No doubts that Italy is famous all over the world for its food and wine culture as much as it is for its artistic and historical patrimony. And the main feature of Italian food is the quality and freshness of its locally sourced ingredients.
The Mediterranean Sea supplies a wide selection of fish and seafood, the green rolling hills are covered with olive groves and vineyards, the valleys are used for orchards or pastures and the mountains are full of game.
But when it comes to cuisine, Italy also offers an extensive range of different preparations difficult to be grouped: recipes, traditions, ingredients and cooking styles may vary substantially from region to region.
Similar considerations apply to wine. The vine is cultivated in every corner of the country and wine is part of the everyday diet, but each region, subregion or little province often can have different grape varieties or production traditions.
It is also important to consider that food and wine are two strictly correlated subjects; Italians enjoy sitting at a table and sharing a good meal with friends and family, with a good bottle.
Hence, planning a gastronomic trip through Italy is probably one of the best ways to explore the real and variegated soul of this country.
It may be surprising but if you ask an Italian what’s the best region as a gastronomic destination, the answer won’t probably be Tuscany, as many foreigners could expect, but, most probably, Emilia Romagna.
This region stretches along the river Po valley and it’s characterised by flat agricultural land. Weirdly, it is often overlooked by tourists, in favour of the neighbouring Veneto or Tuscany.
Let’s not forget that Emilia Romagna is home to some of most popular Italian ingredients. The Parma ham, supreme king of all hams, and the cow’s milk cheese Parmigiano Reggiano are produced in the area of Parma, while Bologna is recognised as the site for the best mortadella and the birthplace of ragu’ (alla Bolognese).
And there is much more: fresh pastas such as tortelloni, tortellini, ravioli, cannelloni, lasagne, are specialities in the area. Not to say that the real balsamic vinegar comes from Modena.
And for those who likes a quick snack, the piadina romagnola is a must try.
The whole region has ancient culinary culture handed down by traditions; mother to daughter and so on.
While travelling along Emilia Romagna, you may visit a cheese factory in Parma, a balsamic vinegar producer in Modena, explore the food markets, take a course to learn how to make fresh pasta and of course enjoy good meals at the traditional ‘trattorie’.
The regional wines are often not as high quality as other regions of Italy, but there a few good things that are worth trying. The famous Lambrusco is often seen as cheap and low quality, but, recently, many producers are going for lower yields and obtaining beautiful examples that work perfectly with the fresh pasta preparations.
In the area of Bologna, the Pignoletto should also be mentioned. This is a white based on the homonymous grape variety. It is crisp, lightly sparkling, fresh and aromatic and it’s the best match for mortadella and salami.
Another top destination for food and wine lovers is Piedmont. This region, often compared to Burgundy for its family business structure, should be on top of any wine lover’s list.
The Nebbiolo grape based Barolo, Barbaresco, Ghemme and Gattinara, to name a few, are wines of exceptional quality; elegant with a complex palette of aromas and a great ageing potential.
Barbera, once the everyday peasant’s wine, has seen a serious increase in quality (and prices consequently) in the recent past. However you can still find plenty of deliciously fruity Barberas good value for money.
Dolcetto, Gavi, Freisa are a few other interesting dry wines, while Moscato and Brachetto complete the regional range with their aromatic sweetness.
Visiting wineries is quite easy, most of them will be normally open to the public; others may require you to set up an appointment in advance.
Piedmont food is not less disappointing: the white truffle of Alba a huge array of artisanal cheeses and cured meats as well as an impressive assortment of herbs are all part of the regional cuisine.
Some local interesting recipes include the ‘bagna cauda’, a warm dip prepared with anchovies, garlic and olive oil to be used with boiled vegetables. The `brasato al Barolo` is a sort of local version of a beef bourguignon and it’s a classic of the area around Monferrato.
In autumn a big festival celebrate the truffle season in the province of Alba. However, one of the best ways to discover this amazing ingredient is simply to join a guided truffle hunt and if you are lucky enough you may end up having dinner with fried eggs and freshly shaved truffles!
To conclude with a sweet touch, don’t miss to taste Gianduiotti, the yummy regional chocolate, prepared with the locally sourced hazelnuts.
On top of these 2 regions Italy can also offer various wine and food fairs and festivals all over the year.
And, especially in summer, all over the country, every region and little town will organise little ‘sagre‘ celebrating the local products: mushroom, potatoes, whitefish, gnocchi, tomatoes, artichokes… there is always a good reason to eat and party!