Learned it through the grape vine

Perché il cibo è un’arte – Because food is an art
by Rachel Johnson
Nutrition Major, Class of 2015

What if you had the opportunity to learn about Mediterranean cuisine and then be given the chance to experience it first-hand in Italy? Would you accept the offer?

This past spring, about 19 students and myself were given that opportunity. We were enrolled in NSD 354: Mediterranean Food, Culture and Health: An Italian Experience. Throughout the semester, we learned about the dietary habits of the countries within the Mediterranean region and then compared those habits with the American diet.

Our trip began by working on the La Ginestra farm. The owners of La Ginestra raise pigs and sheep, grow olives, and produce wine and honey. While there, we helped to prune grape vines.

For some odd reason when told we were going to help with wine-making, I imagined a nice, composed version of our class stomping grapes in a barrel – the way the main character Lucy from an episode of the “I Love Lucy” television show did.

But I quickly learned two things: One, the way Lucy stomped the grapes in the television show is not the way they make wine today. Two, the grapes had not bloomed yet so there were no grapes to be stomped. Instead, I developed a new appreciation for pruning grape vines.

I’m sure that once an individual gets the hang of pruning grape vines the process is easy. But for someone who is not accustomed to pruning grape vines, like myself, the process is not as clear-cut as one might think. When pruning, the vinedresser has to distinguish the primary grape stems on the vine from the excess stems. Once the primary stems are determined, the vinedresser then removes the excess stems off the vine because they would take nutrients from the primary stems. Although our class pruned grape vines for only three hours, it helped me to appreciate a little more how wine is made.

We spoke with workers from La Ginestra, and they explained to us how they’re in the field every day, regardless of the weather conditions, for six months straight, tending grapes.

While in this class, we had the opportunity to compare the Italian dietary guidelines with the American ones. It was noted that the Italians have a glass of wine on their food pyramid whereas the American food pyramid has milk for its beverage of consumption. The reason: wine is a food item that is a significant part of each meal within the Italian culture. In America it’s customary to have soda, juice, water or milk with a meal.

After pruning the leaves of the grapes, we observed Marco, one of the owners of La Ginestra, extract honey and pollen from one of the beehives.

One interesting item we learned: the workers set up different species of trees around the hives for the bees to pollinate and create different flavors of honey. Also, the Italians have an interesting take on pollen. In the U.S. we see pollen as an annoyance. The Italians see pollen as a deterrent to allergies. They use the pollen from the bees to help fight allergies. They do this by placing the pollen in their cereals or yogurts. See the accompanying photo. Working on the farm was an experience I will never forget.