*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.
“What in the name of good Jesus Christ are those?!” My classmate spat out through suppressed gags while pointing at the glass of the fish case.
It was my first cooking class in Madrid and we had just arrived at the local market to pick out fresh ingredients for the class itinerary. It hadn’t been five minutes since we got there before the disgusted student, a middle-aged Canadian woman on vacation with her husband, found something repugnant enough to beckon the name of JC to help her cope with it all. I followed her finger and found the offense in question: a heap of fleshy pink veinous blobs.
A zombie's delight.
I didn’t even have an answer for her, and truthfully, I was only half attentive to what was going on around me at that point. I, too, was fixated on what I can only assume to be HUMAN BRAINS (assumedly…probably) being sold in the fish case. The sight of cerebral matter hanging out with mackerel was almost as disturbing as when I was walking down the sidewalk earlier that morning through a stream of running water, only to look up and realize the “stream of running water” I was sloshing through was coming from an elderly bearded woman squatting and urinating on the walkway. Where was this lady’s ringmaster? I wasn’t sure what circus she ran away from that let her act like such an animal, but that is an image that will never leave my brain and may necessitate some Grade-A therapy when I get back to the States.
Still, I’m not 100% as to what those fleshy oblong lumps are. The sign dubiously read pescado fresca (i.e. “fresh fish”) and when I asked the fish vendor he just laughed and said, “yes! Yes!” before walking in the back room. Even he didn’t know.
In any case, shopping for fish — especially in a country with a veritable smorgasbord of available sea fare — is one part dinner preparation and four parts alien identification. Some of these things have the sort of teeth you can only find in nightmares or vagina dentata, while others have unidentifiable parts and purposes that make you just wish it were taco night. Take this beauty for instance:
Note that the thing above is what I now know to be a monkfish, but in Spain they call it a “rape.” As if it could be anymore terrifying. Later that day I Googled “how to prepare a rape” and judging from the upsetting results, I don’t think I was on the right trail. I’m also pretty sure Google sent my search to the police.
I’ve only been in Spain for two weeks and already I have more stories and pictures than I know what to do with. From taking cooking classes; walking my feet to the point of having steel-thick calluses take residence on my poor, irredeemable soles; buying, storing and putting off dismemberment of a whole baby octopus; and realizing I possess some form of secret streetwalker magnetism that beckons every rent boy and prostitute within a mile’s radius to come speak to me, though I’d really, really prefer they didn’t. It’s been a busy two weeks with many stories to tell, but having just returned from a three day trip to Granada, I’ll begin there.
Before I left the states I’d been told that before I left Spain I absolutely had to visit Granada. Everyone said, It’s beautiful! You’ll love it! Go! And maybe it was the five hour bus ride from Madrid or the Stinky McCheese I was sitting next to, but when I arrived I felt exhausted and grossly underwhelmed. We pulled into the bus station after traveling through what looked to be Madrid 2.0, and I didn’t really see what was so special about this place.
Until I did.
I took another bus into the center city toward where my hotel was situated, and out of nowhere I was slapped across the face with a scene that immediately validated everyone’s praise. Overlooking the city were old houses clustered throughout the steep hillsides, and beyond them, in spite of it being nearly 90 degrees, was a sprawl of snow-capped mountains lightly faded in the distance. Bob Ross would shit himself if he could see this.
The weather that met me here in Madrid was somewhat less hospitable than assumed. During the first few days I was caught in a couple Madrilenian deluges of rain, which sneakily materialized from formerly blue and crystal clear skies. Like clockwork, the rain would wait until I was a good kilometer walk from home before showing its wet, ugly face.
I’d just left the grocery story with my hands full of bags and was hiding under an awning waiting for torrential abatement. Next to me a Russian man was talking on the phone in broken English about his meal of “ham-bor-gars and French frowns.” Opposite to my awning stood the depressed Hello Kitty from a few days prior, her wet head weighing heavily on her narrow shoulders. She looked at me with empty, sympathetic eyes. I checked her mittens for sharp objects, just in case.