Travel and Culture

Alf in Italy – Bologna – Lambrusco, Salumi and Pigeons

Sep 15, 2015

We have just arrived in Bologna after a relaxing trip on the Freccia Bianca train from Pescara. We are here because we are easily influenced by television. We had watched Italy Unpacked, the program about art and food in Italy with art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli travelling through the north of Italy. We were especially intrigued by their visit to Bologna and decided to see it for ourselves. Of course we knew that this city was in Emilia Romagna, the gastronomic centre of Italy. This region is renowned for Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, tortellini, tagliatelle al ragu’ Bolognese and many other delights. Apparently there is also a bit of art and architecture worth more than a glance. Bologna is known as la rossa, la grassa, la dotta – the red, the fat and the learned. La rossa refers to the red roofs, (or because between 1945 and 1999 the city council was controlled by the Italian Communist Party), la grassa refers to its cuisine and la dotta to its university, one the oldest in Europe. We have decided to experience the la grassa element of this trinity first.

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Our hotel room has a great rump end view of a huge equestrian statue of Garibaldi and a very impressive theatre across Via Independenza. It’s early afternoon and we are hungry, so ignoring all the great sights of Bologna we walk directly to Tamburini for lunch. Why would we concern ourselves with medieval towers, Piazza Maggiore or the cathedral when we are about to sample the great salumi that are produced in Emilia-Romagna? Tamburini is Bologna’s premier Salumeria. Or so we have been lead to believe. There are old wine barrels with table tops under umbrellas in the street so we pull up stools and wait to order. At the street corner is a morbid looking priest collecting money for the unfortunate. If he thinks he’s doing good works he must be doing them very reluctantly. He appears so put out that he looks like he is about to burst into tears but no miserable priest is going to put me off enjoying my lunch. There is a glass of Lambrusco in front of me. Not the cheap and nasty sweet drink that most of us dread in Australia but the dry, gently fizzing, crisply acidic, red fruited true Italian Lambrusco that is perfect with all sorts of pork products. Our selection is placed in front of us. There is Mortadella, (after all this is the home of this famous sausage), Culatello, Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Mortadella is a ubiquitous product known and reproduced all around the world, but here in its place of origin it is revered and has its own protected origin status. Its history begins with the Romans and it is named after the mortarium, the tool used to grind the meat for its preparation. The official recipe for protected origin mortadella stipulates finely ground pork, cubes of pork neck fat, salt and pepper. During the Middle Ages nutmeg, cumin, saffron, garlic, sage and Rosemary were added to the list of ingredients.

Now this is all very pleasant and the idea of eating food with a long history and learning about Bolognese cuisine is very appealing but we feel letdown. We had this place built up in our minds. Here we were going to have the best salumi ever and it’s not quite that. Perhaps we were expecting too much. Everyone seems to be a tourist just like us but that is not the experience we are searching for. Mentioned in all the guide books, Tamburini is the automatic choice of travellers wishing to have an instant sample of Bolognese food. The wine is bright and fresh, the plate full of succulent food to nibble on, the streetscape just perfect but we suspect there is better to be found. Too influenced by television descriptions of perfection?

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After eating we take a stroll in the Quadrilateral, the medieval heart of the city where the streets are named after trades and occupations. Via degli Orefici for jewellers, Via Caprarie for goat and sheep butchers and Via Pescherie Vecchie for fishmongers. The streets are lined with food shops and market stalls all displaying the freshest most artistically displayed foods. Here you can buy almost anything that you can imagine, from fresh porcini to horse meat from the horse butcher. If I had a shopping list that read as follows I would find it all here in these narrow, crowded streets. A pig’s head, one whole milk fed calf, green tortelloni, onions from Tropea, freshly prepared gramigna pasta with sausage ragu’, grilled eggplants, a kilo of mantis shrimp, one giant yellow skinned chicken still with its red combed head in place, a whole Mortadella, some slices of Culatello, sparking silver sardines, six striped mackerel, a whole wheel of Parmigiano and a bunch of flowers for the hall table. And I almost forgot – chicory, the ripest reddest tomatoes and half a kilo of that fennel. The fish is sparkling fresh, the fruit and vegetables are at their brightest best and as we thought we are surrounded by salumi that look far more delectable than our sample at lunch. Our slight disappointment over lunch at Tamburini is more than made up by our visit to the street market. Our first lunch in Bologna was more a social experience than a gastronomic one.

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The next day we are in Piazza Galvani, behind San Petronio basilica. The piazza is named after Luigi Galvani, the famous Bolognese scholar. In front of us is a table at Cafe Zanarini. It’s one o’clock, we are hungry and thirsty and this looks an inviting place to relax over lunch. This is one of the places to be seen in Bologna and we are about to be taught our place in the world of the Bolognesi. Here there are uniformed waiters, white table cloths and brown woven cane armchairs, all set in a beautiful piazza. Just the right place for city strollers to stop and rest and recharge. The clientele is mature, well presented and very familiar to the waiters. We sit and wait. Patiently. A waiter ambles by our table without even a sideways glance at us and begins to serve another table. We don’t mind. There is no hurry and plenty to see in the piazza. In the centre there is a stature of Galvani standing at a lectern with a book and he is holding a plank supporting a dead frog. This is a very famous dead frog. It’s the one he made twitch when it was given a shot of electricity. This is very important and if I paid more attention in Form 2 science I could tell you why. Riding across the paving is a bicycle courier. His bike is painted in bright orange courier company corporate livery and he is wearing a complimentary orange uniform that has been designed with meticulous care. He is guiding the bike gracefully across the piazza with a proud expression on this face as if to say to the avvocati, business men and their expensively dressed wives “Hey, look at me, I look just as good as you!” The piazza is very comforting. The sun is warm and the air is still. The arched porticoes that are a hallmark of this city’s streets give a sense of rhythm, grace and unity. The huge bulk of the rear of the basilica of San Petronio is made restful to the eye by a combination of simple geometric forms and the warm honey coloured stone that glows softly in the afternoon light.

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The waiter is now familiarly greeting a couple who arrived well after us. He is in full Bolognese bourgeois uniform. His greying hair is artfully combed and he has the slightest suggestion of a beard. He is wearing a perfectly fitted jacket, white handkerchief in the breast pocket and a blue and white striped shirt. His female companion has the most incredible designer sunglasses. Both circular lens is set in an almost square, grey, translucent frame. With glasses like these anything else you are wearing becomes irrelevant. Still we are ignored. Why is this? We are not thongs and shorts wearing tourists. Sandra is wearing city clothes and I am wearing a very good summer weight jacket, nifty glasses and stylish black leather sneakers. We don’t think we are out of place. We could have come straight from the office but the Zanarini staff instinctively know that it is not the case.

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At last we get some attention. One of the many pigeons in the piazza flaps up to the back of a chair, cocks its head to get a good look at us and confidently begins to strut across the table. Politely I ask it to hop off the table and go and play with its friends. Next to us another group take their seats. There are five of them. Two men, one on his own, one with his wife, and an elderly pale, frail, blonde woman, probably the mother of one of them and a collie dog that looks like it has come straight from the doggy beauty parlour. By the way that the waiter rushes straight to them and greets them with bubbling enthusiasm, I guess that they are regulars arriving for the ritual daily visit. Still we are not served. Of course we are being shown our place in the Zanarini universe. This is the place where the well healed of Bologna go to be seen. Those recognised as regulars will be served first and unknown Australian tourists, no matter how well presented will be at the waiters’ pleasure, whenever that may be. Even well-groomed collies get priority over interlopers. Of course we know that these are the rules that apply on Piazza Galvani and we are not put out. This all helps in understanding the city. Eventually we are delivered wine and food and the world seems fine.

Now the order of things is reinforced, a late middle aged couple is walking across the piazza dodging the powder blue Fiat Cinquecento Arbath that has been illegally parked in the middle of the piazza. Piazza, parcheggio, they both start with P. She is lugging an array of large bags all proudly emblazoned with the names of top designers. Galleria Cavour, the designers’ shopping arcade is just behind Zanarini. She must have visited them all. She is as expensively stylish as the Zanarini clientele but on the other hand he has created the look of a slightly eccentric English academic with his crumpled, ill-fitting jacket and a smashed Panama hat carelessly plonked on his head. When we hear them speak we realise that they are English. He waves at the waiter and is ignored. This happens several times. They are being taught the same lesson as us. It matters not one bit that you have just spent a fortune in the best shops, if you are not recognised as a regular you are totally unimportant.

But there is one group in the square who are not bothered by status nor concerned that the staff is happy to let the less favoured customers go hungry and thirsty. This group is confident and pushy and will not be intimidated by snooty waiters. They don’t care who you are, they will just join you at your table and share lunch with you. Their conversation is limited to a few cooing noises. They are the most annoying pigeons you have ever met. They will fly up to your table and start pecking at your food. Shoo them away, and they will have a short rest before returning again and again.

Finally the English professor and his wife are brought lunch. Whatever it is it is served in gigantic teacups and seems to be the pigeon’s favourite dish. A small swarm of them jump on the table and try to get their greedy beaks in the bowl. The prof brushes them away but they are not deterred. A waiter comes over waving his arms. The pigeon flaps off but this is only a ruse. Shortly they are all back standing on the table ready to pounce. One tries to peck the prof’s bowl. He brusquely pushes the offending bird aside. Now the boldest bird is perched on the rim of Mrs Prof’s giant tea cup and head down, tail up it starts to eat. She gasps, shudders in dread and pushes back in her chair to escape the feathered fiend. Calmly the prof goes to order her a replacement. She covers his cup with a serviette but the pigeon pulls it aside with its beak and helps itself. When her new bowl arrives Mrs Prof is too disgusted to eat it. She disdainfully pushes it away and turns away from the table in the depths of a foul mood. The pigeons have left to bother another table and the prof is finishing his lunch. She doesn’t bother to tell him he has shared it with a pigeon.

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In my next posts we will take a walk around Bologna observing all manner of things in this wonderful city, both significant and trivial and end our visit dining with the Bolognese.

Follow me, AKA Sandra’s husband, on my journeys in Italy as this sometimes bewildered Anglo-Saxon tries to understand this beautiful, complex, contradictory, frustrating and absolutely fascinating country.
(Written by Alf)

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