Luscious lessons in science of food

Slow Food 101: New university teaches gastronomy, but be ready to speak Italian

December 24, 2006|By Robin Mather Jenkins | Robin Mather Jenkins,Chicago Tribune

POLLENZO, Italy -- The red brick quadrangle was in ruins just a few years ago, but now it's a beautifully renovated showplace and the pride of this tiny village about 37 miles south of Turin in the rolling hills of the Piedmont region.

Not far away are the famous winemaking regions of the Langhe and the Roero. The cities of Barolo, famous for its wine, and Alba, renowned for white truffles, are both less than 10 miles away.

King Carlo Alberto of Savoy built the building, with a large grassy courtyard, as a model farm in 1833. A private organization, the Agenzia di Pollenzo, acquired it in 1999, and reopened it after renovations to house an unusual university.

The University of Gastronomic Science's mission is to train epicures, and Allison Radecki of Montclair, N.J., will be one of its first graduates.

When she learned that the organization she worked for called Slow Food, in conjunction with the regional authorities of Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna, planned to open a private university dedicated to gastronomy, she knew she had to go.

So Radecki, 31, left everything she knew in the States behind, including her fiance and her job as office manager at Slow Food USA in New York. She committed herself to a three-year undergraduate program at the University of Gastronomic Sciences here.

When she joined the university's first class two years ago as one of just 70 students, she spoke a little Italian, she said, because she had worked for a year in Genoa.

She'll graduate next summer or fall, she said. The program still is evolving.

The university is the first of its type in the world, said Carla Ranicki, the school's communications director, as she led a group of Scandinavian visitors around the school.

Other schools offer gastronomy-related courses but their programs are typically more directed to producing food writers and journalists. This program, Ranicki said, is the only one that trains graduates to work with producers or consumers.

The university is one of four organizations under the aegis of the Agenzia di Pollenzo; the agency also oversees a wine bank of 180,000 bottles, a hotel called the Albergo dell'Agenzia and a world-famous restaurant, Guido.

If the lush fields and Alpine foothills surrounding the village seem an unlikely - if beautiful - place to locate a university, it will help to understand that Pollenzo is within virtual shouting distance of the city of Bra, where the Slow Food movement was born under the leadership of Carlo Petrini.

But the university is not a cooking school; graduates aren't trained as chefs. Instead, they take classes like "Sensory Analysis 1: Elements of Consumer Science with Practical Work," "History of Food 1" and "History of Cuisine and Gastronomy." They also study botany, microbiology, zoology, viticulture, chemistry, and economics and statistics.

And Italian. About half the courses are taught in Italian, Radecki said; the rest are in English. First-year students get intensive language instruction but, as she said, "Can you imagine trying to learn microbiology in Italian? I would have a hard time with that in English!"

Radecki recalled a lecture in which the instructor was talking about a certain method of drying pasta. "They use a special kind of rod, called a cane," she said. "But cane is also the Italian word for dog. I was so confused, I couldn't make that make sense. I even drew a picture of a dog with spaghetti hanging off him in my notes to remind me to ask about that.

"I've just had to make my peace with the fact that I'm not going to get everything. Some things will be beyond me."

Students also do practical hands-on studies, called "stages." Stages are either a survey of a region, such as Tuscany, Ireland or Japan, or thematic, such as artisan pastry, sustainable fishing, cheese or industrial confectionery. Each stage lasts two weeks.

Radecki's already holds a bachelor's degree in sociology and theater from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. She said this program is worth the nearly $25,000 it costs each year (tuition includes meals, housing, books, a laptop computer and more), but that she doesn't plan to continue in a master's degree program.

"When I came, I thought I'd like to live in Italy and work here," Radecki said. "But now, I think I might like to go back to the States. I'd like to use my writing skills to communicate the stories behind the food, to work for a business or venture that uses food to build community. There's such a need for that in the U.S."

Robin Mather Jenkins writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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