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 - the Italian way

Tortellini Bolognesi

Bologna's pasta love

Bologna offers a foodie the world on a plate; mortadella, tagliatelle, ragù and prosciutto crudo - simply walking the medieval streets is a gastronomical feast. Under the porticoes and rosy hues that make up the lofty arches of this remarkable city, show windows display their wares in classy, vintage style, it's pure temptation.

Step off grandiose Piazza Maggiore under an arched, shadowy street. Seemingly drab and dark, under the awnings lies a treasure trove of culinary delights packed into a tiny lane of the Quadrilatero quarter. On a sweltering day the sun struggles to beam into the dimmest of corners but spotlights shine onto a plethora of Bologna's foods pressed into narrow Via Clavature. Now I know there are markets like delle Erbe which will stun a visitor and make a Bolognese proud, but there's something special about Via Clavature, which I stumbled upon by chance. Yes, it's become a bit of a tourist trap and the pace can be mesmerisingly slow to walk through it but this only adds to the haphazard ensemble of senses - colours, smells and tastes and sounds, it's a collection of tiny shops with a humble fruit and vegetable market tucked into one side..

Slick osterie with hanging Prosciutti di Parma and wares on display offer wooden tables, aperitivi and decanters of wine amidst a buzz of local produce and the finest of wares, all masterfully showcased for a keen passer-by. Tortellini are on display, handmade pasta, cakes, cheeses and balsamic vinegar from Modena, squeezed into the few square metres of this enchanting street.

Off Via Clavature, an indoor market running between two streets, il Mercato di Mezzo, is hosted in a renovated 19th Century building. Brainchild of Oscar Farinetti, owner of Eataly, this popular market doesn't feel much like a market. It's effectively a collection of food and wine botteghe (artisan food shops) by local producers in an eclectic setting. Rustic seating on the ground floor means one can grab bits and bobs from the open shops and casually sit and eat and drink. Downstairs stocks a microbrewery and upstairs a slow-food pizzeria via the scenic lift.

The Mercato di Mezzo has become a stop on any foodie agenda and perhaps lacks the truly rustic nature of Bologna's food culture but still merits a wander through and a nibble of freshly-fried Frutti di Mare from the seafood bottega, accompanied by a glass of beautiful, aromatic Malvasia from the enoteca wine stand.

Notable local pride and a bit of a superior, lofty attitude, Bologna can boast many things, but perhaps their love of pasta tops them all. So I opted for tortellini in the Mercato di Mezzo, but with a twist - Tortellini Fritti.

These were fried as I waited and served in a paper-cone with a sprinkling of salt. The classic flavour of tortellini was there but with a crunchy edge - quite simply sublime.

Tortellini tradition

There's one recipe and one alone.

(According to the Bologna Chamber of Commerce, that is.)

Equal parts of pork loin, Prosciutto di Parma and mortadella are chopped finely and blended with egg, nutmeg and Parmigiano Reggiano (minimum 36 months) to make up the filling which must sit for 24 hours before creating a correctly-sized tortellino shaped from a square sheet of fresh egg pasta 2.7 to 3.8cm in size. Too small and the tortellino bolognese loses its identity becoming a cappeletto reggiano. Oh and don't forget, the loin must sit in a marinade of garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper for 2 days before being slow-cooked until tender.

We may think of tortellini as many things and honestly, there are so many beautiful versions out there but the tortellino bolognese recipe is a set of very strict instructions and so is the broth is it cooked in. Only free-range rooster, fed on genuine scraps (not poultry feed) and the best of beef stock-meat make up the hearty liquid Bologna's tortellini are cooked in. Plain and simple.

50 years ago the Italian Academy of Cooking (l'Accademia Italiana della Cucina) and the Scholarly Fraternity of the Tortellino collaborated with local newspaper Il Resto del Carlino in a regional search for traditional tortellini family recipes. Their goal was to establish one definitive recipe recorded at the Chamber of Commerce of Bologna on 7 December 1974.

And there's no ragù near it.

Tortellini bolognesi are cooked and served in brodo, tagliatelle are served with ragù, punto e basta.

Luckily tortellini are sold by the kilo in Bologna meaning all you have to do is cook them in hot broth until they float up to the surface, how fantastic that ironically, after hours of preparation, in a matter of seconds they're done.

Tortellini outside of Bologna

Yes, they do exist!

The Bolognesi may think they own the rights to Italian cuisine but step out of the region and you'll find a Tuscan who feels just the same. Who makes the best tortellini in Italy? Well, that depends who's cooking them.

Emilia Romagna is a northern-eastern region extending from the city of Reggio Emilia to Ravenna on the coast. Considering the regional nature of Italy's produce, even in this one region, a tortellino can change in name, size and filling (but retains its unmistakable shape).

In the city of Modena, there's no specific recipe in the Chamber of Commerce, however there is a document stating exactly what can and what cannot be added to the filling of tortellini modenesi. Breadcrumbs are a no-no and Parmigiano Reggiano must be aged over 36 months.

The cappelletto reggiano from Reggio Emilia is smaller than the tortellino bolognese with a filling of chicken breast in place of Mortadella and the addition of butter.

The anolini, a speciality from Parma and Piacenza, are filled with a chopped meat dish, il stracotto. Stracotto in English means overcooked or cooked alot, 'stra' is a nifty little prefix to make anything sound excessive - stravecchio (very old), stravedere (to dote on) and strabello (colloquially, very nice). Stracotto is a traditional preparation of beef, veal and pork boiled with vegetables and cloves for a few hours. This is then chopped finely and mixed with breadcrumbs, Grana Padano, egg and nutmeg to make the anolini filling.

A cappelletto romagnolo is similar in size to the tortellino bolognese, and similarly boiled in broth, but is meat-free - made with ricotta, local soft cheese 'barzotto', Parmigiano Reggiano, eggs, salt and nutmeg.

The tortellino shape is a masterful twist of the fingers and a pinch of the thumbs, it may seem like a complicated task and most likely is, but practice makes perfect and anyway, who's counting?

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