The air was brisk but clear in late February, permeating with the scent of woodsmoke and budding wildflowers. Wide expanses of flat, fertile land, ripening for the spring, stretched as far as I could see. I had just arrived by train* in Emilia-Romagna, a verdant region in northern Italy synonymous with gastronomy.
This was the birthplace of it all, all that iconic Italian food enjoyed around the world. As I calmly sauntered through the streets of Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena, I sensed immediately that something was different here, that food isn’t just fuel. It feeds the soul. Couple that with a proud and passionate people and you have a recipe for culinary excellence rarely found elsewhere.
“[Emilia-Romagna] is special because of the Enza and Stirone rivers, the air, the mountains. It all comes into the valley and gets into the wood, the flowers and animals,” says chef Alessandro Zoppi, a native of the region.
Zoppi isn’t kidding. Located southeast of Milan, Emilia-Romagna is the birthplace of Parma ham, parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, bolognese sauce and tortellini al brodo. You might think you’ve had the real stuff but until you visit Emilia-Romagna, you really haven’t. Tasting your way through these towns will make you appreciate the effort, skill and passion that goes into these traditional products.
It all starts in Parma. Situated just 50 minutes by train from Bologna, the provincial capital, Parma has been an important center for trade since the Romans colonized it in the second century B.C. Bombed by Allied forces during the Second World War, the city recovered and is now one of the most visited stops on food tours of the region, thanks to its traditional goods of which prosciutto di Parma is the main draw.
To make prosciutto, pork thighs are air cured for at least 12 months, which imparts a sweet and delicate flavor to the meat thanks to the region’s distinctive terroir. Served raw—hence the term crudo—Parmensi (what the locals call themselves) savor it as an appetizer or snack. The Parma Ham Consortium, a group that convened in 1963 to establish stringent standards for prosciutto production, approves all prosciutto that has the di Parma designation, ensuring you get the real deal.
Nearly every street in town boasts a butcher shop offering a variety of authentic cuts for sale. I follow the steady stream of locals to La Prosciutteria on Luigi Carlo Farini. Wine and pork line nearly every counter and wall, and ham hocks hang from the ceiling as if on sentry duty. Customers select from prepackaged cuts or take a number, waiting their turn. Max Bandini, who is fluent in French and Italian, thinly slices huge, fatty pork thighs according to my request.
Once I have my coworker’s souvenir in hand, it’s time to enjoy some local cuisine. I head to La Filoma, a historic restaurant established in 1915, run by the aforementioned Zoppi. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling and gold embossed mirrors line the dining room. Zoppi, garbed in a chef hat and apron adorned with ladybugs, makes the pasta himself, based on family recipes. The gregarious chef welcomes me into his kitchen to watch him delicately slice prosciutto and fold tortellini. The result is an al dente dish covered in a light parmesan sauce, an ideal way to end the evening.
I work off some calories by heading back to the train station. After a 10-minute ride, I am in Reggio Emilia, the birthplace of parmigiano reggiano. Reggio Emilia may not be as big and bold as Parma but it has a flavor all its own. Established during the same period as Parma, Reggio, as the locals call it, went through centuries of upheaval before becoming part of a unified Italy in 1861. Today, the city is a lavish mishmash of baroque buildings and modern marvels such as the Domus Technica.
Parmigiano reggiano is one of the most popular Italian cheeses worldwide and with good reason: it’s the perfect topping to a variety of dishes. During The Middle Ages, Benedictine and Cistercian monks invented the cheese using salt from nearby mines and milk bred from cows grazing on church-owned farms. The result was hard, dry wheels of cheese—aged a year or longer—that didn’t require refrigeration. During the Renaissance, wheel sizes increased to 18kg as demand did as well. Ranuccio I Farnese, the Duke of Parma, was the first to officially recognize the cheese in 1612 and since 1998, the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, a nonprofit organization located on Via John F. Kennedy, regulates the sale and distribution of the cheese labeled with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO).
Unlike the cardboard-like, pungent versions you find in most mass supermarkets, true parmesan is finely grained, yet flaky, creamy but with a fragrant aroma and delicate flavor. The older it is, the richer the flavor. One kilo of parmesan is equal to one liter of milk, making it ideal for anyone who needs to build healthy bones.
“The people in Reggio are strong and work hard and I think it’s because we are given the cheese when we are babies,” says Sara Jebablia, a server and bartender at I Fratelini, a cozy cafe and wine bar on via San Carlo. When asked if Reggio is really the birthplace of the cheese, Jebablia says, “The parmigiano you get in Parma is not the real kind. We are the birthplace of real parmigiano.”
I head back to the station for my trip to the Renaissance capital of Modena. The city has been around since pre-Roman times but it wasn’t until the battle of Modena in 43 B.C., when Brutus took refuge inside the city gates after murdering Caesar, that the town was finally on the map. During the 11th century, Modena became a republic and flourished as part of the Lombard League. The Dukes of Ferrara in the 16th century cemented the city as a capital of culture, with food at the forefront.
Many relics from bygone eras remain, including the 12th-century Modena Cathedral, aka “The Stone Book,” which dominates the city square. But it’s the centuries-old tradition of balsamic vinegar that attracts 30,000 visitors a year. I’m not talking about the watery industrial variety found in your local grocery store. That’s often mixed with wine vinegar and caramel to make it taste like real balsamico. True balsamico is thick, syrupy and is 100 percent aged grape juice.
Modena’s balsamico heritage dates back to the 11th century when local aristocrats gifted small bottles of balsamic vinegar to their heirs or added them to dowries to attract better suitors for their daughters. The elite were the only ones to have access to the condiment until the 18th century when it became a household item. Producers—some of which still exist—popped up by the dozen in the city and balsamico became world renowned after the Second World War.
While other towns lay claim to balsamico, it’s only in Modena that you can find the pure variety.
“Traditional balsamic vinegar can only be produced in Modena or the surrounding areas because the grapes come from our territory,” says Patrizia Martignoni, a local shop owner. “The climate here is perfect for it. In Bologna, it’s just not the same.”
L’Aceto Balsamico di Modena is protected and can only be made with grapes from Lambrusco, Sangiovese and Trebbiano. These rich red varietals are boiled, then aged in casks made of oak, juniper, ash, chestnut or cherry wood, which impart different flavors and levels of acidity—juniper offers a higher acidity, for instance. Each cask is aged at least 12 years, some up to 50. The resulting liquid is housed in small, genie-like glass bottles crafted by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the famous Maserati car designer.
Balsamico is so revered by food and wine connoisseurs the world over that annual contests and tastings abound. One place that offers free tastings throughout the year and boasts 25 different small-batch producers is the La Consorteria 1966 on Piazza Giuseppe Mazzin, headed by the aforementioned Martignoni. For a balsamico aficionado such as myself, it’s a piece of heaven, where one can try balsamico you can’t find anywhere else, even in Modena. There’s the sweet variety made by a local octogenarian and the juniper-infused tart, 12-year-old version made by a younger family. There’s so much to choose from, I am almost heady with delight.
While it’s acceptable to use it as a reduction in meat dishes, most locals prefer to drizzle balsamico over strawberries, tomatoes or ice cream. The older the vinegar, the sweeter it is, so already sweet dishes are better served with younger balsamico. I splurge on a 25-year-old Acetaia Valeri, which is dark brown in color with hints of chocolate. It offers a balanced acidity, making it perfect for my beloved caprese.
As I make my way home with my souvenirs, I leave satisfied but hungry for my next flavor foray into Emilia-Romagna.
*This article was produced pre COVID-19. Since the pandemic, travel regulations have been in constant flux. Borders and businesses may close temporarily or permanently. Please travel safely and check out the Open Travel Index for up-to-date information on restrictions and regulations.