Bologna III: Getting my Hands Dirty

28th – 29th March 2017

Day two of my Italian course went smoothly. We were sudying direct and indirect peronal pronouns. Useful. Not much of a story there.

I went for lunch with an Italian girl I’d met the night before. In the old market district, the streets still carry the names of the produce once sold there. She ordered us a platter of cheeses and meats with small, round, flat bread called tigelle. In particular, we ate mortadella; the heat-cured ham with cubes of fat within, that the Americans butcher as ‘boloney’. 

The school had organised a walk through the hills to burn off my lunch. We stopped by an Etruscan tomb that was being ignored by a throng of young locals, lounging around the park, enjoying a drink in the spring sun. 

Our direttore was a vastly intelligent man. His school Cultura Italiana mirrors his interests: offering a combination of language, literature, music, and cooking classes. He is now an old man but still vibrantly joyful and curious; a very interesting man to talk to.

From him, I learned that the Etuscans (who were in Italy before the Romans) built identical tombs for men and women, in the shape of their houses. Some suggest they were a matriarchal society. 

(I spoke to the direttore later about the Etruscan tombs I had seen in Tuscania, dug from hillsides and he informed me these were from a later period, from a poorer Etruscan period. Remarkably, he also knew the very tower in Tuscania that had hosted us. Many years earlier, he had known the owner – an artist).

After four hours of walking up and down the hills outside Bologna, visiting a modest private chapel and a vineyard along the way, we were shuffling down a path that became a track and soon a road to town. We passed an oak tree “older even than me,” said the school’s director.

He told us how he remembered coming to this bend in the road as a child to watch the cow, two sheep and the chickens that used to be kept in a now-empty yard on the corner. “Last year, the tree managed just a few leaves. This year, there are none,” he told us. The oak, after a few centuries of life, was dying of old age.

To get to the tree, the old man had led us (the stragglers) down a short-cut, an opening through the trees and plants. He had scrambled through the branches, grinning at the idea of beating the others to the road ahead. 

When we finaly returned to town, he positively skipped over a low, chain fence.

For all the poignancy of the oak, I think that man still has a few summers left.


We had a sad apericena of red wine, crisps and nuts before my fellow students went home. I found a bar towards the university that had a local sangiovese where I did my homework before heading hom myself.

The next day, I changed Air BnB. The first was welcoming, comfortable and clean – more than enough – but I thought it would be good to have a little variety. The second place was in the heart of the student area, staying with a group of students. In a beautiful apartment (wasted on them), the high ceilings, exposed pipes, the scattered paintings and books; they were living the dream.

My host showed me the room: bare but for a bed, a lamp, and a homemade liquor. And I rushed back to class.

By now, I was getting tired. Speaking and hearing a foreign language is exhausting. When I first moved to France, I was sleeping 10 hours a day. By my third day in Bologna, it started to fall apart. I was speaking Spanish, French, English, German; bref, everything but Italian.

That evening, I had signed up for a cooking class. The chef was a little under the weather (sniffly, hoarse) but patient. 

We opened up a bottle of wine and started carving our meat. As a fragile urbanite, I’m not great with meat on the bone. I can just about hack at a cooked chicken but carving one raw was instructive. The rabbit was trickier still. But with help, I salvaged almost all the flesh. 

The chef had worked in Lyon for a long time and the two other students also spoke French. Mine is good enough to be not be an effort and we were soon all slipping in and out of French.

The chicken bones went in to a broth while we cooked the rabbit with veal and pork in butter. The chicken went in a separate pan with a soffritto; we boiled off some white wine; added rosmary, tomatoes, olives.

While these were cooking, we set pork chops to marinate in a yoghurt-mustard mix and started on the pasta; egg and flour folded together until solid and kneaded until smooth, shiny and elastic. 

The pasta sat while the chef blended the veal, pork and rabbit with parmesan. The pork chops went under the grill. Then the fun started.

We rolled the pasta, thinner and thinner, before cutting long strips and rolling balls of our meat mix (chilled). Egg white served as glue to close our agnolotti and they were soon in the slated, boiling water. (I love filled pasta).

A dinner of agnolotti del plin, pollo alla mediterranea, and cotelette alla senape is clearly in need of a digestivo. My girlfriend – and it would seem Italians at large – love bitters. I have a sweeter tooth. So, after speaking a lot of French already, I went in search of a limocello with my classmate from Nice. I think I had earned a rest, settling in to a familiar language, in good company, on a terrace in a square on a warm, Italian evening. I dare you to say I deserve anything less!

Bologna I

Bologna II


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