Tuscan tastes & politics
by Andrea Vogt | © Washington State University
As 30 American college students strain to understand his thick Tuscan accent, Amico Fioroni waves his strong, tanned arms dramatically across a patchwork of gray-green olive groves, sunflower fields, and ancient vineyards.
"Every olive, every grape, picked by hand," he says, raising his hands up near his weathered face and rubbing his fingertips together for emphasis. "It's a choice of ours. The machines, they take everything, but with the fingers you can choose. That makes a better wine, because you can throw away the bad grapes. It's natural selection, by us."
Here on these Cyprus-lined hills in the heart of Tuscany, just a few miles outside the medieval-towered hill town of San Gimignano, Fioroni and his family proudly work their "closed cycle" organic farm. Closed cycle, he explains to these Northwest college students and their Washington State University professor, means that everything he produces begins and ends here. That includes 500,000 liters of Vernaccia and Chianti wine annually; an exquisite extra virgin olive oil, vegetables, honey, and saffron; rabbits, chickens, guinea-hens, pigs; and last, but not least, his prized Chianina cattle, an ancient breed once extolled by poets during the Roman Empire. Even the forage, barley, and sunflower flour used as animal feed is grown here.
"We sell directly from producer to consumer," Fioroni explains. The line that runs between those two is very short, and the result he sums up with one simple Italian word: "Bella."
But new European Union policies, expanding global markets, and ever-changing agricultural trade practices are increasingly affecting how farmers like Fioroni do business. As Europe's borders blur, its residents are struggling to reconcile their differing ideas about cuisine, health standards, and agricultural trade protocol. In this country with 3,000 years of gastronomical history, devotion to quality cuisine is akin to a religion, and food and wine have always been political flashpoints. Today, Italy fights to protect its cherished national products–such as parmigiano cheese, prosciutto ham, and Chianti wine, and balks regularly at allowing "lesser quality" products cross its borders. The government recently tried to ban British imports of chocolate made with vegetable oils instead of real cocoa butter, for example, insisting that it be labeled as "chocolate substitute." In the last decade, in response to the emergence of fast-food chains in Italy, producers, restaurateurs, and food lovers founded the burgeoning "slow food" movement, which promotes sustainable agriculture, traditional farm methods, and food that is prepared and enjoyed with time, care, and greater awareness. But despite Italy's complex entanglement of food, wine, culture, and politics, WSU political science professor Cornell Clayton still has trouble convincing friends and colleagues back in Pullman that this academic foray into Tuscany food and politics is more than a great vacation.
Clayton spent early 2003 in Siena, Italy, a magical, almost perfectly preserved medieval walled city in Tuscany, where a consortium of Northwest universities, including WSU, sponsor a study-abroad program for American college students. The program is jointly operated with AHA International, a Portland, Oregon-based non-profit organization that runs 15 different study-abroad sites worldwide. With most of the language and core courses taught by permanent Italian faculty, the Siena professorship is open to only one visiting faculty member each semester. Clayton was chosen from a pool of Northwest faculty members to teach a quarter in 2003. He taught a course on Machiavelli, Italy's famed political philosopher, as well as this class, Italian Politics, subtitled, "The Politics of Food and Wine in Italy and Europe."
"The biggest problem I have is that nobody really believes I'm working," says Clayton, who normally specializes in American constitutional law. "But I'm working harder on these courses than most of the regular courses I teach."
While food and wine were the hooks to attract students, the course work includes plenty of solid political science–the study of European political institutions, agricultural trade policy, terrorism, corruption, and current events, for example. Clayton admits that introducing American students to Italian politics via epicurean explorations into European wine and cuisine is a grand idea he unfortunately cannot take credit for. The course was originally the brainchild of his WSU colleague, Lance LeLoup, who designed it for a similar professorship he was awarded in Angers, France, in 2001.
"I was looking for a unique way to teach American students about French and European ag policy," explains LeLoup, the C.O. and Mary Johnson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at WSU. "Since eating and drinking is one of the best ways to get to know a new place, and since these issues have been critical to the EU, I thought it was a perfect marriage."
The bottom line, LeLoup says, is that 50 percent of the European Union budget goes into the common agricultural policy to resolve issues of trade, food safety, the effectiveness of traditional farming methods, and the role of cuisine in family structure and culture. In fact, Clayton adds, one of the biggest current political disputes between Europe and the U.S. today involves the introduction of genetically modified food products, considered safe and ethical in the U.S., but no less than heretical in Europe.
"Anybody who looks a little deeper into what we are doing will see that this is a serious area," says LeLoup, " . . .one that has been critical to the EU since the 1950s, and continues to be as the EU considers its 10-member expansion."
In fact, LeLoup has requested a one-year sabbatical to study the issue more in depth next year at the University of Bordeaux.
"It's very relevant now, especially in terms of French-European-U.S. relations, and WSU is in a strong position to be part of that dialogue because of its relevance in the biotech areas," he explains. "People in political science may not be out there creating new breeds of plants, but we are able to develop courses that can promote a better understanding for American students, as well as others abroad, for some of these emerging issues."
The students from various Northwest universities studying in Siena during Clayton's stay ate it up, literally. During lunch at Amico Fioroni's Tuscan farm, University of Oregon student Matt Stringer, 19, picks up his fourth bruschetta smothered in olive oil, Pecorino cheese, and spicy homemade salami, washes it down with a swallow of dark red Chianti, and puts it this way: "After this it's gonna be really hard to go back to actual school."
It doesn't seem much like traditional class, and that's by design. It's a pedagogical approach called "learning in the laboratory," or learning by living. For example, students are required to attend excursions to Venice, The Cinque Terre, and other regions of Italy, where they must interview locals and take in their cuisine and culture. The assignment "doesn't suck," to use Stringer's parlance. But it's not all wining and dining under the Tuscan sun, either. Students are required to attend weekly three-hour seminars during which they discuss writing and reading assignments on EU institutions and policymaking and debate news articles about complex Italian current events and agricultural trade.
"It's a weird combination, but he pulls it off," said David Rudnick, a 22-year Washington State University student from Walla Walla. "I do miss Pullman, but I know that after this I'm going to go back and end up making pasta four out of five days of the week."
For many students like Rudnick, life in Italy marks a new, more intimate relationship with the food they eat–many are learning to cook for the first time. After course excursions, for example, students are required to plan and prepare a dinner for the rest of the class showcasing the cuisine of the region. That assignment proved difficult for Western Washington University student Betsy Hartner, who, after a visit to Venice, discovered she was one of the few vegetarians in the land of liver and onions (otherwise known as Fegato alla Veneziana). When she began planning her traditional Venetian meal without a meat dish, professor Clayton balked: "I told her, ‘You at least have to have shrimp, clams, seafood . . . something.' "
Instead of a meat dish, she brought in her favorite cookbook, The Higher Taste, A Guide To Gourmet Vegetarian Cooking and a Karma-free Diet.
"One of the other major challenges with teaching this course to American students now," says Clayton, "is the large number of vegetarians, vegans, those allergic to milk products, et cetera. It can make teaching a course about the politics of food a nightmare."
Or at least more challenging. Some of the classroom's liveliest discussions spring from the culture shock American students inevitably experience in their new European surroundings–like the day Clayton spotted several students slinking guiltily into a nearby McDonalds to binge on comfort food from home: Big Macs, fries, and supersized soft drinks.
But even the most hard-core adherents of American college life can't help but notice the difference between the thick, chewy, overly cheesy pizza delivered to their dorms in cardboard boxes and the delicious, thin-crusted creations that emerge from wood-fired ovens here. And despite her aversion to meat, even Hartner discovered that many aspects of the light, healthy Mediterranean diet appeal to her vegetarian values. While she had to hold her nose through the tour of a prosciutto ham factory, she cherishes that there's a fresh vegetable market on nearly every street corner, where the produce is assuredly local, fresh, and grown naturally, because that's still what consumers expect.
Squeezed between casks, barrels, and purification vats of his humming wine production facility, Amico Fioroni pours a glass of white wine directly from an immense silver vat and holds it out for Professor Clayton and several students to smell. He expounds briefly on its low acidity and delicate perfume–a result of accurate selection of vines, careful pruning, organic fertilizing, and age-old tradition. Then, with a toast to the Lunga Vita, or long life, he downs it in one big gulp.
Andrea Vogt's article, "Nurses to the Homeless," (Washington State Magazine, Spring 2002), won a silver medal in the Council for Advancement and Support of Education feature writing awards and highest honors in the recent Spokane Public Relations Council awards competition.
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