by Isabel Conway –
Emilia Romagna, its often said is the land of food, smile and soul. Lying between the cold north of the Alps and the hot Mediterranean south, the region retains a rich historic and cultural heritage , renowned for its fantastic local foods and culinary excellence.. Since antiquity the Po lowlands have been Italy’s bread basket and this sometimes overlooked region, boasting its fair share of typically scenic villages .clinging to hillsides, also boasts the famous Adriatic Rivera with 160 km of beaches to the east.
On a warm Sunday morning in October I come face to face with Italians passion for their native produce. The hilltop medieval town of Sant’Agata Feltra is hosting one of Italy’s renowned truffle festivals. Seasonal white truffle mania sees tens of thousands descend here to worship the small shrivelled type of mushroom fungi . The beloved tingly tasting while truffle is highly prized and to my astonishment examples no bigger than a prune are sold for up to €60 each on the market stalls..
All the fun of the fair
Bands play, street actors entertain and townspeople are decked out in medieval dress, demonstrating traditional crafts and games along the steep streets which lead to the town’s formidable fortress .On cobbled squares regional wines and taster portions of grappa are poured mid-morning and crowds queue up for free tastings of truffle infused sauces and pates, enticed into buying all manner of truffle related products. There’s even a truffle beer for sale at one of the leading truffle specialist shops Sant Agata Feltria Tartufi. Here I succumb to truffle flavoured dried tagliatelle, a tin of truffle oil and truffle laced pepper. Later we adjourn to Tulipano Nero, on Piazza del Mercato, enjoying a girth stretching 8 course truffle lunch.
The truffle hunter
Our mission – before serious indulgence – is to get up close and personal to the sport of truffle hunting with Chico, a ten- year old chocolate brown and white springer spaniel. His impressive nose for snuffling out truffles has brought him fame and fortune in these parts. Specially trained Dogs like Chico, capable of delivering €100 worth of truffles on a day’s hunt, can change hands for up to €3,500. But no amount of money would entice his owner Saro to part from Chico, he insists .Where the forests start at the foot of Sant’ Agata Feltria truffles grow in profusion….but without an expert canine like Chico you’d never know they are there. We tear along a rutted forest path, just in time to witness Chico disappear in the tangle of undergrowth, Saro in close pursuit, armed with a special digging trowel called a vangella.
Within an hour he delivers a basket full of the white gold and his owner is well pleased. Watching the truffle hunters – man and dog in partnership – is fascinating.
Emilia Romagna’s historical Treasures
Over a weekend’s discovery we explore some historic towns away from Bologna (the foodie capital of the region which should top everyone’s list on a first time visit to central Italy).
Ravenna, less than an hour from Rimini is an art and history lovers’ paradise, boasting eight UNESCO sites. The ancient town close to the Adriatic Riviera is renowned for its extensive mosaics. Don’t miss the most spectacular at Basilica San Vitale, Mausoleum Galla Placida whose fabulous ceiling inspired Cole Porter’s Night and Day or 6th century Sant Appolinare Nuovo, featuring the world’s oldest mosaic scenes from the New Testament.
Take at least a day or longer to explore Rimini properly, enjoying an Expresso and that great Italian pastime of people watching at pavement cafes around the stylish Corso shopping streets. My favourite part of town, the old fishermen’s district of cobbled laneways and Fellini street art has fabulous neighbourhood restaurants where you can eat well for under €15.
We stay one night in Rimini’s extravagant Grand Hotel which was Federico Fellini’s second home and the inspiration for much of his famous movies. A 15 km long sandy beach unfolds on either side of the Art Nouveau style Grand Hotel, along ‘Riviera Romagnola’. The Grand Hotel’s most desired suite is room 315 which was kept on permanent standby for the arrival of Fellini and his entourage from Rome. It comprises a sumptuous bedroom with the best views of the sea and a salon attached. The suite costs €1,000 a night and is always in demand. Plans are advanced for a Fellini museum at three locations around the city by 2020 a hundred years after the birth of Fellini.
No visit to Italy is complete without some insider know how on making its most famous dish, pasta. I sign up for a cooking class to learn how to make tagliatelle at Collina Dei Poeti (www.collinadeipoeti.it) who specialize in agri-tourism. They offer lovely guest accommodation surrounded by olive groves and vineyards. You can reserve a cooking class (€45 and you eat what you make afterwards including wine; (firstname.lastname@example.org) discovering secrets of sublime pasta.
Getting there: see www.emiliaromagna.com Ryan Air (www.ryanair.com) direct Dublin-Bologna winter flights outgoing Thurs and Sun and return Wed and Sun from €59 one way. KLM (www.klm.com) and Lufthansa(www.lufthansa.com) flights from Dublin also operate with one stop, offering attractive return deals.