A penchant for cardigans, spy novels and pop culture connections.
Italian Modern Pastry Program
When I first visited The ALMA School in December last year, plenty stood out. So much in fact that when I tried to describe it to friends and family at the kitchen table over Christmas feasts, the best I could do was a clunky and awkward pop-culture metaphor, and only recently did I realise how inaccurate I could have been.
In truth it is so much more than “The Hogwarts of Gastronomy.” I know this because I realised I needed to read or – as I eventually did – watch at least one Harry Potter to come to that conclusion. There is no worse feeling like that of succumbing to the realisation of what a complete and utter dick you sound when using such a lazy description of somewhere or someone. ‘It’s a good thing I wasn’t trying to make it factual’ I later thought to myself (in Christmas food coma).
That ‘more’ lies in the heart of the classroom, a communal place of learning and information exchange. There is a special kind of soul that beats here; one where neither the chef, the teacher nor the pupil are the stars but gastronomy, the art of gastronomy ebbs and weaves between words and ferocious beatings of spatulas, knives and chopping board etiquette. The “galeotto” does not live here, nor could he; this is not an environment conducive to shouting or severity but one where the art of civility – as our Kris Pathirana discovered – is first and foremost.
Take one teacher, a class of ten international students, add one lingua comuna – English, a photographer and well, me any my size 12 (and by the end of the day – very sore) feet and place them in a room together. Where one would think that a hot summer’s day would be the worst place to learn about the art of semifreddo making, it is possibly the best place to discover what the school really is; a cultural attaché; in a world where hyperbole is rewarded and twitter is the instrument, this is more like teaching in a time forgotten, where John Le Carre and Ian Fleming may have also learnt their craft of diplomacy and retain their very Englishness at Mi6.
Wiretaps and knowing how to kill a man with a paperclip is however not on the menu at ALMA. Instead, culture is taught through the kitchen, through gastronomy as a tool and where pastry creates the cultural cut through of a passage through an Italian village, town and city.
Pastry is business in Italy. It has a special place in the homes of Italians because pastry and pastry making is different. It cannot be like the French glazed and buttery surprises you find in patisseries, there is a cultural nuance – like everything else in Italy – that gives a sense of belonging, a terroir of flavour and identity. Where cannoli are more common in Sicily than say, Milan; Pandoro is Verona and only found south of the city after Amazon announce their global Black Friday. The list goes on. Pastry is the full stop at the end of a signature, marking clearly where each and every dish comes from on the peninsula.
“Students are always surprised by how sweet it tastes” Alessandro Masia, Chef-lecturer tells me. “Sugar was used as a preservative don’t forget, and in places like Sicily, it formed part of their trade routes as well. Now, our palates have changed, we are slowly reducing it, but cassata can only be cassata if you have ricotta, sugar and candied fruits.”
“In the real world, in restaurants, in hotels, what the students need to take away the most is that, whilst they may be inconvenienced for not having the same facilities or not having ingredients delivered on time, we need to teach them how to open their horizons, and that they need to be knowledgeable in the practical side and not just the theoretical. What we need to remember and never move away from is that the methodology you find here at the ALMA school is to bring Italian, real Italian culture to the world.”
The students on the course all hail from different backgrounds, knowledge bases and of course countries. From Brazil to Slovakia, South Korea to Israel, each with limited experience, knowledge and yet, in the course of the day, they are creating the kinds of desserts that would take me at least a year to have the patience to learn. Note-taking, the kind that makes the Type A characters on TV like Amy Santiago (Brooklyn 99) or Leslie Knope (Parks & Recreation) look over-prepared are indeed an element of the learning as well.
I asked Andrea Vignali, our Press assistant for the day, “why is there so much detail in their notepads?” his answer was simple, “they not only need to convey the recipe but the flavour, the tasting notes, mouthfeel – everything that you can think of that makes recreation essential at this stage of their learning. Without those elements, you get a good cake/pastry/semifreddo, but you don’t know if it is… ‘right.’”
The note-taking is on a level of prodigious, the mini magnum style surprises, however, are magnificent. They are dipped in a raspberry coating, blast chilled, then coated in melted and aerated chocolate – importantly at 35% to “provide a real chocolate taste.”
The result is the greatest ‘magnum’ I’ve ever tasted, so much so that it made me understand Proust’s “Search of Lost Time” madeleine moment so much clearer than before. I was a child again, I was in my village in southern Italy, I was running away from the shopkeeper whose window I’d accidentally broken with a well-placed free-kick and I was rewarding myself with – you guessed it, a magnum… Proust probably didn’t mean “think back to the time you were a child tyrant” but, I blame the semifreddo.
Throughout the day though, this is the common thread. It is the best of everything I’ve ever tasted before – including the tiramisú – sorry mum, aunty, nonna… A demonstration, more intricate note-taking, even more, fantastic desserts; all done with a level of curiosity and perfection you would expect from students a year into a course and yet, with only 7 weeks under their belt. “In two weeks, they go into professional kitchens, some Michelin starred, some traditional osterias. Their stagé lasts months, but before they go, they need to be up to speed.”
It leaves you wondering what you could achieve with 7 weeks of solid practice in anything really. Maybe I could learn Piano Man by Billy Joel on piano or knock up the best meal anyone has ever tasted if I had 10 hours a day to do so. And it is that replication that is truly admirable. They are learning about Italy, it’s culture and sticking in a shift because as Andrea told me, “when they go into these kitchens, these are the hours they will be doing. They need to be prepared.”
Perfect Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance is not a mantra of the school but it could quite easily be. International students start at a disadvantage in some ways, but they are equally at an advantage because they have no local territorial bias; they will experience the cuisine of the school, the terroir of the area, the food that they will make in the kitchens and tasting the food of those who end up becoming their colleagues as well.
But it all starts here at ALMA. And so the question must be, how do you transfer the Italian palate to those who aren’t engrossed in the culture? How can territorial acumen be transferred to students in a short space of time, especially to those that hail from cultures so drastically different?
There is no definite answer to it, but maybe that is the point in many ways. You can be from the depths of Ganges but still fall in love with Shakespeare; Stratford Upon Avon may never be visited but his words will ignite even when talking about Henry V or a very English tragedy.
“Italian pastry, like all of Italian cooking rewards the prime ingredient,” Chef Masia told me. “My personal ambition is that when they go back to their respective countries, they bring with them, a sense of Italian culture, an Italian identity of pastry – which exists, and isn’t just French, but one based as I said on the prime ingredient. If they created a dish that had the technical markings of an Italian pastry but with their local twist, that’s what would bring me true joy.”
Food connects people, it does it on a macro and micro level. Where a table is a place to talk, to eat, to discover. From global politics to the local farmer; it is our most powerful tool of education – when unlocked – it explains nearly everything.
Connecting culture and passing it on to a new world – and one that isn’t Italian – can only be a good thing; it keeps Italy and its culture alive. The Hogwarts of Gastronomy it isn’t, it’s something much more important than that.