TASTE • QUALITY • HEALTH

When it comes to health, quality counts.

Today, more than ever, there is a growing interest in health and well-being through pure, wholesome food. Consumers want their food to not only taste great, but to be good for them. Traditional, time-honored, handcrafted, organic and sustainable are food production terms that distinguish quality. As a leader in the artisan food business community, De Medici Imports carefully curates a collection of the highest quality authentic foods the world has to offer. And when it comes to health, quality counts. To learn more about the quality and health benefits of our products, we invite you to read the following features...

Farro

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Italian Farro

Authentic Italian farro has a nutty taste and hearty, chewy texture that adds
whole-grain goodness to a variety of recipes.

Farro has a long and glorious history, perhaps the original grain from which all others derive. Farro fed the Mediterranean and near Eastern populations for thousands of years and was the standard ration of the Roman legions that expanded throughout the Western world. Ground into a paste and cooked, it was the primary ingredient in puls, the polenta eaten for centuries by the Roman poor.

The word "farro," according to Gerardo Arias of Washington State University, is the Latin word for "wheat," and is the root for the Italian word for flour (farina). Not to be confused with spelt, another early wheat strain—the terms "farro" and “spelt” are often incorrectly used interchangeably. Farro is semi-pearled with some of its outer coating still intact and it is lighter in mouth feel and sweeter in taste than spelt.

As higher-yielding grains were developed, farro's cultivation dwindled. By the turn of the century in Italy there were at most a few hundred acres of farro fields scattered over the regions of Lazio, Umbria, the Marches and Tuscany. Farro would probably still be only a local specialty had European farmers not begun to supply it to upscale restaurants that used it in hearty vegetable soups and other dishes. The success of trendy, health-conscious chefs has sparked renewed interest in farro among gastronomes, and now the grain is enjoying resurgence in popularity in Italy and the U.S.

Dietary experts note that the type of carbohydrate consumed is significant. Whole grains, like farro, help in weight management because they are high in fiber, which provides more satiety than processed grains. Farro is also more slowly digested and has a much smaller impact on blood insulin levels than pure sugars or refined starches. The whole grain cereal also provides highly nutritious protein, unsaturated fatty acids, and essential vitamins and minerals.

A remarkably versatile grain with a nutty taste and pleasantly firm, chewy texture, farro is a fine addition to a variety of recipes. The hearty berries add superb body and enrichment to soups, a simple pilaf, risotto, stuffing for cooked vegetables, and grain salads like tabbouleh. Farro stores well in the pantry making it easy to have on hand, and is inexpensive to use.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

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Extra Virgin Olive Oil

The health benefits of extra virgin olive oil are directly linked to the quality of the raw ingredients and methods used to process them.

Thousands of years ago, people in Asia and the Mediterranean region discovered that small oval olives (fruits from evergreen trees) contained a thick golden-green juice that provided energy and immunity to disease, improved the health of the sick, made the complexion smoother, enhanced the flavor of food, and gave light when lit.

Oil was precious back then and became a symbol for the essence of life. What ancient civilizations knew through experience has now been confirmed through science. Today nutritionists recommend olive oil as part of a well-balanced diet. It is high in healthful monounsaturated fatty acids, which help lower blood cholesterol levels. It contains fat-soluble vitamins A and E, and polyphenols (antioxidants that also protect oil from becoming rancid).

Not all olive oils, however, are created equally. Only cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil contains all the beneficial substances that contribute so greatly to our health. In contrast to refined, highly processed oils (extracted using high temperatures that destroy heat-sensitive nutrients), cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is extracted without spoiling its nutritional and taste characteristics. The best olive oil comes from olives that have been carefully handled.

De Medici Imports seeks out family-owned and operated artisanal companies who share a commitment to producing olive oil using the strictest, time-honored methods. These begin with handpicked fruit that is clean, chemically pure, often organically grown, and meticulously sorted to remove any impurities before pressing -- contaminated or bruised fruit affects oil quality. In addition, the olives are pressed within a few hours of harvest, using specially designed mills that avoid heating the fruit. To further insure freshness, the oil is bottled upon order, after it has settled.

The best-quality extra virgin olive oils have an acidity level ranging from 0.1 % to 0.3 %, which relates to the care taken during the harvesting and pressing and high levels of polyphenols (oxidation or rancidity occurs more readily in lower-grade oils). In order to classify as extra virgin, the oil's acidity must be below 0.8%. Acidity determines how well the oil will maintain its nutritional and taste characteristics. Robust fragrance and fresh, distinct olive flavor are signs of nutritionally rich oil.

Extra virgin olive oil also offers significant culinary benefits. It has a broad range of flavors -- grassy, nutty, fruity, herbal and peppery -- the distinct taste, like wine, depending on olive type, time of harvest, soil and climate. Olive oil is used for seasoning all sorts of raw and cooked edibles: salads, vegetables, grains and legumes, marinades, sauces, and pastries. Because it is sensitive to light, heat and air, olive oil should always be kept tightly sealed in a container that does not let light in, and stored in a cool dark place (but not refrigerated). Fresh oil is best used within 12-18 months of harvest. Top-class oil is bottled by hand, and sealed and identified with a numbered and dated label.

Recipe: Bruschetta al Pomodoro - Toasted bread with chopped tomatoes

Barrel-Aged Wine Vinegar

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Barrel-Aged Wine Vinegar

Wine vinegar helps promote health in significant ways and traditional processes improve its bouquet and flavor.

The word "vinegar" comes from the French vin aigre, or "sour wine." Vinegar has been valued for its culinary and medicinal uses since ancient times, especially in regions with mild climates where it occurred naturally. Used to season food, and preserve meat, vegetables and fruit, vinegar was also a popular age-old drink (diluted with water) for quenching thirst. In ages past, vinegar was prized for its healing properties and served as an antibiotic, disinfectant, and tonic to restore health and promote strength and vitality.

Although vinegar doesn't contain appreciable amounts of essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), it may help promote health in other significant ways. Because of its high acetic acid content, vinegar can increase the body's absorption of minerals, like calcium, from the food we eat. For example, dark leafy greens are good sources of calcium, but many greens contain compounds that inhibit calcium absorption. A sprinkle of vinegar or splash of vinaigrette on greens makes the calcium in food more available to our bodies.

In addition, a recent study reviewed by the American Diabetes Association suggests that vinegar may play a role in slowing the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream (carbohydrates are broken down into sugar, or glucose, in the body). Slowing sugar absorption prevents sudden jumps in blood sugar levels and conserves insulin. Our scientific understanding of vinegar's potential health benefits -- in type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases -- is just beginning to be understood.

Like artisanal olive oil, well-crafted wine vinegar depends on the quality of the raw ingredients (the finer the wine used, the more flavorful the vinegar) and the processing methods. Old-fashioned wood barrels, used for traditional slow aging, contain natural oxidants that improve the bouquet and flavor of the final product.

The Orleans process, named for the French port city on the Loire River where it originated, is an authentic, time-honored method that produces complex flavorful vinegars. The wine is slowly and naturally aged in oak barrels for one to three months without heat, until a mass of bacteria known as the "mother" forms on the surface. The fermentation process is then allowed to continue (at least one year) until all the alcohol has been converted to acetic acid.

In contrast, commercially processed vinegar is made in large-capacity stainless-steel tanks in which a giant spindle agitates the liquid, aerating it for a speedy fermentation period of around twenty-four hours. The resulting vinegar may be aged for an additional few months, but in tanks holding several thousand gallons, rather than in wood barrels holding fifty gallons in the traditional way. Barrel-aged wine vinegars usually have 6% acidity -- the higher the acidity the better the vinegar -- whereas common vinegars generally have 4 to 5% acidity.

A leader in taste education, De Medici Imports offers an abundant selection of authentic barrel-aged wine vinegars to American consumers. Each vinegar's full-bodied wine aroma and taste are immediately appreciated when you open a bottle and sample. Try the following easy and delicious recipes using our vinegars:

Recipe: French Vinaigrette and Oil & Vinegar Salad Dressing

Artisan Sea Salt

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Hand-Harvested Sea Salt

Artisan sea salt is a simple, flavorful and wholesome way to add essential salt to your diet.

Since antiquity, people have been gathering salt from the edges of the sea, salty lakes and beneath mountains. Precious to early civilizations, salt was hard to find, extract, process, and transport; its procurement launched empires, spurred wars, and filled coffers through taxes. As the industrial revolution made it easier to produce and ship, everyday table salt became reliable, cheap and bland.

Uniform, commercial salt is now added to most processed foods without the benefit of distinctive flavor. In contrast, hand-harvested artisan sea salt, with its deliciously briny zest and appealing grainy bite, has newfound appeal.

But what about the concerns of health officials who declare that we should be eating less salt?

Current public policy (USDA Dietary Guidelines) advocates salt reduction to reduce risk of chronic disease; however some prominent scientists question the recommendation, and point to studies that don't support salt-reduction for all Americans. Specifically, Dr. Hillel W. Cohen, associate professor of epidemiology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who evaluated a [NHANES III] sample of 8,700 American adults, has said, "Our findings do again raise questions about the usefulness or even safety of universal recommendations for lower salt diets for all individuals, regardless of their blood pressure status or other health characteristics."

Perhaps the best recommendation regarding salt intake is moderation. Not too much or too little. With all the advice about reducing salt intake, the fact that our bodies require some salt in the diet gets lost. Salt (a dietary mineral composed of sodium chloride) is essential for human life; it is a component of body tissues and regulates bodily fluids. We excrete about 3 to 5 grams of salt (1 tsp. of salt is approximately 4.5 grams) every day, which we need to replace.

Using top-quality sea salt is a simple, flavorful and wholesome way to add salt to your diet. De Medici Imports offers authentic artisanal sea salts from France and Italy.

In France, sea salts are collected by paludiers, (salt farmers) who have the same status as farmers and are responsible for maintaining "salt gardens" -- a system of canals and lakes dug into the flat clay soil. A complicated gate structure enables the paludier to let fresh seawater into the lakes every two weeks when there is a high tide. The water collects in a deep pool and the farmer opens a trappe (large gate) and salt reserves are formed. During the summer season, through the heat of the sun, evaporation causes the salt to become more concentrated.

Every day during the salt harvest -- which begins in June and ends in September -- the paludier pushes the contents of the lake to one side with a long rake. The harvest consists of large, irregular gray crystals named sel gris, gray sea salt. On the surface of the lake fine white crystals settle, known as salt flower, or fleur de sel.

The salt harvest depends on the summer weather; it can double in a good year or reduce by half or more in bad weather. Sea, sun, and wind are the three factors for a good harvest. Airy surroundings keep away pollution in a natural way. Apart from grinding and packaging, the salt is presented in its pure form.

More precious in price and sophistication (than commercially processed salts), artisan sea salts are often referred to and used as "finishing" rather than cooking salt. The delectable crystals are typically sprinkled on food as a final embellishment to a dish.

Recipe: Gremolata with Sea Salt

Handcrafted Pasta

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Artisanal Pasta

Durum-wheat flour and traditional slow drying help preserve the nutritional value of handcrafted pasta.

Pasta eating has a rich legacy. According to Oretta Zanini de Vita, the pre-eminent Italian food historian, dried pasta made with durum wheat was found in Italy starting around A.D. 800. It was spread by the Muslim conquerors of Sicily, and by the 12th century the republics of Genoa and Pisa marketed dried pasta. Today pasta secca (dried pasta) is the preferred pasta in Italy for both everyday meals and in top-quality restaurants.

Discerning cooks and pasta lovers in America are discovering distinctly tasteful traditional varieties (in contrast to less flavorful commercial products) and are seeking out small-scale artisans who make pasta the old-fashioned way.

De Medici Imports offers authentic Italian pasta secca using only the best-quality raw ingredients and slow, careful traditional processing methods. The family-owned and operated companies adhere to rigorous Government-mandated guidelines to produce one-of-a-kind pasta.

World-renowned, Italian pasta is produced from hard durum-wheat flour -- semolina di grano duro ("semolina" in English). Durum-wheat flour is higher in protein and better able to stand up to the rigors of pasta making and cooking than softer bread flour. There are two important differences between artisanal products and industrially produced pasta; first, traditional pasta is extruded through bronze dies instead of through industrial Teflon, giving it a rough-textured surface to which sauce clings rather than slipping off; second, handcrafted pasta is dried slowly at low temperatures so that it retains more of the nutty flavor and aroma of durum wheat. In addition, the slow drying helps preserve the nutritional value of the wheat, particularly the wheat protein.

Along with selecting top-quality pasta, simplicity and ease of approach are the keys to preparing a good dish. Avoid gummy and overcooked pasta by using at least five quarts of vigorously boiling, salted water, for one pound of pasta. The pasta is just done (al dente), when there is a "resistance to the tooth" with a pleasant, slightly chewy texture. Saucing pasta, as well, requires a light hand. Americans tend to add too much sauce -- the point of the dish is not the sauce, but the pasta. Italians speak of the condimento ("condiment"), rather than a sauce, dressing the pasta dish. An appropriate amount of sauce gently coats the pasta.

Recipe: Spaghetti Aglio-Olio Peperoncino - Spaghetti with garlic, oil and hot peppers

Health information prepared by Allison Boomer, M.P.H., R.D.