‘Mak­ing din­ner for 10 Ital­ians seemed a fun idea – for an hour’

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Cover Story -

In the pasta shop in Bologna, Daniela was telling me the story about Lu­crezia Bor­gia’s navel. And its con­nec­tion to pasta. Ap­par­ently Lu­crezia was trav­el­ling home to Fer­rara, and had stopped for the night at an inn in Mo­dena. Late in the evening, the innkeeper had crept up­stairs and peered through the key­hole of her room. The duchess was ly­ing naked on the bed. Through the key­hole, the innkeeper could see only her navel. It was enough. He fell into rap­tures and the fol­low­ing day, as a trib­ute to that beau­ti­ful navel, he in­vented tortel­loni, the plump, cir­cu­lar filled pasta, fa­mous in these parts.

The story is ridicu­lous, of course, and no one be­lieves it, but ev­ery­one loves to tell it be­cause it touches on some­thing fun­da­men­tal about Ital­ian cui­sine, some con­nec­tion be­tween pas­sion and pasta. In Italy, food should en­rap­ture. It should be sen­sual.

Which is what got me started on the din­ner plans. I too was trav­el­ling to Fer­rara, to visit friends. Mak­ing my way through Emilia-Ro­magna, through Parma and Mo­dena and Bologna, I was be­com­ing en­rap­tured. The gas­tro­nomic heart of Italy, the prov­ince is a packed larder, home to so many great Ital­ian in­gre­di­ents and dishes that even other Ital­ians, usu­ally fa­nat­i­cally loyal to their own parishes, bow to its dom­i­nance. Emilia-Ro­magna is in the Pia­nura Padana, those north­ern plains cen­tred on the river Po, which pro­duce the best wheat for Italy’s pasta, the best rice for its risotto, the best salami for its an­tipasti. Parme­san, Parma hams and the great cu­latello, the king of cured hams (see Gourmet Guide, right), all come from Parma. If bal­samic vine­gar is not from Mo­dena, it is not bal­samic vine­gar.

Lunch­ing in a deli full of fab­u­lous foods, in­tox­i­cated by the colours and the aro­mas – and pos­si­bly also by half a bot­tle of pig­no­letto – I called my friends in Fer­rara and of­fered to make din­ner on my ar­rival. For an hour or so, it seemed such a fun idea.

When the fun went out of it – which didn’t take long – I could al­most hear it, like the sound of air hiss­ing out of a punc­tured tyre. Emilia-Ro­magna was re­mind­ing me how dis­cern­ing Ital­ians are. These are peo­ple who can dis­cuss the pros and cons of the morn­ing espresso un­til lunchtime. The idea of cook­ing din­ner for an Ital­ian fam­ily – there would be 10 guests spread across three gen­er­a­tions – sud­denly made me feel like an in­no­cent school­boy hop­ing to sketch a few rocket ideas for the guys at Nasa. But I had promised. And the count­down to Fer­rara had be­gun.

I be­gan in Parma, a city so el­e­gant you feel ev­ery­one must sleep in freshly pressed silk py­ja­mas. A for­tu­nate run of rulers – the Far­nese, the Bour­bons, Maria Luisa, Napoleon’s way­ward wife – has given the city a cathe­dral swarm­ing with Old Mas­ters, a Bap­tis­tery as rich as an il­lu­mi­nated man­u­script, a palace the size of Hamp­ton Court and an opera house that ri­vals La Scala. Cor­reg­gio was its great­est painter, re­spon­si­ble for the cupola paint­ing in the Duomo whose ranks of bare legs – chiefly an­gels fly­ing up­wards into the dome – were likened by Dick­ens to the delir­ium of an am­pu­ta­tion sur­geon. The church author­i­ties un­kindly paid Cor­reg­gio, a no­to­ri­ous miser, in small coins. Un­will­ing to em­ploy a porter, he car­ried the huge sack home in the mid­day heat, fell ill and died at 45.

But it is the art of food that has made Parma most fa­mous. Parme­san cheese was al­ready a val­ued ex­port in the 17th cen­tury when Pepys buried his “par­mazan” along with his wine to save it from the Great Fire of Lon­don. In the flat­lands to the north of the city, I went to see the “birthing”. Chaps dressed like med­i­cal or­der­lies raised the new­born lumps of parme­san from a pri­mal soup of whey, then swad­dled them in linens. Next door, in a ware­house that could have housed a cou­ple of jumbo jets, tens of thou­sands of wheels of parme­san, each weigh­ing more than 80lb, were age­ing on floor-to-ceil­ing shelv­ing. The best will spend more than 30 months here.

From the low­lands, I fol­lowed back roads into the hills around Langhi­rano where I watched the fat hams of pro­sciutto di Parma be­ing salted and hung in the ri­posa, the vast stor­age rooms where the open­ing and clos­ing of tall win­dows to the winds from the Lig­urian coast helps to main­tain the per­fect bal­ance of hu­mid­ity and tem­per­a­ture. To check the prod­uct’s in­tegrity, a “nose” tests by smell, pierc­ing the ham at five points with part of the fibula of a horse, a bone par­tic­u­lar for its abil­ity to ab­sorb and quickly re­lease aroma.

All these high stan­dards, all this alarm­ing dis­cern­ment, was do­ing noth­ing for my con­fi­dence. I was among peo­ple who could tell an over­cooked pasta or a se­cond-rate mine­strone at 100 paces.

In Bologna – a city so ex­act­ing that the mu­sic col­lege once failed Mozart – it all came to a dizzy cli­max. It was time to shop, not just to look. I needed to make some choices, to com­mit to some recipes, to de­cide on a menu. I looked at Orec­chi­ette con ri­cotta su purea di patate e ces­tino di ci­co­ria. I thought about Sartù di riso con rip­ieno de ra­gun­cino. But the re­al­ity was I could barely spell this stuff, let alone cook it for 10 dis­cern­ing Ital­ians whose home cook­ing was the kind of thing in­ter­na­tional chefs try to em­u­late.

In spite of the Mozart thing, Bologna is a friendly place. Its medieval streets are lined with por­ti­coes – there are al­most 25 miles of them in the his­toric cen­tre – of­fer­ing shade and a kind of so­cial in­ti­macy to ex­plo­rations of the city. In the Pi­azza del Net­tuno, nymphs squirt wa­ter from their breasts while in the 16th-cen­tury Archig­in­na­sio, you can

The idea of cook­ing for the fam­ily made me feel like a boy sketch­ing a few rock­ets for Nasa

visit the Teatro Anatomico, a spec­tac­u­lar wood-lined lec­ture hall where early dis­sec­tions were one of the city’s grand so­cial oc­ca­sions.

Just to the east of the grand Pi­azza Mag­giore, a few steps from the aus­tere face of the Duomo, is a small grid of streets – Via Drap­perie, Via Clava­ture, Via Pescherie Vec­chie – crowded with salumerie, fro­magerie, pas­tic­ce­ria, pescherie, pan­i­fi­cio, and enote­cas, a cor­nu­copia of colours and aro­mas, a par­adise of flavours and tex­tures. White-aproned fish­mon­gers pre­side over mar­ble coun­ters of slith­er­ing sar­dines, glis­ten­ing slabs of tuna and coiled oc­to­pus. Pasta mak­ers present flour-dusted trays of hand­made filled pas­tas – tortel­loni and tortellini, ravi­oli and cap­pel­letti, mezzelune and ag­nolotti. In the grand del­i­catessens, ranks of hams hang from the ceil­ings like tro­phies.

It was in Bologna that Tom­maso came to my res­cue. At 93, he still ran a green­gro­cer’s stall in one of the medieval niches in the back wall of the Church of Santa Maria della Vita. He knew the ori­gin, al­most the very farm, of ev­ery­thing he sold. He was push­ing me to buy Sant’Anna peaches. From Reg­gio, he said, purs­ing his lips, as sweet as a kiss.

Tom­maso was a tipo, a char­ac­ter, warm, mis­chievous, con­fes­sional. Among fat mel­ons and glossy aubergines, we fell into con­ver­sa­tion. Sud­denly he re­vealed the cen­tral is­sue of his life. “I have been in love with the same woman for 73 years, but she does not love me.” He stretched his arms wide, palms up­turned. “What can a man do?” At 93, not a lot, I am guess­ing.

In this at­mos­phere of shared con­fi­dences, I was prompted to re­veal my own trou­bles, though ad­mit­tedly choos­ing recipes was small fry com­pared to seven decades of lovelorn heart­break. I told him about the meal. Tom­maso shrugged. He told me not to worry. “For a start, for­get recipes,” he said. “You don’t need to cook. The in­gre­di­ents are all you need. You can serve ev­ery­thing as it comes. Come viene. First course, pro­sciutto and parmi­giano. Some melon, per­haps. Se­cond course, tortel­loni filled with ri­cotta and spinach. Boil it for two min­utes. Not a se­cond longer. Main course, buy a

polpet­tone – a meat loaf – slice it and serve with a driz­zle of bal­samic and a salad. Open a cou­ple of bot­tles of pig­no­letto. Your meal has pre­pared it­self, my friend. All the work has been done by the pro­duc­ers.”

A halo seemed to ap­pear around Tom­maso’s old head. Of course, he was right. Who needed recipes? The pre­pared in­gre­di­ents were so good, I just needed to put things on plates.

I pumped his hand, bought some fresh salad and a cou­ple of mel­ons from Man­tua, and hur­ried away to the salume­ria for cold meats. At the pasta shop, Daniela said, “But­ter and a squeeze of lemon. That is all they need.” At Si­moni’s I chose a polpet­tone from the six va­ri­eties on dis­play. Among the smart bou­tiques of Via de’ Car­bonesi, I found Mar­jani’s, a wood­lined 18th-cen­tury choco­latier where I bought the fa­mous cremino Fiat, lay­ered squares of hazel­nut and choco­late cre­ated to cel­e­brate the launch of the Fiat Tipo 4 in 1911. Smear some cream flavoured with bal­samic art­fully across the plate, and you have a lux­ury dessert. Tom­maso was right. The meal was mak­ing it­self.

I headed north from Bologna. A flat­land be­tween the Ap­pen­nines and the Alps, Emilia-Ro­magna is a place of geo­met­ric sim­plic­i­ties, a study in per­spec­tives. Long straight roads, lines of pol­larded trees, lin­ear canals, all di­min­ish to­wards a van­ish­ing point in the hazy dis­tance. Walled farm­steads rise like fortresses from the rich farm­land.

My des­ti­na­tion was one such farm­house. There were greet­ings, there were kisses, there was af­ter­noon tea served in my hon­our. Cousins dropped by. The din­ner for 10 quickly be­come a din­ner for 14. I be­gan un­pack­ing the goods.

I shan’t bore you with an ac­count of the gor­geous plates of pro­sciutto, the juici­ness of Man­tuan mel­ons, the soft de­li­cious­ness of the tortel­loni cooked to al dente per­fec­tion, the sheer gor­geous­ness of the polpet­tone, the sweet­ness of the bal­samic, and the crown­ing glory of Mar­jani’s hazel­nut and choco­late combo.

The Ital­ians oo­hed and aa­hed. The meal was a tri­umph, with no recipe in­volved.

Over cof­fee, one cousin waxed lyrical about the tortel­loni. Funny story, he said, chuck­ling. Lu­crezia Bor­gia was once trav­el­ling to Fer­rara and stopped for the night in Mo­dena…

Later I sent a text to Tom­maso, my new best friend: “Don’t give up on your beloved. You never know.”

An hour later, a mes­sage came back: An­di­amo al cin­ema Mer­coledì. We are go­ing to the cin­ema on Wed­nes­day.

‘For a start, for­get recipes. You don’t need to cook. The in­gre­di­ents are all you need’

FIELDS OF GOLD The fer­tile plains of the Po, right; din­ing in Bologna, top

The city of Bologna, in Emilia-Ro­magna Stan­ley, cen­tre, en­joys din­ner at a farm­stead in Fer­rara; the art of pasta mak­ing, far left AL FRESCO FRIENDS A PAR­ADISE OF FLAVOURS

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