ITALY has a few things going for it. One is the weather. Another is her people’s effortless style. But what Italians really pride themselves on is their food.
Despite the claims of their Gallic neighbours in France, Italians like to think they are home to the gastronomical capital of the world.
And at that capital’s beating heart lies the region Emilia-Romagna.
My tough assignment has seen me sent here to investigate their gourmet credentials. I’m based near Bologna but willing to travel all over Emilia-Romagna in my quest.
It’s the Italian region that’s given more to our kitchens than any other. From spag bol and balsamic vinegar to Parma ham and tortellini, the mouth-watering fare is enough to leave you looking like one of the region’s most famous sons, rotund warbler Luciano Pavarotti.
Locals in the northern region consider themselves a class apart from other Italians in the food stakes and it’s easy to see why.
They take their food very seriously.
Just ask people like Luca Vecchi.Luca is showing me around his family’s vinegar stores in a farmhouse halfway between the region’s capital of Bologna and Modena.
Rows upon rows of barrels of vinegar sit here, ageing for at least 12 years. There must be over a hundred barrels here.
The sweet smell of aged Balsamic lingers heavy in the air. But the vinegary odour isn’t the only thing that brings a tear to my eye.
“The price? It varies,” confides Luca. “It depends on how good a year it is. But it can vary from £70 to £270 for 100ml.”
Luca is third generation of the Garuti family who set up this boutique hotel and restaurant near the family’s vineyard outside the town of Sorbara in 1993.
At night their restaurant is popular, serving local fare such as pasta with bolognaise (PS: avoid a diplomatic row by calling it ragu instead of the ‘B’ word as locals do) washed down with sparkling Lambrusco wine made from the family’s vines.
Thankfully a bottle of this award-winning plonk is far cheaper than the balsamic vinegar on offer, although no less divine.
The next day it’s off to explore some more of this outstanding region and Bologna herself.
Emilia-Romagna runs from the Apennine mountains in the south to the Po river in the north and is as famed for its medieval cities as its neighbouring region, Tuscany.
Bologna is both the administrative and cultural capital and Italy’s most famous university town. And a visit to any medieval city isn’t complete without a peek inside its cathedral.
San Petronio Basilica certainly doesn’t disappoint. But not everyone has flocked here to be moved by its architecture and frescos.
The church – which dates back to 1388 – has been the subject of two failed terror attacks in little over 15 years because of an infamous painting of the prophet Mohammed it homes. Thankfully, Bologna as a whole is a pretty chilled-out city.
Nearby, Piazza Maggiore is one of her most famous squares and a place to be seen and top up your sun tan, watching the world go by.
But if you are keen on escaping a city that can become unbearably warm (it’s hitting 30oC when I visited at the start of October), the nearby library Biblioteca Salaborsa offers some solar sanctuary.
The city library is almost as famous as Glasgow’s Mitchell Library for its architecture. Of course eating is never far from the mind when staying here and there’s plenty of top notch restaurants and “trattorias” in Bologna at a reasonable price.
But if you fancy pushing the boat out, why not try the nearby city of Modena? Famed for its vinegar and opera links, Modena also boasts connections to Ferrari and Lamborghini cars. But it’s quickly carving out a name for itself for having the world’s most famous restaurant.
Osteria Francescana is a small three-Michelin-star restaurant at the heart of the city that is frequently named the best in the world.
Dinner sittings start at 8pm and are strictly limited in numbers, making it close to impossible to get a table.
I know because I tried, and failed, to get in. But with prices for a tasting menu and wine coming in at around £500 per person, it might have been a lucky escape for me.
Fortunately there’s no shortage of Italian eateries in Modena offering mouth-watering pasta dishes, including local speciality tortellini.
All too soon, it’s time to bid farewell to Bologna and Emilia-Romagna – a little bit lighter in the pocket…but a lot heavier everywhere else.
Budget airlines including easyJet and Ryanair fly direct from Scottish airports to Bologna.
En suite double rooms at Agriturismo Garuti start at £80 per night.