My Big Fat Italian Cooking Class
Recently I had the pleasure of visiting “fat” Italy. Now before you jump to the conclusion that I am insulting an entire country read on! I am talking of a particular city in northern Italy, Bologna. Once known as “Bologna The Fat”. As the capital city of a region in Italy that so lovingly gives us the world best balsamic, the best sheep’s cheese, Parmesan and the best-cured ham in the world prosciutto di Parma. Bologna created tortellini and ragu sauce and they have certainly earned the title of “The Fat”!
In my industry, as a wellness food blogger and real food enthusiast the word fat is a positive term when we are talking about food, one to embrace and not avoid. Healthy fats are the jewel of the wellness crown! Much like the city of Bologna is the jewel in the crown of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.
In Bologna there are no big fancy museums with miles of art exhibits. There are not 100’s of sights to see. Most people make a pilgrimage to Bologna for one reason, food! At this point you might think I am going to review all the great restaurants, but this is not that kind of food blog. This story is about an experience I will cherish for a lifetime!
Our story starts in America. While planning our trip to Italy we decided to make a stop in Bologna. We have been to Italy many times and every time we look at a map to plan an itinerary I would see Bologna and my heart would be drawn to the city. Maybe it stems from childhood and reading my favorite Shakespeare play, The Taming of the Shrew. Maybe it was that my favorite sandwich when I was a kid was bologna and mustard, known as “Mortadella” in Bologna and still a popular school lunch box treat. I was excited that we added it to our itinerary, but I had no idea the treat I was in for!
We booked a B and B, Casa Ilaria in Bologna. We booked it through an online travel site without much detail on the amenities in the property, we simply booked it based on the amazing reviews. The location is in the heart of the city and easily accessed from the central train station. The price was amazing for the promising reviews we had read. We were excited about our stay.
We arrived on Sunday night. It was raining cats and dogs when we arrived. We found refuge in the warm inviting walls of Casa Ilaria. The owner, Ilaria, was there to greet us. As we were checking in Robin noticed a sign in the kitchen that said “cooking classes available”. I could hardly believe it! I had planned to take a cooking class while I was there but I never expected it to be in the very place we were staying. We asked Ilaria about the classes and to my surprise she was the chef and instructor and it just so happened she had an available spot the very next morning! I could hardly sleep that night for the excitement about learning to make pasta in Italy!
The next morning at 9am we began with a local market tour. We walked the streets of Bologna with Ilaria as she explained the food culture of Italy and Bologna. As we strolled along the covered porticos that Bologna is famous for (20+ miles of them) I could tell when we were getting close to the market. Ilaria began to talk about the Bolognese people and their affection for home cooked food. How they mostly eat fresh food, shopping from the market that is 800 years old. My heart began to leap at the idea of visiting a medieval market that people have been shopping in for centuries buying fresh food for their families. It was not a new concept like it seems to be in America. People shopping, preparing and feeding themselves and their families for so many years and it was still alive and well.
As we approached the market streets, Ilaria asked us to look up to a second story building with big floor to ceiling windows. There we could see women dressed in white with their hair tucked neatly under white hats working to hand roll giant sheets of fresh pasta. The sheets were so large of hand rolled pasta they were the size of an unfolded newspaper and they were as thin as one too. In Bologna they are famous for tortellini. The pasta should be so thin that you can read a newspaper through it. Knowing that I could hardly believe how easily these women moved the large thin sheets without tearing them. I would solve that mystery later that day.
When we arrived to the first shop they were just rolling up the doors. It was called Tamburini’s. Although we as tourist were going in for a look the others that were waiting were locals. They were there to shop for their fresh cheeses, Parma ham, fire roasted chickens and fresh pasta. This store was like something I had seen remade in a fantasy city like Las Vegas or Disney but it was real! Stacks of large Parmesan wheels, aged Parma hams hanging from the ceiling, chickens literally roasting over an open spit flame and cases of handmade pasta to choose from. This was no joke! I could hardly believe my eyes.
In Tamburini’s Ilaria told us about the strict food regulations for making real Parmesan cheese and real Parma ham. She told us about the aging process and how they label and approve them for market. Robin said my eyes were as big as saucers and the smile on my face was the best he had ever seen. I was having my heaven on earth experience and this was only the first shop
Every shop we went into that morning was unique and perfect. This went on for 2 hours. Shop after shop, a bakery, fish, cheese, fruit, vegetables, balsamic, raw meats (even a store that was all horse meat!), wines, and more. Each one as fascinating and charming as last one. Bologna had been calling to me in a way I would have never guessed. We bought a few fresh items for our cooking class and walked back to Casa Ilaria to start our cooking class. It had started to rain but no worries we had all the beautiful porticos to keep us dry on our walk!
As you enter Casa Ilaria you come into a lovely kitchen, modern but still different than what you get in the US. It is modern but it is like it had an old spirit rich in Italian culinary experience living in it. I had 2 classmates, David and Kristina from Bristol, England. They were on an Italian adventure like us, visiting many cities and soaking up all the culture along the way. Ilaria’s English is very good with the most perfect Italian accent that makes you want to kiss her on each side of her cheek every time she speaks. She began to prep the kitchen as we put on our aprons and took our selfies! As I watched her move around the kitchen I could tell this was a ritual. From a long cloth bag she took out a giant rolling pin that was about 3 ft. long. From another bag she took an equally large wooden board. It was 2.5 ft. x 4 ft. I know I made some corny jokes about the size of the rolling pin that must have made her roll her eyes because I had been so predictable.
Our first order of business was to make an authentic Ragu sauce. Here is where the cooking surprises started. This sauce was created right here in Bologna and is still a local favorite. As an American you might think, “Oh comes the garlic and basil”. Nope, in a small stockpot Ilaria added olive oil, carrot, onion and celery. I was still waiting for the garlic to go in! Then she added ¼ lb. freshly ground beef and ¾ lb. freshly ground pork and browned that. Some white wine, tomato juice/sauce, cows milk, salt and a little water to thin and let it simmer for 45 minutes. Done! Not a basil leaf or garlic clove in sight.
While our Ragu simmered it was time to make the pasta. In this class we were making two types of pasta. Tagliatelle, which is a flat noodle and ravioli that we’re stuffing with a ricotta and parsley mixture. I have spoken to others about hand rolling pasta and knew it was no joke in the skills department. Although I am pretty good in the kitchen skills department I was a little nervous about this process. Ilaria was the perfect coach to get me comfortable with the process. She is an expert! In the market she had been pointing out hand rolled and machine rolled pasta. She was more than an expert, she was a connoisseur. She was not shy about pointing out which shops had good hand rolled and which shops cut corners with machines. Obviously I had no idea there was such a discrepancy in the types of pasta and how it was made. I was thinking how horrified she would be of the dried pasta we ate at home!
The ingredients for the pasta are easy and the same for every style. The only change would be is if you are adding a flavor like tomato, spinach or even chocolate. One egg to 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of flour is all you need! Ilaria was always 2 steps ahead of me. I would think of a question and she would answer it in the next sentence.
For pasta making she used very fine white flour. No it is not gluten free, but she is working on gluten free recipes! Also in Bologna you buy special eggs that are raised just for pasta making. You will not find them in the US I bet! On to the wooden board went the flour. After careful measuring, Ilaria removed a few pinches and set them aside. Her instincts were right on, we did not need all the flour. I suppose that is a skill that is acquired after 13+ years of pasta making. We made a “volcano” in the flour. Which simply meant that we made a well with boarders. We then cracked the eggs into the center of the volcano and began to work with a fork. As we pulled in flour from the borders with the eggs it began to get solid. Then we worked it into a ball. Ilaria then begin to explain the very specific kneading technique for the pasta ball. I will admit I was not very good at it. It took me a bit to learn the light touch needed to get the pasta ball to the right consistency for rolling. Ilaria’s professional skills shined through as she took one final knead to feel the hardness. Once she was convinced it was ready we put it in a bag and let it rest while we started the process all over again.
Now the kitchen is beginning to smell like Italian heaven with the Ragu simmering away on the stovetop. I can feel the hunger pangs thumping in me! Now with both pasta balls resting we made the filling for the ravioli. Simple ingredients once again with no strong flavor other than fresh ricotta cheese. I was eager to sample the filling so I will admit I stuck my fingers in it a few times. I was hungry!
The balls of pasta are done resting and now it is time to roll them out. This entire process is steeped in tradition. The precision in measuring, kneading, rolling, and cutting are all very exact. It is not normally how I cook but I was enjoying the structure that pasta making provided. The large rolling pin had a very specific technique to it. One that allows the rolling pin to do all the work. I was not a natural at this either. Ilaria had to coach me once again to get the hang of it. There are many rules to follow when hand rolling pasta…keep it round, always start rolling from the center, turn every time you roll, always keep the pasta growing, let the rolling pin do the work, don’t ever push down. It is a fine culinary art.
We all took turns rolling the pasta out into this thin large sheet and I could quickly see why the giant rolling pin and giant wood board were so important. As we rolled it it was getting harder and harder to move the large thin circle around. Ilaria taught us how to move it by rolling it up on the rolling pin, turning and then unrolling it again. It was like pasta magic. After that I understood how those women in the second story windows were moving those giant sheets of pasta!
Once Ilaria was convinced that we had the right thickness, which is newspaper thin, we let the sheet rest once again. After both thin sheets had dried we moved on to the cutting and filling the ravioli and cutting the Tagliatelle. Lunch was near and I was starving.
Lunch is served family style at a large farm table. It is informally set with beautiful dishes. Ilaria had made a butter sage sauce for the ravioli that was to die for. She brought the cooked handmade pasta to the table and we dug in like we had not eaten in days! I honestly could not get my fork in my mouth fast enough.
The hand rolled pasta was chewy and a little course. Quickly I began to realize that garlic and strong flavors would have destroyed this dish. It was perfect and all I could think about is how succulent these little raviolis were. Second course was the Tagliatelle with the ragu. Although I wanted to inhale my food, I ate slowly and savored all the flavor and texture that this simple dish provided. Ok, pasta making is not simple but flavors are. The ragu was so good it could have stood alone without the pasta. It was a tremendous success.
At lunch Ilaria was telling us about traditional Italian cooking at home. How they pride themselves on simple ingredients, four or less is the goal. They create bold flavors with perfect combinations of flavor profiles. She talked about the cities of Emilia-Romagna and how each had their specialties and cooking at home was a way of life. Even the young people cooked at home. I am all for the idea of simple ingredients and cooking at home. A better way of life that feeds the family daily from the homes kitchen and making recipes that have real food ingredients. Meals that are prepared by loving hands and recipes that are passed down for generations. What a beautiful way to live. I am so inspired by my visit to Bologna and my time with Ilaria. It inspired me to bring these concepts back with me. In pasta making I learned the value of a cooking ritual. The care and time that we put into a meal is an extension of our love for our family and ourselves. I love that the Italians use food as an expression of love to others. Thank you Ilaria for teaching me these special gifts and sharing your love of cooking with me and whoever has the pleasure of taking your class. I will never forget that rainy Monday afternoon in the heart of Italy that I shared with you.
Traveling to Italy? Want to live this story? You can find Casa Ilaria at http://www.casailaria.com be sure to tell her that Leslie from go2kitchens.com sent you! Want to learn more about her cooking classes and market tours check out her website Bologna Gourmet at http://www.bolognagourmet.it/portal/