Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Day 2 - Assagi

A motion picture is nothing more than a series of still frames, viewed rapidly one after another, to give the appearance of motion. Life, too, may be seen as a series of discreet episodes, occurring one after another in time, but when viewed from a the distance of memory, appear to be a seamless and purposeful progression. Today was a series of such minute moments. But when viewed together, afterwards, they give the impression of a seamless whole.

I wake a few minutes before the beginning of the big "confectionary workshop," the trade show organized by the Italian Trade Commission to introduce U.S. buyers to local Abruzzo producers of confectionary products. Much effort has been spent to produce an introductory video that will be used not just with this small group of buyers, but also to a more general audience over time. Today we will view this introduction and meet 11 local confectionary producers, taste their products, have an opportunity to ask them questions about those products and their ability to supply the U.S. market and exchange contact information with them.

But I am not thinking of this as I struggle to the sala di colazione for breakfast. It has been nearly 10 hours since I have eaten and yesterday's bacchanalia has begun to wear off. Breakfast is a must. Like a shark (or a flaming Michael Jackson) that must keep moving forward in order to survive, I feel that I must continue to eat or possibly perish. It is a recurring theme for the day, and perhaps, a hallmark of my Italian travel experience (you need only look at previous trip reports for evidence of this).

I arrive for breakfast as all of my compatriots are departing, apparently slightly behind schedule. No worry, for the typical Italian hotel breakfast is self serve. While breakfast in Italy is always nutritious and ultimately satisfying, it is a bedraggled spectacle, generally devoid of joy and lifeless, like a voluptuous victim of a vampire - the curves and sensuous flesh are evident, but there is a pallor and emptiness that belies the world of the living. It is hard to understand why a culture where food plays such a central role fails to show up for the first meal of the day.

I chow down on a couple slices of prosciutto and bread, a little cheese and some terrific coffee (the Italians may be soulless when it comes to breakfast, but their morning meal atheism does not permit them to play the caffeine agnostic). I finish up in less time than it takes me to eat breakfast at home, run up to the room and then head back to the "garden terrace," the rooftop restaurant (where breakfast was served), which will be our home for the next several hours.
In a nondescript conference room a dozen tables are arranged along the perimeter, one for each of the exhibitors to display his array of Abruzzo confections. It is around these tables that serious commerce will take place - the first impressions of product and purchaser will be made, relationships will develop and, hopefully, new products that will enhance the well being and happiness of the American consumer (and the bank balances of artisinal Abruzzese) will be sent on their way to the new world.

And so we talk. And so we learn. And so we impress and strut and preen. But above all, we taste. I am certainly not complaining, but we taste. Small bites of parrozzo, a rustic bread covered in chocolate that is a traditional confection of the Abruzzo. And parrozzo inverso, which is a rustic bread that is covered with sugar, with the traditional chocolate covering inside. And mini-parrozzo, which is a traditional Abruzzo confection of rustic bread covered in chocolate in tiny bite sized portions. And parrozzo with mandorle (almonds). And parrozzo with walnuts. And pocket sized parrozzo. You get the point.

When we finish with the parrozzo, we move to the next table, where a beautifully dressed Italian man tells us stories of a traditional rustic bread called pane dell'orso, named after the local bear (orso) that inhabits the many national parks in the region. The pane is renowned throughout the region as a traditional dessert. We try the one in the round blue box. We try the smaller version in the square red box. We try the one covered with chocolate that is sold in rectangular boxes. We are curious how this bear cake is different from the parrozzo, the very popular name given to the other traditional cake because it was invented by the popular local poet, Gabrielle D'Annunzio. No difference. It is just named after a bear instead.

The Italians (I think) use the word "assagi" from the verb assagiare, meaning "to taste" to denote a taste or a sample. But assagio - a taste - to me connotes more a try, as in "try, try again." The problem with today's assagi, is that while I fully agree that one should try, try again if one does not first succeed, it is another matter altogether to try, try, try when the very first attempts have been successful. I liked the parrozzo. I lived the parrozzo inverso. I liked the pane dell'orso in the red box, and the one in in the green box. Yet I find myself trying each variation, each different packaging. Something is wrong here; the center cannot hold. I began tasting (assagiare) at about 10:30 and it is now after 11:00. I have eaten about a dozen desserts that, like the the Grinchly Christmas presents of the Whos are wrapped in " " . And I have visited only two of nearly a dozen vendors. I am in danger of a real life death by chocolate.

The onslaught continues. More rustic breads and then on to confetti - candy covered almonds that are the specialty of Sulmona, a small mountain town in the Abruzzo. They come, of course, in literally hundreds of varieties, but what catches my eye is the floral presentations that incorporate one or a few pieces in a decorative flower. These are arranged in large flower arrangements that are placed in centerpieces on tables at Italian weddings, christenings and other important occasions.

Torrone, the chocolate covered nougat treat that I though had originated in the Piemonte is, we find out, an Abruzzo specialty. At least according to the Abruzzese, that is. They actually claim that they took the traditional torrone and made a version "morbido," or soft. What is beyond question is the softer variety is delightful and so I taste offerings from a number of producers including the Sorelle Nurzia (the Nurzia Sisters), an establishment dating back to the 1800s. Their pitchman is a pitchwoman, one of those ever so attractive and stylish, self assured women that Italy seems to produce better than the rest of the world. I could eat chocolate and listen to her for the rest of the day.

But there are more tables to visit, more confections to try, including the liquorice offering from the Liquoirizia Menozzi de Rosa. They offer a liquorice root, which one chews and sucks on to extract the liquorice extract. It is a wholly unsatisfying experience, like chewing on a pencil. But their liquirice, which comes in two forms - hard pellets of concentrated liquorice and soft, chewy strands, more akin to American twizzlers - is memorable, even for someone such as myself that generally detests liquorice. The pellets, in particular, while shockingly strong (curiously strong?) leave a pleasant and long lasting taste impression.

And so I finally retire from the tasting room, having sampled many of the wonders of the Abruzzo confectionary universe, suffering an acute case of Dunlops syndrome. It is approaching 1:00 and there is much more to do today. But first we must spend another hour with our producer hosts over, you guessed it, lunch.

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