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.

la-spiaggia-di-riccione

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.

beach

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.

Bologna-tortelloni-550x441

These little parcels of delight were invented here

meat and cheese

More meat and cheese than you could dream of

osteria-francescana

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!

guinea

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.

pink tower

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

tomatoes

Tomatoes come in so many shapes and sizes in Italy

more meat

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.

The best restaurants in the world

Now here’s a subject led by personal taste, to say the least! The list of the world’s 50 best restaurants sponsored by San Pellegrino and Aqua Panna is out today (the list actually includes the top 100). It does  raise the question: how do you pick the top-100 restaurants in the world? This is as fair a way as any. Organised by Restaurant magazine, it’s an annual look at the opinions and experiences of over 900 individuals in the restaurant industry. So you are trusting the judgement of people who are without doubt trusted and well-travelled gourmets. It’s not a mission I’d like to take on…imagine the pressure – I suspect it would take some of the pleasure out of eating out away from me.

This year’s winner is El Celler de can Roca in Girona, Spain (www.cellercannoca.com). It’s run by the Roca brothers – and it’s in Spain (and I love Spain). I started making plans in my head to take a trip until I discovered from a friend of mine who’d contacted them immediately she read the news that the first available table is in September 2014! Really!

The best restaurant in the world?

The best restaurant in the world?

More exciting on a personal note is that the fabulous Osteria Francescana in Modena that we visited on  our trip to Bologna last year has moved up two places from fifth to third best in the world! This is one of the amazing dishes I had there.

A fabulous plate of guinea hen cooked different ways

A fabulous plate of guinea hen cooked different ways

Oh and I’ve been to three of them…yes, I know, three out of a hundred is pretty dismal, the list is extremely geographically diverse, in my defence. One in Modena, Italy; one in the UK – The Fat Duck in Bray when it was number one in the world (it’s now number 33) and The Test Kitchen in Cape Town, South Africa which comes in this year for the first time at number 61.

I really need to pull my socks up and get into double figures at least. I think I’ll get onto that now.

How many have you been to? Which one was your favourite? Or would you like to simply ignore this list and choose your own? What’s your favourite restaurant in the world? I’d love to hear, please let me know.

Find out all about it at http://www.theworlds50best.com/

Emilia-Romagna in Italy…how I loved it!

When my sister-in-law, Perry said she was going to Italy last June and did I want to meet her there…obviously I jumped at the chance. Silly not to.

She was swimming in the World Masters Championships (yes, she’s a seriously good swimmer) in Riccione in the Emilia-Romagna area in North-East Italy. The region is one of the most fertile in Italy, responsible for classic Italian produce like Parmesan, Parma ham, all kinds of stuffed pasta, Mortadella and Balsamic vinegar. And Bologna is home to the oldest university in Europe, so plenty of culture and history to look forward to, too.

A short flight to Bologna from London, a rather hectic train journey to Riccione and there we were, ready for the first leg of our adventure – some swimming, sun, sea and sand…and of course plenty of delicious Italian morsels. Riccione is a typical seaside resort – it exists for beach babies like me. There’s about 14km of beach, lined with restaurants, umbrellas and sunbeds. And it’s hot! Perfect.

Eat at one of the many restaurants along the beach and this will be your view

There’s even a special area for doggies

The food is so good and so fresh, that you’re guaranteed a tasty meal wherever you stop off. Our lunch on the beach in Rimini (just up the road from Riccione) consisted of a mix of salads and the ever-present selection of irresistible hams and everything tasted heavenly. Order loads and share and marvel at how low the bill is!

Bresaola with rocket and Parmesan on the beach

Tomato, Mozzarella and basil, the perfect combination

After three days in Riccione the swimming sadly came to an end, it was so much fun and I met so many new people, I’m definitely up for going again – Perry are you listening?! So, time to move on to our next destination…Bologna. Back on the train, and again, pretty hectic. Italian trains are fabulous – cheap and mostly on-time – but they can be packed so it’s not much fun travelling on them with heavy suitcases. And as I can’t really speak any Italian (being able to reel off dishes off menus isn’t a great help in everyday situations), the communication under pressure was problematic to say the least! We needed to settle in and unpack, leaving us free to explore the area unencumbered. So that’s what we did.

Bologna is a big, busy city with masses of eating and shopping opportunities. The food market off the main square was my favourite place. It’s packed with goodies from the region, with the aroma of ham and cheese in the air. If I lived in Bologna I’d go there for coffee every day and be happy!

Pasta heaven in the market

Hams as far as the eye can see. One day I’m going to bring one of these home!

While we were planning our Italian odyssey an email popped up in my inbox – telling me about the latest ratings for the top-50 restaurants in the world. And guess what, number five, Osteria Francescana was just down the road in Modena – a short train journey from Bologna. I anxiously emailed to book a table for lunch and was thrilled to get in. It was a fabulous experience, worth a visit to Modena on its own, and I had what is my favourite dish of the year (so far) – an amazing guinea hen masterpiece.

Modena is home to Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati, so we popped into the new Ferrari museum (worth a visit for any petrolheads out there) and it’s also the birthplace of Pavarotti. So there’s plenty happening there!

The amazing Parmesan starter at Osteria Francescana

My dish of the year guinea hen in all its splendour

We also paid a visit to Parma which is a slightly longer train journey away. It has a more relaxed air with wide streets and plenty of trees and green spaces. And as home to two of the  most classic and perfect ingredients in the world, Parmesan and Parma ham has to be the ideal place for lunch. Once you’ve eaten them in their home town the flavours will stay with you forever.

When in Parma…eat ham…and other Italian meaty deliciousness

My idea of total heaven – tomatoes in all shapes and sizes

Of the restaurants we went to in Bologna, I’d recommend Teresina. We sat in their little courtyard-type space (well kind of a dead-end alley, but with charm) and feasted on amazing local dishes. The fritto misto (which I also ordered in Riccione) was delightful as was the tagliata.

Fritto Misto is a must-have in this part of Italy

Just writing about this again has inspired me to organise another trip to Italy. And it’s also reminded me that I didn’t do nearly enough shopping when I was there last time! I love all the things I bought (shoes, bags, jewellery, belts). The question is where to next??

We stayed at the Royal Carlton Hotel in Bologna which was very comfortable and welcoming, as well as being perfectly positioned for our odyssey, close to the centre of town and the train station. It also had a lovely outdoor area with little gazebos where we polished off plenty of glasses of Prosecco and other beverages.

Tamarind ribs

I absolutely love ribs. There’s the way the meat falls away from the bone (if they are properly cooked), the flavour of the marinade and that immense satisfaction that comes from eating with your hands and making something of a mess!

It also reminds me of my childhood when we used to drive up to Harare (the big city) from the farm where I grew up and after all the business was done, as a special treat we’d go out for lunch or dinner to a Greek restaurant called The Acropolis. I don’t ever remember seeing a menu (though surely they must have had one). All I remember is tucking into piles of ribs and leaving full and happy, with clothes covered with rib sauce! Oh and that their chips were really good, too.

Since then I’ve tasted ribs in many different places (including the three Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy). And I’ve cooked them lots of different ways, too – they are so versatile they lend themselves to a myriad of flavours and cooking styles.

This is my latest recipe, using Sainsbury’s tamarind paste as the main flavour. The key here is to cook the ribs really slowly on a low temperature. The meat should just fall away when you pull at it.

I served the ribs with new potatoes and spinach, nice simple flavours to go with the tangy tamarind, and zesty ginger and lemongrass.

A juicy half rack of ribs begging to be eaten

Serves 2

1 rack of pork ribs

3tsp Sainsbury’s chopped lemongrass

2tsp Sainsbury’s chopped ginger

3 tbsp balsamic vinegar

3tbsp ketchup manis (Indonesian soy sauce)

200ml white wine

2tsp Sainsbury’s tamarind paste

Mix all the marinade ingredients together and pour over the ribs into a roasting tray. Make sure they get a good covering. Cover and marinate overnight.

Heat the oven to 120C. Place the roasting tray in the oven, covered tightly with foil, for about 2 hrs. Check and baste the ribs every 20 minutes or so.

Serve with new potatoes and spinach.

The whole rack of ribs marinading

The indgredients

The magic ingredients