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Learn to cook in Italy's foodie capital
Food | Best Of | Cookery Schools
We visit six of Bologna's best cookery schools to find out what you learn, where you learn it and who the teachers are.
Bologna's undisputed role as the leading gastronomic hub of the peninsula has never been better deserved. The rock solid foundations of the local culture of food continue to be strengthened by the constantly evolving whirl of eateries and delis, street food and markets, that make up the city's foodie scene.
Fresh pasta specialities such as tortellini and tagliatelle al ragù – the real version of spaghetti bolognese - continue to be at the heart of the local culinary traditions and while both have their official recipes registered at the Chamber of Commerce, the origins of each are rooted in legend. Tortellini were reputedly inspired by Venus's navel seen in a dream and tagliatelle were first created for the wedding of Lucrezia Borgia, supposedly made to resemble her long flowing golden hair.
Learning to make some of its best loved dishes is the ideal way to really get under the skin of a place like Bologna and what better souvenir could there be than to take home new skills so you can make your own delicious dishes again and again.
Luckily the choice of where to learn to cook in Bologna has never been greater, there are schools of all varieties but they all share one characteristic: as well as being instructive, they incorporate an all-important element of fun!
La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese – TV chef and Bolognese cooking guru
Run by Alessandra Spisni, a regular for the past ten years on the popular TV cookery show La Prova del Cuoco, this light and airy family-run school in the centre of Bologna is responsible largely single-handedly for the boom in popularity of the sfoglina, the traditional role of fresh pasta chef. Alessandra is a true Bolognese - even born on the city's patron saint's day, 4 October - and having learnt to cook from her grandmother she followed her into a career as a professional chef before opening the school in 1993. She's helped in the day-to-day running of hands-on courses by her brother Alessandro and daughter Stefania who learnt to make tortellini almost before she could walk. The atmosphere is fun and light-hearted but the skills and techniques taught are taken utterly seriously.
One of the most popular options, among the numerous courses on offer for amateurs and pros, is the half-day fresh pasta lesson where you get to make your own deep yellow pasta dough, as well as the relative fillings, and learn to roll it to the perfect thickness for tortellini, tortelloni and tagliatelle. At the end of the course participants can sit back and enjoy their very own hand-made pasta at a table of the on-site eatery.
Bottega Portici Academy –Hi-tech meets tradition
The newest addition to the prestigious Hotel I Portici complex, which also boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant, the Academy is a development of Bottega Portici, an informal eatery where you can eat top-quality fresh pasta dishes or take them away to enjoy while window-shopping or sitting in the sunshine at the nearby park. Cups and cartons of tortellini and tagliatelle have transformed the ubiquitous pasta dishes into a very Bolognese kind of street-food.
Right from the start, Bottega Portici was keen to highlight the cultural aspect of the local foodie culture, allowing clients to see how it's done with the skilled pasta-makers working in full view. By opening the Academy in early 2017, they've gone one step further, offering the opportunity to learn the skills yourself with a 3-hour pasta making course. The stylish schoolroom is equipped with screens so that students further back can see and emulate the tutor's actions and each participant has their own fully equipped work-station complete with a long wooden rolling pin stored in a holder at an easy-grab angle.
A new, larger location for Bottega Portici is set to open in April 2017 adjacent to the city's iconic two towers.
Podere San Giuliano – Farmhouse atmosphere
Federica Frattini first opened her restaurant at the family’s farm just outside Bologna, fifteen years ago and two years later, in 2004, started offering cookery courses with the aim of sharing the secrets she’d learnt from her two grandmothers.
She and husband Andrea continue to be dedicated to the farm, which specialises in vegetable crops: “we only use our own vegetables at the restaurant,” points out Federica, “we experiment a lot and we run an initiative called Orto dello Chef where we set aside an area of our fields for a particular restaurant chef; they decide what we grow there so they can include exactly what they want on their menu, rather than having to work around what's available at the market.” The initiative involves some of the very best local eateries, including one of the area’s Michelin-starred chefs.
“We also offer farm-to-table courses where participants go out into the fields to pick or dig up their own ingredients for the dishes they'll be cooking.” Courses in fact include vegetarian cooking as well as the ever-popular fresh pasta course and a traditional Bolognese menu option which might include a breaded Bolognese cutlet as well as pasta and a typical dessert. At the end of every lesson participants can relax in the elegant yet welcoming farmhouse restaurant to enjoy what they’ve produced.
Culinary Institute of Bologna - CIBO – Cook at the trattoria
A qualified lawyer and self-taught cook, Stefano Corvucci launched CIBO five years ago to escape the increasing admin duties linked to running a restaurant and get back into the kitchen himself. While he still owns the historic Trattoria del Rosso, which shares premises but not kitchens with the school and where the likes of Toscanini once ate after performances, Stefano now concentrates on teaching.
“I find it highly stimulating working with people from all over the world,” he says, “we often become friends and some return time and again.” Stefano’s favourite course format involves meeting in the morning, sharing breakfast at a bar and visiting the local market together to pick up ingredients for the day’s cooking. “The fridge at the school remains empty until we arrive with the shopping; it's the clients who choose what to buy – with a little guidance when necessary – and we decide on the menu together,” he explains, adding that the aim at CIBO is to teach skills, not recipes so that people can transfer them to any dish.
Alongside the omnipresent traditional pasta classes, CIBO offers half, full and multi-day lessons as well as a month-long life-change course aimed at people from other professions who are considering a drastic career move, “some take the plunge and open their own eateries, while others realise just how hard chefs work and change their minds,” smiles Stefano.
Le Cesarine – Real Italian home cooking
This network, which now includes over 250 highly proficient home chefs all over Italy who open their homes to cook for visitors or teach their skills, was founded in Bologna in 2004 with the intention of preserving the country’s rich gastronomic heritage and promoting traditional dishes that are often overlooked outside the family home.
As one of the very first Cesarine, Luisa is passionate about what she does. “At first we only cooked dinners for the guests but gradually some of us started offering cookery classes too,” she says, “they're really popular and I must say that I find them much more enjoyable as you get a real rapport going.” Although she doesn't speak a great deal of English, this has never been a problem with foreign guests, “it's all the more fun trying to communicate and as lessons are very much hands-on we always understand each other.”
Guests and teacher always eat the pasta, and whatever other tasty local specialities they've made, at the end of the lesson and sometimes other members of the family join them at Luisa's spacious house near Giardini Margherita, Bologna's main park, “they seem to like the family atmosphere and everyone's treated like a real guest in our home.”
La Pasta Madre – Sourdough bread, Italian-style
The health benefits of sourdough bread – it’s easily digested and promotes good gut bacteria as well as being rich in nutrients and having a naturally long life – have led it to become a fast-growing phenomenon in many parts of the world. Antonella Scialdone, owner and teacher at La Pasta Madre (Italian for sourdough), is one of Italy's top experts on the subject. Having started out as a foodblogger with a particular fascination for sourdough, she was approached to write her first book about it in 2010 and from there came the lessons.
While her regular bread-making courses in English aimed at visitors to Bologna are just starting up, she has a faithful group of local clients who come to learn new ways to work with sourdough to make all kinds of baked products including croissants, panettone, brioche and pizzas well as a wide variety of breads, and she often hosts teams of staff from restaurants who want to start offering diners their own high quality bread; she also travels all over the country taking masterclasses to spread the word and the skills of sourdough as well as researching new flours from small-scale mills.
Sometimes known as wild yeast, sourdough itself is very much alive, “it's like a forest of yeasts,” explains Antonella, “and it can be passed on through generations; my own is nine years old – each time you use it all you need to do is refresh with flour and water.”
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