So there we were, at 8am, in December, having a picnic with fizzy red wine, outside a cheese factory. A long, long way from the Winter blues of Nottingham and London. The night before we’d almost dined with Bradgelina.
Having eaten our way around Bologna, and dined at the incredible Osteria De’Poeti, for our third and last day, Hotel Touring suggested we join Italian Days Food Tour No.1 to find out more about the stories behind the local trademark produce: Parmigiano Reggiano, Balsamic vinegar and Prosciutto, we would be visiting three factories with a guide, followed by a slap up Italian meal in the countryside. Hard job we thought, but someone’s got to do it.
First stop the Parmesan factory, where we had to get kitted out in factory health and safety gear. My food scientist Dad would be proud. My friend A models it beautifully (she can definitely come on more blogger outings with me!)
It was worth the 7am start to witness the birth of Parmigiano Reggiano, lots of cheese babies were born that morning in fact.
Parmigiano Reggiano, or Parmesan, is named after the producing areas, the Provinces of Parma, and Reggio Emilia, and parts of Bologna , Modena, and Mantua. By law it is only Parmesan if it is made here. Traceability is important to a cheese of this reputation and heritage, each cheese is wrapped in a plastic mould which stamps dates, batch numbers etc onto the cheese.
It was fascinating looking round the factory, and our guide was so knowledgeable and funny. I couldn’t believe how many cheeses there were, millions of Euros worth, in fact you used to be able to use them as mortgage. Amazing eh!
Our next stop was Acetaia Villa San Donnino, near Spilamberto, the birth place of Balsamic Vinegar. I loved the sense of legacy here, as the Villa continues the tradition of balsamic making, passed down over 3 generations.
What I especially loved was the idea that the birth of a child is celebrated with a new set of 6 barrels, the barrels are engraved with the child’s name. What a gift. Some of the balsamic has been aged for 25 years, and the price tag is understandably hefty. Still, keeping this family legacy going is hard work.
Our tasting here was wonderful. we worked our way up the vinegars in terms of age, they get sweeter thicker and more caramel flavoured. My favour was Nerone, aged for 6 years, it has a sweet taste without being too heavy. It was utterly incredible paired with vanilla ice cream. I was blown away by that combination. So so good.
Regular readers will be wondering what I was doing as a veggie on this tour, I sat out the next stop, the Proscuitto factory, but my travelling companion A was happy to venture in, and learnt a lot about the complexities of creating outdoor conditions indoors, now that Proscuitto needs to be cured inside. She also drank more wine and sampled the wares. She did bring me some breadsticks. Joking aside, for me the tour still felt like an incredible and worthwhile experience and my hosts went out of the way to make sure the food I ate was both authentic and meat free. (I do know parmesan isn’t vegetarian, so this probably isn’t a tour for proper vegetarians.)
Next up, the authentic feast…take a big gulp of fresh air. You’re going to need it! It was magical to be out in the countryside, which is as beautiful as the city, and the view from the restaurant terrace even reminded me, in a funny way of Cheshire, where I grew up on the edge of the pennines.
Italian Days run small tours, using comfortable people carriers rather than buses, so there was just me and A and an Australian couple, and our host to dine. It gave the day a relaxed and personal feel, we were able to ask all the questions we liked and the meal was a lavish and leisurely affair.
Here we go! Antipasti was three or four types of pasta. I love the tortolloni with courgette in a delicious sauce. This was paired with fizzy white wine, fizz helps cut through fatty food our host informed me, which is much needed in Bologna!
I enjoyed taglitelle with mushrooms and parmesan. The perfect way to illustrate the incredible power and taste of parmesan, food truly is naked without it, as they say in Italy.
Primi for me as a veggie was Zuppa Imperiale, which is toasted squares of egg bread in broth. the others ate meaty tortellini, much smaller than my tortelloni and served in broth, another local speciality.
Then came the course that is unique to Bologna, lots of little local delicacies. Risotto balls, polenta, chicory and mushrooms in breadcrumbs for me, the others had meat filled pastries, in the shape of tortellini.
Mine had spinach in
The surprise hit for me was deep fried custard; despite feeling really full, this was an absolutely incredible and a truly unexpected taste sensation. Obviously this custard is thicker, and a million miles from Birds, you will have to suspend your disbelief and take my word for it. Just incredible.
The meat eaters also had meat at this point, I think we had finally reached Secondi, while I declined more cheese, in favour of chicory, mushrooms and peppers.
And we moved to a stronger bottle of wine, still local and this time red. Still fizzy though, fizzy red wine was a revelation to me this trip.
After another breather on the restaurant’s terrace, overlooking the hills, we psyched ourselves up for pudding. It was a lovely taster of Panacotta and berries, Torta di Riso and Tenerina with Creme Chantilly.
And you can’t have an Italian meal of this caliber without a digestif, apparently, being a nut fan I loved this walnut one, Nocino!
We survived, here I am on the terrace, the place to walk off another course, compare tasting notes and congratulate each other that we were still going!
Sadly this also marks the end of the adventure, Italian Days dropped us off at the airport, we flew back to Stanstead, and then I snuggled onto the National Express, and for the first time in a long while, found myself driving home for Christmas in Nottingham, full and happy with the joy that only making memories in a new culture brings. Bologna is such an incredibly hospitable place, the welcome was so warm. Go visit. Bologna will always have a place in my heart, and my belly!
Need to know
Book your tour via Italian Days, Tours run Monday to Saturday, Pick up 7am, return around 5pm, price per person 150 Euros. There are other tours on offer too, including Sangiovese Wine (Ags introduced me to this and it is amazing), Truffle hunting, Ferrari Experiences Microbrewery and Private Collections of old Fiat Cars.
We were guests of Hotel Touring, mention Penny Alexander Blog for a 15% discount. Take a tour of the hotel, including the amazing rood terrace here.
Get an itinerary for the whole trip, or see Bologna at Christmas, over on Space in Your Case next week.