Week three was full of fascinating information! We learned how to prune olive trees, tasted good and bad olive oils, had a fascinating demonstration of butchery, ate a delicious Sicilian style barbeque, and ended the week with a visit to Piazza Armerina to see the oldest Greek Ruins.
The highlight of the week for me was having Agostino and Luisa Ninone come and teach us about the Suino Nero that they raise. Suino Nero is Sicily’s black pig, which feeds specifically on acorns in the Nebrodi mountains. These pigs are free range, on a large piece of land, live happy stress free lives in their natural environments. Even up to the time of slaughter, they are treated with the utmost care and consideration. Stressed out animals do not make for good meat, and this is something that the Ninone’s are very passionate about. There is a deep respect and understanding for the value of these animals, not a single scrap of their meat is wasted, whether it be used for sausages, salami, prosciutto, capicola etc, it is all important. Luisa carefully demonstrated this for us during our butchery lesson, she broke down half of one of her pigs, explaining along the way what each piece would be used for, taking special care to lay each part of the pig in an organized manner. This is an art that she and her husband have really crafted, and turned into a valuable way for them to support their family. On their plot of land, they have only one thousand pigs, this is an important fact because it is a prime example of of care and consideration that has been lost in our world from mass farming of animals.
Meat has become a controversial topic for many reasons. As a chef, to me it is important to be educated about these topics. I choose to eat meat personally, and of course I cook with it as well, but there is a responsible and sustainable way to do so. Yes, it is expensive as a consumer to seek out organic, free range, grass fed meats, but this is a choice I make in order to feed my body with foods that are protecting not only smaller businesses, but also protect the preservation of raising animals fairly for consumption. Not to mention meats that are free of hormones, preservatives, cancer causing chemicals and toxins. I am a food snob, I am incredibly picky about what I purchase and eat for everyday life, but this is because I am educated about the reality of our food situation. I choose to eat foods in which I know are the best quality, that will help me to live a healthy and happy life. As a chef I feel that it is a responsibility to be knowledgeable about food, not just as ingredients, but as life, as fuel and nutrition for mind and body. When I think about a dish I am going to cook, I think of the ingredients as special instruments that create not only my vision, but instruments that will provide absolute nourishment and comfort to the body.
I of course appreciate all diet choices. I have friends and clients that eat some meats, and not others, some that are vegan or vegetarian, and I respect that, we all have the right to choose how and what we eat. I choose to do the research to find foods and food products that I feel are smart and safe choices for myself and for those that I feed. Education and awareness are the two ideas I believe that are lacking in today’s world in terms of food.
When I was a kid, my mom used to teach nutrition classes to us at school, as an extra activity. I remember her teaching my brother and I to read nutrition labels and then to have us practice in the store and tell her if we thought it was a good product based on the ingredients and the nutrition facts. What is unfortunate is that I think at the time I was one of few kids who actually knew how to do this. I have vivid memories of talking to friends and family etc, not even too long ago explaining how to read a label. Of course during this time the “low fat” diet was all the rage, Snackwell’s products ruled the shelves and low fat cheese became king. What is sad, and frustrating is that there is so much research that needs to be done in order to find products that are made with real whole ingredients, and aren’t pumped with artificial ingredients, GMO’s and who knows what else. In my opinion the “low fat” diet changed the food industry for the worst in many ways. This is when products really started to become distant memories of what real food actually was and became these odd hybrids of franken-foods that now fill the supermarket shelves. Unfortunately, no one really knew that this was such an awful change.
Big name brands are constantly pulling the bait and switch, making consumers believe that their product is healthy because it contains whole grains, is gluten free, is low fat, contains no high fructose corn syrup. I could go on and on. As a chef this is a serious problem to me, and is something that really gets me heated. It is so unfair that companies are allowed to fill their products with ingredients that are no where near close to being something that should be labeled as acceptable for consumption.
To end, here is a bit of history I found interesting that we learned this week. Olive oil was found all along the shores of the mediterranean dating back to the Paleolithic era, and was spread all over by the Phoenicians who traveled through Sicily, but eventually settled in Spain. Olive groves are now seen as the most abundant crops of the mediterranean and also create a kind of identity for this region. Discoveries prove it existed, but not that it was eaten or used as a food staple. Until the Romans nobody would even eat olive oil. It was used for cosmetic purpose, and was highly prized as a sacred liquid that would be used to brush the dead. It was also used to clean up sweat and cover with scented oils and in the baths for massage. There is no evidence that people actually ate raw olives during this time.
The “Mediterranean Diet” was born, and the olive oil boom began. In reality, there is no such thing. Similarity around the Mediterranean in terms of diet does not exist because there is no real food link between all of these areas. In Turkey for example, a staple is rice where as here in Sicily, a staple is pasta. The difference between the “old ways” of eating is what creates the change. These days, we rely entirely on large supermarkets, processed foods, and convenience. The difference is that in earlier days there was a stronger relation between harvesting your own ingredients. The real difference, is way of life. I hope for future to inspire those around me to support local businesses, farmers markets and companies that are doing it right. The only way to make a difference is to change the way we think about food, and by doing so we are making conscious decisions to live healthier more natural lifestyles that will benefit not only us, but the world as a whole in the long run.