Emilia-Romagna has a just reputation for producing the richest, most lavish food in Italy, with its famous specialities of parmesan cheese (parmigiano-reggiano), egg pasta, Parma ham (generically known as prosciutto di Parma) and balsamic vinegar. Despite its current foodie connotations, balsamic vinegar started off as a cottage industry, with many Emilian families distilling and then redistilling local wine to form a dark liquor that is then matured in wooden barrels for at least twelve years. Bologna is regarded as the gastronomic capital of Italy, and Emilia is the only true home of pasta in the North: often lovingly handmade, the dough is formed into lasagne, tortellini stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach, pumpkin or pork, and other fresh pastas served with ragù (meat sauce), cream sauces or simply with butter and parmesan – alla parmigiana usually denotes something cooked with parmesan. Modena and Parma specialize in bollito misto – boiled meats, such as flank of beef, trotters, tongue and spicy sausage – while another Modenese dish is zampone – stuffed pig’s trotter. The region is second only to Sicily for the amount of fish caught in its waters.
Regional wines are, like the landscapes and people, quite distinct. Emilia is synonymous with Lambrusco, but don’t despair: buy only DOC Lambrusco and be amazed by the dark, often blackberry-coloured wine that foams into the glass and cuts through the fattiness of the typically meaty Emilian meal. There are four DOC zones for Lambrusco and you get a glimpse of three of them, all around Modena, from the Via Emilia, each supporting neat rows of high-trellised vines. The fourth zone extends across the plains and foothills of the Apennines, in the province of Reggio Emilia. Other wines to try, both whites, are Trebbianino Val Trebbia and Monterosso Val D’Arda, while the lively Malvasia (also white) from the Colli di Parma goes well with the celebrated local ham.
Heading east towards the Adriatic coast, you come to the Romagna, a flatter, drier province where the wines have less exuberance but more body and are dominated by Albana and Sangiovese. The sweeter versions of Albana are often more successful at bringing out the peachy, toasted-almond flavours of this white. The robust red of Sangiovese, from the hills around Imola and Rimini, comes in various “weights” – all around the heavy mark. Much lighter is Cagnina di Romagna, which is best drunk young (within six months of harvest).