This was the first thing I ate at the University of Gastronomic Sciences.
It was Day One of our Masters course, when each new class is treated to a group lunch in the dining hall complete with flowing wine and, in our case, a very memorable panna cotta.
The school cafeteria is fondly known as ‘the mensa’ – the Italian word for canteen. Once a Michelin-starred restaurant (which has since relocated to Alba), it’s now home to lengthy communal dining tables and a glass-encased service station. At the entrance, there’s a culinary wall of fame boasting portraits of the many celebrated chefs who’ve made cameo appearances in the kitchen – a collaboration that usually covers a week of service, offering students a special menu, taking place once a month or so. Think Michel Bras and Massimo Botura, who both visited over the year I studied there.
The mensa doesn’t always get it right, though. Like, the time there was a dish of spaghetti topped with cinnamon and sugar (we asked if it was a mix-up with the salt – it wasn’t), or one Tuesday when this claw-footed horror appeared on the menu as “fried chicken”.
Pointing out these not-so-delicious dishes might seem really petty. I hear you rolling your eyes and thinking, you spoiled food uni brat, you. But keep in mind that the mensa isn’t cheap – you can easily spend 10 euros a day just for lunch by the time you get a couple of smallish dishes, plus a side of some fruit or yoghurt (more on that one below) – which adds up fast if you eat there each day. Meanwhile, there’s been an on-and-off policy of one bread slice per person, heralded stingy by the student body.
That said, at what other uni might you enjoy a dessert of bavarese al miele di arpeggio (mountain honey bavarois – pictured below), followed by a four-hour beer tasting class? Meanwhile, the chefs at the mensa work crazy hard to serve hundreds of students and staff within a pretty short window of time each day. Lunch for the Masters and undergrad students kicks off at midday, the Magistrale (a food business-focused Masters run in Italian) starts their break at half past, and the uni staff arrive from 1pm. On top of that, the ingredients used by the kitchen are of very high quality, sourced entirely from local producers. Everything comes from within around 40 kilometres of the uni, the fruit and veg is certified organic from a farm 20 minutes away, and they create a lot of products from scratch – breaking down whole animals and baking chewy, sour bread loaves using organic flour every morning.
Humour me for a minute while I fangirl over their house-made yoghurt. Imagine the best Greek yoghurt you’ve ever had, and times that by a thousand. It’s tangy and just thick enough, served ice cold in little glass jars, topped with as much of this crumbly, caramel-y raw sugar as you want. It’s fair to say I became obsessed with this yoghurt, regularly interrogating the chef at the salad-juice-and-yoghurt bar – what type of culture do you use? how long does it ferment? where do you get your milk? – in a bid to uncover its lip-puckering secrets. I took home a jar of the stuff and invested in a yoghurt maker to try to proliferate my very own colony of the delicious milky microbes. Alas, it was never as good as the real thing. At one point I even toyed with the idea of starting a dedicated Instagram account to document each lunchtime’s #dailyyogue – nice wobble factor today; a little on the runny side; good sugar distribution, etc. (There was surprisingly little enthusiasm from fellow students on that one). After a year of enjoying one of these every day, my best bet as to its deliciousness just might be the fact that it’s made with one part milk, three parts cream. Maybe? Either way, I’m pretty sad to part ways with my beloved now that we’ve graduated.
A girl can’t live on yoghurt alone, though – here’s a snapshot of some of the other dishes that graced our tables over the last year.