I feel vaguely uncomfortable every time I hear the phrases ‘healthy eating’ and ‘balanced diet’. It’s not that I disapprove of eating healthily or balancing my diet, it’s just that I’m not sure we can ever know what these terms mean.
A recent article in The Guardian newspaper by Joanna Blythman highlighted the problem.
Click here to read the whole article. It’s worth browsing a sample of the 1,374 comments too. What tempted me to add my voice to the throng is that I think there’s something much more fundamental wrong with what we’re told.
I once took part in a UK medical research project aimed at discovering links between diet and women’s health. Every so often they asked me to fill in an online form giving details about what I’d eaten the day before. The designers of the project and the form clearly didn’t have me in mind. For example, in the section asking how many slices of bread I ate, they asked whether it was white or wholemeal, but there was nowhere to say I’d baked it myself using stoneground, organic wholewheat flour I’d bought from the miller. Nor to state it didn’t contain any flour improvers and was made by a long-rise sourdough method. Although I believe it’s healthier than mass-produced bread, do I know for sure? No, and this study wasn’t going to reveal the answer.
Another major problem with all dietary research based on surveys is that people lie. Do you want the researchers, or even yourself, to know that you ate three Kit Kats and drank a whole bottle of wine yesterday?
And what about the problem of the long-term effects of particular substances? In the laboratory biologists can test the effect on animals of chemicals occurring in food, either naturally or as additives during cultivation or processing. But as far as I know it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to test the effect of ingesting that substance for 20 or 50 years.
The last of my doubts about dietary advice stems from genetics. We’re all different. One person might live to 100 eating nothing but red meat and fat, whereas another dies of a heart attack at the age of 52. Was it their diet or their DNA? Many years ago when asked on her 120th birthday to what she attributed her longevity, the oldest woman in France replied it was giving up smoking when she was 118.
On my tours you eat unprocessed food, much of it straight from the artisan producer. In my opinion it tastes much better than industrial food, but I can’t claim it makes you healthy. Next chance to taste for yourself is the Cheese, Bread & Honey tour in June (http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/component/content/article/2-small-group-tours/56-cheese-bread-a-honey).
Participants on our Advanced Salumi Course taste a vast array of salami, prosciutto, capocollo, soppressata and other cured pork delicacies, some not so delicate. For dinner they get to try other typical dishes of the areas where the course takes place. On our first night we’re in Versilia, the northern coast of Tuscany. Gabriella Lazzarini, one of my cooking teachers and a skilled chef, lives here near Viareggio and invites us to her home for a seafood meal, which is one of the highlights of the course.
Not only is it special eating in a private home, but Gabriella’s repertoire of local recipes is exceptional. She buys fish from the small family fishing boats called pescherecci that bring their catches to the molo (quai) in Viareggio. They fish off the rocks close to the coast, and the fish look strange to people who are used to seeing branzino (sea bass), orata (gilt-head bream), tuna and other large, usually farmed or endangered species served in most of the seafood restaurants here.
You don’t have to enrol in the salumi course to eat at Gabriella’s home. All Sapori e Saperi Adventure’s guests can choose a meal with her as one of their activities.
The other unique dining experience is on Saturday night after we’ve moved east over the Alpi Apuane to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. We go to the Osteria Il Vecchio Mulino where our host is Andrea Bertucci, who is known affectionately as ‘Andreone’, which means ‘big Andrea’.
You can see that the love of his life is food. But Andrea doesn’t cook; in fact, his osteria doesn’t even have a kitchen. Andrea is a food collector. He finds the best products in the Garfagnana, and sometimes further afield, which he serves as a tasting menu. The nearest analogy is a tapas bar, but his place is more like a hybrid of a corner grocery, wine bar and a cheese and salami maturing cellar.
Since the menu depends on his latest finds, there are always surprises. In his tiny oven, not a microwave, he heats crostini and savoury tarts.
There’s usually a salumi board, but I suspect we’ll be salumied-out on the course and ask him for alternatives. On a two-burner electric hot plate he warms up local specialities prepared by his mother or friends. This time it’s polenta formenton otto-file, an heirloom variety of corn, with roe deer ragù.
Every time we thank Andrea and say we must leave, he produces another goodie: cinta senese salami, cured roe deer loin, fruit salad he made that very day, 15 February, which is San Faustino’s Day, the patron saint of singles. I’ve checked on Google and it’s true!
I’m about to embark on a three-month wine sommelier course at Lucca. It’s not that I want to become a wine expert, but I want to move from knowing what I like to understanding why I like it.
My education in wine began with a husband who was buying fine wines at auction when we were so poor that I was scouring the Cambridge market to save a ha’penny on potatoes. At least I got to drink some superb wines, but it also made me lazy. I didn’t have to decide which wine to buy or which to serve with which food.
Since I started living near Lucca and organising my gastronomic tours eight years ago, I’ve learned a lot more. I accompany my clients on vineyard tours and drink a glass of wine, as Italians do, with most meals, which has made me more conscious of the effect wine and food have on each other. The wines range from humble family wines to exalted Brunellos and Barolos and from sparkling to sweet passitos. It’s been an exciting time for Italian wines. Winemakers have really started pulling up their socks and producing much higher quality wines. And I’ve observed the number of biodynamic vineyards in this area grow from one to five, with more on the way.
Still, my knowledge is patchy — a jigsaw puzzle in progress. You know how easy it is to complete the frame, but inside there are all those islands of pieces that remain stubbornly disconnected. This is my effort to fill in the gaps, and I hope I’ll be able to give you a few tips too.
Since you seem to have to make a humiliating public confession to get noticed these days, I confess I’m a wine ignoramus. For someone who leads food and wine tours in Italy, I’m like a bird without its wings. It’s not that I can’t taste the difference between wines, but I can never remember which flavours and aromas go with which grapes or which wines are produced in which regions, let alone the characteristics of individual vineyards. Asked whether a particular wine smells and tastes more like black currants or ripe plums, I really can’t say. Does it have a hint of spice? I’m not sure.
Hoping it’s not to late to learn, I went yesterday to the 10th annual Anteprima Vini della Costa Toscana (Preview of Wines of the Tuscan Coast) in Lucca. This year 103 winemakers presented one wine each from the 2010 harvest. I took my friend Sam Gallacher, who had been president of the Peterhouse Wine Society at Cambridge, and together we launched bravely in at the south with Morellino di Scansano from the province of Grosseto and worked our way northward through the Bolgheris of Livorno (Sassacaia and Ornellaia conspicuous by their absence) to Lucca and Massa without a stop except to exchange views: bitter, thin, no nose, fruity, no character, full-bodied, strawberries, sour, meaty, burnt toast. Burnt toast? Must be a different kind of bread from the one I burn every morning. The sight of Pisa looming ahead was too much for us. We needed a break.
On the principle that a change is as good as a rest we headed to the enormous hall where the same vineyards were presenting their ready-to-drink vintages to the public. I made a beeline to Fattoria La Torre (Montecarlo) to taste their 2006 Esse made of 100% Syrah grapes. Next to the 2010 on the anteprima list I’d written ‘juicy blackberries’ (although I still wasn’t sure I didn’t mean black currants). What a disappointment to find the more mature vintage didn’t taste anything like the young one. To cheer myself up I tried their Saltair, a blend of Viognier and Vermentino, which I was relieved to find tasted just as good as I remembered, but I was too exhausted to think what it resembled other than ‘wine I like’.
After a quick collapse in some stylish garden furniture that a hopeful manufacturer was showing to make your private wine tastings on the patio more enjoyable, we faced up to Pisa. It was nearly closing time and the male sommeliers who were supposed pour the wines we wanted to taste had sloped off, leaving a cheerful and still energetic female sommelier from Pisa to help us. After a curious wine called Merla della Miniera (Blackbird of the Mine) made of 100% Canaiolo Nero grapes that seemed a bit like rotting meat to me and a biodynamic wine called Duemani (Two Hands) that tasted dusty, I decided my palette was hallucinating and gave up.
I’d spit out more wine in three hours than I’d drunk in a year and a half. I’d discovered a new sweet red called Aleatico from Fattoria di Fubbiano (Colline Lucchesi), which I could imagine myself serving in place of vin santo, most of which I find too raisiny. I’d confirmed my previous tentative liking for the wines of the vineyards of Sardi-Giustiniani and Fabbrica di San Martino (both Colline Lucchesi). But could I now describe what the Sangiovese grape smells or tastes like? Not really. Oh, and I was concentrating so much on tasting that I forgot to take any photos.
All suggestions for a programme of improvement will be seriously considered (but no time for a sommelier course).
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