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Photo courtesy Le Sfogline.

Climate Change Is Threatening Bologna’s Most Popular Pasta

Donna Bowater

"People normally eat tortellini at Christmas in a broth but for the last five years, we haven't had a winter."

Photo courtesy Le Sfogline.

It takes approximately ten minutes to make the custard-coloured dough from which all kinds of pasta derive.

Which is approximately how long it took me to realise that tortellini really isn't a summer dish.

As I sweat like a wrapped pasty in my plastic apron, my visions of a dish of fresh tortellini tossed in a light homemade pesto with a chilled glass of pinot grigio evaporate like steam off the Tarmac outside. Nevertheless, in the searing heat of the summer, sisters Monica and Daniela Venturi agree to teach me how to make the traditional navel-shaped dumplings for which Bologna is famous.

Their mother opened fresh pasta shop Le Sfogline 21 years ago in Emilia Romagna, the capital of Bologna. Replete with a bounty of farmland, the region's world-class ingredients—from the ubiquitous Parmigiano Reggiano cheese to balsamic vinegar with Protected Designation of Origin status—make Emilia Romagna Italy's larder county.

And among its most celebrated dishes is tortellini.

Handmade tortellini. Photo by the author.
Le Sfogline pasta shop in Bologna, Emilia Romagna. Photo by the author.

In the traditional kitchen of Le Sfogline, the sisters make the sfoglia (dough) from scratch using eggs from local corn-fed chickens to give it its fresh yellow colour. Once chilled, they stretch it, cut it into squares, and fill the pasta tiles with a homemade mixture of pork loin, mortadella, pancetta, and nutmeg; pinching each square into the tidy triangle rings for cooking.

Over the years, Le Sfogline has become something of a local institution on Via Belvedere, opposite the popular fresh food market Mercato delle Erbe. During my visit to the sisters, locals pop by to collect orders or just to say hello.

As well as their walk-in customers, the sisters also supply two restaurants in Bologna with colourful courgette lasagne topped with courgette flowers. But they have no desire to open their own eatery.

Courgette pasta topped with the vegetable's flowers. Photo by the author.

"It's enough just to run the shop," says Monica, swigging from a two-litre bottle of water.

At their busiest, the pair gets through 200 eggs a day, making at least 25 kilograms of tortellini and 10 kilograms of the larger tortelloni.

"In the summer, people are eating other things because it's a winter dish," Monica explains. "We normally eat it at Christmas in a broth but for the last five years, we haven't had a winter."

Higher temperatures in Bologna make it harder not only to eat the hot pasta dumplings but also to make the sfoglia in the first place, and it's easy to see why. Folding each square of pasta into the shape of Venus's belly button is fiddly enough even for the expert hands of Monica and Daniela. But in the sweltering heat, the dough quickly dries out before we can fill it, creating a lot of wasted sfoglia.

Monica works the fresh pasta dough. Photo courtesy Le Sfogline.

Monica continually spritzes the dough with water to keep it moist but almost as soon as it is stretched over their counter, the edges began to dry and harden. And with Bologna vulnerable to continuing levels of climate change, it is a difficulty that is only expected to worsen.

While heat waves and drought have raged across many parts of Italy this year, turning off fountains in Rome and contributing to fires in Naples, in Emilia Romagna, it has dealt a blow to food production. Poor wheat harvests have driven up the price of flour—the other ingredient in pasta dough—while a lack of water has also affected tomato farmers in the region.

"In general, in our region, climate change has induced a modification in both the temperature and precipitation," Giovanni Dinelli, a professor of agricultural sciences at the University of Bologna tells me after my visit to Le Sfogline. "However, the most relevant effect was the increase in so-called 'extreme events.' This means unpredictable events such as prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, heavy downpours, severe floods, and droughts."

Emilia Romagna. Photo by the author.

He continues: "Much more than the rise in average temperatures or the decrease in average precipitation, these extreme events have very significant effects on regional agricultural production."

Researchers and local authorities in and around Bologna are working on ways to cope with such extreme weather to help farmers and the region as a whole become more resilient. One way of achieving this is greater rotation of crops better suited to higher temperatures and less water such as millet and sorghum, which needs 40 percent less water than corn.

But this also means moving away from some of the more traditional ingredients on which the region's reputation for agro- and gastro-tourism is built. Andrea Chierici, who set up Taste Bologna food tours four years ago to promote the city's cuisine and produce, says he was already seeing a difference in the availability of typical products. His tours make stops at several shops, restaurants, and bars around the city.

Monica and Daniela with another member of staff, Rosa. Photo courtesy Le Sfogline.

"Producers have to handle a different situation every year, from years with large production of small products, which are harder to sell, to years with small production due to reduced rainfall," Chierici explains. "The restaurateurs and the vendors also pay the price because some products are harder to find, or maybe available for shorter periods at a higher price. During our tours, we stop by a gelato shop, which only works with seasonal fruits and over the years I've noticed that some flavours are disappearing or are just on sell for a few weeks of the year."

Chierici is worried about the impact of climate change on the region's rich biodiversity.

"If the fields are unhealthy, how can we feed the cows to produce Parmigiano Reggiano?"

"If you move of a few kilometres, the recipes changes slightly, making every dish of pasta and every classic unique," he adds. "What will happen to some protected products like traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena that must use just local grapes to be produced every year? And if the fields are unhealthy, how can we feed the cows to produce Parmigiano Reggiano?"

Of greater concern is what might happen to the very food security of the region—and the country—if the weather continues to get ever more extreme.

Professor Dinelli says the success of innovations to adapt to climate change depended on the willingness of farmers to adopt non-traditional practices—a difficult ask in such a proud agricultural region.

"Our agricultural system still has some buffering capability," he adds. "But we can not rule out that in the future, food security could be a problem. Without a serious and tangible investment plan for combatting climate change and its effect on agricultural sector, we can not win this challenge."

Photo courtesy Le Sfogline.

Back at Le Sfogline, Monica and Daniela make best use of the Italian tradition of avoiding waste. Any leftovers or bad cuts (maltagliati) from making tagliatelle are used to fill out soups. And, for now at least, they cannot imagine a time when pasta is forsaken because of the weather.

"People in Bologna and also outside of Bologna buy tortellini because Italians cannot conceive of a meal without pasta," Monica says.

And after several dishes of luxurious tortellini in broth—even in summer—it's hard to disagree.