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. Finally, before the real clients came I needed to check it all out personally
Finally, before the real clients came I needed to check it all out personally, to do a full-on tourism stocktake of the area, as it were, so that at least I knew what it was all about... beginning with the power road which cuts Romagna in two as people rush from northern Italy to the Adriatic Sea.
Still a major route and the way that most tourists arrive, the Via Emilia was built by the Romans a couple of thousand years ago. The idea was that it would connect their new city port Ariminum (modern day Rimini) with Piacenza so they could whip armies up to the north in double quick time when revolts were threatened.
As the centuries unfolded the road proved useful for anybody who wanted to move fast for whatever reason. Naturally that attracted an assortment of travellers – and because the Romans had built their road with the mountains on one side and the fertile plain on the other, and they wanted to keep it as secure as possible, it was in their interest to foster the growth of settlements along the way.
Well known cities that have sprung up along the Via Emilia, and have grown prosperous and famous because of their positions, are Parma, Modena and Bologna. These are all in the western half of the road, but the bit in Romagna – the eastern half of the Via Emilia – has its treasure cities too, not so famous perhaps but equally intriguing.
The eastern part of the highway starts at Bologna so I thought it was a good idea to start there and work my way down. I knew too well the seductive power of Bologna’s food, and I was hoping that I’d be able to tear myself away from the city after only a twenty-four hour stay.
Naturally, though, such a massive undertaking as my whistle-stop tourism stocktake needed fuel in the tank to start – in other words a good meal. Where else in the world could you be a hundred percent certain of a good meal than in Bologna where for years I had been searching for a bad one to no avail! And the red city was an ideal starting point situated just on the border of Romagna halfway down the Via Emilia.
I’m totally attached to the concept of sustainability because it answers a great many of my internal questions. OK there are a great many practical issues like the world will be uninhabitable if we keep screwing it up, but the thing that really drives me is the potential glori- ousness of now. I was taught to really appreciate and revere what we have, to use it to deliver the best results and to try not to waste a bit of it. And in cookery that concept of no-waste, to me, is fundamental.
So to dinner in Bologna for which Angelo had arrived. Sat down at a local osteria, we discussed what to eat. First some ham and cheese – as usual, Angelo asked the waiter what the difference was between normal very expensive Culatello (the bit of air-dried ham from the pig’s bottom) and Culatello di Zibello which was their special starter that evening. The waiter said, “Fifteen kilometres sir!” As Zibello is the epicentre of Culatello production and it benefits particularly from the air in the Po valley – it is thought to be the best of the best. We were of course overdoing it a bit to have some sensational unpasteurised mountain-milk aged parmesan with the culatello but after all Angelo had lived in England for fifty years.
Both cheese and ham were extraordinary, served with care and concern for their preciousness, and totally, totally delicious.
Ready for our second course! We shared a tureen of the local speciality. As legend has it, an innkeeper in Bologna viewed beautiful Lucrezia Borgia through the keyhole in a door. All he could make out was her navel, so he created this pasta in commemoration. Tortellini are small pieces of ring-shaped pasta that have been wrapped around a filling, in our case a mix of Parma ham and pork loin. This pasta was made fresh that day and the little belly-buttons were swimming in a delicious broth made of Bollito. Bollito? The word just means “boiled” but actually it involves a whole capon (fattened cockerel), lumps of veal, beef and pork boiled for a few hours to produce the most deli- cious liquid to warm all your senses.
And our main course, and my favourite, roasted Faraona (guinea fowl) melt-in-the-mouth juiciness with crispy skin – Italians are so good at roasting! Sitting on a bed of hot spicy cabbage, with garlic and fresh chilli.
There’s a lot of discussion about Zuppa Inglese apart from its name – not English, not soup. For instance, which ancient licquer should you use to spice it? Rosolio or Alchermes? Anyway, this combination of molten chocolate, spiced Ciambella or sponge and custard is delizioso and we had it for our dessert.
It’s summer and it’s Bologna and in this city packed full of students (the world’s oldest university is still going strong and is probably the biggest in Europe) there is always something happening. Tonight’s event is a free film show in the gorgeous main square – the Piazza Maggiore. Not any old film but THE Romagna classic – Amarcord, the film by Romagna-born director Federico Fellini that truly encapsulated his homeland and his people. Although it won an Oscar it never got worldwide fame. I adore it.
Back to the little quirky hotel for the night, big Via Emilia day tomorrow.
Early breakfast in the hotel garden and Angelo and I talk about hotels. Personally I think that Romagna’s great strength is that there are no chains of hospitality enterprises. So, no chain hotels, restaurants, coffee shops or burger shops. Of course there are a few McDonalds and Holiday Inns dotted about but that’s about it. What, after all, would be the point in someone like Starbucks opening up in Italy where you have a million choices of bars all making and serving the kind of perfect coffee that Starbuck’s “baristas” could only dream of and at less than half the price? This, of course, is the same story for hotels and restaurants – every one in Italy is an individual establishment with an individual or a family running it with passion and always a committment to delivering something really special, something they think is a real world-beater. To someone who wants homogeneity and manageable standards it’s a nightmare, to me it’s heaven, and it always delivers wonderful, memorable surprises to tourists who want real, warm heartfelt hospitality.
In a world where everybody wants something different, it’s why I think Romagna represents the future of tourism.
So, we take the big walk around Bologna. I’ve been here many times and already checked out the forty kilometres of porticos and the seven-kilometre pilgrimage through 666 of those porticos to the hilltop basilica of San Luca plus the other main sights, including the two soaring towers. What I want to check now is the food market and three sights that I think are important – the fascinating seven-church complex of San Stefano which was originally the temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis, and the massive church of St Petronius with its sun calendar. Plus, I want to know a bit more about the university. Then we need to work out where to have lunch.
The food market is sensational and quite crowded even at this early hour. I can see now how it’s set to be a massive tourism attrac- tion – it’s old, it’s pretty, it’s fascinating, more importantly it’s a fantastic setting for luscious instagram pictures. I can visualise the masses visiting for their piece of food porn – just like the Red Light district in Amsterdam herded around by flag-toting guides to keep them out of trouble. Of course, they won’t buy anything, they’ll just clog up the alleyways – God knows what the stallholders or their local customers think, and I’m so pleased that my groups will be smaller and encouraged to taste and buy.
Anyway walk done, it’s time for coffee and I know just the right place. Zanarini is part of Bologna café society – great coffee and they’ll sell you a plate of mouthwatering ‘mignon’ patisseries to eat with it. Sitting out in the sun, perfect coffee and perfect miniature pastry, watching the world go by, what could be better?
Let’s go, it’s ten o’clock already and lunch is beckoning but our first stop is Dozza. Talk about nearly tourism paradise – Dozza has a photo stop every fifty metres plus sensational views, one stunning castle and one amazing shop. The reason that it has so many photo stops? The very pretty hilltop city has murals painted by invited artists every two years – the Dozza ‘Biennale’ and the murals are painted on Dozza’s pretty houses which makes an amazing and eclectic art exhibition of Dozza’s cobbled streets. The castle is pretty much intact and still beau- tiful and built by Caterina Sforza, a big-time aristocrat in her own right and inside nowadays, as befits a medieval castle, is a real treasure – the wine store of Emilia Romagna plus balsamic plus lots of other edible goodies – thousands of bottles in fact. Wine lover’s paradise. Angelo and I mooch, he buys, we go; he’s hungry, it’s nearly lunchtime.
And we (he!) needs an aperitivo. Time to drop in to see Augusto and Valentina at Zuffa organic vineyard. There’s nothing like their sensa- tional Sangiovese, selected for that showcase of Italy – the 2015 World Exhibition in Milan. With a special assessment by the Italian ministry of health – it’s just the thing to put Angelo in good heart for the day.
He is now desperate for lunch so we miss out Imola, another Sforza town and a city of art in its own right, and drive to Faenza. This is ceramic central and we decide to explore after our feast. Every Romagnolo man has a passion for food and wine and so does his wife – his ‘Azdora’ – and both of them know that they could make it big in restaurants, but Leonardo Spadoni has the money and the power and the knowledge to do so.
The first time I met Leonardo was in his palace in Ravenna. As he took me on a tour to see his works of art and his magnificent collection of classic cars, he explained his mission – no less than to bring Romag- nolo cuisine to global prominence. Together with his partner in the enterprise, agronomist Emilio Antolini, he had put together initiatives to bring back and popularise many old local foods, wines and specialist recipes. Together they had organised special food weeks and festivals, leaflets and advertising programnes to spread the word about delicious forgotten local cuisine.
Leonardo had made his international niche as the biggest miller in the area with the most modern mill and by creating no less than 300 different speciality flours. In such an agrarian economy as Romagna where everybody had such high regard for food, this was no mean achievement.
And Leonardo’s partner had achieved just as much. Emilio had invented a method of preserving grain so that it didn’t go mouldy. In an area where wheat was king – Emilio was its chief consort. He’d been able to purchase his own castle on the proceeds and fill it with modern works of art. And, like with Leonardo, his kitchen was the centre of his household.
The hub of Leonardo and Emilio’s empire was the piggery, and I had been privileged to be given a tour. Not, of course, the sort of piggery I had imagined, full of mud, muddy pigs and arks – the Fattoria Palazzo was palatial and totally high-tech modern. Paradise for pigs, you could say. Of course, they were able to roam in their own acorn-strewn woods, of course they got the best feed, of course they procreated well – and all of it was computer controlled to deliver the happiest, tastiest pork. Not just any pork – the local breed of pig is famous for its taste and its slow growing, nurtured and revered for its deliciousness all over Romagna on smallholdings in tiny herds – Emilio and Leonardo were trying to pull off a major coup, they had the best boars and a significant percentage of Mora Romagnola sows – their target was to produce the ultimate pork and the perfect prosciutto to compete on the world stage with the likes of Jamon Iberico the prized ultra-expensive Spanish ham.
So now Leonardo and Emilio controlled the production of the best-of-the-best staples of Romagnolo cuisine – ham and flour. Now they had started a small up-market restaurant chain to cook and serve their food in the very best conditions so naturally they’d recruited a Michelin-starred chef to manage the cooking.
Angelo and I were to eat our lunch in this first Casa Spadoni restaurant. We were excited!
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
Episode 12 The Best of Romagna - will they love it like we do?
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.