Thursday, 26 April 2012

Tuscan temptation and Romagnan revelry: my Italian Easter holiday

There's a famous saying about Parma. A Parma si mangia due volte. Prima si mangia, poi si parla. In Parma one eats twice: first you eat, then you talk. 

What is this blog, if not an opportunity to eat for the second time by reliving recipes through writing? As I sit here examining my furious scribbles in the notebook that accompanied me round Italy three weeks ago, I feel like I'm back in my favourite country, savouring all these exquisite gastronomic moments for the second time. I'm writing this out of a purely selfish desire to reminisce for a little longer, to make those memories a little more permanent, to indulge my greed and love for Italian cuisine once again. But I also hope that this provides an interesting insight into the real food of Italy; not just the ubiquitous lasagne, carbonara and Bolognese that have become student staples, but lesser known and intriguing dishes from a country with fascinating culinary diversity.

I finally found the tower. I had to take a photo to prove it.
I begin in Tuscany, where we spent four days exploring the cities of Pisa, Florence and Siena. I'd been to the latter two before, but Pisa was new to me. Which is probably why my boyfriend (thanks to him for a lot of these photos) and I spent about three hours wandering around trying to find the leaning tower. If you imagine it to be an unmissable landmark around which everything else revolves, maybe like the Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building, you'd be wrong. It's not very tall and it definitely isn't visible for miles around. We began to think the entire thing was a conspiracy, until we eventually stumbled upon it. Our reactions?

"Oh, right. So really does, y'know, lean."

Culture done, we swiftly moved onto the important part of the holiday - eating.

I was lucky I'd been warned in advance about the bread of Tuscany, or I'd have got a not-entirely-pleasant surprise upon first bite. It is completely devoid of salt. That might not sound like a big deal, but believe me, once you try bread made without salt you will realise just how much that simple ingredient contributes to a humble loaf. Bread without it is odd. It's not horrible, as the texture and satisfying breadiness is still there, but instead of tasting squidgy, moreish, doughy, it tastes like a sad, bland cloud.

But, as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. The fact that I found the bread not very enjoyable to eat means that I didn't guzzle down the entire bread basket before the meal had even begun. It enabled me to have more stomach space for delicious pasta. It probably enabled me to return from Italy a couple of pounds lighter than I would have otherwise. So for that, Tuscany, I thank you.

Also, if you view bread as a vehicle for mopping up delicious sauce and remnants, the Tuscan variety is perfect. Because it's nothing spectacular on its own, it allows whatever you soak into it to really shine. This, I suppose, is why Tuscan bread is often used in staple dishes like panzanella, a salad of stale bread and tomatoes, where the bread soaks up all the delicious juices and dressing.

The first thing to pass our lips in Pisa was, as you might expect, bread. However, this was not the saltless Tuscan bread. This was actually a rustic kind of thick baguette. Not very Italian, but wait to hear about what it contained. Starving, our BA lounge breakfast a distant memory and no lunch having materialised on the plane (BA, take note - a tiny bag of salted poppadom-type crisps is really not food), we ended up wandering into Pisa at about 4pm after checking into our hotel. The first viable place we found was a little bar, that I was drawn to by its sumptuous display of cured meats, cheeses and other tasty delights. It was utterly perfect - you could choose any combination of all the proffered ingredients and have them made into a huge, fat panino. There were about twenty different types of meat (cured hams, roast turkey, roast hams, chicken, stuffed pork), trays of different cheeses, little pots of glistening, vivid sauces, and platters of slick grilled marinated vegetables. I went for a classic(ish) combination: prosciutto, mozzarella and grilled vegetables. Jon had the same, but with a pepper sauce, which I really wish I'd had too.

Pisa at dusk
We sat outside this unassuming little bar, right next to the river, and ate our sandwiches, which turned out - when produced - to be about the length of our arms. They were incredible. Mine was absolutely bursting with slices of salty, moreish prosciutto and chunks of milky, cold mozzarella, tempered by the slight crunch and earthy flavour of grilled courgettes and aubergines. Jon's was, if possible, even better with its red pepper sauce.

One thing, though. I don't know how long it is since I last ate a crisp baguette, but it must have been ages, because this one left loads of little cuts along the roof of my mouth. Clearly I need to toughen up a little bit by eating daily crusty baguettes. What a hardship.

What do you do when your mouth is sore and chafed by a crusty baguette? You go in search of ice cream, obviously.

About two minutes from the sandwich bar we found Pisa's most recommended gelateria - La Bottega del Gelato. This became a regular feature of our stay - I find it impossible to reside in Italy and not make daily gelato a key feature of my trip. All the flavours I tried were lovely, but the most notable was 'ciambella', which is Italian for doughnut. However, it's also the name assigned to a gorgeous ring-shaped cake made with eggs, butter, sugar and lemon, that I think is a speciality of the Emilia-Romagna region. This gelato tasted exactly like lemon meringue pie, or lemon drizzle cake; a kind of hybrid of the two. It was creamy and tangy, full of zesty lemon goodness. Not as purely lemony as lemon sorbet; it had a richness reminiscent of butter and eggs and other delicious things. The pistachio was also wonderful, as was the Nutella flavour, which was a plain custard base strewn with rich, grainy rivers of molten Nutella. Also fascinating was a pine nut ice cream, which I just had to try, and which was gorgeous - nutty and rich and buttery, with that prominent and distinctive pine nut flavour.

Perusing potential restaurants in Pisa
We ate dinner that night at Trattoria Il Campano, and though our food was wonderful, I couldn't shake the feeling that we were missing a trick somehow. We sat there eating our pasta while the matronly waitress brought out steak after steak from the kitchen. This wasn't any steak, though. This was bistecca Fiorentina, the Tuscan carnivore's paradise. It's an enormous T-bone steak, usually from the Chianina breed of cattle, very thickly cut - one will serve two or more people. It's served very rare, simply grilled and then rested on the bone for five minutes to allow the blood to flow out. The waitress brought them out on platters and carved them at the table of the eagerly awaiting diners. I watched her slice that perfectly cooked, utterly gorgeous steak into strips, marvelling at its perfectly crimson interior, and I suddenly felt a deep pang of longing. Jon simply remarked that it was "too rare" for him, and carried on with his dinner. I get the feeling it's what all the locals eat on a Saturday night to treat themselves (it's not cheap, priced at about €4.50 per 100g, with an average steak weighing around 1.2kg), and I was so jealous. Maybe next time. When I have a boyfriend with more bloodlust.

Anyway, our food was excellent. Being near the sea, the seafood in Pisa is wonderful. An interesting quirk of many restaurants there is to offer two different menus - terra (land), and mare (sea), which similar courses across each. Pici pasta, a thick, doughy spaghetti that is a Tuscan speciality, may be served with a cinghiale (wild boar) sauce on one menu, and a baccalà (salt cod) sauce on the other. Jon tried the former at Il Campano, and it was gorgeous - really rich and earthy, like pork but more gamey and intense. I went for a starter of seppie, cuttlefish, which I'd never had before. I could smell it before it reached my table; cooked in a light tomato sauce with Swiss chard, it came piled up on a piece of bread, which absorbed all that gorgeous cooking liquor. It was rather like squid, but much more tender and yielding, and had a really rich, salty, seafood flavour. In this case, the Tuscan bread was perfect to mop up the sauce, which was pretty salty.

I followed this with ravioli filled with potato cream, served in a sea bream sauce. I'm not convinced by the idea of filling ravioli with mashed potato, I have to say - too much carbohydrate even for my flour-loving stomach. It was a bit odd in terms of texture. But the sauce, made of flakes of sea bream in its cooking liquid, was lovely. I'd never have thought of putting the seafood outside the ravioli before; it's definitely something I'd experiment with.

Probably my favourite dinner of the whole trip was at Osteria del Porton Rosso (see above), one of those charming little trattorie tucked away down a side street that you read about in travel guides and wistful novels but assume doesn't actually exist in real life. This one did. Unfortunately, the side street on which it was located appeared to be the unofficial urinal of Pisa. There are several streets vying for this nickname. Perhaps it's because public toilets in Pisa, like in most of Europe, are basically non-existent. Perhaps it's because the youth of Pisa are just lazy. But there's nothing like walking down a street fragrant with urine, dodging the tell-tale trickles of liquid on the otherwise dry pavement, to whet your appetite.

Fortunately, the food more than made up for this experience, as did the charming waiter. It helped that we were the only customers apart from a little old lady sitting in a corner. Perhaps I should explain why. For some reason that I still don't entirely understand, Pisa celebrates the New Year on March 25, and has done since the 12th century because it had a different calendar from then until 1749. Obviously. Because of this, there is a big celebration every year on March 25 called the 'Capodanno Pisano' - you can find out more about this odd custom here, but essentially it involves a parade of people in medieval garb carrying banners with crests on, all ending up in the cathedral for a service. We somehow got swept along in this wave of marching and instrument-playing, and ended up squashed near the front of the church having to endure a lengthy service entirely in Italian. Apparently it involves a sunbeam from one of the church windows landing on a marble egg, which marks the official New Year, but unfortunately we couldn't see said egg. I translated bits to Jon at first, but eventually we both kind of gave up and passively absorbed the priest's wisdom, while our legs and lower backs grew uncomfortably stiff. Still, it was very interesting. It also meant that the streets were totally deserted that night, and hardly anything was open, which is why we had the restaurant to ourselves.

Jon ordered a steak. How very male of him. I ordered fish. How very female of me. This was a place featuring the terra and mare menu concept. It wasn't just fish I ended up with, though.

I do speak Italian fairly well, but if there is one phrase I'd advise you to learn before visiting the country, it is this: Cosa mi consiglia?

It means 'what do you recommend?', and is the key weapon in my culinary tourist arsenal. I always, always ask waiters this question, even when I've mostly decided what I want to eat, though it's even more useful when I'm being my usual pathetic ambivalent self. In this case, the waiter recommended the 'Degustazione del Mare', which he explained was a starter comprising five or six small tastes of various typical seafood dishes. I immediately got excited and ordered it, followed by ravioli with sea bream and artichokes (similar to the potato ravioli, but with sea bream inside the ravioli along with the potato, and topped with gorgeous fruity olive oil, more bream, and marinated artichokes - it was wonderful). Let's talk about the starter, though.

He asked Jon if he'd be sharing, and I said he might try a little bit. The waiter obviously took this as a cue to prepare this starter for two people. I was definitely not prepared for the amount of food that followed. He brought two tapas-size portions, which I began to eat. Then another two. Then another two. Then another one. At one point I was worried this gastronomic onslaught would never end, but masochistically I couldn't wait for it to continue. There was a little plate of glistening, salty marinated anchovies. Four neat little tuna meatballs, crispy on the outside and yielding within, with a slight hint of fish. An unusual fried fishcake of chickpeas, vegetables and mussels. Set grilled polenta with prawns and lardo (cured pig fat), draped in elegant, meltingly delicious ribbons over the top. A pureé of salt cod and chickpeas, which was like a mellow, fish-flavoured hummous (though that sounds vile - rest assured it was delicious), and finally my two favourite dishes: ribollita with prawns and vegetables, and farro with octopus. Ribollita literally means 'reboiled' - it's a Tuscan soup originating from minestrone leftovers which were then reheated and various odds and ends added, including bread and vegetables. The result is a thick, starchy broth. This one was resplendent with prawns, salty, rich and delicious. The farro with octopus was definitely a highlight. Farro is a nutty grain similar to pearl barley. It was served with exquisitely tender cooked octopus, and the combination was just wonderful; like a hearty, flavoursome seafood salad.

Needless to say, I didn't have much room for my ravioli (though I ate it all, obviously), because I'd eaten enough starter for two people (Jon isn't a fish fan, so picked at a couple of things and then sat awaiting his steak). I did, however, have enough room to try his steak, which was the best steak I've ever had. This might be because it was drowning in a totally decadent creamy peppercorn sauce, but it also might be because I could probably have brought it back to life with CPR. It oozed sumptuous rivulents of pink blood into the sauce as he cut it, its flesh scarlet and bursting with juice. It was too rare for him. I wish I'd ordered it. To this day I dream of it.

That degustazione del mare is up there with one of the best things I have ever eaten. I love trying lots of little things, and every plate was so carefully cooked and presented, and so beautiful, that the memory of it fills me with joy. You know what else fills me with joy? The fact that it cost €14. For enough tapas-style seafood dishes to share (though I didn't). I think the waiter, realising that there'd be no other customers that night, was feeling generous, as that can't have been a normal portion size for one person. Every dish was so unusual, too - chickpea and mussel cakes, fish hummous, prawns and pig fat; a glorious mixture of surf and turf, served in rustic Italian style.

I'd had in my head romantic visions of dining al fresco in the shadow of the tower of Pisa (which, as established previously, is a pretty small shadow), but being a realist accepted that this probably was not likely. Generally, good restaurants are not to be found within a 500-yard radius of major tourist attractions. We were proved wrong, however, by Trattoria La Buca (see above), a lovely pizzeria/restaurant if not in the shadow of the tower then definitely close to it. I had fabulous fresh tagliatelle with an anchovy sauce, which was salty and slick with olive oil and delicious. I had been torn between that and the cacciucco, a Tuscan fish stew which supposedly should contain five different types of fish to be authentic - one for each of the C's in its name. I never did get to try it, sadly, but my seafood experience at Porton Rosso more than made up for this deficit.

We also dined at La Sosta Dei Cavalieri, the sister restaurant of Osteria Dei Cavalieri, which is where we really wanted to go but unfortunately they were full. La Sosta served Italian food on the more expensive, less rustic scale. My sformata of pumpkin served with cheese fondue was beautifully presented, but wasn't a particularly well thought-out dish - there was only one texture, which was creamy, and nothing to balance it. It probably wasn't worth twelve euros. However, my fresh pasta with 'barnyard ragu' (rabbit, guinea fowl, duck) was fabulous, really rich and yet delicate. For dessert we tried chocolate torte and apple cake - again, lovely, but nothing particularly ground-breaking.

Siena, languishing under the moodiest of Italian skies
There was something rather nice about returning to Siena, a city I found beautiful and intriguing when I visited four years ago, and which has lost none of its charm since. It has an appeal like no other, with its labyrinthine streets and terracotta brickwork, all winding lazily outwards from the central square, a giant sink-shaped basin where tourists and locals alike bask in the sun and the shadow of the Torre del Mangia.

I don't normally go in for Italian churches - I travelled round Italy with a Catholic three years ago, therefore have seen enough to last me well into my grave - but Siena's cathedral is something else. It's utterly stunning, with its white and coral exterior and its highly ornate interior, dominated by its starry ceiling, floor mosaics and monochrome striped pillars. I've never seen anything like it; it'll certainly make you re-evaluate your ideas of Italian churches. There was an exhibition of 15th century music manuscripts which my inner medieval geek slash magpie found pretty exciting. They were all shiny and old and stuff.

But woah, enough culture there. This is a food blog. For lunch I had gnocchi.

Delicate, pillowy gnocchi with a gorgeous pine nut cream sauce, shredded radicchio, and chunks of apple. An unusual combination, which is why I ordered it. It was divine - almost as divine as the cathedral. The sauce was so rich and moreish, I was using the last piece of gnocchi as a sort of scoop to make sure it all ended up in my mouth. The apple, soft and buttery and juicy, worked perfectly with the rich cream and the crunch of the radicchio. Jon had a sort of carbonara made with pork cheek and artichokes, which was rich and delicious, if a little on the eggy end of the carbonara spectrum. They had a chilli, chocolate and pear cake on the dessert menu which we sadly didn't end up trying, but I wish I had. Should you wish to enjoy these delights, you can find them at Hosteria Il Carroccio.

I consoled myself with panforte. Panforte is a Siena speciality: it's a kind of dense sweet made with lots of sugar, nuts and candied fruits. It's made in huge wheels and sold in wedges, rather like cheese. You see it everywhere, wandering around Siena - there are little baby ones on sale in gift shops, or huge wheels of the stuff in the windows of bakeries, glistening invitingly and begging you to ask for a sliver. It's a very attractive confection, with its jewel-like chunks of candied fruits (not just citrus - they use watermelon and pumpkin too), sprinkling of sugar on top and chunky nut pieces. I bought two slivers from Nannini, a famous cafe/bakery. They were extortionate, but worth every euro.

I tried the panforte margherita, which features hazelnuts, almonds, pine nuts and candied citrus fruit, and is spiced with cloves, coriander, honey and cinnamon. It had an amazing crunchy almond topping reminiscent of marzipan, and a lovely fudgy texture. Panforte is very sweet, but its gooeyness somehow makes up for that. The other version was fichi e noci - figs and walnuts. This was a much darker, denser concoction, gritty with fig seeds and sticky with the dried fruit. It was probably my favourite, less sickly and cloying than the margherita version, rather like a much stickier, thicker English tea loaf or Christmas pudding. I'm gutted I only bought two tiny slivers of each, but that was all I could afford. The wheels are priced at about €27 a kilo, and the tiniest possible slice weighs 150g.

Fig and walnut panforte; a dense, sticky concoction of candied fruit and sugar
I also bought some ricciarelli biscuits, another Siena speciality - rather like macaroons, these are made with sugar, ground almonds, honey and egg whites. They taste a bit like crunchy marzipan.

Now I think about it, it's a miracle the Sienese have any teeth left.

Also, can I just share with you my utter joy at the contrast between this visit to Siena and my last. During the latter, I sat down on the floor of the square and for lunch ate a bread roll and a pot of cottage cheese that I'd bought from a supermarket. That was four years ago, when I was an impoverished student halfway through a trip to Italy that was costing far more than she had anticipated. This time, I could go to a restaurant. I could order three courses if I wanted. There was no cottage cheese involved. The joys of having a job.

Siena also provided a trip to Grom. Grom is a bit of an Italian institution. It's a chain of gelaterie, but one that prides itself on making the best possible ice cream out of the finest quality ingredients, using natural processes and no rubbishy chemicals. Its ice cream cups and spoons are all recyclable. Grom is endorsed by the Slow Food movement, which is a pretty prestigious accolade in Italy. Its slogan is 'Gelato Come Una Volta', which loosely translates as 'Ice cream as it once was'.

I've been to a few Groms in my time, not just because I love the word 'Grom'. I heard that it's called that because the original branch was in Rome, and Grom is an amalgamation of 'Gelato Roma', but I'm not sure if that's true. I've visited Groms in Rome, Padova, Vercelli, Turin, Perugia, Bergamo and possibly a few other cities that I've now forgotten. Siena was the latest visit in a long line.

Although some people have argued that Grom has now become a soulless chain, I do rather like their branches. The walls bear a vague resemblance to Pret a Manger over here, in that they bear colourful placards of inviting ingredients with a little description. We get told that they only use the best pink Himalayan salt for their salted caramel flavour, that they use Sicilian Bronte pistachios - the best in the world - when in season, but when not they go to Syria for the emerald nuts, that they use 'distinctly aromatic' Guatemalan coffee to flavour their coffee ice cream.

The ice cream is housed in gleaming metal vats with shiny lids, a far cry from those touristy gelaterie you get in major cities where all the ice cream is artfully piled up about two feet high and adorned with garish chunks of fruit or chocolate. Generally speaking, in Italy if you can't see your ice cream before you order it, it's going to be better. At least this is how I've always found it.

Grom doesn't change its menu very much, instead offering year-round stalwarts interspersed with a few seasonal specialities. I've tried many of them, and can heartily recommend the pear sorbet, the salted caramel, the Torroncino (hazelnut nougat) and the Sicilian cassata (ricotta cheese with chunks of chocolate and candied fruit). Yes, there might be better independent gelaterie in Italy, but if you need somewhere you can rely on, Grom is a surefire winner.

Florence at its loveliest - not a tourist in sight
We visited Florence the next day (where the 'I love gelato' title photo of this post was taken); I won't attempt to say something new and original about this most touristy of cities. Although I could tell you that the Duomo is a massive disappointment on the inside. I'd never been in, despite visiting Florence twice previously, and we somehow managed to just walk in, despite a few hours earlier having observed queues approximately the size of the Nile snaking noisily around the curves of the building. They were about to close, which is probably why, so we managed to dart in (me wearing a rather un-churchly dress that revealed a decent amount of leg), conclude that it was really better observed from the outside, and then leave. How uncouth.

More memorable were these crazy lemons that I spotted outside a little greengrocer down a side street. They reminded me a bit of that horrible Orc from one of the Lord of the Rings films that has this bizarre fleshy growth on the side of its head. This was the first and only food stall I saw in Florence; it seems that tourists are more likely to buy boxer shorts featuring an image of David's resplendent marble penis than anything that might sustain them nutritionally. Such is life.

Almondy ricciarelli biscuits; a Siena speciality
Back to Pisa for dinner. If my degustazione del mare was the best meal of the trip, dining at Ristoro Al Vecchio Teatro was certainly the most memorable, if perhaps not for all the right reasons. I'd been attracted by its seafood tasting menu (because, you know, I hadn't had enough of that already...), and by the effervescent enthusiasm of the owner when I'd gone to ask about the menu before booking a table. There were some meaty options on the menu too, and Jon was placated by the presence of spaghetti with ragu, so we sat down ready to order. We were ready to order from this moment until we left the restaurant, and the opportunity never arose. The menus sat untouched on the side of the table, while the owner enthusiastically presented us with dish after unexpected dish.

There was a plate of sliced meats for Jon. Bruschetta with anchovies and olives for both of us. Polenta with lardo. Octopus and chickpea salad. Stuffed mussels. Seafood omelette. Except we hadn't ordered any of it. When the bruschetta came out, we thought it might have just been a complimentary appetiser - a restaurant in Rome once served me bruschetta for no reason, and it was lovely - and free. But once plate after plate continued to grace our table uninvited, we became rather confused. Add to this the fact that the waiter kept conversing wildly in Italian with the table next to us while showing them his Facebook photo albums on the computer in the dining room, and it was all rather bizarre. I eventually had to tell him that while I did, in fact, want this huge seafood tasting feast, Jon really only wanted spaghetti with ragu. No, we were told, the kitchen was preparing a whole host of meaty dishes for Jon so he didn't feel left out. While I was tucking into an unusual risotto of prawns and orange, Jon was given one with vegetables and cheese. When my fish spaghetti (delicious) arrived, Jon finally got his ragu. While I proceeded to eat 'prawns in shirts' (prawns wrapped in lardo and then a thin crust of pasta) and stuffed mussels, he had to decline the waiter's offer of osso buco, which I think offended him because he didn't seem as friendly after that.

I was a bit worried we were getting this odd treatment because we were obviously tourists, so I was immensely reassured when two more tables came in and sat down, and proceeded to suffer the same fate. We sat there and laughed at those unsuspecting victims as they happily perused the menu, no doubt carefully planning their choices, salivating over certain options, getting their appetites whetted for the hand-picked delights to come. If only they'd known that the chance was to be so cruelly snatched away. I admit I did slightly relish their confused expressions as the bruschetta was steadily followed by everything else, according to the waiter's whim, and the menus lay sadly unnoticed on the tabletop.

We shared a trio of desserts: castagnaccio, a chestnut cake typical of the region; a pine nut cream cake, which was lovely; and a sort of sweet focaccia type thing. I have to say I was a bit disappointed by the castagnaccio - Lonely Planet sold it as the main reason to go to this restaurant, but maybe the cook was having an off day, because it wasn't particularly special. In fact I think it may have been a bit burnt. Incidentally, there was no great army of chefs preparing this gastronomic onslaught that night - Jon and I were both astounded to discover that the chef was a single woman, presumably the waiter's wife, working in a kitchen about the size of a large wardrobe. Credit to her for turning out so much food in such a tiny space.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence
Anyway, I really loathe people referring to adverse occasions as 'experiences', but this certainly was an experience. Some of the food was fairly average (I wouldn't say the tasting menu was worth the €35 it cost), some of it was really lovely, but I'll certainly remember the restaurant more for this totally bizarre dining experience. Having had a quick look at reviews on TripAdvisor, it seems we weren't the only victims of the waiter's immense enthusiasm for his restaurant's cuisine. He explained to me that he just wanted us to try everything, that this was the Italian way. While I think that's rather sweet, it was a bit alarming and confusing, and I'm not sure I'd go back. It was a joy the next day to go to a restaurant and just pick from the menu, and receive exactly what we ordered. It felt like a bit of a luxury. Also, it was pizza. Can't get more simple yet delicious than that.

The standard sight in most Bolognese shop windows
Onwards, to Bologna. Known both as 'La Rossa' (the red one) and 'La Grassa' (the fat one), Bologna is probably where we get most of our ideas about Italian food from. It's in the Emilia-Romagna region, widely regarded as the best region for food in all of Italy, apparently because of its rich, fertile soil. This is where you get Parma ham, as well as Parmesan cheese, lasagne, Bolognese sauce, mortadella, numerous salamis, tortellini, aubergine parmigiana, and more varieties of stuffed pasta than you could eat in weeks. The region is also one of the wealthiest in Italy, in monetary as well as gastronomic terms.

It's in my top five Italian cities (the others being Naples, Perugia, Turin, Bergamo. Though this list changes according to my caprices, and sometimes will include Padova, Parma and Catania. Maybe Ferrara too. In fact, there's nowhere in Italy I don't like, though Venica makes me feel a bit sick because you constantly feel like you've been mugged; whether you're buying a meal, using a public toilet or entering a museum, you can practically hear the steady flow of your hard-earned cash seeping out of your wallet).

Just strolling around the city of Bologna is joyous and fascinating. It's architecturally interesting, with its  38 kilometres of arched red porticoes keeping you in the shade as you sample its vibrant culture. It's renowned as a university town, famous for its music, scientific history, artistic history...essentially, you feel cultured just by virtue of being there. Its main square is a hub of activity, but more interesting are the little streets that branch off it, especially Via Vecchie Pescherie, which literally translates as 'the street of the old fishmongers'. There are indeed fishmongers here to this day, along with numerous grocers, cheese shops, ham shops, butchers, bakeries, pasta shops, kitchenware shops...essentially, it is where I would spend my last day on earth. Provided I had a fair few euros in my pocket and an empty stomach.

It's all about ham and cheese here. Ham, cheese and beef. Every menu will feature 'ragu', which is what the Bolognese call our 'spag bol'. Except, as you may know, Bolognese sauce is never served with spaghetti in Italy. Such a robust, thick, chunky sauce demands a chunkier pasta than tender, slippery strands of spaghetti: tagliatelle is a favourite, though it can also be served with penne, rigatoni and sometimes gnocchi. What I also found interesting when I sampled ragu is that the pasta and the sauce are given equal roles to play. The pasta is lightly coated in the ragu, which authentically is quite a dry sauce, as it is cooked until all the water evaporates and the tomatoes cling to the meat. There's no unceremonious dollop of red gloop on top of a bowl of pasta, as you so often find in England. In Italy, the pasta does not play merely a supporting role.

Spag bol, except it's 'tag bol', Italian style
The same applies to Bolognese lasagne, which is much firmer and drier than its English cousin. Instead of glooping everywhere when you try and slice it into portions, it can be cut easily without everything leeching out everywhere. It's also a lot more cheesy, with thick chunks of milky mozzarella more noticeable than any gooey white bechamel, and the pasta is a star player rather than a supporting role. There is meat sauce, yes, but it's not the whole point of the dish. Obviously I'm basing this on the lasagne I tried, but I suspect it might be a general rule.

I enjoyed comparing the melanzane parmigiana (aubergines baked with parmesan - see below) with my Mum's, which is the only other version I've ever tasted. It was very different, in that the aubergines in this version were clearly cooked into oblivion in huge amounts of oil, giving them a rich, silky, unctuous mouthfeel (both my Mum and I like to fry them in considerably less fat, as we don't want to turn into balls of lard). There was far more mozzarella than in my Mum's version and less tomato sauce, so the whole thing was like a gorgeous slippery pile of oil, cheese and aubergine. Having already devoured tagliatelle with ragu, I couldn't finish all of it, but it was lovely. Especially the burnt cheesy bits on top.

Our first experience of food in Bologna (well, not my first, as I've been before, but my first of the trip) set the tone for the rest. Hungry, having spent the morning and early afternoon on the train, we ambled towards the city centre when I spied what I would call a 'deli' in England but seems to just be the general type of food shop you get in Bologna. Huge legs of Parma ham hung from the ceiling; in the window was a vast array of cheeses, cooked meats, marinated vegetables and antipasti, loaves of bread, and jars of truffle paste and other enticing sauces. In Italy you can usually go into one of these places, somewhere that sells cheese and various meats, and they will have bread behind the counter with which they can make you a sandwich.

Incidentally, a sandwich is a panino. The plural of panino is panini. Which is why every time I hear cafes, bars or people in England refer to 'paninis', I want to die.

If I spy a sign reading 'panini's', not only do I want to die, but I want to bring whoever wrote it with me.

Anyway. I discovered this little-known fact when in Naples several years ago, and it's got me out of many a hungry spot where there seems to be nothing around. You don't really get 'sandwich bars' in Italy as you do here; better to wander into a shop with nice fresh produce and ask them to put it between two slices of bread.

This shop makes the best sandwich in Bologna
So we ended up eyeing the incredible array of charcuterie and cheese, totally bewildered as to what would go with what - I was mentally savouring some large, rotund balls of smoked mozzarella, thick and plump with a mottled brown crust - when the man behind the counter obviously sensed that I am the least decisive person in the entire history of the universe, and told us to have the squacquerone cheese.

Is there a better name for a cheese? Really? Squacquerone. Pronounced 'squack-er-oh-nee'. Amazing.

It's a cheese typical of the Emilia-Romagna region, soft, thick and creamy, runny in places and thicker like cream cheese in others. It actually has a taste reminiscent of those hideous Dairylea triangles: cloying on the palate, but in a pleasant way, with a lovely creamy tang to it. I first had it in a piadina - a thick flatbread traditionally made with pork lard - in Ravenna, where it was coupled with caramelised figs.

Let's talk about caramelised figs, fichi caramellati. You see them everywhere in this region. They're sold in big trays where you buy them by weight, but you can also get them in jars (I bought some to take home). It's always the same product - a big, shining mass of treacle-black pulp, glistening with crunchy seeds and the glossy curve of the collapsed figs it contains. How they get them like that I don't know - they're obviously caramelised into sheer, joyous oblivion, dark as coal and sweet as honey. They sell them in delis, and they also fold them into ricotta gelato where they provide a beautiful contrast in both colour and texture, their rich sweetness offset by the milky ricotta cream. Being a fiend for figs, I try and eat them everywhere I go.

Anyway, once the man had put the squacquerone in our sandwiches, I remembered that piadina in Ravenna (hands down one of the best things I've ever eaten), and asked for some caramelised figs in there too. Then some prosciutto, to balance the sweet figs with a salty tang. I watched him scoop out the glistening figs and smother them over the cheese, then elegantly drape wafer-thin slices of pink prosciutto over the top. I wonder if I actually salivated onto the floor; I can't remember. I do remember he said 'Wonderful!' with genuine delight as he handed us our panini.

There was a bit of a worry when he announced that these two little sandwiches would cost seventeen euros. The problem with having a sandwich made up in this way is you pay for everything in it by weight, which can be expensive if you ask for certain things. I was suddenly horrified that I'd accidentally ordered the most expensive sandwich in history and felt terrible for telling Jon what a great idea it would be to go into this shop...until it turned out the man at the till had accidentally added something costing ten euros onto the bill. Panic over.

You'd be smiling too after a week-long diet of meat, cheese, bread and ice cream.
Needless to say, these little panini were indeed wonderful. He'd used that infamous saltless Tuscan bread, which was great as the fillings were so flavoursome they needed a bland casing. We sat on a monument by the bustling main road and tucked in, getting ourselves totally covered in cheese and sticky figs in the process.

But Bologna isn't just about the savoury stuff. The bakeries also proffer all sorts of wonderful delights, generally quite heavy on the butter, flour and sugar; rustic concoctions based on simple flavour combinations, without any of the faff and whipped cream nonsense of French patisserie. My particular favourite Italian pastry - not typically Bolognese, mind - is crostata. This is essentially a jam tart, but - yet again - the Italians make it so much sexier. An Italian crostata features a very rich, yellow, crumbly pastry encasing or topped with a thick layer of jam. Sometimes the pastry is arranged in a lattice pattern over the jam. The fruit varies - I've had several varieties, but blueberry was a highlight - but in all cases you end up with a crunchy contrast between the very short, buttery pastry and the gooey jam filling, which is sugary and delightful. I bought a huge wedge to eat for breakfast - the only time in my life you'll probably ever find me eating a jam tart for breakfast - filled with sweet, orange apricot jam and sporting a layer of pastry so thick it was basically a biscuit topped with jam. So sugary, but so good with a bitter cappuccino to take the edge off.

Incidentally, I marvel at how much better Italian coffee is than English. I suppose it's to be expected. But I can't quite put my finger on what makes it so much better. I think it's the fact that an Italian cappuccino is half the size of an English one, therefore much more coffee-flavoured and not just like a huge vat of warm milk with a bit of chocolate on top. I quite like its bitterness; it leaves you wanting more, rather than leaving you feeling like you've got a small ocean of lactose swishing around in your intestines. It has the perfect balance of foam/milk/coffee. It's served in a small and dainty cup. Oh, and it's usually about half the price of the English version. I suppose those are all the reasons it's better.

The gelato in Bologna is some of the best I've ever eaten. I'd highly recommend two places: Gelatauro, which is recommended in the Bocca di Lupo cookbook; and Sorbetteria Castiglione. At the former, we devoured unusual flavours like pumpkin and cinnamon; Sicilian sponge cake with almond and pistachio; coffee, chocolate and whipped cream (see below for our spoils). The pumpkin and cinnamon was really wonderful, as was the ginger gelato. Sorbetteria Castiglione (which, incidentally, doesn't just do sorbet) is somewhere I've been before; it offers unusual and inventive combinations under the names of people - I had the 'Dolce Emma', which comprised ricotta, lemon and caramelised figs, but there's also the Michelangelo, Karin and Edoardo  - as well as two sublime sorbets: pear and cinnamon, and papaya.

The colourful fascia of a Parma street
While in Bologna we went on a day trip to Parma. I have fond memories of Parma, having stayed there on a school exchange during sixth form. I chiefly remember the lovely family I stayed with feeding me cake every day for breakfast. I was in heaven. I mentioned to them casually that I liked salmon, and the next day was treated to two courses of salmon in various forms at dinner. So I was rather surprised when I recognised precisely none of Parma. I thought at least the main street would ring a bell, but I may as well have never been there before. Perhaps my 17 year old self was too busy worrying about important teenage things like the fit of her jeans or a spot on her chin to notice her elegant surroundings; Parma is a beautiful city. It's also ranked one of the wealthiest in Italy, and you can tell. 'Well-heeled' is perhaps the term I'd use to describe its denizens.

I thought Parma was the city of the pig. Home of the eponymous ham, they absolutely love the stuff there. Every meal seems to start with a platter of cured pig in various forms. They even love their pig so much that restaurants use special pig-shaped boards to write their daily specials on ('oggi' means 'today'):

I didn't realise that it may also be the city of the horse. We stumbled upon the above restaurant while looking for another recommended restaurant which turned out to be closed. Hungry and tired, we figured we could do worse, and the menu featured 'ravioli della zucca' (pumpkin ravioli), which meant I had to go in. I was astonished by the sheer amount of horse on offer. Horse steak, roast horse, horse salad, horse tartare. There was a 'trio of horsemeat' main course available. I watched an Italian tucking into a huge bloody steak that, judging by its dark purplish colour, could only be horse meat. I got to try some of the horse tartare as part of our shared starter, and I was pleasantly surprised. I've never tried beef tartare, but I imagine horse tartare is very similar - it has a clean, mild flavour with only a hint of ferrous meatiness, and a lovely melt-in-the-mouth texture. Jon hardly touched it, perhaps put off by the idea of eating something equine.

At this restaurant - Osteria dello Zingaro (which means 'The Inn of the Gypsy') - we had one of the best meals of the trip. Having watched enviously as a group of very stylish Italian ladies at the adjacent table tucked into enormous, fresh, vibrant salads, I found myself suddenly conscious of a craving for vegetables, having eaten little else but cheese, meat and bread over the past few days. One of the salads looked particularly wonderful - a huge platter of cured meats, cheeses, marinated vegetables, fresh vegetables, olive oil and eggs. It was just the nutritional boost I needed, and absolutely delicious. We shared it, piling its contents onto bread rolls and devouring the lot, horse tartare included. Looking over at that other table, I couldn't help but think of the 'Mediterranean diet' concept that is so bandied around these days. Those salads were huge and satisfying, but undoubtedly healthy too. If only you could get something that simple yet that nutritious and delicious over here.

For our main course, we abandoned the healthy idea and had pumpkin ravioli. This has to be one of my favourite ever Italian dishes; I seek it out wherever I go, though you're only really likely to find it in the Emilia-Romagna region. I first tried it on another school exchange in Mantova, where I remember being horrified and disgusted at the notion of eating something that, hitherto, I'd only thought fit for a Halloween decoration. This was at the age of 14 when I refused to eat anything that wasn't fish fingers or cheese sandwiches, so it's unsurprising. Now I'm kicking myself for not appreciating it properly when I was lucky enough to eat it in an Italian home.

Anyway, pumpkin ravioli is one of the best things man has ever invented. Soft pillows encasing a sweet, fluffy, rich filling, that are then drenched in melted butter (sometimes with a little sage added) and smothered in parmesan cheese. The salty butter and cheese counteract the sweet pumpkin, and the overall effect is just culinary magic. I'm looking at that picture now and I can practically taste it. I used my bread to wipe every last buttery, cheesy morsel from the plate. It was perfect.

Our last supper in Italy consisted of pizza. It kind of had to, really. We went twice to the lovely La Scalinatella in Bologna, where the pizzas are enormous and have that perfect balance of crisp and dough to their bases. We drank cheap fizzy wine and devoured every morsel of cheesy, meaty, tomatoey goodness. Their pizza menu is surprisingly short, which I always think is a good sign - it was just full of simple, classic Italian combinations; not a ham and pineapple or a Cajun chicken in sight, thank God.

What really sticks in my mind, though, is a dessert I had there and had to have again the next night because it was so good. It was a chunky slice of pastiera Napoletana, a traditional Easter cake from Naples that features a pastry crust encasing an unusual mixture of sweetened ricotta, wheat, eggs and candied fruit. Sometimes they add orange blossom to the ricotta, sometimes they use pastry cream. The result is like a cheesecake pie, a fabulous contrast between the crisp pastry and the smooth, sweet, creamy filling with a hint of vanilla and the bite of candied citrus peel. It was just gorgeous; rich, light, sweet and buttery. It's on my list to recreate at home; as a lover of cheesecake and tarts in equal measure, this beautiful combination of the two can't go untasted until my next trip to Italy. It just can't.

I think the people of Parma are right. After writing all this, I do feel like I am eating every one of these dishes again. Yet without the waistline expansion or severe sensation of having eaten a lead balloon. It's simultaneously wonderful and depressing, reminding me of what I'm missing while at the same time making me feel grateful that I will not pass my life without knowing the succulent bite of an octopus and farro salad, the joyous sticky crunch of a seeded fig and walnut panforte, or the astringent sweetness of a lemon cake flavoured ice cream. Without staring in awestruck anticipation at a deli counter brimming with glistening fresh cheese and marbled, candy-coloured slabs of cured meats. Without strolling sunlit porticoes taking delicate mouthfuls of creamy, buttery pumpkin-flavoured ice cream and looking forward to a strong cappuccino to wash it all down. Without experiencing the satisfaction of biting into a square of ravioli brimming with fresh fish and toothy artichokes.

Permit me my bout of self-indulgence as I return in my mind to these happy pasta-slurping memories. I just hope this post goes to show that there is so much more to Italian cuisine than you'll ever find on a Zizzi or Pizza Express menu.

(Incidentally, thank you to Jon for allowing me to use some of his photos)
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  1. Lots of good memories :-) that steak really was too rare though...

  2. What an absolutely incredible trip! Your post kept me entertained on the tube all the way from Fulham to Blackfriars this morning :-)

    Btw you HAVE to try bistecca alla fiorentina next time you're in Italy. Chianina beef is just incredible - my Dad serves it so rare it hardly even bleeds with sticky fagioli all ucceletto - heaven!

  3. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who thinks the Tuscan bread is ghastly. :-) Blech!! Bread needs salt!!! But the rest of your trip looks absolutely incredible. :-) The pumpkin ravioli sounds so unusual. I've never had it but would love to try. Maybe next time :-)

  4. What lovely pictures and memories. The ravioli would have been my favourite I think. I haven't been to Italy in ages, I might need to make a trip over after seeing your pictures!

  5. Jeanne @ CookSister!11 May 2012 17:03

    Aaaah, another unsalted Tuscan bread hater!  Hurrah!!  WTF?!  There's salt in it for a reason, people! But I do agree with you on this whole region of Parma & surrounds... the food is just incredible.  My sister in law has the tremendous good fortune of coming from a Zibello family, really close to Parma and home to the incomparable culatello di Zibello.  Visiting with her is always a feast for the senses and you have reminded me that I have yet to blog about it!  I love Grom too - their pistachio is also divine :)


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