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My day at the Academia Barilla, Parma

A meal in a library with some of Europe’s oldest recipe books and menus is even more special because of the gourmet cooking class that precedes it

By Anoothi Vishal

Last week, in the heart of Parma, that lovely region of Italy known for its ham and cheese amongst other things, I got a chance to live out my masterchef, er, apprentice dream! Yes, those have been my two favourite shows of television. And no, I am not mixing them up. But fact is that as I stood trying (unsuccessfully) to dice up carrots into very small and absolutely uniform cubes, to debone quail (with some success), make lollipops out of legs (!) and watch a pot of risotto bubble, I crossed over, albeit for just the tiniest fraction of time, from observer to observed, from taster to creator, from food critic to not-quite-chef but certainly a legit kitchen-apprentice taking lessons from not one but three masterchefs; Indian and Italian!

But, first, the context.

The Academia Barilla in Parma, established a couple of years ago, is rather an amazing resource centre for not only those who seek deeper knowledge of local regional produce but for anyone with the remotest interest in gastronomy and indeed food as a centerpiece of a larger culture. Housed within the academy set up by the food MNC (Barilla, after all, equals pasta in many markets where it is dominant, if not quite as yet in India) is a rare collection of books on food going back almost two centuries. The oldest manuscript here (from Milan) dates back to 1815, there are tomes on garlic and formaggio, on chocolate and fungi and aphrodisiacs, and such curious collectibles as a seating plan from the 19th century for 13 guests round the dinner table—whether as a parody of the Last Supper housed nearby in Milan incidentally or otherwise is not clear.

For anyone researching the history of communal eating in Europe, there is also a large section on some of the earliest menus on the continent that came into being, as it is recorded, only in 1810. It was only then that the traditional, centuries-old “French service”, where food was put on the table all at the same time, ironically, contrary to how we use the term today, gave way to a newer Russian service with the meal being presented in courses. Menu cards thus came into play, propped up before each guest, to explain the sequence of events and often these would be embellished with art and even a celebrity autograph or two. At the academy, it is possible to see some early examples and compare these with those of a hundred years later.

In the centre of the library that houses the books and the collectibles is a cheerful dining table. All you need to do is take your place and tuck into the quiet sense of history and culture that permeates the air as well as into the luscious Fontina cheese-fondue that can be wiped off with cabbage involtini (grilled roll-ups really that invoke the spring roll for many of us bred on Indian-Chinese) with just a hint of juniper in its midst and rather more of the Parmigiano-Reggiano; this after all is the big cheese’s home country. The menu crafted for us by chef Mario Grazia, presiding at the academy, also has an easy-enough-to-attempt-at home pumpkin risotto and stuffed quail wrapped with prosciutto di Parma, famed cured meats from this region, that may well qualify as the star of the meal – if not entirely because your columnist helped cook them!

Cooking vacations are now a part of many “offbeat” itineraries for luxury travelers around the world. And indeed nothing can give you the sense of a place, its history and its people than the simple (or complex) rituals of using local produce and local cooking methods to produce something for your palate. That’s why, increasingly, a small but growing set of well-heeled “experience” junkies all around the world as well as in India are now turning to food to unravel the mysteries of civilization.

If Bangkok has its immensely popular the Blue Elephant School for Thai cooking (as well as several other smaller, picturesque ones) known to even those of us in India who can’t get over the malls, the banks of the Seine its La Cuisine Paris and others of the ilk, if even the “serious” Culinary Institute of America not to mention the huge network of Le Cordon Blue schools are seeing their ranks swell thanks to weekend foodies and gourmet travelers, who would much rather attend local markets and cook lunch with their buys than “site-see” or shop-hop, the academy in Parma too could well be a destination for the foodie tourist.

Afternoon cooking classes can be as basic or involved as you like and are priced at upwards of Euros 300 per person, per class. And it would be possible to spend a couple of days visiting the nearby cheese and pasta factories not to mention salumi centres even as you do courses in dolci, primi, mains and more.

Back in the kitchen, chef Grazia, seems a relaxed man. His kitchen is possibly a much less chaotic space than it would surely have been let out to a bunch of bumbling amateurs. In their place we have two of India’s most assured chefs specializing in contemporary European cuisine. Caperberry’s Abhijeet Saha and Olive’s Manu Chandra may bring different sensibilities and personalities to the table, but, here, at Barilla, they work in tandem, deftly, finishing off each other’s dishes, anticipating, waiting, even cleaning, not to mention helping us, the unskilled, prep the food — sometimes sternly, sometimes with a lazy wave of the hand, rarely with class-teacherly approval.

As the last of the dishes get plated up and the wine uncorked, we head to the library. It’s been a meal worth cooking. And eating.

(The column appeared in the Financial Express on Dec 11, 2011)

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One Response to “My day at the Academia Barilla, Parma”

  1. Martina says:

    ooohh.. so lovely! do you have any photos of the day?