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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Food and Wine with Maria and Bill

A big part of the fun of visiting Asti, Italy, at the invitation of Maria and Bill was learning about the wines and cuisine of the region. In years past, Maria and Bill operated a cooking school in southern California. Today, they operate a custom tour business based out of their home in northwestern Italy.

It was my great pleasure to sit in Maria's Italian Kitchen and watch the fresh local pasta, produce, polenta and poultry come together into delightfully delicious dinners. Well, not all of those ingredients at once, of course. The essence of northern Italian cuisine, I learned, was simplicity. Maria would begin preparation sometime after 8:00 p.m. Italian dining is a late evening affair. Without ever missing a beat in the conversation, Maria would begin cutting up some fennel and garlic and soon the kitchen took on a fragrance that beckoned to anyone not already present.

Some sequence like this might yield a pasta course:
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The result was served as a separate course on a fresh plate since no proper Italian would allow a pasta course and a meat course to touch.

Maria spent considerable time teaching me the principles of simplicity and contrast in the region's foods. I'm not sure I learned as much as she wanted me to but I certainly enjoyed the results. Learning to treat and appreciate wine as a food was a major part of my education. The variation in character of wine depending on the other food being consumed was a subtlety that I had missed previously.

And speaking of wine, the city of Asti may have rung a bell with some readers. As in Asti Spumante, the sparkling wine of the region that finds its way to the U.S. But the locals actually are much prouder of two other wines that we don't see as frequently at home. The sweet white Muscato D'Asti is truly delicious. And the red Barbaresco offers a hearty balance to heavier courses.
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On more than one occasion, Maria served up a delicious Focaccia for lunch. The Asti version of this again offers simplicity with the toppings providing balance and contrast. The cheese and tomato on a thin crust offer a different view of this treat that we were used to back in the U.S.
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Half the fun of eating this great food was shopping for the ingredients. We made frequnt trips to the local markets, both conventional supermarkets and outdoor markets.
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Of course, for me, the best part of going to the supermarket was running the cart down the escalator ramp where I could release the cart and it wouldn't run away! Clever, these Italians.

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