Brunch, Brains, and Burratta: First Encounters with the Gastronomic Society

Brunch featuring French Toast, meatballs on a bed of charred herbs, and Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini.  Aperitivo featuring Pakistani brains (brains prepared in the style of Pakistan, that is), kidney carpaccio, and pig ear salad. Dinner Pugliese-style featuring burratta, orrecchiete con cime di rapa, and pasta con ceci.  Just another week in the life of the Gastronomic Society here at UNISG.

The Gastronomic Society (Società Gastronomica) is, as far as I can tell, a student-run association/residence/communal garden/taste haven located just outside the city limits of Bra.  A handful of students live on the premises – a yellow, two story house with a dining room that seats 40 and a professional kitchen – but the organization boasts a membership that includes the vast majority of university population.  The society, and its physical home, provide a venue for members to organize and host various gastronomic events with the use of facilities that far exceed what would be available in our homes.  It is a place for celebration, experimentation, and degustation. Our class will likely be holding a little holiday celebration there in a few weeks, but I was fortunate enough to already attend the three afore-mentioned events in my first week here at school.

The Gastronomic Society brunch seems to be a new weekly tradition, started just a few weeks ago and featuring a rotating menu depending on what’s available.  I approached it with trepidation, veteran of Italian “brunches” that I am.  As it turned out, my fears were unwarranted, as the kitchen churned out excellent renditions of French Toast and baked apples – and meatballs and cous cous with cheese biscuits.  The meal also featured the added bonus of a chance encounter with Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food and President of our university.  I had heard that he is fairly accessible and visible around campus, but there is still just something kinda cool about walking into brunch and running into the creator of an international movement, who, for some reason, is familiar with Burlingame, California.  Obviously, we then all had a round of franciacorta together.

French toast at an American-style brunch in Italy

A few days later, the school lecture series hosted Australo-Canadian (is that a thing?) cookbook author Jennifer McLagan – the genius behind titles such as Fat, Bones, and Odd Bits.  Her talk focused on the importance of cooking and eating the whole animal, her fascination with the “off-brand” cuts of meat and organs, and why sometimes a leg of lamb should cost 65 euro.  Following the lecture, we returned to the Gastronomic Society for an offally-delicious aperitivo: brain two-ways, a duo of pig’s ear dishes, calf’s tongue salad, pig’s foot soup, blood sausage, blood pudding, kidney carpaccio, marrow toast, and vats of lard instead of butter.  Eating offal is always an interesting thing for me – when offered the opportunity, I will certainly try it, but I don’t find myself going to great lengths to track the stuff down and cook it or order it myself (except for liver, love that stuff).  I totally support the “nose-to-tail” idea that McLagan, Fergus Henderson, and many others are advocating – if you are going to raise an animal for its meat, it is only fair to use as much of it as possible – but I do still suffer from the offal-aversion common to many North Americans.  And really, it is only due to a weird familiarity/non-familiarity paradox – I do not eat brain because I am not familiar with it as a food item, but the idea of it is a very familiar, knowable thing.  A cut of steak both does not look like anything in my body or easily identifiable as anything other than food.  Brain, while actually quite tasty in terms of flavor, is easily identifiable as an animal’s brain, and has a texture that lets you know you are eating something a little unusual.

Just brains
Just brains

I wrapped up my week at the Gastronomic Society with a Friday night dinner featuring the flavors of Puglia.  Expertly crafted by a Pugliese student and his visiting mom, the dinner was an excellent reminder of where and when I fell in love with food as something more than just a delicious respite three times a day – in a hot, crowded kitchen in Lecce during the summer of 2007. We started off with some burratta, anchovies, and friselle with tomatoes, followed by pasta con ceci, orrechiette and cavatelli with cime di rapa, and a grilled calamaro with polpette di mare.  And to cap it off, we learned a new Pugliese tradition – garnishing one’s wine with a celery stalk, and drinking straight out the bottle.  Un brindisi!

Wine, Puglia style
Wine, Puglia style

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