Stalking the Black-Eyed Villnösser Brillenschaf Sheep

By Tuesday, February 28, 2012 Permalink 0

by Diana Zahuranec

The most terrifying ride of my life was up a slick, steep mountain road in Alto Adige. Alto Adige is the northernmost region of Italy that touches Austria and melds with its language, architecture, and mountainous geography. This little-known region to the usual American tourist is prosperous, picturesque, and culturally stimulating. Before its annexation from Austria-Hungary as part of the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919, Alto Adige had been part of the Austrian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire for centuries. The identity of the region has been tugged between Austria and Italy ever since its annexation, a dual identity that is seen on everything from road signs to cultural heritage sites.

The charming architecture of Alto Adige

 

Alto Adige itself is divided into two other regions, Südtirol, or South Tyrol in the north, and Trentino in the south. The closer one gets to Austria, the stronger the Germanic influence is. In the northernmost parts of Alto Adige, the Austrian culture can be seen as the primary one, while the language and culture of Italy is definitely secondary.

The field trip that took a class of 26 and I to the Dolomite Mountains of the region was part of the curriculum of the University of Gastronomic Sciences, a school in Piemonte, Italy. Our journey was to begin with a monster of a man at odds with his traditional wear of embroidered, tan leather lederhosen, and end with the rare Villnösser Brillenschaf sheep breed with black fur “glasses” framing their dark eyes and black-dipped ears.

The man was burly, tall, straight out of a German-Austrian fairy-tale that could involve lumberjacks fighting giants, and he was our driver. We stood huddled in a damp group at the bottom of a hill, ready to be transported to the top of the mountain to see the sheep and learn about them. The charter bus we usually took could not go up the mountain, because it was too big. We were ushered into two large vans. The driver of mine was Herr Lumberjack (he was not a lumberjack, that I know of; but for lack of a name, this is it). I regret that I didn’t take a photograph of him, but he was a bit intimidating even with embroidered lederhosen. I felt – we all felt – we were in sure hands up this mountain road that grew steeper every ten feet, and which a charter bus could not hope to climb.

 

View from above: the Dolomites as seen from the bus

 

The road was much like other frightening mountain roads: unpaved, steep, narrow, and sans guardrail. I was not nervous at first, but the road was longer and steeper than we thought. The rain came down heavier and our breaths fogged the windows as we climbed in altitude into cold clouds. The hairpin turns were stomach-churning when Herr Lumberjack stopped, backed up a few inches towards the cliff – and a few more for room to turn – and looked back, grinning widely through the hand-wiped back windows to determine how much further he could go (answer: not another inch).

Looking over the edge from up high in a large van, my stomach dropped. It seemed from the high vantage point that the road’s edge was exactly at the tire’s edge. The trees were cut back at intervals, and the cliff of the mountainside fell away to reveal beautiful, jewel-toned landscapes, wet and saturated with color. I snapped a few hurried photos when I wasn’t gripping the headrest in front of me, because it was safer than closing my eyes and less frightening to look through a lens. All the photos turned out blurry; and talk about a photo not doing the real thing justice.

When the last switchback was so narrow that the inching, maneuvering wheels were too close even for our driver; when there was actually not enough room to turn at all; when Herr Lumberjack’s face was serious in concentration and not grinning manically; and when we were all sweating and silent from nerves was when we stopped to walk the rest of the way to the top. My legs were shaky, and the gravel slippery when I climbed down to solid ground from the steamy van. The air was cold, colder on the top of the mountain, and our breath came out in foggy, hot puffs. We hiked to the top.

Mountain top with Villnösser Brillenschaf sheep

 

We were greeted with a beautiful pastoral scene. In the dipping center of two hilltops was a small, wet wood cabin. Scattered between and up the vibrantly green hills was a small flock of sweet, white sheep, all with black glasses patterns circling their eyes. We walked with restraint, eager to see the peaceful scene with the stormy backdrop while not frightening the animals. Threatening, grey clouds opened to a steady, cold drizzle as the shepherds told us the history of the sheep. We huddled under shared umbrellas.

The Furchetta company, named after the mountain chain, tends to one of only two flocks of this breed of sheep, which is the oldest race in Alto Adige. It is seemingly a mixed breed with its black markings on white fur, and so had a tough time surviving during the Second World War when Hitler was bent on eliminating anything not of “pure” race. The Villnösser Brillenschaf was nearly eliminated, and about 400 survive today thanks to the shepherds and farmers of companies like Furchetta. The particular breed is also a Slow Food Presidia, which both protects and promotes it.

Villnösser Brillenschaf sheep are a Slow Food Presidia

 

Furchetta’s main product is cooked lamb prosciutto, which we had the pleasure of eating at lunch only an hour later at a restaurant in the foothills; but the farmers also realized that the high-quality wool was often going to waste. The price of wool has dropped significantly in recent decades and producing wool products is expensive. Furchetta strives to capitalize on the fact that, because the Villnösser Brillenschaf breed has extra-oily wool, its heat-retention and water-wicking properties are superior. The high quality and excellent taste of the prosciutto and various lamb salumi have encouraged chefs of Michelin star restaurants of the area to purchase the meat.

Cooked lamb salame

 

I would like to experience a little adventure like this for every food I eat. The harrowing ride into the clouds and the perfect scene at the end, offset to biting cold and wet weather with the promise of a full, hot meal at the end, were stimulating. The memories of the Villnösser Brillenschaf sheep and how we arrived to see them in their mountain environment connect to the meal we ate later, a meal whose memory would have already faded had it not been for all the elements of the experience.

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Our favorite food books of 2011

By Friday, December 23, 2011 Permalink 0

by Jonell Galloway

Cookbooks:

Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, by Maria Speck

My favorite cookbook of the year. Maria Speck knows how to incorporate ancient whole grains from around the world into dishes that remain rustic on the edges, but healthy, original and elegant at the same time. The technical explanations about ancient grains are excellent, as well as her explanations about general cooking techniques. The food stories she incorporates here and there about growing up in Greece and Germany add a touch of charm.

A must for any health-conscious real food lover who wants to eat interesting food combinations and dishes with a touch more sophistication that can pleasantly surprise guests, but not take them totally away from their references, because the dishes are for the most part influenced by Mediterranean cuisine.

For poetry-loving foodies:

The Poet’s Cookbook: Recipes from Germany, poems by 33 American poets with German translations

The Poet’s Cookbook: Recipes from Tuscany, poems by 28 Italian and American poets

I love the original concept of these books, pairing a food poem with a recipe. A poem by our Food Poetry Editor, Christina Daub, “Wine“, appears in the Tuscany version.

Farming: A Hand Book, by Wendell Berry

As a Kentuckian, Wendell Berry has forever been my mentor. He is, in my mind, the precursor of the Slow Food philosophy in the U.S., through the philosophy he has cultivated and spread for over 50 years now, well before Petrini and company started the Slow Food movement. Whether writing prose or poetry, he is always eloquent, and the same message of integrity, respect for others and for the land is the central message. This is one more inspiring book of poetry to add to our shelves of books to keep forever, that will comfort us in times of trouble, that we will pick up time and time again when we’re losing faith in humanity, devastated by the disrespect shown to the land, losing touch with our roots. Berry always says what he thinks in all his eloquence and with true gentillesse, but more than that, he lives the life he preaches, and that is consoling.

For food lovers, wine lovers, and culinary travelers:

Food Wine Rome, by David Downie and Alison Harris, published by The Little Bookroom, part of The Terroir Guides series

Food Wine Burgundy, by David Downie and Alison Harris, published by The Little Bookroom, part of The Terroir Guides series

Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, by David Downie

David Downie writes wonderful articles for The Rambling Epicure and Alison does exquisite food photo exhibits for our Food Art section. I can never get enough of their work, because the writing is exquisite and full of literary and historical references, and the photos are truly art. Downie always shows you the insider’s view of whatever he writes about, and Alison has a great eye for catching the very essence of what they’re covering, whether it be truffle hunting or discovering little out-of-the way restaurants in isolated villages. You can never go wrong with their books.

For bread lovers:

Dictionnaire Universel du Pain, by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac

Jean-Philippe de Tonnac also writes for The Rambling Epicure, and has recently become THE bread writer all bakers want to meet. This book should in my mind be translated into English immediately. It offers a wealth of information about bread from time immemorial, covering techniques and breads from around the world, as well as spirituality, sex, gluten intolerance, bakers as poets, bakers as prophets and much more. “Encyclopedia” would be a more appropriate term than “dictionary”.

Mindful eating:

The Self-Compassion Diet: Guided Practices to Lose Weight with Loving-Kindness by Jean Fain

Jean Fain has tried every diet out there, so she can speak with authority about the subject of weight loss. She is also affiliated with Harvard Medical School as a psychotherapist, so she has the credentials to talk about the subject. Her book takes a totally different approach to weight loss than any I’ve seen. She doesn’t count calories and restrict what you eat. Her approach is instead through the mind, to become mindful of what we eat, when we eat (when stressed or lonely, for example), why we eat (out of need to nourish ourselves or out of boredom or frustration); to appreciate what we eat, and above all to be conscious of our entire relationship with food.

The book teaches you how to take control of yourself and your relationship to food so that you can change the way you think about food in general, so that eating becomes a totally different experience. Jean does this through loving-kindness, self-hypnosis, meditation and numerous other weight-loss approaches, which you follow gradually, not all in one go. She also offers a CD including guided meditations to help patients after they have stopped therapy.

Her main thrust is self-love, that we must not be too hard on ourselves, or we’ll fall back in to our old and bad habits quickly. The beauty of the book and CD combination is that you can live half way around the planet and still follow her method.

For lovers of literature: food essays and prose:

Slow Food: Collected Thoughts on Taste, Tradition, and the Honest Pleasures of Food, by Carlo Petrini and Ben Watson

This book consists of an anthology of articles by the world’s top food writers, making me remember the old days when we’d visit the family in the countryside and how I thought it odd that they grew all their vegetables themselves and knew how to can them; how they drank milk straight from the cow (one of my fondest childhood memories), and how we relished in those meals, how it built bonds between us. “Drawn from five years of the quarterly journal Slow (only recently available in America), this book includes more than 100 articles covering eclectic topics from “Falafel” to “Fat City.” From the market at Ulan Bator in Mongolia to Slow Food Down Under, this book offers an armchair tour of the exotic and bizarre. You’ll pass through Vietnam’s Snake Tavern, enjoy the Post-Industrial Pint of Beer, and learn why the lascivious villain in Indian cinema always eats Tandoori Chicken.”

For pastry makers and lovers:

Mich Turner’s  Masterclass: The Ultimate Guide to Cake Decorating Perfection, by Mich Turner, published by Jacqui Small LLP, London

Mitch Turner’s cake decorating book is worthy of a fine art book in its presentation, and of an encyclopedia in terms of the detailed explanations about cake decorating. Her pastry and cakes are truly works of art. A must for all pastry makers, whether professional or amateur.

Food art:

From Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography, by Hélène Dujardin

This book is special for many reasons. There are lots of people out there trying to learn food photography without a clue as to even the basic techniques required and no possibility of taking a food photography workshop. This is the book for them, because all the basics plus quite a lot more are explained in a clear, direct manner. It also verges on being an art book, because it is illustrated by Dujardin’s beautiful food photography.

 

 

 

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Simon Says: Daily Food Quote, June 15, 2011

By Wednesday, June 15, 2011 Permalink 0

by Simón de Swaan

A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which the food comes.–Wendell Berry (1934-)

Wendell Berry is a Kentucky poet, novelist, essayist, philosopher and farmer. He has always remained close to the land, continuing to farm on his family farm, and this is reflected in much of his work. His most well known book, The Unsettling of America, provides a classic critique of industrial agriculture which is foundational to today’s agrarianism and a precursor of the Slow Food movement and the current food revolution taking place in the U.S.

The American Poetry Foundation says of Berry: “Critics and scholars have acknowledged Wendell Berry as a master of many literary genres, but whether he is writing poetry, fiction, or essays, his message is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish.”

 

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Simon Says: Daily Food Quote, June 7, 2011

By Tuesday, June 7, 2011 Permalink 0

by Jonell Galloway

One of the most important resources that a garden makes available for use, is the gardener’s own body. A garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support. It is a way of rejoining the human race.Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry was born in Kentucky in 1934. He has always promoted a responsible kind of agriculture that is integrated into one’s everyday life. Because he promoted this vision of food and agriculture long before the Slow Food movement started, he is viewed by Slow Food as having laid the foundation for the American Slow Food movement and the move toward a more sustainable and ethical agriculture.

You can view his books and biography on the official Wendell Berry site.

Click here to listen to the 2-part series “Building a Slow Food Nation,” including an interview with Wendell Berry.

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A Thought for Food: One Woman’s Journey into the World of Slow Food

By Tuesday, April 5, 2011 Permalink 0

by Meeta Khurana Wolff

A Thought for Food – Slow Food

Eating poorly or inadequately in our fast food culture is easy. Overworked and stressed, we rush out to find a quick bite and often find solace in a burger or a hot dog. The temptation of sugar, salt and fat feel good while we are eating it, but it really does little to satisfy us. It is convenient at the time and stills our hunger. Dinner might be a quick microwave meal, frozen pizza ready in minutes in the oven, or even take out. Looking at the long-term effects, it will make our family and us fat, lazy and sick!

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Simon Says: January 31, 2011

By Monday, January 31, 2011 Permalink 0

The aroma of food can be responsible for as much as 90 percent of its flavor. Scientists now believe that human beings acquired the sense of taste as a way to avoid being poisoned.–Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation

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