sautéed radishes and turnips

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This is the second in a series of posts on cooking “difficult” vegetables. In addition to operating our small restaurant, we grow vegetables for a small number of subscribers, and so we’re frequently thinking about ways to help people cook the vegetables we grow for them.

For many people, radishes and turnips are a hard sell. Most people only know the aggressive, spicy flavor of radishes uncooked in salads. And most people don’t know where to start with a turnip.

But one elegant and delicious solution for both of these vegetables is to cook them together in a little butter until nicely browned and very tender. Most people have never thought of cooking radishes, but it’s a great idea because cooking mellows their flavor, just as cooking fennel does.

And in a world where undercooked crunchy vegetables dominate, radishes and turnips also offer a wonderful example of a fully cooked, creamy vegetable, where the texture offers a loveliness even more important than flavor, as is also the case with eggplant.

Other root vegetables, such as carrots and/or potatoes, could be added to the mix, but in the photos below we have only radishes and turnips. In particular, we have the small, white, Japanese Hakurei turnip, though standard turnips, if not too large, should work just fine.

Notice that the vegetables are cut into irregular pieces. Some of half-moons, others matchsticks, still others are little chunks. This kind of variety isn’t necessary, but it is interesting. It’s the sort of inconsistency which one might be taught is wrong is certain cooking schools. But don’t listen to them. There are things that matter in cooking and things which don’t. Uniform size rarely matters much.

Sautéed Radishes and Turnips

Begin by chopping the vegetables into any shape or size you find interesting. If small, they could simply be sliced in half. There’s no need to peel them.

Melt a generous bit of butter in a pan which can accommodate the vegetables snugly but without overlap. When the butter’s foam begins to subside, add the vegetables and season with salt and pepper. Depending on the type of salt, the the ratio should be ½ to 1 teaspoon per pound of vegetables.

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Keep the heat strong, though be careful not to burn everything. After 2 or 3 minutes, cover the pan and either reduce the heat to low or place the covered pan in the oven. Leave undisturbed for 10 or 15 minutes.

Take off the cover and raise the heat, making sure the vegetables are browned and beautiful. Notice the amount of butter in the pan below. Most Americans habitually cook with less fat than is necessary. But just because the fat is in the pan doesn’t mean it needs to all be on your plate, which is an important principle to keep in mind.

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When the vegetables are browned and fully tender, toss with a little freshly chopped parsley and plate with a little grating of parmigiano.

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For many people, cooking radishes and turnips like this is a revelation. It was for me. Even tonight, cooking them after dinner (when I wasn’t really hungry) merely for the sake of taking photographs for this post, I enjoyed them thoroughly. They were delicious. Their creamy texture and mellow flavor will convert the most inveterate radish skeptic.

savoy cabbage soup

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In addition to operating our little restaurant, we also raise vegetables for a select group of customers. Inevitably, some vegetables are harder to sell than others because many people are unfamiliar with them or they seem difficult to cook.

I think of these as “problem vegetables”, vegetables for which people need a little hand-holding, a little extra encouragement and guidance to cook. Savoy cabbage is one of these vegetables. It’s popular in Italy, especially the North, but not so well known in the US. For many Americans of a certain generation, the word cabbage summons thoughts or memories of smelly, overcooked, mushy disgustingness.

Fortunately, cabbage need not be strong-smelling mush. This soup is a great introduction to savoy cabbage because the proportion of cabbage to other ingredients is moderate, and it only needs about 30 minutes from start to finish. Rather than being musty, this soup shows savoy cabbage in a fresher, more attractive guise.

Savoy cabbage soup with bacon, tomatoes, and cannellini beans (serves 4)

Begin by browning something meaty and savory, like bacon, pancetta, sausage, or smoked ham. I like to use something smoky. Use 1/2 to 1 cup of it and brown in a little olive oil.

Add about a cup of onions or leeks, sliced thin. Reduce the heat and cook until the onion is soft and taking on some light color, 5 minutes or so.

If the meat has rendered too much fat, pour off most of it and add a little more olive oil or maybe a little butter, then add shredded Savoy cabbage, about a 1/4 or 1/2 head depending on size, or more if you want a higher proportion of cabbage in the soup.

Season with a generous three-finger pinch of salt, stir everything to combine and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, adding a little water, wine, or beer if you like. Cover and wilt the cabbage until it is soft and significantly reduced in bulk, about 10 minutes.

Remove the lid and add a cup or so high quality canned tomatoes and simmer gently for 5 minutes before adding enough broth to make a nice soup, maybe 2 cups or so. Add a can of high-quality canned cannellini beans (Goya is my favorite) and bring to a gentle simmer.

Allow the flavors to blend for 10 minutes or so and finish with a generous bit of chopped parsley and some freshly ground black pepper. Check and correct for salt (This is THE most important step). Serve at once or reheat later in the day.

 

Chicken Breasts Braised in Butter

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There’s a famous restaurant in Florence, Trattoria Sostanza, which prepares chicken breasts by briefly cooking them over hot coals and then braising in butter. I’ve never been to Sostanza, but back when people still blogged lots of people wrote about it. You can check out two good examples here and here. And long before bloggers came along, the great Elizabeth David wrote about it in 1954.

I can see why it’s such a popular dish. Chicken breasts need all the help they can get, both in flavor and texture. Naturally lean, they lack the flavor that comes from marbling with fat, and when overcooked they are truly dreadful.

Many chefs solve this problem by not serving them, choosing more impressive cuts for their restaurant menus. But for us it’s not an option. We’re committed to whole animal butchery, using every part of the animal and not leaving farmers stuck with the less sexy cuts (there are only two beef tenderloins, for example, per animal but hundreds of pounds of other muscles!).

When it comes to lean meats like chicken breasts and pork loin, I pull out all the stops. Chicken breasts are one of the few meats which I take the extra trouble to brine, using a solution of 2 quarts water, 125 grams salt, and 30 grams sugar. Other aromatics like bay leaves, garlic, black pepper, and lemon are worth a try, though I’m skeptical they really are absorbed into the meat. An 8 ounce boneless chicken breast needs 4 to 6 hours in the brine. Once brined, they can be removed and kept for an extra day or two before cooking.

I also leave the skin on, which provides an essential element of flavor and fat. I take the bone out, however, for ease of serving and eating, and the ability to easily cut the breast in half to serve.

Braising in a generous quantity of butter also helps this lean meat by allowing the butter to flavor the chicken as it luxuriates in its butter bath. Basting and pouring a little of the butter over the chicken when serving also helps enhance the chicken with a baroque richness.

My method is not an attempt to replicate Sostanza’s version. They use a live flame along with flour and egg. My version is simply an attempt to produce a delicious dish using the simplest possible means.

Chicken Breasts Braised in Butter

Begin by preparing the chicken breasts by removing the bones but keeping the skin on. Brine, as described above, but make sure the chicken is completely dry before browning. I aim for 8 ounce breasts, which is the size you get if you start with a 5 pounds chicken.

Quickly brown in a pan with a little bit of olive oil, about 2 or 3 minutes. The extra sugar from the brine might make the chicken brown quickly, so be careful.

Flip the chicken over and remove from heat. After about a minute, add a very generous quantity of butter, more than you think you need, at least 2 tablespoons per breast, maybe more like 4 tablespoons if only cooking one or two breasts.

Transfer to an oven heated to around 350 degrees and bake for about 10 or 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven and baste with the lovely butter. Check the internal temp. It should be 165 degrees. But one of the beautiful things about brining is that it insures a tender result, even when cooked beyond 170 degrees. Once the chicken is cooked through, run briefly under a broiler to crisp the skin. I put the chicken far from the broiler element and give it a full 3 minutes to crisp up.

Add some chopped parsley, generous grindings of black pepper, and possibly a little lemon juice to the butter, pour a little bit over the chicken, and serve immediately.

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the death of blogging

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One of the least attractive characteristics of our culture is its tendency toward fads. When I left high school, I had hoped to leave most of that stuff behind – the cliques, the cool kids, all that kind of thing. But unfortunately it exists in the adult world too! I think we especially see it in the brave new world of social media. So-and-so has 10,00 followers on Instagram, so they must be cool! Everyone’s talking about the new cookbook from _____ on Facebook, so it must be amazing! We even see it in the changing platforms of social media. Anyone remember MySpace? How long until Facebook is 6 feet under and remembered with an embarrassed quaintness? How did we ever live without Instagram? The iPhone is only 12 years old? What?

It would be easy to dismiss all this as the silliness which it is if one aspect didn’t land close to home for me: food blogging and its decline. It’s not just food blogging; it’s blogging in general. The blogosphere (forgive me for writing that awful word) has followed the pattern of all fads: novel idea, acceptance and imitation, irrational exuberance, short attention span, craving for novelty, decline. The implication is that bloggers weren’t doing it because they had something important to say (in which case they’d still be saying it, presumably). They were doing it because it was cool and hip and everyone was doing it, as is the case with Instagram at the moment (which is where a lot of bloggers have transferred their affections).

Even worse, some people were doing it for money. I was astounded when disabused of my naivete by finding out that people were making money running ads on their blogs. And here I just thought they had a passion they wanted to share! Others, including some I genuinely admire, used their blog to gain an audience and a book deal but then abruptly discarded the blog like the unfortunate victim of a one-night stand. It’s sad, because the sort of writing that many were doing on their blogs has not been replaced. One’s writing in a book is just not the same. Trying to read a long post on instagram while scrolling with my finger is not what I’d call a satisfying experience.

Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but to me the idea of a blog was attractive because I thought I had something to contribute that was unique and not already being written about. I had to convince no one of the coolness or trendiness or profitability of my thinking. I had only to believe in what I had to say and share. Nothing of that has changed and so I plan to continue blogging, sharing recipes and observations about cooking and farming. I don’t run ads and I’m not using this blog as a stepping stone to a book deal. I use it as a journal, as an opportunity to record recipes and insights, making for myself not only a sort of collected history of my thinking but also a resource for customers, friends, and strangers who want to think about cooking and want help in cooking better.

So when the current idol, Instagram, is dropped for the latest, coolest thing, I’ll be shaking my head at the folly which characterizes all fads. Life is short. I only want to spend time with things of lasting value. I want to read the best and most timeless books, eat traditional food which has stood the test of time, live in a home unmarred by architectural whims and fancies. Fads all eventually become dated. But things of true value stand the test of time. Blogging can be like that if done in the right spirit. I plan to continue.

** I would like to give a shout out to Emiko Davies, who is an exception that proves the rule. Long after she secured a multiple-cookbook deal, she has kept up her blog, which is beautiful and substantial. Kudos to her.

in defense of Marcella’s Amatriciana

A few days ago the New York Times published this article on the pasta sauce Amatriciana. It was a loving portrait of the town of Amatrice, but I thought it contained a lot of questionable assertions about Amatricina. Although I doubt it will be published, I wrote this letter to the editor in reply. For my own recipe, check this out.

In defense of Marcella’s Amatriciana

I read with interest Stephen Hall’s loving portrait of the town of Amatrice and the pasta sauce (Amatriciana) which takes its name from it. His description of Amatrice, all but destroyed by a 2016 earthquake, and its slow recovery were moving and valuable.

His discussion of the pasta sauce, however, left much to be desired. His criticism of Marcella Hazan’s recipe was especially troubling. Mr. Hall’s search for the “real Amatriciana” led him down a common but unfortunate road in pursuit of a kind of non-existent purity, as if such a thing as the “real Amatriciana” could possibly exist. This approach to cooking is akin to one who looks for the “real” Beethoven by playing only on period instruments or the real Hamlet by performing with an English accent.

Cooking, like music, is about taste, judgment, and expression. Slavish reliance on recipes and formulae are antithetical to good cooking, as Marcella knew and taught. She knew that good cooking contained an element of improvisation and personality without creeping into the more questionable territory of “creative” cooking.

Mr. Hall criticizes Marcella’s use of butter in her recipe for Amatriciana, and in his article chefs from Amatrice heap on the scorn on the idea as well. But this only shows the small-mindedness which too often plagues and holds back proud and provincial Italians. Marcella knew better. Having lived in Rome, she surely knew that olive oil was the traditional cooking fat in Amatriciana. But she also had a palate. She knew that good cooking tasted like it came from a real person whose personality came through in the dish. Marcella was a human being of course and wasn’t perfect. She wasn’t a “goddess”, but a cook with personality. Her cooking was not the soulless, anonymous cooking of most restaurants, but the personal cooking of the home. A little butter in her amatriciana surely created a texture and flavor which she preferred to the “official” version from Amatrice.

No, Mr. Hall, by cooking Marcella’s version all these years you haven’t been “doing it wrong”. Perhaps, you were not cooking the “real Amatriciana”, whatever that might be. You were cooking Marcella’s Amatriciana to be sure, but there’s no reason that hers might not have been the one to provide the most pleasure to you. Maybe you were right all along.

 

a conversation with Mattia Cavalleri

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Mattia Cavalleri is the proprietor of Cremeria Santo Stefano in Bologna. It is one of the finest gelato shops in a city known for gelato of exceptional quality. I first learned of Mattia from my friend Andrea Chierici, who operates the food tour company Taste Bologna, and he was instrumental in setting up this interview as well.

In the conversation Mattia and I talk about how to make gelato well, why panettone needs 72 hours to produce, and how Bologna has been changing in the last few years.

Justin Naylor: I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t immediately fall in love with Italian gelato. What makes gelato so special?

Mattia Cavalleri: The foundation is ingredients of the highest quality. You need to choose fresh milk every day and pistachios, for example, of the highest quality. And the recipe is very important: the art of balancing temperature, fat, sugar. Gelato is very simple but very hard to make well.

JN: Even in Italy, not all gelato is of equal quality. What separates better from worse gelato in Italy?

MC: First we need to distinguish between industrial gelato and artisan gelato. Even with artisan gelato, however, there is a difference. One type starts from raw materials and makes gelato daily. Every flavor every day from raw materials. So if I make pistachio, I make it with real pistachios. Others prepare it weekly. Pistachio on Monday. Custard on Tuesday. And then we have the industrial gelato. They start from industrial preparations. So not fresh milk, but maybe powdered milk, and so on.

JN: Bologna is much better for gelato than tourist cities like Rome, Venice, or Florence. Are there industrial producers even in Bologna?

MC: Yes, chains like Venchi and Grom.

JN: What shortcuts are they taking?

MC: Quick production processes. Short shelf life. The same as for panettone. They make it now [in November] to sell at Christmas. The big industries produce it in summer to sell for Christmas and the sell-by date is maybe March! So this means more preservatives, and so on.

JN: What sorts of ingredients would I find in industrial gelato that might surprise me?

MC: Palm oil, monoglycerides, artificial colors, and so on.

JN: You see the fake color especially in pistachio, right?

MC: Yes. Real pistachio is a brownish green, not a bright neon green. Real mint gelato is white, not green.

JN: What about thickeners, such as carob flour? What else belongs in gelato besides cream, milk, sugar, and eggs?

MC: Definitely carob flour is a good natural addition.

JN: For texture, creaminess?

MC: Definitely.

JN: Do you use it?

MC: Yes.

JN: What about a little bit of powdered milk, also to increase creaminess?

MC: Yes, it’s OK.

JN: One last technical question. In Rome there’s a famous natural gelateria called Fatamorgana.

MC: Yes, I know the owner.

JN: When they list their ingredients I never see carob flour, or powdered milk. It’s wonderful, but it’s not as creamy. It’s a bit icier. Yours seems creamier to me.

MC: Yes, Maria doesn’t use thickeners of any kind, which is a very good choice. However, for me a creamier gelato is better.

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JN: When someone wants to learn to make gelato in Italy, how do they learn? In school? By apprenticeship?

MC: In Bologna we have the most famous school for gelato in Italy, called Carpigiani. If you go to a school in a company that produces ingredients for gelato, they teach you how to make gelato using their ingredients. Carpigiani doesn’t produce ingredients but machines, so they’re less pushy on the ingredient list. In a good school, they give you a base. But then you need masters, good tasters, to help you improve. Carpigiani is like middle school. But then you need high school and then college!

JN: So if someone wanted to learn to make gelato, would you recommend they go to that sort of school?

MC: For a total beginner, school is necessary. But then practice with a master.

JN: And that’s how you learned?

MC: Yes. School at Carpigiani. And then I learned through my passion, not directly from a master. There’s a continuous evolution and improvement of the techniques, of the balancing. What we eat isn’t the same thing that we made even six months ago. We’re always looking for new ingredients and new processes as well.

IMG_3115JN: Not only is your gelato of the very best quality, but your shop is the most beautiful gelato shop I’ve ever been in. Why have you decided to make your gelateria so beautiful?

MC: Thank you. Everything comes from passion. My mother has a passion and has worked with antiquities and loves the Provençal style. Her furniture at home follows the same style. The house and the shop look alike! When you work in a place that reflects your style and passion, it’s easier and more enjoyable to do the work.

JN: When did the shop open?

MC: 2006.

JN: Are your parents involved in the production?

MC: My father, yes. He and I take care of the production and my mother takes care of the furniture, the style of the shop, and the packaging.

JN: How important is the type of machine for making quality gelato?

MC: There are two types of machines. The older type that we use requires the person making the gelato to determine when it is ready. Our machines are 35 years old. The newer type of machine automatically stops when it determines the gelato is ready. The older machine requires more judgment and observation.

JN: What is the correct temperature for storing and serving gelato?

MC: About -12 degrees Celsius [10 degrees Fahrenheit].

JN: That’s really important because in the US, ice cream is stored at well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and so it’s rock hard and too cold. The flavors are blunted. In what other countries have you tasted gelato?

MC: I have visited many places for gelato in other countries, but none that’s worth remembering!

JN: What’s wrong with it?

MC: The texture is wrong, not smooth. The flavor is not fresh.

JN: In Italy, unlike the US, there’s a separation between gelato and sorbetto. Gelato is made with milk and sugar, and sorbetto with water and sugar. And in Italy, unlike the US, fruits are almost always made into sorbetti, rather than gelati.  Why is this?

MC: Actually some do make gelato with fruit, but it is less common. It’s a choice of the artisan. In hot Italian summers, you are more likely to appreciate a sorbet with fruit instead of gelato with milk. This is the origin of the difference.

JN: What about eggs? Some gelato flavors in Italy are made with eggs to make it technically a custard. Other gelato flavors, like the famous fior di latte, are made without eggs. Why do some producers use eggs in some flavors and not others?

MC: Eggs produce more creaminess, which in some flavors is desirable, such as chocolate.

JN: Does most gelato contain eggs?

MC: About half and half, more or less.

JN: In your gelateria, how do you choose flavors? You have classics, of course, like fior di latte, nocciola, and pistachio, but you also have very interesting flavors unique to this shop, for example Speculoos.

MC: For Speculoos, I was inspired when I was traveling recently in France. I was given a coffee with Speculoos cookies, and I thought Why don’t we recreate it? First we had to learn to make the Speculoos cookies, and then the ice cream flavor. Another flavor, which we just finished, was inspired by a trip my parents took to Sicily. They met a pastry artisan who prepared a gelato with saffron, lemon, and almond. My parents asked permission to recreate that flavor here, and although we balanced the flavors differently, that was the inspiration.

JN: Speaking of Speculoos, a Bolognese acquaintance of mine made fun of me recently for ordering it. She said it was a flavor for girls!

MC: [Laughter] No, it’s not true! There’s no taste for women or men.

JN: Have you traveled much throughout Italy? Do you find good gelato to vary much from region to region?

MC: For me, in some places like Sicily it is sweeter, certainly. In some places, it is more creamy and smooth, in other places less so.

JN: Why is it sweeter in Sicily?

MC: Everything is sweeter in Sicily!

JN: How about other cities?

MC: In Rome, for example, at Fatamorgana as we mentioned, the gelato is less creamy.

JN: Which isn’t wrong… it’s just a different style.

MC: Exactly. It’s a preference of the artisan. Even in Bologna there is variety. Some places it is more creamy and smooth and gentle. Other places it is stronger.

JN: What are two or three gelaterie in Bologna that you really respect and that I should try?

MC: Galliera 49, just in front of Forno Brisa on Via Galliera. Also Sorbetteria Castiglione.

JN: How about Oggi, near Mercato dell’Herbe? They have interesting flavors and they also have the vertical, manual machines that you do.

MC: I’ve never been, but I will go.

JN: Besides gelato, what other products do you and your family make here and what would you like people to know about them?

MC: We also make chocolates, little chocolates, but only from October to Easter.

JN: It’s too hot in the summer?

MC: Yes.

JN: Too hot to eat or too hot to make?

MC: Both!

JN: Tell me about how the chocolate making you do is different from others.

MC: The difference is that our production is very small. We touch every chocolate, every single praline.

imageJN: For someone who is reading this who would like to make chocolates, or for someone who’s reading it who would like to improve the quality of their product, what are some of the most important factors to consider in making chocolates?

MC: The same as with gelato. The same as with everything! The quality of raw materials, and the balancing of the ingredients through good taste and judgment. And the freshness of everything.

JN: You also make panettone. Most Americans don’t know anything about panettone. What should Americans know about it and how is yours different?

MC: It’s very complicated! It’s one of the most complicated products of the pastry shop.

JN: It’s for Christmas, no?

MC: Yes. It takes three days to make panettone from beginning to end. We use only natural fermentation, no commercial yeast or beer yeast. The fermentation must be very slow. Industrial panettone is made in one day.

JN: Is fermentation slow because you put it in a cold place or because you feed it with just a little bit of starter?

MC: It’s low temperature and the quantity of the mother culture.

JN: How do you know that panettone is good? What about the flavor or texture makes it superior?

MC: You cut it in half and smell it! Every time we bake, we test one panettone for quality.

JN: What should it smell like?

MC: The perfume of vanilla, flour, sugar, honey, candied fruits.

JN: And when you eat it?

MC: It absolutely ought to be moist, not dry. Good panettone should remain moist like this for a long time, 25 days.

JN: And this is because of the mother starter?

MC: Yes, along with the quality of ingredients and the cooking. Sixty percent of the quality of the final result is given by the cooking. It took us two years of practice and testing to get it right.

imageJN: Did you grow up in Bologna?

MC: Yes.

JN: You’re a relatively young man, but you’ve seen Bologna change quite a bit in your life, I imagine. I’m told by my friends who live here that especially in the last five yars, the rate of change is accelerating and Bologna is becoming a tourist destination.

MC: Absolutely. At the moment the change is positive. For now. The risk is that the quality level goes down as tourism increases. We’ll see how the city reacts. I hope that the focus isn’t just on food. The food of Bologna is important, but there is so much more. Maybe not so much as in Florence or Venice or Rome, but still very much to enjoy here in Bologna besides food.

JN: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like to include?

MC: One thing I’d like your readers to know is that the main thing is the passion and the heart you put into what you do. This is main difference between industrial and artisan: that you take the will and effort to do things at the best level you can. The steady study. We never say that’s there’s 72 hours of work behind the panettone or that we went to bed at 5 in the morning. We never say these things, but that’s what makes the quality of our products high. On our day off we spend time thinking about and trying new flavors and new products. We’re studying marmalades. We’re studying brioche with ice cream. We remain curious. We try new things. I hope that my customers and your readers will feel the passion and heart that is the main ingredient in the gelato and other products we make.

JN: That’s wonderful, and I can’t think of a more fitting place to end. Thanks so much for all you do. Of all the gelaterie I know, yours is truly my favorite in all of Italy.

MC: Thank you.

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a conversation with Matheus Dela Rune

matheusMatheus Dela Rune is the head bartender at Barnum Cafe in Rome. Just off of Campo de’ Fiori, it’s my go-to aperitivo spot whenever I’m in the city. I got to know Matheus gradually over a few years of stopping in at Barnum, and the more I got to know him the more I learned that his youth belies his wisdom. In our conversation we talk about how he got interested in cocktails, why he isn’t crazy about the term “mixologist”, and why it’s important to mix a drink with love.

Justin Naylor: Thanks, Matheus, for making the time to chat. I know a lot people who love wine but not cocktails, or maybe they’re just intimidated by cocktails and cocktail culture. What would you say to such a person about why cocktails are worthy of getting to know? What do they offer that other drinks don’t?

Matheus Dela Rune: It’s a totally different world and it is big, so I understand why people might get intimidated. Let’s put it this way: the thing that cocktails offer that I love the most is the blend of cultures. Wine comes from regional grapes, one small part of the world. The flavor and heritage comes from the same ground. What we have in cocktails is a blend of history and cultures. Cocktails are a marriage of ingredients that could be worlds apart. Take for example a classic cocktail such as The Last Word. You are blending a London dry gin that originated in England, with green Chartreuse that was created in France by monks hundreds of years ago, a Maraschino Italian liqueur made from Croatian cherries, and Persian limes that grow in Persia (now Iran).

Now, for a person that might not know or care, it is just a green-hued drink in a glass. But what you really have is a whole world telling a story. That’s what I love about cocktails. You’re taking the heritage and flavors and literally the “spirit” of the country and blending it together to create a new experience. It’s really beautiful that way.

JN: That’s great. I know I got interested in cocktails when I realized just how precise a good cocktail is. It’s not like cooking, where a little more of this or a little more of that might not make a huge difference. In cocktails an extra drop of this or that can elevate a cocktail to a different level. That’s what excites me. Does that make sense to you?

Making a Spritz

MR: Yes. The more you improve as a bartender, you start developing a feeling for mixing. It’s like how Italians cook, right? It’s not about having the perfect ratio of ingredients, you have to feel it when you cook. Same with cocktails. You can’t just follow a recipe from a book or blog like an IKEA instruction. Not all citrus squeezed is the same acidity, not all syrups have the same sweetness. Most important is to taste as you’re working.

JN: Given the same quality ingredients, what distinguishes a successful cocktail from a less successful one?

MR: The love and thought you put into it. If a person makes a dish or cocktail with bad energy or lack of care, you’re going to taste it, even if subconsciously. Whereas if you put care and attention into it, it’s going to come out much better. When I make cocktails I like to go into the present. Meditation isn’t just sitting on the floor in silence. It’s simply being in the moment, the now. Whether it’s cooking, spending time with a loved one, looking at a painting, it’s about being aware. When I make a cocktail, everything disappears. All the details and gestures take precedence.

Kombucha AmericanoJN: What’s a good drink to start with if someone is apprehensive about the strength and intensity of cocktails?

MR: Maybe something like a whisky sour with egg white. There are some drinks where the alcohol doesn’t have such a strong impact on the palate, they are the dangerous ones. The drink that got me into the whole world of cocktails was the White Russian. In The Big Lebowski – still one of my favorite movies to this day – a character is drinking a White Russian, and I was curious to see what The Dude was drinking.

JN: How long ago was this, when you got interested?

MR: About seven years ago while I was living in London. I was 18.

JN: Barely legal!

MR: Barely legal. I was working in an Irish pub just so I could pay rent, studying photography in a University at the same time. I’ve always liked being creative.

JN: What other drinks interested you early on?

MR: Well, one time I really wanted to try a Martini. One of the most classic well known cocktails that I would see James Bond drinking in movies, but I didn’t know anything about cocktail culture. So I actually walked into the only cocktail place I knew, TGI Fridays in London, with my babyface, 18 years old…

JN: [Laughter] TGI Fridays? Really? That’s awesome!

MR: Yeah. I had researched the drink and asked for a gin martini, dry, with an olive. And the bartender just looked at me as like, What? I guess I looked like the kind of guest who’d order one of these frozen cocktails in a hurricane glass with creme de menthe and Oreo cookies.

He said, “You don’t look like the kind of guy who’d order a martini.”I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover! I didn’t have drinking experience back in the day and because it was TGI’s, the drink I got served was in one of those oversized martini glasses popular in the 90’s. Let’s just say by the time I got to the olive, I zig-zagged out of the bar!

JN: That’s a great story. Let’s shift and talk about ingredients a little bit. Obviously you have these big international brands but you also have the rise of small, boutique-scale producers. Tell me a little about your approach to ingredients.

MR: The golden rule that I was taught is that your cocktail will only be as good as the lowest quality ingredient you use. It’s true. I get inspired by Italian cuisine, which is few ingredients but of high quality. Same with cocktails. I think what defines a modern classic is a cocktail that can be made with not many things, but well made with quality products.

JN: How do you deal with these big, international brands like Campari that you can’t really avoid? There’s no micro producer, so all you have is this big, international brand. I love Campari, as you know, but I don’t like the fact that it’s made with fake red color, instead of the cochineal insect. Is that just the reality, or do you try to find alternatives?

MR: To an extent. Let’s just say, the problem is this: when you have a bar, you also have to think of making a profit. When you make deals with Campari Brand they give you competitive prices for products in their catalog, and Campari is a good liqueur at the end of the day. If I were to use a different type of apertivo amaro, they’re maybe better in flavor but they cost much more, so the price of the cocktail goes up. The problem with all these big brands is that they eat everything up. They buy people out, they crush competition (like they used to crush cochineal insects). They have a lot of money behind them.

JN: Are you familiar with any of the American micro-distilleries? Gin, small-batch vodkas – are those available in Italy?

MR: American micro-distilled spirits are hard to come by in Europe and when we do have them they cost quite a bit. I usually learn about them through reading blogs and when I do travel they are the first thing I want to get my hands on. There is a rise in micro distilleries here in Italy. As an example we have now a micro distillery in Amalfi which makes gin made from Amalfi lemons, known as the best lemons in the world. Small batch gin brands in general are an interesting subject. What’s interesting about it is the use of local ingredients – of course you get the juniper berries, which are the usual suspect. But then if you’re going to Australia they’re using botanicals found in the Australian landscape. Same with American products (Death’s Door Gin, for example, from Wisconsin). That’s how every gin shows off the flavor and feeling of a place of origin.

JN: I know the Italian craft beer movement is exploding. Is there a parallel with spirits?

MR: Yes, there is, although I would say at the moment that craft beer is much more larger. You also have to consider that we are the capital of wine, at the end of the day. Italy is known for wine production. We are not a country that produces many distillates. Grappa is the closest you’re going to get to a distillate. We do however have a huge range of vermouths, amaros and liqueurs, like for example the bergamot Italicus which gained much international popularity recently.

JN: Describe Barnum, the bar where you work now. What is its character, its vibe?

MR: Barnum is a fantastic place with so much positive energy. It is a spot where you feel at right home the second you step in. The thing I love about it the most is that it creates a sense of community for many people. It is a hub for locals from the neighbourhood, as well as a place for travellers from all across the world. It’s unlike any bar I’ve ever worked in, any bar I’ve ever been to. A place where you can have a breakfast like a croissant and a cappuccino, take out your laptop and work on something, have lunch and then come back at night to enjoy craft cocktails and have a fantastic dinner is rare. That’s something that’s not really that common in Rome, I would say. We’re one of the few places that does this type of business. We are the jack of all trades, and I think we do it well.

JN: I’m turned off by the fact that some bars can be pretentious places, and so people who aren’t very familiar with the culture of those places can feel intimidated or just not very welcome. Barnum is able to avoid that. How and why? And do you agree that some bars have that pretentious vibe?

MR: I think we hit the sweet spot because we offer craft cocktails made as well as you would find in a pretentious speakeasy without the whole hassle. The concept is to make these experiences accessible to everybody. As much as I do enjoy a speak easy style bar once in a while, I do feel like they are a bit of a novelty. You can’t go to one on a daily basis. Some of these bars are meant to feel exclusive and tickle your ego. Like you are the cool kid going to a place many people don’t know about, and drinking pre prohibition cocktails that others probably haven’t heard about… you know, the whole hipster vibe.

Barnum has an open door policy and there is no password needed or dress code to get in. Another reason why I think we stand out is the genuine approach to running a business. I think at the end of the day profit should be the effect of doing good business for the good of the people, rather than it being the main goal. If a place opens business focusing solely on money you can tell its insincerity straight away and that place does not feel warm. I think Barnum glows.

JN: What do you think about the trend in some places of the mystique of the mixologist: the curled moustache, the suspenders, these sorts of things. Is that just kind of fun, or is it a little silly?

MR: In a way, it is silly, because people jump on the bandwagon. I myself have always spoken out about being authentic and being yourself, not trying to be someone you’re not, just to fit in. The problem I have with bartenders these days is that they don’t create their own character. That’s a problem in society in general. People look for what’s hip, what’s cool right now. Same with bartending. A lot of bartenders, yes, the second they get into the bar world and they brand themselves as a mixologists, they get sleeves of pointless tattoos that they’re probably going to regret in a couple of years, grow a beard and wax their moustache. I think it also has to do with sex appeal. They want to be cool for the ladies and focus more on how they look when they shake a drink, instead of focusing on how and what they shake.

JN: Image instead of identity.

MR: Exactly.

JN: Give us a little sense of your background and where you’re from. You’ve lived many places in your 25 years.

MR: I was born in Krakow, Poland, in June 1993. I lived there for 10 years. My parents split up when I was about seven years old. I went to visit my father when I was ten years old, in London, and he asked me if I wanted to stay. It was difficult for my mother to let go of me, because I was a ten- year-old-boy, but she thought it was best for me. She said, “OK, you can stay in London, because I know you’re going to learn English, and with English you have a lot of possibilities in the world.” And I’m in Rome now!

JN: Maybe it wouldn’t have been possible if you hadn’t moved to London.

MR: I don’t think it would have, but who knows. I would definitely be more limited and perhaps lack inspiration to get out of my comfort bubble and explore. I think traveling is the best teacher in the world. University studies, they can teach you a specific subject, but when you travel you really learn about life. Knowledge is a great thing to have, but wisdom, well that comes from life lived.

So, I moved to London when I was ten years old. I lived with my dad and his partner until I was eighteen. I gave up university out of a thirst for adventure. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life, that’s the thing. I decided I didn’t want to pay a lot of money and go into debt as an eighteen- year-old boy, not knowing what I want to do. I know too many people who go to university, get into debt, and when they finish the degree they don’t want to do what they studied, and they change directions completely. I just wanted to explore the world and figure myself out first before I commit.

JN: What did you start studying?

MR: Photography and art. I didn’t like the pressure of having deadlines in a creative flowing subject. I wanted to be creative on my own terms, and do what I wanted to do. I thought to myself that the subjects I study are not that intense of requiring a paper in the future. If I wanted to be a heart surgeon, a degree would be quite useful. But I’m a creative type, and I think with years of work and passion, talent most importantly, I would be recognised regardless.

JN: Was London a good place to grow up as an adolescent?

MR: Yes and no, it can be a little bit rough. I feel much more safe in Rome. There’s a lot of muggings in London. I guess it made me tough. The good thing was being brought up in a multi international city, full of different cultures. A city that never sleeps and there is always something to do. There is a saying in London, that if you are ever bored of it, well, you are bored of life.

JN: As someone who has lived in Rome now for four years but didn’t grow up here, how do you characterize Rome? What have you learned from Rome? What do you like and dislike about Rome?

MR: Honestly, I love pretty much everything about Rome. The only dislike I have is a bit of the bureaucracy. I avoid being sick, and getting in trouble – let’s say, having an incident with my motorcycle – mainly because if you’re going to get into the bureaucratic side of things, it’s a living nightmare. You go to an office, it takes hours to get things done, and you probably don’t get things done. My golden rule is, on my day off I have ten things that I want to get done, and I know for a fact that I’m probably going to get two out of ten done because things are closed or things don’t work. Coming from London, where things function and you get things done, being in a country where things don’t function that well can be very frustrating.

But then, you learn to have the Roman mentality towards this, which is if you get upset about it, you’re going to live being upset, so you just let it be, take it easy, don’t stress, because you’re wasting a lot of your day running around and not getting anything done. Now let’s talk about the positives!

JN: What do you like best about Rome?

MR: I think it’s just a living theatre, a living museum, the city with the biggest amount of history. Roman people are very flamboyant. They’re very loud. Like I said, if you live in a country where everything is well organised and functions, when it comes to your business and the things you want in your career it can be great, but it can get boring because everything just works. When you live in Rome, you get to see the chaos of it all, theres always some drama. You’re always on the edge of your seat when it comes to this city; you feel alive.

JN: Obviously, cocktails have been around for a long time. Can you give us a brief overview of the history of cocktails? I’m especially interested in when the modern renaissance started.

MR: If you’re talking about mixing drinks in general, you can even go back to Ancient Roman times, when they were mixing Mulsum, a mead like wine macerated with herbs and blended with honey and water – that would be the first kind of mixology. But Jerry Thomas is the founding father of the bartending scene. That’s in the US, in the 19th century. He traveled around America, traveling all over the place. When prohibition hit in the 1920s, although it was bad for America, it benefitted the world quite a bit. The bartenders dispersed, and the best bartenders moved to South America, to Europe. People like Harry Craddock – he moved to London from New York, and ended up running the American bar in the Savoy Hotel in the Strand. He published a book, The Savoy Cocktail Book, which is regarded as one of the most important cocktail books in history.

JN: But at some point cocktails began to be neglected.

MR: Yes. The “dark age” of cocktails was from the ’70s to the ’90s. The times of appletinis, blue lagoons, neon cocktail cherries and sour mixes.

JN: What brought that to an end?

MR: Mr. Dale De Groff at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan changed the game. His manager gave him a book, it was the book of Jerry Thomas actually. He really got inspired by the history of cocktails and he was the first to move us out of the dark ages. He made a pre-prohibition cocktail menu for the first time, using fresh ingredients. He said, Why are we using sour mix? We can get fresh limes and lemons. We can make sugar syrup.

JN: This was in the late ’90s?

MR: Yes, but the renaissance really picked up steam a few years later in the early 2000s. It was places like The Pegu Club, Milk and Honey. Bartenders like Audrey Saunders (Dales pupil) and Sasha Petraske.

JN: I imagine that in addition to relearning old drinks and old techniques, this new breed of bartender also created new drinks?

MR: Yes, definitely.

JN: I mean, it’s sort of a different thing, isn’t it? Making a good negroni seems like a different thing to me than creating an entirely new drink. Does a mixologist have to be a creator to be good?

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MR: Well, let me first say something about the terms mixologist and bartender. Some people think of a bartender as someone who just pours pints but doesn’t know what he’s doing while a mixologists makes craft cocktails. It makes sense in a way, but it isn’t right. I mean a guy who makes you a rum and Coke shouldn’t be in the same class as someone who’s picking wild herbs for a drink he’s created based on the study of a hundred years of history.

JN: [Laughter]

MR: So I understand that divide. But the genuine, authentic way to look at it is that a mixologist is creating new drinks and experimenting with new syrups, and so on. But as soon as that person steps behind the bar and begins to make drinks for people, he or she is a bartender. Although I am a mixologist – it’s definitely part of my work – first and foremost I’m a bartender.

JN: Is that distinction commonly held, or is it just a personal understanding?

MR: Personal, but I genuinely think that’s the authentic way of looking at it.

JN: Would some people resent the term bartender?

MR: Some people, like me, resent the term mixologist, because of the ego that often goes with it. The word mixologist has been around a very long time, so it’s not a new word. But the problem I have is the ego-trip of certain bartenders, who do it less out of genuine passion and more out of the cool aspect. It can be pretentious, but of course it always depends on the type of person you are. There are people out there who are barely bartenders and they say, Oh, I’m a mixologist. Come on.

JN: [Laughter] Yeah. To change the subject a little, what are some of the challenges you face in your work? Either you personally or bartenders generally?

MR: I’d say there are two: people and alcohol. Inside a bar you have people from all walks of life, not all of whom are perfectly mannered, let’s just say. You meet people who are self-indulgent and rude. But this is why I love my job, because I’m forced to interact with someone like that, who I might just avoid outside. You can go about it two ways. You can learn from it and learn to be understanding, and compassionate, and caring, and let hospitality teach you to be a good person. Or you can be frustrated and rude, which can occur in some bars. You can’t fight fire with fire!

JN: It seems to me you care as much about that hospitality aspect of your job as you do about the drinks.

MR: Absolutely. It’s an art form to create a drink, but it’s also an art form to create an atmosphere. A person goes into a bar and it’s not just about the drink they’re drinking. It’s about all the senses. It’s the music, the smell of the drink, the texture of the glass, the ambiance, the people who surround you. It’s everything. I see myself as a kind of conductor of the place. I’m there to create a great atmosphere for everybody. It’s hard because people come into a business and have different needs and expectations, and that’s why a great bartender or server can change character and cater to everyone in different ways. It’s a challenge, but it’s a fantastic challenge.

JN: And the other big problem you mentioned is alcohol.

MR: Bartenders, especially when they’re young and working in a great atmosphere end up drinking a lot. I currently have the freedom to drink whatever I want behind the bar because I have a relationship of trust with my boss. I’m not gonna get wasted because I have a love for my craft. I’m there for my customers, and I can’t take care of them properly if I’m drunk.

JN: But not everyone’s so responsible.

MR: Not everyone’s responsible. Alcohol is a big issue in our industry. So many people have problems with alcoholism. Maybe I have a problem with alcohol in some ways. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m drinking nearly every single day. Even having one drink every day raises some questions. Maybe I have an aperitivo at the beginning of my shift just to be on the same level as the guests, and later have a shot of mezcal with some friends who stop by the bar. Maybe I have a beer at the end of the shift because I’m exhausted and it relaxes me as I close down my station.
 It is very difficult not drinking alcohol when you are surrounded by it and by people drinking. I remember before I started in the industry I’d have a drink once a week, take a beer with some friends on the weekend. Now it’s the opposite. It’s exciting not to drink. I have two days off a week and try not to drink. Alcohol can be a slippery slope at work. Let’s say the bar is slow and you’re bored. You make a drink with your bartender buddy. Let’s say it’s busy and you’re so stressed out. You make yourself a drink. You’re working on creating a new drink. You have to drink it. It’s a trap.

JN: As a young man in your twenties, you have a lot of life ahead of you. What’s next?

MR: I’m still very curious and super thirsty for adventure. I love Rome but I do love to travel, so I would like to live in another country someday. I’m a nomad just like my father. For sure my next step would be to work in one of the best cocktail bars in the world. I hope to be adopted so to speak! I love what I do, and because I want to keep improving I want to be surrounded by the best. So I think that’s my next step.

JN: You’re already at a pretty high level, though.

MR: The second you think you know everything is the moment you stop learning. The best bartenders in the world are the humblest people. They’re not like I’m a mixologist, check me out. None of that.

JN: [Laughter]

MR: Maybe bartending will fall out of fashion again. But I don’t mind. I’m sticking to it. Maybe I can’t do the late nights forever, but there are lots of possibilities. One of my dreams and a possibility would be to spend a few more years mastering the craft and then return to my home, Krakow, and opening one of the best cocktail bars in the country. I would love to go back and open an iconic, small, intimate cocktail bar in the historic centre of Krakow and just make it amazing. Krakow is such a beautiful city.

JN: Maybe on that beautiful note we ought to stop. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk today and for your excellent work at Barnum Cafe.

MR: My pleasure.

Bottigliera

spaghetti with tomatoes, garlic, and basil

The first pasta sauce I ever cooked from scratch was one with tomatoes, garlic, and basil from Marcella Hazan’s benchmark book: The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I picked it because it was so familiar. It’s the kind of thing on every Italian-American restaurant menu. And I had had more than one meal at Romano’s Macaroni Grill. This sauce was what I thought Italian cooking was. For many Americans, it is the quintessential pasta sauce. It’s what I cooked for my college professor who came to dine with me and my then-girlfriend (the same professor who later tried to seduce said girlfriend. True story… but one for a different post).

The second sauce I ever cooked from scratch was another from Marcella: tomatoes with butter and onion. This one completely inverted the previous approach. Instead of the assertive garlic we had mellow onion. In place of the familiar duo of tomato and olive oil we had the more luxurious combo of tomatoes and butter. In place of the heady aroma of basil we had the rich complexity of parmigiano-reggiano. I took a bite and stopped cold. I can’t say it was love at first bite. It was so contrary in flavor and character to everything I thought I knew about Italian cooking, that I didn’t know what to make of it. Fortunately, I persevered. That sauce became beloved, as it has for so many countless others. It was the beginning of my true exploration of the cooking of Italy, so varied, so inexhaustible, and so different from Italian cooking in the US.

Over time perhaps I became a little snooty. Like the half-educated ass who reacts to the overuse of tomato by eliminating the tomato completely from his “Northern Italian” cooking, I began to look down upon that first sauce I had made, as if Italy were divided neatly into a “North” and “South” instead of a myriad of rich, diverse regions. Even though I had learned it from Marcella, the sauce with tomatoes, garlic, and basil came to represent Italian-American cooking to me. The Macaroni Grill. The Olive Garden. I stopped making it. I moved on to spaghetti alla carbonara, fresh pastas with butter-based sauces, true Bolognese lasagne made with spinach egg pasta but with neither ricotta nor mozzarella.

This was an important education. But it obscured the fact that pasta with tomatoes, garlic, and basil is truly Italian too, even if the Americanized version of it is a pale shadow of its true Italian nature. Marcella wrote that it’s one of countless Roman sauces called “alla carrettiera” (wagon-style), named for the wagons which brought down wine and produce to the city from the surrounding hillsides. It is improvisational and seasonal, as the best Italian cooking is. You cook not with recipes but with whatever looks best at market (or in the garden) on a given day.

What brought me back to the sauce in recent years was access to fresh, meaty tomatoes without seeds or juice. I love high-quality canned tomatoes and use them liberally, but on certain occasions a fresh tomato creates a subtly different flavor, color, and texture. This is one of those times. Many think that only plum tomatoes or “sauce tomatoes” are good for cooking, but the variety I’m growing this year is a large, ox-heart variety called Cauralina. It has firm flesh that nonetheless breaks down beautifully into the most succulent sauce. It’s inspiring to cook with.

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Marcella gives the sauce a pretty long cook time, about 25 minutes, until the tomatoes are highly concentrated. She also uses an abundant amount of garlic (5 cloves), which is poached with the tomatoes but never browned for a more mild flavor. But one of the great joys of cooking is adapting a recipe to suit one’s style and personality. For me, the tomatoes should cook briefly, until breaking down but with still-recognizable pieces. It should be clear it was made with a fresh tomato.

This sauce represents the kind of cooking which is resistant to recipe writing. There are a dozen small details essential for the best result which just can’t be written down without excessive tediousness. The heat needs to be brisk but not so brisk that the tomatoes burn or become too dry. Sometimes a touch of water needs to be added to keep the sauce moist. Too much water dilutes the flavor and keeps the sauce from clinging properly to the pasta. The sauce needs to be salted correctly. But the salting needs to be done keeping in mind the amount of sauce you plan to dress the pasta with (the more moderate the dressing, the saltier the sauce should be). All of these decisions require observation and experience to draw on. I make the sauce much better today than I did 20 years ago. You would make it better cooking side by side with an experienced cook than reading a recipe (even this one!). Still, one must begin somewhere. This sauce is where I began, and it’s a sauce that I’m still happy to return to. When made well, there is no sauce which gives me greater pleasure.

Spaghetti with Tomatoes, Garlic & Basil (For two people)

Begin by bringing four quarts of well-salted water to a boil (1 to 2 tablespoons depending on the strength of the salt). Add about 100 grams of high-quality imported spaghetti.

In a medium saucepan, lightly saute some chopped or sliced garlic in a generous bit of high-quality olive oil until aromatic and very lightly colored. Add about a half pound of chopped, meaty fresh tomatoes from your garden or a good farmers market. Don’t bother peeling them or removing seeds, etc. Season with salt, ¼ to ½ teaspoon depending on the strength of the salt. Add freshly ground black pepper or dried hot pepper as you prefer.

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Cook over lively heat for just a couple minutes until the tomatoes begin to break down. Add a little water here and there to keep everything moist. Add a few basil leaves if you like, keeping in mind that cooking reduces the aroma of basil significantly. When the sauce is mostly broken down with just a piece of tomato visible here and there, it is ready. Remove from the heat and check for salt. Keep in mind that the less sauce you use, the saltier the sauce should be.

When the pasta is ready it, return the sauce to lively heat and toss with the pasta with the sauce in the pan. Plate and garnish with fresh basil (whole leaves or chopped) and a drizzle of highest-quality olive oil.

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pasta with fennel and tomatoes

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Fennel can be a tough sell for people. Familiar only with the strong anise flavor of raw fennel, many people are unfamiliar with the way cooking mellows its flavor and makes it more luxurious. It’s a staple of my cooking classes in Italy, and I’ve never known anyone to not be won over.

In this preparation its flavor is paired with scallions and fresh tomatoes. By all means, substitute onions or leeks as necessary, and high-quality canned tomatoes are fine too. Just be sure to include as much hot pepper as you can stand.

Pasta with Fennel and Tomatoes (Serves 2)

Begin by chopping about a 1/4 cup of scallions or onions or leeks and gently sauté with a generous bit of high-quality olive oil for a minute or two until some aroma is released.

Add about a cup of fennel, diced or in slivers as you prefer. Season with salt and saute at a lively clip until the fennel is lightly browned, about 5 minutes or so.

Add about a cup of tomatoes, fresh or canned, and season with tomatoes with salt and hot pepper, as much as you can stand. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes or so until the tomatoes are reduced and saucy, adding water as necessary if the pan is too dry.

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Meanwhile, cook about 100 grams pasta until al dente in a pot of properly salted water (1 to 2 tablespoons per 4 quarts). Drain and toss with the sauce quickly in the pan, and serve garnished with a little bit of fennel fronds.

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a conversation with Alessandro Galtieri

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alessandro

Alessandro Galtieri and his wife Cristina are the proprietors of the coffee bar Aroma, in Bologna. In addition to operating Aroma, Alessandro travels throughout Italy and Europe training baristas in proper coffeemaking technique. He also competes in national and international coffee competitions, most recently winning Gold at the Italian Brewers’ Cup in Rimini in January. In April, he will represent Italy at the World Coffee Championship in Boston.

In the interview, Alessandro and I discuss what makes espresso unique among brewing methods, why it’s OK to have cappuccino in the afternoon, and why not all coffee in Italy is of a high quality.

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JN: Alessandro, let’s start with espresso, what in Italy is just called caffè [coffee]. Everyone has heard of espresso, but many in America have never tried it, or if they have, it’s been bad. Of all the different ways to produce coffee in a cup, what is distinctive about espresso?

AG: The best way to describe espresso is that it is short, intense, a quick recharge. Filtered coffee by contrast is long, smooth, and relaxing. I say with my students that espresso is an .mp3: concentrated, compact. Filtered coffee is an LP. Espresso is the principal way in Italy to have coffee outside of the home. Especially in the morning, Italians don’t have satisfaction if you prepare coffee in a different way. But often they drink bad espresso, even in Italy. A lot of home coffee drunk in Italy is very bad as well, because people pretend to know how to prepare coffee, like it’s a natural-born ability, but they don’t know really how to treat coffee in the best way. They try to have a kind of magic!

JN: Espresso is the most expensive way to make coffee, because the equipment is so expensive. It’s such a technical, precise operation: the pressure has to be perfect, the grinding has to be perfect, the temperature has to be perfect. There’s nothing quite as technical as the espresso machine, and the result in the cup, you describe as an .mp3, compact. I’ve sometimes used the word concentrated, thinking of a raisin instead of a grape, something like this. What should a well-made shot of espresso look like in the cup, what should it taste like when you drink it, what should its texture be like?

AG: I look for balance. So, I search for sweetness – natural sweetness, not added sugar – I try to avoid bitterness, and I search for an interesting acidity in each coffee I can produce.

JNFor those who don’t know espresso well, tell us about crema, what is is and why it’s important and unique to espresso.

AG: Crema is a creamy emulsion – the oil and protein, the carbon dioxide of the coffee – extracted during the brewing of espresso. In espresso brewing, here is a great amount of energy on a little pack of coffee, and this brews a lot of the solubles inside the espresso. So it’s very concentrated and very strong.

JN: Does crema affect the flavor or only the texture of it?

AG: Yes, it does, because carbon dioxide is a little bitter. Some coffee geeks throw away crema when they drink espresso.

JNThat seems crazy, because for many it is the best part – at least, the texture of it.

AG: The texture, yes, but not the flavor.

JN: That’s interesting. Espresso is also the foundation of other drinks that are very famous throughout the world. Everyone knows about a cappuccino, but not everyone knows about a macchiato. In America, at Starbucks, a macchiato is totally different from a macchiato in Italy. Can you tell us about some common drinks one would order at a bar in Italy?

AG: It’s very simple. The list is short: espresso, cappuccino, latte macchiato. There is not much more than this, because people ask for variations. They don’t say, “Flat white.” They don’t give it a name. They say, “One cappuccino with a little bit of foam and two shots.”

JNSo, they don’t give it a name, but they tell you the way they want it?

AG: Because people often go to the same bar, they say, “Give me mine,” and you have to know.

JNIn Italy, how do you know that you’ve been served a well-made cappuccino? The American version is often super-sized and served too hot with poorly-frothed milk. What makes a well-made cappuccino, in your opinion?

AG: Of course, the size of the cup has to be not so big; let’s say, about 180-200 milliliters, not more, with one shot of espresso. The milk has to be foamed well. There is a technical way to foam milk in order to make tiny, tiny bubbles [called micro-foam] that give a silky, rich sensation of cream, not milk. You can drink a milk beverage that seems to have cream, but has only milk, and the fat is much lower. You can have high satisfaction with low calories.

JN: Is it true that Italians consider cappuccino only a drink for the morning? Is it really a faux pas to order a cappuccino after lunch?

AG: No, no. It’s true that Italians drink cappuccino more often in the morning than in the afternoon, but it’s not a rule. It’s not true that Italians don’t drink cappuccino after lunch. But maybe not with lunch or just after. They do not consider it as a dessert.

JN: So, if an American wants a cappuccino in the afternoon, it’s OK? They shouldn’t feel embarrassed?

AG: Absolutely not! For breakfast, and for what we call merenda, a snack in the afternoon, it’s OK. Absolutely OK.

JN: Let’s talk about macchiato. So, a macchiato is a shot of espresso with just a little frothed milk.

AG: Yes. You have to froth the milk in the same way as the cappuccino, but using a super little quantity of fresh milk. No recycled milk! Fresh milk for the best taste.

JN: How much? I see various styles. Some really just have a drop. Others are maybe 50/50.

AG: There is not a classified way to make coffee drinks, in general. So, it’s difficult to say this is right, or this is wrong. But my vision is that, given the amount of espresso, you have to have half milk and half foam. If you can, as a barista, make a good pattern inside your cup, that’s a good way to present, for cappuccino and macchiato. Not only latte art, but a pleasing silky, shining crown of crema.

JN: You mentioned both milk and foam. In your pitcher of milk, you feel like there are both, it’s not homogeneous all whole way down?

AG: Yes, you have to manage to have tiny, tiny bubbles, and you have to make a motion before, to pour the milk. In this way, foam and liquid milk melt together, so you can have that sensation. Because if you wait, of course the foam goes up and the liquid goes down.

JN: When you pour it, the milk and the foam should all be the same.

AG: Not perfectly the same, but yes.

JN: I see. You mentioned earlier the “flat white.” It’s interesting, because in the US where most milk is frothed badly, the flat white came along. I had to laugh, because it seemed like a flat white is just a cappuccino made properly.

AG: OK! [Laughter]

JNIt’s like they finally figured out how to froth milk right, and they gave it a new name! But how do you think of the term? I was surprised to hear you use and embrace that term. How is it different from a properly-made cappuccino?

AG: I love something new, I like to promote different ways to expand my work for many years. It’s very interesting that other countries have invented some recipes different from the one that we drink generally in Italy. I’m pleased to propose to my customers – foreigners, but even for Italians – why don’t you try this? For me in a flat white there’s two shots, not one shot; there is a lower quantity of milk, so it’s stronger in taste, and there is a little quantity of foam, so there is more liquid. It’s a different way. So, why not?

JNLet’s talk now about grinding. It’s such an important part of espresso.

AG: It’s difficult to understand the importance of the grind, because we can’t see it. The grind for espresso is so small, we can’t see how it’s made. But if you grind the same coffee with different grinders and you use a microscope, you can see that it’s completely different.

JN: And you mean different grinders of different quality? You don’t mean two grinders of the same quality?

AG: Even with two grinders of the same quality, there are differences. It’s difficult to cut a coffee bean! It’s not like cutting vegetables or meat. You know how chefs are interested in knives.

JN: That’s right, knives are very important to chefs.

AG: Very important. The grinder is very important for a barista, because the grind size, the particle distributions, the shape of the grind, the dimensions of the particle — all give differences.

JNIf someone loves coffee enough to buy a machine at home, and they’re willing to spend 1,000 or 2,000 Euro on a small machine, they need to spend that same amount of money on their grinder, pretty much.

AG: Yes, almost. You have to spend at least 600 or 700 Euro for a good electrical grinder.

JNAnd how about dosing? One difference in America is that baristas have increased the dose or amount of coffee per shot. The traditional dosing in Italy for two shots is 14 grams, is that right?

AG: Yes.

JN: In America, they started doing 18 grams, even 21 grams, and then turning that into a single ristretto shot. Now, instead of having 7 grams in a shot, you could have 20 grams or more. You can imagine the result of that. To me, it’s not balanced.

AG: It depends. Italians produced this recipe – 7 grams for 25 ml – because they have the same blend. All the roasters made more or less the same blend. So, it’s right for them. That recipe is quite good for most of the espresso blends in Italy, but not for other roasts. So, when you want to prepare a single origin, specialty coffee — very selective, light-roasted, very soluble — and you want a thick mouthfeel, you have to add more coffee, a higher dose.

JN: OK, so that’s how it came about, through different types of beans and different ways of roasting?

AG: That’s one reason. The other reason is the geometry of the filter. Italians used to use the single basket, but the single basket is wrong, it’s not the proper geometry. You can see, it tips. So, when you press with nine bars and 93 degrees on a little cake of coffee, you crush it in this one.

JNSo, you never use the single basket.

AG: I do, because I’ve been a barista for many years.

JNYou can do it, but it’s harder.

AG: But not for coffee. For Italian-style coffee.

JNSo how do you dose?

AG: For me the ratio generally is 50 percent, so if you use 14 grams of coffee, you have 28 grams of liquid. Generally speaking.

JN: One important difference about espresso in Italy is that often they are blends of arabica and robusta beans. In America, robusta has developed a bad reputation among small, artisan roasters. Why has robusta traditionally been included in Italian blends, and is it a good thing?

AG: Robusta is important in the traditional Italian blends because we want a strong and thick preparation. Espresso has to be strong and thick, and robusta gives that body, it gives that thickness and a thick crema. We are used to adding sugar, so we don’t care if espresso is a little bit bitter, because we balance that bitterness with a little bit of sugar.

JN: What percentage of Italians add sugar to their espresso?

AG: Eighty percent, I think, because sugar adds body. So, you have a greater amount of body inside a thick and strong espresso.

JN: Does it make you sad to see your customers adding sugar to your coffee at the bar?

AG: Yes. [Laughter]

JN: Because it shouldn’t need it! And they don’t even taste it first, they just add sugar.

AG: It’s a habit.

JNSo, the robusta is providing body, more crema…

AG: And, a bitter taste that some people do like.

JNObviously, it’s good to have different flavors. When you drink espresso, do you prefer blends with robusta, or 100% arabica?

AG: I prefer arabica, specialty coffee – I search for fruity and citrus-like flavors.

JNSo you use blends with robusta to meet people’s expectations, but you prefer arabica?

AG: Yes, I think that my work is to give quality, not say to my customers what is good or what is not good. They have to decide. I give quality in any case.

JN: But you wouldn’t encourage American roasters to start including robusta in their blends.

AG: I think it’s the future, actually. Maybe not soon, but I think that robusta will be included, because robusta is less rich, of course, than arabica, but the bad taste of robusta is often because it doesn’t have the same attention given to it, as arabica.

JNSo, it’s usually bad because they’re not paying attention to it, but if people are doing it well, it could be just as good as arabica. Different, but just as good?

AG: Yes. It’s the same as with wine and beer; if you’re eating lobster, maybe you appreciate champagne. But if you’re having a crostino, maybe you want Barbera, not champagne.

JNIt’s always good to have different options, different flavors.

AG: The same man can go to the 3-star restaurant and to McDonalds and appreciate both.

JN: For any roasters reading this, when you blend robusta and arabica, what kind of ratios are we talking about, in traditional Italian blends?

AG: Generally, 80% arabica and 20% robusta.

JN: I’ve had 100% robusta shots that taste quite different, but which are wonderful, so it’s possible even to have 100% robusta of high quality?

AG: Yes, definitely. Ten years ago, in the books of chocolate masters, it was written that it was impossible to have 100% chocolate that tastes good. It’s not true! You can have 100% and have it taste good.

JN: So, we’ve talked about ways espresso and roasting are different in America. Let’s talk about Italy now, because many Americans who visit Italy wrongly think that everything is perfect. Of course, when you’re on vacation, everything tastes good. But it’s not true!

AG: Yes!

JN: But people say things like, “I’ve never had a bad meal in Italy,” and “I’ve never had a bad coffee in Italy.” It’s not true. You’ve told us how you’re working here; tell us about how your work is different from other bars in Italy. You mentioned earlier that many Italian baristas don’t have much training. They think they can do it just because they’re Italian. What are other bars doing that makes you sad?

AG: They don’t give value to coffee, sadly. The bar generally has 30% of their work making espresso, because they’re also selling panini, aperitivi, and so on. 30% is a great amount of your cash, so it’s as important as the other part of your work. So, I don’t know why, but the quality of the espresso goes down, and generally when a new guy comes in and he doesn’t know how to do the work, they ask him, “What do you know?” and he answers, “Nothing,” and they say, “OK, go to the machine.” The perfect opposite of the other country: there, you can’t touch the machine, and you are scared. Of course, because the machine costs a lot of money, and people come into your caffetteria because there is good coffee. They might have a cake or something else, but they come because there is good coffee. In Italy, often it’s not so. They say, “What does it take to make an espresso? Anyone can make an espresso, it’s not important.” It’s not true, it’s not proper. It’s a pity, in a country so valued, as you said, for the quality of the food and beverages. It’s a pity. We are changing this.

JN: I understand what you’re saying, and I agree with it about Italian bars. It’s just so much worse in other countries though. Even “bad” espresso in Italy is better than it is in most other countries. That’s interesting too.

AG: Yes, this is interesting. It’s because we grew up with espresso. In our mind, there are some proportions – you know that there has to be that amount of water in the cup, you know that there has to be that amount of coffee in the basket. You know because you grew up with espresso. But it’s not a real knowledge; it’s an instinct.

JN: Speaking of being trained, something I see people in Italy tamp very firmly; other times they barely touch it. I’m curious what your attitude is about tamping. How important is it?

AG: Tamping is not as important as people pretend. But it is important, because during the tamping you take out a variable: the air pockets in the grind – the air particles that are inside the basket in a confused way. So, you have to compact the coffee. To do that, you use the tamper that has to properly formed for the basket – not too small, as often is used. It has to fit correctly, to get all the air out. This is the work of the tamper. You have to be consistent, to avoid injury of your hand if you’re doing it professionally all day.

JN: And I guess we should have mentioned that the reason you need to spend 1,000 or 2,000 Euros on a grinder is so that the particles are all exactly the same size. That’s one reason the grinder is so important.

AG: It depends on the brewing method. For espresso, no. For espresso, it’s better when there are different particle sizes.

JNReally? That surprises me so much. Not identical?

AG: No, not identical. So, some are very fine and some less so.

JN: And a good grinder does that better than a cheap grinder.

AG: Even very expensive grinders are not right for espresso. It depends, some very expensive grinders do not give the right particle distribution.

JNSo, like buying a car, you probably shouldn’t buy a grinder you haven’t tested with your machine.

AG: Yes, it has to fit well with your machine.

JNAnd machines vary, too, they have their own personalities?

AG: Yes, of course.

JN: The brand of machine you have now, is it new or have you used it for your whole career?

AG: Yes, I have changed, of course. This kind of machine was invented in 2000. Before, there were only E-61 type, so I used that kind then.

JNHave you ever used a machine that’s totally manual, with a hand pull?

AG: No. I do like it, but you can’t manage the temperature so well.

JNSo, of the other coffee bars in Italy, some of them probably aren’t even cleaning their machines very well, or their portafilters.

AG: No, they think it’s bad. Sadly we have lots of baristas think that if you clean the machine, the coffee is bad.

JN: The opposite of what’s true! Do you find the quality of the coffee is even dependent on different types of baskets?

AG: It is not simply a basket; it is an extraction chamber, not only a basket. So, the shape, the number of the holes, the distance between one and another, the shape of the holes, everything is important.

JN: Let’s move on to a topic of interest to Americans visiting Italy: etiquette at a coffee bar. What should Americans who have never been in an Italian coffee bar know about what to do? In some bars, you pay first and then bring your receipt to the barista; in other bars, you order first and then pay. People don’t know whether they should stand at the bar or sit down. What advice do you have?

AG: As with the issue of the recipe, generally you don’t find a menu, because people ask for the same things and they ask for different recipes personally made. The Italian espresso bar has developed in a peculiar way. Working-class people made the espresso bar. It’s a place where workers go to meet someone, to socialize. The Italian espresso bar was born during the Industrial Revolution in Italy, that started after the Second World War. A lot of people from the country went to the city to find work. They lost all their culture, all the people they knew, and they had no money. So, what do we do when we don’t work? We go to the bar, and we can socialize with the small cost of one espresso. Then comes gambling on soccer, then the TV, everyone goes to the bar to watch TV.

JNWhich is ironic, because in the US, sometimes working-class people think that people who go to espresso bars are snobs. They prefer to have a 12-ounce cup of American coffee.

AG: Yes, it is a new way to drink coffee for Americans. I think [former Starbucks CEO Howard] Schultz had a great idea to promote espresso for Americans, because espresso is a cool thing. It’s not the coffee that you’re in the habit of drinking, but it’s something more cool. The same, maybe, will be in Italy for pour-over.

JN: Speaking of pour-over, your bar is one of the few here where one can order a pour-over. When did you begin making pour-over filter coffee?

AG: Two or three years ago. I started to appreciate it.

JN: Do you make it for yourself?

AG: I’m afraid to say that, [Laughter] but I drink a lot of filtered coffee, more than espresso!

pour over

JN: Earlier you compared it to an LP, whereas espresso is an .mp3.

AG: Yes. I like this way very much to prepare coffee. Of course, when you prepare pour-over coffee, you use specialty coffee, not commercial coffee. It’s very interesting to find the way, manually, to exalt the pleasant characteristics that are inside the coffee. It’s difficult and challenging.

JNIn addition to the regular espresso drinks that every bar makes, you also make these lovely drinks which are sort of like dessert coffees. There’s one with zabaglione, one with chocolate, and one with fior di latte cream. Tell us a little about where the idea came from to make those.

zabaione

AG: We started to have a specialization in coffee when in Italy there was no one doing it. We had to imagine a way. We were pioneers.

JN: How long ago was this?

AG: We started in 1987 to make single-origin coffees, and in 2001 we started with this place. When we started, we had only espresso. Not only espresso, but only coffee. We didn’t make sandwiches, alcohol, nothing. And we threw away sugar! We were very hard on our customers. They were interested, but they didn’t know what we were doing. So, to maintain a link with our customers, we started to make something gorgeous, some concoction with our product, espresso. We started to think about a list of recipes. We have reduced our offerings a lot, but during the years we’ve had many recipes, dessert coffees.

JN: You mentioned having this shop for 18 years. Are you from Bologna?

AG: Yes.

JNSo, you’ve seen Bologna change in your lifetime, especially the past few years. I understand that tourism is really beginning to get stronger. As a resident of Bologna and an owner of a coffee bar, how do you feel about the changes? Is it good so far, or is it something you worry about, Bologna becoming like Florence or Venice?

AG: I’m afraid of that, of course, but we have the possibility to build a better, different way of tourism. Bologna is closed, it’s a medieval city, and it has a lot to offer in terms of culture, not only food culture. Of course, I’m pleased; I am representative of the food culture, so I’m lucky. There are a lot of non-food artisans who are in trouble now because people only want to eat and drink. This is a pity for other artisans. I see that often tourists think only about food. It’s a pity, because Bologna can offer a lot in terms of culture.

JNWhat would you recommend to a tourist visiting Bologna for the first time, in terms of how long to stay and how to organize their visit?

AG: Bologna is a small town, so you don’t need too many days to visit it. I suggest to visit not only the church [Basilica of San Petronio], but also the museums that are very, very good; the archaeological museum; the medieval museum; the music museum; the University museum is very interesting. Between one meal and the next, I suggest that. It’s good to go up the towers, too, but not only that.

JNYour shop is close to the Piazza Maggiore, but not too close. Do many tourists find you? Have your experiences been with tourists been positive?

AG: Very, very positive. I want only tourists!

JNMaybe they appreciate it better than the Bolognesi. [Laughter]

AG: It’s much easier with tourists for my kind of offerings. Very much easier, and they are very much more happy. For me, it’s a real pleasure to serve them.

JN: Finally, you mentioned being a lover of the food of Bologna. People shouldn’t come and only eat, but of course eating is an important part of visiting Bologna. Having grown up in Bologna and seen the city for your whole life, what is the quality of the Bolognese restaurants these days? Is the quality very high, or is it declining?

AG: It was worse in the past. Maybe now with all this tourism, it’s getting better. There are many people in the past who started doing something thinking only about money. Now they want to give quality, not just make more money. When there wasn’t tourism, only people coming for big fairs and conventions, the quality was worse.

JNWhat are some places where you enjoy eating?

AG: I like Osteria Bartolini very much because of their fresh fish daily from Riviera Romagnola (80-90 km from Bologna), Osteria Bottega for tagliatelle, tortellini and salumi, and Ristorante Marconi (30 car min. out of Bologna) a one-star Michelin restaurant, when I want to cuddle myself much more!

JN: I’d love to talk all afternoon, but unfortunately we should probably stop there. Thanks again!

AG: My pleasure.

cristina