Emilia-Romagna, shaped like a wedge of its renowned Parmesan cheese, is rich in every way – artistically, culturally, economically and, by no means least, gastronomically. To journey along the Via Emilia, the long, straight Roman road from Milan to the Adriatic coast, is to immerse oneself in a gloriously hedonistic garden of Eden that is the source of some of the greatest foods in the world.
The lovely cities of Parma and Bologna are the ideal bases from which to explore some of the masterpieces of Italian gastronomy, including the two jewels in the region’s crown; sweet prosciutto di Parma, air-cured by dry mountain winds that sweep down from the Apennines, and parmigiano-Reggiano, the king of cheeses. Here, within their strictly defined areas of origin, there is a rare opportunity to see the production of these protected foods and to taste them in the company of the producers themselves.
We also visit a family-run acetaia to discover the mysterious art of producing traditional balsamic vinegar, the rich, complex condiment that must be aged for a minimum of twelve years. Vast oceans of inferior imitations may be found on tables all around the world, but the real thing, aged in batteries of wood, unctuous and thick, is known as ‘black gold’: an incredibly concentrated elixir that is part of the region’s great gastronomic patrimony.
The trademark of Bologna is its hand-made egg pasta, which appears in many guises from filled tortellini to rich, luscious lasagne. A visit to Bologna’s food market with its vast array of fresh pasta, mortadella and salami, breads, cakes and ice cream explains why this city is known as la grassa (the fat one).
Wine, too, is an important feature throughout. We discover expressions of the grape that may not be as exalted as the region’s foods but which are perfect accompaniments, made from ancient grapes such as Malvasia, Trebbiano and Sangiovese. We also discover the real Lambrusco, foaming wildly, raspingly dry and rich in acidity.
Although the main focus of this tour is gastronomy, both Parma and Bologna have a wealth of artistic treasures and time is allowed to explore these in the expert company of an art historian. Feeding the body, feeding the mind: this is the gastronomy of Emilia-Romagna.
Parma. Fly at c. 10.30am (British Airways) from London Heathrow to Milan. Drive to Parma and in the late afternoon see the astonishingly vital and illusionistic frescoes by Correggio, Parma’s finest painter, in the cathedral and the church of S. Giovanni Evangelista. The first four nights are spent in Parma.
Parma, Polesine Parmense. Parma is of great importance in particular for its High Renaissance school of painting. See the good art collection in the Palazzo della Pilotta, and also the exquisite Camera di S. Paolo. At the 13th-century Antica Corte Pallavicina in Polesine Parmense discover the rare and prestigious culatello di Zibello, made from the rump of a specially bred pig and cured for over a year in cellars to a near-unbelievable intensity of flavour and sweetness. Lunch is in the family-run restaurant here. In the afternoon visit the nearby Villa Verdi, which the composer built for himself.
Parma and surroundings. Parmigiano-Reggiano has been made in the area around Parma using the same methods for over 700 years. Watch the process at a modern caseificio, with tasting. Then visit a family-run acetaia to see the hand production of traditional balsamic vinegar and to have a rustic lunch. In the early evening the lecturer leads a wine tasting in the hotel.
Torrechiara, Langhirano. In the morning visit the 15th-century castle in Torrechiara. Continue to a producer of prosciutto di Parma and see the age-old process of curing and drying, before tasting it later with wines and lunch at a good winery.
Modena. In Modena visit the cathedral, among the finest Romanesque buildings in the region, and also the market. Continue to Bologna for a visit to the vast Gothic church of S. Petronio, with sculpture by Jacopo della Quercia. The last two nights of this tour are spent in Bologna.
Bologna, Dozza, Imola. The famous food market in Bologna sprawls through a maze of streets where shops and stalls display an overwhelming array of fresh pasta, artisanal mortadella, hams and salamis, cheeses, fresh fruit and vegetables, and an irresistible variety of bread and pastries. Taste these products in some of the city’s historic food shops. See also the enchanting early mediaeval church complex of S. Stefano. In the evening drive to Dozza for a tasting of wines from Romagna, before continuing to Imola for dinner at one of the region’s finest and most famous restaurants (two Michelin stars).
Forlimpopoli. Forlimpopoli is the birthplace of Pellegrino Artusi, the author of the original Italian national cookbook. A demonstration of fresh pasta-making is followed by lunch. To see pasta being made by hand is to witness a near miraculous transformation of the simplest ingredients, flour and eggs, into the most ingenious collection of shapes and forms. Fly from Bologna, arriving Heathrow at c. 8.15pm.
Wine, food and travel writer. Born in Mexico, he was raised in the USA before studying English Literature at the University of Exeter. Together with his wife, he has pioneered a series of illustrated wine-food-travel books including The Wine and Food of Europe, The Wine Roads of Italy and The Food Lover’s Companion to Italy. He also has his own wine company, importing Italian wines from small family estates.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,890 or £2,740 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,200 or £3,050 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 319); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation; breakfasts; 4 lunches and 4 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all tastings; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of two lecturers.
Hotel Stendhal, Parma: a quiet 4-star hotel, the best located in the middle of the historic centre, run by Mercure. Hotel Corona d’Oro, Bologna: an elegant 4-star hotel in the heart of Bologna. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
There is a lot of walking and standing on this tour, and it would not be suitable for anyone who has difficulties with everyday walking or stair-climbing. Coaches cannot enter some of the historical town centres. Some days involve a lot of driving. Average distance by coach per day: 65 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'Both Marc Millon and Roberto Cobianchi were outstanding – pleasant, capable, extremely well informed with a real depth of knowledge in their subject. I would certainly travel with either or both again.'
'Both Roberto and Marc were superb, and in the future I would seek out tours they are involved in.'
'It was a wonderful week which included a diversity of sites, history and food production.'
'Marc and Roberto were the dream team. Marc is so enthusiastic and it really comes across. Roberto’s art knowledge is staggering and I think I’ll look at paintings differently now.'
'The perfect way to see the country, taste the food, and understand how great products are made.'
'The lecturer and tour leader had both excellent individuality, a mutual rapport, and group coordination.'