Ever since she won the tagliatelle making competition on the Italian television programme “Prova dei Cuochi” (The Cooks’ Test), in a world-beating and possibly mythical 10 minutes, Alessandra Spisni has become a nationally renowned figure and her cookery school, La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese, world renowned. The day we visited, the students included Italians, Canadians and an Australian. So waiting to meet her I wondered whether I would encounter a lightweight for whom celebrity had become the raison d’etre.
La Spisni, as they call her in Bologna, is light-hearted and clearly enjoys the limelight but she is also deeply serious about what she does and proud of its authenticity, qualities we found in all the people who make the local Bolognese food scene buzz. For her, the key to the Bolognese people is their traditions of hospitality and sociability. And food is an essential part of that way of life, satisfying more than just the need for nutrition. So when she talks about cooking it is almost as if she is talking about a religious ritual. ‘Cooking is part of your daily life, you learn it from your Nonna.’ It is fun and pleasurable to cook and to eat in company but it is important to do it with respect, she avers.
You can see that in the way the cookery school operates. Although it caters for many amateur cooks and tourists who can attend for as little as a day, it instils the traditions of the Bolognese restaurant with its high regard for the skills of the pasta maker and the quality of ingredients.
‘You can eat badly in Bologna as anywhere but the chances are that you will eat better than in most places’, argues Alessandra Spisni, and that certainly accords with our experience. One bad and a couple of mediocre meals in a month of eating out is more than you could hope for in any other city of half a million people.
The school opened in 1993 when Alessandra realised that she loved cooking and wanted to share her enjoyment and skills with others. The first students from abroad were Americans and Israelis. But the big breakthrough came in 2000 when, as part of the City of Culture celebrations, Bologna made a feature of its culture of food. This was also the time when the Slow Food movement was getting under way in Italy. The country woke up to the special appeal of La Cucina Bolognese and Alessandra was invited to appear on television. Nowadays, she is a television personality, the cookery school produces a monthly magazine, and her second book of food writing and recipes was published in 2011.
As for so many Bolognese, her earliest memories are of Sunday family lunches cooked by her father’s mother, her Nonna, ‘a real matriarch’, of the kitchen as the centre of the family. A dish that she remembers with pleasure from her childhood is tagliolini in brodo, partly because it meant holidays and celebrations in their house, and also because it was ‘the perfect marriage between the pasta and the stock’.
We start chatting about the difference between food in Bologna and Milano, another city that might lay claim to being Italy’s food capital.
‘If you’re looking for a distinction in cooking styles’, she explains, ‘they are veal and butter people while we go for pork, strutto (lard) for cooking, and we love to use prosciutto and parmesan’. It’s not necessarily better, just different. But one thing the Bolognese do very well is the aperitivo. ‘Zanarini stands out, for the quality of the buffet’. She won’t be drawn on her favourite places to eat, but she is clear about her dislikes: ‘I can’t stand badly prepared food and I hate raw fish. If the chef doesn’t respect the raw materials and the customer it really shows. You also have to know the culture of the place. Tagliatelle al ragu isn’t just a dish of pasta and meat sauce. It encapsulates the history of a people so it must be treated with respect’.
I wonder whether this is turning into a rant about the influx of foreign chefs in Bolognese restaurants who don’t understand the cuisine. I’m also thinking of the Chinese family, who worked their way up from pot washing at Locanda dell Castello to opening their own Bolognese restaurant complete with (according to Marcello dall’Aglio, who used to employ them) excellent crescentine. But I’m completely wrong.
‘There are a lot of changes happening in Bologna – more tourists, more immigrants, more traffic, more ethnic restaurants, more variety in the markets – and I welcome them. I think you have to greet change with open arms. I see it as a chance to get to know new people and find out why they’ve come here. I would like to see the new Mayor making more of our food culture, giving the whole business better support’.
Finally, I ask her about who she would choose as ideal dinner companions.
“I would invite my family – including cousins – and friends”.
La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese: www.lavecchiascuola.com