Food and Sights in Emilia-Romagna
No city in Emilia-Romagna is as well known as Rome, Venice, or Florence. However, the region is home to the oldest continuing university in the world, University of Bologna, founded in 1088 AD.
Of course, it is also known for its olive oils, balsamic vinegar, cheeses and hams that famously originated from the area. We were able to spend a few days in Modena, Bologna, and then Parma (next post) whilst bouncing back to a beautiful Tuscan city called San Miniato for a small detour.
We spent days 5-8 in San Miniato, Bologna, and Modena.
Things we did
The first few days of this leg were structured activities and museums. The truffle hunting with Francesco and Isabella, a trip to the Ferrari museum, a trip to the balsamic vinegar producers, and a few museums here and there.
Feature: Truffle Hunting with Francesco and Isabella
This was one of the many highlights of the trip. Early on, we booked an AirBnB experience called “Experience a Countryside Dream“. I’d say the title is a bit dramatic but it was definitely an amazing experience I’d recommend going out of your way for.
Francesco and Isabella own a gorgeous 40 hectare farm that specializes in wine and olive oil. They were amazing hosts (Airbnb superhosts), and we chatted not only about “production” but also history, crazy stories, and learned about a White Truffle Festival we would attend later that week.
We started with the goods – white truffle hunting. White truffles are very expensive because they can’t be farmed, grow only in October/November, and have a shelf life of one week. We followed a truffle hunting dog sniffing and bouncing about some thick, thorny trees. Alas, we didn’t find any truffles did catch the doggie digging furiously on one mistaken attempt.
Lunch was amazing. We (visitors) contributed to about 25% of it, with Isabella and Francesco leading. Eggplant caponata, artichokes with a fresh olive oil and anchovy paste, freshly picked peppers, amazing sausages, pasta with freshly picked vegetables… the list goes on. (Freshly picked = picked while touring the farm). They ended with a brilliant tiramisu that we’ll try to replicate some day.
We took a hike to a church, helped pick some olives, and closed the day with a tour of the olive oil press. Thank you Francesca and Isabella for the experience.
The view at Francesca and Isabella’s farm was pretty awesome. After the experience, we drove about 3 hours to a “castle” in Serramazzone, a beautiful town just outside of the city of Modena. The castle was ok at best, but we did have a cute cat sneak his way into our Airbnb rental – we had to spend some time coaxing it out after giving him a few neck rubs.
Our morning walk stretched along a small road with fewer than ~20 buildings in the nearest square mile. Not a bad place to live.
Many parts of Emilia-Romagna didn’t have trees or rolling hills of Tuscany, but the drive between the two was mountainous and absolutely gorgeous. We did the drive one extra time to make it to San Miniato’s annual White Truffle Fair, which only happens three weekends per year. The view of the city along the hills was fantastic.
We did come to Italy for the food, so we sought out as much authentic food as we could get our hands on. We brought home some balsamic and olive oil back home and are super excited to use it.
Balsamic Vinegar – Balsamic vinegar is to Modena as Champagne is to Champagne, France. The real stuff must be from Modena, so we visited Acetaia Villa San Donnino to get a tour and sampling. Our guide was great, and the sweet vinegar on your tongue is unbelievable.
Mortadella – This originated in Bologna, and became the precursor to American bologna met (the one that sounds like “baloney”). We had it for breakfast every day and couldn’t get sick of it.
Bolognese Sauce – aka ragu. In a reverse of Champagne-like branding, American Bolognese is a messed up derivation of the original Bolognese ragu, which doesn’t use tomatoes. We ate it many times with the classic Tagliatelle a ragu.
In addition to those, we tried a few unique foods such as Bollito Mixto and Cotechino that are old classics in Modena. We also found Tracy’s new favorite dish: Tortellini en brodo. They were basic tortellinis in a savory broth, similar to wontons, but the execution was brilliant no matter where we went. We will cover Parma’s Parmigiani Reggiani (Parmesan) next post!
City and Markets
We didn’t have an opportunity to see the cities from above as in Siena and San Gimignano, but the streets of these cities were lovely nonetheless.
San Miniato is a cute little town no larger than several blocks situated on high ground. We visited the city during the Truffle Fair, so the entire city was covered in tents. The fair was bustling and happy – we were able to find Francesco selling his wines there (he had told us he’d be there). We didn’t get to taste white truffle but Tracy did get a nice truffle-infused Finocchiona sandwich.
Modena was the most suburban out of the cities, and looked similar to modern-day New York City in some of the streets. The old city was in the ZTL, the limited traffic zone. Surprisingly, it also had a somewhat new-ish feel to it as well, with some heavy shopping and sophisticated looking shops.
Bologna maintained an old-town university feel, with hustle and bustle throughout day and night. If I were to live in any of the cities I visited, Bologna might be it. The city is known for its porticos, covered arches that span across the city to provide extensive covered walkways.
One memorable experience is that we got a one-day flash snow in Bologna. Being November, we had prepared for somewhat chilly weather, but we got a surprise snow in Bologna. I was definitely weak from California weather. Despite having four layers, we rushed into an H&M to grab gloves. Sniffling through the sudden 20˚F drop, we were able to get some nice photos before all the snow melted within 24 hours.
Leading up to the Final Leg
The first 8 days in Italy were amazing, and despite some weird weather, lots of driving, and a cute little cat that refused to leave our Airbnb, we had an amazing time in Emilia-Romagna and would definitely recommend you to check it out. Of course, there’s a ton of other stuff in Italy (Rome, Venice, Milan, Lake Como, Naples, Sicily), but this place is definitely worth a pass through.
We’ll close our last two and a half days in Parma, Osteria Francescana (as featured on Chef’s Table), and the recent tourist phenomenon Cinque Terre.
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