Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Mangia Bologna: Shopping with Carmelita of Cook Italy (Part 1)

I'm pretty luck have a job that offers the perk of international travel. Over the years, I've been to some pretty nice places: Istanbul, Mexico City, Vancouver (actually, most of the international destinations pictured on the right sidebar). However, the one drawback is that my trips often come together at the last minute; leaving little time for planning, much less time to convince a friend to go along. Regardless, I *always* try to take a few vacation days around my trips (otherwise I would never get to see anything but the hotel) and have learned to have fun traveling solo. Last summer, while in Istanbul, I discovered a perfect solo travel activity: cooking courses. I attended a class at Cooking Alaturka and found that culinary tourism is a great way to break up a solo trip, and learn something about the culture and region in the process. Even with minimal time to plan, I knew I wanted to hit Bologna on my trip to Italy. A quick search turned up several culinary courses, but most were multi-day and expensive. However, one in particular popped up a few times: Cook Italy.

Run by the colorful Carmelita, Cook Italy offers a slew of courses, including a personalized one-day market tour and cooking lesson in Bologna. I emailed Carmelita on a Saturday night, confirmed the date on Sunday, went to my bank on Monday to send a deposit via wire transfer and departed for Italy that evening. The next foggy Friday morning, I hopped on the 07:30 Eurostar Italia and arrived at Bologna Centrale one hour later.

Bologna is quite a charming small city, even straight from the train station. It was an easy walk to the cafe (Terzi, Via Oberdan 10) Carmelita recommended as the meeting place.

I was Carmelita's only "guest" for the day. Although I worried it might be a little awkward, it was far from it! Carmelita, who has run the business for almost 10 years, is very knowledgeable and passionate about Bologna, food and Italy in general.

After a quick hello and coffee, we set off for the shops. First stop, a quick tour of Eataly Bologna.

Eataly Bologna, which only opened a few weeks before my visit, is an outpost of the larger Eataly in Turin. Carmelita told me the building, which was once a church and movie theater had been extensively remodeled. Picture a Barnes & Nobel meets Dean & Deluca, with extra cafes and food outposts for coffee, lunch or wine. With lots of books in Italian and English, including an extensive cooking section, Eataly is clearly designed for the Bologna yuppie -- highly designed and stylized, but, according to Carmelita, there are a few food gems mixed in with the products that may have earned shelf space more for their marketing and packaging. I was impressed with the interior: the casual spaces designed to grab a coffee or snack, the number of chairs inviting visitors to sit down and flip through a book or two, and the nice basement bathroom! With rumors circulating Eataly is coming to NYC next year, I will be curious to see if the concept is more similar to the Bologna store (likely, due to space issues) or Turin location. But with other shopping to do, we set off, peaking in Gilberto (good for all types of balsamic, according to Carmelita) before checking out the produce stalls. Since I had barely eaten a vegetable on the trip, I asked if our lunch menu could take advantage of the lovely spring produce. And it was lovely. While we're just seeing the first ramps of the season in NYC, Bologna was already enjoying purple artichokes, slender asparagus stalks and fava in velvety pods. The little stalls we visited also had some non-local products, including fruit (plastic wrapped pineapple not grown in Italy). But Carmelita, a fan of tracability, a least in terms of growing region, shunned the strawberries and went for things like morels and zucchini, as well as this interesting citrus fruit with an edible pulp: citron or cedro/cendrone. With the produce in hand, next up was protein. Carmelita took me into her butchers shop (to gawk), but as it was Friday and Lent I was all for a fish lunch (especially after seeing the meat in it's close-to-natural-state). True confession: I never liked fish as a child. In fact, my mother once tried to convince me a scallop was a vegetable so I would try it (it didn't work). But I've since learned to enjoy most shellfish and some other types of seafood. But not sardines, although I can appreciate the beautiful color of these fresh specimens. As well as laugh at the antics of these odd crustaceans (I have no idea what they are, but am glad we did not purchase any after seeing them alive!).
We ended up with some shrimp (two kinds: the tiny salad-type and a few larger ones), clams and what I think was a bluefish, which was filleted in store (unlike what I usually purchase: filleted on a ship somewhere and then flash frozen and sold at Trader Joes).
Before going back to Carmelita's, we made a quick stop at her corner deli. And lest you think this was anything like the corner bodega or your deli at home, let me assure you it was not. "Deli" is too modest a term for this gourmet shop, where we picked up some ricotta and a sample of pork two ways (I did break the Lenten rule for the taste test!).
After all, how could I resist sampling some roast pork from this fine animal (distracted by the citron, I didn't notice it still had its head until after my taste).
Too soon, shopping was done and it was back to Carmelita's very cute apartment to get to work. The final menu included:
*Round zucchini stuffed with ricotta and shrimp, served on sliced citron
*Fresh pasta served with a sauce of clams, garlic and parsley
*Steamed fish topped with morels served over an asparagus and fava bean puree
Hungry yet? Then stay tuned for part two -- the cooking and the eating!

No comments: