As I write this post, I’m only a few hours away from the big ‘pranzo di Natale’ – and of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas in Bologna without tortellini, one of the signature dishes of Bolognese cuisine, emulated and appreciated all over the world, but rarely equaled outside of Emilia.
The invention of the tortellino, long disputed between the once rival cities of Bologna and Modena, is shrouded in legend. The most popular (some even like to believe it’s real) tells of an innkeeper in Castelfranco Emilia who once had Venus as a guest of his inn. He happened to see her naked in all her beauty; he was so enraptured by her navel that he decided to reproduce it with pasta.
“L’oste che era guercio e bolognese imitando di Venere il bellico l’arte di fare il tortellino apprese.”
“The innkeeper who was cross-eyed and from Bologna learned the art of making the tortellino by replicating Venus’ navel”. Thus says the story written by Giuseppe Ceri at the end of the 19th century. But this is just a story (a good one at that), and it is thought that Ceri chose Castelfranco Emilia as a diplomatic gesture, being the town exactly halfway between Bologna and Modena.
The origins of the tortellino are to be found in the Po Valley because of the area’s historic abundance of pork meat and Parmigiano cheese, two of the base ingredients needed for the filling. And that’s how tortellini became so common around Bologna and Modena. Other towns in Emilia and Romagna have adopted and adapted the recipe: we now have anolini in Parma, cappelletti in Reggio Emilia and Romagna, cappellacci in Ferrara.
The most ancient recipe referring to an early version of the tortellino is thought to date to the 1300s; it is found in the Libro di Cucina, a book preserved at the library of the University of Bologna. The book describes a simple preparation which involves lonza (loin) uova (egg), forma (Parmigiano Reggiano) and enula (an aromatic herb). Later, in the 1500s, the famous papal chef Bartolomeo Scappi suggested a more complicated recipe which used broth flavored with cinnamon. The renowned gastronome Pellegrino Artusi in 1891 wrote a recipe where the filling is very similar to the official recipe registered in 1974 with the Chamber of Commerce of Bologna by the Italian Culinary Academy and the Dotta Confraternita del Tortellino (Learned Brotherhood of the Tortellino). The idea was to safeguard the authenticity of a cherished dish that has become a symbol of Bologna.
What makes tortellini so special? Il mattarello e la mortadella – the rolling pin and mortadella, says local food journalist Giancarlo Roversi.
Roversi explains that the rolling pin helps create the dough which in turn envelops a filling where mortadella gives it its character; and the mixture of pasta, meats, Parmigiano and spices give the final product, the tortellino, an unparalleled taste.
Now on to the official recipe. Preparation has to be very accurate. And remember, how good the filling turns out depends on the quality of the ingredients used.
Official Tortellini Recipe
Ingredients for four people
For the filling:
pork loin 100 gr
prosciutto crudo 100 gr
Mortadella from Bologna 100 gr
Parmigiano Reggiano aged three years 150 gr
For the pasta:
flour 300 gr
For the filling:
The pork loin should be left to rest for two days over a mixture of salt, pepper, rosemary and garlic, then slowly cooked with a bit of butter and then removed from the pan and cleaned up of the mixture. Mince the loin, ham and mortadella very finely and knead with the Parmesan cheese and the eggs, adding a bit of nutmeg. This mixture must be well blended and left to rest at least 24 hours before filling the tortellini.
For the pasta:
Put the flour on a wooden board and make a well in the middle. Pour the eggs into the middle. Mix together with bare hands until the pasta is smooth to the touch. Roll up in a towel for about 20 minutes so it can get slightly dry, then put the dough back on the board and roll it out. Cut into 3 x 3 cm squares. Place a small amount of filling in the middle of each square. Fold the pasta over the filling to make a triangle. Now comes the tricky part, which is to give it that perfect tortellini shape…only the sfogline (Bolognese women who make pasta by hand) have really mastered it! Wrap the triangle around your index finger and squeeze very tightly to close it.
Tortellini should be eaten in capon (or hen) broth.
[Some people today serve it with butter, cream, tomato or ragù sauce, but purists would say that whoever serves it that way is killing the taste of the filling.]
A great wine to go with tortellini? Pignoletto dei Colli Bolognesi, of course!