There are many great culinary centers around the world; spots made famous either entirely or in part for their rich food history. My favorite though is without hesitation the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Although not a place many Americans know about, they really should because it’s from the towns, cities and farms spread across the area where some of Italy’s, and the world’s, most famous dishes and ingredients all got their start. The complete list of delicacies that hail from here would, and have, comprise an entire book so today I want to instead share some of my favorite bites, all of which are easy to try on your own trip through Emilia-Romagna.
My most recent trip to the Emilia-Romagna region was mostly focused on the food culture and to start things off I spent the afternoon at a winery and producer of Balsamic vinegar, Venturini Baldini. Balsamic vinegar is characterized by a rich, dark brown hue and dense, syrupy texture and is produced in Modena and the province of Reggio Emilia in Emilia-Romagna. Producers must use the skin, seeds, stems, and juice of freshly pressed grapes from Lambrusco, Trebbiano, and other grape varietals grown around Modena. They cook the mixture over low heat until it thickens and changes to a dark brown color. The sugar transforms to alcohol but is not ready for consumption for at least 12 years, with the best balsamic aged between 30 and 50 years with a sweet, almost caramel aroma giving way to a balanced acidic flavor containing a light tartness. There are few things better than an expertly crafted Balsamic, which really is a treat in its own right.
Italy is of course famous for its wines, but while in Emilia-Romagna I was surprised to discover something a little unusual – Lambrusco. An ancient grape varietal, it has been grown in the region since Roman times but it wasn’t its age that surprised me, it’s the fact that it’s a sparkling red. I wasn’t at all familiar with chilled sparkling red wines before my last trip to Emilia-Romagna, but I quickly realized why it’s so popular. It’s the ideal offset to the types of meals served in the towns and cities in this part of Italy and towards the end of my trip I too was a fan of an expertly produced Lambrusco wine.
The king of cheeses, you can’t go far in Emilia-Romagna without stumbling over this incredible bite, but for something a little extra special I spent the morning with one of the producers of this hot commodity. Parmesan cheese comes from the province of Parma. A distinguishing characteristic of the cheese is a dark or light gold rind protecting the soft, velvety, or slightly grainy texture of the cheese. The taste should be savory and delicate. Parmesan’s texture is fully dependent upon the aging period. Dairy farmers use pure cow’s milk taken from two milkings on the same day, one of which is partially skimmed. A traditional wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano reaches 18 inches in width, nine inches in height, and nearly 90 pounds in weight. The cheese ages for up to three years, producing a very compact, grainy texture falling under the category of hard Italian cheeses, and once you tase the differences between the ages you’ll be hooked just like I was.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but before my most recent trip I had never before heard of one of Italy’s great culinary treasures – culatello. As it turns out, I’m not alone and this delicacy is routinely called the best food no one has heard of. I spent the day with one of the great producers of this incredible ham but to describe it here really won’t do it justice. Culatello is a slowly cured boneless ham that is made from the best muscle of the pig’s rump. It’s aged in dark and somewhat moldy cellars until it reaches perfection. Nearly impossible to find in the US, you really have to travel to Emilia-Romagna to try and appreciate this, the king of meats. Only about 30,000 culatello hams are produced each year, so while it may be a little pricey, it’s well worth it to try what is the best slice of meat I’ve ever had.
Pastas & Tortellini
You can’t go to Italy without trying pasta and, of course, in Emilia-Romagna there are many endemic varieties. One of my favorites though is the tortellini. Tortellini is delicate fresh pasta made from egg and flour commonly stuffed with meats, cheeses, or vegetables. Tortellini pasta was created in Bologna and has become ubiquitous in regional cuisine across Italy prepared in a variety of ways, from light tomato sauce to heartier sauces using cream, or vegetables as the base. One of the most popular dishes in Emilia-Romagna is Tortellini en Brodo, a comfort food consisting of fresh tortellini in chicken broth.
This was another new to me regional delicacy and while I’m not normally a fan of anything green, I found myself quickly going back for seconds and thirds. Erbazzone has become a gastronomic legacy highlighting the savory flavors of spinach, chard, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and pancetta cooked with butter and lard as a rustic country-style tart. The dish is baked and traditionally served hot or warm to enjoy the golden, flaky pastry. The original recipe was fried in pork lard until dark, but many recipes vary from customs based on the heritage of family recipes. The dish is more common in the Reggio Emilia province in Emilia-Romagna and the provincial capital referred to locally as Reggio.
Once again, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that two of my favorite sauces – and two of the most popular in the world – also hail from Bologna and surrounding communities. Bolognese sauce or ragú is the rich, hearty sauce from Bologna consisting of beef, pork, dry white wine, meat broth, tomato paste, and vegetables. The sauce traditionally accompanies tagliatelle pasta but is also used to dress lasagna or polenta. Béchamel is a thick white sauce made from butter, flour, and milk. The sauce often serves as a base for other rich and hearty cream sauces used in Emilia-Romagna dishes like lasagna, garganelli, and cannelloni.
It’s honestly very difficult to find a bad meal anywhere in Italy, but in Emilia-Romagna it’s impossible. Long known as the stomach of Italy, many of the classic Italian dishes loved around the world all got their start in this quietly humble province; traditions that are still going strong in the 21st century. Even if you don’t have a food themed trip, you’ll soon learn as I did that any visit very quickly becomes a culinary pilgrimage.