Emilia Romagna – delicacies, not to be missed
SURPRISES FROM THE PLAINS,
WOODLAND FRAGRANCES, SWEET DELICACIES
Between the sea and the hills, that fertile strip of plain that goes from Ferrara to Rimini, passing through the provinces of Ravenna and Forlì Cesena, is just one long line of cultivated fields, vegetable gardens, vineyards and orchards as far as the eye can see a spectacle of colour in the spring.
This area is famous for its top-quality produce (many fruits and vegetables bear the lgp mark): peaches, pears, nectarines, cherries, strawberries, apricots, kiwis, apples, plums, water melons, melons, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, shallots, asparagus, pumpkins and courgettes and, typical of the Ferrara area, also an excellent rice.
The pinewoods and Apennines on the other hand produce mushrooms, truffles, wild and aromatic herbs used in local cuisine, as well as small fruits and berries: pine seeds, chestnuts, blackberries, blackcurrants and raspberries. One last delight for gourmet travellers are the cakes – lots of effort for the confectioner, lots of joy for the eater.
From Ferrarase cuisine comes pampepato, with almonds and walnuts and the perfume of spices; the mandorlini del ponte; ricciolina cake and topini (“mice”) – biscuits made with two little sultanas to form the eyes.
Perhaps the most famous Romagna cakes are ciambella, zuccherini and zuppa inglese, sugal, made from grape must, savor with quince apples and pears, miacetto, Cattolica’s Christmas cake, sabadoni, mistochine made with chestnut flour, bustreng with honey and pieces of fruit; an endless list of delicacies for which we have to thank the kindness of nature and the admirable skills of human beings.
Bread and piadina
Deserving of special mention is delicious Ferrara bread, the famous “coppia”, in dialect ciupeta; the secret of this bread is unclear. Some say it depends on the water, others on the dampness in the air which affects leavening. For sure, the “coppia Ferrarase” is a real masterpiece of Italian cuisine.
In Romagna on the other hand, the favourite bread is fragrant piadina, a real classic of the region. Piadina maintains all the characteristics of the unleavened bread which, for many centuries before and after Christ was part of the basic diet of Mediterranean peoples.
Pascoli called it: “the bread, or better, the national food of the people of Romagna”.
Every town in Romagna has its piadina, which undergoes local traditions and variations; even the name varies from place to place: pie, pjida, pieda, pida.
It is a piece of rolled dough made from water, flour and salt, cooked on a clay baking dish or cast-iron plate; in restaurants it is served with delicious grilled meat and fish, au gratin vegetables and stewed meats; the typical colour-striped stalls, to be seen everywhere along the coast, offer it filled with sausage, salami, ham and soft and firm cheeses, as well as cooked vegetables. Some people even eat it with jam, honey, chocolate spread, squacquerone cheese and caramelised figs.
A great invention of humankind, wine is highly respected in Romagna. Protected by the Apennines and mitigated by the sea, the extensive hilly country between the provinces of Ravenna, Forli Cesena and Rimini, thanks to the variety of soils and vines that have been growing in the area for centuries, enjoys a glorious wine-making tradition which, deservedly, over recent years has made a name for itself in Italy and abroad.
The most famous vines are red Sangiovese (Sunguis Jovis, Blood of Jupiter was its old name) and white Trebbiano (Trebulanos as it was called by the Romans, who introduced it into Romagna in the 2nd century B.C.), which are to be found pretty much everywhere in the region and are the forebears of numerous fine wines.
Other vines native to the area are Albana: the blonde nectar of Romagna, the first white wine to be awarded the Docg status in Italy; Cagnina, a sweet or semi-sweet red wine ready for drinking straight after the harvest, and Bombino Bianco, used to make Pagadebit (pay debts). This curious name stems from the story that, even in bad years, the farmers of Romagna managed to pay their debts with the production of this strong and tenacious vine, which resists all weather conditions.
Other tenacious and resistant vines are those of Bosco Eliceo, the coastal area between Ferrara and Ravenna. These vines grow on sandy soils, in holm oak woods, creeks and salt-pans. The wines produced are known as sand wines, with a unique character and full-bodied taste, like the sea. Four of them are Doc of Bosco Eliceo, two whites: Sauvignon and Bianco del Bosco, and two reds, Fortana and Merlot.
A summary of regional wine-making is to be found at Dozza, near Imola where in the great cellars of the Rocca Sforzesca fortress the finest Doc and Docg labels are on show and for sale and tasting.
Gastronomic highlights of local cuisine, by “minestre” are meant all first courses – both soups and pasta dishes – strictly home-made: those small objects of desire that are sometimes filled with cheese, herbs, pumpkin, fish and ricotta.
They are obtained from a mixture of egg and flour worked by hand and rolled with a pin to make a soft round sheet of pasta, golden, fine, without any holes and slightly rough to absorb the sauce better; a green version also exists, used to make oven-baked lasagna. In this case, spinach or nettles are added to the mix.
The sheet of pasta is cut into different shapes depending on the type of pasta to be prepared: rhombi, diamonds, discs, rectangles, strips.. making a whole army of first courses not to be found in any other regional cuisine: tagliatelle, cappelletti, ravioli, tortelli, tagliolini, pappardelle, maltagliati, garganelli all with many different sauces, meat and fish, which enhance their flavour to the full.
To this long list of desirable delights, two more must be added: strozzapreti (priest chokers), a name that clearly reveals the anarchical character of the people of Romagna – strips of pasta made with water, flour and salt and then rolled into round shapes by hand, and passatelli: eggs, parmesan cheese, grated bread, nutmeg and lemon rind. These ingredients are worked together using a special tool; traditionally they should be eaten in meat broth, better if made with a capon, just like cappelletti, but they are also delicious in a fish broth.
It is hard to make up your mind which to choose, especially because many chefs skilfully blend tradition and nouvelle cuisine, which complicates matters even further.
Discovering main courses
To better acquaint yourself with the traditional main courses of this area, three different food roads can be followed: lagoons, land and sea.
Many of the traditions of lagoon cuisine have remained unchanged and people continue to prepare real delicacies such as frogs, marinated “acquadella” (sand-smelt) and eel, a real speciality of the Po Delta area.
A true gastronomic star, eel can be prepared in many different ways, each one better than the other: grilled, marinated, “in brodetto”, “a becco d’asino” or with cabbage. It can even be used to make a delicate risotto.
Also worth trying is risotto with coot, another traditional dish from the lagoons.
But let us get back to main courses, and follow the land road.
From the fields of the plain and the meadows of the Apennines, we obtain prized and wholesome meats for the renowned regional barbecues, a real local speciality, for which Romagna lamb and mutton, white central Apennine veal (which boasts the lgp mark) and Romagna breed pork are used.
The meat, which is always tender and of top quality, is placed delicately over the hot coals along with dressed-pork products such as salami, sausage and pancetta which give off that delicious aroma so irresistible for any gourmet.
So sumptuous and abundant are the mixed grills prepared in the area, that they recall the ancient banquets painted by Arcimboldo, when on the tables of the wealthy, meat was a staple and bread was merely a supporting item.
Another big favourite are fish grills: nearly all the fish caught in the Adriatic are suitable for grilling: mullet, turbot, monkfish, mantis shrimps, soles, shellfish – to obtain a gentler flavor – and a mountain of kebabs made from cuttlefish, prawns and squid.
Very delicate are the sweet salt of Cervia recipes. This salt protects and enhances the flavour of sea bass, turbot, sprats and king prawns.
Other traditional dishes are squid with peas, stewed squid, fried squid, “omini nudi” and “paranza”, mussel, clam and cockle soups and stewed sea snails.
The gastronomic sea road ends with brodetto di pesce (fish soup), which according to seafaring traditions must be robust, with plenty of tomatoes, vinegar and black pepper; at least that is how the fishermen once prepared it on the boats, but local variations are many, some of which very tasty and others more refined: delicious fish soups to be accompanied by toasted bread laced with good oil and garlic.
Between July and August, over one hundred appointments, from dawn until late at night – music, theatre and film shows, gastronomic, environmental and literary events organised on the beaches, in the harbours, in the squares and in other charming natural settings of the coastal resorts.