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Germany, Italy, Austria, Slovenia: Steven Bookbinder, Food Science

Posted: October 24, 2013

Meeting executives from the largest meat companies in the world at the European “Capital of Meat”. Touring the cavernous aging rooms of the famed prosciutto di Parma. Walking through the centuries old streets of Ljubljana going from one artisanal butcher to the next. Come inside my travelogue and join me as I share the highlights of my summer, destination by destination.

Destination 1: Frankfurt, Germany
I landed in Frankfurt, Germany on June 3rd, only a few days after my finals ended at Penn State University. It was my second time back to the country, and I could tell right away, I was happy to be back! Germany greeted me with a typical early summer torrent of thunderstorms and cell phone issues, but nothing could damper my mood for this week. Thanks to the generosity of donors through the Presidential Leadership Academy, I was able to attend the conference of my dreams: The International Fach-Fleisch Ausstellung (IFFA). This conference is held only once every three years and brings in the largest and most renowned meat processors and suppliers in the world. During this conference, seminars are given regarding the future of the industry and trends to watch out for. In addition, many of the top meat processing technology companies were out in force to showcase their equipment and capabilities.

Only about an hour after I deplaned, I was on the ground at IFFA, with jet lag close behind me, I doubled down with an espresso and jumped into the fray. After negotiating a student priced entrance fee with my rusty German, I entered the conference on its first day. The conference was set up over nearly 100,000 square feet of exhibition space which spanned three entire buildings and multiple floors. One floor was reserved exclusively for producers of slaughter equipment and services, another for sausage casings, another for functional ingredients, another for packaging, etc. To say this conference was a holistic exhibition of the entire industry would be a gross understatement.

To my chagrin, chefs and artisanal butchers made quite a mark on the conference as well. A large area of the exhibition hall was dedicated to butchering and cooking competitions. Although many of the competitions had been developed by the Deutscher Fleischer-Verband (German Butchers Guild) and were quite German-centric, there were competitors from all over Europe. I managed to speak with managers from both the German and U.K. teams and learned of the tenuous and challenging process that teams take to get to this final event. BookbinderEU2.png

After touring the convention for several days with Dr. Jon Campbell, a Meat Science professor at Penn State, it was time to embark on the rest of my European adventure. After meeting with executives from many of the world’s largest meat suppliers, seeing some of the newest meat processing technology, and watching some of the worlds most talented butchers, I grew exponentially in the context of my professional ambitions.  I was able to expose myself to the broader industry of meat processing and get out of the small niche that I’ve been involved with for many years. This exposure will help me navigate my career in the industry and help me make informed decisions during my employment. 

With the convention over it was time to pack up and head to my next destination: Italy!

Destination 2: Parma, Italy
Departing Frankfurt by train, I began a fourteen hour journey through the hills of southern Germany, the central Alps of Switzerland, and the Dolomite alps of Italy to finally get to my destination of Parma, Italy, also known by some of the cured meat capital of the world. I was meeting my class from Penn State, Food Science 497, an embedded course that has been meeting throughout the spring semester to prepare for this on-the-ground educational experience. Formally, the class was called “Food Systems of Italy”, but un-officially, this class was about understanding the science and gastronomy of one of the greatest cuisine on earth. I arrived hungry, and luckily, I was not disappointed. Our first meal was covered with the tuition, as included, cured Prosciutto, Finnochio Salami, and Coppa, all from the Parma region. The pasta course included freshly rolled, stuffed and boiled ravioli, filled with ricotta and spinach and tossed in a nutty brown butter sauce. We washed this all down with a respectable Lambrusco, which gave a nice contrast of acidity to the otherwise rich and fatty meal. With this, I knew I had arrived, and I was happy.

I could write for endless pages about our activities over the next ten day. But I’ll just graze over the details of as many as I can for your reading pleasure. We first visited a Balsamic Vinegar producer who was still pulling themselves out of the holes and cracks that last year’s Northern Italian earthquake had brought to them but were still producing some of the best balsamico I’ve ever tasted. We enjoyed the sounds, views, and smells of craftsmen working hard to produce several wheels of fresh Parmigianino Reggiano cheese from milk a few kilometers from their cheese atelier. We walked along the cavernous rows of aging Prosciutto di Parma and smelled their ripeness using an old but capable horse bone. We also toured some of the largest factories in Italy that produced the mega brands such as Barilla and Parmalat. We spent one hedonistic day touring the grounds and cellar of a Barolo wine producer and sampling their wares, while in the afternoon walking amongst the fruit bearing fields of a gelato producer while similarly indulging in their goods. Like a blur, we toured city and the surrounding regions of Milan, taking a close look at food safety in Europe and the evolving contemporary gastronomy of Northern Italians. Lastly, we explored the holy grail of lard at salumificio Bertolin, a historic producer of lardo and other air-dried meats in the foothills of the Italian Alps.

Visiting all of these producers on the streamlined, fast-paced nature that we did taught me some of the virtues of discipline and time-management. Although this was a new type of “work”, the same principles applied for us to manage our time and remain professional, even in the site of some of the most delectable foods in the world. 

Destination 3: Ljubljana, Slovenia
After two hedonistic weeks and eating and learning in Northern Italy, it was time to change my focus, and turn my attention to another reason I was visiting the continent this summer: my research project. BookbinderEU3.pngOver the spring semester, I had prepared a research project to satisfy a query I’ve had ever since I lived in Germany two years ago. That query was this: Why do different European countries have similar meat products, even though they live in relatively different geographies, speak different languages, and are separated by different food systems? With this question in mind, I applied to several grants, formulated a methodology, and began to ask for ideas from the Penn State community.
After my embedded course in Italy, I hopped on a train and headed to Slovenia, the northern most country of the Balkans, and a well-known member of the entity that was formerly known as Yugoslavia. I picked Slovenia, among other countries, because it shares a unique trait with its Northern Italian and Southern Austrian neighbors; it has many similar meat products and processes that it shares. In Slovenia (as well as Austria and Italy) I aspired to collect data and figure out what brought these three seemingly different neighbors together in sharing some of the most interest meat products in Europe.

To do this, I brought a camera, hired a translator, mapped out some of the most well-known butcher shops in the city, and created a survey to ask as many butchers as I could questions about their products, training, and culture of being a meat processor in their respective city.

Walking through the historic streets of Ljubljana, I found more than what I had bargained for. Speaking with butchers of all ages, I found a fraternity of men and women who are engaged deeply in their craft and believe strongly in the historical preservation of their products. I found salamis, boiled sausages, cured meats, and dishes that I had never imagined I would find. But behind each of these foods was a producer ready to tell me a story and encourage me to look a little further, try a little more, and take these lessons home with me. This experience in Ljubljana was a catharsis, to see a sustained and growing community of professionals who could connect with their citizens and provide unique foods to add to their gastronomy. I’ll always carry the memory of these food systems with me throughout my entire life.

Destination: Home
To sum up all of these experiences in a few words is quite difficult, however it’s much easier to talk about the lessons learned. I learned that the industry is bigger than I ever thought it was, and it has humbled me into realizing I’ll never know everything. I’ve learned that in the food industry, you’ve got to be very dynamic and consistent. You need to be able to see many things, process all that information, and find the data you’ve really been looking for in a sea of delicious and interesting food. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that communicating all of these thought provoking experiences in a concise, intelligent, and logical manner is important to explain the broader story of this summer to friends, loved ones, and potential employers alike. Ultimately, I will take many of these experiences with me throughout my life and they will always give me a holistic appreciation of my career, my life, and the world.