Eurochocolate: Italy’s biggest chocolate festival

Italy may not be synonymous with chocolate in the way that Switzerland is, but it does produce one of the world’s most recognizable brands: Perugina Baci. Wrapped in silver foil dotted with blue stars and lined with a love note, the chocolate and hazelnut morsels known as Baci are the fortune cookies of the chocolate world.

Perugina, the company that manufactures Baci and a handful of other chocolate brands, is named after and based in Perugia, capital of the Italian region of Umbria and the home of Italy’s biggest chocolate festival: Eurochocolate. Each October, more than 100 artisan chocolatiers and European chocolate companies, such as Lindt, Milka, and Toblerone, set up shop along Corso Vannucci, Perugia’s main street, for nine days of chocolate tasting, cooking demonstrations, and clever exhibitions and activities centered around chocolate. For example, with each edition Eurochocolate features sculptures carved from blocks of cacao, ranging from medieval statues to chocolate representations of Italy’s major landmarks. During Eurochocolate, visitors can sign up for all-chocolate spa days or visit participating local restaurants to indulge in entire meals made from chocolate.

Eurochocolate 2011 begins on October 14 and runs through October 23. If you’re unable to catch Eurochocolate in Perugia, both Rome and Turin present their own Eurochocolate festivals at other times of the year.

Photo © Eurochocolate Perugia

Video of the Day: Eating live octopus

We’ve already discussed how much some people enjoy photographing their food. What happens, however, when your food is moving? Still images can’t capture the action of live animals squirming on your plate. Sound strange? Well, it happens. In Korean restaurants around the world, you can order live octopus. The tentacles move. The head throbs. The suction cups stick to your mouth. Weird? Sure. Delicious? Well, you know what they say: taste in the mouth in the ingester.

Snake Village in Hanoi, Vietnam, allows visitors to kill and eat their own snake

Located in Le Mat, Hanoi, Vietnam, the Snake Village is filled with the snake-related opportunities. Drink snake, eat snake, hold snakes, and even kill your own snake at eat its organs.

Finding it hard to wrap your head around an experience like this? Blogger Anna at TravelPod described the experience like this:

“We stood around them and watched as they slit the live snake and then furrowed around for the heart and swallowed it whole while it was still pulsating…Once the heart had been removed the blood was squeezed into a nearby glass and mixed with the local snake moonshine. In another glass a bile cocktail was prepared by squeezing all the green gunk from it’s stomach.”

Some of the other items on the menu included moonshine containing snake, crushed snake bones with poppadoms, grilled snake, snake spring rolls, crispy snake skin, and more.

To get a better idea of the experience in the Snake Village, check out this video (WARNING: GRAPHIC):

Got goat? A cultural exploration of the other red meat

There are goat people, and then there…aren’t. We’re like dog people, except we can’t carry the objects of our obsession in our purse. There aren’t city parks dedicated to goats.

I grew up with goats because my brother and I raised them for 4-H. When we got our first dairy goat in the mid-’70’s, my mom tapped her inner hippie, experimenting with making yogurt from the prodigious amounts of milk produced by our doe. And while no one in my family could be accused of squeamishness, it was an unspoken rule we’d never use our goats for meat. Although my mom claims it was because she preferred to donate the young bucks to Heifer Project International, I now realize she just didn’t want to see those adorable little kids sizzling on our grill.

Now that I’m older and more gluttonous, I know that goat makes for some fine eating, whether it’s mild, milky-tasting suckling kid, or adult animals cooked down into flavorful braises (think think less gamey mutton). Yet, while a staple in Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean, Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of Europe, goat has never been popular in the United States outside of specific ethnic communities.

In the last decade, however, goat has been getting more respect. Small goat ranches sell meat at select farmers markets nationwide, and amongst culinary cognoscenti goat is all the rage at select, locally-focused butcher shops and high-end restaurants. I’ve noted that goat as a mainstream ingredient is most popular in the Bay Area–something I attribute to the large Hispanic population, the sheer number of farmers markets, and the willingness amongst chefs, ranchers, and consumers to try new things. Ditto in New York, where goat was once reserved for divey ethnic restaurants of the outer boroughs.

Some chefs, like former “Top Chef” Season four winner/2011 Food & Wine “Best New Chef” Stephanie Izard, owner of Chicago’s The Girl & The Goat, prominently feature caprine preparations on their menus, even if most of their colleagues eschew it (fellow Chicagoan Rick Bayless, Mexican cuisine guru/owner of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco also uses goat). Jonathon Sawyer, another “Best New Chef” alum (2010; The Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland), is also a fan of goat, and utilizes meat from nearby Cuyahoga Valley.

Why is goat meat so prevalent in other cultures, but not our own? Or, as popular TV host/chef Andrew Zimmern puts it: “Goat is like soccer: it plays well everywhere else in the world but the U.S..”

[Photo credit: Flicker user onkel_wart]The reason is that goat is one of the most widely (and oldest) domesticated animals in the world. They thrive in harsh environments, on sparse vegetation, so they’re easy, inexpensive keepers. They’re small, nimble, highly intelligent, and fairly disease-resistant, and are thus lower maintenance than cows or sheep. They provide an ample supply of milk–which can then be sold as cheese, yogurt, or butter–and they’re also a source of skin, fuel (their dung), and meat. There are specific breeds meant for meat (the Boer, for example) or dairy (the prolific Nubian), but most animals in the developing world are multi-use, or serve several functions in their lifespan. Once they can no longer bear kids and produce milk, they become a source of food and hide.

Despite the widespread consumption of goat, they’re also a symbol of status and pride for the millions of nomadic peoples worldwide.The more goats (or other livestock) one has, the more affluent one is. These animals are also treated as members of the family, sharing living quarters and often treated almost as pets. Yet their purpose in life is always at the forefront: to provide sustenance and income for the family and community.

As Americans, we tend to anthropomorphize animals, even the ones we eat (think “Babe,” Charlotte’s Web, and the prevalence of cute little lambs on baby clothes). Goats get a bad rap in this country, due in part to their mythological and biblical associations with the underworld or Satan. They’re supposedly smelly, mean, and will eat the clothes off your back given half a chance.

Allow me to clarify. Goats are actually very tidy animals, although uncastrated bucks most definitely stink beyond description. As for their legendary appetite, goats are innately curious by nature, because they’re intelligent. Thus, they tend to nibble, and yes, sometimes your clothing (or, if you’re a journalist, your notes) might be included. But tin cans, nails, and humans are not in their repertoire. The reason goats are widely used for brush and fire control is their ability to eat and digest brambles and other tough plants most ruminants are unable to tolerate. As for their ornery reputation, goats–being very bright–can have personality clashes with some people (usually those who dislike them).

“Goat is Great”
In June, I watched Zimmern do a seminar and cooking demo called “Goat is Great” at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. The three-day festival of eating and drinking is full of talks, tastings, and demos celebrating the glory of pork, rum, budget and collector wines, and cooking with animal fat, but this is the first time goat has made the itinerary. Naturally, I was first in line.

Zimmern, who is far less goofy and more edgy and endearing in person, began his talk by touting the glories of goat. Not only is it healthy (high protein, and leaner and lower in cholesterol than beef or lamb), it’s affordable, versatile–he frequently substitutes it for lamb–and sustainable, because it’s not factory farmed. “To the degree that we eat more goat, and only a little fish, we slow the impact of factory farms’ pressure on the environment,” Zimmern explained. The best way to find goat is to request it. “Ask your butcher to carry it. Start telling your local farmers markets that you’d like to see it. You’d be amazed at what’s growing and being raised near your town.”

We watched Zimmern whip up three different preparations of goat, based upon dishes he’s eaten on his travels. The first was a tartare, a contemporary riff on a traditional Ethiopian dish, tere sega, which is usually made with raw beef. He seasoned the meat with crushed berbere (a spice mixture of chile and spices), egg yolk, lemon juice, minced shallots, chopped celery leaves, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire, and minced caper.

Next, we watched rock star butcher Josh Applestone of New York’s Fleischer’s Meats break down a goat carcass in record time, to provide Zimmern with some cuts and offal for his remaining dishes (FYI, Fleischer’s does not carry goat at either of its locations, and based on the tone of the employee I spoke with, they’re really sick of being asked this question).

Zimmern also featured an Italian red wine-braised goat shoulder, before ending things with a globally beloved dish: meat on a stick. “All over the world I’ve eaten skewered goat,” he said, before demonstrating a Tunisian twist on Italian spiedini, or kebabs. He marinated chunks of meat, liver, and kidneys in garlic, olive oil, and homemade harissa (a Tunisian chile paste) before grilling them and finishing the dish with lemon juice and parsley.

Where to get goat
Ethnic (Hispanic, African, and Caribbean) and halal markets and butcher shops
Farmers markets
Butcher shops that emphasize local sourcing and humane livestock management

What to do with your goaty offerings? Here’s some tips: throw shoulder cuts on the grill, pan fry chops, and braise shank, riblets, and leg steaks. Bear in mind that goat (especially kid) is lower in fat than most meats, so be careful not to overcook it if you’re barbecuing or using other dry-cooking methods.

[Photo credits: Berber, Laurel Miller; carcasses, Flickr user Mr. Fink’s Finest Photos; heads, Flickr user Royal Olive]

Why do we take pictures of our food?

In a sweaty, back alley restaurant in Trujillo, Peru, the shy Peruvian waiter approached my table with a vibrant plate of ceviche. Placing it upon the handwoven tablecloth, there lapsed a good three seconds where all I could do was stare. Then, before reaching for my fork, I instead reached for my camera.

I’ll admit it. I’m one of those people who take pictures of their food. I know a lot of you are as well. It’s only an occasional occurrence, as I’m not known to photograph cereal I’m gulping down when late to work. I only immortalize my food in megapixels when the plate in front of me goes beyond my culinary expectations. If you present me with a plate of food and I take a photo of it, consider it a compliment. While I recognize this is a curious trait, the following is an attempt to justify what exactly drives me, and many others, to feel the need to photograph their food.

First off, this exact plate of food is never going to be here again. If I don’t capture it now, the moment will be lost to the acids of digestion and gone forever. This plate of food before me–particularly if it’s traditional, regional cuisine– is as much of a cultural attraction as any monument listed in a guidebook or brochure. While in Trujillo, I must have taken 35 pictures of the Huaca de la Luna, an ancient Moche temple that’s stood for 1700 years. With that sort of history, there’s a good chance I could come back ten years from now and snap the exact same photo. This plate of ceviche, on the other hand, is never going to be here again. It’s a fleeting moment that needs documenting before it disappears forever.

%Gallery-135590%Second, I photograph dishes I can tell are going to be either unbelievably incredible, or gut wretchingly awful. When looking back on my photos, I want to have the ability to say “that meal was unspeakably good” (steak in Argentina) or “why does my meat still have hair on it?” (mystery meat in Ecuador). Every plate of food I consume has a story behind it, and just as I would with any other attraction, I want to be able to reminisce on how that food contributed to the greater moment as a whole.

From a cultural standpoint, regional cuisine is as important as any other item you may choose to photograph. Just as the 800 year old Roman fort towering about the coastal Spanish town of Tossa de Mar exudes a Mediterranean charm, so does the steaming plate of paella served with a pitcher of sangria in the cobblestone streets of the Old Town. The dense fog that ‘s consuming the western coast of Connemara, Ireland is as intrinsic to the Irish experience as a heaping bowl of seafood chowder washed down with brown bread and Guinness. Though taking a photo doesn’t make the food taste any better, it nonetheless is a stamp of cultural approval as if to say, “I was there, and it’s as good as it was meant to be”. The same way you would take a picture of the white sand beaches of Koh Chang, Thailand, so should you document your peanut covered bowl of chicken pad thai.

Finally, what’s wrong with photographing your food simply for the way it looks? Irrelevant to taste or culture, when food is infused with the richest of colors or the presentation is painfully exquisite, the plate before you becomes nothing less than art. If my enchiladas in Baja, Mexico are served to me with the red, white, and green sauces in the form of a Mexican flag, that deserves two seconds of my time.

So yes, I am one of those people who take photos of their food, my lust for classic and curious cuisine a patch I will wear proudly via my zoom and macro lens until I am happy and hopelessly stuffed.