Like a fruit bat hunting for a mango tree, my super senses spotted the home made torte sitting on the bar of the restaurant.
‘It’s homemade Pinolate’, the waitress said. Pinolate is a light Siena cake with pine nuts and a ribbon of custard cream through the middle. Not overly sweet, the cake has now shot to the top of my perfect dessert list.
The cuisine of Bologna is vey specific and revolves around cooking a few dishes very well and with the best ingredients. The specialities of the region is tagliatelle with ragu (the ubiquitous bolognese sauce), tortollini either in broth or with butter and sage and lasagne. A day at the Bologna Cooking School will get you up to scratch with a couple of these dishes.
The lesson starts with a visit to the markets. Carlo picks you up from the hotels and then plunging down the side streets takes you on a market tour. The group of five shop for the ingredients for the cooking class. We are only to buy the best of the best. To non-Bolognese eyes it is difficult to pick out from all the hanging hams which is the best proscuitto or how to find the right parmigiana. To improve our palette we tasted proscuitto aged for 24 months. It was smooth and silky and not too salty.
From the fruit market we picked up some small, purple artichokes, which don’t need to be cooked, some fresh peas and a rockmelon. The most care was taken wih the selection of the beef for the Bolognese ragu. The cut of beef is from the diaphragm and we watched while it was cut and minced.
The cooking lesson takes place at Carlo’s apartment. Luciana takes the pasta lesson and we undertake the long process of making, resting and rolling out the fresh pasta. It is by difficult to roll out the large, fresh sheets by hand and to reach the uniform thickness as required by Luciana. From the fresh pasta we made garganelle, little round pasta tubes, spinach and ricotta tortellini and tagliatelle cut to the perfect size.
At the same time the bolognese ragu was put on. Unlike our usual sauce, the meat dominates the sauce and only very little tomato is added. After an hour of simmering, a cup of milk is added at the end.
After about fours hours of marketing and cooking, it was time to eat the lunch, accompanied by lots of prosecco and chianti. The antipasti included the quality produce picked up from the market, followed by the artichoke simply sliced and dressed with lemon. Next was the tortellini filled with spinach and ricotta and finished off with the sage and butter sauce. Next the garganelle with some ragu and the fresh peas. Finally the tagliatelle with the bolognese ragu. There is no rest at the Bolognese table so straight on to strawberries soaked in prosecco and then a tiramisu semi freddo cake made by one of our fellow students who had just finished a week at the Gelato University. By this stage, Carlo produced his home made limoncello and for those still conscious a quick espresso to finish.
I can now cook tagliatelle ragu and tortellini and have the certificate from the Bologna Cooking School to prove it.
Vernazza, one of the five villages in the Cinque Terra, is an impossibly perfect slice of Italian life. During the day, waves of sightseers wash down from the train station into the square and then onto the ferry to the next town. Later in the afternoon, guided walking groups stagger down steep stairs still gasping from their hike over the mountains, high five, and then head off up the opposite stairs for more feats of endurance. In the morning and the evening, except for a few strays like us, Verrnazza returns to the locals.
We are staying in an apartment owned by Alessandro. He offered to meet us at the station which I thought was a kindness until we started heading up the steep steps to the apartment. He hauled both bags up in a Herculean effort which still brings a sweat to the brow thinking about it. Alessandro must have taken a while to recover because for the next few days he seemed to spend all his time sitting in the sun at Ananasso Bar in the morning and then working his way around to the Enoteca for late afternoon drinks which continued into the evening. No wonder Alessandro is ‘very ‘appy’ living in Vernazza. Whenever we spotted him in the square, we gave him a cherry wave to embarrass him in front of his cool friends. The mystery of Alessandro’s leisured life in the Piazza remains unresolved. Is he a professional footballer, or an artist (the bookshelf in the apartment is full of art books), or a village entrepreneur with many little income earning apartments scattered around Vernazza?
Walking in the Cinque Terra is tough. After the big flood of 2011, many of the paths are still closed and there iis continual confusion about what is open. The paths they tell you are definitely closed, are open, though often in poor condition and those that are definitely closed and fenced off, are never mentioned until you come across the gate. It is all worked out by word of mouth by stopping the walkers coming the other way and asking ‘did you get through? Is the path open?’.
But of course the walking is only the prelude to justify the eating of three large meals a day. The food in the village is based around seafood and is fresh and delicious. Sardines dressed simply in lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper, followed by a whole baked bream with crispy potatoes. One night, for a change, I had veal cooked in wine which was the sweetest and ‘vealiest’ veal I had tasted for some time. All of the meals come with salads made with astringent radicchio and peppery rocket. The local Cinque Terra white wine is dry and delicious and perfectly matches the seafood. Each meal is pronounced the ‘best ever’ until the next day’s eating starts.
The charms of Vernazza are many. There is a small beach with easy access to swimming, lovely views of the surrounding hills and vineyards and a central piazza full of great food at extremely reasonable prices. As well as the pleasures of sitting in the sun with your morning coffee at Ananasso Bar waiting for the day to unfold.
The old fort is perched on the edge of the Harbour at Vernazza. Hanging off the side is a small veranda with six tables, perfectly situated to watch the Mediterrenean sunset. The best time is from 7.30pm to catch the sun dropping over the Hills behind Monterossa.
The menu, as expected, is based around fresh, local seafood. We started with a shared platter of Hot Vernazza Seafood. The generous serve included scampi, incredibly tender octopus, small, sweet mussels and prawns. the local Cinque Terra whites are light and dry and perfect with the seafood.
For the main, I had the Seabream with baked vegetables. Andrea (yes, we are on first name terms by now) brings the whole fish to the table and expertly fillets it and plates it up. The Seabream is perfectly cooked, with the white flesh falling apart. Sandra ordered the platter of grilled local seafood with scampi, gamberoni and fillets of local fish. We finished off with an empty bottle of Cinque Terra Sassarini and an emply bowl of Tiramisù.
By the end of the meal everyone on the little veranda was swapping stories on where to go and what to do and Andrea was singing a la Dean Martin.
We carefully walked down the 50 stairs from the fort down to the square and climbed one more time the 70 steps back to the apartment.
The Top Hotel on the edge of Prague is 800 rooms of unreconstructed Soviet gulag. It was the venue for this year’s public management conference and it offers the kind of experience which lingers in the subconscious in different nightmarish guises for some time. As Rod Rhodes said when he picked up his lifetime achievement award at the conference dinner “little did I realise that when I started my career in Bradford in 1956, I’d finish up here in Prague in 1956” (Rhodes 2013).
So what happens in the Top Hotel? Smoking is compulsory. They hand out packets of Marlborough Reds when you check in. Customer service is non-negotiable. Nothing is too hard for them not to do. Many things are withheld from guests so not to spoil their discomfort. For example, neither the fridge or hairdryer work. the most used phrase at the Top Hotel is “not pozzible”.
As would be expected, the food is very special, when it is available. Despite the booking of about 700 conference goers, none of the restaurants open for lunch.
We stayed in and ordered the Czech specials one night. I had the roast chicken with braised red cabbage and potato dumplings. The chicken and dumplings were fine, but the potato dumplings turned out to be potatoless stodge.
Tracey was not so lucky and ended up with gristle in gravy with a splodge of whipped cream.
The Top Hotel is very far removed from the usual tourist haunts in the old city of Prague but it has a way of creating memories that will far outlast cobbled street and beautiful buildings.