I used to think the term foodie was ridiculous. Everybody eats to survive, so how can one be an enthusiast about a basic human need? I used to joke that I was a breathy because I’m quite fond of inhaling air – that’s about how much sense foodies made to me.
Then, somewhere between coconut soup in Thailand and Roti Canai in Malaysia, I started to realize that food began dictating my travel destinations. I would plan my day around getting roti in Kuala Lumpur (it’s not typically an all-day thing) and found myself sticking around the south of Thailand because my beloved coconut soup is a southern specialty. I realized that one of the things I missed the most about being home in California was the Mexican food. It really is amazing how much food began to matter the more I traveled.
While I’ll never fancy myself a food blogger or exercise enough restraint to photograph my plates before digging in, (I always think of taking a photo after I’m halfway through and my plate looks like a Jackson Pollock painting) I will admit that I finally get what foodies are all about: food is more than just fuel, it’s the closest tie to understanding a culture than anything I can think of.
Combining my passion for doing things that not every tourist does, plus my newfound love of food, it was only natural that I’d head to one of the amazing food Meccas of the world: Bologna, Italy.
An energetic and entertaining gelato master addresses a class full of students from all around the world. Each has a different motivation for learning the art of gelato making at what is arguably the most famous town in the world for its gelato. Some are simply perfecting a hobby while others have aspirations of quitting their day jobs to start a gelato-making empire, or maybe just a brick and mortar store.
Carefully maneuvering a small cup under what would appear to the uneducated eye to be a simple soft-serve machine, today they are learning how to transfer the gelato from the machine to the bowl. The mechanisms inside mix and add air to the cream, sugar and egg mixture which are then added to a bowl to mix in flavorings and toppings.
In courses ranging from one week to four, they’ll learn how to craft the perfect treat and even how to run a store. Engineers, business women, and at-home chefs by background, it’s quite the eclectic mix of students from a handful of different countries in Europe and the United States. I’m observing the class while the teacher jokes with me and brings over a cup of gelato for me to sample.
Following that I take a tour around the gelato museum and learn all about the evolution of the ice cream, versions of which date back to 3000 B.C. (yeah, seriously!)
Pasta Making in Nonantola
I approach a small restaurant in an even smaller countryside town just outside of Bologna. Having never taken a cooking class before, I’m pleasantly surprised by the intimate setting, the smiling and good-natured chefs, and the bubbling prosecco awaiting me. I sure do like a town where it’s completely acceptable to imbibe in some wine before 5pm.
The chef explains in nearly perfect english the process of mixing egg with flour and oil, kneading the dough, and letting it rest in order to create fresh pasta. A bit arrogant about my abilities, I envison myself creating perfect pasta and coming home with the skills to wow my friends and family. What really happens is I find out how precise and involved each step of the process is (read: you need some serious arm muscles to knead and roll the pasta into thin sheets!) and realize that being a master chef of Italian cuisine is not my calling. No matter, because the real chef is there to help me form perfect tortelloni pillows – a process that I manage to get wrong every time despite his best repeated efforts at showing me how it’s done. The tagliatelle, thin noodles, I manage with more ease.
The class is finished with a sampling of our creations and a delicious lunch where the smiling owner continues to lavish us with sparkling wine, amazing food, and genuinely good cheer. I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend an afternoon in Italy than this.
Balsamic vinegar sampling in Modena
The positive energy is practically overflowing at this quaint and peaceful family-owned and run balsamic vinegar producer in the Italian countryside. The mother, whose family has matrilineally passed the vineyard down from generation to generation, is vibrant and dynamic while her two smiling children, proud of their family’s superior product and about as warm and welcoming as possible, guide us around their home, grape vineyards, and balsamic storage cellars.
I had never even come close to understanding the painstaking process of creating balsamic vinegar — something I absolutely love but honestly didn’t even know was made from grapes. For an idea of what goes into traditional balsamic vinegar-making, imagine this: the oldest vinegar the family produces takes at least 25 years to age. When I consider that’s almost as old as I am I finally appreciate and understand why some vinegars I’ve seen in the past carry a hefty price tag. After tasting it and discovering its surprisingly creamy (yes, creamy!) consistency and flavor, I come away with a newfound appreciation of the art of vinegar-making.
Moreover, I could spend all day laughing and joking with this family. They’re absolute gems and their property is beautiful and peaceful.
It’s safe to say: I’m now a full-blow foodie. I finally get it.
Do it yourself:
- Gelato Uni: Buy a bus ticket at a tobacco shop and take the #87 bus from Bologna towards Carpigiani and get off at that stop (approx. 50 minutes to one hour outside of the Bologna city center). It will be obvious because Gelato University will be large and easily visible from the right-hand side of the bus. Visit the museum and sample the gelato at the shop, or take a course.
- Pasta making: La Piazzetta del Gusto is worth a stop even just to sample the amazing food and enjoy the little town of Nonantola. Pasta classes and weekend getaways are reasonably priced, even for a solo traveler, and can be booked through Modena Tour.
- Balsamic vinegar tasting: the tour and tasting is completely free and a really great experience. Contact the tourism board of Modena to set one up.
*Thanks to Gelato Univeristy, La Piazzetta del Gusto, Acetaia Villa Bianca and especially Blogville Emilia Romagna for hosting me. All opinions are my own. I have nothing negative and everything positive to say about each and every one of the experiences shared in this post and would truly recommend them to anyone visiting Italy.