Read our expert review of a new cookery course and foodie tour opened in Bologna, Italy. Here you can learn to make a number of classic Italian dishes including; tortellini, tagliatelle, and strozzapreti offering the ultimate Italian experience.
“Italian cooking does not exist,” says Livia de Giovanni, our host and translator on a new cooking holiday in the hills of Romagna. “We have only regional cooking”. This is something Livia, herself a professional cook, and our chef-tutor Pierluigi Gentilini, take very seriously. Ensuring traditional local recipes are followed to the letter is critical. “We would rather cut ourselves with a knife than eat spaghetti with ragù,” Livia explains with a smile. “In Romagna, ragù is always served with tagliatelle.”
I’m on a Flavours Holidays cooking week, based in a converted farmhouse a winding 10 minutes’ drive above the small town of Tredozio, 60km south of Bologna. Here, authentic regional cooking is what it’s all about.
On day one we get stuck in to our first pasta session around the communal dining table, rolling out the one-golden-yolked-egg per 100g OO-flour ratio dough until it’s so thin we can see our menu through it. The aim? To make one of the most traditional Bolognese dishes there is: tortellini. Cast aside thoughts of supermarket packets of fat tortelloni filled with bacon and cheese, or goats cheese and pesto, or some other British fantasy of filled pasta. In and around Bologna, it is always tortellini, a tiny pasta parcel filled with a blended paste of mortadella, prosciutto crudo, minced pork, Parmesan, nutmeg, and seasoning. My seven fellow cooks and I struggle a little to seal the meaty filling into the tiny squares, folding them into triangles and squishing out the air, and sealing the crimped edges before twisting each into a neat ring around our finger. It is a relief when Pierluigi tips everyone’s efforts into one communal pan before briefly simmering them.
The end result is utterly delicious. The sweet pork and slightly salty Parmesan wrapped in silky pasta are traditionally served in a clear capon broth (made using cockerel meat and a beef bone), but maybe in a nod to our foreign palates, we eat them in a sauce of reduced cream and prosciutto cotto.
This may be a cooking course, but it’s a holiday, too. Each lunchtime is heralded by a welcome glass of Prosecco, when recipe notes are shuffled away and the table cleared. There’s a pool, wonderful tree-covered hill views, and plenty of free time. We even spend a couple of hours with the lively Contessa Vespignani Boselli, a stylish septuagenarian who owns the estate on which our villa sits. She shows off her own palatial home and its treasure trove of artworks (many by her grandfather Giuseppe Graziosi) with pride. Chatting over a glass of her estate wine feels like the ultimate Italian experience – plenty of gesticulation, discussions about tradition, and advice on the importance of dating good-looking men. It’s a highlight of the week.
Cooking and eating together over the week, us guests mingle amiably. We’re a mix of solo travellers, though not all single. The youngest is a 40-ish woman who has been on several trips before, the eldest an indomitable 80-year-old on her fifth Flavours trip. Livia the host remains ever present, ready to answer questions and sort problems. Chasing up a stray suitcase, she makes repeated calls to the airport to insist on subito delivery to our remote hilltop.
By the week’s end, our pasta-rolling technique has improved, and we slice tagliatelle, and roll strozzapreti (a rustic worm-shaped egg-free pasta), with ease. But one revelation for me is a simple Crostini Romagnoli. Using chicken livers, hearts, and gizzards, plus sausage meat, chopped and fried with tomato paste then simmered in water for two hours, we make a rich, paté-like spread. Although one Italian habit I won’t be taking home is dipping the golden toasted bread into stock before serving. ‘Doesn’t it go soggy?’ we ask chef in unison, collectively raising our British brows. I’ll tell you – yes, it does. The topping though, is belissima.
We continue to cook, in total 15 recipes over the week – making petroniana, a traditional Bolognese dish, of course, using two strips of pork loin to encase local pecorino and mortadella, then double-dipping the package in breadcrumbs before frying. The local IGP-status mortadella sausage flavoured with peppercorns and sometimes pistachios appears in myriad Bolognese dishes.
Puddings are mostly tiramisu-style layered cream and savoiardi sponge finger affairs, varying in flavour between limoncello – Italy’s sweet lemon liquor – toffee, and vanilla. But my vote goes to the lightly stewed local apricots mixed with Amaretti biscuits, pistachios, sugar, and cream.
It’s not all work. We hop on a minibus to Bologna (often dubbed La Grassa, the fat one) one day, lunching at upmarket Scacco Matto restaurant with a towering starter of crisped bread layered with fat marinated anchovies, a main of tubettini pasta con frutti di mare, then a silky chocolate-sauce covered semifreddo. Not, as Livia reminds us, strictly traditional Bolognese food. Another evening, later in the week, we head to Ravenna for pizza, ultra-creamy squacquerone cheese, cured meats and house red and enjoy a more memorable outing thanks to its outdoor jollity and informal ease.
One highlight in Bologna, however, is the shopping. Visiting on Tuesday, market day, we find its narrow medieval streets bright with veg and fruit stalls, and fresh fish sparkling in the sun. Every few steps offer a pleasingly musky smelling deli with hanging legs of cured pork, shelves of balsamic vinegar from nearby Modena, fresh pasta, mortadella, and great wedges of ageing Parmigiana Reggiano. We are close to the home of that great Italian cheese, and I buy a stonking 30-month-old piece that tips my suitcase weight dangerously close to max. We pass Osteria Del Sole, Bologna’s oldest bar, signposted only ‘Vino’, where you take your own aperitivo snacks. Another essential stop is Mercato di Mezzo, a buzzy food hall where all-day fast food means someone making fresh pasta, or frying fish.
Bologna is also home to Eataly, a 10-year-old Europe-wide concept of selling the best traditional Italian produce under one roof, not necessarily – sharp intake of breath – from the local region. The shop and café is in the city centre, but Eataly is also about to open a vast pleasure-dome to Italian eating on Bologna’s outskirts. FICO Eataly World will be a 20-acre complex with 108,000 square feet of orchards, pastures, and gardens, 40 workshops, and 25 restaurants and food stalls. It’s a foodie theme park and hopefully will retain enough authenticity to be pleasurable, even away from the charms of the medieval city. One thing’s for sure, it’s in the right place – in La Grassa, Italy’s true home of eating, food always comes first.
Seven-night cooking holidays to Bologna cost £1,599 per person, including accommodation (private rooms with bathroom; no supplement for solo travellers), tuition from an Italian chef, host, meals with wine, excursions and airport transfers. (flavoursholidays.co.uk).
Words by Sophie Pither
Photographs by Sophie Pither, Flavours Holidays, Angus Bremner, Bob Smith