Everyone loves Massimo Bottura, whether it was his nonna, his mamma, his beautiful wife Lara, his two kids, his team, or other stellar chefs such as Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià. But no one loves Bottura like Lidia. Even when he torments her, tickles her, flicks her with a towel, all he gets back is unconditional love. “He is a disgrace, but he is like my son,” she says as he excitedly chases her around her front room.
We are here to see Lidia Cristoni make tortellini as she has made it for Bottura for 28 years since she walked into his first restaurant, Trattoria del Campazzo, a short stroll over the field from her family home. As we watch her expertly work her dough with her long wooden pin and board, Bottura tells me how it was through Lidia that “food found him”.
“Everything comes from here, from memories, from this pasta,” he says. “To stay close to Lidia is to stay close to where I come from. The way we were working at Campazzo was with a lot of heart, a lot of courage. It is almost a spiritual exercise to keep this flavour alive.
“Everyone who works with me has to understand what Lidia means,” he says. “They come to us at [his flagship Modena restaurant] Osteria Francescana to make gastronomy, to make distillations, but they can’t make pasta. Still now, Lidia is the one who teaches all the stagiares. We bring them here and she shows them how to cut tagliatelli, to make tortellini.”
As Lidia rolls out the pasta like she always has, here in the farmhouse where she was born, with her family’s homemade salami hanging up the stairs, her three grandchildren running round, Bottura creeps back up behind her. “Meeting Massimo was the best day of my life,” she laughs as he hugs her again, “but he is a terrible troublemaker.”
Despite his three Michelin stars and perennial top three spot at the World’s 50 Best, Bottura was something of a secret in the UK until his bravura performance on last year’s MasterChef: The Professionals. Here was a mercurial talent encouraging the bewildered finalists to dress a plate like a Damien Hirst spin painting (the agonised results almost painful to watch). Express emotion in every bite, he’d say, as the British cooks became wild-eyed and worried. By the second day, they had devised method in his madness, had started to learn to unlock feeling in food.
I am a convert, a Bottura believer, admirer of the way he is dragging Italian cooking into the contemporary world, but I am a little nervous when he picks me up from the airport in Milan. He is driving me home to Modena, in Emilia-Romagna, famous for the extreme age of its balsamic vinegar, its prosciutto and parmesan. It is also where Lamborghini, Ferrari and Maserati are made, so we have borrowed a fast car for a road tour of slow food.
Bottura drives, he talks, I listen. He tells me the story of how he hid from his older brothers under his grandmother’s kitchen table, while she made the tortellini he stole. He tells me how he sold oil for his father until a catastrophic fallout the day before he found Trattoria de Campazzo. He shares his love of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Thelonious Monk, and the deep-throated roar of our Maserati Quattroporte. “Look,” he grins as he guns the twin turbo and the car literally leaps forward. “Really, really fast: 170, 200 kilometres an hour!”
I grip the dashboard, brace myself, flash a rictal smile. I am trapped on a road trip in a race car with Mr Toad. The medieval churches and hilltop castles of Piedmont flash by in a blur. Poop! Poop! I sigh.
We stop off at Guido restaurant near Serralunga D’Alba for silky pasta and sublime ice-cream made from the milk used in parmesan. We talk cheddar cheese and farming in China with Carlo Petrini, the big-brained guru of Slow Food, at the University of Gastronomic Sciences he founded in Bra. Then we are off again, racing through northern Italy to the banks of the Po river.
The Po is inspiration for one of Bottura’s signature dishes and scene of Il Ritorno [Going Back], a moving short film featuring Lidia, his mother and the fishermen of the delta. We are here to see where the world’s finest charcuterie is cured, but first, we visit Massimo Spigaroli’s pigs.
The light softens as we cycle to the fields. These are pampered pigs, blue-black and grunting, wallowing with their bellies in water holes, snuffling grains. They will soon be turned loose in the maize field, and eating acorns from the border oaks.
The culatello they will become is aged in an ancient cellar, an intensely piggy, musty place with mouldering walls and river mists. The names of the customers read like royalty (some are, including our own Prince of Wales). Osteria Francescana’s hangs next to Alain Ducasse, “Principe Carlo” and Davide Scabin.
As the sun sets crimson, Bottura talks gently about the Po and its people and how they have fished eels here for 500 years. Il Ritorno was a key part of a campaign that led to an €18m injection of funds to improve conditions in the region. “Chefs can bring social justice,” he says. “My eel dish is a recipe created from politics. A denunciation. Chefs must share the spotlight, be fair with fishermen, farmers, cheesemakers. Whether you cook good food or bad, it costs the same.”
The next morning in Modena: swallows skim the tiled roofs, a shutter opens and a glamorous woman in a white lace dress leans out into the narrow cobbled street. An elderly couple shuffle to the shops. The quiet is broken by the scream of a Maserati engine. Bottura bounces out of the car. He is very excited. A large box has arrived from a New York art gallery. He and his American-born wife Lara Gilmore are serious collectors, owning important works by Cindy Sherman, Olafur Eliasson, Gavin Turk among many others (a disturbing Chapman brothers’ Fuck Face lurks by their bed).
Bottura’s love for contemporary art is reflected in the style and naming of Francescana’s dishes (“Memories of a Mortadella Sandwich”, “All the Tongues of the World”, “An Eel Swims up the Po River”), a marriage that wasn’t always welcomed in conservative Modena. In the Italian kitchen, nonna – the grandmother – is still queen, and messing with age-old recipes is not encouraged. International recognition came before success at home.
The morning delivery is a piece by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Bottura gathers the staff around and reverently opens the box. Inside is Dust to Dust, a pulverised Neolithic pot in a glass cookie jar. The cooks look a little confused when he compares it with what they do in Francescana’s kitchen – transforming a revered dish into something avant garde: slow food, slow art.
There is something of the obsessive about Massimo Bottura. Ask him what was the most important day in his life and he’ll say it was when he met Alain Ducasse. (Note: not when he met or married his wife or when his son or daughter was born.) Ducasse was impressed when he ate at Trattoria Campazzo in 1992 and invited him to work with him in Monte Carlo. A few months later, Bottura had sold the trattoria and moved to the Riviera.
It was at restaurant Louis XV, at the birth of modern Mediterranean cooking, he says, that he truly learned to rely on his palate: “Ducasse tore up my notes, taught me to stand on my own. That was the moment I learned to think.”
His regard for Ducasse is mutual. “Massimo is indispensable,” Ducasse says via email. “Talented, psychedelic, generous, hedonist, flamboyant … Two feet deeply rooted in his dear Emilia-Romagna and his head geared towards tomorrow.”
The first few years at Osteria were tough. “I couldn’t find enough money to pay past the end of the month,” he says. “I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t go to my father, I couldn’t talk to anyone except Lara. That is the point you give up everything: motorcycle, cars, who cares?”
Bottura sold his Harley Davidson, his Saab convertible, bought a little Mazda, and he got married. “Lara would always tell me, let’s give the restaurant one more year,” he says. Her parents helped pay the bills. Then in January 2000 Ferran Adrià came to Modena and had dinner at Osteria Francescana. By June, Bottura was off again, to Spain, his young daughter and heavily pregnant wife in tow.
El Bulli was in its pomp – it was the year of cauliflower couscous; chicken curry ice-cream; fruits de mer with smoked sea water (carried up with buckets from the bay) – but behind the scenes not everyone was eating well. René Redzepi, now of Copenhagen restaurant Noma, was also a stagiare there that season and remembers how Bottura hated the pasta at staff meals.
“It would ruin his day,” Redzepi says, “when the atrociously overcooked pasta was up. One time, he threw the whole portion in the ocean as a protest.”
Chefs at El Bulli were pulling 17-hour days with 20-minute breaks but Bottura says working there was the turning point of his career. He had refined his cooking technique in the kitchen, of course, but he had also seen the genius of Adrià’s partner Juli Soler and how the front of house should be run.
Cue the arrival of Giuseppe “Beppe” Palmieri, first of Bottura’s brilliant signings, impeccable emperor of the Francescana dining room. Within a year they had the first Michelin star. There would be other challenges, other triumphs, but the tide had turned.
Saturday lunchtime in Modena: we are sitting in Trattoria Bianca where Bottura used to eat as a boy with his aunt Anna and his little sister. Over bowls of pumpkin pasta and parmesan he reminisces about his beloved mother’s final year.
“She was about to turn 89, it was last November,” he says. “She was in the hospital, not eating. I told her: ‘Mum, your birthday’s on Wednesday. I am ready, don’t worry. I am going to make you risotto with truffles.’
“The next day she asked the staff for some water, parmesan and crackers. On her birthday she asked me to bring risotto tartuffe for everyone – the nurses, the other ladies in her room. Everyone had a party in my mum’s place. On Thursday I took her foie gras. On Friday, linguine with clams and mussels. We fed her back to life, she came home for Christmas. Food can be love …”
Later, we visit the Maserati Museum housed in an elegant shed on the Hombre farm outside Modena. Bottura is back in Toad mode. The Panini brothers own the vintage car collection and the only dairy in Italy producing organic parmesan on the premises. It was the brothers’ father, Umberto Panini, who was the inspiration for Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano, Massimo Bottura’s defining dish.
It is time to try it, to eat at Osteria Francescana.
That evening I join Lara and Pål, the OFM photographer, for one of the great meals of my life. It starts with a macaroon and finishes with tortellini, a playful tone poem built on effortless technique. Press reset, adjust salt and sweetness and we could have started with the eel or anywhere. Over the next few hours, the greatest hits come thick and fast: The Crunchy Part of the Lasagne, Bollito, not Boiled, An Eel Swimming Up the Po River, Tagliatelle with Ragu. It is a meal built from vivid memory, the past recast in the future; inspirational, emotional food.
Our final dish of the night, the last “dessert”, brings us back to where we started, to tortellini with white cream from white cows, perfectly crafted by talented head chef Takahiko Kondo and served from a saucepan. Kondo, of course, also learned how to make pasta from Lidia. The old lady would have been proud.
I leave the last words to Bottura’s El Bulli contemporary René Redzepi: “Massimo, he is one of those people, you know – there was always one in your school – who was good at everything. The fastest runner in the class, the one who always finished the maths test first, the one with the least smelly lunch box … that’s Massimo. Fluent in several languages, he knows how to conduct himself in most every place. Yet Massimo feels like an Italian cook, sometimes even responsible for nudging the traditions of Italian cooking forward, as a caretaker of sorts.”
The next day I leave Modena for Bologna airport. Pål has hired a Fiat 500 so I grab a quiet, comfortable lift. Slow food, slow car.
Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef by Massimo Bottura is published by Phaidon on 6 October.
To order a copy for £30 (RRP £39.95), visit guardianbookshop.co.uk.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010