I’ve been to Italy. So have a lot of people. But for those who haven’t been and ask me what it’s like, the words that come to my head usually are ‘sunny, touristy, nice tomatoes, opera and canals.’ ‘Touristy’ is certainly the boldest word on the list. In fact, when I went to Venice about four years ago, I doubt I even saw an Italian person there.

However, I recently changed my mind. I decided that, before this month, I had, in fact, not been to Italy: not fully at least. I had not tasted the excellence of their regional food, nor had I seen the boundless hills of the countryside, the orchards, met the wonderful Italian people nor experienced their lively jazz-scene. These are all things I experienced only on my second trip to Italy (a couple of weekends ago), when I took a culinary tour around the earthquake-struck regions of the Italian UNESCO world-heritage district.

 

My journey began in Bologna, the home of Bolognese sauce and the city of many names – ‘Red City’, ‘Jazz City’, ‘La Grassa’ (meaning ‘The Fat One’) and Portico City. It is a place so food-centric that it has ‘happy food’ instead of happy hour, whereby platters of sharable dishes are brought out to customers of bars and Osterias (a contrast, certainly, to British pub-culture). Its gastronomical history and culture is so strong that the region Bologna sits in, Emilia Romagna, is a place of pilgrimage for foodies worldwide. Not only this, but Bologna is complete with a part-underground-river-part-canal, two leaning towers (which we are told are ‘leaning in to kiss’), the oldest university in the world and quaint, picture-perfect streets, lined with kilometers of beamed porticos, which open up into magnificent squares saturated in architectural history.

By night, at the right time of year, the sound of jazz floats down these very streets and the squares fill with music-lovers from around the globe attending La Strada del Jazz Festival and the Bologna Jazz Festival. The routes of these festivals centre around the recently renamed Jazz Street where the footsteps and concerts of Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald are remembered and commemorated. Half way down this road too is a turning where the food market thrives and spills onto the jazz street. It is the day before the festival when we arrive and the smell of coffee, fresh fruit, pasta and wine mixes effortlessly with the sound of a saxophone practicing in the distance. ‘The big greats of jazz used to eat in these places,’ we are told as we peer into windows framed with cured meats, herbed shanks, golden tortellini and tiny orbs filled with thick, black balsamic vinegar. As I admire a table of the largest assortment of squash and pumpkin I’ve ever seen, I think to myself, perhaps I have died and have gone to heaven. I’m in a chef’s Disneyland, a foodie’s dream: the centre of the world for gluttonous indulgence (my favourite pass-time).

Later in the day, we drink wine in an unusual Osteria (Osteria del Sol) where customers of the bar are encouraged to bring their own food and, for dinner, we tuck into a four-course meal at Bravo Café, the main highlight being tagliatelle with thinly-sliced courgette and pumpkin flowers and a perfectly-formed courgette soufflé.

The city continues to buzz throughout the night: people seated under porticos sharing bottles of local lambrusco (not lambrusco as we know it in England might I add) and families enjoying music and food in moonlit squares; the smells of rich coffees and wines just seem to get stronger as the day progresses. As we leave Bologna, the red of the terracotta walls disappearing on the horizon, I wish to myself that I could have stayed just a little while longer.

Ferrara, the next stop in the region of Emilia Romagna, had a lot to live up to considering Bologna’s richness in heritage and culture, but with the oldest Osteria in the world tucked away in a back street, narrow cobbled roads under ancient vaults, a spectacular cathedral (I’m not religious at all, but was blown away by the sun-lit interior and ceiling mural), a palace with a façade of marble carved into the shapes of diamonds and an impressive history of gastronomy, it proved to be no disappointment. Quite the opposite in fact. To add, there was not a car in sight for all our time visiting: not even one. All inhabitants of Ferrara seem to travel by bicycle and any travelers to the city can rent. If Bologna is jazz city, Ferrara is certainly bicycle city.

Although, saying that, Ferrara isn’t without its jazz. My greatest regret during my stay probably was not going to the Jazz Club Ferrara, an impressive concert-venue housed in a circular watchtower of the city wall. Definitely one not to miss for any future visits. The food, however, made up for anything missed; Cuisina e Butega left a lasting imprint (and flavour) in my mind – their anchovy, pine nut, parsley and olive oil spaghetti is a dish I’d happily walk miles to eat again. Their cake too was impressive in not only taste, but appearance as well, and their breaded sardines, perfect with the city’s famous Coppia bread (best bought from Panificio & Pasticceria Otelli Perdonati – traditional bakery), were tender and fresh. Over wine and small pieces of startlingly red cake drenched in alcohol, we discussed Ferrara’s famous hot air balloon festival, its many parks and its impressive, moat-surrounded Castle Estense which, on the roof, has a small orangery.

We left Emilia Romagna for the next region full of exquisite wine and food with the sound of Jazz still lingering on behind us. It’s a comforting thought knowing that there’s an Emilia Romagna stall in Borough Market back home, but I still feel the need to go back some time, to drown in their coffee, to inhale their pasta and to float into the sky in a hot air balloon on a tummy full of wine. One day, that is exactly what I shall do.

words Claire Hazelton

For more on UNESCO Italy – Bologna and Ferrara, by Claire Hazelton:  http://theoverflown.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/trip-to-fat-city/