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Stuffed Fennel. Ancient recipe from Bologna

Stuffed Fennel. Ancient recipe from Bologna

Stuffed fennel recipe, Bolognese style.

And perhaps the statement alone represents news. In fact, people are unlikely to associate fennel, a vegetable, with the typicalities of Bologna.

Bologna is the home of tortellini, lasagna, tagliatelle and cured meats, primarily mortadella. And charcuterie and fresh pasta are indeed two relevant cornerstones in its gastronomic history, but, in the past, they were not the only ones and, for sure, not even the most important.

Are you surprise?

Italian fennel

The garden of Rome

Bologna’s gastronomic history, celebrated throughout the centuries, returns to a different table, more complex than today.

Vegetables, fruits, and herbs were a dominant part of the local food culture.

“Rome’s vegetable garden” is one of Bologna’s oldest nicknames. I mean, when Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire.

The expression appears in the pre-12th-century text Vita di San Petronio (St. Petronius’s life). The book relates that in the time of Bishop Petronius (who lived in the 5th century), Bologna was famous for the richness and variety of the products from the countryside.

And, for that matter, the Latin name for Bologna is Bononia. Its meaning refers to abundant resources and goods (bonum in Latin).

It is well known that Emilia-Romagna was considered one of the granaries of the ancient Romans.

But from Bologna alone, the Roman Empire derived not only wheat, barley, and grains of various kinds.

If vegetable gardens were a fundamental resource for the supply of all Italian cities, the belt of vegetable gardens that graced Bologna, even after the fall of the Roman Empire, was so significant that it deserved special status.

To better understand what products were most valued, you need to know one more thing.

Before and after the year 1000, Bologna had a much warmer climate than today.

The mild temperatures favored all agricultural production, including figs and olives. Most of all, the olives were famous and appreciated. And they were recognized as a typical Bolognese specialty. Consequently, Bologna was also an oil-producing city.

But sustaining Bologna’s fame was, above all, its horticultural production.
In 1600 the goodness of Bolognese cabbage and mortadella appeared on the same list compiled by Bartolomeo Stefani, a famous Bolognese cook.

Besides cabbage, in the list were also grapes, figs, melons and peaches, lentils, thistles, salads, herbs, and fennel, true local excellence. Seventeenth-century chronicles report that they could be as big “as human legs.”

Beyond today’s gastronomic stereotypes that set the Bolognese table with fresh pasta and cured meats, there is a heritage of forgotten recipes, traditions, and stories.

Stuffed Fennel. Ancient recipe from Bologna

Bolognese-style fennel

I interviewed a few friends to ask how they cook fennel a la Bolognese.

Most of them answered they cook the fennel in milk or bake it au gratin with béchamel sauce.

But this fragrant vegetable has been part of the city’s culinary tradition for centuries, so I did a surplus of research. I discovered

Vincenzo Agnoletti, a Roman by birth (about 1780), began his apprenticeship in his hometown with his father, head cook of the Doria Pamphilj family.

Later, he traveled to Europe to learn the art of cooking. He was already an experienced cook when, in 1820, he took up the role of head cook at the court of Maria Luigia of Habsburg-Lorraine, duchess of Parma.

In one of his cookbooks, he supplies many notes on Emilian cuisine and describes the recipe for cookies a la Bolognese (add chopped Bologna fennel to the dough) and stuffed fennel.

Stuffed fennel a la Bolognese

Agnoletti describes the method. Cook fennels. Then cut them in half. And remove some of the pulp to stuff them with a mixed meat sauce. And after brushing them, sprinkle them with flour and breadcrumbs before cooking them in the oven.

From this forgotten recipe came many variations of stuffed vegetables that are still part of the gastronomic heritage of Emilia-Romagna.

The recipe, for example, recalls that of stuffed Bolognese zucchini.
A preparation for which a local variety of zucchini, called Bolognese, is used, which is light-colored and pot-bellied (thus easy to empty).

I tried Agnoletti’s recipe. And the result is incredibly satisfying.

Bolognese ragù is made with mixed meats. You can use any sauce you like.
Next time I will use another typical Bolognese ragout, that of prosciutto (Parma ham), as a filling.

Serve the stuffed fennel as a main course.

Buona cucina, Monica

Stuffed Fennel. Ancient recipe from Bologna

Stuffed fennel a la Bolognese

serves 2
List of the Ingredients

fennels, 2
meat ragù, about 200 g
grated Parmigiano, breadcrumbs, olive oil to taste


Wash the fennel and cook for 20 minutes in boiling water.

Drain and let cool.

Preheat oven to 190 degrees, static function.

Cut the fennel in half lengthwise.

Remove the base with a knife.

Remove some pulp from the center, stuff with the meat sauce, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, then breadcrumbs. At least drizzle with olive oil. You can also add a few flakes of butter if you prefer.

Bake in a hot oven for 10 minutes and serve.

Stuffed fennel a la Bolognese

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