A three-hour fling with Bologna leaves me wanting more.
The bullet train zooms reaching speeds of almost 300 km/h on the hour-long ride from Ravenna to Bologna. I know that I’m heading for what many consider to be Italy’s belly and its true gastronomic heart. But little do I know that I’m hurling headlong into a food nirvana that will stoke all my senses and further shape my tastes.
One of the greatest sights in Bologna is the Fontana di Nettuno (The Fountain of Neptune). Located in the Piazza Nettuno, next to yet another great communal square, the Piazza Maggiore (below), the fountain centers on Neptune and his mighty trident.
All the Italian food books I read sing paeans about the food and the food shopping in Bologna: “It will affect your heart, physically and emotionally,” states one. “Never will you meet people with a greater understanding of the properties and virtues of ingredients,” declares another. Walking down such renowned food streets as Via Drapperie and Via Clavature, the air feels different, it’s alive and electric. The energy of shoppers and those browsing for inspiration either culinary or otherwise is so palpable, it rides through the air like dreams let loose.
In the streets of Bologna, my food fantasies unfold. Witness:
One of the most prized prosciutto is culatello, from an Italian word that means ‘butt.’ Taken from the under the rump of only the best pigs, it’s meltingly soft with a curious, complex aroma of cellars and smoke. My Bin and I eat this with balls of fior di latte (cow’s milk mozzarella) while sitting under the Fontana di Nettuno. There’s more to life than Nutella. A dazzling array of gianduja, a mesmerizing blend of hazelnuts and chocolate. My favorite is the Lindt; one spoonful of this and there’s (almost) no going back to Nutella. The Emilia-Romagna region is unsurpassed in the making of both fresh and dried pasta, but especially tortellini. This is a shop that sells both pasta and pastries (pasticceria).
My Bin and I stumble upon a shop whose surfeit of fine food is so stupefying, we literally stop to stare. My already heightened emotions rev into overdrive and I touch bottles and jars with a reverence I reserve for steak and dessert.
The proprietor is a kind and accommodating man, handsome too I might add, who indulges our request for an aceto balsamico tasting.
The brown, murky condiment that sits in countless opaque bottles all over the world can’t compare to the original. True aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena is actually very rare and magnificent. It’s produced by time-honored methods in limited amounts from Trebbiano grapes, the juice of which is reduced in wide cauldrons over open fire and is then aged in a series of wooden barrels. Only when a vinegar has aged sufficiently for a minimum of 12 years and has passed a strict tasting panel is it allowed to be called aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena.
In the proprietor’s unassuming wooden box sit bottles of aceto balsamico that are between 5-40 (!) years old. A drop of 40 year old aceto balsamico is shown in the second photo. We three speak in hushed tones, with the storekeeper announcing the age of the vinegar before doling out minute amounts. My Bin and I sip and taste respectfully, worshipfully. The older the vinegar, the more viscous it is with a concentrated harmony of sour and sweet, or agrodolce as the Italians call it. I’m grateful for educational experiences such as this where I learn more about food and the ingredients I love.
Here, we’re shown what a 40+ year old and genuine aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena looks like. The real deal is packaged in these distinctive flagons complete with a seal. Behind the proprietor is his fine selection of aceto balsamicos. My Bin and I buy two bottles of the vinegars of our choice from the tasting.
As we head out, we’re shown the cave, a proudly kept wine cellar where a knight in full armor stands guard. (No, I didn’t lift the eye plate to see if there was actually someone inside!)
If there’s one thing we must eat in Bologna, it’s the tagliatelle al ragù. Far from the bastardized “spaghetti bolognaise” moniker it’s become unfortunately referred to, this is the real thing. Ragù, or meat sauce, simmered long and slow and made from ground veal and pork is finished with milk, occasionally cream, to soften the acidity of the tomatoes and wine. The sauce is then tossed –yes, tossed, because it’s more lumpy than it is liquid – over skeins of fresh tagliatelle, lengthy ribbons of fresh pasta. A true definition of al dente, to the tooth, it’s tender in some parts while biting back in others, its texture emphasizes the big beefiness of the sauce it’s dressed in. This plate of pasta is divine with an equally memorable glass of Lambrusco, cold and sweet with just a sliver of an edge.
My Bin and I sit silent in the train on our way back to Milan, each of us captive to our respective thoughts. Because of a schedule change, three hours in Bologna is all I have. My mind is a frenzy of the sights I’ve seen, the food I can still taste in my mouth, and the emotions that swirl like a whirlwind within me.
And as I gaze out the window watching fields and fantasies flit by, I marvel once again at how traveling offers me several gifts that enrich my life – and my plate.