Recipe book review: Gennaro’s Italian Family Favourites

Gennaro Contaldo is an Italian chef and restaurateur who has kept me entertained for years, with his engaging personality and passion for food and cooking. His series with Antonio Carluccio called Two Greedy Italians was a joy to watch. He also is credited as being the person who inspired Jamie Oliver to learn all about and fall in love with Italian food when he worked with him. Gennaro is still involved in Jamie’s Italian restaurant chain (which I love and visit a lot).

So when I was sent his cookbook Gennaro’s Family Favourites to try out I couldn’t wait to get cooking. It’s subtitled “Authentic recipes from an Italian kitchen” and is packed with over 100 delicious recipes that are wonderfully easy to cook. From simple pasta dishes like farfalle with pancetta and peas, spaghetti with courgette carbonara and conchiglie with rocket pesto and cannellini beans to more complicated feasts like marinated rabbit with olives, capers and pine kernels, porchetta (gotta make this one) and rack of lamb with artichokes and sun-blushed tomatoes, there’s plenty to choose from.

I love a good sausage dish and am also partial to lentils (something I always mean to eat more of), so the first recipe I had to try was the lentils stewed with sausages. From the moment I started frying the base to this dish, composed of the most basic of ingredients – onion, bay leaf, sage, celery and carrot – the most tempting aromas filled my kitchen. Add the sausages, lentils, potatoes and stock, leave to cook and you’ve created a wonderfully flavoursome casserole-style dish.

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Succulent sausages in a flavoursome brothy sauce

sausageveg

Fry up the veg and herbs and infuse your home with delicious scents

Next up a pork stew with potatoes and peas. Again easy and quick to make with few ingredients coming together to make a wonderfully comforting stew. The pork turned out perfectly tender and combined beautifully with the sweetness of the peas and carrots and more fresh sage. I didn’t intentionally choose two recipes using fresh sage but it did remind me what an aromatic and tasty herb it is to cook with.

pork stew

A colourful and nourishing stew

This is a book I’m sure I will cook more and more from. Thank you Gennaro.

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Gennaro’s Italian Family Favourites is available on Amazon for £13.50.

Falling in love with San Gimignano

When in  Tuscany…visit San Gimignano! It’s one of the first things everyone who’s been there says, so who am I to argue?

This town of towers rises high on a hill clearly visible from miles away. Legend has it that in 63BC, two brothers escaping trouble in Rome built two castles here which later developed into San Gimignano. Its position along the Via Fancigena, which became the route of the pilgrims who travelled to Rome, meant the town expanded as a stopping site for travellers from around 100-300AD. Since then, there have been plenty of ups and downs for this uniquely beautiful place, with prosperous agricultural times until the plague of 1348 killed two-thirds of the population when it fell into a long period of decline. Now that’s some plague!

In the 14th century every well-off family in town built a tower to show its power, all trying to go higher than each other. In the end there were 72 of them and there are still 13 standing. San Gimignano now survives on agriculture and of course the millions of tourists every year who visit. It’s the home of saffron which has been grown here for centuries. This amazing spice needs careful treatment with the harvest being done at dawn when the flowers are still closed. The saffron stigmas then have to be dried immediately and you need 150,000 flowers to produce 1kg of saffron. It’s a serious businesses!

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How’s this for a fairytale place? The beautifully unique town of towers

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Welcome to San Gimignano

We stayed in nearby Siena, so caught the bus. It’s just a short ride (not much more than an hour) and public transport is great in Italy – cheap, clean and punctual. You’re dropped just outside the town walls, ready to start your exploration.

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Looking down from the town across the stunning Tuscan countryside

There’s no doubting that San Gimignano exists mainly for the tourists but even though there were a fair few of us ambling around, it didn’t feel crowded or unpleasant and there are plenty of lovely (touristy) shops selling local delicacies like cheese, olive oil, wine and various other Italian delights. I am now the proud owner of a beautiful olive-wood board, which you have no doubt seen in previous blog posts.

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Cheese and salami that looks and tastes stunning

In the main square there was a busy market and my favourite stall was this porchetta one! They were serving up beautifully fresh rolls, packed with chunks of the best pork ever. Sorry if you’re squeamish about the picture, it just screams Italy to me!

porchetta

The ultimate sandwich…

Not too much time to linger over the food in the market, though, as there was (as ever) the serious business of lunch to deal with. We’d been recommended La Mangiatoia (it means the trough!) which of course we sought out – local knowledge and all that. It’s set on a little side street, a short hop away from the bustle of the main thoroughfare. We settled down at a table in the street and ordered a bottle for Vernaccia which is the crisp, dry white wine that is produced locally. Perfect!

The menu is full of Italian classics – I had to go for the Osso Bucco. The meat fell apart and the rich tomatoey sauce tasted like it had been made with love.

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A satisfyingly rich plate of osso bucco

This beautiful cod dish came on a bed of chickpea puree, delicately flavoured with rosemary. The flavours went toether perfectly – I’m going to have to try making it myself.

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Fresh fish on a bed of chickpea puree

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Chill out and enjoy lunch on the pavement

After lunch it’s time for ice cream – well we are in Italy after all. The ice cream shops in one of the main square boldly advertise themselves as selling the best ice cream in the world. That’s some claim, but it is wonderful…and the choice is mind blowing. The one shop had over 30 different flavours, how do you choose? The best thing would be to go back every day for another one and get through the whole stock – happy to take that on!

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How to decide which flavour to taste? It’s a challenge

I loved San Gimignano with its sweeping views, amazing food for sale, from fresh produce to cheese, meats and oils and so many restaurants and cafes serving the best cappucinos and all manner of Italian delights. You can even sort of imagine what living there 2000 years ago must have been like…sort of!

A Tuscan truffle extravaganza

In my quest to learn more about food I’ve gone to some amazing places and tried some fabulous dishes. My latest adventure, though, is in a class of its own…truffle hunting in the heart of Tuscany. It’s one of the fantastic experiences offered at the stylish Borgo Santo Pietro hotel. After decking ourselves up with hiking shoes and sticks supplied by the hotel, we headed off to meet our intrepid truffle hunters somewhere in the countryside.

There are a range of different truffles (both black and white). October marks the start of white truffle season – the white ones are rarer as they are only available for a couple of months each year. You’ll find them in the Piedmont area of Northern Italy, especially around the towns of Alba and Asti as well in the hills of Tuscany…which is where we were, with Mauro, our tartufaio and Stella and Alba (simply the best name ever, obviously), our truffle dogs.

Truffles are a kind of fungus that grow underground, developing a symbiotic relationship with certain types of tree. Their appearance (or not) seems to be random and you will need the help of a truffle pig or dog to sniff them out. All truffle hunters (tartufaio) must register and only hunt on their patch of land.

Truffles have long eluded successful domestication (though people haven’t given up trying), which adds to the magic of these mysterious bulbs of deliciousness…and also to their price. The day we were hunting, the price for white truffles was around €1,200 a kilo. The record price ever paid for a single truffle is thought to be in 2007 when Macau casino owner Stanley Ho paid £165,000 at an auction for a specimen weighing 3.3lb. For something you’re going to eat?? Wow!

Truffle hunting is hard work. The vegetation is very thick and wild and there’s a lot of ups and downs. And the dogs run off in all directions, so you have to be pretty nimble to keep up. When they smell something they like, the go mad…you’ve never seen a tail wagging so furiously. Here’s a little film taken on the day to give you an idea

Alba the Truffle Puppy (I had to give her the full title) was only three months old and being trained. They learn from the older dogs. I love dogs…and these ones are particularly cute and clever and so full of energy.

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Alba the Truffle Puppy goes to school

And here’s Stella, waiting patiently beside her latest truffle discovery.

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Stella’s sniffed out some truffles, clever girl

Loved the fact that our hunters came kitted out in full camouflage…like they had to sneak up on the truffles. Well, that was fun…and pretty successful too, as we had a selection of fresh truffles to show for it. All we had to do now was eat them! And the perfect place for that was a little trattoria in the small village of Lucardo, called Cera Una Volta (which means once upon a time, aah).

We turned up with our truffles, gasped at the views and settled down to see what delights the chef would offer up. Seriously, the Tuscan countryside is as beautiful as you’d imagine it to be…if not more.

Plenty of truffles...both black and white

Plenty of truffles…both black and white

Before it was time for the truffle-fest we were served a selection of deep fried delicacies, including courgettes (zucchini), aubergine and herby polenta. The Italians are a dab hand with deep frying and these tasty morsels were bursting with flavour and dissolved in your mouth.

friedstuff

If you’re going to go for deep-fried food, it has to be Italian

And then – truffle time. Because the truffle flavour is so strong and unique, you really don’t need to add much to get the most of it. Truffle butter on toast elicited sighs of delight all round.

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Never has buttery toast tasted so good

A classic way to serve truffles, with plain, fresh pasta. You can’t believe how good it tastes.

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The ultimate in pasta dishes

Generous gratings over a fresh fried egg.

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I could have this dish for breakfast any time

Truly a day to remember. Oh and here’s that amazing view I was telling you about. Ever feel like life can’t get any better?

the view

The best of food…and the best of views

To find out how you can go on your own truffle hunt visit www.borgosantopietro.com/en/

Food, glorious food at Borgo Santo Pietro

Our Tuscan paradise Borgo Santo Pietro is bursting with charm, style and natural beauty. This also manifests itself in the amazing food it serves. Food so delicious it’s a blog post all on its own, so here goes. Beautiful pictures for you to salivate over.

There are two restaurants at the hotel. The Treehouse is for fairy-tale-like alfresco dining, open for lunch and dinner every day. It’s a magical place with a beautiful treehouse (at the base of a huge tree) where you can snuggle up beside the real fire on chillier days.

The lunch menu offers simple fare perfectly prepared and served with flair. Like this beautiful beetroot soup.

beetroot soup

A taster to get us going…pretty in pink

There’s a traditional pizza oven which is also used to make bread like this delicious offering sprinkled with fresh rosemary from the gardens. Borgo has a substantial vegetable and herb garden as well as orchards, so plenty of fresh produce to revel in.

Tuscan olive oil is fabulous, too. Borgo Santo Pietro’s own blend has a surprising spiciness, perfect for dipping your warm, straight-from-the-oven bread into.

rosemary bread

When in Italy, sample the Caprese. Well, we are in the land of tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella so it’d be wrong not to. My goal: to sample Caprese in as many parts of Italy as I can, I know I do try to test myself.

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Three fresh ingredients make the perfect lunch

And dessert – yes, even at lunchtime. Italian desserts are hard to resist. This melt-in-the-mouth tiramisu was topped with rich chocolate sauce. Decadent.

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Bring on the dessert…it’s impossible to resist

On Monday nights The Treehouse hosts a Farmer’s Market. Myriad Italian fare is on display for you to choose from. The spread is simply mind boggling…the advice from one of the waiters: “Try everything.” That would take some doing. After polishing off as much antipasto as you can muster, it’s time to choose your meat or fish (or both, or many) which is then barbecued for you. The Iberico pork was stupendous, as were the huge, juicy red prawns.

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A cornucopia of Italian meats and cheeses

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A huge bowl of luscious, fresh prawns

The magical eating area is sprinkled with chimeneas and their warming fires and giant candelabras with candles regularly replenished. Perfect.

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Restaurant Serena is named after the valley it overlooks. A magical setting for dinner with fabulous food to match.

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The twinkling lights of Restaurant Serena tempt you

First up, something from the chef arrived. Amazingly creamy mortadella paste (who’d have thought of making mortadella into a paste, it’s genius) served in little mini cones and crunchy Parmesan crisps on a bed of hay.

mortadella

One of the starters was a garden salad, made using ingredients from  Borgo’s very own garden. Here’s a test, I thought to myself…and ordered it with anticipation. This beautiful board appeared and our waiter informed us the salad was made up of 26 ingredients…test passed with flying colours. But then what was I expecting?

garden salad

The duck ravioli was mouth-watering with the richness of the duck, freshest of pasta and a smooth herby butter.

ravioli

Little parcels of deliciousness

Salmon came perfectly pink inside with crunchy fennel.

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I loved the pork so much at the Farmers Market I had to order it again. And it was stunning…tenderness and flavour packed into every mouthful

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Time for dessert and a stunning chocolate treat with light, yet rich ice cream.

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And then a tray of mini-delights to finish off, all laid out on a bed of coffee beans. Baby macaroons, marshmallows, chocolates and jellies. Love the extra surprises that arrive along the way.

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Another extra served up to complete your dinner

And I mustn’t forget the breakfasts…that ultimate holiday indulgence, and this is one to remember. A spread laid out on the beautiful kitchen counter with fresh fruit, yoghurt, pastries – everything you’d expect – and the most amazing quiches you’ll taste. Plus eggs however you want them. I want this kitchen, too…with its fireplace.

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Welcome to the breakfast spread

Phew, you will eat well at Borgo…no matter what time of day, there’s something delicious waiting to be tucked into.

Read more about Borgo Santo Pietro on my previous post or visit their website at www.borgonsantopietro.com

Where to stay in Tuscany: Borgo Santo Pietro

Continuing my series on beautiful hotels I recommend, we’re visiting Tuscany.

Situated about two hours’ drive from Pisa near the hillside town of Chuisdino, Borgo Santo Pietro is the stuff that dreams are made of. Overlooking the stunning Valle Serena, the five-star boutique hotel is set in huge grounds, creating the ultimate escape. And the food, service, extra activities and amazing attention to detail make for a holiday idyll where you can totally immerse yourself in Tuscan life and the ultimate in luxury.

Here’s what’s I loved about it.

The setting

From the moment the majestic gates open and you drive down the cypress-lined avenue, you’ll be enraptured by this magical place. With the 13th-century villa at its heart, Borgo radiates out into the most beautiful of grounds to stroll around and lose yourself in.

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Welcome to Borgo…you’re not going to want to ever leave

The stylish manor house is the heart of Borgo

The stylish manor house is the heart of Borgo

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The view out over the Valle Serena

The accommodation

Talk about wow factor! Spacious, stylish and stunning, the ultimate in hotel luxury. Twinkling chandeliers, enormously plush beds and large bathrooms with huge walk-in showers and deep  bathtubs. And beautiful outdoor space to chill out among vines and orange trees while inhaling the purity of that Tuscan air.

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The view of the bed from the lounge area. Sparkling chandeliers abound here…

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Luxury bathrooms for your indulgence, time to soak in the tub

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The most idyllic of terraces in the Tuscan sun

The restaurants and the food

The main restaurant, Valle Serena (named after the valley it overlooks) is overseen by Executive Chef Francesco Gasbarro. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect dinner setting and as Borgo Santo Pietro grows its own vegetables and herbs, you’re guaranteed the freshest and tastiest of ingredients. Wonderfully mouth-watering and creatively constructed dishes to enjoy – more to come in a later post (watch this space) – I have plenty to say about the wonderful dishes I sampled.

hotel at night

How’s this for a charmingly romantic restaurant?

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My beautifully tender and flavoursome pork main course

The other restaurant, The Treehouse, is open for lunch and dinner. And on Mondays it hosts a farmers market, displaying a wealth of Tuscan delights to select from. Again, more on this later.

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There’s plenty to tempt you at the Treehouse buffet

The breakfasts, served in the Manor House kitchen, were fabulous, too…and I’m still dreaming of those cappuccinos.

The attention to detail

The extra touches constantly amazed me. Seriously, they’ve thought of everything. Like supplying books and magazines (in several languages) at the pool – just in case you left yours behind, I guess.

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Reading matter awaits beside the pool and its early morning mist

Some other amazing examples…There’s a mobile phone in your room which you’re encouraged to carry with you around the grounds, so wherever you are you can call up and order a drink or some food. Heaven forbid that you’d have to go and fetch it yourself.

If you take advantage of the hotel’s transfer from the airport, or wherever you are, there’s wifi in the car for you to log on to.

If you sign up for the truffle hunt (and I can’t recommend it enough), you’ll be lead to a walk-in cupboard to select hiking boots supplied by the hotel in your size. No chance of being unprepared for your trek through the forest.

There are fireplaces everywhere…who doesn’t love a fireplace. Even in your room, just call reception to get it lit.

The grounds and spaces

The beautiful gardens are scattered with seating areas. Whether you want to lounge by the pool, meditate on life by the lake or have a cappuccino in a tiny corner away from everything…

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Find your own favourite spot…and enjoy

And then there’s what was probably my favourite spot…The Treehouse. It’s not up a tree but at the base and this beautifully welcoming room is the perfect place for a drink any time, or just for a proper get-away-from-it-all chillout.

treehouse

Leather sofas, a real fire and more chandeliers…aaaah

The activities

Once you’ve switched into Tuscan time and shed all your cares, there’s all the lovely activities to contemplate. Try a wine tasting with Simona, the charming sommelier; take painting with the artist-in-residence or flower arranging lessons; enjoy yoga classes or a treatment at the spa. Or as we did, go truffle hunting for those oh-so-precious truffles with local truffle hunters and their dogs. A wonderful experience that you can read more about on another post (you can see, there’s still plenty of Tuscan magic to come). And don’t forget, there’s masses of beautiful countryside and amazing villages to explore: by foot, Vespa or even horseback. Make sure to order a picnic to take with you.

Stella the truffle dog sniffs out the truffles, then waits patiently

Stella the truffle dog sniffs out the truffles, then waits patiently

Any time spent at Borgo Santo Pietro is extraordinarily special. This is a unique experience (which obviously comes at a price) but you’ll be constantly amazed in this little piece of paradise. Start saving now for the experience of a lifetime.

Find out more at www.borgonsantopietro.com

Exploring the delights of Emilia Romagna

So I’m in the midst of planning my next trip, which is a little tour of Tuscany. And it got me thinking about a break I had in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. I’d written about it on my deleted blog, which obviously means it’s deleted…so thought I better share with you again.

My sister-in-law Perry was swimming in the World Championships in Riccione (she’s a seriously good swimmer) and suggested that I joined her. The area is real foodie heaven with claims to being the gastronomic centre of Italy. Quite a big claim really and one I was happy to investigate.

First stop was Rimini area and the town of Riccione. It’s part of the Adriatic Riviera and with a beach stretching about 15kms from Riccione to Rimini, it’s heaven in the sun – chilled and unpretentious and packed with sunworshippers.

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Beach as far as you can see…the heaven that is Riccione

The Italians seem to love their canine friends (cane or cagna, depending on whether it’s a boy or a girl, pronounced KAH-nyah). So much so that they have their own special part of the beach with little enclosures and water bowls to make sure they’re comfortable and, I guess, don’t disturb anyone who doesn’t want to be disturbed. Love the idea.

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Take your dogs to the beach

This expansive beach is dotted with an array of restaurants where you can put your feet in the sand and tuck into Italian delicacies for amazingly low prices. We loved ordering an array of salads and meat dishes and sharing, along with a bottle of local wine. The produce was all so wonderful, like this combo of bresaola, rocket and parmesan.

Bresaola

Fabulous Italian meat and fresh salads

From Riccione we caught the train to Bologna. Italian trains are great – cheap, frequent and punctual – and this journey’s only an hour and a half.

The medieval city of Bologna is nicknamed la dotta (the learned), la grossa (the fat), la rossa (the red). It’s home to the oldest university in Europe (founded 1088), has a strong claim to being at the heart of Italian cuisine, and there are a lot of buildings in different shades of red. The red reference also refers to politics as it’s known as being the centre of Italian left wing politics. Obviously there’s a lot going on here!

Bologna’s dominated by grand red porticos and styles of architecture in different rosy shades. The precariously leaning towers of Le Due Torri are the symbol of the city and make you feel quite dizzy as you stare upwards into the blue sky. Just down the road, towering over the biggest piazza in town, the grand Piazza Maggiore, is the Basilica di San Petronio, the fifth biggest church in the world.

vola-a-bologna-da-cagliari

Everything’s rosy in beautiful Bologna

The streets leading off this magnificent square radiate an amazing energy, with crowds spilling out onto the pavement to relax with a glass of prosecco or refreshing beer. And there’s a stunning food market set in the narrow old streets nearby. The perfect place to stop for a coffee or two and inhale the scent of ham and cheese, seriously it’s in the air.

This is the city that invented tortellini and tagliatelle (which is what your traditional Bolognese sauce will be served with, and it’s made of pork and veal, usually, not beef). It’s also the home of the famous mortadella sausage.

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These little parcels of delight were invented here

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More meat and cheese than you could dream of

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Bolognese anyone? Tagliatelle Bolognese that is

To complete the foodie jigsaw of the region there are two must-visit cities nearby. Modena is only 20 minutes away by train. Modena is home to Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati (the new Ferrari museum is worth a visit for petrolheads), so not lacking in style and speed and it’s the birthplace of Pavarotti. Plus it’s where the delectable balsamic vinegar is produced.

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The brilliantly white and modern museum is a must for car lovers

Modena is also home to the three Michelin starred Osteria Francescana, voted the third best restaurant in the world for 2014. An absolutely extraordinary experience, fabulous, amazingly creative food and friendly service in a relaxed surroundings. I’d go back to Modena for this restaurant alone!

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The amazing guinea hen dish which I loved

A slightly longer train journey away from Bologna, Parma seems to works at a slower pace. It’s more laid back with wider streets, beautiful gardens and the inspiring dusky pink church, the Baptistery of Parma. And don’t forget two of the ultimate culinary delights, Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham) and Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan cheese). Once you’ve tried them in their home town you’ll dream of those flavours.

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The striking Bapistry of Parma, fashioned out of beautiful pink marble

tomatoes

Tomatoes come in so many shapes and sizes in Italy

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When in Parma, eat ham…and all sorts of other meat

Well, that was all quite a revelation. So much to do and see, and oh so much to eat. I feel this delightful region of Italy needs some deeper investigation. At this rate I need to move to Italy for a year…now that’s not a bad idea.