His majesty the tortellino

The myths of a champion of Italian cuisine which becomes extraordinary in the hands of Clara Benassi

05-09-2013
Tortellino, a genial invention of poor Italian cui

Tortellino, a genial invention of poor Italian cuisine, often scorned or betrayed. The true dimensions, for instance, are these: it has to be as big as a pinhead, so much so that up to ten could fit in a tablespoon. Clara and Tiziana Benassi hand make them in Vergiano, on the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines, tel. +39.051.6544624)

Scorned, betrayed, ill-treated. Poor tortellino, king of Italian tradition, what have decades of bad cooking, mass production, television and Boccaccio-style movies done to you? Even the web, despite crowds of foodies, bloggers and the like is incapable of doing you justice. When looking up “cucina italiana” (Italian cuisine) on Wikipedia, there’s a sacrilegious image of a plate full of tortellini with sauce. This is a disgrace for any inhabitant of Bologna, a mistake which even I have made for years, having been brought up with industrial tortellini served with cream and prosciutto or meat sauce.

Clara and Tiziana Benassi

Clara and Tiziana Benassi

“Tortellini are only served with stock – once an outraged true Bolognese housewife explained – if not, how could you ever taste the filling?”. This was enlightening, a conversion on the way to Damascus. Since then, as a penance, I refuse even the only variation some admit, that is to say tortellini served with cream, known as tortellino bugiardo. Tortellini are something else. This is a brilliant champion of poor cuisine that knows how to transform itself into something rich. It is not the impossible squaring of the circle, it is in fact the making round of a square of pasta. Not even a centimetre of pasta is wasted, and the filling is the sum of a family’s wisdom and secrets. So one summer we travel in search of the mythological, authentic tortellino with all its myths and commandments. Among these, there’s the one relative to its dimensions – minuscule: the smaller the classic tortellino is, the more one can economise on the filling and the easier it is to cook it during the time in which it simmers in the fat chicken stock.

A whisper leads us to the Tuscan-Emilian Apennine, a few dozens of kilometres from the centre of Bologna, in the direction of Monghidoro. Here there’s Matteo Calzolari’s great bakery – he makes this local tradition survive almost by himself. He uses powerful flours made from the wheat cultivated on these fertile lands. Succulent biscuits made with anise or chestnut flour. Something fantastic. He suggests we go to Vergiano, one of the minuscule hamlets emptied by the migration of the 60s and 70s. Little roads get lost among the fantastic hills. And then, in via Vergiano at number 10, there’s the old house of Clara Benassi (+39.051.6544624). The usual bell tower. A few houses with their courtyard. And the village shop. Today the licence is used for a small agritourism, but mostly to prepare food to take away.

Really really tiny

Really really tiny

The seventy year old hands of Clara still “embroider” the smallest tortellini in history. They look like incredible pinheads. Ten could easily fit in a tablespoon. Her daughter Tiziana helps her. We eat in the dining room. The stock is the colour of ancient gold. In the other room there are also passatelli. And Ravioloni filled with herbs and ricotta. Rabbit meat, the mythical friggione, summer truffles. There are lemon tortelloni filled with parmesan, tortelloni with walnuts, pasta and beans, lasagne, pumpkin, agliata, gnocchi, straccioni. Prugnolo liqueur.

This is the canticle of ancient traditions. Have these traditions disappeared? In part they have. Bad television programmes have created chaos in the once ordered traditional cuisine. Great chefs do their best to recreate emotion with their creativity but tradition is made of old and rough hands intertwining pasta as if it were an extraordinary and unique lace. This is the great Italian cuisine.


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