Category Archives: Independent Travel

Stolen heart, bloated belly: adventur-eating through Bologna

Once upon a rainy Wednesday four UNISG students set out on the 9:44 train headed for Bologna with a taste for adventure and the world’s best ragu. Armed with only their wits, an umbrella and a few hastily written restaurant recos, the foursome arrived at Bologna Centrale ready for whatever the Gods of Ragu threw their way.

They splashed and slipped their way onto the shadowy, but dry covered sidewalks busy visualizing blue skies and sun. “It’s not Bologna’s fault it’s dreary and rainy out! Pretend it’s sunny to be fair,” they implored each other.

It quickly became clear though that no such tricks of the mind were necessary. Bologna’s secrets and charm can’t be so easily undone by cloudy skies and a few raindrops.

While porticoes were originally common in many European cities,  most were either torn down or destroyed over time. Bologna’s have stood the test of time mostly due to their utility during the 1200s when thousands of students congregated in Bologna. The second floor of the adjacent structures were used for student housing, the bottom floor used for shops. Porticoes increased the stability and durability of the building and provided shelter from the elements at the same time.

The group’s first stop were the city’s renowned produce and meat markets. Feeling like uncharted territory exuding unfamiliar smells the stalls were a visual tangle of vibrant never-before-seen textures, shapes and hues. As they meandered through the narrow walkways the girls were stunned and invigorated by their discoveries, but also a little uneasy. Bologna’s markets held more unfamiliar fruit and veg than ones they could name. Making research notes for later and with heads held high, they pushed forward.

The  fearless foursome were stumped. How many can YOU name?

The scent of fresh fish lured them toward their next stop. Down narrow cobblestone alleyways they went, careful not to make any false moves. Squids and sepia, covered in a fresh coat of ink looked braced, ready for battle against unassuming tourists.

Babe the Pig and the rest of his barnyard friends also looked farm fresh, however unready for combat they might also appear.

As a final test of their culinary endurance they embarked toward Via Cartoleria, 10, home of the ragu promised to change their lives, or so fellow students and The New York Times food section told them.

Drogheria Della Rosa was so much more than really (really) good ragu thanks to owner/live entertainer Emanuele Addone. There was drama, (NEVER refuse a cured meat starter when in Emilia-Romagna), lots of hugging/extended head locks (see photographic evidence), lessons on good parenting (let your children follow their dreams) and, oh right, a guided tour through Bologna’s culinary traditions.

Emanuele, expressing his love for his “little Shauna” about an hour/three glass of prosecco in. In more serious moments he told us about his daughter, whom he’s trying to inspire to find her passion. “She can sweep the streets, as long as it makes her happy.”

In between scoldings for refusing the prosciutto and culatello and discussing our astrological signs, Emanuele got down to the serious business at hand. Five types of pasta were shared among the four, including tortelli stuffed with zucchini blossoms, stracchino and squaquerone cheeses, tagliatelle with mushroom ragu, eggplant ravioli with fresh tomato sauce and last,  lasagna, and tagliatelle classiche al ragu.

See how little tomato there is? Traditional ragu is meat, with a hint of tomato. Also, the pasta noodles are so yellow because in the North of Italy they use egg yolk in their dough.

According to Emanuele, ragu was historically made with milk and without tomatoes, which were only added when the Spanish brought them over in the 15th century. Today a small amount of tomatoes are used, but absolutely no cream or milk. Simple intense flavors, in a harmonious balance of texture is the best way to describe the dish. With the addition of the yolks, the noodles were elastic yet toothsome, the perfect conveyor for the hearty sauce. The ragu leverages the minimal amount of tomato only to showcase the slow cooked sweetness of the beef and saltiness of the pork.

Throughout the three and a half hour lunch a number of offenses were attempted in operation “Ingredient List.”Unfortunately for the world the girls were on the losing side of that battle. But, while one battle may have been lost, the four agreed that  the war had been won. Bologna had successfully stolen their hearts.

Drogheria Della Rossa

Via Cartoleria, 10, Bologna, 40127

http://www.drogheriadellarosa.it/

The New York Times review: http://travel.nytimes.com/travel/guides/europe/italy/bologna/64515/drogheria-della-rosa/restaurant-detail.html

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On vacation days and port wine

So here it is, people, FINALLY, I know. My first blog post coming at you straight from the cornfields of Colorno. It really has taken this long for me to come up with a suitable format for “Best I Ever,” but I think I’ve got it, and it’s dump simple, of course. As a follower (read: Die Hard Loyal Reader), you’ll be treated to three new gastronomic definitions, ideas or facts that I’ve learned in the past day, week, month, basically whenever I get my act together.

I’ve also decided not to stress too much about my writing on the blog. It’s going to be pretty raw, so if you have questions, comments or criticisms about content or can make improvements to my VERY out of practice writing, please please please write me. This is a year of growth for me, and hopefully not just of my waste line. So, hi, and welcome to “Best I Ever.” But, being the rebel that I am, this first post already breaks all aforementioned set rules. There really is just too much to say about port, so please forgive the transgression. Alrighty here goes nothing! Blog entry numero uno.

Port wine is like unused vacation days. They’re both something you want, even crave, but a lot of times end up forgotten; shoved into the “Damn, I really wish I got around to that,” category. They’re both adventurous, a step out of the ordinary, and a great way to end a week or start a long weekend. But in truth, I guess they really aren’t completely similar because I really do love vacation days, and before my trip to Porto, Portugal I didn’t not love port, but that’s about as far as I went (sorry, Dad).

Porto, Portugal, the birthplace of port, fell into my lap thanks to Ryanair flying direct from Milan for less that 35 Euros (really not kidding). For Carey, Reena, Catherine and me it was the perfect starting point for our two week long “get as far from Italy as possible” two week long Easter Vacation/action-packed adventure. All I can say is, thank you Ryanair Gods of the Sky. Thank you for insisting that I spend 48 hours steeping myself in three hundred year old wine tradition and history.

Porto is the northern most major city in Portugal and hosts a population of about 1.7 million. Lying along the Douro River, it is also considered the economic and cultural heart of the north, sometimes referred to as the “capital of the north.” On one side of the river lies the city center, restaurants, shops etc. while across the river sit the port producers artistically perched one next to the other, large white signs ensuring no passersby is left wondering which producer is which.

She’s pretty, ain’t she?

Our first full day in Porto began at Taylor’s, a three hundred year old producer and one of the last to remain fully independent. Job Bearsley, one of the first port shippers and traders, started Taylor’s back in 1692. Job was definitely a smart guy since he quickly noticed that the British settlers that frequented Portugal had a taste for spicy, rich Portuguese wine.

Port is actually another one of those “created by accident” stories. British settlers loved their Portuguese wine so much they were constantly on the hunt for easy ways to ship it back to the homeland. As a result, entrepreneurial Portuguese like Bearsley began adding wine spirits to the wine, to help extend shelf life. In the beginning cognac or brandy were used, but today grappa is the only spirit used in all Portuguese Port by law.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself with all this talk of spirits. Much like the specificity of wine spirits, the process of producing port is similarly precise. Starting with the vineyards from which the grapes are grown. Top port producers acquire the five varieties of grapes essential for port production from the Douro Valley, a dizzyingly steep valley protected by the Marao Mountains. The climate moves from blazing summers to severely cold winters forcing the grape bush’s roots to push down as much as 25 meters into the earth to find water. Taylor’s most famous vineyard is Quina de Vargellas, which is one of the very few vineyards owned by the production house.

Harvesting is a three-day process and done only in September. Grapes are gathered, and then quickly moved into the treading phase. Yes, it’s true, maceration by human foot is actually the preferred method since it’s believed that the foot (or skin, or both?) brings out the flavor of the grape skin and maximizes color.

A little foot grease (ha?) adds to the overall flavor and color of the port.

Next, the port is fermented only until half of the natural grape sugars are converted to alcohol, to maintain the sweet flavor of the grape. At this point the grappa is added and the product is stored and aged in huge oak barrels. There it remains until master tasters deem it ready for public sale. The aging period depends on what type of port is produced.

Taylor employee pouring port into a large vat…getting ready for bottling!

For example, a vintage port (the best port money can buy) ages in barrels for two years and then bottled, where it should continue aging for a minimum of 10 years and a max of 20. Vintage port is declared as such by qualified tasters and the producer’s board of directors. Taylor’s last vintage port was produced in 2007. We tasted the 2003 and it was like a ruby red explosion that tapered off into the smoothest chocolaty velvet finish.

The other notable type of port is tawny, which is made from a combination of young and very old port. Since port actually lightens in color as it ages (more exposure to oxygen over time that seeps through the oak barrels), tawny is lighter since it’s made from approximately half old port (anywhere from 10-40 year old port is used).

Port is a special drink and Porto was a special city. While a vintage port should be saved for a special occasion (unless you have big bucks lying around), my traveling buddies and I agree that incorporation of port into our daily lives is a must. Which makes me think of another way the wisdom of my port to vacation days metaphor may be lacking. Unlike port, vacation days don’t get better with age. So after posting a comment to “Best I ever,” request a vacation day and promise to cap it off with a glass of the good stuff. Cin Cin!

The grand library at Taylor’s and the girls in their element.

Tips on how to drink port:

1)    If you’re lucky enough to have a bottle of vintage, allow at least two hours for the wine to breathe and also settle. Since the bottles are aged horizontally, this time is necessary for sediment to settle to the bottom.

2)    Serve with Stilton cheese. While I haven’t yet tasted the combination, it’s apparently outrageous.

3)    Port should be the very last thing digested at the end of a meal. Eating anything after inhibits the digestive qualities of the wine.

Note: During our tasting and Taylor’s, we also were served white port called Chip Dry (literally means dry as wood chips). It was absolutely incredible, but unfortunately not sold in the states. I have a small bottle for someone special (yes, you Dad!) but take a look at Binny’s maybe and see if they have something comparable. You won’t be sorry.  It should be served chilled and is actually served as an aperitif; best in warm weather I’d think.

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