Friday, July 11, 2014

La Dolce Vita Lessons from Una Tavola Italiana in Emilia-Romagna

The smell of fresh baking bread welcomed us to what would be our home for the next few days in the mountains of Regnano, at the center of the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.  There was the customary commotion of the welcome: the how-are-you’s and how-do-you-find-Italy’s, bags being taken away from our hands, shuffling about room to room for the requisite house tour.  It is true what they have said over and over about Italians in every rumor mill.  Italians are warm and familial.  Meeting this Italian couple sure did feel like putting on soft clean socks fresh from the dryer.  I felt like I have known Mariapia and Mario for a long time and this was a return visit instead of a first one.  And I immediately begin hoping that it will be one of many.  
We were shown our beautifully minimalist and spacious room with a big window looking out to the green hills and in the perceptible distance, a church tower.  We set our bags down and joined our hosts in the kitchen – the apparent underbelly of the house.  

I was handed an apron right away.  That’s telling of how food-centric the following days in Regnano would be.  After all, this is the fabled food capital of Italy and choosing to spend a few days here was deliberate.
Mario spoke little English and I spoke even less Italian, but when it comes to food, language is never a barrier.  He demonstrated how to make pasta dough in the tradition of Emilia-Romagna, home of the Bolognese (Bologna is the region’s capital).  The dough had to be slathered with so much TLC until it is silky before it had to be wrung and cranked on a pasta maker a few times to get the thickness right.  It is then cut by hand into the right width to make tagliatelle.  (Tagliare in Italian means “to cut”.)  At this point, the neighbors started coming in. Apparently, we’re having a dinner party that evening.
After my role of meticulously cutting the pasta which I then have to relinquish to one of the other guests who was more masterful at it for obvious reasons, I stepped back and observed how these Italians milled about fiddling in the kitchen – grating cheese, stirring pots, cutting tagliatelle, tasting the bolognese stewing.  My grandma used to say that too many cooks spoil the food.  That certainly doesn’t apply to Italy.  Had two more people shown up, it would have been a riot.

It was chaos but it was how it was meant to be.  It was a spectacle and in Italy, this is life and at no other moment had I felt more privileged and elated to be in the thick of it.  In front of me, my suspicions about the food-crazy Italians were being validated one by one, in the flesh.  This was why I am fascinated with this culture and this is exactly what I came to this country for. 

The dinner was long, plentiful.  We enjoyed Mario’s homemade bread, ragu Bolognese, roasted fowl,  bavarese alle fragola for dessert, punctuated with several rounds of alcohol – wine and variations of homemade liquor (anise, walnuts, lemon) as digestif.  The thunderous drone of non-stop passionate Italian conversation and laughter – loud and obnoxious - with short pauses of translation, was just an intrinsic part of the Italian dinner affair as much as olive oil or Parmigiano was.  It was the kind of deliciously obscene evening every traveler fantasizes of. 

This scene at the dinner table that evening is somehow one that remains etched in my memory weeks later after Italy.  I learned to make pasta in the presence of all these Italians, yes, but more than that, I realize that the secret to the elusive la dolce vita lies in pasta-making itself.  It takes hours.  It is slow.  Just as the sensual preparation for dinner, it is a seductive foreplay to what’s about to come.  But the Italians know this (and perhaps this is why they are said to be the best lovers in the world), the reward of this painful buildup is the climax - forceful and persistent.  And anytime I wish to return to it, I just don on an apron and start kneading away to make tagliatelle e bolognese.  I have to carve out half a day for this affair and it’s never quite the same.

But it’s the closest I can get.

1 comment:

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