The invitation awaiting us at the reception desk at the Grand Hotel Majestic in Bologna couldn’t have been more inviting: “Please wear comfortable clothes, you will be cooking, laughing and drinking…”
The half-day private, hands-on cooking class we had pre-registered for at the Culinary Institute of Bologna (CIBO) was to be the “kick-off” to our weeklong Emilia Romagna road trip with two other couples last spring.
Bologna: Culinary Heaven
Any traveler who is passionate about good food wants to visit Bologna. And once they’ve been there, they want to share the experience with their closest friends.
The rich gastronomic traditions of the region’s capital city have been shaped by its unique location and history. Geographically, the capital city of Emilia Romagna is nestled in the heart of the region of Italy that is often called the “Food Valley.” Most of the foods and wines sold and consumed here are sourced from family-owned farms and vineyards, as well as other small-batch producers that dot the verdant hillsides.
This foodie paradise also boasts 44 products recognized by the European Union as PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) or PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). Like fine wines, their names are associated with the areas where they’ve been produced for generations using the same ancient methods and techniques. A few notable examples include Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale and Lambrusco.
Bologna (both a city and one of the region’s nine provinces) is best known for Mortadella, the meat sausage that migrated to America and changed its name to baloney, and wonderful egg pastas, which include tagliatelle and tortelli (often served with Bologna’s namesake meat sauce, ragù alla Bolognese).
Home to Europe’s oldest university, Bologna is filled with hundreds of lively bars, cafes, chocolatiers, gelaterias and restaurants — ranging from simple to sophisticated. Visitors also have the option to learn about and savor regional foods and wines by taking cooking classes, food and market tours, and visiting food producers and museums. Incredibly, the region has 19 museums solely dedicated to food.
Shopping with the Chef
On a misty morning after our overnight flight, the six of us headed to class. CIBO is situated in the back of an historic trattoria, Caffee del Rosso, tucked behind an old portico. (UNESCO has recognized Bologna for its more than 25 miles of porticoes — magnificent covered walkways of wood, brick and stone — lining its streets.) The same building has been in continuous use as a restaurant since 1868.
English-speaking CIBO founder, CEO and Executive Chef Stefano Corvucci greeted us over cappuccino and espresso in the cooking school’s modern kitchen. Trained as an attorney at the local university, he put his career on a proverbial “back burner,” leaving his law practice soon after graduation to pursue his culinary passions.
Six years after establishing and operating a successful restaurant in another part of town, Chef Corvucci purchased the building we visited and added the cooking school to the restaurant in 2012 to satiate his desire to spend more time in the kitchen as opposed to managing a restaurant.
Our class at CIBO began with a shopping excursion. But like most cooking students, we were eager to know what we would be preparing for lunch.
“I buy what I’m attracted to at the market,” said the Chef. “The recipe is the last thing you think about. After you smell, taste and touch, you decide what will be on the menu.”
The Chef set the pace, wheeling a typical Italian shopping wagon behind him. After a brisk walk, we reached the narrow cobblestone streets and alleys winding through the Quadrilateral, a market that has existed since the Middle Ages. It was filled with morning shoppers. Locals insistent upon using the finest fresh ingredients and artisanal products still shop from these stalls brimming with fresh produce, fish and meats. On the same streets are bakeries, florists, salumerias selling cured meats and local specialties, and several bars and convenience stores.
Relationships here are personal. The chef knew which vendors sold the best products and warmly greeted shopkeepers of these family-owned businesses as he chose seasonal ingredients that caught his fancy. If he wasn’t sure, he asked for a taste.
At the butcher shop, freshly slaughtered chickens hung from the walls, and when we looked up, we saw Prosciutto di Parma suspended above our heads. Wheels of hard cheese were lined up on shelves and softer cheeses like ricotta and mozzarella were piled high in the glass, refrigerated showcases. By the time we headed back to the classroom, some of us were carrying heavy bags of ingredients that wouldn’t fit into the wagon.
Fellowship in the Classroom
After washing up, we diced, sliced, minced and chopped at our workstations over local wine served in bottomless carafes. The preparation required an all-hands team, and we each became immersed in tasks that took advantage of our skills.
Our friend Bob, who regularly spends vacations as a city slicker and ranch hand in the Southwest, loved butchering the meat. My friend Linda was a vegetable dicer specializing in onions and carrots. I became consumed with the laborious but easy task of extracting peas from their pods and molding the meatballs by hand.
The chef worked beside us and imperceptibly corrected any mistakes we made while imparting pearls of cultural and culinary wisdom in small bites. We learned that a true ragù sauce is always made with pancetta, ground beef, onions, carrots and celery — never with tomatoes, except perhaps to add a touch of color. He told us that pork is often too fatty a meat to be used for stock and that the modern word “salary” is derived from the ancient word for “salt.”
He showed us how to work more efficiently by choosing the correct knife and holding it the correct way. On a more serious and philosophical note, Chef Corvucci stressed the importance of protecting food biodiversity by relying on ingredients that are local and seasonal as the Bolognese have done for centuries.
He encouraged tasting, sipping and chattering along the way. The emphasis was on methods and technique, not recipes. “Don’t ask for instructions,” he said. “To be a cook, you have to dare to take risks.”
“Cooking is a shared experience,” he noted without a whit of concern that his students were enjoying themselves too much at the expense of their meal preparation.
When we sat down to the table filled with different dishes and bottles of wine, we felt much like a family of friends. Perhaps we had gone overboard on the tasting, but the array of dishes at the lunch table was overwhelming.
The multi-course meal started with two different homemade pastas as primi (first courses prepared by students in the adjoining classroom). One was served with our fresh ragù sauce and the other with a sauce of butter, sage and artichokes. Then we feasted on our secondi (second courses), creations that included Bolognese beef stew, coratello di agnello (an exquisite lamb dish) and polpette (meatballs).
We left with souvenir aprons, diplomas and a group picture. More importantly, we took home a hefty dose of kitchen confidence and an enhanced appreciation for Bolognese history and tradition.