For nearly two hours this morning, Darrell Corti, president of the Universita Di Corti, otherwise known as the storeroom at the rear of his Folsom Boulevard grocery store, Corti Brothers, lectured 14 gastronomy students from Italy on the history and culture of food in California.
I've no idea what he said. The lecture was entirely in Italian, except for the occasional "Conestoga wagons," "San Francisco," "mission fig" and "avocado."
Afterwards, however, I chatted with several of the students, all in their second year at the University of Gastronomic Sciences at Pollenzo in the northern Italian region of Piedmont.
They said they were surprised by California's diversity, from the range of fruits and vegetables grown here to the breadth of the state's microclimates. They were impressed by the scale of the California State Water Project.
Anna-Lena Banzhaf, a chef from Stuttgart, Germany, said she was stunned that except for one variety of wild plum no one is making commercial use of any indigenous fruits that were exploited along the West Coast before the arrival of European colonists.
Lucia Lantero, a chef at two- and three-star Michelin restaurants in Spain and France, said she drew from Corti's lecture a better understanding of why Mexican cuisine is so prominent in California. As she strolled about Corti Brothers both before and after the lecture she was awed by the stretch of international foods on the store's shelves. "In Italy, Spain, Paris, you don't find so many products," she said, carrying two she just had to have, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and a bag of wasabi-flavored roasted peas from Japan. "I haven't seen these since I first had them at a restaurant in Shanghai. I never found them again, until today; I went crazy."
Corti Brothers was the group's first stop after arriving yesterday in San Francisco from Milan. This afternoon they were to visit the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis before returning to San Francisco. Over the next 10 days they are to visit Napa Valley, Sonoma County, take a baking class at a pastry shop in Larkspur, dine at the acclaimed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, visit a brewery in Santa Cruz, tour Full Belly Farm at Capay Valley in Yolo County, and eat a lunch based on locally grown radicchio in Salinas Valley, among other stops.
The University of Gastronomic Sciences, just four years old, is a spinoff of the Slow Food movement, devoted to the international understanding of food production and biodiversity. Students customarily already are well seasoned in the culinary arts, but through further study in such broad topics as cultural anthropology, economics, nutriiton and the like hope to broaden their understanding of and influence in how people eat.