22 MIN READ
Blake Simpson /
A Taste of Italy
It began with brakes. The tall and narrow passenger van leaned forward in the weight of its inertia, a force that pulled its passengers out of half-consciousness and into a stunned moment.
Out come cell phones, pressed deeply into shaded glass windows. Like children memorizing flashcards, shutters clap over wide-apertures. Laughter bounces around the upholstered cabin. We’re 60 miles west of Venice in the vineyard-freckled hills and valleys of Grezzana, and the roundabout is spilling over with sheep. Butt-to-nose, nose-to-butt, the animals surge forward. A donkey stands bewildered in their midst. The living blanket pushes through the town’s streets as if Radiohead were playing just around the bend, surrounding local traffic so that only vehicle hoods are visible. Brake lights make wool shine red like Christmas sweaters.
I’m on a trip with Kroger, and we’re in Italy to taste.
In a climate-controlled cage of steel and engine, through Lombardy and the Veneto we cut a path whose wake will change lives. By my side sit company leaders, culinary and brand directors, merchandising and sourcing. There is another van in tow teeming with all things Kroger. These are individuals whose talent and ideas can hardly be contained, even within the enormity of Kroger’s market cap. Men and women— I will come to find out—hellbent on improving every moment of the grocery shopping experience. Kroger is the world’s third largest retailer. On an average day, the equivalent to 2.5% of America passes through their doors. Spread that number out evenly across a 24-hour day and you’ll find Kroger swipes 92 transactions a second, each one containing the ingredients of American lives: chewing gum, diapers, milk, organic produce, antihistamines. But in this moment, an ocean away from corporate headquarters, at a dead stop, the world amazes us as we snap photos to share with loved ones, shouting one-liners that begin with “ba-a-a”, forgetting it all and relenting to an unequivocal moment: we are seduced by Italy.
One month and four days ago
“Corporate Vice President” might conjure a picture of a man in a suit, a man who is perhaps personable, but also a bit blithe, a man of affects and numbers. But that is not the man I met one blustery day in February, at the end of a biscuit-colored hallway.
Daniel Hammer came on board as Kroger VP of Culinary Development & Merchandising just over a year ago. He has a sing-song tenor that is lifted by a generous accent. He grew up in Basel, Switzerland but spent springs and summers with his mother’s family in Italy, where food is life. This might be why he is so good at what he does, because food culture is ingrained in him. It is burned into his genetic makeup by his grandmother’s cooking, etched into his big heart by the tratorias and auberges of Europe’s back roads and small towns. Daniel followed a food-calling through Europe working front and back-of-house in historic hotels, and eventually at the helm of his own farm-to-table restaurant. Thirty years ago he crossed the Atlantic, laying roots in California as a kitchen equipment salesman, a role that lead him to see, and to aid in, the creation and opening of many culinary concepts. The right doors opened for the curious and determined Mr. Hammer because his creativity is balanced by an acute logic. He is a dreamer, but he isn’t lost in the clouds.
Daniel knows the ins and outs of the food business. He’s been there, done that. So why Kroger? Because, with over 8.5 million (!) shoppers per day, this was the best place to realize his goal to help people live better lives by inspiring them to do things differently. Daniel believes Kroger can help improve lives by giving people the tools they need to slow down, to savor.
The game plan: promote food education in store and at home and change food culture the world over. The power to change culture is a responsibility afforded to few, and often, only to those with the platform to touch so many lives.
In the face of such high-minded goals, I did what many in my position might do, and asked—sure…but, how? And, I couldn’t help but wonder why Kroger would enlist the talents of a former European chef, a Slow Food devotee, a culinary innovator who caught a bug to change American food culture? For years America has worked to speed things up. Frozen meals, pour and bake, Jello: the 20th century was a future made possible by just adding water. Foolproof convenience was the shiny plastic byproduct of post-war demand. Why change?
Maybe Daniel, and by extension Kroger, was sending a love letter to the old world, an homage to his youth, a rosy narrative vying for a seat at the table with trendsetting foodies? Or perhaps he was paying tribute to the culinary avant garde who, during the aughts, ushered a new era of food thought, a battle cry responsible for bestselling books with titles like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and “The Ethics of What We Eat,”? Or maybe Daniel didn’t intend any of that; maybe he is just a man equipped with smart talking points and a smile to charm a writer.
What I do know is that any such dream made real will be accountable to shareholders, subject to the vacillations of commodity markets, responsible for 400+ thousand employees, and more importantly, to millions and millions of customers, many of whom feed their families not with organic produce, but with weekly specials and coupons.
After our meeting, I walked down Court Street in a light rain. 150 years ago pigs ran amok under the pavement and plumbing. Court Street was Cincinnati’s largest food bazaar; the bleeding heart of a once-great trade city, Porkopolis. Today, Kroger HQ stands 25-stories tall, all white concrete and glass on the corner of Vine and Court. Cars whistle past.
A week later I received a call from Daniel, as if he knew the questions buzzing around my head, “why don’t you tag along on a trip to Italy?”
March 16th, 2016
I landed in Malpensa airport. A few introductions and a stamped passport and we were packed into the bus. The haze of Jet lag settled in, and after twenty minutes aboard, it dulled the excitement of being somewhere new into the drone of rubber wheels on highway. We passed a motocross competition, the ravaged faces of white and pink marble mountains, a buzzing Alfa Romeo plant. Eastbound. We rode through the industrial strongholds of North Italy, past Bergamo, to a small town in Lombardia called Monzambano, our home for the next three days.
Monzambano is not unlike other European towns. It features the necessary social commodities, craggy facades of ancient buildings, wobbly cobble stone streets, the allure that at any moment one could slip through the fabric of time into antiquity. Although the city itself reveals the history of millennia, its current political climate was fashioned by the nationalist struggle for Risorgimento, Italy’s long-fought unification and freedom from France, Austria, Spain and numerous independent Italian states. In the hills, just beyond where it’s gravel streets give way to dust, the historic Battle of Solferino was waged. The great loss of life— 23,000 dead, wounded or dying—so stirred the Swiss-born Henry Dunan that he penned A Memory of Solferino, a book that inspired the formation of the International Committee of the Red Cross and laid the groundwork for 1864’s Geneva Convention. Much in the same way that old cities allow us to travel back in time, so too does the delicious bite of something new offer us passage across oceans and millenia.
Evening falls and we board a boat, shoving off into the midnight-blue waters of Lake Garda. It’s cold, but there is an aura just beyond the tip of naked fingers and under the wool of sock, providing enough warmth to stave off its sting; a thermal swell of anticipation racing across the cool expanse of Italian water, emitted by the shore’s native architecture, and from the towns pock-marked with lemon trees. We dock in Sirmione, a picturesque lakefront town and wander its streets.
The evening ends at Ristorante Alla Borsa. Gil Phipps, Kroger’s VP of Corporate Brands, could hardly sit still. To someone who dedicates his life to the pursuit of exquisite bites, Alla Borsa represents a certain pinnacle: man’s ability to work collaboratively with earth elements and engineer excellence. Bites like the tortellini of Alla Borsa give you a yardstick; a singular experience that allows you to measure all future tortellini, and by proxy, any stuffed pasta (agnolotti, ravioli, cascinelli, etc.). A collection of culinary yardsticks provides Mr. Phipps & Co. the tools necessary to find and import the high-water marks of gastronomic experience; experiences that remind us that pots of boiling water can produce art as emotionally elevating as any Renaissance master.
At the crack of dawn, I head down to the central hotel where most of Kroger’s team is camped. A breakfast of local ham and cheese perfumes the room. I sit at one of a handful of round tables and reminisce with my fellow travelers before Mike Donnelly, Kroger’s Executive Vice President of Merchandising, takes the stage to describe the day. We are to head across Northern Italy to taste foods, some of which Kroger will bring back stateside and share with customers. Mike wants us to remember that food is more than flavor, it contains humanity and agriculture. He challenges this interdepartmental crashing of minds to try and bottle our experience, the magic tucked into each of last night’s tortellini, and bring it back to Kroger associates and customers.
Italy is a land of juxtapositions. We drive past palm trees and snowcapped mountains. Dense wild pine, sculpted shrub, flowering peach. Heavy industry packed tightly with ancient towns. Bright, warm paint colors. Crumbling ruins.
“Buongiorno,” the singsong tenor reverberates across the anteroom as we swaddle ourselves in fine-mesh overcoats and booties to slip over our shoes before heading into the sweet, lactic scented lab of La Casara, a nearly century-old Venetian dairy that descended from the Alps into Ronca in 1964. There, three siblings—two brothers and a sister—manage a team of twenty to produce formaggio Monte Veronese DOP. La Casara is one of ten producers to make this specialty product. That means quantity is limited and the elaboration process is technical and regulated, requiring fresh milk from the alpine hills above the town. For the aged cheeses, the milk is raw and unpasteurized, from Brown Swiss and Jersey cows. For fresh cheeses, the same milk is pasteurized. Owner Giani Roncolato walks us through the cheesemaking process that employs heat, rennet, and agitation to split curds and whey in copper vats. The whey is separated and used to create Ricotta not of this earth. The resulting curd is 10% by volume mass: 1200 litres of milk, 120 kilos curd. The curd is pressed and molded into sleeves for 24 hours and then cured in a salt brine for up to five days. After, it is dated, marked with tracing details, and set to age in a curing room filled with the naturally occurring bacterium that help shape its unique flavor. The demonstrative lesson in Monte Veronese cheese ends where we all hope it will, in a tasting room. A half an hour and 11 cheeses later, we’re back on the bus en route to Grezzana, to taste olive oil.
Redoro is a beautiful estate. Olive groves tumble along hills. The color green is stretched almost infinitely as if this landscape were designed by the wild imagination of a child. Daniele Salvagno, Redoro’s head of sales, guides us from orchard to production facilities. His English is heavily accented and a bit clumsy, but cheer and passion have an uncanny ability to cut through language barriers. Fruit (olives) comes to Redoro from one thousand small farms across Italy before being parcelled into DOP Veronese (local), organic, and Italian. It is then destemmed and cleaned. With a loving wave of the hand, Daniele shows us the traditional olive press, a huge stone-wheeled pulverizer whose weight inverted onto fruit acts like a giant mortar and pestle, reducing flesh and pit to paste. If olives arrive less ripe, they employ modern machining to create an even further refined paste with increased surface area. The traditional method leads to sweeter-tasting oil, the modern method creates robust and rich-tasting oil.
Once ground, the olive paté is passed through a series of glass pipes, like a stone fruit Wonka factory, into machines that knead and heat the paté to no higher than 71.6F. A degree too hot and the purity and aroma are irrevocably lost. From here, the paté is separated by the high-speed whir of centrifugal extraction. The byproduct could be a line of poetry: pit, oil, water. The pits are used for fuel. The nutrient-rich water, high in omega 3s and other goodies, is being studied in conjunction with the University of Perugia. The oil moves on to steel tanks before it is bottled, labeled and shipped worldwide.
As the sun breaks over the horizon line and scatters light across the trellised Valpolicella vineyards, we arrive at Allegrini winery. The villa moves you with its beauty and history, which began before Christopher Columbus set sail across the Atlantic in 1490 and required sixty years to complete. Around a table we sampled the family’s wines and listened to Marilisa Allegrini’s talk about the famous terroir and the sunbaked grapes. Terroir is a word that you may have heard at a restaurant or in a wine shop; it is a word that speaks to the environment in which produce grows; an elegy to the intangibles infused into agriculture by way of sun, rain, wind and slope, or why art is made more precious by its environment. To the French, terroir is je ne sais quoi, that certain something; the seductive gnarl of Bob Dylan’s voice; the reason beyond water why most contend the New York bagel is best south of Hell’s Kitchen.
One could argue that today is the crucible, the hardening of raw data into tangible takeaways that can be stuffed in luggage and checked into airplanes. We pull into Agriform, Italy’s largest cheese producer, and quickly tour a facility that holds so much cheese that words fail. Shelving, hundreds of feet long, 60 feet high. Row after row, thousands and thousands of wheels. We’re told Agriform processes thirty percent of Italy’s dairy. Numbers with many decimal places.
The Kroger team enters a room about the size of a high school gymnasium, where the Taste of Italy event is held. The event is coordinated by Agriform in partnership with the Italian government. Over 700 companies applied to be present today and Kroger is the only client. The producers and manufacturers are acutely aware that, if selected, their lives will forever change. In the space of a few hours, only a few of the 100 hand-selected producers will be chosen to export their goods. As we enter, for a brief moment, silence falls, before an ebullient Daniel Hammer grabs a nearby microphone to thank everyone for being here today, in both Italian and English. Applause booms and the event begins.
We want to believe that flavor dictates food decisions. But, ride that theory out into your daily life. When we decide to eat, let’s say pizza, there are many factors which command our choice. Is it close by? How much does it cost? Is it healthy? Will there be enough to share? Who is coming over and will it impress the neighbors? Etc. Kroger may understand these calculations better than anyone in the world; they acquired the assets of customer science giant dunhumbyUSA (now 84.51°) to push these understandings to infinity and beyond.
So today, they investigate function as it corresponds to flavor, a curious math equation that marries hard science with the intangibles of delight. I watch as salesmen and women sell to saleswomen and men in what can only be described as ‘culinary speed dating.’ Three minutes to court new relationships. Three minutes to change local economies. Spoons and compliments are passed back and forth. And truffles are a big deal: wrapped in elegant pasta, rutted into cheese, worked into gnocchi. I taste tomatoes picked within two miles of canning in ‘height of season’, during the sweet plummy weeks of August. Heat a pan, stir. Mt. Vesuvius is immediate and summer is always nigh. Fish swim from the Mediterranean into brine and onto shuffling plates. Fruit glistens in mustard-infused preserves. Coffee, extracting and sputtering, perfumes the bright room. Ink black rice from Campania, organic cereal grains, bronze-extruded pasta: gifts from the earth under minimal and masterful manipulation. Rose honey is like eating love in bloom. Sicilian pistachio is pounded into sweet submission; a nut butter so luxurious you can send the rest packing. Focaccia puffs to a golden brown. Cherry tomato confit sweet enough to pass out as Halloween candy. Mozzarella from its heartland, Campania, struggles to be contained on plate. Its cousin, Burrata, bleeds water buffalo cream with abandon. Hams whisper secrets of their upbringing in barn side hills. Their secret? Salt and months, no, years. Gorgonzola packed with chili goes by the name “Lucifero”. Candies chew, cookies crunch, salt caramels ooze, wrapped in hand-touched paper that says someone cares.
Europe comes and seems to immediately go. Even when you’re able to sneak a few treats home to share with loved ones, the afterglow is the bright memory without a shape. As the details fade, you’re left with ambient nostalgia, a feeling I can only equate with childhood. Hemingway once wrote about the feeling of being in Europe and how it stays with you. He called the sensation a Moveable Feast.
I think back on Daniel Hammer’s goal to help people live better, to help people slow down, and I realize Taste of Italy is much more than a postcard to old world sentimentality, more than an olive branch to modern food trends, and more than a talking point that, unbeknownst to him, would become the crux of this tale.
Slowing down allows Kroger to stop and smell the edible earth, to ingest life and suck out its marrow, to be inspired so that they may become stewards of taste and story and the unknown. And in their able hands, the day washes away, and our hearts jump oceans and millennia into a strangely familiar world of shopping carts and check out lines. We catch a glimpse of someone reading a label, reading about a small town, a small producer. They are slowly coming to know a place that we photograph to remember.
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