Eggs in Italy – Why Is the Yolk Orange?

egg-fried-private-italy-walking-toursEven the most ordinary of foods can seem special and of higher quality when we experience them in Italy. A question asked over breakfast, as one of our guests cracks open a lovely soft boiled egg and is presented with the creamy yolk,“Why is the egg yolk so orange?” We’ve had many a conversation on this subject, and learned a lot from the various chefs we’ve worked with on our cycling and hiking tours. From them we’ve learned eggs are even named according to the color of their yolks, with yellows referred to as giallo dell’uovo, and the more highly prized orange yolked eggs called rosso d’uovo. But why are the yolks so orange, and why are they better?

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Using eggs in our Tiramisu

In a 1915 paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Dr. Leroy Palmer identified the chemicals that determine yolk coloring, a class of carotenoids called xanthophylls. Carotenoids are pigment molecules produced primarily by plants, and are only available to animals via diet. They include precursors to vitamin A, and many have been shown to have antioxidant capabilities.

egg-orange-yolk-private-italy-walking-toursHens that truly are pasture-raised, foraging on green plants and bugs, have a diet full of these carotenoids. As a result, their yolks have this bright orange color, so this color is a sign of a healthy diet full or nutrients.

egg-code-private-italy-walking-toursIn order to assist European consumers determine the source of their eggs, EU regulations dictate that each egg sold must be marked with an “egg code”, which allows the consumer to identify the source of the egg, the method of production – organic production, free-range, deep litter indoor housing or cage farming – even a registration number indicating the hen laying establishment.

But purchasing an egg from “free-range” hens does not guarantee bright orange yolks. This is because these chickens are not milling around in an open pasture, but in reality only have access to a small patch of dirt devoid of any plant life or bugs to feast upon, that is next to the large barn they share with hundreds of other hens. They are fed a grain based diet, albeit often organic – you’ll see US producers actually advertising that their hens are fed an organic all-vegetarian diet. In Europe, where this orange color is valued, producers sometimes supplement their feed with xanthophylls derived from natural sources, like marigold leaves, orange peels, carrots, annatto seeds, or green feed like alfalfa. So knowing the farm that sources your eggs is important.

free-range-hens-private-italy-walking-toursAnother interesting difference appears when we go to the market to purchase eggs. We expect to find them in a refrigerated case, as they are sold in the US. Instead, they are on a shelf at room temperature. In order to prevent salmonella, US egg producers are required by the USDA to thoroughly wash the eggs before they go to market. They’re rinsed in hot water, dried and sprayed with a chlorine mist immediately after gathering. This washing removes a thin, naturally occurring coating on the egg, called the cuticle, which prevents any contamination from penetrating the shell. In Europe, producers instead vaccinate laying hens to prevent the transmission of salmonella, and then do not wash the eggs, leaving the protective cuticle intact. Here, refrigeration is actually discouraged, as cooling and then warming could create condensation, which would allow salmonella to penetrate the shell.

egg-scrambled-private-italy-walking-toursSomething as simple as a healthy egg doesn’t need a lot of other ingredients to shine in a dish. Scrambled or fried eggs, garnished with minced chives, or perhaps a shaving of truffles to bring it over the top. A dinner during a visit to Piemonte featured a private table in the kitchen itself, where we were served lovely golden agnolotti, made with only egg yolks. A poached egg topping of a plate of Spaghetti Carbonara. Thankfully, I’m beginning to find eggs like these – great quality, pastured raised, with the signature bright orange yolks – here in the US. And they are, interestingly enough, not necessarily the most expensive egg on sale!

Uova con Tartufo

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
6 large eggs, beaten
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon snipped chives
1 small fresh truffle

In a large nonstick skillet, melt the butter. Add the eggs and season with salt and pepper. Cook over moderate heat, stirring gently until the eggs are creamy with large, soft curds, about 4 minutes. Stir in the chives and place the scrambled eggs onto warmed plates. Thinly shave the truffle all over the scrambled eggs and serve immediately.

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Bistecca alla Fiorentina – Tuscany’s Great Steak Dinner

bistecca-cycling-tour-italyA culinary highlight of our Tuscany cycling and walking tours is not necessarily what one would expect in Italy – an amazing steak dinner – Bistecca alla Fiorentina. A classic dish of this region, this thick cut large steak is grilled over a wood or charcoal fire, simply seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil just after grilling. Bistecca are sold by weight, usually starting about 1 kg (2.2 pounds), so are typically shared between two or more, making the meal a fun, communal experience.

chianina-cattle-walking-tours-tuscanyIn Tuscany, this dish showcases the regions native breed of cattle, the Chianina. One of the largest breeds of cattle in the world, cows average 1700 pounds, and mature bulls around 2700 pounds, and can be as large as 3500 pounds. They are distinctive, with their immense size, white color and well-defined musculature. The name comes from their area of origin, Valdichiana (Chiana Valley) in Tuscany, on the plains near Arezzo and Siena.

tuscany-abbey-view-private-cycling-tourThe Chianina is one of the oldest breeds of cattle in existence. They were the models for the cattle depicted in Roman sculptures, and praised by the Georgic poets, Columella and Vergil. Chianina were originally used by farmers as draft animals and for road transport. They adapted well to the steep hill terrain and well suited to the mixed agriculture and small farms of the mezzadri (sharecroppers). Since the introduction of mechanized methods in the early 20th century, they are now rarely seen out and about and are bred solely for meat production.

bistecca-market-walking-tour-tuscanySince the Second World War the Chianina has spread worldwide, raised almost exclusively for its high quality meat. Through exportation of breeding stock, Chianina has reached China, Russia, Asian countries and the Americas, where it has been cross-bred with Angus. But no dining experience compares to enjoying a Bistecca and a glass of Brunello on a terrace overlooking the Valdichiana.

montepulciano-view-private-bike-tours-tuscanyTo come close to recreating the experience at home:

  1. Buy a quality large T-bone steak, called Porterhouse here in US. Both are cut from the short loin area of the beef. A center “T-Bone” divides two sides of the steak. On one side is a tenderloin filet; the other is a top loin which is also known as a New York Strip Steak. A Porterhouse must be at least 1.25″ thick at its widest point to qualify labeling as a Porterhouse steak, while a T-Bone steak must be at least 0.25″ thick. In Tuscany, a Bistecca would be served to two or more people.
  2. bistecca-carving-walking-tour-tuscanyGrill over hardwood charcoal – not briquets – over very high heat. Allow steak to come to room temperature before grilling. Sear over high heat, 3 – 4 minutes per side for a 2-inch thick steak. This is to be served VERY RARE, “al sangue”. If you have guests who prefer well-done, have a couple of strip steaks to cook for them!
  3. No sauce, season simply with sea salt, freshly ground pepper and a drizzle of great olive oil immediately after removing from heat. Allow to rest for 10 – 15 minutes before cutting.
  4. The meat is typically cut away from the bone, then cut into 1/4 inch slices and divided among the diners. The chef gets to decide who gets to enjoy the bone.
  5. Serve with simple sides – roasted potatoes, white beans. Grilled porcini mushrooms are a nice treat when in season.

Enjoy with a great Tuscan wine – a Chianti, or splurge on a Brunello di Montalcino.

brunello-walking-tour-tuscany

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Wines for Thanksgiving – Pairing Italian Wines with your Turkey Feast

wine-selection-walking-tour-italyThis uniquely American holiday embraces the same traditions as Italians keep during their numerous festivals and feast days – gathering family and friends to observe the day with a celebratory meal of dishes that reflect the history of their families and culture. In past posts I’ve shared some Italian-themed dishes that might play a role on a Thanksgiving table, like Pumpkin Soup or Cranberry Mostarda. Another way to bring some of Italy into the holiday is by pairing some great Italian wines with the meal – from sparklers to crisp whites to reds, there are plenty of options. Both as a tourist, and now leading food and wine tours, I’ve been visiting Italian wine producers for over 15 years now, and a common theme I’ve heard from producers all over the peninsula is that Italian wines are created to pair with food. What better wines to select for this food-centric holiday!

Sparkling Wines

Prosecco

Prosecco would be a great addition to the Thanksgiving table, either as an aperitif, with a deep-fried turkey, or a sweeter prosecco with pumpkin pie. But with the plethora of prosecco crowding the shelves, how do you spot a high quality one?

col-vetoraz-prosecco-custom-bike-toursThis dramatic growth in popularity has brought to market many so-called “Prosecco” suppliers who are not located in the traditional hill-region that produces the best grapes, and do not adhere to the same quality standards. In an effort to combat this trend, a new quality designation was earned by the sparking wines from the original Valdobbiadene to Conegliano area – the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita.) This is the highest quality designation for Italian wines.

prosecco-fascetta-cycling-tour-italySo look for the DOCG phrase on the label. The bottle will also often bear a distinctive fascetta, or band, which covers the cork. This verifies the producer has followed the rules, paid their taxes and are not exceeding the restrictions on yields and production. Prosecco is labeled according to the amount of sugar that remains after fermentation; the sweetest are “Dry”, best with a dessert, then “Extra-Dry”, with the driest versions labeled “Brut”, best for that aperitif or with savory foods. Another phrase you may see on the bottle is “Millisimato”. Most sparkling wines are produced from grapes from multiple years. Millesimato spumante wines are produced from grapes grown in a single year. Finally, within the Prosecco DOCG area, there are two sub-zones that are considered the best of the best, the “Grand Cru” vineyards. The names to look for here are Cartizze or Rive.

col-vetoraz-vineyards-cartizze-bike-tours-italy
Hills of Cartizze

Proseccos from the surrounding areas in Veneto and Fruili regions are labeled Prosecco DOC. Proseccos from other regions in Italy are labeled with the IGT designation, indicating more of a table wine, and display a wide range of quality levels.

Other Sparklers

Other quality sparklers from Italy are the champagne style wines from the TRENTODOC or Franciacorta.

White Wines

My favorite white wines in Italy come from the northeastern regions, the Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Guila and Trentino-Alto Adige.

Pinot Bianco

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Tasting Pinot Bianco at Elena Walch

Try a Pinot Bianco from Trentino-Alto Adige. Pinot Bianco is not Pinot Grigio, although they are both members of the Pinot family, both color mutations of Pinot Noir. Pinot BIanco is a bit rounder, less fruity, more apple and pear than Pinot Grigio. Wines from Pinot Bianco need a crisp acidity, which the cooler climates of this northern region deliver. There are many lower quality Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco from Italy, but two producers that export to the US that I highly recommend are Elena Walch and Tiefenbrunner. A Pinot Bianco would pair well with a classic oven roasted turkey.

Gewurztraminer

tramin-gewurztraminer-walking-tour-italyOne of my favorite whites from this region is Gewurztraminer. The name translates to “the spicy wine from Tramin”, a town in Alto Adige we visit during our walking and cycling tours, and is wonderfully fragrent with notes of floral and lychee nuts, and spices like allspice and cloves. Gewurztraminer pairs well with spicier foods, so if your family is fond of turkey recipes that are Mexican or Asian themed, this would be a great option. Check out wines from Elena Walch or Cantina Tramin.

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Vineyards in Tramin, Italy

Red Wines

The red wines often recommended to pair with your Thanksgiving turkey are Pinot Noir, Grenache, or Zinfandel. Italy produces wonderful versions of all of these, but you might find them difficult to spot in your local wine shop.

Pinot Noir/Pinot Nero/Blauburgunder

blauburgunder-muri-walking-tour-italyPinot Noir in Italy is called Pinot Nero, or in Alto Adige you will see its German name, Blauburgunder. On the lighter side of the red wine spectrum, Pinot Noir is light enough for fish but complex enough to hold up to some richer dishes, making it perfect for the vast array of flavors that Thanksgiving brings. As Pinot Noir thrives best in more northern climates, again I would recommend looking for wines with a DOC designation from Trentino-Alto Adige or Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Abbazia di Novacella, J. Hofstatter and Muri-Gries are quality producers that can be found here in the US.

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Abbazia di Novacella

Grenache/Cannonau

cannonau-walking-tour-italyGrenache wines offer nice fruit flavor with good balance and acidity, and just the right amount of tannins to match well with many different dishes. The most widely planted grape in the world, it is not usually associated with Italy. But the island of Sardinia produces some wonderful Grenache wines, under the local name Cannonau. The Sella and Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva can be found here in the US for around $15 – 17 a bottle.

Zinfandel/Primitivo

primitivo-walking-tour-italyThe strong fruity flavors and tobacco notes of a Zinfandel are an ideal match for rich dark or smoked turkey meat. Another grape variety not normally associated with Italy, it is cultivated in Puglia, the region of Italy that is the spur and heel of the boot. But again, you will not find it sold under the Zinfandel name, but under the local name, Primitivo. The most prestigious Primitivo wines come from the Primitivo di Manduria DOC.

Happy Thanksgiving all!

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Brunelli Wines – Amarone and Valpolicella

cyclist-amarone-cycling-tour-italyThis September, guests on our Bike the Amarone Wine Roads cycling tour enjoyed a private tour and tasting at a wonderful producer of Valpolicella wines, the Brunelli family. The Brunelli name has been closely connected to San Pietro in Cariano, a small valley in the Classic Valpolicella Classico region, whose name derives from the Roman Cariae family. Originally workers on the estate, the family piece by piece purchased this spot in the countryside, and since 1936 have been producing wines here.

san-pietro-cycling-tour-italyThe main objective of the Brunelli Estate is to highlight the typical qualities of the grapes of the Valpolicella area. To quote Alberto Brunelli, “I have discovered, to my surprise, that many wines offer a complex personality. Sometimes it is similar to that of my grandfather; some are more like my father’s character, and yet others offer feminine perfumes and flavors that remind me of my mother and grandmother.” Alberto, in conjunction with his parents Luigi and Luciana, operate the winery today, following  the footsteps of past generations.

tractor-brunelli-cycling-tour-italyOur tour was in early September, just at the start of the harvest, our timing perfect for gaining insight into the production of one of Italy’s most prestigious wines, Amarone. Amarone wines are produced using the appassimento technique, allowing the grapes to dry before squeezing them to extract the juice. The grapes destined for an Amarone are the last to be picked in this zone, and then spend the next three to four months in drying rooms, being carefully desiccated to avoid mold and rot. The grapes not suitable for drying are pressed immediately and destined for Valpolicella wine.

alberto-brunelli-cycling-tour-italyAlberto personally led our tour, and our first stop were the drying rooms. A spacious loft, outfitted with large windows with fans as well as an extensive environmental control system to ensure just the right amount of ventilation and humidity throughout the four month drying process.  The first grapes from the harvest were just making their way into these lofts. The grapes are picked by hand, and any with broken skins are eliminated as the grapes must be unblemished in order to dry without rot. The Corvina grape, the predominant grape in Amarone, is thick skinned, and so well-suited for the drying process.

drying-amarone-cycling-tour-italyThe pristine grapes are carefully laid in a single layer in plastic baskets, which are then stacked on a pallet. At the end of harvest, these plastic baskets fill the loft, extending floor to ceiling. The grapes dry here for 3-4 months, during which they loose 40% of their volume. The grapes are then crushed, and sit on the skins for 40 days, a long slow fermentation at low temperature. allowing the concentrated sugars to convert into alcohol, resulting in Amarone’s characteristic high alcohol level.

private-amarone-cycling-tour-italyThe juice is filtered off, and the wine begins its maturation for two years in barriques and tonneaux. The skins are not done yet, they are given a second role now in the production of Valpolicella “Ripasso”. The skins are then added to Valpolicella wine. These are still impregnated with sugars and yeast cells, and so set off a second fermentation, thus increasing the wine’s level of alcohol, as well as enriching its color, extract and aromas and thus improving its aging potential. The term used to refer to this process, “ripasso”, translates roughly to passing over again.

wine-tasting-cycling-tour-italyBrunelli makes a broad range of wines under the Valpolicella and Amarone DOC and DOCG regulations, including Valpolicella, Valpolicella Ripasso, and a few different Amarone. After our tour, Alberto guided us to a lovely tasting room where he introduced us to some of the stars of their portfolio.

valpolicella-ripasso-cycling-tour-italyWe began with the Pa’ Rionda Valpolicella Ripasso. A blend of Corvina, Rondinella and Corvinone, produced using the traditional Ripasso technique consisting of refermenting a Valpolicella Classico on the skins, still impregnated with sugars and yeast cells, of the semi-dried grapes previously used to make Amarone. It is aged for 12 months in oak and an additional 6 months in the bottel. Intense, with a deep ruby color, well balanced with flavors of currants and blackberries.  is an immediately recognizable product of its area of origin.

Next, their Amarone della Valpolicella. Made from a blend of the same 3 grapes that spent between 3 – 4 months in the drying loft prior to pressing and a 40 day fermentation. The wine is then aged for two years in barriques and tonneaux. After bottling, the Amarone is then kept for at least a further six months in the bottle before being released. Intense red, fruity aroma, and Amarone’s characteristic flavors of currants, berries and cherry. Elegant, well-structured, balanced. Pair with grilled red meats, game, aged cheeses.

titari-amarone-cycling-tour-italyAnother Amarone to try  – their Amarone della Valpolicella Campo del Tìtari. This special selection of Amarone is produced only in the finest vintages and in very limited quantities.  The grapes are very carefully selected through multiple selection stages, a blend of Corvina e Corvinone 75%, Rondinella 15%, and here, a small percentage of Sangiovese 10%. Created to be bold and intense, it displays a deep ruby color. Again aromas of cherries, berries and currants, mingling with vanilla. Robust, nice acidity, and a persistant finish. Alberto shared the origin of the name Campo di Titari, or “Field of Titari” , Titari was the name of the last horse the family owned. Alberto’s father saw similarities between the wine and the horse, both very dark, spicy, lively.

recioto-cycling-tour-italyFinally, we ended with the region’s traditional dessert wine, a Recioto della Valpolicella. The name ‘recioto’ comes from ‘recie’, ears in the local dialect. The ‘ears’ of the grape bunch are those lobes on the top, which receive the most sunlight, and are therefore riper and drier, with more concentrated sugars. These are separated from the remainder of the bunch, dried, and are used to produce this sweet dessert wine. A recioto is fermented less time than an Amarone, to retain some sugar for this sweet wine. In fact, legend has it that Recioto is the grandfather of Amarone, as the very first Amarone was produced when someone forgot to stop the fermentation of a Recioto, and all the sugars were consumed. The result was a very dry wine, which when tasted caused the winemaker to exclaim  “Amarone”, or very bitter (amaro).

amarone-grapes-cycling-tour-italyFor the Brunelli Recioto, he fermentation process lasts 30 days (rather than 40 for the Amarone) and is arrested by chilling the wine, leaving a substantial amount of residual sugars. The wine then matures in oak barriques for around 8 months, then spends another 6 months in bottle before being released onto the market. Deep red, very aromatic with both floral and fruity notes. Flavors of cherry and raisin, as well as sweet spices and caramel. Complex, full-bodied and robust, enjoy with pastries, nuts, fruit desserts and blue cheeses.

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Tagliolini con il Tartufo – Tagliolini with Truffles

tagliatelle-tartufo-cooking-class-walking-tours-italyOne of the most sought-after delicacies of Italy is the truffle. We are fortunate enough to be in truffle producing regions on many of our Italy cycling tours and walking adventures, be it central Italy in Umbria or the northern regions of the Veneto or Piedmont. The use of truffles in all of these regions is quite similar, sharing the philosophy that the star of the show is the truffle, and keeping the rest of the dish simple to let the deep, earthy flavor of the truffle shine through.

tartufo-walking-tours-italyTruffles are a form of fungi, and so are related to mushrooms, as well as yeasts and molds. Truffles are ectomycorrhizal fungi, a fancy name which refers to fungi that grow in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of a plant. In the case of truffles, this is beech, birch, hazel, hornbeam, oak, pine, and poplar trees. Truffles can only thrive in the very particular soil conditions that exists in this forest environment. Each fungus will produce one truffle per year, with the ‘terroir’ – the soil type, tree, and local climate – providing a distinctive aroma and flavor to each truffle.

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Tagliolini with Truffles in restaurant in Vicenza

The scarcity of truffles is due in part to its need for this very specific growing environment, as well as its difficulty to find – it grows completely underground. They are foraged by trifolau, or truffle hunters, who keep their hunting grounds a closely held secret. They are assisted by a trained pig or dog, whose keen sense of smell helps the trifolau locate the truffles. A pig was the animal traditionally employed, as they will naturally seek out truffles, but they naturally seek them because they like to eat them, which can cause problems when they find one. It is said that you can spot a truffle hunter that still uses pigs because he is missing a few fingers. Today trifolau typically use trained dogs.

A reputable trifolau will then carefully excavate the truffle, in order to preserve its environment so he/she can return next year to find another in its place. Poachers do double damage when they steal a truffle, both to the pocketbook of the reputable trifolau, as well as destroying the spore so it will not produce again.

Here is a very classic recipe for truffles found all over Italy, Tagliolini with Truffle. This recipe is translated from Italian, from “La Cucina del Veneto” by Morganti.

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Tagliolini con il Tartufo

Serves 4

4 ounces butter
1 small black or summer truffle, brushed clean and sliced very thin, or coarsely grated
1 pound good quality tagliolini (or tagliatelle or fettucine, if you cannot find tagliolini, as I had to do)
1 tablespoon finely minced parsley or chives
Grana cheese, grated

In a large saute pan, melt the butter and add the truffle. Cook for a few minutes over medium heat, then turn off and keep warm.

Bring a large pot of water to boil, salt well. Cook the tagliolini until just al dente, then drain and add quickly to the pan with butter flavored with truffles. Sprinkle with fine chopped parsley or chives and serve in individual serving dishes. Garnish with grated Grana.

The original recipe recommended pairing with a Bardolino Classico.

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