Emilia-Romagna: Heartland of Ingredients
Think of your favorite Italian ingredients…pasta, olive oil, parmesan, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, and cured meats. These are the cornerstones of Italian cuisine and they are what make Emilia-Romagna one of the most important gastronomic regions of Italy. Italians have an innate sense of place. Land is of upmost importance as the source of ingredients for their century’s old recipes. It is the root of their heritage and their cuisine – an expression of local values. This week’s menu showcases these mainstays and more of Italian regional cooking and brings me back to some fun memories as a young American roughing it in the Italian Apennines.
Mortadella and fontina stuffed chicken rolls
FEATURED WINE: Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOP, Toccacielo 2019, Carafoli
No repast in Emilia-Romagna would be complete without the region’s most famous wine - Lambrusco. One of the oldest wines made in Italy, Lambrusco is typically made lightly sparkling, “frizzante” and is rather low in alcohol. Carafoli, Toccacielo is dark ruby red with bright crimson foam. It is fruit forward, with notes of ripe berries, cherries and plums, the palate is highlighted with crisp bubbles for a refreshingly light texture and dry finish. It is a perfect summer wine.
Think of your favorite Italian ingredients…pasta, olive oil, parmesan, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, and cured pork products. These are the cornerstones of Italian cuisine and they are what make Emilia-Romagna one of the most important gastronomic regions of Italy. It is a cuisine of depth of varying levels from peasant “cucina povera” to the numerous cooking styles of the middle class to the strong influence from the region’s nobility and northern invaders. Their dishes are linked to their heritage and supported by rich natural resources, lush pastures and abundant fishing waters of the Adriatic Sea.
Madonna di Pietravolta, population 39, was my first introduction to Emilia-Romagna. Nonna Marianna, Francesco’s grandmother, had a little house there, way up in the Apennine mountains. Those were days filled with “firsts” for me. It was my first time staying in a house without central heating and the first time experiencing the extreme pleasure of hurriedly sliding into toasty warm sheets heated by a “scaldino”, ceramic bed-warmer filled with coals from the kitchen stove. First time also to stay in a house without central plumbing. This Long Island girl will never forget what it was like running through the snow to the back barn to then stand over a hole in the ground!
It was during one of those sojourns that I first realized how important the land and a sense of place is to the Italians. They are always going back to the land, the root of their heritage and their cuisine. They seem to have an innate sense of what came before and they want to stay connected. In the summer, city families frequently vacation on a farm. They’ll buy their year’s supply of wine from a local vineyard, fill plastic jugs with spring water from free-flowing fountains along country roads, forage for wild asparagus, mushrooms and black berries, and spend Sundays in the country, lunching at rustic trattorias. Sunday was always our busiest day at Cercina – a big Sunday lunch, followed by a long walk or a nap in the grass, followed by “merenda” or a quick prosciutto panino before returning to the city.
Our first course, Insalata Romagnola, is a recipe borrowed from Paola Bini, one of the pioneers of Emilia-Romagna’s agro-tourism – a form of niche tourism that brings visitors to a farm or country house. Small summer potatoes are tossed with balsamic-marinated vegetables and leeks to create a tangy antipasto.
We could not present our dinner without including Tortelloni al Burro e Salvia, ricotta and swiss chard filled parcels of fresh, paper-thin egg pasta finished with European butter, fresh sage and parmesan. Emilia-Romagna, and more specifically, its capital, Bologna, is renowned for its fresh egg pasta or “pasta fresca.” When I first went to Italy, every restaurant and little trattoria had a “sfoglina,” or woman who made pasta from scratch. (At Cercina, I sometimes would make pasta twice a day by hand – my arms were never so buff!) Now, that is hard to find – most everyone buys their pasta ready made from a “pastificio.”
Rollatine di Pollo alla Mortadella e Formaggio is a classic. Thin slices of chicken breast are rolled and stuffed with three stars of the region’s cuisine – fontina, mortadella and parmigiano. The best-known pork product from the delicatessens of Bologna is most certainly mortadella, a very large cured “bologna-like” sausage flavored with coriander and pistachios.
I’ve chosen for dessert Pavlova Crema di Mascarpone con Frutti di Bosco Balsamiche. Historical references to balsamic vinegar go back to 1046. It is made by reducing pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes into a syrupy must that is then aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years up to 25 or more. Pavlova, named after a beautiful Russian ballerina, is crispy white meringue filled with whipped mascarpone cream and topped with berries macerated with sugar and balsamic creating an interesting contrast.
No repast in Emilia-Romagna would not be complete without the region’s most famous wine - Lambrusco. One of the oldest wines made in Italy, Lambrusco is typically made lightly sparkling, “frizzante” and is rather low in alcohol. Carafoli, Toccacielo is dark ruby red with bright crimson foam. It is fruit forward, with notes of ripe berries, cherries and plums, the palate is highlighted with crisp bubbles for a refreshingly light texture and dry finish. It is a perfect summer wine.
If you have the time (it’s five hours long) and the inclination, treat yourself to Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic film, Novecento (1900.) It is a crash course in modern Italian history, taking place in what is now Emilia-Romagna. It is easy to see the difference between the lives of the rich landowners and their poor tenant farmers also reflected in some of its food scenes. It is a region so rich in ingredients and heritage, it might merit another Food Club menu.