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To Italy, and Back Again – A Food Scientist’s Tale: James Halpin, Food Science

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Posted: September 5, 2013

Being a college student these days really requires you to break out of your comfort zone...
Being in Italy is almost like stepping back into and interacting with the past.  Now that’s groovy, baby.

Being in Italy is almost like stepping back into and interacting with the past. Now that’s groovy, baby.

Hi, my name is James Ryan Halpin and I am a student in the Food Science (FD SC) program at Penn State.  After 3 years here, I’ve learned that being a college student these days really requires you to break out of your comfort zone in order to better yourself and your environment; a pleasant way to do that is traveling and studying abroad.  Unfortunately, I was too far into my college career to devote a full semester to a study abroad program, but with the School of Agricultural Science and FD SC, I was able to find a shorter, more reasonable program that let me go to the motherland of my family and good eating: Italy.  This program was called FD SC 497 F.

FD SC 497 F is a 2.5 credit course that requires meeting times in the spring semester to discuss both Italian culture and authentic foods, and then a 2-week trip to Italy in the summer.  As we slowly worked through the grueling spring semester, and winter turned to spring, Italy got closer and that much sooner to a reality!  To keep the class intuitive, pairs of students were given specific foods to research and make a presentation about before a tour of the respective food’s production; my partner and I ended up with gorgonzola cheese.  It was hard to believe when it happened, but just as fast as spring semester ended, we were in Italy. 

Our first stop was Parma; the same region where “Parmesan” cheese originated from.  For three days, the class got to partake in exclusive tours of truly authentic Italian food facilities in the area that produces some of Italy’s world famous cheeses, prosciutto, pasta products, and more.  Our first day in Parma was like walking through a dream come true; while trying to fight the jet lag from a 9-hour flight, I got to try gelato, which is very much like soft ice cream, but better.  It was so good, and reasonably priced, it’s safe to say that everyone from the class, me included, got gelato at least once a day on the trip after that. 
HalpinItaly2.pngOn the first day of tours, we went to Acetaia Fini of Modeno, the center of balsamic vinegar production.  It was amazing to see how fast each bottle of the vinegar was produced, let alone how many bottles were produced.  We were later treated with a four-course lunch, which are normal in Italy; we also got to check out Bologna, the biggest university-city in the world.

On the second day, we went to see the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese (“Parmesan”) at Caseificio San Pietro, where the sweetest old lady showed us around the modest looking cheese factory.  Inside, we saw the cheese literally being made straight from milk and a warehouse of cheeses as much as three years old just sitting out in the air.  We then went to Parma Ham, where we saw pig legs being strung up in freezers to age into some of Italy’s premier prosciutto (cured meat).  The freezers didn’t smell too pleasant, but the meats tasted great at the buffet lunch the factory gave us.

On our third and final day of tours in Parma, we took tours of both Parmalat, Europe’s largest dairy product producer, and Barilla, Italy’s largest producer of pasta products.  We even have Barilla in America.  It was amazing to see how many products each factory produced and levels upon levels of conveyor belts carrying products right and left, up and down, and even diagonally.  It is mind blowing that a company can even keep track of such a wide variety of product in any given day and still get the right orders to the right customers. That same day we made our way to the beautiful city of Torino, once the capitol of Italy, where we would be for our last 7 days.  In a way, it was kind of like a mix of Parma and Bologna, but mostly Bologna; Porticos (covered walkways) were everywhere you walked with palazzos (city squares) to help you navigate your way around the city. 

Our first tour day in the Torino area was of the Cantine Marchesi di Barolo, the producer of Italy’s and the world’s finest dry red wine.  I am not just saying that; it really is.  HalpinItaly3.pngSurrounded by vineyards and a beautiful mountainous region, Barolo was my favorite tour by far.  The whole surrounding town was so rustic and gorgeous I couldn’t stop taking photos to save my life. What really made this particular tour so special is that I will be working at a winery soon so it was nice to see what I may be working with in the near future.  Later that day, we went to Agrigelateria San Pe, a dairy farm that makes its own gelato.  The farm was much like farms in America, and featured an impressive milking system where the cows could actually walk up to the milking machine whenever they pleased to have the machine milk them on the spot.  I wish they had they had that when I worked at the dairy barns at Penn State. 

The next couple of days, instead of touring food facilities, we took a break and tried something different tours like a tour of an Egyptian museum, and a cool food market named Eataly (clever, right?). We even got to visit an awesome cinema museum that was inside an ancient Jewish mosque that was built to be the tallest point in Torino at about 140 meters. We visited the Porto Palazzo, the largest open air market in the world where we saw plenty of fresh fruits, veggies, cheeses, and even meats being bartered off for cheap. I even found a Masters jacket for 5 euros, for those of you who are golf fans.  We visited University of Torino’s agricultural school and even St. John’s University, our host school.  Both of the universities were so small, but so beautiful.  At St. John’s, we learned about the European DoP (Declaration of Performance) programs that protect authentic Italian products from being copied over seas and to keep business coming from the authentic producers instead of cheap Chinese copies.

When we restarted our food tours, we visited Salumificio Bertolin in the Valle de Aosta region, a big producer of Lardo (a more fatty and delicious form of bacon).  The region was a beautiful valley that offered a breath taking sight everywhere you looked, and the meat from Bertolin was like nothing I’ve had in America.  After the tour, the Bertolin factory provided us a full course fancy lunch with plenty of wine and wooden plate shaped like a pig.  Did I mention the Italian’s have a peculiar sense of humor?  We then made an impromptu visit to Centro Agricolo Dimostrativo (a bee farm), where a small group of farmers host up to about 1 million bees; more bees than you care to count for sure.  To end our visit of the Valle, the class made a stop at the Fortress de Bard, a fortress that was once used by the Italians to stand up to Napoleon and his army as he invaded Italy; about 400 Italians tried valiantly to hold off about 10, 000 Frenchmen.  The views of the Valle from the fortress were amazing; I cannot understand why Napoleon would want any thing more. 

On our last day of food tours, we visited both a Gorgonzola cheese industrial giant (who my partner and I gave a presentation about) and a specialty cheese ager in the Igor (Italian Gorgonzola) Cheese Factory and the Guffanti Cheese Factory, respectively.  On the tour of the Igor factory, we got to see the large-scale production of gorgonzola cheese, a type of blue cheese.  I’m not usually a fan of blue cheese, but seeing it made personally had me sold.  The factory itself was sorted into three completely separate facilities that either focused on preparation, production, or packaging of the cheese; it was profoundly organized and clean.  After the tour, we were treated to samples of the gorgonzola cheese on pizza and as a dip for celery sticks.  After eating it, I was not as much as a fan as I thought I would be.  It was still worth a try though, right? 

A little later, we visited the cheese aging facility of Luigi Guffanti, a company that buys Italy’s premier cheeses directly from their respective producers and keeps the cheeses in a cheese-cave (it is as cool as it sounds).  After so many years of aging the cheeses to achieve a more unique and bitter taste, the company sells the cheese to select customers who must be paying top dollar for these old cheeses.  The Guffanti company then gave the class a cheese sampling lunch with a never-ending supply of wine and delicious cheeses.  I don’t think I had ever eaten a meal of just cheese and wine until then, but boy was it great.  The cheese-master also allowed us to try some more authentic gorgonzola cheese than the Igor gorgonzola, and as good as it was, I am still not sold on blue cheese type cheeses.  Sorry, Italy. 

On our last day, we headed to Milan in preparation of our class’s return to America.  As the Italians say, it is the least interesting Italian city, but even still, it beats most American cities.  I loved Italy so much though, I decided to stay for another 12 amazing days.  

HalpinItaly4.pngAside from the great food, I gained so much from this trip; from seeing how authentic Italian products are produced to gaining an understanding of how much planning and manpower it takes to produce these foods. To think that one local product can turn out to be a food marvel and an internationally desired food delicacy is amazing.  With a simple standard that their foods are local and fresh, the Italians make foods that taste miraculously better than any foods normally consumed in America from the restaurant to the grocery store.  Local and fresh food truly is better. I feel that as a country, America should start supporting more local home brands that truly embody the power and tastes of local and fresh foods. 

All together, the most important thing I gained from this experience were the skills to adapt to situations in which there is a language barrier.  Even with my limited assortment of Italian phrases I could speak and understand, I was able to communicate effectively enough to get what I needed and how to get where I needed to go.  Being able to break out of your comfort zone, and remain calm and collective will get you many places in life.  

I believe that everything I experienced on this trip will help to make me exceptionally marketable to future employers because this trip was more than just a tour of Italy; it was a hands-on adventure in Italian foods and food systems, and a wonderful opportunity that showed me what we should strive for here in America when producing foods.