When they finished constructing the 260km Via Emilia in 187 BC, the Romans inadvertently created one of the greatest food crawls in the world. Straight as an arrow and flanked by acres of vineyards, the road runs parallel to the Apennine mountains through the Emilia-Romagna region, which boasts some of the most fertile, farmable land in Italy. Those who simply book a table and chow down, then, are missing out – this is where some of the world's finest food is produced, and where tradition and craftsmanship is as important as smell, taste and texture. Salivating yet? Here's where to get stuck into five of the region's finest foodie experiences.
Wander a cellar full of sausage
Just as you’ll never forget your first taste of rich, buttery-soft culatello ham, you’ll never forget the smell of the dark, dank cellars where the stuff is produced. One may be a decidedly more pleasant sensory experience than the other, but, as is the case with much of Italy’s best food, the ends more than justify the means. And besides, although the waft of slowly desiccating, year-old pork isn’t for everyone, the sight of 6,000 culatelli bound in pigs’ bladders and hanging from a ceiling is really quite something. This is precisely what you’ll find beneath Antica Corte Pallavicina, an 18th century castle in Parma’s lowlands and the base of esteemed Italian chef Massimo Spigaroli’s culatello empire. The castle’s location beside the river Po provides the perfect conditions for naturally curing this most artisan of meats, which is never, ever subjected to artificial climate control. There’s around €1million worth of culatello hanging from the cellar’s groaning rafters, but €5 will buy you a tour of the premises and a tasting. There are also six rooms for overnight guests, should you over-indulge to the point of immobility. Tours bookable through Food Valley – call or email for details and availability.
Taste wine in a medieval castle
Wineries aren’t exactly hard to come by in Italy (if you can wander through the countryside for more than 200 metres without tripping over a grapevine, you’re doing pretty well), but you’ll be hard-pressed to find one as idyllic-looking as Le Torricelle. Based in the magnificent 13th century Castello di Agazzano close to the city of Piacenza, Le Torricelle grows its grapes (mainly Malvasia, Barbera and Croatina varieties) in the stony, clay-like soil in the surrounding hills, while fermentation and bottling happens with state-of-the-art equipment in the cellars beneath the medieval fortress. Tours of the castle grounds and wine-tasting sessions are available by appointment, but the best time to visit is in March for the annual Sorgente Del Vino festival, when over 100 of the region’s wine merchants converge on the castello to exercise their palates and sell their vintages well below retail price.
Learn the secrets of the world’s favourite cheese
If you want to upset an Italian, ask him to pass you the parmesan cheese. While this generic, powdery nonsense can be produced anywhere in the world, the country’s favourite hard cheese is held in such high regard that it can only be legally made by 380 licensed producers in Emilia-Romagna, and should always, always be addressed with its full name – parmigiano-reggiano (throw in some regal hand gestures at your discretion). Several parmigiano-reggiano producers – including Consorzio Produttori Latte, near the city of Parma – are open to pre-arranged tours, where visitors can follow the various stages of cheese production. You’ll see milky curds steaming in huge vats, the metal moulds that give the cheese its distinctive shape, water baths that enhance flavour and finally the ageing room, where seemingly endless shelves heave with huge, 40-kilo wheels, waiting to be shipped off to delis in Brisbane and pizzerias in Brooklyn. Tours bookable through Food Valley – call or email for details and availability.
Sample some vintage vinegar
Modena is fortunate enough to be home to not one but two icons of Italian culture, and if you aren’t in town to gawp at sports cars at the headquarters of Ferrari and Maserati, chances are you’re hunting down the world’s finest balsamic vinegar. One of the best places to learn about the history and methods of aceto balsamico tradizionale (if you don’t see this on your bottle, it’s not the real deal) is Villa San Donnino, a small and extremely welcoming producer renowned as the home of some of the region’s finest black stuff. It’s open to tours throughout the year, which include a detailed explanation of the lengthy production process (which involves decanting concentrated grape must into incrementally smaller barrels and a whole lot of patience) with plenty of tastings along the way. Tours are free and can be arranged by emailing the villa via its website, but only a fool would leave without investing in a decent-sized bottle of aged balsamico.
Forage for truffles with a Michelin-starred chef
In Emilia-Romagna, dishes comprising more than three or four ingredients are rare, and with flavours as bold as black and white truffle on hand, that’s no bad thing. The hills outside of Bologna are the region’s prime truffle hunting ground, where it’s not uncommon to stumble upon scorzone and marzuolo specimens the size of a child’s fist. To make the most of this most precious of ingredients, try out Cooking Vacations’ one-day truffle-hunting experience, which includes a trip into the woodland with a seasoned forager and his trusty hound, a cooking class where you’ll learn to prepare and preserve what you find and – finally – a truffle-themed banquet. Naturally, the size of your haul is dependent on the seasons, with spring and autumn likely to yield the best results.