Salt cod: two words that sound pleasingly incongruous. ‘Salt’ is a noun turned into an adjective signifying the process of salting rather than saltiness. Through slowly drying out a food, salting transforms a highly perishable product — like fish, meat or cabbage — into a durable commodity. ‘Cod’ is simple: it’s white fish with relatively little flavour, gently chewy texture and, when cooked, easily flaked apart with a fork. Together ‘salt’ and ‘cod’ become so specific that the term’s meaning has mutated significantly. Salt cod is fish that’s been dried through contact with salt. This contact used to be natural — the fish was left to hang in the sun and the wind delicately blew salty sea water onto the fish — but nowadays it’s forced— the fillet hangs in a large room while fans and heaters throw salty air onto it. Once dried, the fish can last for years and must be soaked before cooking and eating. With its newfound durability, salt cod attains money-like value. The value this process gave to common fish allowed Bergen’s outpost of the Hanseatic League to use the fish as currency. The Hanseatic League was a complex trade organization that operated across Northern European from the thirteenth to seventeenth century. Members of Bergen’s Hanse dealt in salted fish. Nowadays, salt cod is better known as baccalà and gains an exotic aura through its association with Italian, Spanish and Caribbean cuisines. Though salt cod was once common in the US (in New England it was commonly cooked into fish pie) its lengthy prep time discourages its frequent use. I first had salt cod at Pingvinen in Bergen. I’d just visited the Hanseatic museum and gawked at the stockfish (salt cod made from generic white fish) hanging from the ceiling. Out front, the harbor side market capitalised on the tourist’s new interest in preserved fish, selling miniature pieces for outsized prices. Thus, when presented with the choice between whale steak and salt cod, I chose the latter. My meal was served with traditional potatoes and butter as well as untraditional tomatoes and chickpeas. Combined the effect was familiar and exotic, intriguing both the contemporary and historic palate. While salt cod might be an easy taste to adopt, it’s not about to become an easy weeknight meal. The long process of de-salting salt cod intimidates the modern attitude toward ‘convenience’ foods. After all, ‘[de-salting] is done by soaking the fish in a pot of cold water for 2 days or so — changing the water 2 to 3 times per day.’ This changes the texture changes from thick and unyielding to dense and chewy. Every mouthful feels like a historical relic, requiring one to chomp slowly through. In the modern culinary lexicon, salt cod’s gnaw-able texture finds comparison only comparison in the form of stale gummy candy. While salt cod’s flavor is slightly brine-y, it tastes more like yester-year’s fish stick than today’s Maldon salt garnish. Salt cod is a challenge for the home chef not only because of its required soaking, but also because of its unfamiliar texture and outdated utility. Salt cod. The words are strange, the consistency is unique, the process is daunting. Although it may seem outdated as a preserved product, it’s worthy of being kept around as it illustrates food’s changing meaning. Chewing on, thinking about and cooking salt cod reminds us what convenience or processed foods once were. While spending two days prepping fish for cooking may now be a foodie’s weekend project, salt cod was once a handy way of ensuring food was available. Convenience didn’t mean ready at will but ready when needed. Processed meant conditioned through several steps before consumed, not machine generated in a factory. Salt cod. Two strange little words with centuries of meaning that are still relevant today.
Browsing the cookbooks in an Italian bookstore is an interesting experience. Gone are the fancy coffee-table recipe collections. The blogger-turned-cookbook author doesn’t occupy much shelf space either. Ethnic cooking is barely represented. What you find instead oscillates between celebrity chefs, non-fussy recipe collections and a handful of ingredient-specific books.
Last year I would go to Feltrinelli on Saturday afternoon and browse. Sometimes the celebrity chefs fascinated me (read: Benedetta Parodi), other times I flipped through the ‘cooking in your dishwasher’ book (I don’t joke) and there were days when I couldn’t stop looking at Il cucchiaio verde, a riff on Il cucchiaio d’argento, The Silver Spoon.
Eataly Turin Lingotto doesn’t offer quite the range your average book store does, but what they do offer is fascinating. Who would think that a store which uses the slogan ‘Italy is Eataly‘ and greets you with Wendell Berry’s famous line ‘Eating is an agricultural act‘ would stock books about cake pops and cupcakes? I sure wouldn’t.
My favorite Italian cookbook story is this: there was an early cookbook that had a recipe for gnocchi. It listed the ingredients — potatoes, flour, eggs, etc — and under directions it said combine ingredients, boil and serve. Ever since I read this during my time at the British Library I’ve told the story countless times. It represents what Italian cookbooks are to me, though they evolved since then.
What’s your favorite type of cookbook?
I’ve been to the Eataly mothership: Eataly Torino Lingotto. Nestled right next to the old Fiat factory, 8 gallery and Lingotto exhibition space, this outpost of the Italian goods supermarket is like walking into a temple to Italian food rhetoric. Or like walking into a carefully designed space that wants to make you think not of a Carrefour style supermarket, but of a quaint outdoors market. Like it used to be, come una volta.
There’s nothing to distinguish the space as you approach. We’re not visiting Eataly-in-the-countryside, nor are we waiting on line at Eataly New York. The people who visit Eataly Lingotto are going to do the weekly shop or to get a nice, quick meal. They’re going because they know they’ll get good food, better than they’d get at the corner bar.
That’s the major difference between Eataly in Italy and Eataly abroad (especially so, I’m guessing, for Eataly Japan). In Italy, Eataly is a supermarket. A supermarket that is at once concerned with ‘alti cibi’ — a clever play on alta cucina — and saving a few euros — ‘mangiare meglio, pagare meno’. It should be a paradox, but Eataly is determined to use any means possible to show us that it’s not.
From 1 kg bags of pasta to freshly baked bread; from fresh fruits and vegetables to shrink wrapped pre-cooked ones; and from Italian beer to wine-on-tap Eataly finds products and ways of displaying these products that make us think we’re getting a bargain or make us forget that we’re not. The pasta can be bought in large or small quantities, the price below overshadowed by the history of the pasta company, and the reason why you should buy their unique product, above. The slices of focaccia are freshly made — in addition to this being stated on the bag they give it to you in, you can see the bakers making it — softening the blow of the higher-than-average price tag. If you choose fresh vegetables, they’re piled high in baskets on counters with red and green awnings over head to evoke the feeling of an Italian outdoor market. The pre-cooked vegetables are nearby, so you don’t have the shame of choosing the easy way out; even the bargain basement is of superior quality. When we choose a drink to go to the meal, we go downstairs to the pseudo-wine cellar, spatially confirming that every bottle is worthy of being preserved, regardless of the price tag. Eataly makes sure that we don’t think any product is a lesser one.
Eataly Lingotto surprised me more than I expected to be surprised. The lavish displays of abundance, the routine glee with which the customers bought their italianità and the complete order of the space all merged to fashion an atmosphere that made Italian foods seem like the most attractive ones to consume. It’s easy to comment on the rhetoric and the design from afar, forgetting how casually and how easily it wins you over. Eataly might have spread around the world, but Eataly Lingotto is an experience onto itself.
Have you ever visited an Eataly? Which one? What did you think?
Turin may be known for various reasons — home of gianduia, Fiat, Eataly and Italy to name a few — but I think Turin should be known as the la città dei segni, the city of signs. Walking around the Piedmont capital last weekend I gawked at the ornate signs and store windows. They’re fancy, posh and manage to both blend into the landscape and standout. Here are some of my favorites, which one do you like?
What do you enjoy looking at when you visit a new city?
If you told me while touring Connecticut College that four years later I would be going on an open day at Slow Foods Uni, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would probably have laughed in your face and said, with a mix of sarcasm and disappointment, that I would be standing on that quad thinking about my math homework. Even if you told me earlier this year that I would be going on an Open Day at Slow Food university, I wouldn’t have believed you. Because who goes to Slow Food university?
Rich-looking Northern Italian kids and their parents, that’s who. A handful of Germans, a pair of Austrians and a Swiss girl with her mother, that’s who. An aging Canadian professor, a Lithuanian line cook and a final year English student who’s writing a “dissertation” on Slow Foods, that’s who.
A visit to l’Università di scienze gastronomiche is the only reason to visit Pollenzo. To get there — if you can really call Pollenzo a ‘there’ — you take the bus from the Bra train station, itself is a bit out of the way at the end of a regionale line leaving from Turin. The bus leaves once every hour and a half. Luckily, the bus costs only 2.20 EUR and you buy your ticket on board, not the tabacchi as you’d expect. The bus ride is pleasant as far as these things go, especially if you get one of a nice bus. Even on an old bus, the scenery makes up for the rickety seats.
As you’ll soon discover, there’s a reason why the university is in nowhere Piedmont. The university — UNISG, one word, as they call it — aims not to give students a culinary education, but a gastronomic one. That means they need to understand the entire food cycle. You may think: perfect! The middle of nowhere must have a farm, perfect for them to understand the lifecycle of tomatoes and eggplants. You’d be wrong, as we would be about most things Slow Food before examining them. No, the university is located in Pollenzo because the little town’s was a crossroads for trade in the Roman era. Goods came in from Genova before getting processed in Torino and being sent throughout the country. Pollenzo: gorgeous scenery and a historical epicentre.
I wasn’t expecting to like UNISG, but it was nicer than I anticipated. The classrooms were bright and modern, there was an admirable amount of technology and the library had a copy of Fool magazine. Yet, it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s a private Italian university that paradoxically receives funding from Grana Padano, Parmiggiano Reggiano and Barilla (I’m still scratching my head over that one). The university aims to educate students in gastronomy with a multidisciplinary academic approach, yet doesn’t have research. Most students said they thought there would be more hands on learning. They take five domestic and international trips a year and, despite their assurances, the videos of these scholastic adventures looked more like fun than hard work. UNISG is as much a paradox as Slow Foods is itself.
Carlo Petrini, Slow Foods’ founder, spoke at the end. The speech synthesized the themes and ideas that make Slow Foods so compelling as a movement and UNISG such a strange idea. They don’t make sense. Is Slow Food concerned with how we eat or what we eat? Does it exist in a cultural context or outside of one? Is it trying to create its own? The same can be said for UNISG. Is the university trying to create its own education? Why should anyone choose their academics over, say, a research university? I don’t know and I got the feeling the university doesn’t know either.
Going to an open day at UNISG was the strangest thing I’ve ever done. There’s no reason for an American girl who does not want to live in Italy to go. Yet I did. I went because of my own interests and academics. I went because I was curious. I left even more curious.