I’ll admit it. I have a problem. I’ve been involved in a love affair with Italian food for most of my adult life. With the gastronomic trinity of Rome, Florence and Naples under my belt (in more ways than one), I’ve taken on a pilgrimage to discover the holy trail of food in Emilia Romagna, Italy. I’ve been known to gorge on Tuscan wines, pasta and pizza and that’s even when I’m at home in Florida. So imagine the temptations that destroy my willpower with travel to the renowned Food Valley of Italy, ground zero for addicts like me.
With so much to see and taste it made sense to reach out to the Emilia Romagna Region Tourist Board, which turned out to be an excellent decision. They were quick to respond and referred us to Food Valley Travel & Leisure which in turn designed a three day extravaganza of sightseeing, gastronomic tastings and expertly curated itineraries with knowledgeable guides. Forget what you thought you knew about Italian food and delve into the real deal.
Parma, Real Deal #1
Prosciutto is synonymous with Italy and while this Italian staple can be produced almost anywhere, to be designated as Prosciutto di Parma it must be inspected and verified that it is from a selected breed of pigs found only in the Parma region and cured in a specified age old tradition. The entire leg is salted and hung to dry with natural breezes flowing over the Apennine mountain range. Following this week’s long initial curing they are put into dark cellars and cured for up to 36 months. The result is the King of Hams, a delicacy of sweetness balanced with salt and thinly sliced to an almost opaque level.
Cheese Please, Real Deal #2
Much like Parma prosciutto, Parmigiano Reggiano is another product particular to the region.. It is a hard granular type of cheese that is aged for a minimum of 12 months with a very strict production regimen. Centuries of cheese making have yielded very little change and the cheese is made in a completely natural environment with no additives. Only raw milk from the region and specific breeds of cattle can be used to produce authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Far from the grated green can of Parmesan dust we shake on pizza or other foods, this specific cheese is exclusively produced in the Emilia Romagna area of Italy.
It’s not only the foods that draw visitors to Parma. The city is impressive in its own right, full of regional architecture and history. No visit would be complete without a visit to the Parma Duomo with its fascinating frescoes and the amazing real life street scenes.
Modena Balsamic Vinegar, Real Deal #3
What we know that Balsamic Vinegar can be found on any supermarket shelf but you will only find the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (TBV) in Emilia Romagna, generally in Modena. Even most Italians are unfamiliar with this almost cult like authentic product. Produced by the Lambrusco grapes and others regional varieties, the fermented result is a highly prized product of small and family run operations aged for a minimum of 12 years but at 25 years and more it is classified as ‘extravecchio’.
Like Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano, it receives the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) only after stringent inspections that verify the grapes used, the geographical area of production, characteristics of materials and production, physical and sensorial requirements and finally the product must be in a traditional 100 ml bottle.
Modena, like Parma is perfect for pedestrianized sightseeing with characteristic streets and small sidewalk cafes serving up tigelle, a flatbread similar to a compressed English muffin or gnocco fritto, a puffed up pillow of fried dough supplemented by a plate of cured meats and cheeses. The Modena Cathedral and the adjacent leaning bell tower are amazing must see sights located in the city’s main square. Aside from gastronomic accomplishments, the area is well known as the country’s automobile heartland playing host to Ferrari, Ducati, Maserati and Lamborghini factories. Car aficionados will revel in auto history with a visit to the Ferrari museum.
No Baloney, Bologna
Rounding out the culinary parade through the cities of the region is Bologna, a vibrant city of sights, sounds and flavors. Bologna Welcome is the official tourist information site of Bologna and the perfect place to start with planning a visit. It’s easy and even encouraged to get lost in the miles of covered porticos, arcades and sidewalk markets of the city, never far from the main square, Piazza Maggiore, shadowed by the majesty of Basilica di San Petronio.
Inspired by all the sights to take in, there is no way that we can leave without the true reason we have come. It’s not bologna, baloney or minced ham, it’s mortadella the gourmet lunch meat! Defined by the incorporation of finely hashed pork, pepper, garlic and often times pistachio, it differs from the ‘white trash’ cousin we know by incorporating white cubes of fat into the meat rather than being emulsified into the mixture and a secret blend of spices.
A visit to this region of Italy is an opportunity to escape the roads well traveled and immerse yourself into local culture fused with endemic culinary traditions.