As Elizabeth David wrote in “Italian Food” in 1954,
“Everyone has heard of the mortadella sausage of Bologna, but how many hurrying motorists drive past the rose and ochre coloured arcades of Bologna quite unaware that behind modest doorways are some of the best restaurants in Italy.”
She might have added, “and everyone has cooked spaghetti alla bolognese without ever wondering what the bolognese refers to”. In my early thirties I’d shared a house in Liverpool with a Bolognese, Marcello, who was more interested in politics than food in those days. I was also interested in politics but at the same time fascinated by the kind of superior Red Cross parcels he would receive every Christmas from his mother. There would be a large piece of parmesan, a vacuum wrapped piece of ham or mortadella and a box of tortellini.
Eventually Marcello decided to go home and with a group of friends established a catering business in a house in the hills south west of Bologna. Their breakthrough came when they were chosen to provide the feast for the celebrations for the 900th anniversary of the foundation of the University of Bologna. Since then Marcello dall’Aglio and his Locanda del Castello has become a punto di referimento, or reference point, around Bologna for innovatory cuisine with a traditional base. He was talking about seasonality and terroir long before the birth of the Slow Food movement. Visiting and talking with Marcello, gradually the idea of a blog and then a book began to take shape, part recipe book, part travel guide, but a book with a mission: to share with the world my delight in the Bolognese food culture.
Almost all the most iconic products of Italian food are produced within thirty kilometres of the city: ham, parmesan, balsamic vinegar and the finest fresh pasta. (Naples lays claim to pizza and mozzarella.) Not to forget mortadella, the sausage they call Bologna or Boloney in America, a kind of salami that, unusually, is cooked rather than cured. These wonderful ingredients are the outward signs of a food culture which I believe is unique in Italy. A big claim to make, but as Claudia Roden says, ‘The people of Emilia-Romagna eat more, care more and talk more about food than anyone else in Italy’.
As almost everywhere in Italy you will be astonished by the culinary pride of the producers and the food knowledge of the diners, from all classes. But Bologna, amongst the great cities, has a unique attraction for foodlovers: whenever and wherever you eat and drink, you are most likely to be surrounded by Bolognese because they love eating out together (and because most tourists are seduced by the obvious charms of Rome, Florence and Venice, fortunately for you). And debating the merits of this restaurant’s sfoglina (pasta maker) against another’s.
Of course, egg pasta is not exclusive to Bolognese cookery but it is essential to it in a way that is not true of the other places where it is also popular, such as Venice. It is used to make the noodles or tagliatelle which accompany the famous Bolognese meat sauce, the ragù. It is also used to make stuffed pasta, especially tortellini, the little meat-filled parcels that are the highlight of Christmas Eve supper and celebrations such as weddings and communions. The meatless versions are called tortelloni or tortelli or tortellaci. Egg pasta is also used to make the small sheets of pasta which go into that other Bolognese must-eat, lasagne.
But it’s not just the food that has always intrigued me. It’s just as much the enjoyment that the Bolognese gain from the social experience of eating and drinking together, their respect for the traditional skills of pasta or cheese making. In that respect, I’m often asked, is Bologna any different from other Italian cities that revel in their cuisine? Federico Aicardi, a pharmacist and singer song-writer as well as a gourmet, put it like this:
‘People still stop for lunch in Bologna whether they’re lawyers or factory workers. They don’t in Milan. They just have a quick sandwich there. Bologna is known throughout Italy for the quality of the food you can eat and for the reputation of its university, whereas Rome is known for being the centre of government and for its monuments and Milan for fashion and the pace of life’.
Persuading publishers that Bologna is the next great foodie discovery proved to be more tricky than I bargained for. They ‘liked the idea’, they found the concept ‘interesting’ but they told me regretfully that there would be no market for it. Family and friends who sampled the writing and the photos and came with me to Bologna took a different view. So I persevered but also changed direction. I’d noticed that a growing number of visitors to my blog, www.tasteforbologna.blogspot.com, were using i-phones, i-pads and androids to access it. And I’d observed how my daughters would cook a recipe using their i-phones. So I resolved to self-publish an e-book. I found a designer who quickly got the hang of the book and began designing for the i-pad format, ideal for double page spreads with lots of colour photos (unlike the Kindle which can’t handle either).
“Foodlovers’ Bologna – an insider’s guide” suggests how to spend 48 hours in Bologna, and points you in the direction of the best eating, drinking and food shopping. But the best advice to the visitor is to do what I do every time I go there: buttonhole a Bolognese and ask them for their recommendations. They are rarely mistaken.
Of course, having lived, eaten and talked cucina bolognese incessantly for the last five years, I understand only too well its quirks and minor blemishes as well as its glories. If you can only eat in restaurants, you must accept a diet that is over-rich and protein laden and lacking in vegetables, a problem that is not unique to Bologna. So if you can, find an apartment with a kitchen.
The recipes I have chosen to write have been carefully chosen and written to suit the home cook in the style of cucina casalinga, literally housewife cooking. Many of the recipes have been gleaned from chefs and from friends, who have invariably been keen to share their ideas. I have omitted recipes that are more suitable to a restaurant kitchen such as fritto misto or bollito, which require a lengthy regime of deep frying or the use of copious quantities of several different meats, respectively. Go to Bologna for those. On the other hand, I’ve included innovative and unusual dishes that rarely appear on standard trattoria menus. Such as a quick and light lasagne made with guinea fowl with a parmesan cream replacing the usual béchamel sauce, or tortellini filled with prawns and served on a bed of chickpeas.
Martin Yarnit’s website and “Foodlovers’ Bologna”: www.tasteforbologna.blogspot.com
Follow Martin on Twitter: @MartinYarnit