There may be nothing quite so humbling as making pasta in Italy, alongside an Italian grandmother.
I've made pasta before, but I'm getting winded just watching Adele Casadio speedily flip and roll her piece of golden egg dough into a circle as thin as a handkerchief.
We're in Emilia-Romagna, in the upstairs modern kitchens at Casa Artusi, a new "living museum," hands-on cooking school, culinary library and restaurant, dedicated to Italy's best-known cookbook author and local native son, Pellegrino Artusi.
While Mrs. Casadio is ready to cut and shape her pasta in minutes, mine is still a stiff lump, refusing to yield to my weak attempts to flatten it. I wonder where they've hidden the hand-crank pasta roller (like the one in my pantry at home) but don't dare to mention it out loud.
"Do!" she frowns at me, gesturing for me to keep rolling. We don't speak the same language, but I understand that this adzora - homemaker in the local dialect - won't tolerate any slacking, so I put all my weight into the slender wooden pin and roll harder. Maybe it's my technique, or that high gluten "Manitoba 00" flour we used to make the dough, but the springy mass barely budges.
I wonder if Mr. Artusi ever had this same experience, learning the finer points of making pasta with a Romagnan housewife like Mrs. Casadio, and scribbling the technique into his notebook, much as I'm doing between floury steps as she stuffs cappelletti, cuts tagliatelle and pinches little butterflies of farfalle from the scraps.
Mr. Artusi was a prosperous silk merchant with a taste for good Italian home cooking. While he was crisscrossing the country selling silk in the late 1800s, he collected 750 recipes from local cooks, eventually self-publishing his La Scienza in Cucina e l'Arte di Mangiar Bene ( Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) in 1891. It laid the foundations for modern Italian cuisine - The Joy of Cooking for Italian households - and though it was rejected by publishers of the day, it remains in print more than a century later, filled with classic dishes such as chicken porchetta-style, stuffed with prosciutto, garlic and fennel, veal scallopine cooked Genovese-style with marsala, chicken liver crostini with sage, and creamy risotto with peas.
Casa Artusi is also home to the regional enoteca (Italian wine shop), and the Romagna Terra Del Sangiovese association, promoting local food and wine routes. While the wealthier Emilia area of Emilia-Romagna is home to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, the traditional balsamic vinegars of Modena and Prosciutto di Parma, Romagna has its own specialties to discover - fresh squacquerone and smelly, pit-aged Fossa cheese, rounds of crisp piadina flatbread cooked on the open hearth, and cooks who make tiny tortellini, passatelli, garganelli and thick ribbons of golden tagliatelle, all by hand.
The food and wine route heads into the northern slopes of the Tuscan Apennine hills, and we stop at small vineyards and wine cellars to taste sangiovese, albana and sparkling pignoletto wines, with platters of pasta with beef cheeks and wild boar ragu.
All of the food here is delicious, but the pasta - what Mr. Artusi called "minestra" - is the centre of every meal, the perfect match with the local wine. When I sit down for lunch with the Turchi family at their charming olive oil mill in the hills outside Cesena, it is over big steaming platters of hand-cut tagliatelle with meaty Bolognese sauce, and thick slabs of rustic bread, toasted on an open fire and slathered with tapenade.
It is harvest time, and the small press has been running all morning, producing a steady stream of golden fruity oil, but Mariangela Turchi has been making pasta for the handful of mill workers here, including her husband, Pierluca, and son, Michele, and we toast her fine, home-style food with a hearty regional red.
It's the same at Casa Zanni in Rimini, a family-run osteria, butcher shop and gourmet food store, where the hand-made, grilled piadina bread arrives warm with today's fresh white squacquerone cheese, and a bottle of the owner's own sangiovese.
Back in the comfortable Casa Artusi restaurant in Forlimpopoli, I peruse the menu, each dish from the famous author's comprehensive cookbook, numbered to correspond with its 460 classic recipes.
I choose the Cappelletti Romagna style - recipe No. 5 - the fat little hats bursting with creamy cheese and chicken filling and served in a rich broth, exactly as they would have tasted to Mr. Artusi himself in a grandmother's kitchen more than a century ago.
It's what I learned to make with Mrs. Casadio and it's the last thing I eat before flying home.
From Mr. Artusi's cookbook, I know that "two dozen should be sufficient for a healthy eater," but after taking many hours to roll and stuff 100 of these tiny pasta "hats" for my family, I know something else. I need an Italian grandmother.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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