Caught in the net of Emilia Romagna

Emilia Romagna – A Culinary Adventure

The Emilia Romagna Tour Begins

Our excursion into the culinary heart of Emilia Romagna started on a  gray and rainy morning as we headed up the A1 from Rome to Bologna. Passing through the rolling hills of Umbria into the pastoral landscape of Tuscany,  past Florence and over the Apennines we arrived in Bologna, Emilia Romagna’s capital city and Italy’s culinary heart, on a cool and damp evening.

Bologna Piazza at Dusk
Bologna Piazza at Dusk by Filippo Giunchedi

Once the group was settled in we headed to our first dinner adventure. Organized by Dragonfly Tours and located at Bologna native and one of Italy’s “super chefs” Mario Barbieri’s newly opened Fourghetti restaurant. The menu was traditional Bolognese dishes from Emilia Romagna with a modern twist. The food was complemented by a terrific bottle of local Sangiovese wine. Dishes ranged from traditional Tortellini to a variety of meats and fish – a delightful way to start the tour.

Hand Made Tortellini Shop

The next morning, we were met by our lovely guide Elena, a young college student with a passion for her city and the culinary delights it has to offer. We started out at one of Bologna’s historic tortellini factories, La Salumeria, a very small but artisanal establishment. Here, several ladies sat at a large table and with incredible dexterity laid out sheets of paper thin pasta and with a flick of their fingers made the delicious pasta shapes which are known as the classic and traditional tortellini. They are filled with pork, veal and a pinch of nutmeg. A small plate of tortellini was laid out for us just coated in butter and local Parmigiano Reggiano – delicious simplicity at its best.

From there we walked the streets of Bologna’s market district, visiting a plethora of little shops selling everything from fish to amazing vegetables to countless cuts charcuterie. Mortadella, Prosciutto, Culatelo – all traditionally made and all as delicious as we had hoped. The morning was crowned by a quick lunch at an outside table at Tamburini, Bologna’s most famous “Alimentari” where a plate of mixed meats and cheeses were put before us and which we all enjoyed with a fresh glass of Lambrusco, Emilia’s unique, slightly frizzy red wine.

A Traditional Bologna Trattoria

Ladies making 100 tortellini a minute.
Ladies making 100 tortellini a minute.

That night, wanting a change from the more elegant experience of the previous evening, we opted for a traditional family trattoria located in the center of Bologna’s historic center. After a pleasant 20-minute walk from the hotel we reached Trattoria Tony, a delightful family restaurant where we were able to find some of Emilia Romagna’s most traditional dishes. Tortellini al Ragu, Bologna’s traditional pasta as mentioned above, smothered in a traditional meat sauce like no other you have ever experienced. Bollito Misto, another traditional dish of boiled meats ranging from brisket, sausage, tongue and chicken accompanied by the ever present “Salsa Verde” a sauce made from parsley, garlic, capers and olive oil – perfectly pairing with the dish of boiled meats which had been cooked in a rich chicken broth for hours. The ubiquitous Lambrusco and Sangiovese accompanied our meal and though we had a couple of desserts, they were overshadowed by the delicate and delicious dishes that make Bologna such a culinary delight.

Off to Parma for Cheese and Prosciutto Tasting

Parmesan ages for up to 3 years.
Parmesan ages for up to 3 years.

The following morning took us on the road to Parma, in the northern section of the region of Emilia Romagna, where we stopped at a Parmigiano Reggiano maker as well as a Prosciutto di Parma provider. There, we learned about the several different stages of aging, storage and the different requirements needed for each of these typical local products to be guaranteed and authenticated as genuine products of the region. There were, of course, tastings all around. The lunch hour was focused on visiting a local vintner, Azienda Vinicola Carra, whose vineyard produces a variety of local wines from Sangiovese and Lambrusco to  lovely white Malvasio. Our host then proceeded to serve us with an unforgettable lunch. It starting with a tasting of Tortelli, the local stuffed pasta dish – from herb and ricotta to mushroom to delicious potato filled dumplings smothered in a butter sage sauce. That was followed by braised rabbit and roasted chicken accompanied by the most delicious roasted potatoes you have ever had in your life. The meal ended with home made desserts and finishing with a shot of espresso – decaf for me, thank you.

The afternoons were spent touring Parma and its cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary, with a fascinating mix of Romanesque and Gothic Italian architecture, highlighted by the beautiful frescoes of the Assumption of Mary by Correggio.

Porcini Hunting and Cielo di Strela Agroturismo

Foraging for porcini mushrooms amongst a forest of chestnut trees.
Foraging for porcini mushrooms amongst a forest of chestnut trees.

Our last day really highlighted the entire experience starting with an early morning call and heading by mini van into the Appenine mountains just west of Parma. Before crossing over to the coast one detours north into the hillside where we met our nature guide who took us for a hunt for the elusive porcino mushroom. Equipped with high rubber boots to protect us from the wet ground and rough terrain, we proceeded to trek into an enchanting chestnut forest. Thick with a variety of trees, the ground was scattered with fallen chestnuts and covered with wet leaves. Hidden among all this forest debris we hoped to find the porcini mushrooms which we planned to pick and take back to our Agriturismo.

Alas, due to the lateness in the season and the difficult terrain, we were only able to find a single king of the mushrooms. We carefully extracted it from where it was growing at the side of an old chestnut tree and carefully enveloped it in our bag and brought it proudly to our next destination – Agriturismo Il Cielo di Strela.

Agriturismo Il Cielo di Strela

The final product - an amazing mushroom and pheasant risotto.
The final product – an amazing mushroom and pheasant risotto.

In the heart of Emilia Romagna, in the hills of the Apennine mountains, lies the Agriturismo Il Cielo di Strela. Run by the marvelous Mario Marini and his wife Gloria, it was our last stop on an unforgettable trip through Emilia Romagna. After cleaning our porcino mushroom and adding it to a few more Mario had previously picked, we got a quick class on the cleaning and cooking of the mushrooms. We were then ushered into the dining room for what was about to be an unforgettable lunch. We were first served a variety of appetizers including some hot bruschetta with the freshly sautéed porcini. In addition some cold cuts including salame, culatello and prosciutto all made and cured by Mario and his team. Following these delicious starters we were presented with a Parmesan form filled to the top with bubbling Porcini Mushroom and Pheasant Risotto. To follow the meal Mario and his kitchen prepared a 12 hour roasted pork roast which melted in your mouth. To end the meal, a home made ice cream was brought to the table, vanilla laced with bit of candied lemon which made all of us swoon.

The trip was unforgettable as was the food and the sights we saw along the way. Emilia Romagna has proven not only to be a hidden gem which is rarely sought after by the masses of tourists who prefer Tuscany and other more popular regions. It was also an area of Italy that provided such a variety culinary delights that the experience will be difficult to forget. Stay tuned for our next Italian regional trip which and Dragonfly Tours Italy will be bringing you later in 2017.

Top Image Photo credit: Caspar Diederik


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