Making Tortellini and Tagliatella in Bologna, Italy

Two of my favorite things to do when I travel are to meet cool new people and to cook! This trip to Italy back in 2012 checked off all the boxes.

Italaian cooking class in ItalyOne of the highlights of my trip to the Emilia Romagna region of Italy was the chance to work with Chef Federica at Podere San Giuliano Agriturismo and finally overcome my fear of making pasta from scratch.

Not incidentally, I was also very happy to sample her 50 Special Pignoletto which she named for those days when she was a teenager and she and friends would jump on their Vespa 50 Specials and ride into the hills of Bologna where they would drink…what else? Pignoletto!

Italaian cooking class in ItalyI woke up early while the rest of the Blogville residents slept off all the wine from the night before and caught a bus out to Podere San Giuliano where Chef Federica met me, we then had coffee, and she walked us through the process of making a classical Bolognese Tortellini and Tagliatella for which Bologna is especially well known.

This is the dish that takes the name Bolognese and oddly, the people of bologna don’t actually eat spaghetti – instead they eat this delicious rolled and cut pasta which should be 8 mm when cut, cooked and served on the table. There is actually a golden sample of the perfect dimensions which is held in the Palazzo della Mercanzia in Bologna!

Italaian cooking class in ItalyFor the Ragoul (the sauce) we needed chopped the following:
1 carrot, an onion, and some celery stalks

We then melted bacon fat, seared the vegetables and added minced meat and allowed it to cook and brown before pouring approximately 1/2 cup of white wine (because the red changes the color of the ragoul) and fresh tomato sauce which was grown and processed on Podere San Giuliano. After that, we left the kitchen so the sauce could simmer for the next two hours while we made the pasta.

Much to my surprise, the pasta was made using only approximately 2 cups of flour and two eggs. Pile the flour in the center, create a bowl in the center, add the eggs and begin mixing with the fork.

After a ball of dough is made, that is when you begin rolling it out. A nice trick Chef Federica showed us is to let one edge of the dough hang over the edge as you roll the other edge, thus allowing gravity to assist you.

Tagliatella is said to have been made to celebrate the beauty of Lucretia Borgia who was married to the duke in nearby Ferrara. Watch the video to see me combing her hair!

We rolled and rolled and rolled and rolled – and then we folded the pasta over on itself a number of times and cut it into the 8 mm strips – that’s when we took this video.

Italaian cooking class in ItalyWe allowed the pasta to sit for approximately an hour before cooking it and to my surprise, the cooking took only 1-2 minutes. This is fresh pasta and so it doesn’t need to re-hydrate like dried pasta.

After that, we removed it from the vat – Chef Federica says that you need to boil pasta in large volumes of water to get it to taste the best. By the way, my mother’s method of cooking until the pasta sticks on the wall is considered brutal – you actually don’t want it to be that sticky so stop a few minutes earlier, Mom.

Finally we settled on the patio for a beautiful lunch in a perfect setting.

Organic Retreat in Le Marche, Italy

Exclusive for Vagobond by Melissa Ruttanai.

La Travola Marche Italian Culinary TravelA local belief states that the Romans preferred to march to war across Le Marche, so their troops would arrive at battle well fed and fueled for victory. The Italian region of Le Marche is famed for vineyards and farmsteads spanning from the Adriatic to the Apennines. At La Tavola Marche, a farm inn and cooking school, chickens cluck cheerfully while the cat Piccolo stalks through flowerbeds with his uncle, Buster.

Health begins in the soil where alfalfa, grains, and carrots grow. At La Tavola Marche, owners Ashley and Jason Bartner focus on organic, traditionally prepared meals. He is a classically trained alumnus of the French Culinary Institut. She is a foodie and columnist for Taste Italia. Together, they’ve created an agriturismo that crosses a Roman feast with heart-warming hospitality.

La Travola Marche Italian Culinary TravelThe Farmhouse
La Tavola Marche sits atop a green knoll, crowned by a 300 year-old farmhouse renovated into guest rooms and apartments. A nearby spring feeds directly into the pool and pipes, providing mineral rich waters for cooking, bathing, and swimming. Down a stone path, the garden produces over 80% of their cooking ingredients, including zucchini with tender blossoms, strawberries, fava beans, parsley, and potatoes. Each morning Jason waters the plants for over two hours, twining tomato vines around traditional bamboo stakes and staving off fungal invasion with organic probiotics.

La Travola Marche Italian Culinary TravelWhile Jason razes a virtual symphony of succulence in the kitchen, his wife Ashley tends to the chickens and monitors her cache of homemade liqueurs. House specialties focus on digestives created from local ingredients like green walnuts, plums, and cherries. By using seasonal fruit, Ashley packs vitamins and minerals into traditional after-dinner drinks.

The Feast
On a typical evening, dinner encompasses five courses. In the stone courtyard, white votive candles cast a romantic light. The rooster calls his hens home. Housecats greet each other after a day playing in the fields. As Jason garnishes plates, Ashley sweeps dishes out to the tables. They are almost too pretty to eat.

La Travola Marche Italian Culinary TravelWith no less passion than her chef-husband, Ashley describes each platter with gusto: ripe melon wrapped with salty prosciutto, lentil salad with cucumber and shaved cheese, and garden-grown fava crostini. Primo and secondo courses playfully utilize what is locally available and at its height of freshness: hearty tagliatelle traditionally handmade without salt, roasted veal breast of puntine di Vitello. Table wine is locally made and bottled at the farmhouse. Just when you’ve reached maximum stomach-capacity, dessert and digestives appear to finish the meal with a sweet finale.

With their belief in healthy cooking, Ashley and Jason willingly provide recipes for their meals as well as cooking classes in the farmhouse kitchen. Don’t miss their Thursday night pizza parties. Visitors should take advantage of agrotourism and country lifestyle in Le Marche. Here, farmers chop wood for winter. Neighbors help weed each other’s gardens. And the moon rises over pre-Roman ruins. In La Marche, wine embodies the spirit of life while homemade meals remain at its heart.

La Travola Marche Italian Culinary Travel

Balsamic Vinegar and Parmigiano Reggiano of Modena, Italy

Modena, Italy is the city that Italians think about when they think about food. For me, that was enough to make me book a foodie tour while I was there. Sure, there are plenty of beautiful buildings, famous artwork, historical stories – but I was in Modena for three things –

Italian Cheese MasterParmagiano-Reggiano Cheese (this isn’t the Parmesian that comes in a green can, Americans!)

Traditional Modena Balsamic Vinegar

Lambrusco – the famous sparkling red wine of Modena (yes, sparkling red!)

I arranged my tour through Emilia Delizia – out of all the tour companies available, I liked these guys for the way they set up their tours, for the personalized nature of the tours, and also because we had nice interaction via email. All of those things added up to my booking with them and meeting my guide, Gabriele, at 8 am in Modena.

The day began with Gabriele offering a nice overview of the food of Emilia Romagna, the history of the region, and a short drive to a small dairy outside of Modena where Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced. The cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region is both robust and refined consisting of smoked meats, cheeses, wines, vinegars, and pastas such as tagliatella and  tortellini. I had taken a pasta cooking course back in May, so this tour was going to be focused on the wine, vinegar, and of course, the cheese.

Emilia-Romagna really hit the gastronomic big time back in the 1800’s when food writer Pellegrino Artusi when he detailed the region in his book The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well which spoke about the various regions of this and other parts of Italy.  Artusi was a native of the region and described the food as not just being healthy and delicious but also good for the soul!

At the dairy, the cheese master kindly let me view the whole process, ask what may have been silly questions, and take plenty of photos. You may remember the images of huge wheels of cheese falling during the recent earthquakes in Northern Italy – that was the prince of all cheeses, Parmegiano-Reggiano aka Parmesan Cheese.  This cheese is considered such a perfect food that it is sent to outerspace to provide the calcium for astronauts and thus avoid the loss of bone density which comes from extended periods in weightless environments.

Parmesan ParmegianoI’ve always been a big cheese lover, but seeing the process, made my appreciation grow. It begins with the grains grown on the dairy which are fed to the cows that live at the dairy. This is a truly regional product. The making of it goes back to the year 1200 and has remained much the same since that time.  The only place that this cheese can be made and certified is in the small region south of Mantua and bordered between Parma and Bologna. The cows, the grain, and the cheese master all need to be from this region.

The milk has to be fresh from the cow (within two hours of milking) in order to be used. The milk is placed in vats and overnight the cream separates. It takes more than 4 gallons of milk to make 2 pounds of Parmigiano-Reggiano and it is all artisanally made. The milk is then heated in copper cauldrons where it begins to do the work of curdling. Next, the milk curd is broken up into small chunks using a giant whisk, then it is cooked and allowed to cool. The curds drop to the bottom and using a pair of sticks and a large spatula – the cheese ball is lifted out and cut into two masses, dropped into molds and pressed to remove excess moisture for several days.

Next the cheese is soaked in a salt bath for about 20 days before being removed and allowed to age for 1 to 3 years. Only at this point is an expert certifier brought to inspect the cheeses – if they pass, they get the fire brand – this is the ‘Parmigiano-Reggiano Consorzio Tutela’ oval mark you will find on the finest cheeses. Those that don’t make the cut, are marked with horizontal bands which indicate they are of an inferior quality (though still delicious).  We tried a 12, 24, and 36 month cheese – of them all, I preferred the 24 months as the flavor was strong with hints of nuts and sweetness but not overpowering as the 36 month was.  The 36 month is special and should be reserved for specialty cooking – although with a drop of sweet balsamic on top, a single piece comes close to cheese divinity.

Balsamic VinegarOur next stop was a family home where traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena has been made for several generations.  I should point out that the Balsamic Vinegars that most American’s have tried are very different from these.  While most vinegars are made from wine, traditional balsamic is made from unfermented grape juice. Again, this is a product that must be completely regional – the grapes are usually grown by the family who makes the Balsamic.

The process begins with the grapes which are crushed and then added to a battery of hard-wood barrels which impart varioius flavors to the vinegar as it ages – how long? The minimum is twelve years! There are two certifications 12 and 25 years. The process takes place in the attic of the house.

We were met at the gate by Carlotta, the daughter of Giorgio and the newest in generations of Balsamic producers. As we stepped in the house, the overwhelming sweet smell of the Balsamic met us as Carlotta led us to the attic where battery after battery sat slowly concentrating. The barrels range from large to small and over the course of years the vinegar reduces from the open tops – each year a bit of the previous years grape juice is added until after 12 to 25 years – voila! A barrel of a few gallons is ready to be consumed or sold. Seriously, 25 years to make a handful of bottles.

Carlotta walked us through the entire process and showed us the batch her father began when she was born. She is 26 now and so the Balsamic Vinegar ‘Carlotta’ has recently come available. The amazing thing is that the woods of the barrels import a strong taste to the Balsamic so that a Balsamic that was kept in only sweet woods like cherry or ash offers these flavors. Similarly, the Balsamic that sat in Juniper tasted strongly of the berries and aroma of the juniper trees.

Modena Balsamic VinegarThe Balsamic ‘Carlotta’ was sweet and delicious and she confided in us that she likes it best dribbled onto vanilla ice cream! We were able to taste a variety of 12 and 25 year old Balsamics while we were there and then we had the chance to buy a 100 ml bottle. You can imagine how much a 25 year old vinegar that yields only a handful of bottles will cost – the minimum for a 12 year was 45 Euro and this went up to 180 Euro for the Balsamic that won the 2011 best Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena award – which means, it is the best in the world.  To be honest, my wife would have killed me for spending that much on a tiny bottle of anything – so I had to pass, but those on the tour with me were quite happy to buy multiple bottles. I was tempted but could see my wife’s wooden cooking spoon coming at me, so regretfully said no.

By this point, we were all ready to drink a little wine so we then drove out some long country roads to an organic agrotourismo on the outskirts of Modena where we wandered the vineyards, learned the process of the making this famous sparkling red wine.

We enjoyed a farmer style lunch with a local dairy man, a couple of farmers, and the owner of the vineyards. Lunch was a delicious homemade pasta, several types of cheese, smoked meats from the region, and of course Lambrusco. This wasn’t my first time drinking it, and to be honest, I was looking forward to it .

Lambresco Italian Farm VineyardLambrusco is a bubbly red wine that is served young. In fact, in the 1970’s and 1980’s the wine was considered to be the wine of the young – unfortunately, this led to a loss of reputation of what is a very nice wine as it was relegated to the land of those who think of it as inferior.   While there is a lot of Lambrusco di Modena that will please your palette and provide even the most haughty of connoisseurs with enjoyment – this particular vintage wasn’t it as evidenced by the fact that of three bottles opened for nine men, none of them got finished. Or maybe we were all a bunch of teetotalers…

That being said, however, the lunch was wonderful, the vintners were gracious in showing us how the Lambrusco was made, and as an ending to a wonderful food tour it was almost perfect- because what foodie doesnt’ love strolling through Italian vineyards or drinking homemade grappa with the farmer who grew and fermented it?

 

Italian Road Trip: How to Eat Your Way Through Calabria

Living in a country or city with excellent public transport, it can be easy to forget that some places just aren’t do-able without a car. Italy has a decent national rail system but, practically speaking, it only really connects the major urban centers. The places we wanted to explore were typically provincial, off the beaten track; everyone we know who’s been to Italy comes back raving about the food, and it’s no secret that Italian cuisine is regionally distinctive. In fact it can even vary from one town to the next, let alone between broader regions, and our most trusted sources – namely friends, and favorite bloggers were adamant that, unless you have really good cycling stamina, regional Italy can only be explored by car.

Thus our Italian road trip was conceived. One of the chief benefits of traveling by car is you’re not strictly stuck to one route or itinerary – beyond “fly in here” and “return flight from here”, there’s a great deal of freedom in it. So we plotted a general course and left plenty of leeway for rabbiting off up mountainsides to follow up local recommendations, and generally wandering off course to follow our noses.

Having decided to start in the south and work our way north, we fly in to Palermo in Sicily (three-ish hours from Gatwick, shockingly cheap – how are they funding these air-traffic concessions?!) to explore Sicily for a couple of days before heading to Messina and catching the ferry across the Straits to Villa San Giovanni on the Italian mainland.

 

Reggio CalabriaReggio Calabria Feast.

Bergamotto Cake in Reggio Calabria

Heading briefly south along the coastal road, we first come to Reggio Calabria, the largest city in the region and reputedly the second oldest city in Italy. This area is famous for growing 80% of the world’s bergamot, the aromatic citrus fruit that flavors Earl Grey tea and Turkish Delight. Susumelle al Bergamotto is a delicious, light cake that is made with honey and at first glance resembles a flattened iced doughnut, but is much cakier with a more sophisticated flavour.

 

Anchovy Pasta in Melito de Porto Salvo

Anchovies are common in these coastal waters, and make a cheap, healthy and delicious meal when prepared with garlic, olive oil and fresh pasta. From Melito, we head inland to explore the gorgeous mountains of Aspromonte National Park. This region has an ancient history and interesting wildlife, including peregrine falcons and golden eagles. It’s easy to find a great meal here, with homemade pasta dishes prepared to old family recipes available in the small villages en route.

 

Village in Aspromonte National Park.

Village in Aspromonte National Park.

Dramatic Vagobond Travel Video

Here’s a fun video I put together that hits some of the video I shot on my travels during 2009-2012 in Serbia, South Korea, England, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Turkey, Egypt, and a whole bunch of other places – I wasn’t real sure what to do with these so I proudly present to you – Vagobond Travel Dramatic. Please be sure to subscribe to my You Tube Channel. I’ve had several people ask me who the singer is that is just chilling out next to the Thames and grooving – I have no idea, but I enjoyed his impromptu show. He could be someone very famous for all I know…

World Travel for Almost Nothing #3 – Budget Airlines vs. Regular Airlines

(This is a repost from 2011 but not much has changed in terms of cheap travel)

AirplaneI travel by international airlines more than most people. In particular I travel more than most people who don’t have an obvious source of income i.e. a job.

In 2011, I traveled in Turkey, Morocco, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Italy, Greece, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Spain, and Switzerland – and I might be leaving a few places out…

In any event, I can say that I travel because I’m always looking for deals and because I’m lucky, for example I won the round-trip ticket from Malaysia to South Korea and I sometimes find bargains that others miss. I’m not some guy who inherited money, I don’t have a trust fund, I’m not a wall street banker and point blank – I don’t have a ton of money, I support my wife and daughter in a comfortable lifestyle (sometimes bringing them with me) and while I work a lot, I don’t have a boss.

While there are many lifestyle and travel choices involved in how and why I am able to travel as much as I do, one of the biggest factors in my being able to travel is living in the age of budget airlines.  I’m like everyone else, I carp about the bad service, the uncomfortable seats, the charges for every little thing and the feeling of being cattle – but at the same time – I’m always aware of the magic pointed out by some comedian that I’m able to ‘sit in a chair and fly through the air’ and I can do it without actually spending very much money at all.In fact, I usually spend less to fly to another country than my countrymen spend on a Greyhound bus ticket between two neighboring towns.

AirplaneThink I’m lying? A Greyhound bus ticket from Bellingham, Washington to Seattle, Washington will cost you $22.50 – I flew from Volos, Greece to Milan, Italy for $18 U.S. I flew from Milan, Italy to Tangier, Morocco for another $18! That’s three countries and two continents for 30% more than it costs to go 90 miles by bus in the USA.

Okay, I admit, the fares aren’t always that good but sometimes they are even better. I flew from Brussels, Belgium to Fez, Morocco for $1! And it’s not just Europe and North Africa – recently AirAsia had $10 fares from Kuala Lumpur to Australia or South Korea!

So, to answer my own question. Yes, budget airlines are definitely worth it. This year I’ve flown with several budget airlines: Air Arabia, WizzAir, Pegasus, Onur Air, Air Asia, Air Asia X, and of course RyanAir.

How do they stack up to other airlines? The truth is that most U.S. Airlines I’ve flown with (except for Virgin America, Hawaiian Airlines, and AlaskaAirlines – don’t give much better service or more comfortable seats. And the prices? Forget about getting anything for under $200 US unless you are flying from cities in the same state or to Vegas from California…it just doesn’t happen very often.

AirplaneAs for international airlines – well if you fly with Turkish Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airlines or just about any other Asian carrier – you will be treated with respect, get great service, and have great amenities. You end up paying four to ten times the price of a budget airline, but in this case – especially for real long flights, the extra expense might be worth it. Unless, you are on a super duper budget in which case you might want to go budget all the way.
You can fly from the UK to Morocco with Ryan Air for less than $100, then fly from Morocco to Turkey for about $200 using Air Arabia (or alternatively you could fly from Morocco to Spain, France, Italy or Belgium with Easy Jet and then take a Pegasus flight to Turkey for less than $100 each). From Turkey you can fly with Air Arabia to the middle east or Egypt for next to nothing and then you can fly to India for another next to nothing. Then from India you can go with Air Asia to Asia, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan or more. I’m not sure if South America has budget airlines but from what I can tell, North America doesn’t though in Hawaii you can island hop with Go Airlines for less than $100 each leg.

But I have to admit – flying Malaysia Airlines earlier this year was incredible. No extra charges, great food, beautiful flight attendants, great service, free drinks and free in flight entertainment.

If I had the money, I’d never fly with budget airlines again – but as it stands now – I’ll probably be on another Ryan Air flight before the year is done. At least I hope so!

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