Glass explores the lesser-known highlights of Emilia Romagna, Italy’s foodie capital

Emilian reasons to visit – Glass explores the lesser-known highlights of Emilia Romagna, Italy’s foodie capital

The Palazzo della Pilotta in ParmaThe Palazzo della Pilotta in Parma.

NONE  of us felt much inclined to speak. Having spent hours making fresh mafaldine pasta from scratch, then gorging ourselves on it along with torta fritta and assorted homemade cakes, we were slumped back in a post-prandial stupor when Stefania, stretching the definition of Epicureanism to its limits, quietly wheeled out a trolley. Sitting on the trolley was the kind of thing you’d see in a medical museum: a large glass vat filled with pinkish fluid and floating fleshy lumps. We made some sounds that sounded like questions without actually using any words.

“That,” said Stefania, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “is frutta in guazzo della nonna Lia – Grandma Lia’s soaked fruit drink.”

Matter-of-factly she filled our bowls with a ladle-full each. “Get a litre of 96 per cent pure alcohol and 500 grams of sugar,” she explained, as if buying medical-grade alcohol was the most natural thing in the world, “and add 500 grams of cut strawberries and five tablespoons of sugar. Leave it for a year. Then, over time, add cherries, sour cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, peaches and grapes, in that order, but don’t cut the grapes, and add five more spoons of sugar with each fruit… leave it for another year … then serve!”

Smooth, stealthy and invitingly fragrant, it was worth the wait. Stefania Bertaccini, who runs a cookery class for tourists and locals in her 18th-century home in the hills south of Parma (best accessible by car), goes long on liquids. In barrels in the attic there are various delicious vinegars that have been brewing for years; some are older than I am. This house of earthly surprises is only one of many fonts of culinary inspiration – some hidden, some not so hidden – that stud the stunning landscape of Emilia Romagna.

The view from one of Stefania's roomsThe view from one of Stefania’s rooms.

Reggio Emilia
Like most of Italy, Emilia Romagna is saturated with history; the nation’s green-white-and-red tricolore, which was first hoisted in 1796, in Reggio Emilia, is a relatively young creation. But the ancient and traditional coexist with the innovative. Reggio Emilia itself is a perfect example: Spazio U30Cinque, a museum of art exhibitions by under-35s, is a stone’s throw from the 260km Via Emilia, completed in 187 BC as a route along which Romans could colonise lands they’d just conquered. We fortuitously collapsed past, present and future in half an hour: savoured a local café’s spinach-and-ricotta pies (a local speciality for generations), saw the guests at a gay wedding spill out into the Piazza Prampolini, then tried out the virtual-reality headsets at the Reggio Emilia tourist office on Via Farini.

An eerily empty Piazza PrampoliniAn eerily empty Piazza Prampolini.

Also recommended is photography museum Fotografia Europea. (The decidedly explicit ‘Sex & Revolution!’ was on show in May; currently on display are a range of abstract conceptual installations.) If you’ve built up an appetite, Ristorante Canossa is recommended for simple, hearty food: bolliti e arrosti al carello (boiled and roasted meats from the trolley) will sort out ravenous omnivores, while vegetarians can get by with a large variety of pasta. Otherwise, it’s gratifying just to wander around Reggio Emilia – taking in the facades, soaking in the rays at standard or high-end cafés, browsing market stalls on weekends, people-watching.

The outskirts of Parma: the cheese factory
Despite our radio headsets, we could hardly hear our guide over the whirring din of the machinery. “THIS CHEESE IS NEVER FROZEN, REFRIGERATED OR PASTEURISED,” she shouted. “IT’S ACTUALLY ILLEGAL TO PROCESS BUTTER HERE, BECAUSE IT’S PASTEURISED. Even without the noise there was plenty to distract us from her voice: watching cheese being made from milk is strangely hypnotic.

Dating back to the 19th century, Parma’s Bertinelli cheese factory is perhaps the most surreal instance of the region’s ability to blend its heritage with its head for business. It is the only producer, out of the 335 in Emilia Romagna and Mantua, to have not only a bar but a pool, an artificial beach and outdoor nightclubbing facilities, all of which are popular with locals. This diversification is unsurprising given that owner Nicola Bertinelli, the big cheese himself, is the president of the Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Consortium, a thriving association that rakes in €2.2bn annually. Only 45 and filled with brio, he is half as old as the consortium he heads, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. He tells us that there are sometimes up to a thousand people dancing the night away at the cheese factory nightclub, Caseificio della Musica (Dairy of Music), many of whom don’t even know it’s a cheese factory.

Open to guided tours, usually at around 7:30am, the inner workings of the factory itself – with its tangy, briny smell – are fascinating. Visitors can see how the contents of each vat, which holds up to 1.2 tonnes’ worth of cheese, are mixed, separated and churned until rice grain-sized granules are visible. We’re reminded that the Italian for cheese is formaggio – shaped, by hand, firmly but sensitively, to gauge the moisture level. The soon-to-be cheese is subjected to a fermentation process that kills much of the bacteria – but not before they’ve consumed all the lactose. Fun fact: Parmigiano Reggiano is lactose-free.

The Churning of the CheeseThe churning of the cheese.

Many locals would prefer you not to conflate Parmigiano with Grana Padano. The latter is from cows whose diets are less carefully curated, and also contains bacteria that necessitate the infusion of antibacteria. The milk for Parmigiano Reggiano needs to be perfect, since true Parmigiano should not be pasteurised or contain antibacteria; but as a result, it can take around six years to mature, whereas Grana Padano takes around 18 months.

Each wheel of Parmigiano, when lifted out of the whey, weighs 100kg; after three years of ageing it shrinks to around 40kg. (Lots of whey is left over; it goes on to be used to feed local pigs, who in turn go on to become – you guessed it – Parma ham.) The sheer scale of the operation is bewildering; 100kg of cheese requires a tonne of milk, and the Bertinelli storage room alone contains around 5,000 one-tonne wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano. The region produces around three million wheels of cheese per year.

Just a few of these three million wheelsJust a few of these three million wheels.

All the cheese undergoes the same process – once it’s been shaped, cut and shaped again, it spends three days chilling in a cool room, then is immersed in a 33 per cent salt solution for almost three weeks until the salt has penetrated to a depth of around 4.5cm. It’s then extracted and left, like a huge hulking embryo, for nine months, at which point it is subjected to a “sound test” where irregularities are tested for. Then, after being left in a warmer room to dry off, the cheese is stamped and stored.

The cheese is often measured in months aged – 24, 36, 48, etc. – and, as we found out in a tasting, an appreciable difference develops as each year passes, with older cheeses tasting richer and smokier than their younger counterparts. But no matter how old it is, it always goes perfectly with a red Lambrusco, a bubbly wine that has long been a regional favourite – originally a by-farmers-for-farmers concoction that remains a world away from the cheap fizz of the same name that was so popular in Thatcher-era Britain.

The outskirts of Parma: Sala Baganza
About 12km southwest of Parma is the small town of Sala Baganza. It probably sees its crowning glory as being the Rocca di Sala Baganza, a fortress whose imposing entrance (two large columns in the Mussolini style) reopened only this year after nine years of post-earthquake closure. It’s one of several castles united by the Castelli delle Donne project – touristic promotion of fortresses inhabited and/or loved by powerful women since the 11th century, in this case Duchess Maria Luigia (more on her later).

There are enigmatic, rather appealing bronze and clay sculptures inside, by the locally born Jucci Ugolotti; next door there’s also a jardin potagé (a fruit-and-veg garden, geometrically pleasing but a little empty-seeming, like it’s waiting for an imaginative garden designer). The 16th-century frescoes in the Rocca, while nothing out of the ordinary by Italian standards, are surrounded by grottesche (grotesques) that add a quirky Gothic-style contrast.

Inside the Rocca di Sala BaganazaInside the Rocca di Sala Baganza. Photograph: Bruno.

There’s also an underground wine museum, one of seven food-and-drink museums in the region – the others being museums of Parma ham, culatello, salami, tomatoes, oil and pasta. (As an aside: Parma’s Barilla factory is the largest dried-pasta factory in the world.)

The most compelling reason to visit Sala Baganza is a restaurant that seems entirely unassuming from the outside. The twentysomething head chefs at (and co-owners of) Les Caves are Maria Amalia Anedda and her husband Jacopo Bracchi, who both trained in Paris under Alain Ducasse himself; they make fine dining taste as homely as could be.

We begin with champignon mousse; chickpea sponge with carbon mayo and tomato dust; and a tartelette with artichoke cream and crisp culatello. The tartelette is a little too chewy for some palates, but there’s no denying the unfussy artistry of the presentation and the elegant combination of flavours. By the end of the second course, stomachs are already feeling the pressure: Parma ham and bread for the omnivores, though the chefs seem to be smiling on the vegetarians, who enjoy decidedly non-local spring roll-esque vegetable pastries with a perfect carrot, orange and curcuma sauce, accompanied with soy sauce-drizzled rocket.

The second half of the meal is divine. It starts with the regional staple tortelli, which look like ravioli and are not to be confused with tortellini, which are favoured in Bologna and Modena. Some tortelli are filled with ricotta and herbs (as opposed to ricotta and spinach, favoured in nearby Piacenza), and some filled with … potato. No sauce, of course, just butter – making the potato-filled pasta somehow taste more complex than it is, as its silken purity engages your brain and makes you focus.

It’s a tour de force, and the red Lambrusco that accompanies it is soon replaced by Malpassito, a dessert wine that whets the appetite for the Torta Ducchesa. Les Caves’s treatment of this local specialty ends up being so unbelievably rich – a torte made with chocolate ganache, almond crumble and zabaglione – that at the end of a full meal, almost no-one can bring themselves to finish it. Modena may be Emilia Romagna’s best-known town for fine dining, but Les Caves in tiny Sala Baganza is a must.

The Torta Ducchesa at Les CavesThe Torta Ducchesa at Les Caves.

The outskirts of Parma: Torrechiara
Boasting towers that range from 14 to 39 metres in height, it is impressive that Torrechiara – a hillside castle – survived a series of earthquakes that left the original architecture intact. Built for Duchess Bianca Pellegrini in the mid-15th Century by Pier Maria II de’ Rossi, it is noted for its combination of Gothic and Renaissance features. Each of its towers is home to a swoop of swifts.

It’s hard not to notice that many of the dignitaries and holy men in the frescoes inside seem Moorish in origin. I had hoped that this was a realistic depiction of intercultural exchanges, but it turned out that the pigments in the 1563-era paint had simply oxidised, and so thanks to the castle trust’s ‘purist’ approach to restoration (though some might argue that purism would entail maintaining the original colours), we get emissaries who look like they’ve trekked up from the Sahel.

These frescoes are in the Golden Chamber – Torrechiara’s only room to conserve its Renaissance-era decorations, though the bas-relief stucco work and the terracotta walls are actually in the late Gothic style. The room leads out onto a charming balcony that affords panoramic views of the plains surrounding the foot of the hill. It’s certainly a worthy site for history buffs.

The balcony at TorrechiaraThe balcony at Torrechiara.

A view from Torrechiara.

Parma
You certainly needn’t be a history buff to be awed by the city of Parma’s most gorgeous interior: that of the Teatro Farnese, constructed in 1618 inside the Palazzo della Pilotta. Stage, benches, columns and arch are all made of wood and plaster, painted to look like marble. Ranuccio Farnese, the duke of Parma, commissioned the theatre to be built in honour of Cosimo II de’ Medici – more specifically, to celebrate the marriage of his son Odoardo to Cosimo’s daughter Margherita. For reasons unclear, the actual wedding did not take place until ten years later, in 1628, when it was celebrated with a Christmas Eve staging of Claudio Acchilini’s Mercurio e Marte, a production that ended in a battle scene that called for the entire proscenium to be filled with water so Neptune could sail in on a boat. So tricky was the production that the theatre hosted no more plays until 1652.

The Teatro Farnese.

It isn’t the only thing that makes the Palazzo worth visiting: the building also houses the Galleria Nazionale di Parma, which houses a gorgeous Da Vinci oil-on-wood painting called La Scapigliata (The Lady with Unbrushed Hair). It’s in an annexe of a Louvresque hallway of art arranged by iconography rather than size or artist. Nonetheless, the grandeur of the theatre (designed by Giovanni Battista Aleotti) is the Palazzo’s most memorable feature. It’s heightened by the high windows that limit the light: the darkness and shadow make it seem more capacious. It was probably this sort of 3D chiaroscuro that made the Teatro the perfect choice for Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke to stage their multimedia production of Giovanna d’Arco in 2016. It’s very different in atmosphere to the nearby Teatro Regio, which – despite its blonde exterior, top-notch acoustics, Battista Borghesi-painted dome ceiling and one-tonne chandeliers – feels much more like a conventional theatre.

The Teatro Regio.

But the Teatro Regio’s Gran Caffè puts on a fantastic spread. We were treated to a replication of what Maria Luigia (the hugely popular Duchess of Parma, and Napoléon Bonaparte’s second wife) would have eaten, according to her chef’s diaries. From a deliciously wholesome vegetable soup starter (I detected chickpea, courgette, Parmigiano Reggiano, tomato, spinach, rosemary, shallot, parsley and celery) to a divine Torta Duchessa, with several glasses of Malvasia en route, the entire meal made me immensely grateful for Maria Luigia’s palate. It meant I was happy to pop into the Museo Glauco Lombardi, which is home to a collection of Maria Luigia-era (i.e. 1816-1847) material culture – clothes, clocks, crockery, portraits, sculptures, chandeliers, a pianoforte, many of them belonging to the Duchess herself.

Set to be Italy’s Capital of Culture in 2020, Parma itself is a small city. Around 200,000 live in the city centre, and around half a million in the outskirts. It has all the small shops you’d expect from a charming Italian city – a cappelleria with boaters, Stetsons and fedoras in the windows; a cioccolateria particularly proud of a special biscuit dedicated to Maria Luigia; a panini shop and a guy hawking raw horsemeat with lemon (it’s iron-rich!) – as well as a sandstone cathedral consecrated in 1106, and a 63-metre belltower and 75-metre church competing with each other for dominance of Piazza Garibaldi. You wouldn’t think to look at it that the Piazza was long ago a network of canals flowing from the River Po, to transport stones for construction. There are also the Ducal Gardens (Parco Ducale), whose entrance is behind the Palazzo della Pilotta on the other side of the river, and which culminate in a large pond complete with island and wildlife.

Beautiful even in the rain -- Parco Ducale (credit orlov.nik) copyBeautiful even in the rain: Parco Ducale. Photographs credit: Orlov Nik.

Piacenza
Another stop along the Via Emilia is Piacenza. It too is on the River Po, which cuts across northern Italy almost in parallel with the country’s jagged Switzerland/Austria border. As you drive south from Milan, the first building to make an impression is the looming Palazzo Farnese – a prison-like structure that actually contains several museums and a state archive. Its imposing feel is compounded by the knowledge that Pier Luigi, Duke of Parma & Piacenza, was murdered there in 1547 – marking the switch from Piacenza to Parma as the main town of the dukedom.

A young boy named Giorgio Armani, before finding modest success as a fashion designer, was born and nursed medical ambitions in Piacenza ‘til his late teens. The old town hall, with its sparrow-tail crenels, dates from 1283 and features alternately Romanesque and Gothic arches; there is also a Franciscan church in the Gothic style. Mussolini-commissioned buildings include one attractive edifice that is now a social security centre.

The main square is flanked by two equestrian statues of Alessandro Farnese and his aforementioned son Ranuccio. It was Alessandro who, during the Dutch Revolt, invaded parts of the Netherlands that now constitute Belgium for his uncle, Philip II of Spain; he also tried to conquer England, but failed thanks largely to (what else?) inclement weather.

The old town hall in Piazza Cavalli-2The old town hall in Piazza Cavalli.

But of course, no trip to the town would be complete without savouring its gastronomic delights – and where better than a restaurant named Food: Arte Da Mangiare? Seven years old, much of its lighting is in casings fashioned from cutlery and crockery, and the tables are peppered with gigantic wine bottles: a five-litre 2006 Rive Alte Sauvignon, a three-litre Negroamaro. Also mildly disorienting is the fact that there’s no menu: you tell the waiter which meal you’d like (meat, fish or vegetarian), specify dietary requirements (they cater for coeliacs, for instance), and entrust your stomach to the chef.

Said chef isn’t afraid to try interesting combinations: my first course comprised poached eggs with green beans, pineapple and rock-salted bread. It was an experiment that didn’t quite take off. The ingredients tasted discrete; the beans were salted, which suited the egg well, but which was more in conflict than in harmony with the pineapple. Despite the dish’s apparent simplicity, there was too much going on. But the brie with zucchini and honey mustard was triumphant. The brie itself wasn’t too brash – beautifully textured (crispy on the outside, soft and melty within), with the taste of honey just around the corner, adding subtle character to relatively bland courgette. The chocolate soufflé with cocoa dusting and raspberry coulis hit the right note: rich enough for a satisfying ending, and modest enough to avoid overkill.

The outskirts of Piacenza: Castell’Arquato
Around 30km between Parma and Piacenza lies the old town of Castell’Arquato. Nestled in the Colli Piacentini, a key vinicultural region in the Apennine hills, the town is home to the 80-hectare Pusterla vineyard, which produces 160,000 bottles a year and contains a tower (complete with a pusterla, meaning ‘little door’). The cellars contain 3,000-litre barrels made from 26-year-old Italian oak, containing a blend named Gutturnio (of which we sampled an excellent full-bodied medium red named Il Poggio) as well as Ortrugo, Malvasia and Monterosso. There’s also pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, aged for a year in smaller wooden barrels of French oak. Needless to say, the whites go especially well with cheese and cold cuts, and the vineyard stocks particularly good Grana Padano from Lombardy as well as salami and culatello.

Mid-morning is the best time to visit the vineyard – you’d do well to leave room for lunch at the Rocca di Castell’Arquato. First built in 758, the castle was rebuilt in 1122 after an earthquake, though the 8th-century baptismal font is in good nick, used throughout the year for dipping infants into. Mostly in the Romanesque style, the castle also contains a 17th-century baroque room dedicated to St Joseph, the town’s ‘protector’. (It’s used only on 19 March, when the saint is celebrated.)

Views from the Rocca di Castell’Arquato 1Views from the Rocca di Castell’Arquato.

The Rocca’s real surprise lies in the 15th-century volta a botte, or barrel vault – a long, high-ceilinged room with a curved roof. If you go in a group and book ahead, you can expect a simple but sublime lunch, courtesy of Enoteca Comunale. Handmade tortelli contain ricotta, Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano as well as spinach; since it’s served with butter and made from egg, each morsel is phenomenally rich. The egg gives half the pasta a deep yellow colour, though half the tortelli were made with spinach mixed into the egg and flour, and so are emerald green.

This course feels so complete on its own that the cheese course, which came with honey and pickled vegetables, was most definitely surplus to requirements; none of my companions could finish it. But the cheeses were all beautiful: a nutty one from Canapa, a piquant cheese with red chilli toppings, a citron-infused cheese, a Pecorino, a Grana Padano and a light cow’s cheese named Caciotta. (The last three were my veggie replacement for cold cuts.)

My course of cheese-Emilia RomagnaMy course of cheese.

The views from the battlements, looking down at the greenery below, are as lovely as you’d expect. For all the pleasures afforded by Emilia Romagna’s fizzy wines, this is a spot best absorbed sober – when you’re keened to notice the nesting birds, the uneven clack of trainers on cobbles, the spread of a region that is calmingly flat even as it’s demarcated by mountains. You’ll need the tranquil moments: they’re a respite from the insistent intensity of the food. There’s a quiet joy induced by standing next to something that’s 12 centuries old, and it’s this humble evocation of history and respect for tradition juxtaposed with culinary modernism that makes Emilia Romagna an area worth revisiting.

From Piacenza on the Po From Piacenza on the Po.

by Arjun Sajip

Special thanks to the Emilia Romagna tourism board. Places to stay:
Parma: Hotel Torino (three-star)
Piacenza: Grande Albergo Roma (four-star)
Sala Baganza: Cortaccia San Vitale Hotel (four-star)
Reggio Emilia: Hotel Posta (four-star)

For a cookery course with Stefania Bertaccini in her home in the hills of Parma, you can contact her at +39 328 217 2237, or at sbertaccini@hotmail.com.