Naples may lay claim to pizza and mozzarella but other iconic ingredients of Italian cuisine – including Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, artisan balsamic vinegar and the country’s most famous sauce – are all produced in the fertile region of Emilia-Romagna.
Bologna, its medieval capital, is famous for its miles of portici, covered arcades backed with terracotta and ochre hued-buildings, and the 666 arches that lead to the Santuario della Madonna di San Luca, a basilica perched high above the city. It’s home to Europe’s oldest university, as well as the world’s only museum devoted to ice cream. Food is so inextricably linked to the city that it’s been known as ‘la grassa’ (‘the fat’), for centuries, thanks to its rich culinary tradition.
The elegant city of Modena is the birthplace of Pavarotti, Ferrari, Maserati, along with new-wave Lambrusco wine and balsamic vinegar. For a taste of the official aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, I visited family-run producer Acetaia Boni, where the walls are lined with vinegar vessels dating back to the 12th century. They explained the ancient fermentation process, during which the must of the Trebbiano grape is aged for at least 12 years in a ‘family’ of five to 12 barrels ranging in size and made from differing woods – usually chestnut, cherry, oak and ash. Afterwards, I sampled a 50-year-old version of the rich, syrupy liquid and marvelled as its multi-layered flavours exploded on my tongue.
At Hombre Organic Farm owned by the Panini family of the eponymous stickers fame, I watched them make Parmesan cheese in the age-old way – “nothing but milk and time” – and learnt how the giant wheels were checked and coded before it was left to develop its rich, powerful flavour for up to 36 months.
Back in Bologna, the Quadrilatero, an ancient grid of food shops and cafés that runs down the eastern side of Piazza Maggiore, is a gastronomic delight. The streets are lined with stalls piled high with asparagus and fava beans, salumerias selling culatello (‘little backside’ is considered the most prized cut of pork) and mortadella (made from finely minced pork studded with pistachios or green olives, and cooked rather than cured) and osterias serving fresh pasta.
At I Carracci, the fine-dining restaurant of the opulent Grand Hotel Majestic Già Baglioni, chef Giacomo Galeazzi has said that he “strives to combine imagination and respect" in interpreting the traditional foods of Bologna. Under a ceiling resplendent with an exquisite fifteenth-century fresco from the school of the Carracci brothers, I feasted on his Traditional tasting menu: divine culatello di Zibello; green lasagne, a speciality of Bologna, and veal escalope Bolognese style, with prosciutto di Parma and Parmesan cheese, all perfectly paired with Italian wine, including a full-bodied Sangiovese di Romagna.
The recently re-opened historic Mercato di Mezzo is an innovative combination of the traditional and the contemporary. The fourteen different stalls offer high-quality produce, from Piedmont's Baladin beer to Eataly's pizzeria. It also marks the first steps towards Bologna’s much anticipated ‘City of Food’. Earlier this year, Eataly’s founder Oscar Farinetti announced a plan to create a foodie theme park, where warehouses will be transformed into food labs, grocery shops and restaurants, in a joint venture with the municipality of Bologna.
In the meantime, I paid a visit to the rough-and-ready Mercato delle Erbe, where I inhaled the aromas from stalls groaning under the weight of seasonal fruit and vegetables, as well as olives, cheese, pasta, meat, fish and cold cuts. Opposite the market, the ladies of Le Sfogline (pasta makers) were busy creating Bologna’s pasta highlight, tortellini, deftly stuffing and folding the miniature parcels. The shape is said to have been inspired by the naval of a beautiful woman and they’re delicious floating in a hot capon broth.
At a cooking class at Il Salotta di Penelope, the ebullient Barbara and Valeria taught me how to make my own tortelloni (the larger version) stuffed with ricotta and bathed in a butter and sage sauce, as well as gnocchi with tomato sauce and tagliatelle (“never, never spaghetti!”) topped with the city’s famous ragù. As I kneaded and rolled, they told me, “The secret is stretching out the dough so thin that you can see San Luca through it.”
No wonder they say, “The people of Emilia-Romagna eat more, care more and talk more about food than anyone else in Italy.”
The author flew to Bologna with British Airways and stayed at I Portici. Via Emilia Tours offer food and wine tours around the region. For more information on Emilia-Romagna visit www.emiliaromagnaturismo.it/en.