History of the tortellino
Straddling the northern provinces of Italy and the Apennine mountains to the south, lies the sizable but little-known region of Emilia-Romagna. Here, two cities claim to be the birthplace of tortellini: Bologna and Modena. Despite its unassuming size, this pasta has an elaborate and disputed history. In true Italian style, the origins, methods, and ingredients of regional cuisine are held both sacred and very personal. Everyone you speak with, young or old, has their own version of where a certain food comes from, how it should be made, and what it must be made of. Of course, people of the same neighbourhood, city, and maybe even province will occasionally agree, but that is not the case for these tortellini. In an attempt to end the feud, a small town located in between the two cities was chosen as the official birthplace, yet the disagreement persists into the present day. Perhaps for enjoyment, but more likely to continue the friendly battle, a yearly competition, la sfida del tortellino, tests the technique and skills of top chefs from both cities (Bologna and Modena) to determine who makes the best tortellini.
Emilia-Romagna was one of the poorest regions in Italy after the second World War. Like many other regions in Italy, food was scarce and the diet of the people was considered “green”, based mainly on plants. A meal with pasta and meat, such as tortellini, would have been considered a luxury and likely reserved for the upper class or, if you were lucky, a special occasion. However, Emilia-Romagna is now one of the richest regions in Europe, due in part to its production of foods that are loved far beyond the borders of Italy, namely: parmesan cheese, prosciutto, mortadella, and balsamic vinegar. Here, the first three of these unite to form the classic, melt-in-your-mouth pasta floating in a decadent, golden broth. The birthplace of tortellini may be contestable, but the main ingredients used are widely agreed upon.
You would be mistaken to think that the disagreement ends there, with the origin of the recipe and the ingredients used. There is much more lurking in the shadow of this tiny pasta. The name, over time, morphed from annolini to tortelletti to tortellini, just to name a few. The shape could be reminiscent of something twisted, perhaps a small hat, a cake, or maybe even the navel of Venus. Then some technical differences: the proportion of each ingredient in the filling (down to the number of gratings of fresh nutmeg), the thickness, or rather thinness, of the pasta, and the size of an individual tortellino.
Amongst the myriad differences, one thing is certain: tortellini will be found on almost every table in Emilia-Romagna on Christmas day. As a pasta that requires an incredible amount of time, precision, and ingredients to make, it is truly worthy of its place on the table. Like lentils, grapes, and other round foods, the tortellino is considered a portafortuna: something that brings good luck. These perfect, closed shapes are thought to be blessings of the gifts we have received and our wishes that will be realised. Symbolism through food, in part, explains the deep love and importance that Italians all over the world hold for the breaking of bread with family, friend, and stranger.
Tortellini in brodo
After much thought, I have chosen to provide guidelines rather than an exact recipe. There are many variations to be found on the internet and in books, but the key to success lies in technique and practice.
The tortellini will be floating in a chicken broth enriched with beef and the classic soffritto mix (celery, carrot, onion). The broth should be clean, without sediment, and golden in colour. The tortellini are both cooked in the broth and served in the broth; hence, it is advisable to separate the broth in two so that the “serving” broth remains clean.
A standard Italian pasta should be made with the ratio of 1 egg to 100 g flour. The pasta must be rolled very thin, as thin as possible. Using a manual pasta roller, roll until the finest setting. It will be substantially more difficult to roll it out by hand. However, don’t roll the pasta until the filling is ready. Leave it wrapped tightly until then.
As alluded to, the exact proportions of the ingredients vary. To serve four people, aim for a mixture weighing about 400 g, with roughly equal amounts of pork loin, prosciutto, mortadella, and parmigiano reggiano for every 1 egg and very generous grating of nutmeg. A cooked filling is safer to work with, but some prefer a raw filling. It should be soft and homogeneous.
It is difficult to shape pasta that is so incredibly thin and so very small. This step is best done with multiple people, but can also be done solo if one is clever about timing and order. With the filling ready and a pasta sheet rolled, cut squares of about 3.5 cm. Place a tiny amount of filling in the centre, match two opposite corners, lift the tortellino, and match the remaining corners, leaving a hole in the middle. Each tortellino will be very small and should weigh, ideally, 2 grams.
Boil them very gently in the broth. A vigorous boil will rupture the delicate tortellini.
With the second half of the broth simmering, plate up about 20 to 30 tortellini per person and a healthy serving of broth. Extra parmesan is not necessary, but a sprinkle of chopped parsley adds a pleasant touch. Serve with a glass of Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine from the region.
I met two vibrant members of Regione Emilia-Romagna in Vancouver, who motivated my interest in tortellini and ultimately, this post. They taught me about the Christmas traditions of the region and clearly demonstrated that the feud over these tortellini is still ongoing, one of them coming from Modena and the other from Bologna, naturally.
I am grateful to my Modenese friend, Marco, and his father, Danilo, for sharing their recipe and tips with me. I was feeling over-confident when I read Danilo’s message (translated from Italian): “needless to say, it requires a bit of practice”. After failing on the first attempt, I humbly admitted to myself that he was right and finally, after three tries, I produced what you see in these photos. Not perfect, but surprisingly delicious in a way I did not expect or think possible. I was transported to the hills of Emilia, if only for a moment.