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When In Italy… Food Science Study Tour - Maggie Harding

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Posted: November 3, 2011

It was definitely the trip of a lifetime, and an absolutely incredible experience. Our stories of our trip have yet to end!!

Wednesday, May 18--Thursday, May 19
With a three and a half hour trip to the Philly airport, I was super anxious to finally get to Italy.  An eight hour flight wasn't bad for my first international flight, with a short layover in Belgium, then a short connection to Milan.  We then got a really nice bus ride to our hotel in Bologna--Hotel University.  I'm not used to staying in non-chain or family run hotels, so it was really neat to stay at a really small, quaint hotel.

After being informed that we weren't to eat dinner until eight o' clock, like Italians do, we set off to explore the small university town.  We met up with our whole class and professors to go to a real Italian dinner--complete with antipasti, a sampler of three different pastas, pork, salad, and a sharing of five different Italian desserts.  I have discovered that tiramisu is by far my favorite!

Friday, May 20

The next morning was an early one, starting off with a quick breakfast in the hotel.  There was a wide selection of the typical breakfast pastries and crescents, along with cereal, fruit, and of course Nutella and jam.  Our first tour was at Villani, S.p.A--a meat processing facility.  We got to watch them process hams, which was especially interesting to me because of my background with swine 4-H.  And although we didn't get to see them be made, our guide also showed us the many huge rooms filled with numerous different kinds of hanging salume.  Unfortunately we didn't have time for a taste-test, but looking back it was still one of my favorite tours.

We then headed to a gelato and ice-cream machine manufacturer: Carpigiani.  This company actually produces the soft serve machines used just about everywhere in the world, including McDonald's.  It was really neat to see a production facility that custom makes their machines, with each and every machine being hand tested.  It was also cool to think that my Shamrock Shakes from McDonald's in good old State College were made from a machine halfway across the world, where I was standing!  We got a little gelato sample at the company's gelato store, which was my first taste of the Italian classic.  Delicious!

We had our first real Italian pizza for lunch, mine with ham, rucola (rocket lettuce), and olives.  It wasn't as different from American pizza as I expected, but still very tasty!  My group of friends and I then continued to tour around the city, and checked out a big market near the downtown.  We also found a big food market area of town--just one street and a couple connected side streets--with everything from fish markets to wine stores to cheese counters to fruit stands.  It was awesome!!

Saturday, May 21

Another early morning took us off to a facility that produces a special Italian flatbread called Piadina.  It was great to get to see a mix of production tours, as this one was super simple, and was on a smaller scale.  The facility used mostly human labor, but also relied on some machines.  The final product was delicious, and we began to notice it in just about every restaurant we went in.

That evening we went to the Vecchia Scuola Bolognese--a school for making pasta.  The school was all family run, and it really felt like we were in a real Italian home.  A daughter in the family taught us how to create several different shapes of pasta, and then the mother cooked all the pasta we made for a four course pasta meal.  It was definitely very fun to get hands on experience with real Italian pasta makers!

Sunday, May 22
With a free day ahead of us, our smaller group woke up bright and early and readied for a trip to Venice.  Unfortunately, we found out that there was a strike at the train station (apparently a common occurrence), so we spent the day in Bologna instead.  First we explored the Modern Art Museum of Bologna, which was really cool.  After a relaxing dinner we treated ourselves to a shared gelato sundae and a piece of chocolate mousse cake, and sat out at the main piazza for a couple hours just enjoying Italy.

HardingItaly2.pngMonday, May 23

Monday morning we headed to Acetai Fini--a Balsamic vinegar production facility.  We got to see the huge oak barrels where the traditional vinegar is stored, and the steel vats where the non-traditional variety is produced.  I didn't realize how many different types of wood are used to produce the traditional (more expensive) kind, with each barrel getting smaller and smaller later on in the process.  The taste testing at this facility was definitely my favorite.  We even got to taste the 25 year aged tradition balsamic vinegar--it was the consistency of heavy cream!  It was all so different from what we get in the U.S.

Next we went to the European Food Safety Authority's main offices in Parma.  We were shown a powerpoint explaining the EFSA's role in the European Union, their structure, and some issues they're dealing with.  It was interesting to compare this group to the FDA of the United States.

We checked into our hotel in Parma and took time to explore our new city.  The Kinder (chocolate candy) gelato from the K2 Gelateria was incredible!

Tuesday, May 24
Our first tour on Tuesday was the Parmigiano-Reggiano tour--a famous cheese with a completely artisanal process.  Looking back I would say this was my favorite tour, for one because I'm really interested in cheese making.  Also, the guide was extremely helpful with explaining everything, and could explain the science behind what we were seeing.

Next our bus took us on a scenic road up a mountain to a prosciutto manufacturer.  I loved finally being immersed in a rural area, and seeing some of the local agriculture.  The tour was interesting, though our guide didn't know much about the science in the prosciutto production process, as we got to see raw hams come in and pasted, cured, branded hams come out.  Lunch that day was yummy, consisting solely of prosciutto on bread and chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Our final tour of the day was at a biological crop station, similar to the horticulture farm at Penn State.  The host showed us his main interest which was to crossbreed peppers; he had 500 varieties in a single greenhouse!  It was interesting to see how different Italian agricultural production methods are from those in the U.S., and how much more inefficient they are.

Wednesday, May 25
Wednesday started out with a tour of the Parmalat facility--a company that produces UHT (Ultra High Temperature, meaning shelf-stable) dairy products and juices.  Considering that you can't really find UHT milk in the U.S., since we are such a fresh milk-drinking country, it was cool to see the differences in cultures.  I also learned a lot about how UHT products are made, with specific packaging and a very specific process.

After Parmalat we got to check out the Academia Barilla--a cooking school created by the owners of the Barilla pasta company.  Barilla served us lunch at their pasta manufacturing facility, which was one of my favorite meals on the whole trip.  The Barilla factory was incredible, seeing so many different shapes of pasta produced with the incorporation of so much technology.  This tour was a favorite for many of my classmates.

The last tour of the day was the Cantine Reunite--a commercial wine manufacturer.  The company produced a huge variety of wines, from the classic sparkling Lambrusco to varieties only exported to the United States.  Seeing some of the technology used in the bottling plant was awesome.  We then got to do wine tasting comparing the same wine made with grapes from northern and southern Italy.  Another exhausting but awesome day!

HardingItaly3.pngThursday, May 26
Our transfer to Torino was only a couple hours on the bus, then we got to check out our third city.  We had an organized tour of the city with a tour guide, who showed us the important landmarks near the Palazzo Real, and the café where the famous Lavazza espresso was invented.  We then had a nice buffet-type dinner with our entire class.

Friday, May 27
Friday started out with a presentation at St. John's University on popular dishes of the region.  We also got to see our Penn State connection Dr. Knabel.  St. John's served us lunch--a creamy vegetable lasagna, a salad with tuna, and a meringue and cream dessert --which was another of my favorite meals.

We then headed to the Agrigelateria San Pe, which is a farm converted into a gelato shop and a play area for children.  Just as in America, the only called it Agritourism.  I loved being able to see the cows in the barn and the strawberries grown just for their gelato, and relate the farm to my own background.  We had to try the host's most prized flavor--Fior Di Latte, or milk flavored.  It was excellent, and seemed to be quite a hit with all the local kids too.

That evening one of my classmates and I ventured to the Egyptian museum, with the largest amount of Egyptian artifacts outside of Egypt.  I was very impressed by the vastness of the collection, and was very excited to be able to say I saw it!

Saturday, May 28
In the morning Dr. Elias led our class down to the open air market--the biggest open air market in Europe.  Although most of the clothes and material goods did not seem authentic, we were fascinated by the food part. There was a whole building, the size of a Walmart it seemed, just filled with booth after booth of fresh meat, fish and cheese.  The outdoor section had row after row after row of fresh fruits and vegetables: cantaloupes, peaches, apples, carrots, beans...you name it!  I could have sat there and watched the hustle and bustle the entire day--I just loved it!

We met our class at lunchtime to take the metro to an outer part of the city were Eatily was.  Eatily was kind of like a Wegmans, on steroids.  The whole idea of the store is to sell local goods, and to support the Slow Food movement.  It had an entire library devoted to food, a huge local wine and beer section, a gelateria, fresh fruit and vegetable counters, meat counters, cheese counters…everything!  We ate lunch at one of the cafes, which was the best chicken I had on the entire trip.  Again, I could have spent an entire day just looking around--it was much much more than just a supermarket.

That evening several of my classmates and I went to the ion of the city--the Mole Antoinelle.  We took the elevator up to the top of the building part, and could see around the entire city.  It was a beautiful view, and great to get a feel for the city.

Sunday, May 29
We started off the day with a trip through the base of the Alp foothills to a lard and cured meats production facility.  Unfortunately it was a Sunday, so the facility wasn't producing anything that day, but we got to see a video on their basic products.  We then got to taste several of their products, including pork, potato, and blood sausage, goat salume, pork neck salume, donkey salume, lard, and even cow udder.  Not many people can say they've eaten those!

The view the entire day was incredible--I've never seen mountains so big.  When we went to our restaurant near a wine festival, we got to walk around the mountain town a little bit too, which was awesome.  After a lunch of a ham and cheese crepe, veal, and fruit salad, we got to explore the Fortress of Bard.  It was an amazing castle with breathtaking views all around.

Monday, May 30
Monday was the day we got to see the Piemontese beef genetic test station, and learn all about the Piemontese breed.  I found this tour very interesting, since I live on an Angus beef farm.  I actually used our host's thesis in a research paper I did this semester, so I really enjoyed hearing his presentation of the breed.  Afterward we traveled to an actual beef farm, which was again very interesting to me.

Our final stop of the day was at a vineyard that produces a high quality, expensive wine called Barolo.  I was glad to be able to see a smaller scale vineyard, compared to the commercial wine manufacturer we saw with Reunite.  This vineyard has a lot of tradition and history behind it, which made it very pleasant.  The wine tasting was fun, comparing different types of wine produced there.  We left our Penn state mark on the wall where visitors sign, and headed back to our hotel in Torino.

Tuesday, May 31

For our last day in Torino we started out at a Gorgonzola production facility.  It was great to be able to compare the gorgonzola process to the parmesan process.  Unfortunately we didn't get a taste test, but we headed to a cheese aging facility where we were treated with a tasting of several different cheeses.  This facility had over 300 different types of cheeses aging on its shelves, with several different rooms at different humidities and temperatures.  Being a cheese ager takes a lot more skill than you would think!

Wednesday, June 1
We got to fit in a tour of a rice farm on our way to Milan on Wednesday.  Although it was rather cold and rainy, I really enjoyed seeing another production agriculture farm.  Again I noticed how different Italy's production agriculture is from ours in the U.S.  We also got to see the "bagging" facility, which also had a store for several other locally grown grain products like polenta.  We left with our goody bag of risotto with sausage and beans to bring Italy back to our homes!

In the afternoon we took our umbrellas to check out our final city.  The main icon of Milan is the Duomo, so a small group of us headed there on the metro and got to tour around the inside.  The architecture and design was absolutely stunning.  We then decided to hop on a tour bus, which showed us all the important landmarks of the city, and we learned some of the little known facts of Milan which was really neat.

Thursday, June 2
Our last full day in Italy was a free day, so we used the tour bus to check out more important landmarks, and explored on our own as well.  We got to see the main castle, and the arch of peace, before going back to the piazza with the Duomo.  2011 is the 150th anniversary of Italy's reunification, and this was actually the anniversary of the day, so there were parades and people and events everywhere. It was great to be in the middle of it all!

Friday, June 3

At about 3:45 in the morning on Friday, the five of us in the class that were coming back home left our hotel and bused to the Milan airport.  After our connection to Brussels and a two hour delay, we were on our eight hour flight back to Philly.  It was definitely the trip of a lifetime, and an absolutely incredible experience.  Our stories of our trip have yet to end!!