Before the pandemic, I never really understood the “foodie” culture. As a travel writer, I enjoyed cooking classes when they were on the itinerary, but the classes were lost for me once the last dish was served. I was more intrigued by the chefs’ personalities than the actual ingredients.
But with travel on lockdown, something stirred inside me: Watching late-night Food Network shows (“Guy’s Grocery Games” was my guilty favorite) inspired my own attempts at the recipes, with little success. An attempt to make honey Sriracha resulted in the melting of a spatula — and the smell of burnt plastic for days.
I decided that the next time I had the opportunity to improve my cooking skills, I would make it count. So, when I arrived in Emilia-Romagna last fall, I was on a delicious quest to eat and drink my way through this northern Italian region, dubbed the Food Valley next to Tuscany.
While the latter draws the most attention from North American travelers, the towns and countryside along the Via Aemilia, the ancient road, are an almost sacred culinary heartland to Italians, the cradle of some of the Italian peninsula’s most famous foods: prosciutto di parma, mortadella, Balsamic vinegar and, perhaps the jewel in the crown, Parmigiano Reggiano.
Landed in Bologna and picked up by a driver at the airport, I quickly start to sweat. The problem? I mention spaghetti bolognese to my driver. “That does not exist!” says Luigi, weaving through the traffic and raising his fist to the sky. “This meat sauce is nothing like the ragout we make here. And it must be combined with a wide pasta such as tagliatelle. Never spaghetti!”
He drops me off in Modena, a pretty little town of about 200,000 people known around the world for its cars; Ferrari, Lamborghini, Pagani and Maserati all produce their cars nearby.
Nestled in the Po Valley, Modena is a graceful porticoed site surrounding the Piazza Grande, a 12th-century square dominated by the city’s cathedral and its Ghirlandina bell tower. And it’s home to Osteria Francescana, chef Massimo Bottura’s three-Michelin-starred eatery that has twice topped the rankings of the world’s 50 best restaurants.
I can’t eat there. In fact, when I pop my head in the door and ask to have a quick look around, I’m told in the nicest way, no. So I find a tiny little café, eat a ragu alla Bolognese and immediately agree with Luigi.
The sauce is meatier. Big and wide enough to handle, the tagliatelle defies the boldness of the sauce with its own strength, which combines into a hearty, delicious — and totally unfamiliar — meal.
In the next few days I’ll be traveling through the regional specialties of Emilia-Romagna. At a country estate called Acetaia Villa San Donnino, I see the painstaking effort and literally decades it takes to produce a good, traditional balsamic vinegar, an ingredient invented in ancient times.
A guide named Francesca takes me through rooms filled with hundreds of barrels and absolutely permeated by the pungent smell of aging vinegar, and explains that they press grapes (Trebbiano and Lambrusco), boil and reduce the juice, and then everything down to 25 Aged for years in a series of casks known as “batteries”. The result is thick and hearty, perfect with everything from figs to feta.
Next, it’s time for some of the best cheeses in the world. A little further down Via Aemilia, just outside of Parma, I drive through the process of turning local cow’s milk into Parmigiano Reggiano.
While many North Americans are familiar with “Parmesan” as the dry, slightly off-putting yellow grated stuff they shake onto your fettuccine alfredo at East Side Mario’s, the real Parmigiano Reggiano is known here as the “King of Cheeses.” ”
I tour a factory known by the more industrial name of CPL-Consorzio Produttori Latte and watch burly men extract curds from whey and use the former to make large cheeses aged at least two years. “A miracle is happening right before your eyes,” says my guide, Sarah. “This is the birth of Parmigiano Reggiano.”
Now that I’m properly enlightened on the local delicacies, I’m (almost) ready for the hardest part of the journey: the actual cooking. Walking from Bologna’s main square, I arrive at Il Salotto di Penelope, about 20 minutes from the main attractions, where I am greeted by Barbara Zaccagni, the owner of the small cooking school.
First we make the dough, a simple combination of eggs and flour. Then we knead. “Never use machines! Just your hands – and the rolling pin,” says Zaccagni firmly. It’s a surprisingly physical activity, requiring a lot of arm strength to roll out the tiny hockey pucks of dough into thin, round sheets. Mine always seems to be too dry or too wet, with too much flour or not enough flour. Then I go too far, the dough gets so thin that I tear holes in it.
Zaccagni patiently fixes my mistakes. For the filling, we then mix ricotta, parsley and Parmigiano Reggiano, fold them into the dough and form – “pinch, pinch, turn” – small tortellini pockets. We put them in boiling water to set them, then in a pan with just butter, sage and some pasta water and our dish is ready.
Yummy. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Not a burnt spatula and not a Guy Fieri in sight. Just a steaming bowl of pasta in an ancient city and the rest of the night to savor it.
Writer Tim Johnson traveled as a guest of Emilia Romagna Tourismwho have not reviewed or approved this article.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION