, it’s not mass ‘appeal’, but mass ‘availability.’ I prefer quality over quantity since for me more is less. What does this mean? Buying something that is a pale, poorly done imitation of the real thing, is no experience at all. Think about how much supermarket cheese you’ve bought and what did it taste like? Put bluntly: a waste of money. How is this, ‘mass appeal?’ I’d go for less of more any day. Less cheese, higher price maybe, but more taste, better nutrition and infinitely closer to the real thing. True value for money any day of the week. Notice I said, “Value for money.” I did not mention cost, which is relative, as in relatively different from store to store, from business to business. We should understand what we’re buying, and why. Only then can we evaluate cost fairly.

I’m often asked why is ‘organic’ more expensive? The answer is, it’s not always, and not everything at G4U market is organic. It’s relative, and for me somewhat irrelevant. Gasp; did the world just fold in on itself? Did the giant agro-chemical companies rub their hands in collective glee? Has G4U Market gone over to the dark side of our agrarian and culinary underbelly? Can there be no metaphor that I leave unmixed?

A common question we get at our Artisan cheese counter is, “Are these cheeses organic?” Mostly, no. Why? Because it’s irrelevant. Irrelevant, Organic? Irrelevant in the sense that the concept of organic and all that goes along with it, is taken as a given, since what I look for from my vendors is a complete disclosure of practice. How is your product made? Where are the raw materials sourced from, and so on? Only then can I evaluate the quality and cost of what I’m buying for my food market, decide if we carry it, and come up with a fair price.

True artisans faithfully replicating great food often include or exceed organic practices, since so much of our food culture pre-dates mass availability of agro-chemicals. A popular cultural issue currently is the wider availability of food versus local. For me this is not an either/or: a big business versus a small argument; it’s a sourcing issue - understanding where the food came from. Is it a system of small farms in the Italian countryside from which a bigger company is faithfully reproducing true Umbrian regional ingredients and dishes, such as Bartolini? Or is it that lovely neighborhood couple that have sunk their life savings into a bakery, restaurant, or cheese monger, reproducing an authentic experience for a local community?

G4U Market has back-ordered Montebello Organic Pasta. Montebello is true artisan pasta made by the Alce Nero Cooperative, close to Urbino, in the Marche region of Italy. The cooperative, based in the former Montebello Monastery, uses Old World techniques to create distinctive flavor and texture in their pasta. Instead of flash drying in ovens, Montebello dry their pasta slowly in traditional drying rooms. This produces a delicious hand crafted pasta with a unique porous texture that cooks evenly and holds sauces beautifully. The durum wheat semolina that Montebello uses for their pasta is organically grown on small family farms in the rolling hills overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The semolina is then carefully ground and combined with pure mountain spring water to produce a fine dough, which is extruded through hand-made bronze dies to create a rough texture. I ordered this pasta from a large US food distributor, but it is sourced from Montebello’s small-scale operation in Italy. We have to wait until the end of October for distribution since Montebello handcrafts the pasta.

A huge benefit of G4U Market carrying this pasta, outside of the culinary experience, is that the Alce Nero Cooperative has revitalized a rural area outside Urbino. This has provided jobs and hope for rural youth reversing the exodus of youth from the community, not to mention at this point, 30 years of farming without the use of synthetic chemicals. In a larger sense, this is what I mean by, “It’s not an either/or.” It’s not an anti-big business either/or. It’s not a 100% local versus widely distributed either/or. Instead it’s a bit of both and part of my evaluation of cost and fair pricing.

To clarify, I’m not justifying the cost of organic pricing, or G4U Market pricing. If you’ve stopped into the store in the past couple of weeks and noticed our new shelf labels, you’ll see true value for money, for G4U is blowing the lid off of concepts about the pricing of authentic food and organic food. What I am justifying here is the experience of food. If I’m going to spend my carbs on pasta, or allot my fat allowance to a cheese, the food had better be sensually appealing, authentic to the artisan who originated it, free of toxic chemicals, and darn good value for my hard earned money.

Up next, the starter for pasta: Semolina.

Salute! Andy Meddick for G4U Market.


Post a Comment

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More