Smoked Water, Rice, and a… Sea of Salts
By the time I reached the British stand, to taste and smell the much-discussed ‘smoked water’ from Wales, only one jar remained. The producer wouldn’t open it for me, he only posed for a picture holding it. He told me they make it by passing slow-burning oak branches over the water tank and he suggested I get his similarly smoked salt which had the same aroma. Needless to say that besides the Welsh salts, there were plenty of other flavored, aromatic and spicy salts from all corners of the world–from Iceland to Morocco.
Oval — the 20,000sqm arena built for the Speed Skating competitions of the Torino 2006 Winter Olympics– housed stands from Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe, while the various larger regional Italian booths spread over the vast industrial buildings.
I don’t pretend to give you an objective account of the most important products and events in this fascinating food expo. What follows are some of the items that I found interesting.
Most of my three days at the fair I spent strolling through the Oval’s aisles, starting from the small but excellent Greek stand: Trikalinos’ Avgotaracho, the refined Greek delicacy, was served by Lila Kourti in four unexpected combinations: with lime zest and olive oil, with raspberry and chive, with dried fig and grape molasses, and with a tiny piece of white chocolate that added a wonderful buttery sweetness to the intensely flavored avgotarracho .
Petros Naoumidis and his family’s charcoal-roasted Florina Peppers were offered in many variations, and became a sensation among other pepper producers who marveled at their rich and deep flavor!
From Chalkidiki came the products of a family vineyard that makes everything but wine: Marianna’s stuffed grape leaves, pickled vine shoots, and grape molasses. Rayan brought traditional Pontian cheeses of the Black Sea Greeks, and the northern Greek presence included the newly launched Calypso olive oilfrom the centuries-old olive groves of Makri, in Thrace.
From the neighboring Serbian stand I bought containers of a freshly pickled cabbage salad with peanuts, raisins, hot pepper, and sour cream that became my everyday lunch. It complemented beautifully the bites of spicy cheese, salami and other smoked and heavily salted foods that I nibbled all day long, strolling through the fair. By far the most fascinating pickled cabbage, though, came from Austria, too precious to be sold in containers. ‘Cavolo di fossa‘ (cabbage from the cave) was made following an old family tradition: whole cabbages were briefly blanched, transferred into wooden barrels, sealed, and left to ferment completely without salt for 12 months, in dark cellars. This cabbage tasted unbelievably fruity and crunchy with earthy tones, nothing like the usual sauerkrauts of Central Europe.
Africa features prominently in all Slow Food events. The movement’s scouts search the continent to find and encourage the few surviving traditional producers. In his address Petrini pointed that Westerners shouldn’t just ‘help the poor Africans’ with handouts!’ We are obliged to try and repair the colossal damage we have caused with the vast monocultures, destroying forever the self-sufficient local communities, he said. At the multicolored African stands I found some unexpected products like the dried, apparently very nourishing sweet potato leaves from West Africa, and the delicious salted millet couscous of Senegal’s Fadiouth Island.
A fascinating, comprehensive exhibit of rice grains and chaff in all shapes and colors included medium grains from an African oasis, deep purple, almost black grains from China, mottled Filipino rice, light-green grains from Vietnam and Laos, a strange ‘flattened rice’ from Bangladesh, and lots more.
The large Herat Abjosh raisins of Afganistan, from an ancient indigenous grape variety, were the country’s principal crop before the 1970 Soviet invasion. Before drying, the grapes are blanched in boiling water for a few seconds and their skins brake. The process is called “abjosh,” hence the raisin’s name. Blanching speeds up the sun drying and preserves the light color of the raisin, I was told. At the Russian stand I tasted a marvelous ‘pine-nut oil,’ according to the sign; in fact it was cedar-nut oil from Aromaty Leta. The company’s leaflet states that the oil is extracted from the fruits of Siberian cedars, trees crucial for the inhabitants of that area. Siberians make many traditional products, all health-promoting, from the various parts of the cedar, according to the locals. What interested me, though, was the oil’s delicate and addictive, nutty flavor and aroma, lighter and very different from the pine nut oils I was familiar with. I wish the Russians packaged it in smaller bottles. There was no way I could carry the thick-glass half-liter bottle they sold for 40 Euros!
The well-displayed Herzegovina stand drew my attention. I admired the beautiful pebble-like legumes labeled ‘ancient beans.’ The producers assured me that they have a wonderful taste and very thin skin, which wasn’t actually true. I bought two bags and showed them to my Albanian neighbor, who told me that they are not beans but koçulla, a ‘kind of fava’ he said. The bag’s label ‘Petrovo Poije, Trebinje’ refers to the producing region and I found no ‘bean’ under that name on the web. So I posted the picture on my Facebook page soliciting the help of learned colleagues. The answers I got were a revelation: it turned out that this ancient ‘bean’ was in fact cicerchie an old staple legume of the Italian central-southern regions–Umbria, Abruzzo, Molise and Puglia. Called chickling vetch in English, and gachas manchegas in Spanish, they are Lathyrus sativus –lathoúri in Greek. I remember hearing my parents mention lathoúri as poor people’s food, but had never seen it neither knew that the famous Santorini ‘fava’ (lathyrus clymenum) is a close relation. Grains of this ancient Mediterranean legume were excavated at Akrotiri, the spectacular bronze-age settlement of Santorini.
Before exiting the Oval I was lured by the enticing aroma of well-matured cheese. But I had to look carefully to make out the edible delicacies from an artistic display of what seemed like pieces of rotten wood and wild mushrooms, in various shades of gray. The cheeses were products of Domaine Maraÿn de Bartassac, made in Landiras, in Gascony, by Hugues Lataste and his wife, Marie-France. Their goats graze in 60 hectares of a semi-wild land they gradually incorporated to the property. The cheeses produced from the goats’ milk age very carefully, attended by Mr. Lataste who, from the age of 12 worked with various cheese producers. He matures his precious cheeses covering them with chestnut leaves and aromatic branches of the area, and as time passes they acquire a truly unique flavor. The bearded Mr. Lataste seemed somewhat out of place in this buzzing arena, and wasn’t particularly talkative, not even in French.
He probably believed that his extraordinary products should speak for themselves. What would he serve with the morsel he offered me that tasted unlike any cheese I have ever eaten? Would he have a suggestion about a jam or a special bread to accompany it? Mr. Lataste looked at me baffled by my stupidity: ‘Just a glass of good Bordeaux,” he said, stating the obvious…