Studying Gastronomic Tradition in Italy

“More than Just Food: Studying Gastronomic Tradition in Italy”

Olin College students Katie Gosbee and Elias Gabriel visit Northern Italian cities famous for quality food products, investigate sustainability of those products.

PERUGIA, Italy— In late November, Olin students Katie Gosbee and Elias Gabriel were among a group of students studying at the Umbra Institute who visited Emilia-Romagna, an Italian region known for its cuisine and high-quality food products. They made stops in the towns of Bologna, Parma, and Modena—known for pastas, Parmigiano Reggiano, and balsamic vinegar, respectively—as an immersive experience to accompany their semester-long studies in the Institute’s Food, Sustainability, and Environment (FSE) program.

The first stop on this much-anticipated capstone trip, the FSE students visited Le Serre, an old parking space turned urban garden and cooperative community center in Bologna. At Le Serre, they learned about the organization’s initiatives regarding environmental education, community building, and economic sustainability through coops. They also enjoyed a meal at Vetro, La Serre’s greenhouse restaurant that prides itself in serving meals made from local, seasonal ingredients.

Students then travelled to the city of Parma. They first stopped at the Red Cows Consortium, where they experienced an in-depth lesson about the time-intensive process of making certified Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Students were able to get up close and personal with the cheese creation process, both by exploring the factory and being granted a tour by one of the Consortium’s talented cheesemakers. The students then visited a high mountain farm to learn about the milk used for the famed cheese. This farm raises a particularly “robust” breed of red cow known for producing milk that contributes to the quality of Parmigiano Reggiano. The owner of the farm explained how at that altitude and steep inclination, it was impossible to grow grains or vegetables, and that cows on pasture were much more environmentally (and economically) sustainable option.

“We talked a lot more about how to sustainably raise livestock in a way that is respectful toward the cows, and comparing that to industrial agriculture,” Elias recalled. “It was interesting to learn about the non-food industry side and more of the individual, small-scale farmer side.”

The field trip concluded with their trip to the Acetaia Villa San Donnino in Modena. The small, family-run vinegar farm is renowned for its traditionally made balsamic vinegar. Famous figures such as Mark Zuckerberg and Pierce Brosnan have taken interest in the DOP-certified export, and the people at San Donnino pride themselves in their ability to supply it for them.

Through taking a culinary journey through one of Italy’s most renowned food centers, the FSE students witnessed the knowledge gained from their courses be applied to real life. Italy’s rich food history allows for students at the Umbra Institute to learn about food traditions of the past and how they have translated into the present day. They were also shown how much emphasis is put on the quality of certain Italian food products, and how producers work to sustainably make these foods and keep them up to standard.

“Getting a better picture of the food industry and sustainability within the food industry helps develop and frame more of a systems thinking, thinking of all of the parts and stuff and how they all fit together, and where there might be room for improvement,” Elias explained. “I think that mindset is not just restricted to the humanities…we should extend that mindset into the STEM field in order to actually understand what you’re building, and make something that’s useful for people.”

Katie added that, “understanding more diverse backgrounds helps you build a better experience for everyone to enjoy… going and talking to different people that are in these industries helped me better understand where people are coming from, their backgrounds, their belief systems…you get a better idea of what people are doing out there in the world.

About the Umbra Institute:

The Umbra Institute is an American study abroad program located in the central Italian city of Perugia. Often called a “big university town in a small Italian city,” Perugia is the ideal setting to study abroad in Italy, with fine arts, business, and liberal arts courses.

About the Food, Sustainability and the Environment Program:

The Umbra Institute’s program in Food, Sustainability, & the Environment grants students an immersive experience to help them grow a global mindset regarding food production and sustainability, both in Italy and beyond. While classroom lessons focus on past traditions and evolution in food production, students witness these topics first-hand in the present, and gain an understanding of our role as consumers going into the future. Courses include (HIST 350: History and Culture of Food in Italy), sociology and environmental studies (STFS 330: Sustainability and Food Production in Italy), and business (BUFS 340: Global Sustainable Business). Students who complete the program earn a Certificate in Food Studies.