THE STORY SO FAR:
I'd gone back to Romagna with my old friend Angelo and after 40 years we had not only discovered Ravenna but been enchanted by it! The mosaics, the history, the atmosphere, the food, the fun and the gelatos had us captivated!
And I went on to continue my adventure in Romagna, Now to learn much more about this strange and wonderful place.
I'd discovered Christmas in San Marino, Passatelli and Tonino Guerra - and I had been kidnapped to the Magic Mountain! Met both the most powerful woman in the world and the Father of Italian Cookery.
I’d never met Cristina Ambrosini before but we had talked by email as a result of TravelMole's owner Charlie Kao’s chat with her at some trade show somewhere.
She was the publisher and editor of the Italian travel trade newspaper aptly named Agenzia di Viaggi (Travel Agent). It transpired that Cristina had a great idea, so we had arranged to meet when I finally got back to Romagna that year.
I got the dinky little train for the spectacular scenic ride through the Apennines from Faenza right in the heart of Romagna to Florence right in the heart of Tuscany where Cristina was waiting for me.
Naturally we started with lunch. Cristina was keen on introducing me to some Florentine specialities so we started with her favourite – Crostini di Fegatini. Execrable! Maybe the only thing I have ever eaten in Italy that was totally disgusting. Not that I don’t like chicken livers but these were horrible! Mind you the pasta and the fiorentina beef- steak certainly made up for it.
Then to our meeting. We were talking to Antonella Chiti from the Florence municipality and Chiara Bocchio of the UNESCO office of the City of Florence to arrange a ‘Talk Show’ for the event which was to be held in Padua in September.
The Responsible and Sustainable Tourism Prize was sponsored by Agenzia di Viaggi and other big Italian names in tourism to be awarded at World Heritage Tourism Exhibition, which is to be held in Padua around the awarding there were to be other events such as the talk show.
Just the life-enhancing experience I needed to be embedded in my recent memory when, back in Bristol, I sat in front of my consultant and she told me I had cancer in my pancreas. The cancer had been causing my pancreatitis. Meg Fitch-Jones, my consultant, held my hands as she told me and looked in my eyes with such kindness that I knew she had my best interests in mind. She suggested the Whipple procedure – a major 6-8 hour operation to remove the cancer. “If it works, you’ll die of something else” She said.
Although I was shaken by the news and the fact that it was a massive operation which would remove some of my pancreas, some of my stomach, all of my duodenum and a length of intestine – there was no choice other than to go ahead.
The operation was organised for mid-September, just five months before my 70th birthday. So, I decided to have my birthday party in one particular amazingly good restaurant in Romagna. All my family were invited and they all said that they would come.
The anaesthetist raised her eyebrows when she heard my plan – “8 months is average recovery time for an 8–hour operation but you have to have something to look forward to – right?”
I spent the next few weeks getting fit and then I was off to Belgium and Italy.
First stop just had to be Ostend on the Belgian coast where my tourism journey had started. Here I needed lunch – not just lunch – my perfect favourite lunch – ripe, sweet beef tomatoes stuffed with real fresh mayonnaise and hand-shelled baby brown North Sea shrimps followed by a fat Sole Meunière (fried in butter) with real Belgian frites, finally a Dame Blanche – rich vanilla ice cream with a Belgian chocolate sauce with flaked almonds. Of course, I found this magical meal. And I followed it with a walk along my familiar promenade.
Afternoon – Diksmuide, where some of my family had come from and the fabulous cobbled square with the Butter Hall – which was still running the annual beer and chocolate festival I’d started 20 years previously.
Now Diksmuide had also become a tourist destination. Just 100 years ago the first world war had flattened the city but now, it looks just like it did before the war arrived. They’re a tough bunch, the Flemings. And they’re used to war. Resilient – that’s the word.
Nearby Ypres had also cashed in on the war centenary tourism – the great thing about which was that it would be a four-year tourism boom – the length of the war. Plus it would be quality high-spending tourism – older people with a bit of money.
And then I was off to Romagna the pretty way – through Austria and the Alps. Another bunch of memories here – like our astonish- ingly profitable operation in Zell am See and fabulous Salzburg and Innsbruck, both great excursion destinations.
And back in Romagna it was time to eat, drink (well in my case fizzy water) because tomorrow you may die! Plus, I needed to buy some things. I needed a truly great dinner before the op – so I needed great Romagnolo sausage for the ‘Ragu’.
I’d promised to do various things (like having great meals) and say goodbye to my friends, and then I was off back home via Stras- bourg for the night and a massive plate of Choucroute. Strasbourg is extraordinary, in my view it is the best food city north of Milan. There is simply everything good in French cuisine – great cheeses, amazingly good desserts and cakes (including macarons, eclairs and biscuits), and wonderful salads. For me one of the problems about French and Italian food is bread – OK you’ve got brioches etc., but where are the superb currant breads? In Germany and Belgium.
In Strasbourg, my culinary problems are answered – there is absolutely superb bread. And another Franco-German triumph – Choucroute. As you arrive in Strasbourg, you’ll see great fields of cabbage especially for Sauerkraut. But of course it’s not just the Sauerkraut in Choucroute, it’s the vast variety of meat too – different sausages, pieces of pork – I’ve seen 9 pieces of meat and more. With the proper bread and the correct boiled potatoes – it’s a meal that will last you a day... or until you spot another great delicious dessert! Too heavy? You can also have a Choucroute with bits of fish too!
Strasbourg has other culinary specialities – like flammekueche (flame cake) basically a pizza but with toppings like cherry or cheese and bacon. Just a half an hour’s walk will give you an appetite and food ideas for a week. Particularly in the baker’s where my personal passion is Cramique – a confection of brioche, currants and sugar lumps!
If you want a good way of preparing for an operation – Strasbourg is a very effective one, plus it has the great River Rhine for a nice boat ride and the soaring cathedral where you can say your prayers.
Back in the UK, the night before the op, I prepared dinner for my three sons. A massive platter of tagliatelle with great parmesan and a ragu made of pork and beef, lots of different Romagnolo sausages, good olive oil, garlic, tomatoes carrots and celery. I’d made a great applecake with clotted cream for pudding. Bed early because I wasn’t allowed to eat for 8 hours before the op which was set for 8am the next morning.
10 hours after the operation had started, I was awake, feeling horrid and minus a lot of my offal. Thanks to the brilliant and very fit surgeon (apparently, he hadn’t had a pee for the whole 9-hour op) I was up and about within a couple of days and out of hospital in 10 days.
That’s not to say I didn’t have my near-death experience. The High Dependency Unit where I was taken to after the operation was my nightmare. No natural light completely disoriented me and soon I was having a migraine, unable to feel my legs, unable to see or hear and unable to pass anything in my body due to the lack of plumbing. “Well here it is” I thought as I descended into numbness and nausea. But I wasn’t allowed out of the world yet.
It took longer than I thought to get better enough to drive longish distances but by February I was ready to drive to Italy and back to Longiano for my birthday party.
So, off Pam and I set out in the trusty old VW Golf. First stop a fabulous lunch in a forest manor Michelin restaurant near Calais, ready to rock, great food finally. We spent the night in Auxerre – one of my first visits when I was a kid and, although a historic and pretty city never in danger of being overloaded with tourists. The next night after driving through the Alps, we were in Italy, just outside of Ravenna and the village of San Pancrazio.
Of course I should have realised! I was here the year before last, and in Saint Pancrazy in Slovenia – everything comes in threes – the third was my own pancreas getting wonky!
But here in San Pancrazio was the very rococo hotel Villa Roncuzzi run by a friend, an ex-art dealer and it was stuffed full of pictures, statues and mosaics. Plus all of my family, each a work of art in them- selves and well up for a weekend party!
Patrizia, the owner, had asked if we wanted a dinner on the eve of my birthday. As my family were arriving from all over and many of them on late flights, I’d said “just a plate of pasta – maybe.”
In the event just a plate of perfect tagliatelle with ragu was produced. After a plate of mixed hors d’oeuvres and before a plate of fillet steak and another bowl of Zuppa Inglese. All of this was accompanied by copious amounts of wine. How nice I thought. But far, far too much to feed a bunch who weren’t hungry.
The idea was that the next day we would have lunch in Longiano all together and I’d been looking forward to it for at least a year. For a big lunch – we’d settled on starting at midday and finishing at 6pm – we would all need a good rest – so early to bed.
My birthday dawned bright and cold and after a stamina-giving full-on breakfast we were off to Longiano. So about forty of us sat down for lunch at the superb Dei Cantoni restaurant – all my family plus Angelo and his long-suffering wife Marian and Sandra who’d come from Amsterdam with her daughter. Plus there was a goodly bunch of my Italian friends. I’d discussed the menu with my friends Danilo and Teresa who owned the restaurant and we had decided to do only local specialities plus vegetarian for my sister, her daughter and my eldest grandchild. Anyway, I knew it was going to be good.
And just like the magnificent long banquets I remembered from my childhood in Belgium our lunch would be a relaxed affair including walks around, playing outside, informal fun and very long.
And we started with a walk. Longiano’s councillor in charge of the arts and culture Cristina Minotti and the tourism manager Emiliano Ceredi met us and gave us a nice tour – up to the picturesque medieval castle, down to the beautiful picturesque theatre, into the quirky museum of cast iron, before we repaired for lunch.
We started with great platters of antipasto. Some with tender artichokes deep fried in the lightest of light batters, local pork sausage with a mustard sauce and grilled porcini mushrooms with rocket and parmesan; others with great speciality local prosciutto, salami and Squacquerone (the freshest of fresh local cream cheese) served with local sea salt and caramelised figs and, of course fresh, warm Piadina flatbread. Naturally there were also crostini – some with toppings of vegetables and cheese, others topped with roasted Tomino cheese and yet others with delicious sweet/bitter fresh herb salads.
Then came the pasta – all freshly made that morning. Just two! But a magnificent pair – the first – Cappellacci stuffed with Ricotta and Raveggiolo cheeses and topped with fresh local porcini mushrooms and baby tomatoes. The second was baby potato gnocchi with a cream sauce of local strong pit-fermented cheese and bacon.
And now for the main courses! Rabbit cooked in casserole with lemon and olive; grilled beef with sun dried tomatoes and truffles; rare breed local pork with roast potatoes and caramelised balsamic.
And, of course, there was room for the millefeuille birthday cake stuffed with cream and strawberries and laden with icing sugar – and candles.
All was washed down with great local wines, soft drinks for the kids and water for everybody (including me!).
The kids were happy, there was a playground outside and plenty of pop within. At six-ish we raised ourselves to our feet, made more speeches and toasts and then we were on our way back to Villa Roncuzzi.
Where dinner and yet another celebration was awaiting!
My pleas for just a little plate of pasta had fallen on deaf ears and we arrived for a massive banquet just a couple of hours after we had already eaten one.
I’m very proud of my family. Seeing what was about to happen, they just sat down and ate. Another four courses with wine to go with them. And then the whole event took on a surreal aspect. Alfredo, Patrizia’s friend, had arrived from Rimini with what he suggested was very special wine. So, he stood up and talked about it to the whole table for what seemed like hours – in Italian, because he spoke not a word of English. He was only stopped by Maestro Carnevali – an older gent dressed up to the nines with his suitcase full of Ocarinas plus a couple of saxophones. He was to do his act which involved playing a tune on each of his many instruments.
And, although Maestro Carnevali was quite happy to go into the history of ocarinas, I’m not.
We trotted off to bed defeated by the food and the hospitality.
One of the guests at my birthday lunch had been Dominique Morroli who happened to be the PR officer at San Marino. Lively, lovely Dominique had come to my lunch with important news – tomorrow was to be a kids’ carnival in San Marino – for St Valentine’s Day.
San Marino was to be the first stop and the main event on the day after my birthday lunch.
We made our way to the little republic’s main square up the top of its mountain where Dominique was waiting for us with the regulation goodies. Masks, hats, swords and balloons (after all it was a carnival) were distributed to all! Everybody had a great time swordfighting, chucking things around and generally wrecking the decorations that San Marino had put up everywhere for the occasion. Lots of photos were taken and all that activity got the better of us so it was time for a splendid lunch.
A stroll up and down the mountain before we went off to Cesena for gelato and a wander around the town’s picture-perfect square and a visit to the castle (the scene of my meeting with Dani and Chiara before I got ill). Naturally now Dani was with us all so she gave us a tour before our big dinner in the amazing Malatesta castle.
What a wonderful few days for a birthday – and the sun shone – there was even a bit of picturesque snow!
They all went home happy. And Pam and I stayed for a few more days.
And I stayed for even more days before I drove off to somewhere I’d been going to each year for nearly four decades – ITB Berlin – the biggest travel trade show in the world.
Episode 1 Romagna Mia
Episode 2 Meeting the most powerful woman in the world
Episode 3 The adventure continues
Episode 4 More food and fun
Episode 5 Mona Lisa Mussolini and marvellous meals
Episode 6 Paradise in a bowl
TO BE CONTINUED...
and more about Romagna at www.BestofRomagna.com
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Valere Tjolle is the travel and tourism insider. An entrepreneur, consultant, developer and journalist, he has been in at the beginning of almost every tourism development for the last sixty years. There is no one better placed to expose the seedy side of tourism nor its enormous opportunities to unite people across the globe.