What's the first thing that springs to mind when you think about Italian food? Is it a rich bolognese ragú, coating a bed of freshly made pasta? How about a gigantic wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, perhaps paired with some aged balsamic vinegar? Or maybe it’s salumi, be that paper-thin slices of Parma ham or pepper-flecked pieces of mortadella?
If you answered yes to any of the above, then what you’re actually thinking about is the food of Emilia-Romagna. Nestled between the Apennine mountains in the south and the Po River in the north, this parcel of northern Italy is the country’s beating gastronomic heart. With over 26 geographically protected products, from cheese to charcuterie and wine to vinegar, Emilia-Romagna is a living, breathing, gastronomic hall of fame. Join us as we take a tour through the region’s signature ingredients, dishes and food traditions.
Emilia-Romagna is blessed with a wealth of verdant pasture land, and the cattle that graze it produce incredibly rich milk. It’s no surprise then, that the region’s cheese is so good. Top of the pile is the “King of cheeses”: Parmigiano Reggiano. Prized all over the world for its sharp, complex flavour, Parmigiano Reggiano is the most famous of all Italian cheeses. The hard cheese first originated in the Benedictine abbeys of Emilia, all the way back in the Middle Ages. Nowadays, genuine Parmigiano Reggiano has Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) status, so it can only be made in five select parts of Emilia-Romagna. Aside from being generously grated over the region’s plethora of pasta dishes, you’ll often see aged Parmigiano Reggiano served as part of an antipasti spread or cheeseboard.
Less famous, but worthy of attention in its own right, is Grana Padano. Although this cheese originated in Lombardy, its DOP regulations are less strict than those of Parmigiano Reggiano – so it’s also made in Emilia-Romagna. Grana Padano has a milder, milkier flavour than Parmigiano Reggiano; in Emilia-Romagna you’re more likely to see it used in sauces and as a cooking ingredient rather than served on its own.
Emilia-Romagna is the spiritual home of Italian cured meat, and world-renowned pork products are produced all over the region. Although home to Emilia-Romagna’s second city, the province of Parma sits at the top of the tree when it comes to salumi. Prosciutto di Parma (or Parma ham) is made in the hills above its namesake city, where fresh breezes flowing in from the Apennine mountains create the ideal conditions for air-drying. In contrast, Parma’s lowlands are known for their damp fog, a phenomenon that helps in the ageing process of Culatello di Zibello, a rare salumi prized for its complex, delicate flavour.
The region’s capital is a haven for meat-lovers too. In Bologna, mortadella reigns supreme as the cured meat of choice. Pale pink in colour and studded with peppercorns (and sometimes pistachios), Mortadella Bologna is cooked as well as cured. Mortadella’s gently spiced flavour works well as a standalone aperitivo, and in Bologna you’ll also see it stuffed into flatbread – called piadina – for a satisfying streetside snack.
Wine and vinegar
Emilia-Romagna isn’t just about pasture land. The region is also blessed with a host of vineyards, making it one of Italy’s most productive wine regions. Whilst Trebbiano and Sangiovese wines are widely produced, it’s Lambrusco that the region is famed for. This lightly sparkling red is extremely drinkable on its own, as well as being a perfect partner for Emilia-Romagna’s rich cured meats. Lambrusco is also frequently used in the region’s cocktail recipes, whether that’s in a spritz or in Emilia-Romagna’s answer to the Negroni Sbagliato: the Reggiano-Americano.
The region’s vineyards are also vital for producing another prized product: balsamic vinegar. Made from simmered grape must (a mix of crushed grape juice that includes the skins, seeds and stems), this condiment has been made in the area around Modena for centuries. Not all balsamic vinegar is created equal though. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is a DOP product that must be made according to ancient traditions and aged for at least 12 years. In contrast, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is made using more modern techniques and is only aged for two months. The traditional stuff can be very expensive, so it’s best used sparingly – it works well drizzled over fresh strawberries or paired with Parmigiano Reggiano. The more affordable Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is suited to cooking with, whether added to pork ragú or used to dress lighter dishes like bruschetta or caprese salad.
Away from all the farms and vineyards, Emilia-Romagna has its fair share of wilder wooded areas. It’s here, where the region meets the Apennine mountains, that some of Emilia-Romagna’s hidden treasures can be found. In the area around Borgo Val di Toro, close to the border with Tuscany, it’s all about the mushrooms. This is where you’ll find the world’s finest porcini: the Borgotaro. Having been collected in these parts since the 17th century, they now have Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) – the only fungi in all of Europe to do so. Every September the area hosts a mushroom festival, with local trattorie serving the famous fungi in dishes like creamy mushroom tagliatelle.
Elsewhere in the region, an even more elusive ingredient awaits. In the hills around Savigno, truffles hide in hard to access spots, waiting to be unearthed by the region’s tuber hunters. Whilst Emilia-Romagna’s truffles aren’t as well-known as those from its neighbour, Piedmont, the region is still a hotbed of truffle hunting (and eating). They’re best grated generously over pasta, or when paired with mushrooms, like in this mushroom ravioli with truffle butter recipe.
In Bologna, Emilia-Romagna’s pasta-obsessed capital, shop windows are piled high with pasta shapes rolled out that day and ready to be sold by weight. The city’s signature shape is tortellini, and you’ll find them served the same way everywhere you go: stuffed with pork, prosciutto and parmesan, then served in a chicken broth – a dish known as tortellini in brodo. The dish is so synonymous with the city that it even eclipses Bologna’s namesake dish: ragú alla Bolognese. The first official recipe for the meaty sauce was penned by one of the region’s famous sons, Pellegrino Artusi, in 1891. The recipe has since travelled all over the world, with inauthentic versions involving spaghetti the norm. In Bologna though, you’ll only ever see ragú served with freshly made tagliatelle.
Elsewhere in the region, filled pasta is popular. Freshly rolled sheets of pasta are crafted into ravioli and cappellacci, with spinach and ricotta a favourite filling. The region is also home to some lesser-known shapes, such as ridged garganelli, which come from the south, and passatelli, an unusual pasta shape made from a dough of eggs, breadcrumbs and cheese.
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