A short guide to the food of Bologna, Modena and Parma
by Gabriele Monti November 8th, 2012
Lovers of Italian food have labelled the Regione Emilia-Romagna as “the bread-basket of Italy.” It’s easy to see why. The historic cities of Parma, Modena and Bologna are famed for their food, from the air cured and delicate prosciutto (Parma ham), parmigiano reggiano (parmesan cheese) and traditional aceto balsamico (balsamic vinegar) – some of the quintessential ingredients of Italian cooking. The verdant Po Valley has given rise to agricultural practices that produce some of the most flavoursome and robust ingredients in the country.
When visiting Parma, Modena and Bologna, the starters are most likely to be slices of Parma ham, culatello, Salame di Felino, and shavings of Parmesan cheese. Parma ham has a delicate sweet savouriness that it is unique to this air cured ham. Culatello has also a unique and distinctive savouriness and every bite keeps giving our flavour, with hints of aromas like black pepper. Parmesan cheese is the quintessential savoury flavour, unique and inimitable, due to the long fermenting ageing.
First courses: Pasta Dishes
Fresh egg pasta in Emilia-Romagna is an artistic affair. Indeed, the cooks of this region are believed to be the masters of fresh pasta, producing distinct varieties of stuffed tortellini, and Tortelloni. Such pastas are recognised by their intricate and delicate shapes, as well as their rich fillings, which usually include pork or soft ricotta cheese.
Tortellini or Cappelletti
These attractive little pasta dumplings are filled with the best meats of the region – prosciutto, mortadella (a local variety of sausage) and ground pork. There are many old legends as to how tortellini originally came about. The most popular tale comes from Modena, near the Castelfranco Emilia. Lucrezia Borgia checked into an inn there, and the host was so captivated by her beauty that he spied on her through the keyhole of her private room. He only got a glimpse of her navel, but was so thrilled by this sight that he immediately went to the kitchen and attempted to recreate it in the form of pasta. And thus tortellini were born. For the real connoisseur they are only served in the famous Emilian capon broth, but a cream version is also available in most restaurants.
This is a larger version of tortellini, squares of egg pasta (in Emilia Romagna is commonly called sfoglia) are folded into triangle and folded one more time into a hat shape. They are commonly filled with spinach, ricotta cheese and a generous sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. They are served with a sauce – butter and sage being a local favourite, but also with a nice tomato sauce with a leaf of basil.
To your surprise this time it is not going to be a pasta dish. Passatelli is the poor man meal made into an elegant and refined dish, and if you visit Bologna in the winter months, it would be a sin not to have passatelli. This dish consist of dumpling made of bread crumbs, egg, and parmesan cheese. This is worked and turned into a dough and pressed through a die to obtain the classic shape. The dumplings are then served in a rich capon broth.
Along Passatelli, Zuppa reale is one of the less known dishes of the Emilian cuisine but well worth the hunt. Zuppa reale is a sort of spongy omelette like cake which is cut into cubes and served in the capon broth. The ingredients are flour, eggs, a lot of parmesan cheese, butter. The dough is cooked in the oven until golden crispy and spongy inside, then left to cool a little and cut into bite size dumpling.
Emilia-Romagna has a thousand-year history of raising swine – making it one of the most distinguished Italian regions for pork. Local pork dishes are layered in flavour, rich and hearty, and are perfect for chilly winter evenings. Veal is also a popular meaty option.
Zampone from Modena
Emilia-Romagna is famous for its decadent range of preserved meats and salamis. Zampone of Modena is a unique local treat that is often eaten at Christmas time. This winter sausage was born in 1510. Modena was under siege at the time, and food had to be preserved. As a result, ground pork, rind and other cuts were salted and stuffed into a de-boned pig’s trotter. These days, zampone is served with lentils and washed down with Lambrusco DOC.
Cotolette alle Bolognese
Tagliatelle alla Bolognese (it’s actually called tagliatelle al ragu in Italy) is not the only famous dish to emerge from Emilia-Romagna’s historical capital, Bologna. This original veal parmigiana consists of breaded veal topped with shavings of parmesan cheese. It can be also layered with prosciutto, but for an authentic and complex speciality white truffles are added as a final touch.
As the tortellini go with the broth, the meat is normally eaten as a second course. When visiting Bologna you should ask for the Carrello dei Bolliti, literally the boiled meat trolley. The waiter will oblige and push to your table a serving trolley full of succulent boiled meats. Here you will find capon, boiler chicken, beef briskets, as well as beef tongue for the more daring. The meats sliced thinly and served with salsa verde or mostarde. Salve verde is a condiment made with a base of parley and cooked carrots, boiled eggs, olive oil, vinegar, the recipes varies from location to location. Mostarda is more typical in the northern areas of Emilia Romagna and consist of fruits cooked in a light mustard sugary syrup.
Many sweet dishes of Emilia-Romagna originated from traditional festivals highlighting the weeks before Easter. People would often indulge in sugary treats on Shrove Tuesday before the period of abstinence marked by Lent.
This sweet resemble to original pasta dish is one such Shrove Tuesday invention. Strands of tagliatelle are deep-fried, and then coated in honey. This is a popular dessert throughout Bologna. It can also be topped with sugar, cinnamon or lemon zest.
This directly translates to “English Soup,” but it actually refers to the Italian version of English trifle. During the 16th century, the rulers of Ferarra met with Elizabethan statesmen from England, and this contact introduced them to the delicious custardy dessert. The Italian diplomats fell in love with it, and attempted to make it using local ingredients. The Emilian version consists of pan di spagna (sponge cake), or savoiardi (finger biscuits), thick custard and Alchermes, an aromatic herb liqueur.
These are just a few of the dishes you will discover on a gastronomic journey of Emilia-Romagna. Its culinary legacy is sometimes rustic, but also elegant and refined – and is considered one of the best in all of Italy.
A meal in Italy is not finished without a shot of your favourite digestive. In Modena we have the dark and aromatic Nocino made from unripe walnuts which are steeped into pure alcohol, and sugar. The liquid is aged into oak or hash barrels for a minimum of 6 years. In Parma you will be likely to be served Barniolino. This liqueur is made from the berry of the wild growing hawthorn berries steeped into alcohol and sugar. The liquid has hints of strawberry and cherries with a pleasant bitterness.
Wines of Emilia Romagna.
Wines in the region and often sparkling red, this is unique characteristic of our products. In fact Lambrusco (Modena) and Gutturnio (Piacenza) are wines that in the tradition where double fermented in their bottles. This would give rise to a first alcoholic fermentation and then a second one which gives the bubbles to the wine. Lambrusco is a wine that is enjoyed young, often the year after the harvest, and it certainly lends itself to accompany the rich local cuisine. Remember that the perfect lambrusco is a dry wine, with an evanescent froth, purple in colour (Grasparossa variety) with hints of violet flowers.