We Learn to Make Pasta in Bologna
“My great-grandfather bought this farm just before the Second World War,” Federica explains. “He was an industrialist, importing vegetables from Egypt, and he could see that the family would need a place outside the city.”
Her farm, Podere San Giuliano, is no longer a farm. It’s a restaurant and agriturismo, a hybrid farm and tourism business, where folk can come and stay for a few days, or a week, and learn about the soil of Emilia-Romagna, or, of course, learn to cook.
We’re here, as Federica’s guests, to learn to make pasta. And, in particular, tagliatelle, the pasta with which the classic Bolognese sauce, ragú alla Bolognese, is served.
“Not spaghetti,” says Federica, definitively. “Spaghetti is from the south. It’s made using grano duro – durum wheat – and it’s never fresh, always dry. Tagliatelle is always fresh.”
There are olive trees, still young. “I won’t see the harvest from them,” Federica says. “But maybe my son will.”
First up, though, a wander around the farm. Asparagus season is past, sadly, and the plants are sprouting feathery leaves and tiny flowers. There are olive trees, still young.
“I won’t see the harvest from them,” Federica says. “But maybe my son will.”
And there are tomatoes! A myriad tomatoes! Zebra tomatoes, with green and orange stripes, plum tomatoes, cherry tomatoes… Zac scoffs them fresh from the plant, and pronounces the zebra ones the best.
Federica makes her own passata on the farm, sun-drying the tomatoes first, to reduce the water content and make the sauce thick. The soil is amazing: thick clods of bright orange clay, packed with nutrients, it benefits from the runoff from the surrounding hills in winter, and the parching sun in summer.
“That’s what makes the tomatoes good,” Federica explains. “There’s very little rain in summer, so it concentrates the flavours.”
I think of our watery, mass-produced tomatoes back home in Blighty, spherical but tasting of nothing, and realise that our producers really don’t stand a chance.
There are so many different pasta variations that the polymath foodie Crosby Gaige once wrote a “Macaroni Manual”, trying to sort them all out.
Back to the kitchen, and aprons on. A table is set up with all we need to make pasta. Wooden boards, bowls of flour, eggs, a flat metal spatula, a blade, a rolling pin and a slicer. All we need to do, apparently, is whip the egg into the flour using a fork until it makes a dough, then knead it and roll it.
Making pasta, like making cakes in the UK or cookies in the US, is one of those things that pretty much every Italian mother or grandmother does with her children. Can’t be hard, right?
Yet in an Italian restaurant kitchen, making pasta is a task important enough to require a specialist. And there are so many different variations that the polymath foodie Crosby Gaige once wrote a “Macaroni Manual”, trying to sort them all out.
In Italy, the right pasta is an extremely particular choice – I recall the restaurant in Ravenna where it was solemnly explained that the spaghetti for the vongole was finished, but perhaps I could try it with spaghettoni?
“There’s no real reason why one pasta goes with one sauce,” Federica says. “It’s just that it’s always been done that way.”
Zac decides that he can improve on many decades, and possibly many centuries, of Italian tradition by turning his pasta and filling into a brick. “It’s an experiment, Mum,” he says.”
Zac has crafted his pile of flour and egg into a sticky golden lump. Most of my sticky golden lump, however, is clinging to my fingers with the tenacity of an action hero hanging off a cliff. Although, when I knead it, it kindly transfers itself to the board.
Enter the palette knife. I scrape the sticky bits off, flour my hands and board again, turn back to the dough, and knead, and knead again.
This is, I realise, considerably harder work than making bread.
Now to the rolling part. As I strain and press, biceps bulging, I can’t help notice that Federica’s sheets of pasta are both infinitely more symmetrical and very significantly thinner than ours.
20 minutes or so in, we, umm, give up… We slice our irregular, wibbly pasta sheets into differently sized strips, one for tagliolini, one for tagliatelle, and reserve squares for the tortellini (not tortelloni) we are making, which we fill with a mix of ricotta, parmesan and only the slightest hint of garlic.
Neither of us quite get the hang of the pinching action. Zac decides that he can improve on decades, if not centuries, of Italian tradition, by turning his pasta and filling into a brick.
“It’s an experiment, Mum,” he says.
Myths abound. Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China. Tagliatelle was created for the wedding of Lucrezia Borgia, or as part of a competition between two noble families who lived in the twin towers of Bologna.
To the kitchen, where Riccardo Facchini, a celebrity chef who handles the kitchen at Podere San Giuliano, as well as delivering professional level cooking courses, is hard at work making a jus from charred bones, while a sous-chef runs some of the evening’s pasta through the machine..
“There’s a big dispute as to where tortellini comes from,” he says. “Some say Bologna, others Castelfranco.”
One of the things which makes Italian food both so rich and so confusing is the history of modern Italy, which arose as a series of competing city states, eventually divided among multiple rulers, then finally reunified around 150 years ago. (Wealthy Venice and the surrounding region, the Veneto, recently informally voted to secede from the rest of the country.)
Myths abound. Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China. Tagliatelle was created for the wedding of Lucrezia Borgia, or as part of a competition between two noble families who lived in the twin towers of Bologna. Tortellini are a homage to the bellybutton of Venus…
Zac gets to work with the pasta machine, which makes life one hell of a lot easier, while Riccardo explains about the professional-level cooking courses he runs. “A lot of it’s about the business side,” he explains. “How to run an Italian-style kitchen efficiently and profitably. We get people from all over the world, especially Russia.”
“You know,” says Zac, with the confidence of youth. “I think my brick was a real improvement.”
And, finally, to eat. “We call this oro e burro,” Federica explains, whacking a slab of butter and a splurge of passata into a frying pan, and shaking the tortellini in it to mix. “Oro means ‘gold’, but it’s also the end of pomodoro. And burro is ‘butter’.”
Pomodoro, Italian for tomato, might even mean pomo d’oro (apple of gold). Or, of course, it could mean pomo d’amore (apple of love), or pomo di Moro (apple of the Moors). As always in Italy, nobody really knows.
Even slathered in sauce, it’s painfully easy to tell which tortellini are ours (the lumpen, over-thick ones) and which are Federica’s.
We eat our tagliatelle and tagliolini with a pre-prepared ragú, the rich, thick sauce of bacon and beef, which is a million miles from the sloppy sauce we serve up as spag bol in the UK.
And then we sit on the sunny terrace chatting about food. “You know,” says Zac, with the confidence of youth. “I think my brick was a real improvement.”
We were guests of Podere San Giuliano, which offers custom cooking classes and courses for small groups including families, at levels from child-friendly through to professional, as well as rooms, in the country outside Bologna. To learn to make not only pasta, but sauces, and to eat the results with wine-matching, costs 90 euros per head for a minimum group size of two: click here for more details.