As you know from my last post, my family and I are traveling through Italy and we are currently staying in beautiful Bologna! The land of pasta, Bolognese sauce, beautiful towers, architecture, outdoor markets; and of course, Big Carlo – owner and operator of the Bologna Cooking School. On the morning of October 18th, I stepped off the train into Bologna Central Station and was swept into the crowds. Being the tourist that I am, I followed the GPS walking directions on my phone. I navigated the 4 blocks to Carlo’s home that doubles as a busy Bed & Breakfast and a successful cooking school.
The school caters to tourists curious to learn the culture and tradition from a Bolognese chef, as well as take advantage of the opportunity to drink his regional wine and roll out handmade pasta dough. As I approached my destination, which was a looming apartment building, 13 “students” of the school stumbled and spilled out to the street speckled with flour, eyes gleaming with joy that the wine in Italy is always eager to bestow upon it’s consumers. Feeling not so sure what I was getting myself into, I rang for Carlo.
Several months ago when I first contacted “Big Carlo”, my objective was to learn from the best about the history and tradition of real Bolognese cooking. My second objective was to NOT have two days of pasta making lessons but rather focus on the sauces, flavors, and history of the food. When I found Big Carlo and read his tagline “Emotions of Bologna’s Cookery”— I knew this was my man. I emailed Carlo before we left the States to arrange my lessons and asked him to please make the lesson gluten free and explained to him that I wanted our cooking to focus on what goes on top of the pasta or what’s served in addition to the pasta of a traditional Italian meal. Due to the obvious language barrier and only being able to communicate via email, prior to my arrival I did not even attempt to explain “paleo” and was simply grateful that Carlo was receptive, willing and even excited to develop a gluten free course. I could tell that his objective was to simply to teach me the “emotion of his cooking” based on his Bolognese roots and years of experience, with or without the gluten…
Carlo greeted me at his door, all smiles and energy. My immersion into Bolognese tradition had begun. I was swept into a dream and plunged into a moment of moments that I will never, ever forget. I cooked with Gabriella, Carlos’ 82 year-old sister who spoke no English but taught me with her eyes and her hands how to weave love into a simple sauce of fresh calamari, garlic, tomatoes and spinach. I listened intently to Luciana, an instructor at Carlo’s cooking school, tell me how she made her first pasta when she was ten with her Grandmother in Bologna. Luciana talked about her passion for cooking. Her passion is what drives her the 30 km down the hill everyday to teach the cultures and traditions that she loves to perfect strangers who may or may not remember that what they are learning is precious and is now dying away. These traditions are slipping away into store bought pastas, sauces, and McDonalds that pop up on every corner in an ancient city built on a strong foundation of family and food.
Carlo’s eyes grew dark as he explained to me that his beautiful history was being forgotten. Dying. He said it was criminal. The mamas no longer want to cook, do not have time to cook, do not have mamas who teach them how to cook. The children do not understand the importance of sustainability like they used to, that they eat “the sugar” and the foods that have a “different flavor” than what is simple and fresh and they want more and more and more and more until they forget that quality is what makes food taste great. Carlo rubbed his belly and said, “My work in restaurants made me this way, and I started to lose my joy for cooking, so I walked away and now my cooking is filled with passion again.”
Carlo visits the markets everyday to buy his ingredients, straight from the producers and he says, “I buy from the ones I know, I check, I check for quality, I know what I buy is good because I know the producers.”
From Luciana, as we make gnocchi together, her first attempt at a gluten free version, she tells me how years ago her grandmother would buy the potatoes, the specific quality potato from the local farmer who knew how to produce the right kind of potatoes for gnocchi. Her grandmother only had 2 types of flour to choose from. Both contained very little gluten, one was simply a finer grain, ground from “soft grains”. Everything they made came from this one type of flour; a low gluten flour, and the amount of pasta they made was small and the focus was on the ragu or on the quality of the potatoes they used to make the gnocchi with. Luciana explained that now there are several options for flours. The high-gluten flours for pasta and bread, which make rolling the dough easier for the pastas. High-gluten flours for cakes and pastries, but that the grandmothers do not like the choices.
They miss the quality of the ingredients they used to have to choose from to make with the pastas and feel as if too many choices take away from the traditions of the past and the quality of the other ingredients. Luciana was curious about our lifestyle and I shared with them my most recent book. She expressed to me that 10 years ago, no one in Italy had ever heard of “Gluten-Free” or “Senza Glutine” and now there are special stores that offer gluten free products or special sections in the markets and that several restaurants now offer gluten-free options as more and more Italians are becoming gluten intolerant or diagnosed with Celiacs disease. I asked her if she thought there was a correlation between the rise of gluten intolerance to how their grain is grown and flour is produced as compared to when her grandmother only had the one choice of the “low-gluten” flour and before I could even finish asking she responded with a resounding, “Yes, of course!”
My lessons continued as I made traditional Bolognese with Big Carlo, crushed fresh garlic for a fragrant and scrumptious sauce made simply with fresh zucchini, prosciutto, and parsley, and made a risotto with porcini mushrooms that we picked up from the morning market. I worked side by side with Gabriella as she guided me to cut the calamari precisely and to pour in the white wine a little at a time. It’s art in motion to watch these beautiful people keep their traditions alive. I ate balsamic vinegar aged for 25 years drizzled delicately on zucchini flowers as I soaked in the stories that sang like beautiful love songs from the lips of Carlo and Luciana.
Gabriella, the 82 year old sister, asked Carlo to apologize that she could not speak English to talk to the camera and I wanted to hug her and tell her that I was sorry that I could not speak Italian because it was impossible for me to express my gratitude for simply being in her presence. Her spirit and her obvious joy that cooking the traditional food brings to her shines through and she does not need to speak my language. I am a guest in her country after all.
I left the cooking school filled to the brim with food, wine, sadness, happiness and a better understanding of the importance of being close not only to your food but closer still to the ones that you love. Big Carlo gave me his blessing to take his recipes home and to make them paleo. He said again, “The way food is today is a crime, it is criminal, and we have to keep on cooking with the passion or these traditions will be gone.” Carlo, I promise I will do my best to do justice to the rich traditions of the Bolognese people and share what I’ve learned with all of my readers… Thank you for sharing your story with me and teaching me the emotions of Bolognese cooking.
Now I’m off to Venice for the day to wander with my children, to hold them close, and to carry with me the passion. Please stay tuned; more to come later as my cooking continues in the Marche region early next week! Enjoy the photos below and please post your thoughts and questions to comments.