After experiencing Bologna as a city, our final day took us out into the hills of Emilia-Romagna where a countryside paved with parmesan based promise awaited us.
We were promptly picked up from Hotel Touring at 7am by our driver Marco from Italian Days Food Tour– a company who specialise in group tours showcasing the making of the region’s finest edible offerings. Not knowing what to expect other than an early start, we eagerly boarded the mini bus and waited for the day to unfold. After picking up another (very lovely) couple from a nearby hotel we drove onwards. After a while we pulled over and someone else jumped in; this time it was our guide for the day, Fabio. Brimming with eccentricity and charm he enlightened us as to the days proceedings (basically- food) and entertained us with stories about the area as the sun rose along the way.
The reason for the 7am start was so that we could see the first stop of the day in action. The Parmigiano Reggiano factory only operates in the mornings as so to utilise the fresh milk brought in daily. After donning some fetching overcoats and hair nets we ventured inside and were met with giant copper vats where the initial stages of cheese making were taking place. From curdling to heating to watching the cheesemaker separate the cheese mass by hand, it was a fascinating insight into a product I eat all the time without giving much thought to.
As well as the initial stages, we were shown the “baths” where the imprinted wheels sit in salt for 20 days and the maturing room which housed a casual €7,000,000 worth of cheese. It smelt divine. Fabio taught us about the prestigious process of determining whether a cheese is worthy of the “DOP” accolade which is so thoroughly enforced to ensure all such named products have been made in the authentic way true to the origin.
After taking in more cheese based information than I ever thought possible we gathered outside for breakfast. A selection of bread was accompanied by very generous servings of the authentic Parmigiano Reggiano and it tasted incredible. I don’t think we’ll ever allow ourselves to buy imitations again. There were meats, more bread and a custard pastry to finish that I’m genuinely still dreaming of. Oh and Lambrusco. My favourite friend Lambrusco made a 9am appearance alongside the pastry of dreams, sound of a cockerel and sight of the vineyards and hills in front of us. It was one of those meals that I know I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
After purchasing some 36 month old cheese (well when in, erm, Bologna) it was onwards to Villa San Donnino- home of authentic Balsamic Vinegar production. Made from grapes and aged in barrels it was a process that, again, I knew little about. The tour was incredibly informative and we were encouraged to get in amongst the barrels to smell the huge difference between the oldest and youngest vinegars.
The strongest ones smelt like alcohol and definitely unlike any so called balsamic I had ever tried. Like the cheese, a DOP is presented to the traditional vinegar that has been allowed to age and ferment in the barrels of varying woods including juniper, cherry and chestnut that all contribute to the distinctive end flavour. Balsamic barrels are often given as gifts within families to mark memorable occasions and one of the sets at this particular villa dated back to an impressive 1512.
The taste testing allowed us to try vinegars of various strengths and quality. I actually wasn’t too taken with the “best” one- it felt more like it should be served in a shot glass than as an accompaniment to food but the sweetness and thickness of the others was like nothing else. Syrupy, fruity and complex with acidity; the watery balsamic counterpart that we currently house in our cupboard really doesn’t stand a chance in comparison. We tried it drizzled over ricotta and then vanilla gelato which was an absolute winning combination in my eyes and one I will definitely be introducing to future summer gatherings.
Leaving the tranquil land of balsamic barrels behind it was onto the part of the tour that I was, to be honest, not quite as enthused about- the prosciutto factory. Inside the unassuming building I found myself surrounded by thousands of hanging pig legs, literally thousands of them. I’ve spared you from the photos and instead opted for ones where the lighting is aesthetically pleasing. You’re welcome.
From the salting to ageing it was an enjoyable experience for Tom and therefore me vicariously through him. I don’t know what he enjoyed more- the pork promenades, pork tasting or his non pork eating girlfriend in a pork factory. I enjoyed the Lambrusco.
Touring done, we were told it was time for lunch which I imagined to be a quick buffet somewhere before heading back to Bologna. After the most incredible ascent though the Bologna Hills we stopped at an authentic countryside trattoria and proceeded to be expertly wined and dined throughout one of the most entertaining and delicious lunches I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of.
From traditional tortellini en brodo to varieties of pasta cooked just for us, grilled and fried vegetables to steaks and pastries. Free flowing wine and conversation accompanied the kind of delirious happiness you can only experience in such a sensation induced situation. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better (somewhere after the vegetables and before my new favourite nut liqueur arrived) my much pined for fried custard from the day before appeared- life was truly complete.
Italian Food Days Tour was the ideal way to experience a different side to Italy away from the small dogs and city streets. Equal parts educational and entertaining, we came away feeling full both in hearts and stomachs. Thank you to all but especially Fabio for a perfectly memorable day, I’ll be dreaming of that custard pastry and Lambrusco breakfast for a long time yet…
*We attended the tour as guests as part of our Bologna trip organised by Hotel Touring. All opinions, views and custard based praise are my own.