Sunday, June 23, 2013

Summer Solstice

Several weeks ago our class and another Art Humanities class from NAU (Northern Arizona University) did a tour of the Bruco (Caterpillar) contrada here in Siena. Siena is divided up into 17 districts called contradas and each have a mascot based on ancient guilds. So for example, the Bruco contrada used to be silk merchants. Our guide was the infamous Dario Castagno who has written numerous books, the first of which deals with his experiences as a Chianti tour guide (Too Much Tuscan Sun: Confessions of a Chianti Tour Guide). Many of us have been reading his books throughout our stay here. So we were all too excited to meet him. He explained to us that the contrada is a very close-knit group of people and rather exclusive. To be a member of the contrada, you have to be born into it or baptized, which is not an easy endeavor as the author Robert Rodi (Seven Seasons in Siena) can attest to. There is no hierarchical system or social ranking. Everyone is considered equally important at contrada dinners and other contrada events. Twice a year 10 of the 17 districts perform in the Palio, a horse race event held in both July and August. Our class is lucky enough to attend the July Palio. The winning contrada receives a palio (flag) which is painted by an artist. The artist is sometimes local, or even internationally well-known. Each contrada has a museum where they display all of the palios they have won throughout the years. Siena has very little crime and juvenile delinquency. Our class has concluded that this is most likely due to the contradas (they keep the youth very busy).

This past Saturday, the city of Siena had a summer solstice festival called Notte Bianca. Siena recently elected a new mayor and our guess is that he was trying to make a good first impression with this event. From five o'clock in the evening into the wee hours of the night, local bands, artists and street performers displayed their talent. Many of the contradas opened up their museums as well. We had the advantage of going into the porcupine and the dragon contrada. It was curious to me why the contradas, such a restricted entity, opened up their headquarters to everyone, including tourists.

For the city of Siena, tourism is an integral part of the economy. Our professor informed us that the city aims to receive the designation of "European Cultural Capital" in 2019. The European Union designates one city per calendar year in which said city organizes numerous cultural events with a strong European element. The four areas in which the city plans to focus is culture, health, social justice and sustainable tourism. The beauty and endearing legacy of the contradas is its exclusivity. Nonetheless, if Siena wants to put itself on the map, where tourists stay for a few days rather than simply pass through on their way to Florence, it needs to offer something special. That something special could very well be the contradas and everything that comes with such as the Palio. It remains to be seen how they will manage to balance the influx of tourists interested in this way of life, while still maintaining their identity and exclusive nature. This balance will be a challenge but not impossible. 

(I have not posted any pictures we took of the Bruco contrada because Dario requested that we not post any pictures online.)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Colombaia and Spannocchia - 6/5/2013

Last week we went to a biodynamic vineyard called Colombaia, which translates to “house of doves.” Biodynamic agriculture is “a method of organic farming that emphasizes the holistic relationships of the soil of plants, and animals as a self-sustaining system.” It’s completely organic and they use no chemicals or other additives in the making of their wine. Helena and Dante are the owners of the vineyard and were delightful people. Our Consuming Ethics instructor is a friend with the two of them and so we got a tour of the place. Carlton and I bought several bottles which we plan to bring home with us.

Yesterday we went to a pig farm just half an hour southwest from Siena called Spannocchia. Our instructor informed us it is “the Colombaia of cinta sinese.” Cinta sinese is a special Italian breed of pig. All of the pigs are free-range and live a minimum of two years (unlike 6 months in the U.S.) before they are sent to slaughter. Once weaned from the mother, (which is usually after a few months unlike a few weeks in the U.S. factory farming style), they roam the property rooting around for roots, hazelnuts and other sundry things that pigs eat in the woods. 

Their diet is supplemented with grains. Once slaughtered, the meat is preserved primarily through a natural curing process. Prosciutto, which is the hind legs of the pig, cures for approximately two years. There are absolutely no preservatives or other additives to the meat, just spices and salt of course.

This type of traditional pig farming would never occur in the States because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would have none of it. So Spannocchia was a really unique look at an alternative to the dominant mode of pork production. Carlton and I definitely bought some salami but we will be eating it here. Unfortunately U.S. customs will not allow animal products into the country, even the purest, most ethically produced pork product you can find.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Buying sausage in Italy - 05/27/2013

Several days ago, I went to the Consorzio di Agrario, basically a gourmet food store, to buy some good sausage for a cannelloni bean dish I was making. --> The two gentlemen ahead of us ordered sandwiches a salsiccia cruda, meaning sandwiches with raw sausage meat. The care in which the deli maker made the sandwiches, slowly spreading the sausage onto the bread and following with some delectable cheese, made me think of the slow food movement. --> After I ordered my sausage, an impatient customer asked when he was next and the deli guy told him “pazienza!” or "patience!" I could not help but smile at this exchange.

We have been learning quite a bit about the slow food movement in our class called Consuming Ethics taught by one of the professors here at the Siena School for Liberal Arts. I wanted to talk about this experience buying sausage and witnessing the potential ingestion of raw sausage by Italians because my reaction was so typically American. I was befuddled. "Can you actually eat pork raw?" I asked myself. Later, while cooking the sausage, (in my unrelenting quest to be less American and more Italian) I thought, "maybe I don't have to cook it ALL the way!", leaving a little bit of pink. I had trouble sleeping later that night for fear that Carlton and I would end up with trichinosis, a disease you get from the consumption of raw pork. I asked my professor about it later and she informed us that it is safe to eat raw pork here in Italy. The reason for this is that unlike factory farmed pigs in the United States, Italian farmers take great care in the raising of their pigs for human consumption. 

Here in the United States, we are obsessed with food hygiene and rightly so. If you've ever read Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle, which details the horrors of the U.S. meat packing industry in the late nineteenth century, you become immediately grateful for public health organizations as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, we recently read how standardization processes can be a huge detriment to traditional food production processes, even the designation of something as "organic" or "local." This is an interesting dilemma for those trying to hold onto their cultural identity through traditional foods here in Italy. It remains to be seen whether the slow food movement could be a way of balancing necessary regulations while still maintaining the traditional, local and cultural identity of food. 

I don't know if I will be able to eat pork raw (some cultural habits remain strong) but I have not lost any more sleep over leaving a little bit of pink. 

Having a cold in Italy - 5/27/2013

So, I've been sick the last several days here in Italy. I had been fighting it for a while what with defending my thesis, graduating, moving out of our apartment, and getting ready for and traveling to Italy. My body finally succumbed to it and I've been sneezing, coughing and blowing my nose like crazy. I finally went to the Pharmacia when we took a tour of Pienza. One of our professors, Miguel Vasquez, (who has a much better grasp of Italian than I do), went with me to try and obtain some kind of cold medicine. I quickly learned the word for "cold" in Italian which is "raffreddore", "nose" - "naso" and "decongestant" - "decongestionante." "Posso avere un decongestionante per il raffredore, per favore" is basically "Can I have a decongestant for my cold, please." Fortunately, unlike when I lived in Mexico, I'm not suffering from "Montezuma's revenge" so asking for cold medicine was not as humbling as asking for diarrhea medicine in an unfamiliar language. The pharmacists here kept trying to give me nasal spray and I wanted pills (typical pill-popping American that I am). So, I also learned the word for "pill" which is "pillola" or "compressa." I think I'm on the mends but for the time-being, I'm laying low until I recuperate.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Gelato festival in Firenze - 05/26/2013

Yesterday, our class went to Florence, or Firenze in Italian, to view the different stages of architecture. Dr. Paradis, one of our professors pointed out Gothic architecture, which is usually noted by the pointed arches, as well as early and late Renaissance which is noted by the resurgence of Roman and Greek styles with the curved arches and less ornate designs. I was particularly excited to see Brunelleschi's dome, an engineering marvel still to this day.

Since we have been in Italy, it has remained cold and rainy, especially yesterday. In fact, yesterday was our coldest day yet. We think this weather must be unusual for May in Tuscany. Everyone we meet tells us that we should enjoy the rain while it lasts because in a couple of weeks, it will be hot and humid. Unfortunately, all of us packed for hot and humid, not cold and rainy so we have been suffering through the cold and are eagerly awaiting hot and humid.

While the rest of our class went back to Siena on the ràpido bus, Carlton and I decided to stick around Florence for a bit to see if we could catch The Great Gatsby in English. The only movie theater that shows American movies in English near downtown Florence was hosting a Japanese movie festival so we struck out on that endeavor. However, we did happen upon the Gelato festival. This was the last weekend for the Gelato festival so, despite the cold, we thought we would go ahead and take advantage of this opportunity to try various flavors of this sumptuous Italian dessert. Gelato is basically the Italian word for ice cream but it is churned very slowly so it is usually denser and thicker than American ice cream. We tried flavors including green tea, rice, fudge, and coffee barley. When I went over to one of the gelato stands for a picture, one of the gelato makers graciously came over to pose with me. Overall, despite the cold and rain, Carlton and I really enjoyed Florence and will be heading back soon for another visit. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Grocery store shopping - 5/17/2013

Grocery shopping in a foreign country is always a stressful endeavor but especially if you have little proficiency in the language. I know Spanish, which is similar to Italian but trying to navigate a grocery store in another language is an entirely different ball game than ordering an esspresso or a glass of vino. Little things we Americans take for granted, like a cashier who weighs your produce and a baggage clerk to bag your groceries, does not occur in an Italian grocery store. You would not think it would be overwhelming but it is, especially if you go in blindly like I did. You do not realize how your neighborhood grocery store is so ingrained in your weekly routine. When you venture into an Italian grocery store, you have to be a little adventurous and branch out a bit. You might not be able to find your usual almond milk, but you know you'll find the best balsamic vinagarette, the tastiest tomatoes and the yumiest mozarella cheese. So take advantage of the fact that you're in Italy and change it up a bit!

Arriving in Italy - 5/15/3013

Carlton, my significant other and I, are doing a study abroad program through Northern Arizona University's Sustainability program in Siena, Italy this summer. We are taking classes at the Siena school for Liberal Arts for eight weeks. 

We arrived in Siena on Tuesday and took a bus to the train station so we could catch the "fast bus" or Autobus Ràpido to Siena. Tuscany looks a lot like California but its much wetter. Everything is so beautiful here, including the people. I feel like I've just stepped inside a picture book featuring rolling green hills, terra cotta rooftops and ancient cathedrals. So excited to be here!