Thursday, 10 September 2009

The vineyard

Tenuta Bonzara is in a stunning position high above Bologna, in Monte San Pietro. The vineyard teeters sharply downhill, planted with a mixture of native and foreign vines. So there is barbera as well as cabernet sauvignon and merlot; sauvignon as well as pgnoletto. The cantina, where the wine is made, is all stainless steel with automatic bottling and labelling machines. I went to visit the vineyard with Marcello dall'Aglio, from La Locanda del Castello, who rates their wine and now runs the trattoria there.

Of all the Colli Bolognese producers, Lambertini has established a global toehold with his Bonzarone, an oak aged cabernet sauvignon that scored 94 out of 100 in a Wine Spectator review. In fact, it’s one of the only two Colli Bolognesi producers recognised by the respected US magazine, the other being Lambertini’s neighbour, Vallania. We taste a young barbera still in barrel, a new venture for the vineyard. There’s none of the thinness and sharpness I’m afraid I associate with this grape. Not a classic maybe but with the prospect of being on a par with many

Checking the labels – a gift for quality
a wine from Piedmont, the traditional home of barbera - although nobody outside Italy will ever know it unless something is done to improve the marketing of Colli Bolognesi.
It is a sad fact that the best wine growing region(s) does not coincide with the best food region in Italy. But wines from the Bolognese hills deserve better than to be totally unknown outside Italy - unless you count Lambrusco.

Tenuta Bonzara’s sparkling wine ready for packaging
Mario, the cantina manager, is determined to show off his best. Marcello thinks that the sauvignon blanc is ‘terrific’. The nose is powerful with fruit, like a southern hemisphere wine, and it has a great finish, like a French wine. I try pignoletto, a personal favourite. Light and subtle, it makes a perfect aperitif, especially in the frizzante (petillant) style.

We cannot escape without a tour of the vineyard. We hurtle down the hillside in Mario’s well-used Fiat Panda to the point where old vines and new vines meet. The new ones are planted much closer together, 80centimetres instead of 1.5 metres; the theory is that denser planting produces better grapes and less foliage. Quality is the mantra of the best producers like Lambertini but Italy is still the world’s biggest bulk exporter.

Mario and Marcello compare grape varieties

On a fine day, you can see for yourself. Book into the Trattoria San Chierlo for lunch and then visit the Cantina at Tenuta Bonzara, a hundred metres away.

Trattoria di San Chierlo
Via S. Chierlo, 13/A -
40050 Monte San Pietro (BO)
Tel +39 051.6768270 -

Tenuta Bonzara

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Gramigna with sausage sauce

This is a Bolognese classic, on the menu of almost every restaurant. It’s hard to think of a simpler or tastier pasta dish. Preparation time: a blink. This works very well with a good, wholesome English sausage, either plain pork or flavoured. Gramigna is curly macaroni but you could use garganelli as a substitute.

Ingredients (for 4)

400g gramigna
450g pork sausages
125g bacon
1 large onion
1 garlic clove
175ml white wine
75ml passata
2 tablespoons olive oil
50g parmesan
salt and pepper
Plus optional flavourings – fennel seeds, thyme or chilli for example


1. Put the pasta water on to boil (yes, it’s that quick).
2. Make an incision down the centre of each sausage and remove the skin, then cut each sausage into eighths.
3. Cut the bacon into small cubes.
4. Hear a couple of spoonfuls of olive oil and begin to fry the sausage and the bacon.
5. Finely chop an onion and a garlic clove and add them to the sausage and bacon when they begin to brown.
6. When the onion begins to brown, add a glass of white wine and cook off the alcohol.
7. Season to taste, and add perhaps some fennel seeds or thyme, or a chopped up red chilli or another flavouring that takes your fancy.
8. Add the tomato passata.
9. Put the pasta on to cook.
10. When it’s cooked, drain it and add it to the sausage sauce and cook together in the pan for a minute or so.

Serve with grated parmesan.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Tagliatelle with meat sauce - the famous ragù

This is what in the Anglo Saxon world is commonly referred to as Spaghetti Bolognese. But there is a world of difference between tagliatelle and spaghetti. Tagliatelle is an egg noodle which provides a sumptuous vehicle for the rich meat sauce. Spaghetti is pasta ascuitta – dried pasta made out of flour and water – ideally suited to both a smooth sauce like tomato and onion or a seafood sauce. Less straightforward is the matter of the sauce. There are probably more recipes for ragù than for any other item in the Italian culinary lexicon. There are historic, quasi-ideological disputes over the proper contents. Some people are adamant that it contains chicken livers, cream and bacon; others that it contains a mixture of minced beef and pork. Everyone is agreed that the culinary foundation of the ragu is the battuto (rather like the Spanish sofrito), made from fried onion, celery, carrot and garlic. Once you get the hang of it you will probably want to introduce your own variations on the ragu theme - like everyone in Bologna.

Anyway, here is our recipe. You cook it until the sauce is thick enough to coat the pasta. (At Gigina, the famous Bologna Ragù house, they make it a touch too dry for our liking. But theirs is a classic and you should try it next time you are in Bologna. Personally, I would recommend Locanda del Castello, Franco Rossi and above all Teresina on via Oberdan). On the other hand, you don’t want to end up with a shallow pool of unattached liquid under the pasta, a la Inglese. This will make enough for at least eight portions of sauce. It’s silly to go to all this trouble for a small amount when you can refrigerate or freeze some for another day. Sunday afternoon in a lot of Italian households is the time for making the week’s pasta sauces. Bottles or boxes of ragù, tomato sauce or mushroom sauce are stored in the fridge and brought out as the week progresses to make one of the fastest and most satisfying meals, a dish of pasta.

Ingredients (for 4)

Cooking hints: don’t rush the battuto and do brown the meat
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 3 hours

3 tbs olive oil
large knob of butter
2 medium onions, finely chopped
3 sticks celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1kg minced beef
salt and freshly ground pepper
150g smoked bacon, finely diced
2 bay leaves
250ml milk
250ml red wine
1 tin tomatoes, chopped
400g tagliatelle

1. Heat the oil and butter in a large heavy-based saucepan. Add the onions and gently fry over medium heat for about 7 minutes until soft and beginning to brown.
2. Add the celery, carrots and garlic, and cook for another couple of minutes.
3. Add the minced beef, a large pinch of salt, and freshly ground pepper. Stir over a high flame until the beef begins to brown. Add the bacon and cook until it begins to brown.
4. Add the bay leaves and milk, and simmer gently for about 10 minutes, until the meat has absorbed the milk. Now grate in about 1/3 teaspoon of nutmeg.
5. Pour in the wine, then add the tomatoes with their juice, and stir thoroughly.
6. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and cook, uncovered, at a lazy simmer, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface, for 3 hours or more.
7. Now cook the tagliatelle – place it in a large pan of boiling water and follow the manufacturer’s instructions, or your own if it’s home made.
8. Drain the pasta and mix well with the sauce and serve.

Making egg pasta

If you like cucina Bolognese, you will want to make your own pasta. Once you get the hang of it, you can do the whole thing in less than half an hour. Below, we explain how it’s done. All you need is a board, a rolling pin, some flour and eggs.

Egg pasta is not exclusive to Bolognese cookery but it is essential to it in a way that is not true of the other places where it is also popular, such as Venice. It is used to make the noodles or tagliatelle which accompany the famous Bolognese meat sauce, the ragù. It is also used to make stuffed pasta, especially tortellini, the little meat-filled parcels that are the highlight of Christmas Eve supper and celebrations such as weddings and communions. The meatless versions are called tortelloni or tortelli or tortellaci. Egg pasta is also used to make the small sheets of pasta which go into that other Bolognese must-eat, lasagne.

If you’re pushed for time, and decide to buy fresh egg pasta from a supermarket or deli, don’t make the mistake of overcooking it. On the other hand, if you are making lasagne, and using bought pasta, don’t make the mistake of not pre-cooking it at all (whatever it says on the label). It will not cook properly and taste raw when it’s served. Parboil the lasagne sheets for two minutes and drain them well before laying them on a tea-cloth until you are ready to make the lasagne.

Stuffed Pasta

Almost every city in north and central Italy has its own version of stuffed pasta. Ravioli, agnolotti, tortellone are variations on the same theme, using different shaped or sized envelopes and a variety of fillings.

The pasta can also be coloured and flavoured with nettles, spinach or tomato. Some of these are more robust than tortellini and can cope with a strong partner such as a meat sauce or simply cream and parmesan. Although the artisan tradition is giving way to machine made pasta, there are still places where you can see tagliatelle and tortellini being made. Often there is a special outlet, with a workshop called a laboratorio where pasta is made. And presiding over it is the sfoglina, or pasta-maker, so called because they make a pasta sheet or foglio.

Popularly invested with semi-magical powers, the sfogline carry on the skills of their trade from generation to generation. The wrinkled old lady who used to sit at the entrance to the trattoria, patiently and expertly making stuffed pasta, like the one I remember in Lagune, up in the hills near Sasso Marconi, is no more, alas, and most people these days buy their pasta from their favourite pasticceria (which also sells pastries and sweets).

One place that still has a sfoglina is Anna Maria, a restaurant in the centre of Bologna, a favourite with audiences, performers and the orchestra from the Teatro Comunale nearby.

The celebrated Anna Maria in full flow

Just down the street, behind an anonymous shop front, is the lab. where Nicoletta Bussolari makes egg pasta for the restaurant. She tells us, 'It's a creative thing. I feel a lot of passion for making pasta. Very simple, just eggs and flour'.

Nicoletta with a foglio
Just around the corner is another laboratorio run by Osteria dell Orsa where you can buy tagliatelle, tortellini and tortelloni.

Orsa: Scruffy entrance, delectable food

We watched as Roberto Gasperini– a rare male sfoglino – and Ornella Visentini rapidly made a batch of tortellini. ‘And what is the filling for this half-moon shaped pasta?, we wanted to know. ‘Ah, that’s a special one, just for the Osteria’, replied Roberto, and he paused, ‘But if you come back at lunchtime I’ll make sure there’s some set aside for you.’ And he did.

Roberto and Ornella: Orsa's Sfogline

La Locanda del Castello at Palazzo de Rossi also has a laboratorio, behind their takeaway deli, Torte e Tortelli, just up the road in Borgonuovo. This large catering kitchen is equipped with a giant mechanical pasta roller which comes into its own for large scale events like weddings. But most of the time, their sfoglina works with the same equipment as all the others: a matarello, a metre long rolling pin, a rolling table, strong arms and a good eye.

Egg pasta – how the experts make it

Nicoletta makes the whole process look very easy. First, you measure out the flour, which must be pasta flour, marked OO on the package. The rule of thumb is 100g of pasta per person, and one medium sized egg per 100g. If you make the pasta on a board, make the flour into a volcano shape with a crater in the centre.
Crack the eggs into it and mix together with a fork or your hands, as she does, until you have created a large cylinder of dough.

Above: making the flour volcano. Right: amalgamating flour and eggs
If the eggs are corn-fed, they will lend the pasta that distinctive and appealing yellowness. (Hopefully, the colour will be natural rather than an additive.)

Kneading the dough
Now, knead the pasta on a floured board by pushing it away from you with the heel of your palms, folding it over, and pushing it away again, until the pasta loses its stickiness and becomes elastic. You can do all this using a food mixer. Don’t begrudge this part of the process; it produces pasta that is more easily worked and doesn’t stick. Then, wrap it in cling film and leave it to rest for an hour.

Now you roll it out. Sfogline use a matarello but you can use an ordinary pastry rolling pin. In Marcello dall’Aglio’s lab. at Borgonuovo where the take away food is made, they have an immense rolling machine which is less romantic but very fast for large quantities. Or you can use a domestic pasta machine. Don’t skimp on the number of times you feed the pasta through the machine. Three or four times at each width setting will produce smoother, silkier pasta. Once the pasta is rolled, it can be sliced to make tagliatelle (usually 6-8mm wide), or the broader pappardelle, or cut up into rectangles for lasagne or stuffed. If you are making stuffed pasta, don’t let it go dry, otherwise it will be difficult to seal the edges together.