Thanks for tuning in, folks. Here's where the trip begins. Having been awake for around 36 straight hours, my addled mind struggled to comprehend the grandeur that lay around every corner. I had come to taste some of the great soup traditions of Italy myself. Here I was, in the land that lent its name to italic fonts. Every time you italicize something, you ought to owe the Italian government a little commission. They invented italicization. Here I was in Rome, the Eternal City, from which we get the very word, the very concept of romance. They actually invented romance here. And Roman numerals. Very heady stuff.
The first and most important soup that I sampled was the cappuccino, mistaken by many folks as a beverage. It is actually a very small, handy, caffeinated soup that is cooked by forcing pressurized water through finely ground roasted coffee beans. Italy is a country simply littered with these little soup bars. The cappuccino bar is an amazing sight to see, an exercise in efficiency and cleverness. One of the strangest sensations of being in Italy is the absolute lack of Starbucks signs. In fact, most of us know that Howard Schultz was inspired by the Italian coffee bar to develop the Starbucks "concept", ultimately developing into a decidedly American version of the idea. The Italian coffee bar, according to my observations, measures 1.5 linear feet (sorry, 0.5 metres) per espresso spout on the machine. Everyone drinks their soup at the bar, quickly, and moves on just as quickly. It's like a refueling station... the soups are small and potent, and the whole operation is beautifully choreographed. There is no branding, there is no soundtrack of Norah Jones cooing from flush-mounted speakers, there is no up-sell.
Fortunately, I chose to visit Italy before the dreaded high season of tourism began. This is the line for the Vatican Museum. This is a miniscule percentage of the line for the Vatican Museum. Four hours in the rain, people. Worth it.
Now, not to be a drag, but the the thing is that the trip was really beginning to be depressing. Periods of exaltation alternating with depression. There's probably a name for that, but this was a particular flavor... it was a sense of wonder at all that we, as a civilization, have lost. Or wonder that mankind can really lose things. Like, "Where did we put that knowledge again? I know it was around here somewhere." That Brunelleschi, the architect of the Duomo in Florence, had to cut a hole in the Pantheon's roof (pictured above) 1400 years later to figure out how they built the darn thing. It doesn't take but five minutes in Rome to realize that for all of our advances, we have in some ways suffered a significant devolution over time. Certainly, in terms of architecture, it was easier to achieve grandeur when you didn't have to budget in health benefits or workers comp for legions of slaves or workers, but still. Even if we were still capable of it, it's at least depressing that aesthetics aren't affordable anymore. Discuss. (Note: I probably don't know what I'm talking about, exactly)
This isn't my picture. I stole this off of flickr.com. It's someone else's vacation picture. According to my map, I walked right by this, one of Michelangelo's greatest masterpieces, without noticing. I think I was on the wrong side of the street.
Okay! I was getting sick of all those coffee-flavored soups and needed a change. They really take that seasonal thing seriously over there in Italy... there wasn't a whole lot of soup on the menus, at least in Rome. I finally came across some stracciatelle, which is one of the soups I was most interested in sampling. This was an okay bowl, a slightly sweetened chicken broth with great flavor but the eggs, which were nicely flavored with fresh parsley, seemed to have maybe been cooked separately, almost like scrambled eggs in soup... I felt that they should have been more egg-drop style, that the soup should have been stirred vigorously while the egg was added. After all, the translation of stracciatelle is "rags" or "strings". Also, the parmesan stuck to the spoon, which is something that we soupmakers try not to allow. Probably didn't have the simmer strong enough.
There's a lot of action in this photo. Hams swaying in unison in the breeze, the dessicated boar's head guffawing the laugh of the damned, and the sausage peddler about to leap across the stand of dried meats to throttle a customer. We had done the whole Rome thing and were ready to move onward. This scene took place in Orvieto in the main piazza, in the shadow of the famed...
Orvieto cathedral. The silly folks who spent three hundred years building it didn't even consider the fact that you can't back up enough to fit the whole thing into a single frame in a standard digital camera. Doh! Impressive, yes, but the magic begins when you zoom in...
Yep, three hundred years. In American terms, that would be roughly the same time span as from the day Benjamin Franklin was born until today.
Curse the unpredictable Italian bank holiday schedule! No train or airline tickets available to travel from Rome to Venice, so this photo describes the bleary, blurry final hour of the drive in a rented Smart Car (essentially a glorified scooter). We all know about the famed disparity between European and American vacation time allowances... five weeks plus a generous smattering of bank holidays. Six months paid pregnancy leave. Write your Congressperson.
Venice looks exactly like you think it would. It is a massive museum, essentially, and my doubts about it being the world's biggest tourist trap were well-founded. But it is also the world's coolest tourist trap. There's a reason everything's so expensive here, besides the geographical monopoly economic forces. That is, EVERY LAST BIT of stuff in Venice has to be shlepped by boat and then hand cart to its final destination. My favorite thing about Venice is that it is a clear demonstration that you can have a complete, fairly large urban place functioning with exactly zero automobiles. Of course, Venice and most of Italy for that matter is nearly without handicap access but still this demonstration holds true... dense development can function without or with very few cars. Things are an awful lot closer together when you don't have to traverse acres of asphalt.
Tourist picture of the famed Murano glass. These are traditional soup shooter mechanisms, I'm told.
Developed from early Venetian soups, these desserts are some of the finest I sampled in any of the pasticcerie I visited.
Originally intended as a strained grape soup, accidental fermentation created the offshoot foodway known as "wine," which I found to be an excellent accompaniment to many of the foods I tasted.
Just a bit of food porn for you before we move on to Florence...
Wham! Florence. The center of Italian art and culture, the clearing house for all the greatest in Tuscan culinary traditions. I would find my soup here, I was sure. The first cooking academy since the times of ancient Rome was created in Florence, and it was called the Compagnia del Paiolo (the Company of the Cauldron). One poet described Florence as a vast pantry, saying, "There were rivers full of soup which ran together into a lake; and there was a sea of stew, in which, plying to and fro, were thousands of boats made of pastry. The shores were of tender fresh butter... nymphs live on top of the high mountain scraping cheese on graters..." (from Waverly Root's The Food of Italy).
You're not allowed to take photos of the David, but you are allowed to steal such illicit tourist photos off the internet. Again, a flurry of thoughts... Will mankind ever create such beauty again? Is it a lost aptitude? Or was Michelangelo endowed with a prophetic connection which will be revisited upon humanity through another artist's hand in due time?
Here is the famed bistecca Fiorentina, in all its glory. This is the essential food of Florence...
It is basically a t-bone steak from the Chianina, one of the oldest, tallest, and heaviest breeds of cattle in existence. Look at the size... it is lean and grows fast, with two-year-olds reaching 2,000 pounds.
Here is Giovanna Biagi, proprietress of the Trattoria Pandemonio, showing off our steak before it was cooked. Giovanna is basically the Maria Corbalan of Florence... if you leave her establishment without receiving a hugs and kisses, surely you have done something wrong. The steak arrived al sangue and literally encrusted with salt. The Tuscan kitchen is perhaps the saltiest on the planet. While so many American gastronomes blather on about how if you use the best, freshest ingredients, you don't need to use as much salt, Tuscans brush such ideas aside as the hogwash that they truly are. They have the best ingredients, and they take them as far as possible with the copious use of salt. The steak was aggressively salted, and my tongue felt like it was being violently raked with salt. It was good.
Here, finally, was the crux of the entire trip to Italy. The ribollita. Tuscan soups are so thick that they are often served on a plate, with a fork. Most are fortified with the prior day's bread. I took a bite and then put down my spoon and sat, wordlessly, for a few minutes. Meredith asked me what was wrong. I shifted the expression on my face, took another bite, and sat for a few more minutes. "I can't do this," I said. "Sure you can, you are The Soup Peddler," she said. It was not only the best ribollita I ate during the entire trip, it was the best ribollita that there could possibly be in existence. It sent me back to the drawing board, so to speak. I got enough information out of Giovanna to figure out how to pull it off. I also discerned that it is, surprisingly, primarily a zucchini soup, at least zucchini provides much of the same subtle nuttiness and velvety texture that it does in our bouktouf soup. I was sincerely humbled. Waverly Root's words came to mind again: "Florentine food is hearty and healthy, subtle in its deliberate eschewing of sophistication, which is perhaps the highest sophistication of all." For all the high-fallutin ingredients that star chefs reach for, it is the humble food, well executed, that touches us the deepest. As the Tuscan saying goes, si stava meglio quando si stava peggio... we were better off when we were worse off.
To salve my bruised ego, we retreated to the home of actual, real life, Austin Soupies living in Florence. Rachel and Logan of the famous Boots in the Oven food blog hosted us for a fantastic meal of gorgonzola soup, asparagus risotto, and homemade limoncello. It was one of the finest evenings of the entire trip.
On to Lucca, where we stayed for the week-long remainder of the trip. Lucca has seriously restricted automobile traffic inside its continuous wall and "moat", so that bicycles rule the roads. You are likely to see a mother with a dog in the basket, a young child in a handlebar-mounted seat, and an older child on the back seat. You are likely to see 80-year-olds biking to and from church. It is goddam civilized.
Lucca is the heart of Italy's olive oil belt, which makes it the producer of some of the best olive oils in the world. I plan a visit back closer to olive harvest (and in better soup season) so I can taste them even fresher. The oils are amazing, almost peppery, and beautiful in color. The above photo is of an olive oil press... once the flesh and pits of olives are masticated by another machine, they are pressed and then all that's left is to separate the water from the oil, which is either done gravitationally or centrifugally. Gravity oil is the slower, better, more expensive variety.
Without a shred of doubt, "lardo" is my favorite food word and also my favorite food discovery of the trip. It generally has no meat at all, it is just a soft pillow of cured, delicious subdermal pork fat. It is divine.
Here's another ribollita. Totally respectable, but after my previous experience, it was a significant come-down. The vegetables were cooked for several hours fewer, and there wasn't nearly the olive oil content of the other one.
Zuppa di verdure. Vegetable soup, basically the basis for ribollita... without the addition of bread.
Tortellini in brodo. Just what it sounds... light and seemingly lightly sweetened chicken broth with tortellinis floating about. People rave about this... I wasn't so taken but it's nice enough.
This is my favorite soup discovery of the trip... Zuppa di farro. It is the regional soup of the Garfagnana area, a wild and mountainous area north of Lucca. It is just a spelt and bean soup, in a broth of pureed and strained beans, the best versions have a well-stated sage and rosemary batutto. Pure peasant fare, just really soothing.
Ah yes, pappa al pomodoro. I definitely went to school on this soup... American chefs and eaters for that matter tend to want to have nice presentation and variety of texture... our first version of pappa al pomodoro, I think, accomplished both. However, it was not really true to form. Pappa al pomodoro is just complete mush... very simple and excellent... bread and tomatoes and a ton of olive oil and that's about all.
And I'm spent! Thanks for tuning in, I'm certainly glad to be back in Austin and hope to share some of the good lessons I learned with the Soupies.