THE STORY SO FAR:
I'd gone back to Romagna with my old friend Angelo and after 40 years we had not only discovered Ravenna but been enchanted by it!
The mosaics, the history, the atmosphere, the food, the fun and the gelatos had us captivated!
And I went on to continue my adventure in Romagna, But now to learn much more about this strange and wonderful place.
Ever heard of Pellegrino Artusi? If not, like me you have some wonderful eating, drinking and living to do in the warm company of the father of Italian home cooking.
In 1891, at the tender age of 70, Pellegrino Artusi, a rich travelling Florence-based merchant got his final refusal from yet another publisher. This energetic gentleman’s life’s work was to travel the length and breadth of Italy prior to unification and collect authentic local home recipes from all over soon-to-be Italy. And, of course, each recipe had both a story and a taste!
Obviously Artusi had a passion for food and his ambition was to share his carefully annotated recipes with... everybody.
Anyway, Artusi, not deterred by the publishers’ refusals, went ahead, self-published his first volume of 475 recipes called “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”, and, of course it quickly sold out. 122 years later it is still one of Italy’s best-selling books and has never been out of print.
Artusi had travelled throughout the Italian peninsula. He became familiar with many of the regions and their culinary traditions, and he began collecting recipes that later became the foundation of his book. Family wealth enabled him to retire at the age of 45 and he devoted himself to his passions, culture and cuisine.
Born in Romagna in the town of Forlimpopoli, this successful fabric merchant and bon viveur had moved to Florence as a young man. Luckily for us, because when Italy was unified in 1861 only 2.5% of the country’s population could speak Italian. So the book, written in Italian was a unifying force in itself – speading opportunities and understanding together with fabulous food.
And it’s no wonder that the book has been so successful, Artusi himself was leery of books about cooking. In his preface he says, “Beware of books that deal with this art: most of them are inaccurate or incomprehensible, especially the Italian ones. The French are a little better. But from either, the very most you will glean are a few notions, useful only if you already know the art.”
He considered his book a teaching manual, “To practise using this manual, one simply needs to know how to hold a wooden spoon,” he wrote. “The best teacher is experience. Yet even lacking this, with a guide such as mine, and devotion to your labours, you should be able, I hope, to put something decent together.”
But, most importantly, and typically, – in his 14th edition he says this “Finally, I should not like my interest in gastronomy to give me the reputation of a gourmand or glutton. I object to any such dishonour- able imputation, for I am neither. I love the good and the beautiful wherever I find them, and hate to see anyone squander, as they say, God’s bounty. Amen”
He saw 15 editions published before his death in 1911 at the age of 90. Originally containing 475 recipes, the last edition of the book contained 790 recipes.
Casa Artusi where Cinzia took me for dinner was established in 2007. It is a tribute to the man who singlehandedly put Italian home cooking on the culinary map. Housed in a renovated monastery and church in his birthplace of Forlimpopoli, Casa Artusi has a restaurant, a culinary school, library, meeting space, art exhibits and museum. It is a place to read, learn, practice, taste and appreciate the treasure that is Italian home cooking.
In the restaurant – l’Osteria – Cinzia and I ate magnificently. They serve traditional, regional dishes and prepare some of Artusi’s recipes, depending on the season – all at incredibly low prices. The wine cellar has over 200 different kinds of wine from the region. And then, of course, she gave me the tour including the sensational 16th-century chapel – the whole establishment is set in an ancient convent complete with serene cloisters.
Finally she took me to the heart of the foundation – the cookery school. Here they offer home cooks day classes with some of the area’s best chefs. These lucky people get to work with ‘Mariettes’, experienced and trained local home cooks named after Artusi’s helper of whom he said, “. . .Mariette is both a good cook, and a decent, honest person. . .”.
I vowed to be back for a special occasion Forlimpopoli holds an annual gastronomic event dedicated to Artusi, The Festa Artusiana. For over a week every night between 7pm and midnight, Casa Artusi and the historical center of the town came alive with music and events as a “city of taste.” Streets, alleys, courtyards and squares, named after types of food – fruit, veg, gelato, sweets, throng with happy crowds.
The next time I returned to Romagna that year, Cinzia had a task for me. She had spent months researching two important places in the area and I was to be her guinea pig. She would guide me around and I was to comment on her English language, how easy it was for me to understand her and how interesting it all was – I was to tell her the truth – no holds barred. Obviously it wasn’t going to be all work and no play – we would have some fun too.
We started in Faenza with a poetry reading. Romagnolo poetry is great stuff – even if you can’t understand the dialect – you get the expressions and the tone of voice. The idea was that the poetry would be translated into English too, and Cinzia had decided that would be great for me – and it was! The Welsh lady who translated really put her heart and soul into the task and the crowd was lovely – they all wanted to talk to us in their version of English.
And then, after a superb dinner, we wandered around Faenza’s cobbled streets and vast, rich piazzas. And Cinzia told me the story of this lovely city.
By the 16th century Faenza was one of the richest cities in Europe, creating a product that simply every royal court in the world wanted. You could call Faenza ‘Ceramic City’ and it lent its name to the richest of porcelain – Majolica or Faience ware, some of the most sumptuously decorated and most colourful that ever existed. And ceramics are, even now, everywhere in this city – artisan factories, talented designers, great displays, beautiful ceramics are even plastered on houses. And Faenza is clever, ever up with the times: the ceramic museum houses stunning ceramic pieces by current artists as well as those illustrating the fashions in art and style over the last five hundred years.
Now every year there is a massive exhibition of ceramics that takes over the city ‘Argila’ or clay!
And, with rich architecture and lively, lovely tiny piazzas and a thriving Café Culture the city is a delight.
Then we took on somewhere a bit different – San Marino. A little more challenging because Cinzia had decided to take me all around this mountaintop republic by foot! Up and down, down and up we went – with Cinzia guiding and talking and pointing and making sure that I was listening and looking in the right direction everywhere.
I’ve always known that San Marino was special – certainly from my days bringing a thousand happy travellers a week to nearby Rimini. Special? Very special and extremely profitable. Mountaintop republic, short coachride, stunning views, castles, passport stamp from another country, duty-free branded shopping – a classic excursion opportunity. A thousand passengers a week who would all pay a tenner to go up the mountain meant ten grand a week in excursion revenue plus commis- sions on shop sales – yummee!
Anyway, this was different and even more rewarding – Cinzia doing her speciality was taking me back twenty centuries or so to the time of Saint Marinus the mountaintop hermit saint. I even crawled into his cave-lair sleeping place and saw his silver death mask. Of course he had a story and Cinzia knew it. He was a stonemason from Dalmatia who worked with his mate Leo – they both found moun- tains, performed miracles and created sects – Leo created San Leo on one Romagna mountain and Marinus created San Marino on the other. Marinus was rather more independently-minded and hence San Marino asks nothing of anyone – its motto ‘Liberty’
It’s beautiful, atmospheric and quirky – serene San Leo was promised for another time. By the time dinner – the usual sensational food – was over I was exhausted and then on my way back to the UK.
My adventures in Romagna, I thought were over, just seven months seemed like a lifetime after they had begun. But by now I was hooked. “I wanna go to the Veneto” moaned Angelo! “We’ve got an invite to the Po Valley. Rovigo – the fabulous waterlands where they’ve got this amazing rice. I wanted to sell cruises down the river there. They’ll feed us wonderful food – you won’t believe it. “And we’ll go on a boat” Angelo enthused. “And if we’re lucky they’ll put us up at a place like that Tenuta Castel Venezze – remember?”
So, we went on another adventure. I filled my car up with a month’s worth of stuff. The plan was to go to Italy via the South of France resort of Arles (where Van Gogh painted all those great pictures) then we’d stop at one of Angelo’s mates’ hotels on the Med then swing around Ravenna and have lunch with Cinzia. Whizz across to the Veneto and then come back to Ravenna for a few days or weeks, whatever.
The trip was a doddle, we wizzed down to Arles, which was amazing. There was a lot of Van Gogh stuff everywhere and some very good restaurants, plus we stayed in a glorious hotel cheap – I’ve still got the posh key to prove it. Dinner was superb – both Angelo and I have a penchant for classic old fashioned fishy French cuisine so we feasted on soupe de poisson and bouillabaise to our heart’s content.
The next day we were in Italy and on our way back to Ravenna for supper with Cinzia. Or not – she declined our invitation. It was as though we were back on home territory that night staying in the Casa Masoli 16th century city palace B&B.
Massive rooms with enormous four-poster beds, good antique furniture, dressing rooms, posh bathrooms and big libraries. What more could we want? Well we weren’t going to get that but we did breakfast well on ham and cheese and eggs, good bread and butter, fresh local fruit and home made pastries and cakes and great coffee and superb blood orange juice.
Chat, walk, coffee and time for lunch with Cinzia. There’s a Venetian restaurant in Ravenna and, homesick maybe, Angelo wanted to go there – at least we could sit outside as we ate our Venetian specialities like liver and onions and cold veal.
Cinzia said that if I wanted to stay longer there was a massive Mussolini-era Colonnia by the sea in Marina di Ravenna. These colonnias were all along the coast, built by Mussolini in the classic brutalist art deco style to give kids and workers free seaside holidays, they have now either disappeared or, like this one been made into blocks of apartments.
As we left Ravenna on our way along the coast to the Veneto we popped into this colonnia and I haggled for a flat for a month. We dumped a load of my stuff out of the car giving Angelo a bit of room to move and we were off to see the Po valley.
Obviously, the Po valley is full of water. We’d been invited there by a company which wanted to hire out boats for people to enjoy water- borne holidays. Like many people in the industry they were giving us an experience in the hope that we would promote them. Seemed a good idea, at least it wasn’t mass tourism and local people were involved.
“We’ve been here before” said Angelo when we arrived at our accommodation for the night. “Yes – the Castel Venezze – fab” I replied.
I remembered the village down the road, San Martino where everyone downed tools and stopped work at six in the evening to dance in the town square – delightful.
TO BE CONTINUED...
and more about Romagna at www.BestofRomagna.com
To enjoy the whole 241 page book full of Italian adventures you can buy "You Lucky People" from Amazon.
Valere Tjolle is the travel and tourism insider. An entrepreneur, consultant, developer and journalist, he has been in at the beginning of almost every tourism development for the last sixty years. There is no one better placed to expose the seedy side of tourism nor its enormous opportunities to unite people across the globe.