Even though I’d prepared myself for the smell, I wasn’t prepared for the smell. Nobody’s ever really prepared for the smell. Our tour group had just arrived to the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factory in Modena, Italy, which was the first stop on our three-stop tour. The other two being authentic Italian balsamic and procuitto ham mills. I’d been to milk factories when I was in college, all of which had a distinct smell not unlike the sour breath of a freshly nursed baby mixed with sullied backend of specific milk-producing farm animals.
The Parmigiano-Reggiano factory sits in the countryside of Modena on farmland next to their primary milk sources: brown and black fatties grazing in an adjacent field with utters that bulged like fully distended bagpipes. If bagpipes also produced milk, I might be more inclined to forgive them their existence.
Though I refer to it as a cheese “factory” it really is more an artisanal cheese processing building than any kind of standard factory. There are no industrialized machines producing the cheese, instead it is produced exclusively by the bare hands of burly men who, at 5 AM every morning, start the extremely physical and arduous process. The cheese chef (or the “big cheese”, if you will, which I will because I clearly can’t help myself) works 365 a year with no vacation to ensure the entire process is completed flawlessly 100% of the time. I envy this man’s job as much as I envy the presence of an obtrusive goiter.
Since coming to Europe I’ve tried numerous times to meet up with CouchSurfers, but to no avail. Have you heard of CouchSurfing? Do you surf? Have you been needlessly emotionally tortured by CouchSurfers? I have!
In Madrid I’d made dinner plans with three different people – THREE – all of whom stood me up. Except they didn’t really stand me up, they got to the restaurant forty minutes after the time we’d agreed on, which was long after I’d given up waiting and left. A later attempt at meeting a CouchSurfer at the Prado in Madrid failed because she showed up 45 minutes late. Or so she said, though she could have easily spotted me and ran the opposite direction. After how many times being stood up do you have to take a good look at yourself and ask, how ugly am I?
So when I agreed to a CouchSurfing picnic meet-up here in Bologna, I was skeptical. Ten or so people had agreed to meet at the park behind my apartment, and if I ended up being stood up for an event I didn’t even coordinate then I was going to set myself on fire. Luckily, it ended up being the most successful (read: only) CouchSurfing event I’ve ever been to and we had 8 people show, including myself, which consisted of a few native Italians, a German, an American, a Brit and a Pole.
Among the food items were baguettes, proscuitto and cheese cubes, fresh in-season fruits and the obligatory wine and beer, because it’s not a picnic until livers are put to the test. I’d originally planned on making orecchiette with a black truffle tapenade, but then remembered this was a low-key picnic with strangers and not an outing in the Hamptons with the Real Housewives of New York. Unfortunately.
A couple weeks back, Brandon came to join me in Italy for a break from the working American monotony. Between eating and venturing through Bologna, navigating the canal-scored streets of Venice and stumbling through the ruins of Rome, it’s been a busy couple of weeks with little respite. Finding the opportunity to write up a recap has been a challenge, and ignoring a guest who traveled 3000 miles to see me to instead scheme up quips for my blog borders on the side of rude, which may be why I’m now writing one at 2AM.
After we’d zipped through the murky-watered Venice for a day, we then bee-lined our way to The Eternal City for a three day stop. The streets of Rome are thronged with so many English-speaking tourists that I began to wonder if Italians were even actually among us. We spent most of our time lounging and soaking up the Roman architecture, with the exception of our second day when we found ourselves in a cooking class, cooped up in a muggy and crowded kitchen and taking orders from a sardonic Italian chef (e.g. During the demonstration he held an egg up and asked the class if it looked like a freshly-laid egg. One of the girls said yes, to which he zoomed in two inches from her face, pointed to the printed numbers on the egg and said without skipping a beat, “Oh, really? Your bionic chickens have printers in their butts?”).
Brandon had booked us a day with Cooking Classes in Rome, which was his first cooking class ever, and I was nervous. Brandon isn’t the type of guy that likes to cook, so he just doesn’t do it. If left to his own devices, he’ll eat sugary cereal until diabetes claims his right foot, after which he might hobble to the pantry to eat cat food. Or the cats. Or whatever he finds under the refrigerator, I don’t know. Eating for him is a necessity for survival rather than for experience, and I like to think that I was brought into his life to show him a thing or two about what it means to love food and to keep him from getting rickets.
*Tortelloni instructions with step-by-step pictures are at the end of the post*
When you’re in Italy and studying the art of making pasta, it’s probably not wise to admit to your very-serious-about-pasta instructor that you employ your Cuisinart food processor to aid in making the dough. I’m not even sure why I said it. I guess part of me wanted to make small talk, but mostly I wanted to spark a glimmer of pride and develop some kind of camaraderie by letting her know that I’m not new to making pasta. But the only glimpse I was giving her was that of my corner-cutting indolence, and from the condemnatory look on her face, I knew I wasn’t impressing anyone.
The school La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese is located just outside of Bologna’s city center. It was opened in 1993 by Alessandra Spisni, a chef, cookbook author, and television personality, and remains to be the only school wordwide that develops professional pasta makers, called sfoglini. Sfoglini being a word derived from the proper Italian word for the flour and egg pasta dough, sfoglia, and is pronounced sfol-yuh. You don’t pronounce the G, it’s just there for decoration like the word gnome. Fact: gnomes are real and they bite your toes when you sleep. Another fact: tell a stranger’s children this in the grocery store and you can watch the fun unravel.
The first day of class I found myself in a sultry pasta laboratory adjacent to the professional kitchen which was busy preparing a tasting menu for guests soon to arrive. There were six large wooden top tables in the lab awaiting my newbie hands to glide across them, and behind me the pristine red and orange checkered walls were lined with various daunting sizes of rolling pins. Rolling pins thick and heavy enough that a frighteningly large Mafioso named Joey could probably use them to do serious damage to some sfoglia. And if you thought even for a second that Joey was going to succumb to rolling pin violence against another human being, then shame on you. Make-believe Mafioso Joey turned a corner in his life and is trying to be a positive influence, and maybe he should break your kneecaps to teach you a valuable lesson about being so judgmental.
La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese offers a spectrum of cooking courses for varying levels. From beginner one-day demo classes up to three-month-long professional culinary studies, they cater to whatever aspirant culinary objective you seek. However, their specialty is, of course, pasta, and I had enrolled in one of their more popular curricula: the weeklong pasta making certification course.
Bologna is more than just a mass of fleshy animal bits rolled into one seriously questionable meat log. Bologna is also a non-touristy small city in northern Italy, it’s regarded as the country’s culinary nucleus and also just happens to be my home for the next month.
Pasta baskets filled with herbed riccota and served in beef broth.
I moved out of my old, little blue apartment in the curry house mecca of Lavapies, Madrid and hopped a short flight on a very orange airplane. Before I knew it I was sitting at a café while caked with Italian humidity, observing the beautiful people around me calling out “ciao” without the slightest hint of irony or pretension, and drinking and a cappuccino. A real cappuccino. A cappuccino made without question of if I’d like it three sizes too large for any reasonable human being to consume, or if I’m sure I didn’t want any number of extraneous add-ons that would eventually make me a sweaty, morbidly obese mess of a person.
Bologna - the city without a Starbucks.
Which I appreciate, because I legitimately could not handle more than one chin. Sometimes I get overwhelmed knowing I have to take care of 10 whole fingers, and expanding my mandible just isn’t a part of my life plan right now.
Most decisions made in the wee morning hours after a few glasses of wine aren’t usually very good ones. Whether it’s attempting to lure and capture a probably rabid wild possum; striking up a conversation with an off-his-rocker homeless man because he kind of looks like Uncle Jesse from Full House sans the glorious mullet, token vest, and home; or to call anyone ever for any reason whatsoever, I’ve had my fair share of unique Chardonnay-inspired adventures. Deciding to buy tickets for a next day 9AM bus ride to San Sebastian at 4AM while mooching Internet from center city Madrid and eating 23-and-a-half-hours-old pizza from the 24 hour pizza place is absolutely one of my better ones.
I’ll admit I had no original intent on traveling to Basque country, but after having been told unanimously by many unrelated parties that I absolutely, undoubtedly, indisputably needed to go, it felt impudent to not acquiesce. Just the night prior I’d accepted an invitation for a homemade, traditional Spanish dinner from the girl who owns the apartment I’m renting. In between bites of gaspacho and various tapas we got to talking about obligatory day trips before I leave Spain next week. When I brought up the possibility of heading up north, she locked eyes with me and said in a tone that was upsettingly serious, “you must go to San Sebastian.”
I told her I’d think about it, but didn’t tell her when or if I was going because I was more than certain she’d let herself into my apartment to try on my clothes, or whatever landladies do when their renters vacate the property for any stretch of time. I’m aware this gives clear insight to my baseless trust issues, but I’ve seen too many minutes of nanny cam footage to ever trust anyone again. I’m still not unconvinced there’s a hidden camera in the shower, which is why I shower with the lights off. But she probably thought about that possibility and installed one with night vision, which is why I now also shower fully clothed.
But the point I’m working toward is after so many undivided positive recommendations, I went to San Sebastian and now understand the fanatical praise it’s received. San Sebastian, set on the idyllic, pristine Bay of Biscay at the northernmost part of Spain in Basque country, has the highest concentration of Michelin starred restaurants of any city in Spain and is regarded the hallmark of cuisine in the country. Oh, and the pintxos. Did I not mention the pintxos?
I was 12 years old and had most of my ingredients sprawled out in front of me. It was the first time I’d ever been in the kitchen to do something other than eat, ask what there was to eat, or wash dishes against my will. My inclination to bake at that point wasn’t because I had any interest in the congruous scientific workings of how baking soda, sugar, fat and flour, when measured correctly, form the perfect balance of soft and chewy. Being 12 years old meant I had an insatiable craving for sugar, and when the last crinkly wrapper of Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls hit the trash, I knew I would have to take matters into my own hands. Being 12 years old with ADHD also meant I was remiss in following proper directions.
The semi-failure; edible but not perfect.
What was supposed to have been ½ a teaspoon of baking soda in the written recipe was mistakenly read as ½ a cup by my imprudent youthful eyes, which produced the saltiest, crumbliest chocolate chip cookies to ever assault my mouth. After feting the neighborhood kids’ hapless lips with my briny batch of chocolate chip crumbles and failing to peddle them as “gourmet salted chocolate chip cookies,” I threw the remaining dozen in the garbage along with any remaining interest in baking before sulking away from the kitchen, defeated. What most would shrug off a simple mistake, I understood it as inaptitude writ large and couldn’t shake feeling incompetent. It was years before I ever set foot in another kitchen.