Three days in one of the food capitals of Europe; what could possibly go wrong….several bowls of pasta, two gelatos and countless shots of limencello later, we dragged ourselves to the airport, bellies full, spirits high and suitcases packed with local food treats.
Bologna is not an obvious holiday destination but with an exceptional food scene, some beautiful architecture and a short journey time from London, it should be. Dubbed as the stomach of Italy for it’s rich food heritage, the region of Emilia Romagna, of which Bologna is the capital, is famed not only nationally but throughout the continent as a place to come and indulge in some of world’s best food produce.
The Italians really know how to eat and enjoy themselves. There’s a wonderful scene in the book/movie Eat Pray Love, which for me encapsulates why I love holidaying in Italy so much. Luca Spaghetti tells Liz, that the problem with Americans is that they don’t know pleasure – they feel like they have to earn it, whereas the Italian’s feel like they are entitled to it – it’s a way of life for them, which is reflected in the way they take such pleasure and joy in their food. They eat pasta because they love pasta; it’s a part of their cultural heritage and a key part of their diet. Same with gelato, parmesan cheese and red wine. Only 9.8% of Italian’s are classified as obese compared to 22.7% in the UK, which perhaps demonstrates it’s all about your attitude towards food. So we enjoyed pasta, parmesan, gelato and wine in abundance and didn’t feel guilty once about indulging. After all, when in Rome…
Here are my top three Bologna foodie experiences with a couple of special mentions at the end….
We started with a stellar meal on Friday evening. After watching A Long Weekend in Bologna with Rick Stein a week before, we were eager to visit Scacco Matto, where Rick made fresh tortellini with chef Mario Ferrara in his restaurant kitchen. The food didn’t disappoint. The tortellini dish was hands down, the best I’d ever had. Fresh folds of pasta held a delicious puree of roasted onions and parmesan cheese, which were resting in a light broth filled with porcini mushrooms, chilies, herbs and hazelnuts. It was absolutely beautiful. Their desserts were also memorable – we had a trio of small sweets to share, with a lemon curd Millefeuille, a ricotta ice-cream with chocolate shards and the most exceptional strawberry sorbet. In the recent humid days we’ve had here in London, I still think about that refreshing, fruity sorbet and wonder whether I can justify a trip to Italy to try it again. We also got to meet the lovely Mario, which despite not having a language in common, we managed to communicate that we saw him on TV in the UK, which he seemed pretty thrilled about.
This tour was recommended to me by another food writer who had recently visited Bologna and it was one of the best tip-offs I’ve had. It was a tour full of Italian spirit, led by our brilliant guide, Fabio. This guy had a serious love for food and life – an infectious outlook, which turned the day into a frolic around the outskirts of Bologna, discovering what it is that makes this region so special. First stop was the parmesan factory which was astounding. Our 7am call-time was not exactly the leisurely lie-in we’d imagined but sipping lambrusco and eating chunks of parmesan for breakfast was a pretty special start to the day. Looking at the process of making and ageing the parmesan was fascinating. We watched it all happen from stirring the curds to the ageing process, which is a minimum of a year, before the huge wheels of cheese are sold for around €700 a pop. The cheeses are subject to a vigorous inspection process before being polished, waxed and sold to national and international restaurants and distributors. With crystals running through it, the 36-month old rich parmesan was delicious. We stopped at a balsamic factory which was equally as captivating. The balsamic is aged in wooden barrels for up to 25 years, before it’s inspected, marked as ‘traditional’ (meaning it’s the real deal) and sold. Traditionally wooden barrels filled with balsamic are gifted to a baby girl on her christening and passed down through generations. They never throw away a wooden barrel, as this would be a waste of the oaky flavor that has built up in it – they only repair them, meaning they can live on for centuries. The balsamic vinegar we usually find in the UK is usually only 20% grape musk mixed with other types of cheaper vinegars whereas the authentic type is 100% grape musk and nothing else. In the words of Fabio it has “no added sugars or preservatives, just warm summers, passion and patience.” We finished the day with a lunch to beat all lunches at an organic winery, where we enjoyed a variety of beautiful pasta dishes and more wine than we could finish. Fabio guided us through the day like a pro, educating us, entertaining us and making us laugh until we collapsed drunk and exhausted into the minibus at the end of the day, delivered back to our hotels giddy and full to brim.
Sit outside here on a warm summers evening and I guarantee it will be a memorable evening of your life. There is no menu at this converted pharmacy – expect to be told the options by your waiter from a limited list but be safe in the knowledge that everything you eat will be exceptional. Mortadella and mozzarella started the meal, followed by pasta. We skipped the secondi piatti and went straight to the dessert which was also lovely. You’ll see the owner Emanuelle wandering round with a red wine glass in hand, chipping in with waiting duties, sitting down chatting to guests and generally enjoying life, as the Italians do. He is a seriously funny guy so take some time to have a chat and don’t be surprised or offended if he plies you with limencello and more red wine than you’ve ordered.
Make sure you visit the Whispering Walls, climb up the Bell Tower for breathtaking views and eat Gelato at La Sorbetteria (just exceptional). Don’t expect a huge amount of attractions or museums; Bologna is a city of quiet charm where visitors can bask in the beauty of the red-brick buildings, watch locals cycle vintage bikes along the cobbled streets and most of all, eat extraordinary food until their hearts are content.