History was never my strong point at school. Don't get me wrong: I like the idea of it. It's just that all those facts and figures, all those dry old books, never really succeeded in capturing my imagination. Here I am, though, 14 years after finishing my GCSEs, lapping it up. I am standing in the kitchen of Miriam Leonardi's ristorante, La Buca, in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, as she tells me how her family has spent the last 110 years serving the community of Zibello with meals that only mamma can make.
The Leonardis first set up shop in 1897, in the house that we're standing in right now. While the kitchen served up dishes laced with pasta and parmesan to keep the farm labourers sufficiently fuelled up, other rooms were occupied by cousins who were cobblers, sisters who were dressmakers and brothers who were wine merchants. This was, then, the 19th-century Italian equivalent of the modern shopping mall.
The other branches of the business have long since departed the scene, yet the kitchen is still functioning at full tilt with Miriam at the helm. And while the clientele may have shifted upmarket – from the farm workers of yesteryear, to modern, Prada-clad socialites from as far afield as Milan, three hours' drive away – the ethos remains as honest as ever.
"A region's food always reflects the character of its people," says Miriam, as she grapples with a bright yellow sheet of fresh pasta and slaps it down on the kitchen table. Nowhere is this truer than in Emilia-Romagna. Located just north of Tuscany, it was once made up of two separate regions, where the respective inhabitants were reputed to possess very distinct personality traits.
To the east, the Romagnoli, with their fiery temperament and flavoursome food; inland, to the west, were the Emilians, more mellow and down-to-earth. At least, that's what Miriam says. She may be over 70 years old, but judging by the way she's flinging that pasta around, Miriam is not the sort of woman you want to disagree with.
I had come here on a quest to find real Italian food. As someone who subsists almost entirely on a diet of Bolognese sauce out of the jar, Parma ham and parmesan cheese, I was curious to see what a "real" Italian dinner tasted like. It might, of course, have been easier to go to my local Italian restaurant and order up a few courses. However, the Italian Academy of Cooking recently criticised many restaurants outside the mother country for serving up poor imitations of original Italian recipes, so I'd decided to travel to the source. And although I'd come in search of food, I ended up with a culinary history lesson, too.
My journey had begun two days earlier, in the medieval town of Colorno, about half-an-hour's drive from Miriam's. I pulled up a chair in Arcari, a wonderfully old-fashioned family-run restaurant, where cured meats and cheeses under the glass counter enticed my eye, and old jazz tunes wafted over the early evening airwaves. The waiter, Emanuele, handed me a menu written entirely in Italian and explained what was on offer.
Most items on Arcari's menu featured "heavy" meats such as beef and pork, and everything came laden with vegetables. It was all designed with one thing in mind: to make you feel stuffed. Back in the early 19th century, while Miriam's great-grandmother was cooking up a storm just down the road, the inhabitants of Colorno would emerge from the fields in search of something to replenish their energy levels after a hard day's graft. While the meat-and-two-veg that's served now is more refined, its roots lie in age-old recipes that were more functional than fanciful.
Another clue as to Emilia-Romagna's history is found in its pasta. Unlike Italy's other regions, where everything is cooked in olive oil, Arcari uses butter. According to Emanuele, this was due to the influence of the French. At the end of the 18th century, the provinces of Piacenza and Parma were ruled by the French for 15 years. Napoleon's wife Marie-Louise was installed as Duchess, and the palace that formed her summer home is just a few minutes' walk from Arcari, in the Piazza Garibaldi.
Colorno is typical of many Italian towns, with meandering streets that are made for walking off big meals. And if strolling for more than 10 minutes sounds too strenuous, many of them are lined with cafés where you can sit, sip and watch the world amble on by. As the sleepy Parma river winds past the Ducal Palace in the centre of town, on its way towards the Po just a few miles north, it is bordered on either side by throngs of cicadas. The only interruption to this peaceful scene is the occasional moped blowing raspberries as it putters past.
Even half-an-hour away in Parma, a city with 170,000 inhabitants, the pace of life is still sedate; you can wander into churches and galleries without ever having to fight your way through crowds. But despite only recently making it onto Ryanair's roster, Parma is no stranger to visitors from overseas. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was a port of call for pilgrims making their way from Britain to Rome, via Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and signs of its hospitable past can still be seen. Having slurped a quick espresso in the Piazza Garibaldi (it seems there is one in every town in Italy), I headed to the nearby Piazza del Duomo, which houses the city's cathedral, baptistery and the Bishop's Palace – all dating back to the 12th century. Squinting up through the spring sunshine at the walls of the Bishop's Palace, I noticed colourful crockery built into the brickwork. Aside from adding decorative value, these painted bowls were apparently a sign to travellers that a free meal was available inside.
Talking of food... it was time to sniff out a true Italian deli. The Picchi sisters had run theirs on Via Farini for the last 40 years. I arrived just before the lunchtime rush and had the pick of the morning's freshly made goodies. These include torta fritta – pieces of deep-fried bread dough about the size of a croissant, around which you wrap a piece of salami. Under the counter were pots of colourful home-made salads, costing about ¿3 (£2.20) a pop (the equivalent cost me over £6 in a trendy London deli recently).
My final culinary surprise came when I headed out to Atelier Gastronomico Picci. Located in the town of Cavriago, just over the provincial border in Reggio Emilia, this restaurant specialises in the use of balsamic vinegar. Now, call me unenlightened, but I always thought that the stuff was purely a condiment for drizzling and dunking. But here aceto balsamico is serious stuff, treated with all the reverence of a fine wine. Aged in barrels for up to 25 years, it is nothing like the watery brown vinegar you get in UK supermarkets. Instead, it is a syrupy, bitter-sweet liquid that catches the back of your throat and leaves a delicious after-taste of prunes. And as the restaurant's owner, Marco, demonstrated, you can use it on anything – from steak to fruit salad.
Finally, after three intense days of study (all right, stuffing myself silly), I find myself in Miriam's kitchen, where she is insisting on cooking for me. Apparently, I need feeding up. After plonking generous spoonfuls of ricotta cheese and spinach into pasta pouches that will eventually become the tortelli di erbetta I'll be having for lunch, she ushers me out into the sun-soaked courtyard to take my place at the table. If only school had been this easy.
The writer flew from London Heathrow to Milan Linate with Alitalia (0870 544 8259; www.alitalia.com). Alternatively you can fly to Bologna or Verona, both served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick; or Brescia on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).
Car hire is available in Emilia Romagna through Alamo (0870 191 6992; www.alamo.co.uk), from around £150 per week.
EATING & DRINKING THERE
Trattoria La Buca, Zibello (00 39 0524 99 214; www.trattorialabuca.com).
Trattoria Arcari, Colorno (00 39 0521 815 439).
Atelier Gastronomico Picci, Cavriago (00 39 0522 371 801).
Emilia Romagna Tourism: www.emiliaromagnaturismo.it
Italian Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; www.italiantouristboard.co.ukReuse content