A week as a chef - Day 1 at Alma and an evening in Parma

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April 19th 2010
Published: April 30th 2010
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At 7am my roommates and I headed to catch the #90 bus to school at with our luggage in tow - Michele does not travel light, towing a suitcase as big as the one I brought to Europe. The three of us were the first to arrive to the minibus that would take us out of Milan to Colorno on this nice morning. Despite hardly sleeping the night before, I was excited and energetic to be heading to the Alma cooking school for a week learning about business, food, and drink from a chef's perspective, and getting to learn some nice recipes and techniques and work in a big kitchen. There were going to be 13 of us, my whole class, and I envisioned an intense week together - maybe it will be a little like a reality tv show, something like Top Chef (but lower pressure of course). I did hear rumor that there will be filming involved, and what happens when you stick a bunch of people already spend too much time together in a kitchen? Stay tuned!

On the bus, everyone was sleepy and even Angelo (the epitome of a young southern Italian) was quiet on the way. I curled up on my seat for a nap too. We arrived to Alma, the International School of Italian Cuisine, but stopped for coffee (a shot of espresso here is €1 and is easy to find in coffee bars everywhere) before announcing our arrival in order to wake everyone up. The school is housed in the Ducal Palace of Colorno, now often referred to as the mini-Versailles, and though it's long history of famous inhabitants had more recently been the favored home of Napoleon's wife, Marie Louise. Since then it was converted to a mental institution before being left vacant for years, and now it has been converted into the cooking school and portions of it, including the gardens, are being restored. We made our way into the courtyard, noisily rolling our luggage over the cobblestones, and were brought inside for a breakfast reception and introduction to the school and our week. After nibbling on tarts and panatone, we set off on a tour of the facilities, seeing different kinds of classrooms, the wine cellar, the library, the pastry room, the yeasty bread room... then we were lead to a classroom for our introduction to kitchen fundamentals, particularly stocks, with chef Tiziano, who has an impressive list of kitchens on his resume and is a guest teacher at the school for us this week. We suited up in our kitchen jackets, aprons, and hats, and soon decided to leave our desks to gather around the kitchen workspace. We discussed basic stocks made from veggies, fish, chicken, and beef, all the while hearing about the importance of a restaurant making everything fresh by itself, so as not to waste anything.

Hungry, we headed down to the cafeteria, happy to find a beautiful array of dishes lined up for us to eat on china. It was a modern student cafeteria that resembles a restaurant more than anything else. Nearly the nicest I've been in, but I do recall an incredible cafeteria at Oxford that has it beat for service and decor. New dishes keep coming out of the kitchen, and we were excited to taste as many things as we could. I heaped my plate with colorful veggies and small tastes of the pastas, meats, and fish. Fruit, panettone, and colomba for dessert.

Back in the kitchen classroom we moved on to sauces and got demos on technique, then practice in making:

Tomato sauce for pasta
Pesto trofie
Mayonnaise and Green sauce (mayonnaise with chopped parsley and herbs)
Walnut sauce

My wrist got a little tired whisking, and a lot of my classmates decided that peeling the brown coating off of blanched walnuts was not something they would do again. Other than that, we had a lot of fun and were happy to be making these sauce basics. They were wonderful to taste, but we were still so full from lunch we couldn't eat too much. Yes Mom, I can now make a proper Hollandaise for your eggs Benedict!

We loaded our bags onto the coach bus and rode to a bed and breakfast a near the town. It was not a bed and breakfast as I had ever seen one, but a farm, with dairy cows living in a large industrial barn just yards away from the old stable the guest rooms were in. The smell and hygiene were atrocious! but the gardens and buildings quite pretty. I took my bag upstairs to my shared room with Ivana the engineer from island of Sardinia (Sardegna in Italian), washed my face, then headed outside straightaway to see the farm and enjoy the sun. An old stone building in the back held chickens up a ramp, and a miniature but chubby billy goat was tied up outside of it. There was a loud donkey in a small shelter in the front near to the huge corrugated metal cow barn. As long as you avoided that side of the farm it was quite pretty, although a bit unkempt. A little while later I found Jean outside and we walked around together to see the trees and fields, all the while being followed by the farm's funny dog. We pulled some little chairs into the sun, hoping the rusted edges held as we sat down. Ivana and Hubert was the first to join us, Hubert arriving with a chilled bottle of wine. Gianni, Angelo, and others followed, and we chatted before our scheduled bus ride into Parma for dinner.

We were led though the ancient city of Parma hearing a bit about the history and enjoying the beautiful buildings and cobbled streets on our way to dinner. Parma was settled by the Bronze Age, and in written history, was an Etruscan city before it was taken by the Romans. It has undergone many changes over it's long history, and damage from WWII is still notable. With only two walls of one building (I'm not sure if it was the church or the palace) remaining walking through the Piazza della Pace on our way toward the town center standing in the grass near modern fountains, I was impressed by the effort to keep reviving the city and keep it comfortable and livable. Parma is a major culinary center of Italy where many famous delicacies originate from. This week I will have the chance to explore parmigiano-reggiano cheese, prosciutto di parma ham, balsamic vinegar of Modena, and a lesser known specialty, culatello di zibello, a different kind of cured ham, as well as gelato, pasta, and local recipes.

We had dinner at Trattoria Salumeria Sorelle Picchi, which looked like a cured meat shop from the outside but had a nice dining room if you walked all the way past the glass cased counter. Dinner started out with cured meats - two kinds of ham, two kinds of salami - then a trio of ravioli, followed by fruit tarts.

We headed back to the hotel and I soon went to sleep.

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6th July 2013

hi anna
grandma is watching your adventures

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