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, below), 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 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 wood-lined 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.
Stanley Stewart travelled as a guest of Kirker Holidays (kirkerholidays.com) which offers a seven-night itinerary with three nights’ B&B in Bologna, and two in each of Padua and Ferrara, from £1,275 per person including flights, transfers, and car hire.
Where to eat
Trattoria Anna Maria, Via delle Belle Arti 17a, Bologna. A classic and popular trattoria (trattoriannamaria.com).Al Vigneto, in the hills above Parma. An agroturismo with great food (agriturismoalvigneto.it).
What to do
Near Parma, visitors (with a guide) can attend the birth of parmesan at the Consorzio Produttori Latte (cplparma.it). In Langhirano, at the Salumificio Conti (contiprosciutti.it) you can follow traditional prosciutto di Parma hams from first salting to final ageing. Near Modena, tours of the Acetaia Villa San Donnino (villasandonnino.it) explain what makes balsamico different from mere vinegar.
Where to shop
At Le Sfogline (lesfogline.it) in Bologna, sisters Monica and Danielle will reveal the secrets of filled pastas. Salumeria Garibaldi at Strada Garibaldi 42, Parma, is an emporium of taste. Salumeria Simoni (salumeriasimoni.it), Via Drapperie 5/2a, Bologna, also serves lunch and dinner.