MY ITALIAN ADVENTURE
THE STORY SO FAR:
I went on to continue my adventure in Romagna, Now to learn much more about this strange and wonderful place.
I had been kidnapped to the Magic Mountain! Met both the most powerful woman in the world and the Father of Italian Cookery. And I'd had the most amazing birthday party.
Then we explored the romantic hilltop castles, festivals and fireflies. Now it was time to show our work and this amazing place to professional travel agents.
The idea was that these travel agents would just love Romagna, our choices, our offers and our ambience so much that they would tell all their customers about it and come back with groups of nice Americans.
So, half a dozen at a time, Valentina and I showed our travel agents our Best of Romagna. They stayed in delightful country house bed-and-breakfasts, they tasted delicious wine in lovely vineyards, we fed them fabulous food in happy restaurants, and our Ravenna guide Cinzia intro- duced them to fifteen hundred years of colourful stories where they happened – in Ravenna. Of course there was much, much more – and they loved it!
They loved too the performance that Valentina and I put on. Our relationship was pretty relaxed and witty. I trusted Valentina enough to act as her straight man and our travel agents found their experi- ences not only deliciously informative but a great deal of loving fun too. They all went back home happy and enthused knowing that our initiative was something really special really authentic and certainly not mass-produced. We hoped that now they would spread the word in at least the twenty states that they’d come from. We hoped that they would enthuse their clients who we were sure wanted something more fulfilling than today’s commodity tourism.
Andrea Nicholas was the boss of Green Tourism, a world leader in checking out and certifying sustainable tourism businesses. Their inspectors visited hotels and tourism businesses around the world and checked that they were really sustainable and if so, they awarded them Green Tourism badges for their websites and brochures and plaques to put up above their doors. Simply said a Green Tourism-awarded establishment bought as locally and organically as possible, it managed its waste, energy and emissions and trained its staff in green initiatives. The idea is that this would benefit the business’ suppliers, its staff, its customers and, indeed, the world.
Ever since I’d started writing Sustainable Tourism Reports Andrea had been both a customer and a supporter and over the years I’d also helped her with marketing for Green Tourism. So when she decided to expand into Italy, specifically Emilia Romagna it was natural that I would help her set it up.
The initial set-up had started very successfully but in quite a small way and a year or so later she asked Valentina and me to check out the Green Tourism-awarded businesses in Romagna and help them with marketing.
The job was fascinating, there were over forty hotels to visit. Not only were we able to help them but also expand our own knowledge and the potential for more cooperators.
And visiting the Green Hotels for me was like a journey back in time. The area that Andrea had chosen to start her project was around Cervia and Milano Marittima, a twin seaside town on the Adriatic south of Ravenna and north of Rimini.
Cervia is an ancient port famous for its salt pans which were owned by the Pope in the seventeenth century and still now produce their famous sweet salt. It started its tourism in the early nineteenth century and has developed into a lovely little family seaside destination. Lots of small family hotels providing great food for breakfast, sometimes lunch and always dinner. In the season they are full up with Italians from the cities. It’s clearly a lovely holiday, there’s the beach full of activities, of course, with literally hundreds of beach bars keeping their bit of sand clean all the way to the sea, hiring out sunbeds and umbrellas. But apart from the beach there’s always something to do family-style.
From an economic perspective the destination is totally unsustainable. A season that starts in June, doesn’t really get into full swing until August and then closes down in September can never work without enormous pressures on the local social structure. Of course, families take the brunt of the work but, even then, it’s really a waste of potential. But that’s the way it’s always worked and Italians are slaves to tradition.
The food, though, for two and three-star hotels, is unbelievably good and the efforts hoteliers and their families make to keep their clients year after year are gargantuan. And its not just the quality – the commitment to healthy, local, fresh, seasonal menus would be aston- ishing anywhere else. And given that there are no hotel chains here cutting costs by delivering mass-produced crap to keep prices down, the minimal charges these little hotels make is astonishing. It’s just a pity it will have to change as the global march to sameness takes over.
But for the moment just imagine a basic family-run 30-bedroom two- or three-star hotel producing great breakfasts, massive buffet lunches and dinners comprising a good antipasto, two or three different pastas made that morning from flour and eggs, with sauces, a range of main courses, desserts, good coffee and acceptable wines – all locally sourced and seasonal, all for an Italian clientele who understand food and expect the very best.
I went back to the UK for the summer and then in the autumn Valentina and I started showing off our cooperators’ offers to our visiting American travel agents.
We had become so proud of them all and all of them had fascinating stories, which we understood better and better in the telling.
For many years I’d known that travel loses its true value when it becomes just a formula of accommodation, transport and price.
By now I had come to understand the level of thick necks that the Romagnolo people sported. Every small entrepreneur I met had a deep conviction on exactly how everything should be done. And our cooperators were no different.
Take our vineyards. At Villa Venti, Mauro was so sure that he needed to own his own vineyard and produce obviously perfect wine that after a short career in the rubber industry, he studied to be a sommelier, worked in a top restaurant, persuaded his wife and his family to work with him tearing down an old fruit farm, planting the perfect grapes for the terrain and lived on little more than fresh air for 5 years before his (perfect) organic, biodynamic wine appeared, while his wife Manuela slogged away in the kitchen and the terrace creating breads and jams and chutneys by hand from their own raw materials.
On the other hand, Augusto at Zuffa wine had the responsibility to carry on his grandfather’s work. Nonno had not become organic because he was part of any green movement. To him it was simple, his family deserved the best, they weren’t going to have to drink any old chemical rubbish – they would drink pure wine just like their forefa- thers had. Augusto had to get a degree in chemistry so he knew what to avoid and why, and on the way he created organic wines so good that they got noticed by the Italian Ministry of Health and chosen to repre- sent Italy at the World Expo. Obviously, Augusto is just as determined as his granddad was.
And at Fattoria Paradiso as we arrived there was always a noisy and colourful argument going on behind the scenes - God knows why they were shouting at each other. But this fourth- generation vineyard had a colourful history with superb wines and a superb wine library to prove it. The founder, great wine character Mario Pezzi, had created a truly noble vineyard in a truly noble medi- eval estate. He had re-introduced great indigenous grapes to the area, grown and matured world-beating rich sangioveses when everybody else had said they would not mature.
Poor American travel agents. Finally, they got it and loved it but, for the day after they arrived, they were totally fazed. When we said we were going to take them to a restaurant and its own farm they thought they were going to see a big homogenous establishment like they would in the USA.
In fact we’d take them to a campsite, with some chalets and a big restaurant full of local workers eating their lunches. And the Ameri- cans had no idea of sizes. I’d order some stuff and the waiter would bring some carafes of their own good wine and then troll up with a massive platter of assorted meats and cheeses for everyone. Plus a few baskets of their hot, just cooked piadina flatbread.
The platter would be piled high with the family’s own prosciuttos, salamis, collar, head and cheek of their own cured pork, ultra-fresh squacquerone cheese, and dozens of fabulous crostini topped with exquisite delicacies. Delving into the food and the wine they finished practically every morsel and sat back, sated. The nice waiter (they all were) cleared away. They thought it was all over.
Until the waitor reappeared with another even more enormous platter – this time loaded with three different sorts of pasta, hand made that morning. Usually there were tortellini stuffed with cheese and covered with sage and crispy prosciutto; there were strozzapreti (stran- gled priest pasta without egg) covered with vegetables, and always the family pasta speciality – tagliatelle with a fabulously rich sauce of pork, beef and sangiovese wine. Our guests were not quite so hungry for this course although the food was always miraculous, the Americans would try to finish. The waiter would clear away.
And then he would reappear. Now he would bring the main course! Usually great spicy pork sausages, big juicy meat patties, enormous pork chops, great long thick slices of bacon, beef and veal steaks, all grilled to perfection on a roaring open fire and all from their own animals.
Plus, the grilled vegetables – fat deep red tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines and red peppers – also grilled, also their own produce – plus superb potatoes, crisply roasted with rosemary and Cervia sea salt. Delectable. A hush would descend over the table, draughts of wine would be quaffed as energies were recouped to deal with this feast... and of course, more hot piadina would be brought.
Done with everything they could eat, our guests would sit back in their chairs – full warm and happy.
When the desserts and the dessert wines were brought.
One dessert was always Zuppa Inglese – what? English soup? Well, a very traditional Romagnolo dessert actually. It’s a concoction of sponge soaked in Alchermes – an ancient cochineal liqueur – covered in a rich egg custard and melted chocolate.
Or, if you couldn’t eat a dessert, there was always the option of dipping rich eggy Ciambella sponge into sweet late harvest Vin Santo. Coffee of course, naturally with a range of home-made ‘digestivos’
– usually including Limoncello, Banane and Licquorice.
Done? It’s time to go and walk off lunch usually with a tour around Ravenna and its amazing Byzantine heritage of glorious glistening mosaics. The imperial Roman Capital of Galla Placidia was always a highlight of the visit for our American travel agents. How could they resist a little time travel? Back 8 centuries to where Dante’s bones were buried then back 9 centuries to the Franciscan monastery – then straight back nearly 17 centuries to the Ravenna of Empress Galla and
21 centuries to the Roman port begun by Emperor Augustus.
Hot and hungry work this time travelling – lucky that Ravenna provides a home for the gelateria that currently occupies number 1 spot on my list of great gelaterias! This one is on the outskirts of town and is simply amazing, so it should be if it’s top of my list. Anyway, its gelato is organic (not as unusual as you may think but a big plus nonetheless – at least you know that there is no messing around with the ingredients). But the killer issue here is the family’s quirky tastes like beetroot gelato and blackberry and sage, arabica coffee gelato is amazing and for texture, just try the ricotta gelato: light and fluffy and totally yummy!
The American travel agents had amazing times in Romagna. So much so that they were more than happy to tell everybody about this new (actually old!) place to go.
Finally, before the real clients came I needed to check it all out personally, AGAIN!
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
Episode 7 My Big Fat Romagnolo Birthday Party
Episode 8 River Deep Mountain High - Romagna's Fabulous Castles
Episode 9 Fireflies, Cherries and Soaring Hills
Episode 10 Racing around Romagna
Episode 11 The Sublime and the Ridiculous
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.