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  • Joanne Herd

From Parmesan to Prosciutto: Savoring the Food and Flavors of Emilia Romagna

Updated December 6, 2023

Welcome to Emilia Romagna, the Italian region of tantalizing flavors and culinary treasures.


Nestled in the heart of northern Italy, this region has gained a well-deserved reputation for its rich gastronomic heritage. If you have a passion for food and a craving for adventure, get ready to embark on a mouthwatering journey through the Emilia Romagna region's delectable offerings.


When it comes to Italy, it's no secret that food holds a special place in the hearts of locals and travelers alike.


And Emilia Romagna? Well, it's practically the foodie's paradise! From bustling food markets to charming trattorias tucked away in narrow alleys, this region is a haven for those seeking authentic and unforgettable culinary experiences.


As we delve into the world of Emilia Romagna's food traditions, let's first get acquainted with the main cities that serve as gateways to these gastronomic wonders. Bologna, known as "La Grassa" (The Fat One), is the vibrant capital and a culinary hub where you'll find classic dishes like ragù alla Bolognese.


The elegant city of Parma, celebrated for its fine prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, is a must-visit for any food lover. And don't forget about medieval Modena, home to the renowned balsamic vinegar and its automotive counterpart, Ferrari!


But the culinary adventure doesn't stop there.


In Emilia Romagna, every city and town has its own delightful specialties to offer, each a testament to the region's rich culinary tapestry. Let’s explore the culinary wonders of Emilia Romagna, where Italy's food traditions are celebrated with passion, pride, and a hearty "buon appetito"!


Parmigiano-Reggiano

A stack of parmigiano reggiano cheese. The bottom wheel is whole, with the middle wheel cut in half so you can see the middle of the cheese. The top wheel is also cut in half and balanced on its edge.

Let's start with a cheese that needs no introduction: Parmigiano-Reggiano.


This cheese is more than just a tasty ingredient; it's a culinary icon that holds a special place in the hearts of Italians. Its protected designation of origin (PDO) status means that only cheeses produced in a specific area of Emilia Romagna can bear the prestigious Parmigiano-Reggiano name. This strict regulation ensures the cheese's authenticity and upholds the region's proud cheese-making tradition.


To create this distinct cheese, local dairy farmers start with fresh, raw cow's milk, sourced exclusively from the region. They carefully skim off the cream and combine it with whole milk, giving Parmigiano Reggiano cheese its distinctive richness.


Next, rennet, a natural enzyme, is added to coagulate the milk, forming curds. These curds are then cut into small granules and gently cooked to release the whey.


The curds are placed into molds, which give Parmigiano-Reggiano its signature wheel shape. After a brief rest, the wheels are immersed in brine baths to infuse them with flavor and promote their characteristic rind formation.


Now comes the waiting game. The cheese wheels are aged for a minimum of 12 months, but many are aged for much longer, sometimes up to 36 months or more. It's during this aging process that the flavors deepen and develop, creating a cheese that's truly a work of art.


The versatility of Parmigiano-Reggiano is astounding. Whether it's grated over a steaming plate of pasta, shaved onto a fresh salad, or enjoyed in bite-sized chunks with a glass of wine, this cheese adds a delightful depth of flavor to any dish. Its nutty and savory notes elevate everything it touches, turning a simple meal into a gastronomic experience.


Beyond its delicious taste, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a symbol of Emilia Romagna's cheese-making heritage. It represents the dedication, craftsmanship, and respect for tradition that the region holds dear.


To experience parmigiano cheese in more ways than you thought possible, make a reservation at Osteria Francescana in Modena to try 3-Michelin star chef Massimo Bottura's “5 ages of Parmigiano Reggiano”.


Next time you savor a morsel of this magnificent cheese, remember that you're not just enjoying a delightful culinary experience—you're also partaking in a centuries-old tradition that has stood the test of time.


Prosciutto di Parma

A meat counter, with legs of Proscuitto di Parma hanging on the wall.

For meat lovers, no visit to Emilia Romagna is complete without trying prosciutto di Parma. This traditional cured Parma ham is made using only two ingredients: high-quality pork legs and sea salt.


The meat is left to cure for at least a year, during which time it develops its signature sweet and salty taste and tender texture.


But don't be fooled – not all prosciutto di Parma is created equal. Authentic prosciutto di Parma is regulated by the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, which enforces strict production guidelines to ensure quality and authenticity.


The pigs used for Prosciutto di Parma are specially bred and raised in a specific region of Emilia Romagna, where they feast on a carefully regulated diet of grains, whey, and the occasional treat of fresh fruits. This diet, combined with the region's unique microclimate, imparts a distinctive flavor to the meat.


The curing process must also take place in the province of Parma and the surrounding hills. This is where the magic happens. The prosciutto is hung to dry in well-ventilated aging rooms, where it slowly develops its rich aroma and complex flavors over the course of many months.


This dedication to tradition and quality shines through in the final product – a deliciously flavorful ham that's a staple of Italian cuisine. It's a symbol of the region's agricultural heritage, where traditional methods and respect for the land converge


Whether enjoyed on its own, draped over a slice of melon, or elegantly wrapped around grissini, Prosciutto di Parma embodies the essence of Italian cuisine. Its delicate texture, velvety flavor, and slightly sweet notes create a symphony of flavors that lingers on your palate.


Tortellini and Cappelletti

Freshly made tortellini laid out in rows and ready to cook.

Tortellini and Cappelletti, two of the region’s most beloved pasta dishes, are very similar but at the same time distinct.


Although these two dishes may look similar, there are differences in recipe and shape that vary between the northern and southern regions of Emilia Romagna. Tortellini, which originated in the north of the region, are small, ring-shaped pasta that are usually filled with a mixture of pork, prosciutto, and Parmesan cheese. Cappelletti, which come from the southern part of the region, are often made with similar fillings but have a distinct hat shape.


Regardless of which style you try, both tortellini and cappelletti are traditionally made by hand. The process starts by rolling out thin sheets of fresh pasta dough, cutting them into small circles, and then filling each one with a dollop filling.


The dough is then carefully folded, twisted, and sealed into its iconic shape, ensuring that every tortellini is a perfect little package of flavor.


Mangia bene!


Aceto Balsamico di Modena

Balsamic vinegar being poured from a small bowl into a larger one, showing how thick and dark the finished product is.

No discussion of Emilia Romagna's culinary traditions would be complete without mentioning aceto balsamico di Modena. This liquid gold, also known as traditional balsamic vinegar, is a remarkably versatile condiment.


The uses for Aceto Balsamico di Modena are as diverse as they are delightful. Its tangy sweetness adds a burst of flavor to salads, marinades, and dressings.


Drizzle it over a platter of fresh strawberries or a slice of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and you'll experience a taste sensation that's nothing short of extraordinary. It effortlessly enhances both sweet and savory dishes, taking them to new heights of culinary excellence.


Traditional balsamic vinegar production follows a very strict process. The journey begins with the pressing of sweet local grapes, such as Trebbiano and Lambrusco. The grape must, the juice extracted from the pressing, is then cooked slowly, allowing it to concentrate and develop its natural sweetness.


After cooking the liquid is transferred to wooden barrels, often made of oak, chestnut, cherry, or mulberry, where the aging process begins. The barrels are a variety of sizes, and are laid side by side from largest to smallest.


Since the barrels are unsealed, liquid evaporates and the flavors begin to concentrate. As the liquid evaporates, the barrels are topped off with liquid from the next larger barrel. New vinegar is only put in the largest barrels.


As you go down the line of barrels, the smaller the barrel the older and more concentrated the vinegar is. The vinegar is left to mature in these barrels for a minimum of 12 years, and some varieties are aged for up to 25 years or even longer. As it ages it acquires a rich, dark color and an exquisite balance of sweet and tangy flavors.


Aceto Balsamico di Modena holds a special place in Emilia Romagna's culinary traditions. It's not just a condiment; it's a symbol of the region's commitment to excellence and the preservation of time-honored techniques. This vinegar is held in such high regard that it has even earned the coveted "Protected Geographical Indication" status, ensuring that only vinegar produced in the Modena region can bear its name.


Ragù alla Bolognese

A plate of tagliatelle pasta with a luscious ragu alla bolognese and sprinkled with parmegiano reggiano.

Bolognese - a name that often conjures up visions of a steaming plate of spaghetti covered in a rich tomato-based sauce.


But hold on just a moment!


Before we dive into the delectable details, let's clear up a common misconception: spaghetti Bolognese, as you know it, isn't actually an Italian dish.


Yes, you heard that right! Italians have their own ways of enjoying ragù alla Bolognese, and it's time to discover its authentic roots.


Ragù alla Bolognese is a hearty meat sauce that hails from the charming city of Bologna in Emilia Romagna. It's a dish that embodies the essence of Italian comfort food, with its deep flavors and soul-soothing qualities.


The traditional recipe is deceptively simple, calling for a slow-cooked blend of finely chopped onions, carrots, and celery, sautéed to perfection in olive oil. Then, a mixture of ground meat, usually a combination of beef and pork, is added and simmered in a flavorful tomato base.


But here's the secret ingredient that takes this sauce to the next level: a splash of wine and a touch of milk or cream. These additions add richness and depth, balancing out the flavors and creating a velvety texture.


Traditionalists in Bologna often pair it with tagliatelle, a flat, wide egg pasta that beautifully clings to the sauce. The ribbons of pasta lovingly cradle each morsel of meaty goodness, creating a harmonious marriage of flavors.


However, feel free to get creative and try it with other pasta shapes like pappardelle or even gnocchi. The key is to choose a pasta that can hold up to the robustness of the sauce. You can even use it as a topping for bruschetta, pizza, or roasted vegetables.


Culatello di Zibello


If you're a fan of cured meat, you won't want to miss Culatello di Zibello, one of Emilia Romagna's most prized culinary treasures.


This dried, cured pork is so soft and velvety that it's known as the "king of salumi." Culatello di Zibello gets its unique flavor from the specific microclimates of the Po river delta, which are ideal for drying and curing and result in a product that is both tender and flavorful.


The meat is first carefully trimmed and then massaged with a mixture of salt, garlic, and pepper, before being stuffed into a natural casing and tied by hand. It's then aged for at least a year in special rooms called "cantinas," where the delicate process of fermentation takes place.


The result is a deliciously flavorful, melt-in-your-mouth meat that pairs perfectly with other classic Emilia Romagna foods like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Lambrusco wine.


Piadina Romagnola

A basket of piadina, ready to be eaten wrapped around meat and cheese.

Picture a warm, golden flatbread that's thin yet sturdy, ready to cradle a variety of delicious fillings. Welcome to the world of piadina Romagnola, the Italian version of what we know as a tortilla.


This flatbread was born out of necessity, as locals sought a simple and practical way to satisfy hunger with inexpensive, easy to find ingredients. Traditionally made from flour, lard (or olive oil), water, and a pinch of salt, this unleavened bread was cooked on a hot griddle, resulting in a lightly charred exterior and a soft, chewy interior.


Each area of Emilia Romagna has its own spin on piadina. In Romagna, the eastern part of the region, the classic piadina is often thin and large in diameter, perfect for wrapping around savory fillings like cured meats, cheese, and fresh vegetables.


In other parts of Emilia Romagna, you might encounter a slightly thicker version of the flatbread, which is ideal for slicing and serving alongside hearty stews or soups.


Piadina Romagnola has become an iconic street food in Emilia Romagna. Wander through the vibrant markets and quaint alleyways, and you're bound to catch a whiff of this enticing flatbread sizzling on griddles. The aroma alone will lure you in, promising an experience that's both satisfying and comforting.


It can be treated as a blank canvas waiting to be filled with an array of flavors. From the traditional combinations of prosciutto, squacquerone cheese (similar to a mozzarella), and arugula to more modern twists featuring grilled vegetables or even Nutella for a sweet treat, piadina offers endless possibilities for culinary creativity.


Lambrusco


Raise your glass and let the bubbles tickle your palate as you try a glass of Lambrusco, Emilia Romagna's beloved sparkling red wine.


Lambrusco traces its roots back to ancient times, with evidence of its cultivation in the hills of Emilia Romagna dating back to the Etruscan era. Made from the indigenous Lambrusco grape varieties, this sparkling red wine showcases the region's viticultural heritage and the craftsmanship of its winemakers.


It's a delightful blend of tradition and innovation, with winemakers employing modern techniques to enhance the wine's quality while staying true to its roots.


What sets Lambrusco apart is its effervescence. The gentle fizz and lively bubbles dancing in your glass are a testament to the secondary fermentation that takes place in the bottle, creating that delightful sparkle.


But don't let its bubbly nature fool you—Lambrusco can be dry or sweet, with a range of styles to suit different preferences. From light and fruity to rich and complex, there's a Lambrusco for every occasion and every palate.


Lambrusco’s vibrant acidity and refreshing effervescence make it an ideal partner for the region's hearty dishes. Savor a plate of freshly made tortellini, rich with ragù alla Bolognese, while a glass of Lambrusco adds a touch of brightness and balance to each bite. The wine's acidity cuts through the richness of the food, creating a harmonious symphony of flavors.


For a classic pairing, try it alongside Emilia Romagna's cured meats, such as prosciutto di Parma or culatello di Zibello. The salty and savory notes of the meats find harmony with the wine's fruitiness and acidity.


If you have a sweet tooth, indulge in a slice of traditional Parmigiano-Reggiano drizzled with a few drops of aged balsamic vinegar, and let the Lambrusco's contrasting flavors create a delightful sensory experience.


The bottom line: Food of Emilia Romagna


Emilia Romagna is waiting for you, ready to captivate you with its diverse and mouthwatering food traditions. Explore the picturesque cities of the region, seek out local trattorias, and engage with the passionate artisans who have dedicated their lives to perfecting these culinary treasures.


Immerse yourself in the bustling markets, where the air is thick with the scents of freshly baked bread, aged cheeses, and cured meats.


Let the warmth of Emilia Romagna's hospitality envelop you as you dive into a plate of authentic pasta, sip on a glass of Lambrusco, and share laughter and stories with newfound friends.


Looking for more Italy travel inspiration? Check out our other Italy travel blog posts.


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