There we were…two boomer-aged travelers in Bologna, Italy, behaving like children in a candy store. We pondered each item in the display case. Pointing. Pausing. Changing our minds , then pointing toward some different delicacy that might be our dinner that evening.
Luckily, our behaviors were nothing new to the tolerant young man behind the counter. He patiently–in limited English–described each item until we made our selections. He’d likely seen many other first-time visitors similarly overwhelmed by the temptations offered in the stores that line the narrow streets of Bologna’s L’Antico Mercato, The Old Market; the Medieval Market.
With a near week-long stay ahead of us, we’d sought out The Old Market within hours of settling into our self-catered apartment just outside the walls of the Old City. It was an easy walk into the Old Town’s main square, Piazza Maggiore, a place where arches, windows, and battlements date back to the 16th century. A narrow lane from Piazza Maggiore led us to the Market.
We were soon assaulted with mouth-watering scents as we wandered freely during that first late afternoon visit. On subsequent mornings, those narrow, pedestrian-only lanes were filled with shoppers laden with shopping bags. They’d stop before tantalizing window displays or select items from the colorful fruit and vegetable tables along the way.
Old Market is an apt name for the area where family-owned, multigenerational businesses operate out of structures built centuries ago. We learned that for more than 50 years Polleria Ranocchi has sold poultry not far from Macelleria Equina a butcher shop that specialized in horse meat. Since 1942, Ditta Franceschini’s has been the place to buy mushrooms, truffles and balsamic vinegar. Then there’s Tamburini Salsamenteria for cold meats and cheeses. We couldn’t choose between De Maria Admeto, Davide di Coltelli and Ditta Bardelli’s when it came to buying fruit and vegetables–so we bought from all three during the course of our stay.
Bologna, home of the oldest university in the Western World (1088), is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, that lesser known region to the north of famously sunny Tuscany. Its nickname, La Grassa, (The Fat) doesn’t refer to grease, but the bounty of the products found in the area and produced in the city itself. We were so busy exploring this town’s culinary treasures that we had to put nearby Modena, home of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (balsamic vinegar) and Parma, (prosciutto di Parma ham and aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese) on our future’s list.
Bologna’s Culinary Lessons
Exploring Italy’s regional foods have provided us a taste of both an area’s culture and history. In Bologna we learned some fascinating culinary facts, including:
That tiny tortellini (not to be confused with the larger tortelloni) are believed to have originated in the Po Valley region near Bologna. An inspired innkeeper is credited with creating those first curved little pouches of rolled pasta stuffed with filling, modeling them after the belly button of the goddess of love, Venus. They’ve been served through the centuries in a beef broth, today still a popular dish, tortellini in brodo.
Tagliatelli, that rolled pasta made of flour, egg, salt and a drop of milk and cut into narrow strands, originated back in 1487 on the occasion of the marriage of Annibale Bentivoglio, son of Giovanni II, Lord of Bologna or the marriage of Lucrezia Borgia to the Duke of Ferrara–both are popular versions of the origin. The pasta’s name comes from tagliare, which means ‘to cut.’ Some historians say a version of the pasta can be traced to 1338. (More important than the history is that this is the pasta on which the red meat sauce, Bolognese, is served. If you want to scream out, “I am a tourist!” – just try ordering Spaghetti Bolognese in this town!)
And then there’s mortadella, the pork sausage, that history shows was created either by a pig farmer or monks, again depending on the source. While the name of the sausage, bologna, is identified with the name of the city, mortadella, which contains visible chunks of fat, is named for the technique once used to make the sausage. The name comes from the mortarium, for mortar, the tool used in the early days to blend the meat and spice into sausage. Salumeria Simoni, a meat and cheese vendor in the Old Market since 1960 has continued to make mortadella by using the old fashioned methods and is a must for travelers to Bologna.
If You Go:
The Old Market’s main streets are via Pescherie and via Drapperie. Many of the stores close for a few hours in the early afternoon, reopening in the late afternoon/evening.
The city’s tourism association, Bologna Welcome, www.bolognawelcome.com offers suggestions for independent touring of the old city that include the Old Market. They also offer guided Old Town walking tours ranging in price from 29- to 39-euros. –Story and photos by Jackie Smith, RFT Contributor