Five Culinary Reasons to Fall in Love with Emilia Romagna, Italy

From the time I became obsessed with art history in high school, Italy was on my radar as one of the first “must-visit” places when I would start traveling years later. Sadly, my first experience with the country was a bit of a let down — from no luggage thanks to the airline stealing it (yes, stealing it) to mass tourism in the big cities, I left feeling underwhelmed. And the food that everyone talked about being the best in the world?

Yeah, apparently I missed that too.

Before you lash out at me, I am not saying places like Rome don’t have good food, I obviously just never hit the right spots.  This was before the heyday of blogging, Foodspotting, and the benefit of specialized food tours. I never had my Julia Roberts, “Eat, Pray, Love” life-changing event while in any of the popular tourist spots in Italy. However, I will admit pizza in Naples with tomatoes grown in Pompeii ash was one of my biggest foodie moments to date. Ruined me from ever eating pizza anywhere else.

I didn’t pay my food experiences in Italy too much mind, as anyone who knows me knows, Italian always landed as one of my least favorite types of food growing up. Mexican reigned supreme while pasta was easily one of the foods I could live without.

When I had the opportunity to come to Emilia Romagna last year with the #BlogVille project, I arrived with a completely open mind. I was excited to see a completely different side of Italy and give Italian food another shot. Purposely, I refrained from researching anything on the region, and now I embarrassingly admit how little I knew about what a culturally important food center this region is.

The first night we arrived, we had a group dinner at a local trattoria, a pretty casual dining option in Bologna. It was wall to wall people, loud, and there were platters of food being whisked in every direction. Our host Nick did all the ordering and within minutes we were sampling local meats, cheeses and breads.

Wait…You eat Parmesan cheese by itself? It’s not just good for grating on pasta? And it’s not that awful grainy stuff in the green Kraft container (sorry Mom!)?

Kraft Parmesan...what?

Wait..that green stuff in the can is not real Parmigiano Reggiano?!?1

Before I had time to really ponder that, the plates of pasta began arriving. A local specialty, Tagliatelle a ragu. The verdict?

Life changing!

From that moment on, I was on the hunt to devour everything Emilia Romagna had to offer. I fell so deeply in love with this region that I came back to BlogVille two more times and even brought my parents to Bologna in December — my Mom’s first trip out of the United States! We visited a number of places in ten different countries and she rated Bologna as one of her favorite stops.

After leaving, I began missing the food in this region immensely.  I headed back down to Belize and eventually, it became too much. I tried my hand at making several specialties from Emilia Romagna. Not an easy feat on a small island! Obviously not as good as what you find in Emilia Romagna, but it satiated the craving until I could visit again.

Earlier this month, I returned to Bologna, Italy for the kick-off week of the second #BlogVille project and I couldn’t be happier. It’s funny how Italian went from being a type of cuisine I could live without to now being one I can’t stop obsessing about.

Welcome to BlogVille 2013 in Emilia Romagna, Italy!

Welcome to BlogVille 2013 in Emilia Romagna, Italy!

And with that, here are five of the many culinary reasons to fall in love with Emilia Romagna, Italy.

 

1. Traditional Foods from Emilia Romagna

Obviously, this could be reason to love Emilia Romagna on its own. Some of the most traditional Italian foods either come from or were developed in the Emilia Romagna region.

What we call bologna in the United States (oh, the irony) is nothing like the real mortadella you get here in the city of Bologna. Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma both come from the city of Parma. And let’s talk about balsamic vinegar. Not the stuff we use make salad dressing back in the United States, but real balsamic — a very specialized product that comes from Modena, Italy. A good 25 year aged bottle will set you back around 100 euros. And of course, fresh egg pastas like tagliatelle that come from Bologna. Fresh egg pasta is truly an art form and watching some of the pasta masters at work is impressive. After trying my hand at making them last year, I have a much deeper respect for pasta now.

Traditional foods from Emilia Romagna, Italy

Traditional foods from Emilia Romagna, Italy

Many of the products that come from Emilia Romagna are DOP protected, meaning Denominazione di Origine Protetta. This protects the local producers and ensures consumers are getting the real product, not some imitation. Food items like Parmigiano Reggiano and Modena’s balsamic vinegar are two classic examples. The example people are most familiar with is the DOC French Champagne. Technically, only wines produced in the Champagne region under the traditional rules can be labeled a Champagne whereas others are simply sparkling wine.

Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the highly controlled products from Emilia Romagna, Italy

Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the highly controlled products from Emilia Romagna, Italy

Trivia: Do you know how many D.O.P. and I.G.P. products Emilia Romagna has? At least 30 — ranging from cheese, meat, fruits and vegetables, olive oil, vinegar and even baked goods.

I would be remiss in not mentioning Pellegrino Artusi, a gastronomic icon and writer who is considered the father of Italian cuisine. He was from Forlimpopili in Emilia Romagna, and his book, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene), is regarded as the textbook on Italian cuisine. It’s been printed in various languages and is up to its 14th edition I believe. We visited Casa Artusi, termed the “first living cookery museum,” in his hometown. Here you can take cooking lessons, enjoy local dishes, attend culinary festivals, and learn more about the history of Italian cuisine.

There is no way I can adequately convey the importance of this region’s traditional foods in several paragraphs, but suffice it to say that this is one of the most influential culinary regions I’ve traveled to.

 

2. Emilia Romagna is Less Expensive

You might argue there are lots of spots in Italy that are cheap so why does that make Emilia Romagna special. Here, you can sample all the locally produced products for much less than if you bought them in other countries, or in parts of Italy in some cases. Especially in cities like Bologna, with its vibrant university region, you can find quality eats for cheap. Restaurants and trattorias line the streets of Bologna and you can find everything from local cuisine to Indian and Chinese. My biggest surprise of this latest trip  – finding a Naples style pizza for 6 euros. We were all completely blown away by not only the size, but the quality. And, if you think the pizza was huge, the calzone must have weighed 10 lbs on its own.

Venture out of the larger cities to some of the smaller villages and you can find local farms and restaurants serving fantastic cuisine for cheap. Also, many offer local specialties that are available onsite for half of what you may pay in larger markets and stores elsewhere.

BlogVille membership has its privileges (while we didn't snag any discounts on food and wine, we did feel special flashing our card ha!_

BlogVille membership has its privileges (while we didn’t snag any discounts on food and wine, we did feel special flashing our card ha!)

Cheap Naples style pizza in Bologna - score! 6 euros for this baby!

Cheap Naples style pizza in Bologna – score! 6 euros for this baby!

Told you the calzone was massive - Randy from BeersandBeans.com did an awesome job devouring most of it I believe.

Told you the calzone was massive – Randy from BeersandBeans.com did an awesome job devouring most of it in one sitting!

 

3. Emilia Romagna is Home to One of the Top Restaurants in the World

Going the other direction on the dining scale, Emilia Romagna is home to a number of award-winning, fine-dining establishments as well. And that stronghold was reaffirmed with this month’s announcement of the 2013 S. Pelligrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The prestigious honor of the 3rd best restaurant in the world went to Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. It was the only restaurant in Italy to make the top 20. Emilia Romagna is also home to nine Michelin-starred restaurants for 2013, with Osteria Francescana retaining its three star rating.

Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy is no. 3 restaurant on "World's 50 Best List" and holds 3 Michelin stars

Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy is no. 3 restaurant on “World’s 50 Best List” and holds 3 Michelin stars

 

4. Agriturismo and Food Festivals

The Emilia Romagna region is packed with food festivals year round. It seems as though there is literally something going on every week. I could easily spend a year just visiting the various festivals held in this region. Emilia Romagna is proud of its heritage and its importance as a food center for Italian culture. That shines through in the markets, festivals, and also the agriturismo farms that are popping up in the smaller towns and villages. Everything from the sheep cheese farm we visited in the hills of Rimini last year to the locally produced marmalade at Agriturismo La Piane in Vergato I sampled this year.

Agriturisimo Le Piane in Emilia Romagna, Italy

Agriturisimo Le Piane in Emilia Romagna, Italy

Branching out from the main cities and visiting some of these smaller villages has been one of the most memorable experiences of my time in Emilia Romagna. Most of these products you will never find in markets or stores as they are produced for their families or to serve guests in the farm’s restaurant. They produce everything — pastas, wine, beer, honey, jams, cured meats, and of course, cheese. And what they don’t produce themselves, they support other local farmers by buying only hyper-local products.

These homemade jams and hazelnut spread at Le Piane were out of this world.

These homemade jams and hazelnut spread at Le Piane were out of this world.

While you can make arrangements to visit some of these spots without a car, my recommendation is to rent a car and travel the countryside — something I definitely plan to do when I return to Emilia Romagna again.

 

5. Carpigiani Gelato University and Museum

If only I had known growing up that someday something called a “Gelato University” would exist! I would’ve much preferred this to majoring in Criminal Justice! Gelato is synonymous with Italian cuisine and the prestigious Carpigiani Gelato University is located just on the outskirts of Bologna. Carpigiani manufacturers the world’s best gelato making machines and now they teach people how to make the best gelato with their machines.

Norbert from Globotreks and I sampling red wine gelato at Carpigiani Gelato University

Norbert from Globotreks and I sampling red wine gelato at Carpigiani Gelato University

I had the luck to sit in on an advanced class where the students were learning about unique types of gelato — alcohol and savory. Post to follow on our afternoon there, but as you can imagine, it was quite a unique experience. Surprisingly, the quality of the gelato from the students was far better than a number of the established gelateria’s I’ve visited both in Italy and other parts of the world.

Carpigiani has what they call the “Gelato Lab” open to the public where you walk in off the street and buy gelato, and you might wonder if people would really drive out of their way to come there just for gelato. There was a steady stream of people coming in and out just during the 20 minutes we sat waiting for our cab to arrive.

BlogVille housemate Peter Parkorr devouring "samples" Carpigiani sent home with us

BlogVille housemate Peter Parkorr devouring “samples” Carpigiani sent home with us

Reflecting back on my five trips to Emilia Romagna in the last year, there are so many reasons why this region has captured my heart, and the food is definitely one of the main highlights, but there are many other reasons to visit the region as well. I’ve fallen in love with the architecture, the region’s history, its people, and most of all, the overall culture here. Apart from Belize and Taiwan, this is definitely somewhere I could see myself calling home one day.

Gelato....heads above traditional ice cream I grew up with

Gelato….heads above traditional ice cream I grew up with

While the bulk of my trips to Emilia Romagna have been hosted during the #BlogVille project, all views, opinions and lbs. gained after eating my way through Emilia Romagna, are entirely my own. 

Foods of Emilia Romagna, Italy: Thistle Flowers and Sheep Cheese Production in Montefiore Conca

During my last visit to Rimini, Italy, as part of the #BlogVille project, we visited a sheep cheese farm — a place I am still determined to own one day! Before getting settled in and learning about the cheese, we were immediately entranced by the dried flowers adorning the property, many of which were hanging from the covered patio.

Purple thistle flowers hanging from the porch roof

It turns out that there is a very good reason the yard was covered with these beautiful purple flowers. We were told they were a type of artichoke flower and had more than a decorative purpose — they are actually utilized in the production of sheep cheese.

Some types of thistle flowers produce a milk coagulating enzyme and is used to make “thistle rennet”. In Googling to find out a bit more information, I discovered The Joy of Cheesemaking spoke with a master cheesemaker who confirmed that it is commonly used in Spain and Portugal as a vegetal rennet to coagulate sheep milk cheese. (She has a pretty detailed explanation from a workshop she did in Sicily for those who want to know the intricacies of how it’s done.)

Artichoke flowers, or Cardoon Harvest are utilized in sheep cheese making

The flower’s name is the Cardoon Harvest and it has been utilized in cheesemaking for centuries.  According to Culture Cheese Magazine, modern thistle rennet cheeses all share a common ancestor in shepherd cheeses made high in the Iberian mountain range, known today as the Serra da Estrela. Through time, their popularity spread throughout southern Portugal and western Spain, where they are still commonly seen today.

Obviously, we were not in Spain nor Portugal, but the hinterlands of the Province of Rimini in Montefiore Conca. It’s not an easy spot to find, but certainly worth the trek as theese were some of the best cheeses I’ve sampled during my travels. The name of the farm is Azienda Agricola Il Buon Pastore, which seems to translate to “The Good Shepherd.” The husband and wife team produce a stunning selection of fresh sheep cheeses, all unpasteurized (post still to come!) They speak no English, so have an Italian speaker call and then you can stop by and purchase cheese direct from their small shop onsite.

Thistle flowers in Montefiore Conca, Italy

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Photo of the Week: Pecorino Cheese from Emilia Romagna, Italy

Photo of the Week: Pecorino Cheese from Emilia Romagna, Italy

One of the foodie highlights of this past week was a trip to a boutique cheese producer in the Province of Rimini, Italy. We drove to the Montefiore Conca area in the hinterlands to visit this sheep cheese farm and sample some of their incredible creations. We tried a variety of cheeses, all of which I wanted to bring home! They were absolutely incredible — everything from ricotta to moldy herb crusted varieties.

This photo was taken from their cheese refrigeration area, which was impressive. I left there wanting to buy a home in the hills of Rimini and have my own sheep farm / cheese production facilities!

Wheels of Pecorino cheese in Italy http://ourtastytravels.com/blog/photo-pecorino-cheese-emilia-romagna-italy/ #ourtastytravels #blogville

Wheels of pecorino cheese in Italy

 

 

National Ice Cream Day: You Say Ice Cream, I Say Gelato

Back in 1984, President Ronald Reagan declared July to be National Ice Cream Month and July 15th to be National Ice Cream Day in the United States. Most often, the holiday is celebrated on the 3rd Sunday of July.

Like most kids in America, I grew up eating ice cream regularly, especially during the summer months. I can still remember lounging in the pool and waiting for the sound of our neighborhood ice cream truck making its way down the street. My best friend and I would bolt from the pool and make our way to the front yard as soon as we’d hear the music, which now, as an adult, I find extremely annoying ironically.

One thing I learned early on in my childhood was regular ice cream soon bored me. I think there’s a reason they refer to boring things as “vanilla” sometimes. I was not a vanilla ice cream kinda girl, unless it had heaps of caramel on it. I can distinctly remember driving my parents bonkers during multiple pouting fits if we went to our local Foster Freeze and they didn’t have chocolate that day.

As I got older (aka had my own money) I started buying more interesting and unique flavors of ice cream — the more stuff mixed in, the better!

And then in 2006, I visited Italy for the first time.

Gelato…The answer to all my frozen dessert dreams.

Gelato…oh how I love thee!

Sadly, it seemed to be a fleeting affair as I did not indulge in too much gelato since that trip. Perhaps, it was discovering Movenpick’s decadent ice cream and various shaved ice desserts the last few years in Asia that distracted me from my true love.

And then, the Blogville project with the Emilia Romagna Tourism Board presented itself, and I suddenly found myself back in Italy three different times for a total of 25 days between May and now. In fact, I just returned from Italy yesterday.

Gelato and I were reunited and it was love at first bite all over again — we picked up right where we left off so long ago.

Enjoying gelato with a view in the historic city center of Rimini, Italy during Blogville

Wonder what the differences are between gelato and ice cream? Despite many saying that gelato is just Italian ice cream, there are noticeable and important differences that separate gelato from the traditional ice cream many of us grew up with.

Gelato has Less Air and Lower Fat

Gelato has much less air than traditional ice cream, which can be as much as 50% air. And for those concerned about the fat content in ice cream, check out gelato! Gelato typically has 4-6% fat whereas ice cream may contain as much as 16% in some cases.

Gelato is Made Daily

Typically, gelato is made on a daily basis in gelaterias in Italy whereas ice cream is often made in large batches incorporating ingredients designed to ensure its lengthy storage in the freezer.

Gelato has a Stronger Flavor

Because of the less incorporated air, lower fat, and higher temperature, you have probably noticed you get a more pronounced flavor profile versus eating ice cream of same flavor. According to the Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, this is because the higher fat content in ice cream coats the tongue, the less air in gelato provides more flavor in each spoonful, and your taste buds are not dulled from the frozen temperature of ice cream.

The stronger flavor profile, the softer and more smooth texture, and the lower fat content are just a few of the reasons I prefer authentic gelato over ice cream. I could not, and would not, eat ice cream every day, but I could, and did in a few instances, eat gelato every day in Italy. Blog posts of all the amazing gelato I consumed in Emilia Romagna still to come!

Interesting gelato creations from our favorite beach area gelateria in Rimini, Italy

I think it’s safe to say after Blogville, my love affair with gelato is likely to transition into a more long-term romance. Fortunately, there is a pretty decent gelato place next to the new apartment in the Netherlands, and I am thinking of taking my love of gelato to a new level — perhaps taking a class and learning how to make it myself!

While my stay(s) in Emilia Romagna were hosted by the tourism board, all views and opinions are my own.

Photo of the Week: Tagliatelle Pasta in Bologna, Italy

Without a doubt, one of the “must try” specialties of the Bologna region is traditional Tagliatelle pasta with Bolognese sauce. I have a much deeper respect for fresh pasta making and the skill that goes into creating something that looks so simple after visiting Bologna and taking a pasta making course. Tagliatelle are 7-8mm wide and the key to purchasing this pasta is the nest. After preparation, Tagliatelle should be stored in a fresh environment and made into “nests” which allow the air to go through them.

On the market street in Bologna, countless stores offer fresh Tagliatelle, making it super easy to bring home and boil if you have an apartment or a hotel with cooking facilities available.

Fresh Tagliatelle pasta available in markets in Bologna, Italy

The team of Our Tasty Travels is in Bologna, Italy as part of a special blogging project, BlogVille, which is sponsored by the Emilia Romagna Tourism Board and TravelDudes. While we are being hosted, all views and opinions expressed are our own.

Photo of the Week: Heirloom Tomatoes in Bologna, Italy

Bologna is filled with fresh vegetable stands and markets selling some of the best produce I’ve had while traveling.  While exploring the city on our first day, we happened to wander onto this “market street” filled with vegetable stands, fresh meats, and stores selling local pastas, balsamic vinegars, etc.

Heirloom tomatoes at vegetable stand in Bologna, Italy

The team of Our Tasty Travels is in Bologna, Italy as part of a special blogging project, BlogVille, which is sponsored by the Emilia Romagna Tourism Board and TravelDudes. While we are being hosted, all views and opinions expressed are our own.

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