Here you will find the highest quality Parmigiano-Reggiano, truffles, fresh egg pasta, balsamic vinegar and gelato, along with lesser known treats such as the spiced cake panpepato, the walnut liquor nocino and Villa Zarri brandy. Lambrusco, once derided but now recognised as one of Italy’s foremost wines, is one of myriad delightful surprises of a visit, and restaurant after restaurant serves up traditional Emilian cuisine with both respect and imagination. Bologna is the ideal base – a grand city home to Europe’s oldest university, and one with its own globally revered contribution to Italian gastronomy. Our hotel is set in the historic centre of the city.
Fly to Bologna, arriving in time for lunch at our base in the city, the stylish Art Hotel Commercianti, originally a 13th century guildhall and located just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Piazza Maggiore. In the afternoon, we spend a little time as a group walking this main square, the historic heart of Bologna, with its high-end food shops, grand palazzi and the Basilica di San Petronio, the largest brick-built church in the world. Our first true taste of Bolognese culinary traditions comes at the excellent Il Tinello (‘The dining room’), a restaurant set in the narrow streets behind the main square.
Where better to begin our culinary discoveries of Bologna than with tagliatelle al ragú? We have arranged this morning a cookery class with the talented chefs at the agriturismo restaurant Podere San Guiliano to learn how to make fresh egg pasta in the form of tagliatelle and tortelloni – and, of course, the meaty ragù accompaniment. The fruits of our labour form the basis of a delicious lunch. We return to Bologna this afternoon, with time at leisure to explore this beautiful city for ourselves. With so many local restaurants within walking distance of the hotel, we have not included dinner this evening – though we can make recommendations, the choice is yours.
We make a relatively early start this morning to watch the making of the region’s most famous cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano.
As with all Italian gastronomic icons, Parmigiano-Reggiano is protected by law – to carry the name, the cheese may only be produced by traditional methods in Parma, Reggio-Emilia, Modena and parts of Mantua and Bologna provinces between the Po and Reno rivers. The slow-maturation confers a distinctive, highly concentrated flavour on this granular cheese – a flavour so prized that ‘Parmesan’ is one of Italy’s most lucrative exports.
At the artisanal factory we taste from a selection of variously aged wheels. We continue on the Chiarli Winery to learn more about sparkling red Lambrusco. Light and refreshing with a pleasing acidity, this superb wine bears no resemblance to the cloyingly sweet, mass-produced wines of decades past, which so coloured our perception of Lambrusco. Lunch is provided at the winery – the chance to pair Lambrusco with delicious local food. A trinity of typically Italian tastes is concluded with a visit to the Carpigiano Gelato University in Anzola dell’Emilia. It may not quite be the seat of higher learning the name suggests, but there is nothing frivolous about the courses taught here. Italians take their gelato seriously, and four weeks of tuition under professional instructors is the minimum requirement to attain gelatiere status. We take a stroll around the on-site museum and participate in an ice cream workshop, making and eating our own gelato. We return to the historic centre of Bologna for dinner at Cesarina, a highly rated restaurant serving up typical dishes of the region.
At the start of the Po river delta, just outside the splendid town of Ferrara, 10,000 hectares are given over to rice production. The great Italian varieties are produced here, including carnaroli, arborio, originario, baldo and vialone nano. We stop at one of the last few family-run rice farms to discover more about this national staple. Lunch is taken at Osteria del Ghetto, where we sample Jewish influenced Italian dishes in (as the restaurant name suggests) the ancient Jewish ghetto area of Ferrara. You won’t want to miss the Ferrara speciality panpepato (‘peppered bread’): a round, sweet cake packed with fruit and nuts and richly spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper, once made for the Pope, but now more often left out by children for Santa Claus at Christmas.
The family-run Villa Zarri distillery is noted for an exceptionally high-quality brandy, created by distilling wine made from the Trebbiano grapes which grow on the hillsides of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. The painstaking ageing process, utilising barrels made from a very particular type of oak (from the French forests of Allier and Limousin) elicits subtle chemical changes in the raw spirit and confers a unique colour, perfume and flavour as the alcohol content is reduced from the original 72% to the optimal 43%. The entire recipe of production has been passed down from generation to generation, and today Villa Zarri produces arguably Italy’s finest spirit. We taste some of this gloriously smooth brandy for ourselves. Once again, dinner is under your own arrangement back in Bologna.
Most Italian food markets are a pleasure to explore, but even by this exalted standard the Mercato Albinelli in Modena is something special. The freshness of the produce sings out at every stall – glistening arrays of fish and seafood, the seasonal black and white gold of truffles in large refrigerated displays, myriad cheeses, pallets of cork-stopped Lambrusco, great dishes of fresh pasta, riotously colourful fruits and vegetables, fragrant flowers and so much more. The market is relatively compact and open, constructed with elegant wrought iron, making it blissfully easy to navigate. Then, in Montecchio, we enter the world of traditional balsamic vinegar, another of the essential tastes of the region, and a product requiring as much expertise and dedication to yield quality as a fine wine or slow-matured cheese. A tasting is arranged with lunch.
One of the great digestivi of Italy is the walnut liquor nocino and one of the most renowned producers Il Mallo, which we visit this afternoon. The whole process of making nocino is steeped in time-honoured tradition – the ladies of the family gather the unripe walnuts on the night of St John (23 June), then the men quarter the fruits and slowly macerate them in alcohol. Not a drop of this precious infusion is wasted during pressing, and the end result is a unique, velvety and full-bodied yet bittersweet drink. Dinner this evening is at Vicolo Colombina, another restaurant in the historic centre of the city, noted for its honest, no-frills take on Bolognese cuisine, letting the top- quality produce shine.
The countryside outside Bologna is rich in truffles, but they must be hunted, scented and uncovered. To join an expert tartufaio and his dog truffle-hunting is a wonderful experience, inviting a new appreciation of the rarity and value of these earthly treasures. Lunch will then be taken at the cosy Osteria dei Sani, with the opportunity to sample truffle in mouthwatering dishes such as risotto con tartufo. The afternoon is at leisure and dinner at your own arrangement.
On the outskirts of Bologna in a renovated 19th century brickworks, the Industrial Heritage Museum is a pleasingly diverse showcase of Bologna’s technological development from the 15th century to the present day. Lunch is then by your own arrangement and the afternoon at leisure to relax or shop for mementos of your visit. Our farewell dinner is a sumptuous, memorable affair. I Carracci is a dining venue par excellence, with 16th century frescoes from the school of Carracci adorning the ceiling. Executive chef Claudio Sordi creates dishes inspired by the Bolognese gastronomic tradition, but with immaculate refinement and an innovative twist. Dishes are narrated with passion and recommendations for wine pairings made.
After breakfast, we bid farewell to the enthralling city of Bologna and transfer to the airport for our flight home.
Seven nights at the centrally located 4* Art Hotel Commercianti with daily breakfast