Bologna is called “La grassa” or “the fat” city. The correct translation should be “the bountiful” as the fat represents richness. I learned this when on a food tour with Cook Italy.
The origin of the name comes from Bologna’s production of bologna, or as they call it here, mortadella. To be a protected status mortadella, there is a required number of fat squares in each.
Normally, to preserve meat, before refrigeration, is to salt, dry, or cover with fat. Bologna invented the boiling of this meat product and the city became famous for it. Hence why in the United States, mortadella is called bologna or boloney.
Bologna is also famous for its covered sidewalks, over 70 kilometers of them. Also, the red brick. But, mostly, Bologna is famous for being a foodie city. The city anchors the food valley (which is also motor valley) of Emilia Romagna.
Bountiful Bologna is often overlooked by tourists. That’s kind of nice. There are many foreigners in Bologna because Bologna has the oldest (still functioning) university in the world (started in 1088). True, the center of the town is a bit crowded but slip down a side street and you can soon imagine your own medieval scholarly wanderings. Or just shop.
So next time someone calls Bologna fat, you know that it’s bountiful. Enjoy it for yourself. More later about where to eat, shop, and stay in bountiful Bologna.
Just as Roman cuisine is famous for using the “quinto quarto” (fifth quarter) of the animal, Rome famous for four pasta sauces — with one that is made from the part of the animal that no one wants to mention — the fifth quarter. Or is it the opposite?
In most restaurants, you order your pasta dish by the sauce as there are traditionally certain pastas for certain sauces. In a few, by the shape of the pasta, although most places will have already decided which pasta they are cooking that day. I find that many restaurants use the large tubular pasta as it fills the plate better. There are officially 350 shapes of pasta but many have different regional names and new shapes are being invented constantly. Italians will tell you that the pasta should fit the sauce so that the sauce sticks to the pasta. Some Romans will tell you that only certain sauces go with certain types of pasta.
A basic thing about Roman cooking. It’s simple with few ingredients and use the best quality that you can afford. Also, almost no garlic or chili. The Italians are sensitive to regional names so even describing something as “like bacon” can be controversial.
Cacio e Pepe (catch-ee-oh-eh-peh-pa): Basically it’s called “cheese and black pepper” and that’s what it is. Usually a long string-like pasta like spaghetti although traditionally, tonnarelli (a rougher hand cut “square” long pasta) is used. Spaghetti means “strings.” The cheese used is Roman Pecorino, the sheep’s milk version similar in hardness and age to Parmesan (which comes from Parma), and pepper. One makes the sauce by using hot water that the pasta has been cooked in. There is no cream added. It’s a very simple sauce.
Carbonara (cARR-boh-nar-ah): This is the one with the famous story about how the American GIs missed eggs and bacon and so this pasta sauce was made to cater to them. Not true but a nice story. This sauce involves pork jowl, guanciale, fried to bacon bits (they will tell you not to use bacon — but if that’s all you have…), grated pecorino, and an egg yolk. The result is a thick golden sauce.
Gricia (gree-CH-ah): Is basically carbonara without the raw egg yolk. If you like bacon bits but don’t want the cloying creaminess of the carbonara, this is the one for you. It’s often used with tubular pasta like rigatoni.
Amatriciana (ah-mah-TREE-chee-ah-na): If you like the pork jowl bacon, you like the Pecorino, but you don’t like the egg yolk, and you wish they’d add some tomato sauce, then get the amatriciana. It’s called that because the pork comes from Amatrice, a town in northern Lazio (the region where Rome is located, south of the famous Tuscany).
And the fifth… is hard to find these days and never on the English language version of the menu (some traditional Roman restaurants will have a printed menu in English for the foreigners and a hand written on for the locals). It’s a dish called “rigatoni alla pajata” and is rigatoni with veal’s intestines (or bowel, as they will say here). It’s that particular part of the intestine from newborn calves who have only had milk. When the calf is slaughtered, the undigested milk is still in the intestine and it looks a bit like a creamy sausage.
None of these are my favorite pasta sauces. I like spaghetti alle vongole/spaghetti con le vongole (spaghetti with clams) and aglio e olio (garlic and oil) with chili flakes, a dish so simple that it’s almost never on the menu in restaurants. Apparently, it’s a drunk food that people make when they come back from being out on the town. Both of these dishes are from Naples. Many of the Italian immigrants to the United States were from Naples so the American idea of Italian food is often shaped by that. This is evident in the New York style pizza which is most like a Neopolitan pizza.
Oh, I also like penne with canned/preserved tuna or salmon. It’s one of the most common things to get in a Roman cafeteria. It’s easy to make and all the ingredients are already in the pantry.
Tomatoes are juicy and red, Olive oil is gold and green, Mozzarella is creamy and white, And Johnny Madge is keen.
I felt inspired to write a cheesy poem!
Johnny Madge loves, lives, breathes olive oil. He even has “I Love Olive Oil” written on his van. Oddly, that is the least of the reasons to go on his olive oil tour. Sorry, Johnny. It’s not just about the oil.
If anyone is a natural at what they do, then it’s the legendary Johnny Madge. Taking an olive oil tasting class with him feels less like a class, and more like you just happen to have a wise friend who is an expert on olive oil… wild plants… wine… life? There are some professors and tour guides who seem scripted in their style of teaching. All respect to them, but Johnny is not one of them. Johnny Madge speaks with the ease of someone who knows vastly more than they are telling you. It reminds of advice a writing teacher once told me, “Make sure you know everything about the character, and then put none of that in your story.” Once in a while you meet people who are more than the product they sell. The fact that he has a British accent just makes everything he says sound more credible. It’s easy to get a crush on him (olive oil joke).
As I said, the olive oil tasting was a minor part of the day. The whole day was a celebration of good extra virgin olive oil (and the lifestyle that it symbolizes). Johnny Madge has a sensational high rating on TripAdvisor and rightly so.
He will pick you up from the train station in Fara Sabina (a small town about 35 minutes on the regional train line from Rome) in his van which can seat eight. If you drive your own car, you can follow him like the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The whole day had that fairytale feel to it as we meandered the undulating lanes.
You might wonder what could take so long. The pace is set by the lovely small streets along the neat rows of olive trees, the green hedges, and azure sky above gently rolling country. The tour starts in an olive tree orchard. Johnny will tell you about olive trees, the recent devastating fires, harvesting, and other facts about the trees. Did you know that an olive tree can survive a fire? As you walk around enjoying the clean air of the countryside, he will show wild edible plants like wild fennel, and explain other plants if you ask him (I asked about a seed that I found which it turns out inspired Leonardo da Vinci to invent the helicopter). Or you can wander away and sit in the shade of an olive tree. There are no demands that you pay attention and no exam. No stress.
After the orchard, he takes you to visit the largest olive tree in Europe. The tree is famous for being large, but it was comforting to meet such an old tree. It is perhaps 2,000 years old but no one really knows. Olive oil trees hollow out making it hard to count rings. When we were there admiring the tree, the owner came out to chat with Johnny. They were clearly friends catching up with each other.
Then back to admire the vegetable garden. All the while, Johnny regales you with stories and anecdotes, pointing out this and that along the way. As a city person, it’s interesting to see Swiss chard growing like a weed. One could feel the pace of life slowing down to that sweet art of doing nothing (a saying in Italian)… the art of enjoying the sweet life.
Outside the main hangar-size building, there is a metal car scale built in to the parking lot. When the local farmers need their olives processed, they drive their olive-laden cars on to the scale. After the initial weigh-in, the car is emptied of olives. Then the car is weighed again. The client pays by weight. I say client because it turns out that many Italians own a small patch of olive trees and make their own olive oil each year. After the weighing, the olives get cleaned, crushed, and spun. In the old days, the olive mash would be squeezed in reed mats but now, the oil is extracted using centrifugal force. Super high quality olive oil is spun for a mere seven minutes — thus ensuring that minimal heat is created — making it truly cold pressed. Most extra virgin olive oil is spun for 30 minutes. After spinning, the oil is filtered. Olive oil doesn’t need to be filtered but it’s better to avoid the sludge at the bottom of the bottle. Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age.
There is also something about what can be called “virgin” and “extra virgin” — the “virgin” olive oil is defective. Shocker. I think that he explained that defective doesn’t mean undrinkable. But I wasn’t paying attention… I guess I’ll have to go on another tour. If you want to geek out a bit, read this newsletter. Olive oil’s quality is not based on color. How deep is that? Professional tastings happen with blue glasses.
The mill has just opened a shop on site where small bottles of olive oil cost 5 euro and large bottles cost 8 euro. I didn’t get a photo of the shop because I was too busy shopping! They also sell flavored oils, but not garlic flavor (Romans really don’t eat much garlic), and spreads like pistachio with pesto. I think I spent around 90 euros… because I wasn’t sure when I’d get back. That said, the mill will deliver and you can purchase online. I don’t know if it was pre-arranged (despite what Johnny said) but when we visited the mill, they gave us freshly made bruschetta, which had been toasted on the olive tree wood barbecue. I’m not sure it gets better than that, in terms of experiential shopping experiences.
From the mill, we could see our lunch destination, across the valley, past neat green fields, impossibly pretty. Can this be real?
Lunch was a leisurely feast of multiple courses including creamy cannelloni beans, crunchy bruschetta with tomato, cheese, golden oven roasted potatoes, yummy lasagne, and not too sweet apple pie. Johnny brought lots of wine to pair, but it was mostly about the olive oil pairings. Every dish had olive oil. At this point, Johnny explained how to taste olive oil and we tried a few straight up. I did not like most of the oil when tasted alone. I preferred the oil on the food. We actually started with olive oil on a chocolate crostini which brought happy memories of my days in El Cacaotal in Lima. I can’t wait to get these food nerds together and watch them nerd out.
To contact Johnny for olive oil tastings, or to feature him in your documentary or to hire him as an expert (he was in Pasta Grannies! Name drop!), here is how to contact him: Johnny Madge, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.johnnymadge.com, +39 328 339 8479. He speaks English and Italian.
The olive oil tour, including lunch, wine, and olive oil tasting, cost 110 euro per person. The train costs 2.80 euro each way. You can also drive there in 35 minutes and leave your car at the train station or follow him around the countryside.
The day out was fabulous. Johnny loves olive oil and after a day with him, you might love olive oil as much as Johnny. Or maybe him.
If you really want to get an idea of how pleasant the day was (I mean, how olive oil is made!), enjoy this video by the mill again.
I end this with a version of the roses are red poem from Les Mis. We did go a-touring in the countryside of Rome where the pomegranate blossoms were orange and I loved, loved, loved it.
We will buy very pretty things A-walking through the suburbs. Violets are blue, roses are red, Violets are blue, I love my loves.
I have also made a video of my own. Nothing compared to the mill’s… but, enjoy the song by Ed Sheeran and Andrea Bocelli. It’s perfect.
In Italy, every coffee bar/cafe, has a different brand of coffee. Why? Because they get their dishware etc. sponsored by the brand. If you only drink a certain brand of coffee, then you have to drink at a certain cafe.
While coffee beans are not grown in Italy, the Italians are quite obsessed with coffee. But it’s not a fashion item. It’s more that they drink espressos all day long, at about a rate of one every few hours. It’s a social event as well so if someone says, “shall we have a coffee?” then they are inviting you to be sociable.
A “caffe” is by default an espresso. One way to tell if you have become a local is if the barista assumes that you mean an espresso when you order a “caffe” — rather than double checking with you that it’s an espresso that you want and not an “americano” (which is an espresso with hot water added).
I’ve had many awful cups of espresso here so far and some are okay ones. I prefer them without sugar so I can actually taste the coffee. Italians almost always add sugar. It’s like the equivalent of a Redbull. A shot of caffeine to get you through the next couple of hours. An espresso has half the caffeine of a cup of filtered drip coffee. The key is to drink the espresso quickly and chase it with a glass of water or a sweet baked item.
Coffee was introduced to Europe through Venice a few centuries ago and the oldest coffee shop, Cafe Florian, is still in business in Venice. The second oldest, Antico Cafe Greco, is in Rome, right by the Spanish Steps.
As for Starbucks, there is one in Milan. Or go to Seattle for them, and enjoy the many types of coffee in Italy when you are in Italy.
In almost all cooking or travel shows about Rome, “cucina povera” — the poor kitchen, is featured with the host shown noshing at the offal of some animal. Invariably, they will also mention the fifth quarter, the quinto quarto, which is what is left after the other parts were shared between the nobles, clergy, bourgeoisie, and military.
What if you were vegetarian? I’m being facetious, because if you are poor, you eat what you can. Most poor people, through history, have been vegetarian. On a side note, the pig is the only barnyard animal that is worth more when dead. Most animals are worth more for their eggs, milk, wool, etc.
Italians have been poor for most of their history (from long before there was a nation called Italy — created in 1861) and their cuisine has grown from necessity. As recently as a few generations ago, there were times of famine. Eating offal such as heart, tripe, and other organ meat, would have been rare. The daily food would have been vegetables, bread, pasta, and legumes, such as wild greens and beans. Even today, there are dishes such as puree of fava beans served with chicory greens. Vegetables that would be considered weeds are normal food in Italy. Dandelion and other wild greens that are now on Michelin star menus have been normal food here for centuries. Things like beet tops/greens which would be animal feed in other countries, is normal human fodder.
Parmesan cheese has over thirty percent protein so it is considered a good source of protein when meat is not available. It is called “the poor man’s meat” or was, but it certainly is not for the poor anymore. Meat is cheaper. There are even recipes that call for toasted breadcrumbs — this was if you could not even afford cheese.
I recently discovered another frugal use of dairy. Ricotta is made from the whey leftover from the making of cheese. In Puglia, they take the ricotta and let it ferment to become “Ricotta Forte” a strong cream cheese product that is picante because its sourness will bite you in the back of the throat. I have not asked but it’s probably “good for you” which normally means they need to convince you to eat it…
Fortunately, there is olive oil. Even the poor can afford it. Italy was a mostly agricultural society and even today there are many small farmers. Many big city families still own an olive tree orchard and produce their own olive oil each year.
Today is mother’s day in Italy, but really, every day is mother’s day in Italy. While men are often the famous chefs, it’s the mothers who do the majority of the cooking. They can even turn weeds into comfort food.
Easter, Pasquale, is the second biggest celebration for the Italians, after Christmas, and of course, there is special bread for the occasion. The Colomba, dove, is a bread that is shaped like a dove in flight (symbolizing the spirit in the holy trinity). It is a panettone baked in a four point shape. When I first saw the breads for the sale, I had no idea what it was supposed to resemble. I think it takes faith.
Eggs are big part of Easter because they were a part of the fertility goddess festival in honor of Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of sex and fertility. Easter was superimposed upon this festival. From that celebration, we get the bunnies and eggs related to Easter.
The Italians also eat lamb at Easter as that is a Christian ritual. The Italians also eat pasta, as they do all year round, but Easter is about the breads. Another bread is the Casatiello, a savory crown (crown of thorns) shaped bread decorated with eggs (rebirth) on the top and with ham inside. Also, at this time, bakeries make small milk based yeast buns, Valtellina, which are my favorite.
The chocolate eggs are given on Easter Monday. Or so I’m told, but I can’t imagine that children, of any age, can wait that long.
March 19 is the saint feast, or name, day for St. Joseph (San Giuseppe in Italian) and it is father’s day (festa del papa) in Italy. Giuseppe, shortened to Peppino, Pino, Pina, Giusy (a modern variation) can also be a female name, as Giuseppina. Celebrating St. Joseph as Mary’s husband is marked on May 1.
Italy is a Catholic country and in Rome, within hearing distance of the Vatican, Catholicism is a part of daily life. Every day, at certain times of the day, the bells toll from all the churches, not just to mark services, but also to set their time.
It seems like there is a special pastry and/or food that one should eat for everything. For St. Joseph’s day, it’s a beignet filled with pastry cream. It is called “bigne di san giuseppe” or “zeppole.” There are many recipes online, but basically it’s a choux pastry (baked up like a white sauce to create rise instead of using a raising agent) which is then injected with pastry cream.
In pagan times, this is the day that marked the end of winter, so bonfires were set ablaze to clear away the old wheat fields. Maybe they started frying dough on these fires?
Traditionally the ides of March was the 74th day of year and it was the day to settle debts so as to be debt free by March 25, the start of the fresh year. In Roman times, the Ides of March marked the start of a holy week celebrating the finding of baby Attis in the reeds, later his death under a pine tree (they would cut down a pine each year to commemorate this), and his rebirth on March 25. Sound familiar?
Then, in 44 BCE, the Roman senators, afraid that Julius Caesar was going to make himself king of Rome, stabbed him to death. In modern times, we are aware of the phrase, “beware the ides of March” because of the play, Julius Caesar, by Shakespeare. The famous, “et tu, Brute” is probably not what he said as he was stabbed to death by his senators.
2,065 years later, the location is now called “Largo du Torre Argentina” and is more famous for the cat sanctuary located there. The spot where Caesar was killed is near the pine trees.
This year, the ides of March marks the start of a three week red zone lockdown.
Want to try Roman foods? Wish you had a Roman friend who lights up a shop when she walks in? Wish you were Stanley Tucci? Then try a food tour with Sophie Minchilli, on her tour called “Rome with Sophie”. It is a pleasant walk with some history but mainly food tastings. You may try suppli, cheese, wine, cookies, pizza, prosciutto, gelato, coffee, and visit old markets and neighborhoods of Rome. We chose the “three neighborhoods tour” of Campo di Fiori, Jewish ghetto, and Trastevere. Sophie has known some of the shop owners all her life and it shows. You get a real “insider’s” tour. It is clear that they love her. You might risk feeling the same way.
The tour cost 140 Euro but she gave us a COVID discount. The max group size is six people and the tour takes about three hours. She does tours starting late morning and also late afternoon. Ours started at 11 a.m., as she accommodated our schedule, but it’s better to start earlier to avoid the crowds. The food tour was a good intro. It’s more an array, rather than an in-depth lesson in food, but good if you are new to Rome or just visiting. As you fill up on food, Sophie will adapt the tour. Some can’t hack it to the prosciutto or gelato stop. The day we went, we forewent the gelato for a sit down with an alcohol-free aperitif. Along the way, Sophie will get you snacks, answer questions, and explain food in Rome.
In the Jewish ghetto, we learned about the brass markers embedded in the cobblestones to mark where once there lived a Jewish family, killed during WWII. But, we also sat outside at the only table at a 400-year-old shop, eating cheese, feeling the ambience of ghetto life.
Sophie is half American/Italian and much beloved in her neighborhoods. If you want a tour in English and with someone young, she’s the perfect person. She and her mom, Elizabeth Minchilli, run longer tours of Puglia, and Sophie is expanding to one-day outings in Lazio (the region that includes Rome). Elizabeth Minchilli is an author (and friend of Elizabeth Gilbert, for those who are fans of Eat, Pray, Love) and well connected to the other tour guides in Rome. Sophie offers three tours in Rome and accepts payment via PayPal and cash. With her mother, Sophie also does food tours in other parts of Italy so you can spend a whole week with them and really feel Italian!
My favorite part of the tour was the ghetto. I also enjoyed the spontaneous non-alcoholic aperitif discovery. I don’t know what it’s called but it was orange and bitter, yet refreshing, and slightly addictive.
If you want to binge on watching videos about Italy, here are some I’ve found. Mostly on food. Mostly about Rome. I will not list all of them as there are too many, but a few that will give you some leads to follow.
Rick Stein is one of my favorite TV chef presenters. The thinking chef’s chef. Here in Corsica and Sardinia.
Floyd was a chef who had a good time, this time in Liguria.
If you want months worth of binge watching, Rick Steves provides! Rick Steves has eight hours of free TV shows on Italy alone! He also has free audio tours, apps, books, etc. He is much raunchier on his audio tours! If you want a private guide in your ear, he has those! If you just want to watch him give good advice, watch him here.
Carnival, carnevale in Italian, translates to “farewell to meat” and marks the festivities before Lent (the 40 days of fasting before Easter in the Catholic religion, this year starting on February 17). Traditionally, one had to use up all the fat and sugar (luxury items), therefore the treats served during this period are deep fried. There is one type called “Castagnole di Carnevale” which translates to “mardi gras chestnuts” — donut holes. Also called “frittele.” Another fried dough is the “zeppole” which is a lump of fried dough.
The lasagne style fried dough are called “cenci” which means “tatters” as they look like tatters. There are other names for these (just there are many names for the same type of pasta depending on the region) including “frappe (commonly called this in Rome), chiacchiere, bugie, and guanti.”
As it is, Italians eat sweet things for breakfast. Many do not eat very much at all for breakfast. Some even considered the milk in their coffee to be breakfast…
While Italians eat lasagne all year round, it is served more during this “farewell to meat” period than at other times of the year. Another thing I noticed about lasagne in Rome is that it’s not very saucy, although during carnival it is meatier. Lasagna with an A at the end is one piece of lasagna. No one wants that!
When in Rome? In ancient Rome, they used a rag on the end of a stick instead of toilet paper (one of the possible reasons for the phrase, “getting hold of the wrong end of the stick” — the other origin of the phrase may derive from 19th century printing press when the letters were placed in a stick and backwards — so if you got hold of the wrong end of the stick, you would not comprehend the sentence).
Modern Roman toilets look much as they do in other parts of the world, but the flush handle is usually a button on the wall. Another thing is that Roman toilets include a bidet (“bee-DAY” or “beh-day”). The bidet is basically a bathtub for your nether parts. It looks like a toilet bowl and to use it, you back down on it, wash yourself, and then dry yourself using a towel (hence why there is a towel rack nearby). The cultures that do use a bidet consider those that don’t, a bit baffling, as they wonder why one would only use paper to clean up a sticky situation?
In the middle east and Indian subcontinent, people use “the mechanical action of the left hand” instead of toilet paper. Many of these countries also have a “bidet shower” — a spray hose. In my apartment in Bangladesh, there was a spray hose near the toilet instead of toilet paper. The water pressure on the ones in my apartment had the force of a power wash, but I was told that it was to clean off my left hand, not for direct application. The bidet shower, or spray hose, is also used in Finland and Estonia, according to Wikipedia. The Japanese of old times used a stick to clean the backside but now they have electronic toilets with sprayed water and air, both warmed. Japanese toilets also can include a heated seat and “politeness” music.
The average American uses 50 pounds of toilet paper every year. Many countries do not use toilet paper. Many Catholic countries use water rather than paper, or a combination of the two. Also, considering how much paper and water flush toilets waste, perhaps the bidet shower is the way of the future? In terms of wasting resources getting rid of our waste, the city of Los Angeles spends four million dollars each year unclogging toilet paper from their sewers. In many countries, one can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet. In Peru, one puts the toilet paper in a trash can next to the toilet.
Can you tell that I’m writing a book about toilets? Due to the pandemic, toilet paper has been on our minds — a lot. I have actually been interested in toilets from a cultural viewpoint for quite a while, as toilet habits have been a bit different in many of the countries where I have lived. Going to the toilet is one of those things that people don’t talk about too much, but it is that one thing that we all do, and affects culture, from water usage, home construction, art, language, religion, and customs.
Back to the bidet. The bidet means “little horse” in French and refers to the straddling position one assumes when using it. The bidet was popularized in France in the 18th century, supposedly much used by the French prostitutes. The British considered the French to be hedonistic, and therefore their bidets to be hedonistic. Americans of those times followed British customs and this is, supposedly, why Americans do not use bidets. But, I know more and more who are installing Japanese toilets and bidet toilets in their homes. Like in the ad below, perhaps it will become a thing in the new American toilet. Freedom Toilets?