So let’s say by some miracle the doctor told me I had to gain weight, I would get on the first flight to Emilia-Romagna and embark on a gluttonous binge, eating to my heart’s content. Bologna is known as the “land of the fat and learned” referring to both the richness of the land and the food as well as it’s world famous university. However when I look around I see nothing but thin, stylish people. It’s either due to heroic self-restraint (I would be eating ragu bolognese for breakfast) or someone needs to rethink the French paradox and focus on the Emilian paradox.
As we drove from Asolo to Ferrara, a beautiful Renaissance city, we stopped along the way for the first of many spectacularly indulgent meals at Dolce e Salato. Here despite the raging heat outside, we gorged on silky fresh egg pasta in unctuous slow cooked meat sauce, hot griddled piada flatbreads served with thinly sliced local salame rosa and sheets of fresh pasta dressed in creamy pumpkin puree, salty Parmesan cream and sweet balsamic vinegar. My three-year-old son delighted in his tortellini in brodo, giggling incredulously at his good fortune as he ate. We washed this down a surprisingly good bottle of Lambrusco by Paltrinieri which perfectly matched the rich food. Afterwards we stopped into Ferrara to see the Duomo in a half-hearted attempt to pretend our trip was really a worthy one about imbuing the children’s minds with culture.
As we drove we passed orchards of trellised pear and plum trees, fields of corn and millet and many many hay bales. Turning west from Bologna towards Modena, buildings marked “acetaio” start to appear interspersed between vineyards of Lambrusco Grasparossa and the trellised pear orchards. The acetaio is where balsamic vinegar is being made. This area is sometimes referred to as the “shopping cart of Italy” as three ubiquitous products in every Italian home, Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano), Parma ham (prosciutto Di Parma) and balsamic vinegar, are produced here. We did visits to see how they are all three are produced which will feature in following blogs.
In Modena, we were meeting friends from nearby Reggio Emilia at the Duomo (tip: the largest church in any town in Italy is always a safe meeting point as every town has one). Modena‘s 900-year-old Romanesque cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site housing sculptures, reliefs, paintings, silverware and furniture, some of which date back to the 11th century.
Our friends had by chance befriended some locals (children being the great glue that bonds parents). As we were a few days from ferragosto (August 15 – a national excuse to shut everything and go on holiday for three weeks) we were struggling to find anywhere to eat. These kind strangers took us to Hostaria la Frasca with some kind words of wisdom to be aware that the owner/chef/waiter (a one woman band) had an extra helping of character and we should be quiet and eat the delicious food. Fortunately most of her mainly lewd comments had a double meaning so the children thought she sounded a bit crazy but her real meaning remained hidden. When she was done abusing us she then started on the locals leaning out of their windows desperate for any hint of a breeze on a hot summer night. The food was perfectly prepared as advised and her antics hilarious entertainment. We didn’t order but large platters of mortadella, prosciutto di Parma, salami and bresaola covered with Parmigiano-Reggiano and balsamic vinegar magically appeared. Next homemade tortellini in ragu followed by crispy, salty, delicious cotoletta alla parmigiana (chicken breaded in a Parmesan crust and fried). The meal ended with apple fritters, which we enjoyed despite a lingering guilty feeling of over indulged.
The next day we headed to the area southeast of Modena, called the land of castles (Terre di Castelli) as there many castles dotting the landscape surrounding Modena. As the castle towns often also had a culinary tradition we could conveniently sample local delicacies under the guise of cultural exploits. Castle towns include Castelvetro, Guiglia (the origin of the borlengo, a type of crepe, which has a festival in its honour), Marano sul Panaro, Zocca (which has a museum and festival dedicated to the chestnut in October as well as a historical reenactment of 15th century life complete with falconry every August), Savignano sul Panaro, Spilimberto (home to the balsamic vinegar consortium and the balsamic museum) and Vignola (famous for its cherries and has a cherry blossom festival every Spring). We spent an afternoon in the garden celebrating the birthdays of my friend Chiara and her daughter.
There are also castles in Formagine, Carpi, Finale Emilia, Fiorano Modenese, Mirandola (the birthplace of zampone – a local dish of cured pig’s foot stuffed with sausage), Montefiorino, Montese, Pavullo, Pievepelago, San Felice sul Panaro, Sassuolo (with the stunning Baroque Ducale Palace), Sestola and Soliera. Of these towns, Castelveltro is particularly scenic and at Enoteca Regionale Emilia Romagna, local wines can be tasted.
Each food has its own story but the invention of zampone (a sausage encased in a pig’s foot) is particularly interesting. It was invented in 1511 in Mirandola, when the town was under siege by the armies of Pope Giulio II. The townsfolk hid the pork meat first in pig skin (creating cotechino) and then in pig feet (creating zampone). Today it is made throughout central Italy and is an IGP product protected under the laws of the European Union. It is cooked and served with lentils, potatoes and carrots, apples, beans, mashed potatoes, polenta or zabaione (a frothy egg cream).
Local breads are particular such as tigella (small fluffy griddled flatbreads), borlenghi (crumbly crepes eaten with chopped lardo, garlic, rosemary and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano), piadine (griddled flatbreads eaten with ham, lardo, fresh sausage, soft cheeses, chard or wild greens) and crescentine/gnocco (note: gnocco can be fried bread or lardon focaccia depending where you are) feature on the menus. Crescentine montanara, a flat bread sometimes also called tigella, is cooked on round piece of terracotta called a tigella.
Other products from this area are the unusual fizzy red Lambrusco wine, Pignoletto dei Colli Bolognesi white wine, cured meats and salumi (mortadella di Bologna (bologna), salami, coppa, pancetta, culatello and ciccioli), mushrooms, white truffle, honey and fresh pasta (tortellini, lasagna, tagliatelle, tortelloni and strichetti). There is even a special chocolate cake from Vignola, torta Barozzi. It is a flourless chocolate cake flavoured with almonds, coffee and rum whose recipe remains a secret. Nocino, a syrupy dark brown liqueur made from unripe green walnuts steeped in spirit, is of local origin.
For those looking for an adrenaline fix, try heading to Maranello to see the Ferrari Gallery in the town that the cars are made in. They show a collection of vintage and modern Ferraris as well as Formula 1 trophies. Maserati and Lamborghini are also produced in Emilia.
Can you think of other reasons to visit Emilia?
If you have friends or family looking for an excuse to head to Emilia, please share this post with them.
Tagliatelle alla bolognese
1 recipe fresh egg pasta cut into tagliatelle (cut 7-1o mm in width)
- 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 carrot, washed, peeled, ends cut, and finely chopped
- 1 rib of celery, washed, ends cut, and finely chopped
- 50 grams pancetta
- 50 grams of butter
- 300 grams of lean beef (such as flank or arm clod), finely diced (can replace some of the beef with a mixture of veal, fresh sausage, and/or pork)
- 100 grams prosciutto
- 180 mls red wine
- 200 mls tomato puree (passata)
- 2-4 cups meat broth or water
- 100 grams chicken livers, finely chopped
- 120 mls milk or cream
- In a heavy based sauté pan or dutch oven over low heat, slowly sauté the onion, carrot, celery, and pancetta in the butter until the vegetables are soft, about 3 to 5 minutes.
- Add the beef and the prosciutto and stir with a wooden spoon until coloured.
- Add the wine and turn the heat up to medium.
- Cook until it has ⅔ evaporated, about 30 minutes. Then add the tomato, salt, and pepper.
- Turn the flame down to as low as possible and put the lid on askew so that steam can escape. Cook slowly, adding a bit of broth whenever the mixture seems to dry and stirring occasionally, for 3 hours.
- Add the chicken livers and the milk or cream and continue to slowly cook for 1 more hour.
- Add broth or water to keep the mixture from burning or drying out and stirring occasionally. The chopped meat will slowly dissolve into the sauce. When finished add salt and pepper to taste.
Where to eat:
North of Ferrara:
Winner: Best food
Dolce e Salato
Piazza Luigi Calori 16/18,
40018 San Pietro in Casale
Recommended dishes: tagliatelle con ragu bolognese (fresh egg pasta with meat sauce), tortellini in brodo (stuffed fresh egg pasta in broth), piada con salame rossa, limone e ricotta (griddled flatbread with salami, lemon and ricotta), fazzoletti di zucca con crema di parmigiano e aceto balsamico (pasta sheets with pureed pumpkin, Parmesan cream and balsamic vinegar), vacanze romana (risotto with sausage)
Winner: Most entertaining host
Hostaria La Frasca
Via San Paolo, 51
Tel: +39 059 216271
Recommended dishes: You cannot order so there is little point in recommending dishes. What I do recommend is not asking for anything and just let the waves of food arrive. Excellent salumi, perfectly ripe melon, homemade pasta and breads and perfectly prepared meat and fish dishes topped off with warm homemade cake.
Via Stella, 22
41121 Modena MO
Tel: +39 059 223912
Osteria Francescana is run by Massimo Bottura and is considered one of the world’s top 50 restaurants. It has three Michelin stars. Reservations are difficult to obtain so plan in advance.
Locanda del Mulino
Via Nuova Estense, 3430
41053 Gorzano di Maranello MO
Tel: +39 0536 944175
This is a local restaurant in the countryside popular with families and large groups. They offer typical informal dishes from the area in a relaxed environment.
Recommended dishes: tigelle (griddled bread) and gnocco fritto (fried bread) with salumi, squaquerone cheese, lardo, raw sausage, rocket and pickled onions, tortelloni (spinach and ricotta filled fresh pasta with sage butter), and casarecce pasta with tomato, ricotta and olives
Osteria Lo Scalocchio
50 Strada Provinciale
Castione de’ Baratti, PR 43029
Recommended dishes: try the homemade fresh pastas stuffed with a selection of duck, veal, ricotta, radicchio, borage, chard, smoked pork or duck breast
What to see:
The city of Modena has created downloadable audio guides to the region:
Visits to see how balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and prosciutto di Parma are made:
Itinera Emilia Guide Turistiche email@example.com
Tel. +39 3277469902
- See my post on how Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made here.
- See my post on how prosciutto di Parma cheese is made here.
Balsamic vinegar museum:
Museo dell’Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale
Via Roncati, 28
41057 Spilamberto (MO)
Tel. +39 059 781614
The best place to learn how to make local salumi and take cooking classes:
Antica Corte Pallavicina
Strada del Palazzo Due Torri, 3
43010 Polesine Parmense PR
Tel: +39 0524.936539
A luxury hotel, restaurant and cooking school that makes some of the finest salumi in the world. They produce the best culatello di Zibello, according to L’Espresso awards last year. Antica Corte Pallavicina supplies Prince Charles, Alain Ducasse, Rene Redzepi of Noma and Putin with their salumi.
Castello di Formagine
Piazza Calcagnini 1
Tel: +39 059 416145
A 900 year old castle with grounds and museum.
Castello di Spezzano
Via del Castello, 12
Tel: +39 0536 833412
The Spezzano castle dates back to medieval times with 16th century frescoes inside. It is set in a park, produces balsamic vinegar in a 15th century pentagonal tower and has a ceramics museum. Guided tours of the vinegar works are available with an appointment.
Castello dei Montecuccoli
Pavullo nel Frignano
Tel: +39 0536 29964
Parts of the castle date back to the Middle Ages.
Largo Sant’Agostino, 337
Tel: +39 059 439571 / +39 0536 1844853
Built in 1634 for Duke Francesco I d’Este it is one of the most splendid Baroque palaces in Northern Europe.
Via Dino Ferrari, 43
41053 Maranello (Modena)
Tel: +39 0536 943204
Historical reenactments and Falconry school:
Via Valli, 15
Treponti di Teolo (PD)
Tel: +39 333 7280164 / 337 1002211
This company does historical reenactments of 15th century life with the clothing, meals, art, music, falconry, medicine, etc. It is possible to also only have falconry lessons.