The region of Emilia-Romagna yields some of the finest foodstuffs in the world. Flanked by the Apennines and the Po river, the central plains are some of the most fertile in all of Italy.
Lambrusco, Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto ham and balsamic vinegar might be items we’re used to seeing in the supermarket shelves back home, but in the region where they’re produced, they take on a whole other meaning.
Traditional balsamic tastes so different from the one you find in the UK, it should have a different name altogether. Traditional balsamic is aromatic, woody, sweet and sour, with a depth and complexity of a fine wine. The Romans called it ‘balsamum’ because they used it as a medicine as well as a foodstuff.
Made from the cooked must of local grapes, it’s then left to mature for at least 12 years in wooden barrels. It’s a lengthy and laborious process that involves decanting the liquid bit by bit from barrel to barrel, and explains why the best balsamic can fetch £200 for a small bottle. This is liquid gold.
At Tenuta Venturini Baldini, an organic farm estate 15km outside the town of Reggio Emilia, you can sample traditional balsamic and see the process in action. Three marks are used to classify the vinegars into first, second and third quality.
Venturini Baldini also produce Lambrusco – a local grape variety that gets a bad rap abroad but is widely grown, drunk and appreciated here. Numerous vineyards in the Po Valley and its foothills produce the sparkling wine, and this year marked the 8th “Matilde di Canossa Terre di Lambrusco” wine competition, where 209 wines from 60 wineries showcased their wares.
I took a tour of one of the winning vineyards in nearby Scandiano. Casali has been making Lambrusco, Spergoli and Malvasie wine since 1900, and is one of many vineyards that uses the champenoise method. Like balsamic and Parmigiano Reggiano, this is a long and painstaking process, but one that yields a superior product. One of the judges of the wine competition described Lambrusco as “the blood of our region”, which illustrates how important it is here. The wine is enjoyed with local dishes such as cappelletti pasta, gnocchi and meat. It’s perfect for this type of food.
Parmigiano Reggiano is also a controlled origin product hailing from Emilia-Romagna, still made the traditional way using vats of raw, local milk no more than two-hours old from one of the dairies in the region. The wheels are then left to mature for 12-26 months, some for longer. Around 3.5million wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano were produced last year, and they can fetch hundreds of euros each.
At Agriturismo Podere Acquechiare, just outside Reggio Emilia, Paolo Rota and his family have been growing organic vegetables and Lambrusco grapes for more than 27 years. I took a cookery lesson with chef Paola Picchi, who walked me through the making of tortelli, tagliatelle, courgette salad and focaccia. Being able to cook and eat the fruits of the family farm, including the flour used to make the pasta, was an honour. You can also stay on the farm – they have six beautiful rooms – and the setting is perfect for a country visit not far from town.
An hour away, Bologna is a bigger, busier, grander version of Reggio Emilia. The capital of Emilia-Romagna, it’s home to the oldest university in the world, the “two towers”, and its famous dark red medieval buildings. Here, a different wine pips the post. Pignoletto is an ancient vine grown in the hills around the city, and it produces a young sparkling wine that’s a good alternative to prosecco (though the latter is still widely drunk as an aperitivo). It’s a great match with some of the local cuisine.
Tortellini takes many forms around the region, and here in Bologna it’s served with sage and butter or with a meat broth. Lasagne, too, is excellent, as is tagliatelle with ragu. Lambrusco and Pignoletto cut through the heavy flavours and textures perfectly.
If all that pasta and wine has you gasping for some vegetables, take a walk to Kilowatt, a repurposed public building and garden cafe / co-working space in Serre dei Giardini Margherita park. Here, you can dine on fresh salads and vegetarian dishes. They also host regular film screenings and talks, so even if you don’t eat here, it’s a good place to visit to soak up the atmosphere, especially on a summer’s evening.
Our hotel, the Novecento, was a stone’s throw from the main square – Piazza Maggiore, which also has free film screenings each evening. To see the piazza full of people, young and old, tourists and locals, taking in a film, probably after enjoying some of the best food and wine in the world, is about as close to la dolce vita as you can get.