Friday, 14 December 2012

Emilia Romangna

Both Emilia and Romagna take their names from the great roads that let to ancient Rome. Via Emilia was built around 187 BC and leads from Rimini through Lombardy and Piedmont and Aosta and the once strategic St. Bernard pass, which in ancient times was the only opening through the alps to France. Via Emilia crosses Bologne, Modena, Reggio Emilia, Parma, Piacenza, Imola, Faenza, Forli and Cesena, and nearly all of these cities Via Emilia is a major thoroughfare. Via Emilia has not changed its name for over 2000 years, though according to modern day road maps it is now state route 8. Via Romea, from where the name Romagna is taken, winds gently through the hills from Rimini to Rome. The exact translation of Romea is " road of the pilgrims"' therefore, Romea became a general term for any road used by pilgrims. In the Roman era pilgrimages didn't exist so Via Romea was called Via Pompilia, in honour of the consul Publius Popilius Lenatus, who had the road constructed in the second century.

Emilia Romagna presents two faces of Italy. Emilia was a rich and fertile and Romagna was poor and problematic. This dual identity started at the dissolution of the Roman Empire and the Lombard conquest in 568. The Lombards conquered the western half of the spent day region (Emilia), while the eastern part (Romagna) was still held under Roman control.

The landscape of the region is defined by the valley of the river Po and by the mountainous Apennines. Along the flat lands that surround the Po valley are scattered ancient farmstead, built like little castles each with its own little square piece of land, upon which each one has a barn. These small cultivated plots all have grass and meadows on which cattle graze. Some of these farm plots have small parcels of woods where pigs are allowed to naturally forage. Some pigs are so well trained they return to their ties by themselves at night after a hard days foraging, but more importantly accumulating delicious fat from all the acorns, chestnuts and hazelnuts they have eaten. It is not surprising then that Emilia Romagna is the home of two of the tastiest cured meats in all of Italy - Prosciutto di Parma and Culatello di Zibello - as well as the possibly the most renowned hard-cheese in all of Italy - Parmigiano Reggiano. When you buy any prosciutto from Parma it is worth knowing there are actually two different types - Parma (aged for a year) and Modena (aged for eighteen months).

The vast, level pockets of land in Emilia Romagna is excellent for farming. Along with Puglia and Campania, Emilia Romagna is one the greatest producers of tomatoes, suger beets, peas and beans in Italy. The Po, however, is brimming with regional favourites - freshwater fish. One local speciality is sliced freshwater fish stewed in a cast iron pot. Regional freshwater fish include tench, goldfish, carp, pike and sheatfish, all of which are served with polenta.

Emilia Romagna was once known as the valley of Poverty, but it has now elevated itself to the wonderful title "The belly of Italy" . It must be said that Emilia has always been known for its gluttonous dishes and bountiful ingredients, such as Mortadella, Prosciutto and fresh-egg pasta's of all shapes and sizes. When eating all these delicious foods it's a good job the region has a good, sharp dressing vinegar to help digestion, but it's not just any old vinegar, but the Balsamic vinegar of Modena, probably the worlds most noble.
The history of the aromatic Balsamic vinegars of Modena shows what an important component of the Italian and Mediterranean diet. In the middle ages, vinegar was considered a medicinal substance, capable of disinfecting the organs and preventing epidemics of gastric bugs and flu's. In the eighteenth century, Balsamic vinegar became a widespread commonly used medicine, it was even said to have prevented the spread of the plague through Italy. It is not surprising, then, that the production of Balsamic vinegars developed close to cities with great hospitals and universities. Modena is such a city as it is situated between the universities of Pavia and Bologna. The Balsamic vinegar of Modena is now much more than a gastronomic emblem of the city, but now more an emblem for the whole of Italy. Balsamic vinegar was first mentioned in a text written by the Benedictine monk Donizone, who lived somewhere between the eleventh and twelfth centuries. From the fifteenth century onwards recipes for Balsamic vinegar, which is made from grape must, were starting to appear in cookbooks. Historically Balsamic vinegar was rarely aged but nowadays it is aged in special cave-vaults where abrupt temperature temperature changes are recorded every day. The ageing of the vinegar lasts at least twelve years, but some Balsamic vinegars are aged for twenty or thirty years, or longer. To make a vinegar, which is actually more expensive than some vintage cognacs, you take a good Italian wine, either white or red, Lambrusco or Trebbiano, bring it to the boil, then add the mother. The mother is composed of a bacteria that acidify's wine (acetobacter aceti) that is found in the deposits that form on the bottom of the barrels where already matured Balsamic vinegar is stored. These deposits are a real treasure and are closely guarded from the prying eyes of other Balsamic producers. When it is first made Balsamic is stored in large containers, called Botticelli. Later, when new servings of the mother are added, the liquid is poured into smaller and smaller barrels. A special collar is put on each barrel, which acts as a barrier against unwanted bacteria. The decanting and adding, a complex alchemy is followed; a little liquid from the larger barrel is poured into a smaller barrel. The after three weeks to a month, a little more from the large barrel is added to the small barrel, and so on. The first large barrel is made of mulberry wood, then the smaller barrels are made of chestnut and cherry. All these different woods add more flavour and character to the Balsamic vinegar. As the vinegars are ageing, every now and then a spice mixture including cinnamon, cloves, coriander, liquorice and nutmeg are added ( however the proportions of these spices is a closely guarded secret). So theres the story of Balsamic vinegar, from Pharmacy to almost every kitchen in Europe.

Many Italian cities have earned nicknames over the centuries. Venice is called La Serenissima, the most serene; Genoa - La Superba, the arrogant. Berescia - La Leonessa, the lioness; and Rome - La Citta Eternal, the eternal city. Bologna has two nicknames: La Grassa, the fat, and La Dotta, the learned. The first university of law was established in Bologna in 1119.

Italian author Ippolito Nievo summed up Bologna in one line in his classic book "Confessions Of An Italian" -

" One eats more in Bologna in a year than in Venice in two, Rome in Three, Turin in five, and Genoa in twenty!!"

If the cuisine of Liguria is a cuisine of return (coming home) and the cuisine of Emilia is a cuisine of indulgence, then the cuisine of Romagna is a cuisine for travelling. The piada or piadina is the most famous speciality of Romagna and has been for many years, since this "sandwich" was invented in Medieval times. A piada is a soft, round flatbread wrapped around a filling of vegetables or cheese. The piada, whose name comes from piatto, Flat, is cooked on a grill or in the hearth on a testo, or earthenware slab. The piada was often a make shift solution in the days when bad was in short supply, it takes no time to prepare as the dough for a piada does not need to prove and rise (at the start of the twentieth century it became customary to add baking soda or brewers yeast to the dough, along with milk, lard or honey). Ancient varieties of the classic piada were piadotto (water, cornmeal and raisins) and cassone or crescione, whose shape is similar to the Roman calzone; a piada folded in half and stuffed with greens or (in the Forlivese mountains) with squash, potatoes and ricotta. Piadina are an example of poor mans fast food, quick but nourishing.

Romagnas Comacchio lagoon and it's many swamps make up an unusual world, far removed from the fast, easy roads and carefree travel. Many peoples image of the word lagoon is not quite true, the clear blue lagoons of Polynesia and clear blue sky's don't really resemble the lagoons of Comacchio. Comacchio at sunset is a beautiful place with blood-red skys and flocks of wild ducks flying home to roost, but alas this is where the poetic imagery ends. The lagoons have fierce currents and chilled breezes which chill to the bone and a overwhelming feeling of dampness that's chills to the bone. Comacchio was once under water and the regions inhabitants dug channels in order to reclaim the land. There are two many occupations for the inhabitants of the Comacchio lagoons, which are fishing and eel catching. The lagoons are full of eels which are born in the ocean then swim up through the delta and live in the freshwater till they are aged seven or eight then they return to the ocean , thereby condemning themselves to death. The eels migration begins in late November - early December and the eels swim up in the Comacchio lagoons to feed befriend making their trip back down the to the delta, then the ocean then death. The clever Italians though developed a complex system of traps, called lavorieri, which were made of reeds and prevented the fattened eels swimming back out to sea. The reed traps, although invented some two hundred years ago, are the perfect ecological trap, eel fisherman in Comacchio don't use plastic nets and the reed traps obviously biodegrade and are just replaced with new reed traps. These traps although designed for eels have the added benefit of also trapping mullet, monkfish, bass and whitebait turning the lagoon into a natural store cupboard. Dishes such as spit-roasted eel is a regional favourite, as to is Anguilla a violino, eel roasted on the grill, which gives them a shape similar to a violin. Of all the eels caught in the region, the most prised are the larger eels known as Capitoni. On Christmas eve in many regions of Italy, Romagna included, Capitoni is eaten as part of the celebration meal.

Eel is not only a solo ingredient in Romagna, it is also a major part of a regional speciality Brodetto (fish soup), which besides been eaten as a soup is also used as a base of a particularly good risotto, the soups ingredients vary from place to place some add scorpion fish, some add monkfish and , allegedly, some add sea gull.

The village of Salsomaggiore Terme is famous throughout Italy for producing a rival against a worldwide used product. The salsobromoidic waters the gush from the ground here create sought after muds for the beauty industry but more importantly salt. Gemma salt is known throughout Italy as a valid alternative to sea salt.

One thing the Emilian's and Romagnian's are very good at is Ravioli. The regions produce far too many variations to mention but they eat them as they are, in sauces, in soups, baked and even as a dessert. Among all the historical gastronomic dishes of the regions one is just as popular today as it always has been and the way it is made and eaten hasn't changed for around six hundred years. The Salama da sugo, which is not really a salami, more of a pork sausage, is boiled in water for a very long time, either in a Bain Marie or a steamer, wrapped tightly in a cloth to prevent it splitting and is hung in such a way that it doesn't touch the pot it's cooked in. To eat i,t it is uncovered and the soft inside scooped out and eaten, according to legend cutting it with a knife is forbidden. It is accompanied by mashed potatoes, or in Romagna with sweet mashed pumpkin.

The Wines Of Emilia Romagna
Unfortunately, globally-speaking the wines of Emilia-Romagna are another story. Only 10 per cent of the regions wines have been granted DOC or DOCG status. This is not anything because the region isn't suitable for quality wine production, far from it, the area around Romagna in particular are similar to the fertile vineyards of their neighbouring regions, which seemingly produce much better wines. Unlike the fertile valley of the Po valley in Emilia, which produce a sea of mass market, generic Lambrusco, in Romagna they grow classic native Italian grape varieties such as Sangiovese, Barbera and Trebbiano on the the slopes on the northern edge of the Apennine mountain range. The region Emilia-Romagna lags behind other Italian wine producing regions is due to it's socio-economic situation, how else can you explain why similar varieties, planted in often far worse soils are producing much, much better wines. In other regions Sangiovese and Barbera and producing classic wines of often unbelievable quality, their producers are forever taking the varieties into new styles and supplying great wines to what, on the whole, has now become a discerning market. The reason for this is down to simple economics, the winegrowers of the Emilia-Romagna region have, almost without exception, been organised into huge cooperatives, whose mass-marketing policies and concentration on simpler, more generic wines over the recent decades has led to the regions image of poor quality wine production. As an example, a single Emilia-Romagna cooperative processes grapes from over 100 square miles (27,000 hectares) of vineyards (click here to find out more about The Wines Of Emila Romagna )

Typical Dishes of Emilia Romagna

First Course

Many variations on Ravioli

Chizze - Emilian focaccia bread stuffed with slivers of lard and fried.

Crescente - focaccia made with lard added into a dough of flour,mice water and olive oil.


Broddetto - eel based fish soup with varying ingredients throughout the reading.

Second Course

Picula d'caval - ground horsemeat meatballs.

Castrato all Romagna - young mutton stuffed with Juniper berries.

Matagliata - roughly cut pasta served in a meat broth.

Salama da sugo - boiled sausage served with mashed potato or pumpkin.

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