Cooking & Countryside

20-25th July 2017

We left La Futa with a bit of a sigh and only after Danny had done his own special bit towards international relations – he went to reception for eggs and tried to explain what he wanted in charades to the owners mother (no English) by waving his elbows and clucking. Another Italian lady thought she had worked it out but fortunately the owner, Alessandro, came out and began to laugh uncontrollably when he explained – apparently the ladies believed he had been complaining that the campsite was full of chicken droppings!

Before we left we photographed a couple of the smaller touring outfits.

Despite being programmed for ‘Fast’  “No toll roads” the satnav took us the slowest possible way to Bologna. No idea why, but at least the first part was scenic as we passed into Emilia Romagna where the buildings changed becoming less rustic, newer and with a slightly more German/Austrian feel. Near Bologna the traffic was heavy and we were glad to reach the site without issue. It couldn’t have been more different to the one we had left – urban with a bit of a military base feel to it. Brick ‘bungalows’ with shutters firmly closed against the heat; straight tarmac avenues; concrete pitches in rows with thick hedges which give privacy but stopped any breeze. When we got out from the aircon of the cab into the 36℃ humid air it was a bit of a shock and the stiflingly hot nights  made for uncomfortable sleeping.

The next morning,we got a taxi to CIBO(Culinary Institute of Bologna) which is housed in the Trattoria del Rosso, It was recommended to us by our nephew Ben and his partner Becca who are real foodies and tried it out last year. At 8.30am prompt we were greeted by a pretty blonde Italian girl with 2 shopping trolleys who introduced herself as Luciana and whisked us away on foot to the old market. The market is the oldest in Bologna, a network of little alleys with open-fronted food-shops, their produce extending out into the alleyway. Very atmospheric – fish, vegetables, meats, huge parmesan cheeses stacked shelf upon shelf, fresh pastas, and antipasto shops selling parma ham, cold pasta salads, olives, marinated artichokes and big bowls of other wonderful stuff.

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Luciana asked what we wanted to cook, and although the fish looked amazing we wanted to stay true to Bologna which is a meat and pasta based place. She filled one shopping trolley with fruit and vegetables and bunches of herbs – basil, rosemary and flat leaf parsley – then at a butchers she filled the second trolley with chicken, rabbit, beef, italian sausage and cheeses.

Back at the kitchen we were equipped with aprons and the day started in earnest. First a lesson on stock – chicken leg, beef brisket, beef knee bones, carrot, onion and celery, no herbs. We found that Luciana has some very strong opinions on stock. Then to the traditional bolognese sauce. No tomatoes, just meat, carrots, onions & celery. The Italians add left-overs to enhance the flavour – we used a rabbit head, some parmesan rind and the end bit off a parma ham. None of these are in our Good Housekeeping recipe!

Then onto the pasta, the fun part with eggs, flour, kneading and rolling with the biggest rolling pins we’ve ever seen.. We folded tortelloni, wrapping the pasta round our filling of ricotta, parmesan and nutmeg. We served it with a sage and butter sauce and Danny bravely and gave it a go – and liked it. Not bad for someone who doesn’t like cheese or butter! Then we cut our tagliatelle – great fun – and ate with our bolognese ragu.

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Oh boy, our pasta was so good – but our tummies were so, so full. We finished eating about 2.30pm and had until 4pm to go for a wander before the second part of the course. We needed it just to let our food settle. In the afternoon Danny took the chicken and Kate the rabbit which we painstakingly de-boned. Danny’s work attracted some giggles from Luciana and in the end his chicken made a roulade using frittata, chard and sausage-meat served on a bed of sweet caramelised onion. The thigh meat was was served with peppers and onions and was our favourite dish. The rabbit became 3 dishes – in hunters sauce (cacciatore); wrapped in pork belly served sliced on chard and chicory with pine nut; and rabbit ragout. served on top of a zucchini soup (delicious).

We were exhausted and lacking appetite when we finally sat down to eat around 7.15.

We couldn’t do justice to our lovely food but were impressed with our efforts. We were so tired we only drank half a bottle of wine and left half sitting here in the bottle, staring at us in shock, feeling rejected. Luciana would have chatted to us all night (lovely girl and very informative) but we had to move to save our stomachs, so made our farewells and went back to the oven that was our campsite.

Next day the 9am bus started our city tour. We had two targets – to climb the 498 steps to the top of the tallest of the Due Torri (2 towers) and to have lunch at the Mercato del Erbe, Bologna’s other market, a la Rick Stein. We failed abysmally at both. At the 2 towers, after standing in the queue for a while, we found out that you had to buy tickets either on line or at the tourist office. Whoops. Maybe a bit of research……

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Hot and a big queue so we cut our losses. We wandered around the streets admiring the very nice architecture, including the many covered walkways which the city is famous for – over 38km of them apparently – which provide welcome shelter from sun (and rain we suppose) and some are very decorative.

After admiring the buildings of the Piazza Maggiore with their heavy protective military and police presence we walked down past the scarily expensive designer shops under the porticoes on one side of the square and in the nearby Via Garibaldi we found an old-fashioned barber shop for Danny – really classy. He was very happy with his cooler cut.

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Time now to find the Mercato del Erbe, which took us some time and when we got there just after mid-day it turned out to be a small, covered market with a number of closed stalls, very quiet. Worse, there was no sign of the place we wanted for lunch. We got the impression that we were there at the wrong time on the wrong day so left and wandered the backstreets in search of lunch.

Hunger drove us to install ourselves at a street table in a quiet little alleyway and we ordered what we thought was a light lunch – panzanella (bread salad) for Danny and meat & cheese for Kate. Both were delicious, but substantial and we ended up leaving more than we should have, although Danny got to try mortadella at last, his verdict being ‘like Spam’ which would appall the Italians but was a compliment coming from him.

In the evening we had a restaurant booked for a special meal for the 20th anniversary of our meeting – the Trattoria dal Biassanot, as per Rick Stein. Unfortunately by this time Kate was not feeling too good. We ordered our meals – Danny had the very traditional Tortellini in Brodo (meat filled tortellini in capon broth) and Kate was less adventurous with the fresh pasta with tomato & chilli (extra chilli of course). Both very good. Then onto the mains – Danny had Osso Bucco (basically beef knee bones with the marrow, cooked long and slow) which he adored

but Kate couldn’t eat her steak, or anything else, and ended up watching Danny finish his meal with a huge bowl of ice cream. And she gave him her wine – not a good sign. Rather than go home early, we dandered for a while, soaking up the atmosphere, and then had a nightcap at a bar that considerately blew cool water vapour over hot customers. We were back well before midnight – age catching up?

We had decided we could not spend another day on the Bologna site because of the stifling heat, so we paid up and were off by 9.15. La Futa were full so Danny had identified an Agriturismo on the edge of the Appenines just below Modena. In earlier discussions we had thought of visiting foodie destinations in Modena (balsamic vinegar), Reggio (parmesan) and Parma (ham) on route to Milan to get the satnav fixed. Now we just wanted to cool down and get in and out of Milan as soon a possible as it is in the same hot valley as Bologna, Modena, Reggio and Parma. Maybe on the way back.

After an hour or so driving along the fertile valley floor past soft fruit orchards, sweetcorn, sunflowers and vines, we were at Modena then off the main roads and climbing again. Given the steep hillsides we were really surprised at how much mechanical cultivation was going on, with many wheat-fields having just been harvested, the huge round bales of straw created by the machinery still in the fields awaiting collection. Small orchards were also in evidence, and some steep-sided ridges were now grey from erosion caused by deforestation. The satnav suggested it would take us 1 hour to do 10 miles – not a chance. We saw the turning it wanted us to take after already doing a series of narrow hairpins, and decided we would pass on it so took a longer route. Honestly, we probably should have taken her suggestion! Although fine at first we then started on a rollercoaster single-track road, with the inevitable hairpins, its surface more track-like than road-like and with what the generous might call an ‘adverse camber’. Boy, were we slow. Our new tactic on seeing an oncoming car was to pull over as far as possible without endangering the van, stop, and let them work it out – surprisingly successful. We concluded this was the most difficult driving yet, although admittedly the drops weren’t so scary as the mountain passes.

At Gombola di Polinago, the road to Agriturismo L’Arca di Noe (Noah’s Ark) was a bit daunting but we carried on until we saw the flags and a lady opening some gates for us.

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We drove up, next to a barn into a small paddock covered in clover where there was a tent set up and 4 people sunbathing, plus a small static with pretty flower-pots, garden seat, table and chairs. On a slope above the ‘campsite’ was a steel-framed swimming pool. We parked up next to the barn and it’s terraced veg patch and set up. The Swiss owner, Viviana, took us inside the barn and we were delighted –  a big cool space with 2 ample shower rooms – pink for girls and blue for boys –  2 toilets, again pink & blue, an exercise bike (as if), laundry, basic cooking facilities and 2 huge sink areas with free washing up liquid etc. Another part of the barn had tables for dining, a lounge/relaxation area with books, maps etc, and a bar with an honesty book. What a wonderful place! The barn also had an outside shaded area with table football and space for raquet games etc. The owners, Walter and Vivianna, have built a really pretty garden and pond with geese and ducks at that end where dragon-flies buzzed quite happily, and nearby a BBQ for guests to use. We had lunch and congratulated ourselves on our find.

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The four-person tent opposite us was inhabited by a Dutch couple and his 2 young-adult children. They had had the place to themselves prior to us arriving so we must have been a disappointment, but one by one they came over and introduced themselves to us in perfect English and had a brief chat. How nice. Later a van-conversion with a Swiss couple in it turned up and parked in front of the static. I think the site was now officially full!

The temperature was a blissful 28℃ with a nice breeze and dropping to a lovely 17℃ overnight. Heaven.

Over the next 2 days – we stayed longer than intended – we spent a decadent couple of hours finally catching up with the Archers on the free internet and had a decent Facetime with mum and caught up on our blog. Danny borrowed a drill from our ever-so-practical hostess and tried to fix our broken camping chair – almost there. We relaxed, talked about routes, cleaned and did some hand-washing.

We were surrounded by nature. Green woodpecker, buzzards and honey buzzard, wild boar rooting in the woods nearby, swifts & martins, dragonflies (Danny says Keeled Skimmer), damselflies and lots of interesting bees, wasps, moths and butterflies as well as the less interesting and more annoying flies! When dark fell the pygmy owl started calling, the bats swept above our heads, and the fireflies came out which was a real treat.

We had lots of chats with Viviana, who clearly loves animals hence the name of the place and invited us down to her farmhouse, hidden in the trees 300 yards away, to meet her 2 goats (which we fed), 2 horses and 10 chickens (she kindly gave us fresh eggs each day).

They also have the ducks and geese, and a donkey and guard dog. She told us how abnormal the weather had been with no snow at all in the winter (unheard of), no proper rain, an unusually dry spring & summer which was affecting the farm animals, the crops and the wildlife alike.

One day our neighbours went out and didn’t come back until late so we had the place to ourselves and loved it. Another day they went for a walk so Danny headed on up to the pool and went skinny dipping – towel close to hand just in case.

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If it wasn’t for the imperative to get out of this part of Italy for August we would have stayed longer, one of our favourite sites to date.