The secrets of Italy's culinary riches lie mainly in the plains

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Few regions in Italy can match Emilia-Romagna for the quality and range of its foods. Its nickname, "La Grassa" (the fat), speaks for itself: the land on the plains south of the River Po around Parma and the capital, Bologna, is flat but immensely rich and the soil full of nutrients.

Few regions in Italy can match Emilia-Romagna for the quality and range of its foods. Its nickname, "La Grassa" (the fat), speaks for itself: the land on the plains south of the River Po around Parma and the capital, Bologna, is flat but immensely rich and the soil full of nutrients.

The climate is very cold in winter but very hot in summer, so the preserving, curing and bottling of food is a longestablished culinary art.

The pig is at the heart of Parmesan cuisine, and provides the region with its biggest industry. Other than the famous Parma ham, pork reaches the table in many guises.

You have mortadella sausage, zampone, which is a stuffed pig's trotter (the trotter is emptied and stuffed with gelatinous bits - like the ear and the cheek - cooked for a long time and eaten with beans; it is truly delicious).

Even more precious than Parma ham is culatello, aged for 18 months, softened in wine and cut very thinly. A plate of culatello is heaven - especially if washed down with a glass of Lambrusco.

Ham from Parma is wonderful because they salt it, cure and dry it in towers in the fresh air. The air has very little humidity so the meat does not rot, but instead gets an incredible sweetness.

As Parma ham ages, the fat becomes polyunsaturated, making it healthy, full of iron and vitamins and very digestible.

There is a direct connection between Parma ham and Parmesan cheese, in that the whey from the cheese-making is used to feed the pigs.

The milk from the cows of Emilia-Romagna gives us parmiggiano reggiano, one of the two kinds of parmesan cheese and, in my opinion, the finer.

It is aged for at least 16 to 18 months so it loses a lot of weight in the process. You need 1,000 litres of milk to produce 60-70kg of cheese. The cheese is made into huge wheels which are slowly turned every day during drying and aging to make sure the salt is evenly spread.

The other parmesan is the grana padano, which comes from the area north of the Po. It is grainier. You can check the difference by putting Parmesan in hot soup: parmiggiano reggiano suspends in little grains, while grana padano sinks in a ball to the bottom.

Bolognese sauce comes from Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna, and is made from either minced pork or beef and veal, combined with onions, wine and tomatoes. Incidentally, it is never eaten with spaghetti in the English style, but with egg tagliatelle.

Parma is a big centre for the Italian dried pasta industry (Barilla being one of the big producers based here) but traditionally people in the region eat egg-based filled pastas such as tortelli and tortellini. A great favourite is to flavour egg pasta with the juices from roast meats and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Tortelli di zucca or pumpkin tortelli are delicious dishes and very typical of the area.

The region also has a pasta made with bread which typically is reduced to a pulp, cooked with beans and known as pisarei e fasoi.

Balsamic vinegar from Modena is another of the best-known regional specialities. Made from the white trebbiano grape, it used to be used as a medicine, hence the name Balsamic, which hints at its therapeutic properties.

The freshly pressed grape must, called sapa, is cooked and reduced to a brown consistency which then takes at least 10 to 15 years to mature in the barrel.

The barrels are passed down from one generation to the next and kept under the roof in many households. I remember as a child we used to put the vinegar on snow to make an instant sorbet.

Comments