Cook The Farm Recap: Part II

As promised, following my Cook The Farm Recap: Part I, here’s Part II which highlights Wine Week, visits to Siracusa, Cefalu, Castelbuono and our final week-long tour of Sicily.


Similar to Part I, I've opted to bullet a number of stories, quotes and thoughts woven between some of the photos I took. It's neither chronological, nor an exhaustive list of everything I learned, saw, experienced. Feel free to hop around and read or view what you choose. 

The photos below are from a weekend in Siracusa. We stayed on the tiny island of Oritigia, which is the historical center of Siracusa, and one of the most beautiful cities in Sicily. 

Wine Week at the school was FULL of inspirational speakers and tastings. The week started out with a presentation on pruning grape vines, and I didn't expect it, but this turned out to be not only informative and memorable, but also fascinating. Pruning can really make or a break a wine! In my wine studies, pruning was never presented in a particularly exciting way. I've read about the various methods, seen the diagrams, but it never meant much to me. Now, I will never look at grape vines again the same way. Livio Tognon was our pruning presenter; he's part of the Simonit & Sirch pruning team that works with vineyards around Italy, and across the globe, to train pruners and work against the deterioration of vineyards. 

  • "The soul of the winemaker is as important as the place where the wine comes from." -Livio Tognon

The lecture and tasting that changed my perspective on how I want to taste and talk about wine was taught by Sandro Sangiorgi, essayist, author, sommelier, a founding member of Slow Food, and impressionable personality of Italian gastronomic literature over the last three decades. The wines we focused on with Sandro all fell under the category of natural wine. Many standardized tastings and exams are built around conventional wine, so we were challenged to analyze wines a bit differently. Sandro had so many fantastic, deeply romantic quotes, a few of which I've written below. Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of Sandro. Just his words. 

  • "Wine is life, so it’s hard to bottle something that’s alive. It’s unpredictable." 
  • "When the life of a barrel is divided into the bottles, then there are many lives. Like a mosaic, it looks like one thing until you approach it and see it has many pieces."
  • "To taste a wine is always a trip inside of yourself."

  • "When we say a wine has changed over a 30-minute period, have you thought about how much WE are changing in 30 minutes?"

  • "A good wine should make you feel good."

Arianna Occhipinti brought plastic grocery bags full of soil and rocks from Vittoria (the south-eastern tip of Sicily), and poured the contents into small bowls for us to pass around, feel and smell. Although she's a young winemaker, Arianna's wines are beloved across the world. They reflect her character: earthy, rebellious, intriguing. During her presentation, Arianna conveyed a great love of the land where she comes from, and her ongoing study of what's beneath the surface. Her wines have a noticeable emphasis on terroir, or, a similar concept that she introduced: contrada. Contrada are smaller pieces of land within a wine region that have unique characteristics defined by elevation, climate, soil, etc. A few important quotes from Arianna:

  • "'We do not inherit the land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.' I love this phrase by Saint-Exupery. He has always guided me in my work as winemaker."
  • "There is no recipe to tell you how to practice agriculture. You have to take in all the information and make your own decision."
  • "The grape is the tool to express terroir. It is not the goal."
  • "To be concentrated, you need some empty moments to think."

Below is a series of photos from in and around the town of Castelbuono, which lies within the Madonie park. Castelbuono translates to "good castle," and references an Arab-Norman castle in the historic center. Just outside the city, the mountains are speckled with ash trees from which manna is harvested. Manna is a sweet sap tasting vaguely of maple syrup that can only be found in this region of Sicily. We got to see a demonstration of the manna harvest, and taste the final product. To me, manna tastes like a piece of maple sugar fell into a bottle of flowery perfume. It's tasty when used in small quantities!

Our last lecturer of Cook The Farm was Chef Pino Cuttaia. Pino is from a city in Sicily called Licata, and opened a restaurant there called La Madia in 2000 with his wife. He received his first Michelin star in 2006, and his second in 2009. As a young adult, Pino worked in a factory in Northern Italy for a while, but always felt drawn to the kitchen. He told us, "One morning, I was standing in front of an onion, and realized I could choose to cut it any way I wanted. It made me feel free, and freedom was my calling." Pino's philosophy of cooking is based in simplicity and elegance, and I've already recreated some of the dishes he demonstrated for us that afternoon. 

  • "The maximum communication that happens when you pass someone on the street is 'Hello,' but food can open up a much more interesting conversation and story."
  • "A big part of enjoyment of food is the element of surprise."
  • "If you find something that gives you a sense of freedom, you’ve found something you love."

And finally (FINALLY!), photos of our week-long trip around Sicily are below! We started in Modica, made our way to (yet another!) artisan cheese maker: Giovanni Floridia, a producer of Cacio Cavallo cheese and farmer of the Razza Modicana cows. We made a quick stop in Noto for almond granita, then arrived in Catania where the focus was largely on the fish market, and preparing fish. Sidenote: I now know how to gut, clean and filet fish!
We stayed in Mirto one night to experience a unique hotel called Albergo Museo Atelier Sul Mare that is part-museum-part-hotel with each room designed by a different artist. The tour of the rooms was equally as dazzling as it was hilarious. Our last leg of the trip included a fantastic (REALLY fantastic: top-5-meals-in-Sicily-fantastic) lunch at an unassuming, yet beautiful agriturismo called La Manna di Zabbra in Pollina, a quick visit to the salt flats in Trapani and a tour and tasting of Marsala IN Marsala at Cantine Florio. Whew!


I also traveled for a bit after Cook The Farm (went to Malta, Rome and up to Finland!), and added those photos to my portfolio

And that's a WRAP! Thank you so much for following along on this singular experience. 

If you are planning a trip to Sicily, or considering applying to Cook The Farm, need a good pasta recipe, or just want to know once and for all if it's arancini or arancine, feel free to reach out to me on Instagram, or by email me at: 

David Simon

"When I set out to start the business, about four years ago, I was determined to offer something that you couldn't find locally."

Each time I do a Brine Project interview, I bring with me a small digital voice recorder, similar to the one I used to use to record my voice lessons in college (I was a classical vocal performance major). I used to press Play and I would instantly hear piano chords, or a deep inhale, or flipping pages of a score. I would sit on a tiny piano bench in a tiny practice room with one tiny window in the door, and listen to my tiny recorder. That recorder was full of breakthrough learning moments and biting curse words of frustration, laughter and tears, noise and sometimes even music-- real music, that flowed with intention and breath and control. Despite all the haphazard, peripheral moments, there was the occasional moment of clarity. When I pressed Play on my new voice recorder recently to transcribe this interview with David Simon, the first sound I heard was the soft tssssss of a bottle of sparkling water being popped open. A sound that's simultaneously celebratory and calming. This sound, meaningless to probably anyone else, reminded me that there is clarity and intention and urgency in this project. It reminded me how grateful I am to be able to spend time with so many makers and thinkers in food and beverage. It reminded me that I get to train and engage my senses, just like in music, but in a slightly different way. Thank you to the first five interviewees who have taken a leap with me on this new endeavor!

On that note, I was honored to sit down with another incredible entrepreneur David Simon, the founder of a mobile coffee business called Black Magic Coffee Company, a few weeks ago: "I only started drinking coffee myself about seven or eight years ago. I haven't been drinking coffee for very long-- was never a 'caffeine person' at all. My wife bought me an espresso machine, and it just sort of took off from there. I quickly became obsessed with it, and experimented, mostly with espresso, ALL the time. I was working in the healthcare industry at the time, and it wasn’t until about four years ago that I left that field to work full time in coffee. During the couple years before that, I spent countless hours reading articles, watching videos, talking to people and experimenting with coffee at home."

"For me, it was more about the culture. I wasn’t so obsessed with how to make it at the time. I was more obsessed with the artistry. I actually started to work weekends at a coffee shop, which was my first real introduction to coffee. It was a bike and coffee shop, and because I've always been a big cyclist, that’s what really attracted me to the place. I went in and applied for a part-time job as a bike mechanic, and when they didn't need another mechanic, I said, sort of jokingly, 'What about a job as a barista?' And the owner said, 'Yeah, ok. We need help.' So I learned everything on the fly. But that’s how I was able to get more formal training, and how I was able to learn about the coffee roasters that we were serving through that cafe."

David kept his certification as a therapist all the while, but felt particularly drawn to coffee. For a while, he tossed around the idea of opening his own café. "I always wanted, and I still do to some extent, to own a café.... I think! I go back and forth… Once you open a café, you’re pretty much married to the place. And that’s not exactly what I want to be doing right now. So I set out to open a mobile business, because there wasn’t anything available like it at the time. Actually, one of the things that really did for me was the fact that when I was working in the healthcare world, I was going to conferences all the time, and I just couldn’t get an espresso, or a good cup of coffee."

"Being a mobile espresso bar, however, you’re faced with everything being mobile. A lot of times that’s weather. When you’re outside you’re dealing with wind, heat, humidity, etc. There’s always something that’s a challenge. It makes me appreciate being inside on occasion— vastly different."

"When I set out to start the business about four years ago, I was determined to offer something that you wouldn’t find locally. I have what’s called a multi-roaster coffee program-- I don't roast myself. At the time, I was the only mobile espresso bar in the country that was multi-roaster. So that bar you see out there? That’s my business."

Through the first coffee/bike shop where David worked, he was able to meet a number of roasters, and make connections. Because of that shop, he decided he wanted run a similar program that offered different coffees from multiple roasters. The four roasters David currently works with are Tandem Coffee Roasters (Maine), Passenger Coffee (Pennsylvania), Case Coffee Roasters (Oregon), and he recently added Novel Coffee Roasters (Texas).

David chose these four roasters through a good amount of trial and error. "What I like most about these coffee roasters is that they’re only roasting what’s in season. When you look at some of the bigger coffee roasters, you’re going to see 10-12 (or more) coffees that they're roasting at any given time. And they can all be good— I don’t doubt that— but I would rather see someone with fewer coffees, with more concentration on those particular coffees. All the coffee roasters I work with now roast maybe four to five coffees at a time. They always have one espresso option and a couple options for drip. In fact, Passenger Coffee roasters even has a cold brew blend that I use. So that really fit with my business model to keep it small."

For David, the same amount of research and care goes into the bottled water he offers, as well as the milk that goes into the espresso drinks. "You won’t find this water anywhere in the Northeast. Topo Chico Mineral Water has been around for 120 years, and I discovered it while visiting family in San Antonio, and thought, 'Wow! This is amazing water!' What sets this water apart from other sparkling waters, is that it’s naturally carbonated. It just comes out of the spring this way; it’s the only water like it. I spent 9-10 months trying to get it here, and I finally got it. For milk, I currently use milk from Thatcher Farm in Milton, Massachusetts. I’ve used many different local milks, but Thatcher is the only one that uses a low-temperature pasteurization. They pasteurize their milk at a lower temperature over a longer period of time, which helps retain the sweetness. Though milk is sometimes overlooked, I think the same emphasis should be put on the milk as the coffee. It does make a big difference as far as the way the drink should taste. Milk is kind of a big deal."

David and I discussed the difference between light, medium and dark roast coffee. Light roast best preserves the flavor of the actual coffee bean, while the heavy roasting of a dark roast more or less covers up the flavor of the bean. As it turns out, light roast often has higher caffeine content than a dark roast! "I tend to stay away from anything dark or 'dark roast.' With a dark roast, you don’t really get a sense of what that coffee tastes like— it’s roasted beyond taste. But the same could be true for extremely light-roasted coffees. You don’t want them to taste too 'green.' There are many schools of thought. For espresso, I tend to go with blends to get the right balance."

"Typically, espresso has, as its backbone, a Central American coffee that gives it a body, and then they may add an Ethiopian to give it a little sweetness, or a Guatemalan coffee… Sometimes they’ll throw in a Kenyan coffee. I personally enjoy Kenyan coffees the most because they’re the fruitiest and the most acidic. I try to find espresso that is suited for espresso on its own, or with milk. And that can be tough to find. Most people are going to order a cappuccino or a latte, and I want to have something that will cut through the milk-- I want them to be able to taste the coffee."

Lastly, I wanted to find out what kind of coffee David drinks at home. What's he doing that I could do to step up my morning coffee routine? "I mostly make Chem-X. It’s probably better that I don’t make espresso at home.... With Chem-X, you add the water over a 4-5 minute period. It’s a bit time-consuming, though the end result is worth it. But you can’t walk away from it; you have to really want that cup of coffee. With this particular method, it’s all about the process of making it."

Coffee Tasting
Using the Chem-X to make drip coffee, David prepared the Condado Peaberry coffee (Brazil) from Tandem Roasters, and it was bursting with aromas of dark chocolate, raspberries, fresh flowers and vanilla:

Black Magic Coffee Company is a mobile espresso business that provides premium coffee catering services for all kinds of occasions including open markets, weddings, private parties and corporate events throughout the Boston area. You can follow along on Instagram @blackmagiccoffeeco to keep up with the latest happenings, or to find David at one of many farmers markets this summer. 

Union Square Green Market

More Brine Project interviews coming shortly, but I wanted to share a few photos from my recent visit to New York City. Farmers Markets are one of my favorite places to take photos, and the variety of produce, grains, flowers, fish, dairy, meat, etc. at the Union Square Green Market this weekend was astounding, and beautiful! Enjoy.

Exciting interviews and photos will be going up soon covering makers in two intriguing categories: coffee and chocolate.... Until next time!