Monday, April 21, 2008

Lucca III: Food trends & traditions

Hearing the local purveyors tout their wares, you’d think the food trends of Lucca, Italy, were the same currents shaping menus back in the United States. The salespeople—nearly always the farmers or artisans who produced the materials—talked up the organic, healthful and gluten-free items that originated from their fields. Throw in the boasts about everything being locally sourced, processed by hand, and produced according to ancient family recipes, and you could’ve been at a food show in New York or San Francisco. Until you got to the farro beer, the chestnut liqueur, or the savory-sounding jams.

Lucca, a part of Tuscany, may be little-known in the U.S., but it’s renowned throughout Europe for its extra virgin olive oil, boutique wineries, and farro, the grain known in English-speaking countries as spelt. Locals also wax rhapsodically about the widespread local use of chestnuts, either by milling them into flour for cakes, breads or pastas, or as a flavoring.

Those items continue to be the bedrock of the local food culture. But a younger generation of producers and consumers are nudging the heritage-revering area to at least look at other ways of using traditional ingredients.

For instance, at a trade show convened for those of us who were visiting from the States, one of the local craftsmen poured samples of his newest beers. One was an extremely light, almost lager-style version made from farro and orzo, also an Italian signature. The other, he said with nearly bursting pride, was made solely with farro, something he’d been told could not be done because of the production inefficiencies.

The 100-percent farro beer, as yet even unnamed, is the same pale yellow as a wheat beer, minus the cloudiness. Indeed, it was crystal-clear, with a head “that could last for two hours,” the brewer explained through an interpreter. I swear I saw a tear forming in his eye.

The brew also has a much lower alcohol content, a mere 4 percent.

The brewer described the beer was an alternative to the darker, slightly heavier brews that Italian elders in the area might’ve sipped when they were youngsters learning the traditions of their elders.

A tour of local food shops and cafes revealed that younger Italians are indeed drinking differently than their parents did. Aperitifs, my tour guide explained, are the current rage among people in their 20s. They’ll head to the same time-steeped cafés where their grandparents might still stop by in the afternoon for a local digestif called biadina, which is served with a few pignoli thrown into the glass. The young adults descend on the places at 7 for aperitifs of one sort or another, often garnishing them with nuts, raisins or other enhancements that are arrayed in glass bowls on the bar. At 9, they head off to dinner, which of course is accompanied by wine.

A liqueur company participating in the Lucca trade show acknowledged that it’s had to make some accommodations to changing drinking habits. The buzz-phrase is “doing it for the market.” The owner cited such concessions as the introduction of a drink that tastes like dark rum, as well as a creamy limoncella and a liqueur, called Halloween, whose flavor was lost to language differences. His product line also includes a chestnut-flavored liqueur.

Several of the trade-show exhibitors featured jams of local produce—such local fruits as raspberries and currents (or what we’d know as blueberries, judging from the labels), to be sure, but also carrots, pumpkins and basil, to name just a few. Samples were given on bread, leading me to say something extremely intelligent about what a strong toast market Lucca must have. I was quickly corrected. In Lucca, one interpreter explained, persons of taste put jams and marmalades on cheese, as an alternative to using honey. Surely I must put honey on my cheese, she suggested. I couldn’t even bring myself to answer. Clearly it was yet another major setback in other cultures’ impression of America.

My shop-tour guide suggested that the jam-on-cheese phenomenon was getting a boost from another recent trend in the local dining scene. A new preoccupation has taken hold of blending salt and sweet items, like desserts flavored with balsamic vinegar, or salts used in baked items.

I could’ve been home, listening to a bunch of foodies discussing what they’ve been witnessing on the local dining scene.

1 comment:

  1. Peter,

    Food in Europe is a way of life that is embedded in the culture and passed down from generation to generation. When I lived in Lyon, France and Vienna, Austria, I got to witness it first hand. It is too bad that we as Americans have not done the same here with the great ingredients that we have. Instead food is merely a thing to get us to next event for the day.

    I just had dinner the other night with a former restaurant CEO vet of over 25 years and he had to ask the waiter what risotto is. I was shocked. A person who lead multi-million dollar brands and he did not know a simple Italian peasant dish.