If you want to see the heart of a culture, city or town, head to the markets, especially the food markets: you’ll get the truest insight into the lives of the locals. Just as a location affects people, it affects the food they eat and their relationship to it. This is perhaps nowhere more true than in Italy. Emilia Romagna is the home to some of Italy’s greatest products – from Parma ham, to balsamic vinegars, parmesan and tortellini, as well as having great olives, fruit, vegetables, meat – especially pork – and fish.
So a foodie trip to Bologna couldn’t just be about restaurants, it had to include a look around the markets. To get the most out of such visits it’s best to find a local guide who will give you the inside track and ensure you see all you can. In Bologna this meant IGT got a tour with Andrea Chierici, the founder of Taste Bologna, and recently local expert and fixer for Rick Stein’s programme on the city.
After a coffee and chocolate-filled brioche croissant at the “Eataly” refurbished Mercato Di Mezzo, our morning of food exploration begins. The Mercato delle Erbe may be half closed but the sheer quantity of fresh fruit and veg spilling over the sides of the stalls is second only to its diversity. There is none of the one or two varieties that you find in the supermarkets; instead it is all grown on local farms, perfectly ripe, and the perfect demonstration of why the trend by growers and supermarkets alike to reduce the varieties they produce has to be reversed. And, as I was to discover when I returned later to do some shopping for dinner, the flavour of everything is exquisite.
The market isn’t just for fruit and veg, though: there are two side areas with bars, cafes, pasta and pizza stores that fill up at lunch and in the evening with locals looking for a good bite out. Best yet is the side area containing the fishmonger, which transforms into Banco 32 at lunch and dinner.
We move on to the pasta of Bologna – tortellini – and are shown how to make it by one of the sisters at family run Le Sfogline – this is also the name of the traditional dough used to make the pasta. The ladies form each tortellini with such speed and dexterity that, with just a blink of the eye, you’d miss it. The story behind the creation of Bologna’s native pasta varies but, whether inspired by Venus or created by a boy looking through the keyhole of an inn bedroom door, it’s said to be based on a beautiful bellybutton.
One thing that they are very keen to stress is that tortellini isn’t just a smaller version of tortelloni. The former is filled with a pork meat mix and traditionally served in a light broth, while the latter tends to have a vegetarian filling and is served like ravioli. As you move through the crowded narrow streets of the old ghetto area next to the main square, now home to many of the food stores, you’ll notice that each of the bakers sells a variety of fresh and dried pasta, including passatelli, a type of pasta made from stale bread, parmesan and egg.
These narrow streets are filled with fruit, vegetables, and fish stores, shops selling cheeses and hams, butchers and even horse butchers. Horse is still popular in Bologna, especially among the health conscious and parents after healthy and lean meat for their children. It has a different supply chain to other meats, so the only way to procure it is via such a specialist butcher who sells nothing but the dark lean meat.
Of course any food tour wouldn’t be complete without a tasting so, after collecting produce along the way, Andrea leads us to an osteria that has been in the same family since 1465. Popular over the years as a place to meet and discuss the issues of the day, it is now an establishment where you take your own food but buy accompanying wine and beer from them. Here we got to try a variety of meats, including pressed pig’s head, along with local breads and parmesan (complete with the crystals in it that are evidence of its quality and are caused by the amino acid given off by the bacteria), topped with a drop of the finest aged, syrupy balsamic vinegar.
To round off the tour it’s off to the best gelato shop in the city – Cremeria Santo Stefano. Now, I’m not a huge gelato fan as I find it too sweet and creamy (give me a sorbet any day), something that judging the London leg of the European Gelato Festival confirmed for me. But it is impressive to see their development kitchen and we learn of certain key things to look out for to ensure you are having true gelato and not just mass produced rubbish that claims to be. The most important thing to look for is that the gelato is kept in cooled stainless steel cylinders with lids on them; if they are open top trays then it isn’t true gelato. There real deal would melt if kept in such a way.
Any self-respecting foodie in Bologna would be mad not to tour the markets this way. Not only is it a great way to get a better understanding of how a city that loves food approaches it, it’s also a great way to get to know the place. I discovered much I didn’t know along the way and a number of gems I went back to after, and, beyond the markets, Andrea was more than willing to give advice on where to visit and where to eat in the city he adores.