Waiter, there's a cow's stomach in my cheese. For real.

Waiter, there's a cow's stomach in my cheese. I hadn't realised until a few seconds ago; it had looked like perfectly good parmigiano-reggiano to me: little golden nuggets of cheesy goodness freshly hacked off an enormous wheel somewhere at the back of the bar. I'd been about to tuck in to my first nugget when my dining partner across the table, Jane, had pointed out the issue.

"There's a cow's stomach in your cheese," she said, wafting a hand in the direction of the lovely hunks of aged formaggio among our tasty bar snacks.

I sighed. "For real?" I asked.

"For real," she said. "You know that's how they separate the curds and whey, don't you? They use the bacteria from a cow's stomach lining. It's called rennet. They're phasing it out in England but I'm sure they still use it here. It's pretty disgusting when you think about it."

"But I don't think about it," I said.

"You should," she said.

Ah, vegetarians. There are probably places in the world where it's relatively easy to travel with a vegetarian but northern Italy, particularly Bologna, is not one of them.

This became apparent on the flight over from London, when I asked the Italian girl sitting next to me if she had any suggestions of places to dine in her home city.

"That depends," she said, "what do you like to eat?"

Advertisement

"It has to be vegetarian," Jane said, leaning across. "Something with vegetarian options."

"What, no meat?" the Italian girl said, looking shocked. "Fish, yes?"

"No, no fish, either," Jane said.

Now she was visibly disturbed. "No! Oh, my gosh. Um ... I don't know," the Italian girl said.

And so it went, Jane and me traipsing around that beautiful, meat-loving city looking for suitably non-meaty restaurants. That one looks nice ... Wait, only one vegetarian option, keep looking. What about this? Nope, everything's got fish in it. That one's got parmesan on everything. Cow's stomach, you see.

I have no real problem with vegetarians, per se. This is not some Anthony Bourdain-like rant against vegetable lovers. I completely respect vegetarians' choice not to eat meat, just as vegetarians should completely respect my choice not to travel with them any more.

This is Bologna, a place that lives in celebration of meat. Sure, its cheesemakers probably put cow's stomach in their products but have you tasted the stuff? It's insanely good. Walk the city's narrow streets and its providores' shelves are groaning with prosciutto, bresaola, mortadella, guanciale, pancetta. The pork cotoletta is incredible. There's a traditional sausage-meat pasta dish - gramigna alla salsiccia - that might just be the greatest thing I've ever tasted. Jane, however, just grimaced as I ate it. She's been a vegetarian since she was 12. That's dedication.

I've always thought it takes a certain type of person to be able to carry vegetarianism through. Obviously, you need convictions, moral or otherwise, that are strong enough to prevent you falling off the vegetable wagon. I don't have these convictions. I once made the conscious decision to become a vegetarian, to see if a meat-free diet would change the way I felt at all, and I lasted - literally - three hours. (I was broken by a dirty cafeteria sausage roll at work.)

To be a vegetarian, however, you also have to be OK with being a bit of a pain in the butt. You have to be the person at the dinner party for whom the hosts have to cook a special meal. The one at the barbecue whom people go out of their way to please. The person on whose shoulders decisions about restaurants often fall.

That's a mild annoyance when you are at home but when you're travelling, it's a nightmare. Try going to Africa, where this Western luxury of vegetarianism makes you look barking mad. Or Italy, where waiters pinch their brows when they realise you're consciously denying yourself one of the true pleasures of local life.

Your days become a never-ending search for appropriate food. (The words "I've found this great little vegetarian restaurant" make me die a little inside.) Risotto is out, because it's probably made with chicken stock. Tomato-based sauces are out, because there was a chunk of pancetta in there one time. And cheese is out, of course, because of those cows' stomachs.

But back to the bar and my tainted plate of snacks.

Jane's disgust at the whole tripe-in-the-cheese thing might sound a bit off-putting but I figured it was actually good news in the long run. It meant there weren't just hunks of cheese on that plate in front of me; there were fried pork balls, slices of mortadella, delicate little prosciutto sandwiches and a delicious fish-pate bruschetta.

So, although I would have the thought of cow's stomach in the back of my head for the remainder of the meal, I was also guaranteed to have the whole lot to myself.

Read Ben Groundwater's column on Sundays in the Sun-Herald.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

Comments