The sun rises and sets exclusively here, according to the locals. If you think that Scots are nationalistic, or the Irish or the Welsh or Yorkshiremen, it is nothing compared to the residents of this part of Italy. And there’s the scenery, the weather, the food and the way of life. After a few days here you will begin to see their point. Although Emilia-Romagna was created as a province nearly forty years ago, the original Emilians and the Romagnans still think of their own patch as separate.
The Adriatic Coast
The district has a stretch of Adriatic coast which takes in Rimini, Riccione and Cattolica; it has a great plain which houses Bologna, Parma and Ravenna; and it has a hundred miles of the Appennines Mountains. These are mostly unspoilt and off the beaten track for visitors and they offer nature in all her moods from cold and snowy in winter to warm and sunny in summer. We went there in autumn and walked over completely unspoilt mountain paths immersed in the fall colours of oak, beech and evergreens, with a carpet of fallen leaves underfoot.
In the valleys, the locals are even more fanatical and opinionated about their own one, and will tell you that it has the most special history, geography, scenery and gastronomy in the whole wide world. It could be true.
Truffles in the Appennines
One mountain pastime is truffle-hunting. You have to do it with a local because if you try it on your own nobody will tell you where to go. We got to know the patron of our hotel and he kindly took us along with his two dogs. We went over the sparkling river by the mediaeval hump-backed bridge, past the waterfall and the natural pool in which the local residents swim in summer and up into the hills. On the way he told us that French truffles were mostly black truffles but here in the Appennines they had white truffles which were, you’ve guessed, absolutely incomparably better than the French ones. The year had been a poor one for truffles and their scarcity made them much more expensive than their more normal price of £1,000 per pound. Another local man in the party ventured the opinion that they could be fetching up to £4,000 per pound.
Ginni, in walking boots and leather hat, and carrying a kind of mini-spade went unerringly to the type of tree most likely to have the truffle fungus on its roots and gave a command which the dogs recognized. They nosed down through the loose grass, fallen twigs, autumn leaves and mud, around the base of the tree, with unbounded excitement and joy, their tails wagging fit to fly off, until they were motioned to move on. At about the sixth attempt their behaviour was markedly different, and they became serious and focussed and intent, and Ginni cleared a small patch and loosened the ground with his spade to find a mud-caked white truffle about a couple of inches in diameter.
This leads on to the most important subject, one almost sacred in the Emilia-Romagna area – the subject of food. In the hotel everything was local and fresh and which, in the food vernacular of the district, “respected the seasons”. It was harvest time for olives and chestnuts and these were incorporated into home-made breads, cakes, pies, preserves and spreads and delicious persimmons appeared in fruit baskets, desserts and pies. Main courses had venison, partridge and fish from within a kilometer or two.
Italian Heartland Cooking
Giovanni, the patron, as well as making the main meals, also made all the bread, scones, pies and cakes. And, being where we were, we had truffles with everything. The procedure was to take a small device which was made up of a blade fixed flat against a small piece of wood and rub the truffle along the surface to make very thin slices. These were dropped fresh on to whatever was on the plate – pasta, meat, game, fish, anything savoury. Sweet things were spared a ration of truffles but, at breakfast time, the scrambled egg was liberally garnished with it. Alternatively, you can cook them in an egg cooker.
This whole area is the heartland of Italian cuisine, where tagliatelle and tortellini were created, not to mention Bolognese sauce, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, and mortadella. It is mandatory not to be on any kind of diet.
Lesson number one for the uninitiated is never to ask for spaghetti Bolognese. The Bolognese and the Emilia-Romagnans have never heard of it and the very concept is unimaginable because they never use spaghetti for anything. The thing which most resembles the spag bol of the Brits is made with tagliatelle as the pasta. And it is unheard-of to stretch the sauce with anything like pork. Here it is beef and only beef cooked with celery, carrots, onions and tomatoes “for a very long time”. If sage, fennel or herbs are used they are used as fresh leaves and nutmeg is ground from an actual nutmeg.
(Here are some great onion choppers for you!)
Bologna’s nickname is La Grassa (The Fat) and it is not difficult to understand why. The region has its own Rogmanol cows which yield the most exquisite fillet and T-bone steaks, cut using the best boning knife. Pork products are salami, Parma ham, prosciutto, pancetta and migliaccio (a kind of black pudding). Pecorino cheese is made locally from sheep’s milk; local farmers make Ricotta from sheep or cows, and Raviggiolo is made exclusively from cow’s milk. They all should all be eaten with the speciality local bread, piadina. Cherries, mushrooms and truffles, as we have seen, abound and the wines which are made from the grapes growing on the Appennine slopes are San Giovese (red) and Albana (white).
Despite everything there are other attractions in the province. There are unique historical treasures in Bologna, Parma, Placenza and Modena; there is more than enough to see in Ravenna alone to last a week. It was the last capital of the Roman Empire after the fall of Rome and is the home of the most celebrated mosaics in western art. Despite this there are few crowds or queues and the art- slow food.
While you’re here, be sure to check out our kitchen product reviews!