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Postcard - A Delectable Gourmet Walking Tour of Bologna

Colleen K from MA

As a prizewinner for the 2004 Slow Travel Anniversary Contest, I chose a Gourmet Walking Tour of Bologna with Carmelita from Cook Italy (www.cookitaly.com). And I'm so glad I did! It was a unique way to learn about a city I had never visited before, but was intrigued by for it's reputation as "the food capital of Italy". Both I and my sister, who accompanied me on this trip, consider ourselves foodies as far as appreciating fine food, but neither of us are great cooks (sorry Mom). So we were really looking forward to a few pearls of wisdom on the fine art of Italian food and cooking in this city renowned for its food.

Beautiful produce in Bologna

Beautiful produce in Bologna

We were based in Florence for a week in late April 2005 and Bologna was an easy 50-minute Eurostar train ride away. We stopped by the Santa Maria Novella train station earlier in the week to buy our tickets so we wouldn't have to worry about the logistics on the morning of our departure. The automated machines make purchasing tickets very easy, as there is an English option and very helpful attendants nearby. As we didn't know how long we would stay in Bologna, we didn't buy return tickets.

We were to meet the very affable Carmelita at 10:00am in Piazza Maggiore, a 20-minute walk or 5-minute taxi ride from the train station. We took the 8:39am train from, Florence and arrived promptly at 9:30am. As my knee was bothering me from all the walking we had been doing in Florence, we thought we would take a taxi. However, as a leather convention was in town that day the taxi lines were impossibly long and we were sure to be late for Carmilita if we joined the queue. With the help of an American student, we figured out which bus to take to Piazza Maggiore (number 25) and how to buy tickets from an automated machine (no English option) in the train station. This was the only option for bus tickets, as the Tabacchi in the station did not sell them. Once on the bus, we asked which stop was ours and soon found Carmelita in our arranged meeting place.

Carmelita was born in Malta, so has a lovely British accent and a passion for the fresh foods she grew up with. She has lived and cooked in Paris, Lisbon, Cairo, London, and Barcelona before settling in Bologna where she truly feels at "home". Leaving a high-pressure job at the British Consul, she decided that her passion for food and cooking should become her full time occupation so started Cook Italy. In addition to gourmet walking tours in several Italian cities, Carmelita teaches cooking classes in various locations and will even come to your villa to teach a class!

Carmelita and Colleen at a Bologna Deli

Carmelita and Colleen at a Bologna Deli

Happily, the day was warm and sunny; a perfect day to be outside and walking around the lively markets of Mercato Centrale or Mercato di Mezzo and Pescherie Vecchie. It was lively in the sense that it was busy with the give and take of everyday commerce between sellers and their customers, but never frenzied or rushed. After the crowds of Florence, we were charmed by this less touristed and comparatively peaceful town.

Unlike some Italian cities, Bologna's food markets are spread throughout many streets rather than being limited to one main piazza (although the markets are a short distance from Piazza Maggiore). This grid of narrow streets intersecting at right angles, is the Roman nucleus of the city and a much more orderly layout than the later medieval streets. The names of these streets originate from a time when the names reflected what was sold at the market: via Mercanzie - mechant goods, via Orefici - goldsmiths, via Drapperie - cloth sellers, via Capraie - "capra" means goat, via Pescherie Vecchie - street of the old fisheries.

The residents of Bologna take their food seriously and expect only the best at their markets. The colors, freshness of the produce and smells wafting from various shops had us mesmerized throughout the entire morning. As a resident of Bologna, Carmelita has scoured these markets and shops thoroughly, so she really knows the ins and outs of this food haven and in turn is well known by most of the vendors.

Carmelita and Colleen at a fish market

As Carmelita took us through the markets, we learned that no self respecting Italian would buy fish without its head (how could they tell if it was fresh otherwise?), that fruit was often presented with it's leaves attached to prove it's freshness, that you can tell if a fresh picked melon is ripe if it has a few drops of juice on the outside, and that pasta in this city is truly a work of art.

We learned that Bologna is famous for its la sfoglia (the sheet), golden egg-yolk rich pasta made with soft flour, not durum wheat flour. I have never seen such beautiful yellow pasta! The exquisite tortellini, so carefully hand made cried out to be tasted and looked as if they would melt in your mouth.

Oh, and the cheese and deli shops, where the aromas alone would make a foodie swoon, never mind the taste explosion in your mouth when you tasted the salumi, prosciutto, parmigiano, and pecorino. The prosciutto was so delectable that we had some sealed and wrapped to take back home with us.

Because Carmelita knows many of these vendors well and takes her clients to them often, they are generally happy to allow you to sample some of their products. She pointed out what was in season and we oohed and ahhed over beautiful produce such as Sicilian tomatoes, melons, asparagus and peas. And of course, this being Italy, everything is so beautifully presented. She also pointed out a good buy for white truffle oil; at 7 euro we agreed and bought some.

Carmelita explained the aging process of the different cheeses and meats. She told us why culatello was such a delicacy. Culatello is a cured meat from the most prized section of the pork haunch, or hind leg. It is boned, salted, spiced, bound with string and then tucked into a pig's bladder for 2-3 months! After this it is aged in a humid cellar for at least another 10 months. When the curing process is completed, the result is a uniformly red piece of meat with white specks of fat. Because of the long curing process, culatello is very expensive, as much as 50 euro per kilogram! At those prices, we did not ask for a taste but I would like to taste it someday.

We were particularly impressed by all the beautifully prepared dishes in butchers' shops that were dressed and ready to pop into the oven. Even I could have an impressive dinner party, if I had these enticing selections to choose from!

We also learned a great deal about aceto balsamico and got to taste several samples of various aged products from 12 to 30 years. The real thing, the aged product, must have the word Tradizionale on the label, such as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia. Fantastico!

The thicker the consistency, the better the quality and the higher the price. Only balsamic vinegar that has been aged at least 12 years gets sealed by the Consorzio of Modena, and even then, only if it passes the severe tasting tests imposed by the Consorzio - 12 + tradizonale may be returned to the producer for replacing in the barrels until it improves sufficiently to merit bottling by and at the Consorzio. Another way to judge quality is by the color of the caps: Gold cap - minimum 25 years, Cream cap - minimum, 12 years in barrels made of different woods before any is drawn off for bottling.

These vinegars and those of the Consorzio of Reggio are considered the "real thing" and are very expensive ($100 for a 100 gram bottle). However, just as there are great Tuscan wines that are not restricted by DOCG regulations, there are some fine aged balsamic vinegars (the real thing bottled by the producer without going through the Consorzio process) without this seal that are excellent and more affordable. Carmelita told us that the only way you can really determine if the product is the real thing is by tasting. So if the merchant doesn't allow for tasting, buying a Consorzio product will insure a high quality product so that you don't risk paying a lot of money for a sour item made of vinegar with caramel and no ageing.

We bought a wonderful small bottle of Condimento Reggiano produced by Gilberto at Drogheria Gilberto on via Drapperie, which also had a wonderful variety of all sorts of gourmet condiments: jellies, candies, chocolate, nuts, truffle oils, butters, grappas, traditional after dinner liqueurs and a fantastic wine cellar below the shop. It truly was a gourmet's paradise. To be escorted by a guide as knowledgeable, passionate about food and as companionable as Carmelita was the icing on the cake.

Carmelita also kindly helped me add more time to my phone in a TIM store and recommended a nearby restaurant for a traditional lunch, a phenomenal coffee bar and suggested areas of Bologna that we might like to see after lunch.

Teresina Restaurant Courtyard

Teresina Restaurant Courtyard

The restaurant Teresina (via Oberdan, 4) had a beautiful outside courtyard where we enjoyed the traditional Bologna primi of tagliatelle al ragu and tortellini il brodo, followed by a shared sea bream with olives capers and tomatoes. It was quite wonderful. After lunch we had the most delicious coffee treat at Terzi (via Oberdan, 10), a coffee called a Cremino that had 3 layers of coffee and cream served in a parfait glass. Wow!

We then took a leisurely stroll through the main sites of Bologna as described in Rar's Everything Bologna travel notes. We loved the porticos and our favorite spot was the beautiful and serene Santo Stefano Church Complex. Before heading back to the train we indulged in some great gelato at Gelateria Gianni (via Montegrappa, 11), just a few minutes from Piazza Maggiore. We did not get to sample the gelato that Carmelita recommends as the best ice cream in Europe, the Gelatauro on via San Vitale 90, as it was not as convenient from the Piazza.

We opted for a taxi back to the train station and bought tickets for the next train back to Florence by the automated machine once again. When we realized we had purchased tickets for the next train, which was not a Eurostar, we were worried that it would take much longer but the helpful information attendant said it was about the same timing as the Eurostar. What I failed to remember, however, as the conductor came by to punch our tickets, was that on an intercity train you must stamp the tickets before boarding. The very kind conductor asked us if we were French (no, but it was better than being seen as dumb Americans I guess) and very nicely explained our mistake and wrote on our tickets to avoid a hefty fine! I thanked him profusely and told him he was very kind as all Italians were. A happy ending to a really fun and informative day.

I highly recommend Carmelita as a food guide and look forward to visiting Bologna again. Thanks to Carmelita for her generosity in donating this fabulous prize and to Pauline and the Slow Travel moderators for running the contest. Cook Italy has offered a prize for the Slow Travel 2006 contest.

See Slow Travel Photos for larger versions of photos in this essay and more photos of Bologna by my sister.

Bologna Recommendations

Other foodie places Carmelita recommends include:

www.paoloatti.com: Pasticceria Atti, Via Caprarie

www.gelateriagianni.com: Gelateria Gianni, via Montegrappa, 11

www.la-salumeria.it: Salumeria Bruno e Franco, not in the main market but in very nearby via Oberdan

Le Sfogline for excellent fresh pasta behind another food market, the Mercato delle Erbe, in via Belvedere.

Photos

Slow Travel Photos: Larger versions of photos in this essay and more photos of Bologna.

Resources

Colleen Kochman's Member Page: The articles and trip reports that Colleen has published on Slow Travel.

Cook Italy: Bologna, Tuscany and Sicily cooking classes (see the classified)

Slow Travel Italy - Travel Notes - Everything Bologna: Matt's guide to Bologna.

www.acetobalsamicotradizionale.it: Consorzio Aceto Balsamico Reggio Emila for more information about Aceto Balsamico (Balsamic).


Colleen Kochman lives in Cambridge, MA, is a pediatric nurse practitioner who loves all aspects of travel. Photos by Kathleen Hennessy, a photo editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.

© Colleen Kochman, 2005

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