Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bologna Culinary Journal

Tuesday, September 5, 2006: This is a story about pasta on the table. Thin pasta, thick pasta, gnocchi and lasagna noodles. It is the story of a skill that was once passed from one generation to another, but someday might be forgotten.

I watch as a tiny, compact woman with steel-gray hair, kind eyes and formidable hands rhythmically cracks eggs into a well of flour in the center of a wooden board. She plunges her hands into the pool and carefully and methodically she works the bright orange yolks and flour into a sticky paste and then a firm, pillow-like dough.

Our instructor explains that this woman of Bologna practices what could be a dying art. More and more Italian families now eat fresh pasta made by machine. The craft of pasta by hand is too time-intensive for most. The woman tells us in Italian that her daughter doesn’t make pasta, but sometimes, her son and grandchildren will attempt it. She has been perfecting her craft for more than two decades and learned it from her own grandmother.

The first batch of dough is now soft and pliable, the color of golden sunflowers. She sprinkles just a touch of flour on the board – always the right amount – to soak up any excess moisture. The wooden board absorbs the rest. She takes a long rolling pin – the length of a yardstick – in hand. It is beveled smooth by years of use. She possesses the skills of an athlete, a musician and a surgeon, rolling with speed and precision, keeping perfect tempo, carefully assessing the dough, shifting it, applying varying pressure to the rolling pin until the pasta is the desired thinness. I am given the chance to try my hand at rolling. She gives my work a friendly nod of approval, but fingers conditioned by years at a keyboard can not possibly produce the same quality results. Eventually, the plump pillow of dough is transformed into a long thin sheet, the texture of smooth leather, but the weight of a fine fabric – extremely light and almost translucent.

She makes a second batch, this time adding spinach, massaging the green leaves and eggs into the flour. The bottle-green sheets of pasta are sliced into large rectangles for lasagna. Finally, she manipulates potatoes that have been pressed through a ricer, eggs and flour into gnocchi. She rolls the dough into long strands of rope and cuts off small rectangles. She teaches us how to get that distinctive gnocchi shape by pushing the individual rectangles down the tines of a fork.

The final presentation of the gnocchi is perfumed with sage, and is all the more satisfying for the history and artistry it imparts. And now, she has passed on the tradition of hand made pasta to me, a mere visitor in her homeland.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Bologna Culinary Journal – Monday, September 4, 2006: I rise just before 7 a.m. and prepare for the day. It doesn’t take long, since my choices of attire are still limited. It is a short walk down the street to the Piazza Maggiore, an enormous open square lined by churches and palazzos and guarded by Neptune’s Fountain. At 8 a.m. Bologna is still a sleepy Northern town, with just a few pedestrians and pigeons in the piazza.

I return to the lobby of the Hotel Roma where I meet our host and instructor Mary Beth Clark, a charming and gracious woman who is the founder of the International Cooking School of Italian Food and Wine. She will be our gastronomic guide through the week. I am joined by a selection of fellow Americans hailing from Washington DC, Charlotte, NC and Los Angeles, CA.

Mary Beth leads us across the Piazza, and through a narrow passage and we begin exploring the food markets of Bologna. We stop first at a cheese shop. Bowls of creamy white cheeses, some soft and some with curds, and large golden disks of Parmigiano-Reggiano are clustered in glass cases. Slabs of pink prosciutto, which must be cured for at least 300 days, are strung together and hung from the ceiling. We visit fruit stands where the aroma smells like a heavenly orchard and watch butchers at work swiftly dissecting whole chickens. We even pause to inspect the wares of a purveyor of horse meat. Around every corner there is something for the eyes to savor, as we watch the artisanal craftsman of Bologna’s food market begin a new day.

Our next stop is an historic palazzo just minutes away from the market where we will work for the next several hours. Mary Beth leads class in the professional kitchen and we are joined by an Italian chef, an assistant and a valet who attends to our every need. Throughout the day we learn about typical ingredients, scents and flavors of the Italian kitchen. Intoxicating aromas of seafood, fresh rosemary, red wine, olive oil and chocolate and hazelnut fill the air. The yolks of the perfect brown eggs are deep orange, likely due to hens fed a diet of corn and sunflower seeds.

The staff carefully demonstrates the culinary techniques of Italy and we all take a hand in the process. While most of the instructors speak little or no English, by watching and observing their handling of the food, I begin to understand them. I am discovering there is, in fact, an international language of food, and it is one of passion, instinct and mutual reverence.

By mid-afternoon, we sit down to an extravagant luncheon at the palazzo around a beautifully set table decorated by our valet with luscious ripe summer fruits – peaches, plumbs, strawberries and red currants. There are four courses with perfect wine pairings. The food is sumptuous, the wine flows freely and we enjoy learning more about each other over an exceptional meal.

One last biscotti accompanied by a lovely sparkling rose wine, and it is time to conclude. After a brief stop at the hotel, where I learn my luggage has been delivered, I spend the remainder of the day with camera in hand exploring the medieval city of Bologna, which by late afternoon has become a bustling metropolis jammed with people and motor bikes. Warm sunshine bathes the piazzas. I walk to the nearby Bascilica di Saint Stefano, which was built during the period XII – XVII. The ancient stone holy place was formed from four Romanesque churches and has a stately, two-level cloister where I spend some quiet time reflecting on the events and aromas of the day.

Darkness falls, and I take a seat at one of the cafes on Piazza Maggiore and order a glass of vino rossa (the two words I actually know how to say in Italian). I sip my wine and watch as tourists eating gelato, students, lovers, beggars, adventurers and philosophers wander by enjoying the warm summer night. A bulging three-quarter moon peaks into the piazza, illuminating the fortress-like exterior of Basilica di San Petronio, much as it has done for centuries.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Bologna at Last – Sunday, September 3, 2006: That’s what the poster on the wall proclaims as I exit the shuttle bus and entered the airport terminal to claim my luggage – which hasn’t arrived with me. But, this journey is about food, and not travel disasters, so enough on that story.

There is an enormous, glowing half moon in the sky as my taxi driver speeds me to the Hotel Roma in the historic district of Bologna. We quickly cut through some routine residential areas, and enter the narrow streets of the ancient city. It is very late on a Sunday evening, but there are people about, some on motorbikes. There is stone, and brick, and a large tower up on the hill that I need to learn more about.

My fellow class mates at the International Cooking School of Italian Food and Wine have long since gone to dinner, but my host has arranged for the hotel to provide a cold buffet for me. Once settled in the room with my meager belongings, I feast on salty prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, bread, green salad and white wine. After the drama of my journey, it tastes superb and feels very welcoming.

Tomorrow morning, we meet for a tour of Bologna’s food market and our first cooking class of traditional Italian and nuova cuisine.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

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