Milan's (better) food show

I just saw a great food exhibition. No, not the one you’re thinking of. The much ballyhooed Milan World’s Fair—Expo 2015: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life—was pretty much a bust, as vaporous as the “alpine” mists spraying outside the Austrian pavilion.

This was Food: From Science to Plate at the Museo di Storia Naturale (Natural History Museum) in Milan. I was afraid it might be hokey, but the show was as informative for adult foodies as it was entertaining for the clusters of excited first-graders sitting cross-legged in every room.


I was won over in the very first room, which featured grain and cereals, for here a whole wall was devoted to the history and science of beer.

Barley was among the first cereals to be cultivated, beginning 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, the area extending from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq and Iran. It was the first grain to be cooked (for bread), but began being fermented for beer 7,000 years ago.

The first beer recipe is 4000 years old, found in a hymn to Ninkasi engraved on a Sumerian tablet:

You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground.

You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort.

It is like the onrush of the Tigris and Euphrates.

(Isn’t that a nice metaphor for a tipsy state?)

But beer is far older, dating back 7,000 years. On display was the first depiction of beer (above), a Sumerian tablet from 6,000 years ago showing two men drinking beer through a straw. Brews at that time were unfiltered and cloudy, and the straw allowed imbibers to avoid the bitter residues at the bottom. (Try that on your next bottle of vintage Port.)


You’ve heard of durum wheat, used for pasta. Now considered a “gourmet” wheat, it was first bred in 1915 by Nazareno Strampelli, an agricultural geneticist and father of many wheat varieties. This graduate from the agricultural university in Pisa wanted to improve wheat’s quality and yield, and starting making hybrids from wheats around the world—Dutch, Japanese, Italian and more.

Just like GMOs today, hybrids faced opposition. Advocates of “selectionism” preferred a slower Darwin-esque approach of picking the best-performing plants and propagating those. Hybrids eventually won the day.

Thanks to Strampelli’s new strains, the Fascists were able to nearly double wheat production in Mussolini’s “Battle for Grain”—from 44 million quintals in 1922 to 80 million in 1933—practically without increasing surface for cultivation.

An unintended consequence was the decrease of malaria. Until then, wheat cultivated along the fertile coast reached maturity precisely when the mosquitoes did. Some of Stampelli’s hybrids matured earlier and could be harvested before peak mosquito season, keeping the farm workers healthier.


In another room was everything you ever want to know about making the perfect pot of espresso—and the science behind it. Boiled down to a few pointers.

- Use water without a high mineral content—bottled water, if necessary.

- Fill water up to the safety valve.

- Fill coffee grounds up to the container rim. Do not create a mound. Do not tamp down. Do not create holes.

- Boil over a low flame. This slows the action in a way that prevents bitterness.

- Switch off just before it starts gurgling and sprouting from the internal nozzle.


Egg yolks in Piedmont are school-bus yellow, veering on orange. I was never sure why. Some said it was the result of the chickens’ food; if they were fed corn, the result was this intense orange-yellow yolk. But some of our tour guests who had raised chickens said that, no, it was the breed.

The debate is now settled. It depends “exclusively” on the diet, per this exhibition, and the compounds therein. If it’s yellow, the food is rich in carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin. If it’s orange, there’s more capsanthin (also found in paprika).

So if you’re in Milan between now and June 28, 2015, take my advice and spend an hour or two at the Natural History Museum. (All signage is in English and Italian.)

The Expo is worth a visit mostly to see some great eco-friendly architecture; all the pavilions are made of recyclable materials and will be dismantled and recycled as soon as the fair ends. (You can—and should—arrive by subway; parking and signage are a nightmare.) The Expo goes through October 31, 2015.