Farm Girl Meets European Living

Farm Girl Meets European Living

By Michaela D.E. Meyer

I grew up in a small farm community in Nebraska. Our food intake relied largely on what our farm (or neighbor’s farms) produced – beef, pork, corn, soybeans. Farming culture followed a very specific food rhythm – load up as much caloric intake as possible in the morning, work all day in the fields, and then power load again in the evening at dinner. I wasn’t the biggest fan of that traditional “farm-to-table” schedule. I tend to graze in smaller portions, skip meals entirely, and snack randomly on nuts, bread or cheese. When I go out to eat, I often stress about committing to an entrée and instead opt for ordering numerous appetizers to sample.

My relationship to food wasn’t the only indication that a future in farming wasn’t likely – one of the first skills mothers pass on to their daughters in farming communities is cooking. But farm cooking held very little appeal for me. Whereas my mother saw working with the land as a puzzle to be solved, I saw it as a tedious way to have to eat more corn. As I grew up, I never expressed much interest in cooking, often opting to read a book instead of joining in the kitchen ritual each day. I’m pretty sure my mother was convinced I’d never be able to fend for myself in the kitchen.

Fast-forward forty years, and I’ve become something of a foodie. I adore cooking. It’s my favorite time of my day. Planning meals and recipes for the week is perhaps the most enjoyable part of my week. So, what happened?

Italy. Italy happened.

In the summer of 1996 I decided to spend the $1,000 I had saved waiting tables to fly to Europe for an internship program in London. In retrospect, I’m not sure how my parents dealt with this. Pre-technology like Facebook and smart phones, they literally saw me get on a plane and just had to trust that I’d come back. As a college professor who has seen how structured our study abroad and internship programs are now for students, what I signed up for was the equivalent of answering a Craig’s List ad that said “Need American college student to work in London. Will provide housing.”

I started my marketing internship (which was basically cold-calling people and asking them to sign up for meal delivery services) and quickly discovered the only benefit to the job was that if you were efficient and went through your call list quickly, you could leave. So, I started power calling on Mondays, often beating the other interns through the list so that by Wednesday, I didn’t need to come back to work for the week. Instead, I went off and explored Europe. That’s how I ended up in Italy.

Visiting Rome for the first time felt oddly like coming home. The energy, the vibrancy, the smell of the streets – something about it captured me. Shortly after arriving, I checked into my hostel and went out to find somewhere to eat. I wandered down a small back alley and into the tiniest mom-and-pop joint that smelled divine. Once the owners realized I didn’t know Italian, they simply said, “Oh, we take care of you. You will be family.” I was quickly whisked to a table, a glass of wine appeared in front of me, and a small board of cheese, nuts and fruit appeared shortly after. The wine melted deliciously into the cheese exploding across my palate. A variety of other small courses arrived – cured meats, artichokes and olives drenched in olive oil marinade, three varieties of pasta, a chicken picatta that blew my mind. All of these were perfectly paired with portions of wine that enhanced the flavor profile of each course. And at the end of it all, another plate of cheese, small desserts and limoncello. I found my food people. I was home.

I ate dinner at that little place for four days straight. I explored the Colosseum and the Vatican by day and showed up for dinner with my people. I went back to Italy three more times before returning to the States. I was blown away by Tuscany, was under-whelmed with Venice, and enamored with artwork in Florence, yet longed for that little food joint in Rome.

Perhaps that’s why so many years later, it’s still one of my favorite comforts to put together a fantastic cheese plate or charcuterie board. Yes, I understand it’s technically not cooking. But there is an art to selecting the perfect wine pairing for your board, and it’s one that I have devoted numerous hours to cultivating since my return from Europe. Plus, on busy nights, how great is it to come home and throw something delicious and fulfilling together without the fuss of cooking mess?

Enter Adam Centamore – apparently a Harry Potter-level wizard of wine and cheese pairing. His most recent book, Tasting Wine & Cheese, was a Christmas gift, and I was eager to see how my own pairing skills lined up with a master. So, I decided to run three experimental board pairings. In each case, I selected what I would have naturally chosen to pair and then also served something Adam recommended. It’s summer, and hot, so I stuck with chilled wine.

Experiment #1 – Chardonnay

I adore my Chardonnay, especially the La Crema Sonoma Coast. This wine is one of my favorites for its notes of apricot, lemon and vanilla. The oak is subtle enough that it’s not overpowering, making it a great sipping wine – especially given the retail price of about $14. One of my go-to pairings is to serve it with baked brie and bread. My favorite way to prepare it is to bake it with some kind of jam (usually apricot or strawberry), nuts (usually walnuts or almonds), and a drizzle of honey. Adam’s recommendations for Chardonnay noted that goat cheese with lemon and/or honey would be the perfect pairing.

So, I baked my version of brie and served it alongside a goat cheese log dredged in lemon peel and drizzled with honey. We also had some fresh raspberries and a white wine cured salami on hand, so we put those out too.

Results: My pairing was passable. The goat cheese was heavenly. Buttery, melty deliciousness in my mouth! My partner agreed. We may never have Chardonnay with brie again. Winner of the round – Adam.

Experiment #2 – Cava

Often called “Spanish Champagne,” Cava is a light bubbly wine that I enjoy for special occasions because the price tag isn’t nearly that of French Champagnes. In fact, the Rondel Brut Cava simply can’t be beat for the price. At about $9, you get a 90-point wine that has a lovely floral bouquet, and soothing nutty and peach flavors as the bubbles burst against your tongue. My favorite Cava match is typically an aged Spanish Manchego with almonds. Adam recommended a fuller-fat Gruyere from Switzerland with dried apricots.

We had a bit of a special occasion on hand as we celebrated both the baptism of our newborn and my parent’s 47th wedding anniversary. So, I decided to load up a plate with both options and get opinions from the entire room.

Results: My pairing was good, but Adam’s was better. True to his word, the gruyere elegantly balanced the nuttiness of the wine and the apricots added an extra beautiful burst of flavor against the bubbles. Foiled again!

Experiement #3 – Rose

I adore a good dry rose in the summer. I’m particularly fond of Provencal French style rose, which is refreshing on a hot day. Of course, my wine palate comes with a price tag. So when I discovered the Olema Rose ringing in at 92-points and a $17 price tag, I had to try it. It’s become one of my new favorites as its rosy bouquet and delicate strawberry flavor pair well with all kinds of summer food. My favorite cheese pairing with Rose is the “Winey Goat” cheese infused with red wine. Lo and behold, Adam also recommended goat cheese and a rosehip preserve. I couldn’t find any rosehip preserves at the store (because what even IS that?) but I did find this lavender infused goat cheese, so figured that would be worth a shot.

After spending several weeks diligently editing the final page proofs on my recent book (it has nothing to do with food, but if you’re interested in Shonda Rhimes, check it out), I was absolutely exhausted and needed a comfort cheese plate. So, we partnered up the two types of goat cheese with a couple of our favorite cracker varietals.

Results: My Winey Goat won the day! Excellently matched to the strawberry flavor in the rose, and a pleasing texture. The goat cheese with lavender wasn’t nearly as flavor-friendly. Yea, yea, technically he said rosehips, and lavender is different, so I can’t officially claim victory. But I will. Winning!

Overall, it’s been fun flipping through the book whenever we have some extra wine on hand and want to put together either a quick appetizer, an entire meal, or even a dessert board of cheese (I’ll often take a cheese board as dessert over any baked good). I’m particularly looking forward to exploring the red wine section once it starts to cool off in fall and winter.

Who would have known that a farm girl from Nebraska could fall in love with a far-away place so much that it completely altered her everyday practice of food consumption? I often wonder if that little mom-and-pop joint is still there, and if it is, if I could ever find it again if I returned to Rome. It has definitely served as a memory that I try desperately to recreate in the kitchen – from the beauty of the wine and cheese pairings to the chicken picatta recipe I’ve spent 20 years perfecting to the flavor profile of what I experienced there.

Michaela D.E. Meyer is a Professor of Communication at Christopher Newport University who specializes in identity research, particularly related to media. She is a self-taught home cook who enjoys lazy summer days and trashy romance novels. Ever the student, she’s currently fascinated with wine and food pairings, and actively training to become a sommelier.

A special series on cookbooks as cultural objects.

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