I adore Bologna. It’s the perfect antidote to London, where carbs are kryptonite and root vegetables are pulverised into breakfast juices. Bologna welcomes you with wide and wobbly arms, like a fat auntie who hasn’t seen you in years and implores you to eat everything.
Huge white flecked hams hang in doorways, windows are adorned with wheels of fresh, grainy parmiggiano reggiano, market tables are taught with fresh vine tomatoes and purple artichokes, and pasta is everywhere – usually smothered in butter or tossed in a hearty ragu.
Bologna’s nickname is ‘la grassa’ (the fat one), a name which is entirely warranted. It is a gastronomic paradise and a place of epic culinary consumption. If you’re visiting with a loved one, make sure they love you for your curves. Diets die here
1. Parmigiano - Reggiano
We’ve come a long way since parmesan, the global interpretation of Emilia Romagna’s famed parmiggiano reggiano, first popped along. Now we have posh Italian delis and a very nice cheese counter at Sainsburys, those little cardboard cylinders of ready-to sprinkle cheesy dust are a mere bad memory.
But it’s still surprisingly hard to find a good parmiggiano reggiano, which is precisely why when you visit Bologna you must invest vast amounts of money in great slabs of this glorious grainy cheese.
Parmiggiano-Reggiano is Italy’s most illustrious (and most imitated) cheese, allegedly invented back in the Middle Ages by Cistercian monks who shaped the cheese into large wheels and stored it by the River Po, partly for storage reasons, mostly to ensure a constant supply of fine cheese for pilgrimaging monks on the move. PDO regulations dictate that Parmiggiano-Reggiano must be aged for a minimum of twelve months (mezzano) but it is not unusual for it to sit ageing quite happily upwards of 24 months.
Rich, nutty, tangy and white, it is best enjoyed shaven over pasta or gobbled down in great slices with locally cured meats.
2. Tagliatelle al ragu
In Bologna, asking for a Spaghetti Bolognese will earn you (as my grandmother would say) a few stern words and a sharp look. True, it was invented in Bologna but here it is simply called ‘ragu’ or ‘ragu alla Bolognese’ if they’re feeling particularly proud.
It is made with at least two different types of meat -pork and beef- as well as pancetta and a concoction of carrots, celery and tomato which is simmered for the best part of the morning. It is never served with Spaghetti, since Spaghetti is from the South, but always with fresh and handmade egg-based pasta like Tagliatelle or Fettucine. The flat surface allows the sauce to cling lovingly to every ribbon. So, think 'tag bol' rather than 'spag bol'
3. Tortellini en brodo
Tortellini has a saucy history. Legend has it that they were invented by a randy inn keeper who was visited by an exceptionally beautiful woman. One evening, he caught sight of her navel and such was his adoration that he decided to replicate it in pasta form.
Tiny pockets of pasta are stuffed with local Mortadella, minced pork, Parmiggiano-Reggiano and nutmeg, then nimbly twisted into a navel shape and served floating in a steaming bowl of rich and starchy Capone broth
4. Tortelloni Burro e Salvia
Tortellini’s big sister. Large pillowy pouches are stuffed with fresh ricotta and spinach, then smothered in butter and sage.
For a truly exceptional incarnation of this sublime dish, head to Trattoria Anna Maria. Anna Maria opened this unassuming trattoria some forty years ago and now, well into her seventies, she is still on hand all day, every day - greeting new patrons, welcoming old friends and forcing Bolognese deliciousness on to her clientele She is a force of nature: bold, funny and unstopable.
Pasta is made by a sfoglina (fresh past maker) just a few doors down from the restaurant, who lovingly rolls out huge table length sheets of butter yellow pasta for slicing, twisting, folding and molding.
5. Lasagne verde
I know not why lasagne is always served green in Bologna, nor do I care. It looks sublime.
Spinach leaves are mixed into the fresh pasta dough, rolled out into huge sheets and sliced into rectangles. The sheets are layered between ragu, lashings of béchamel and plenty of freshly grated Parmigianno - Reggiano.
6. Gramigna alla Salsiccia
Often, and wrongfully, overlooked in the mad fumble to sample the real ragu is the modest and ferociously delicious local specialty Gramigna alla Salsiccia.
The sight of an enormous, warm plate of small, dense curved tubes of pasta, unctuous with a simple sauce made only of local sausages, tomatoes and wine, is spectacular. It is smokey, sexy and boisterous in flavour.
Head to to Osteria Broccaindoso for a particularly delightful bowl; they will feed you deftly and deliciously.
7. Affetatti Misti
Readers, take heed. Bologna is a paradise for porkies. By this I mean they love to eat a lot of pig here and, frankly, so must you. Diced, sliced, cured, smoked and stuffed silly into sausages, the Bolognese are masters of the cold cut.
Order an affetatti misti, a tantalising board of local salami specialities which can encompass everything from Mora Romagnola (black pig) to soft regional Culatello to dried Salsiccia.
Mortadella is always star sausage here, made with finely hashed heat-cured pork and the sort of large globs of white fat which make puritanical health bores recoil and the rest of us salivate. Parma ham or Prosciutto Çrudo di Parma, another salty specialty from Emilia Romagna, will feature in abundance. Enjoy with a lovely big slab of local crusty bread and an equally lovely big class of local red.
The Bolognese are not unique in their ferocious appetite for good gelato, but it is the only place in the world where you will find a museum dedicated to the sweet stuff. Having contributed hugely to the export and expansion of gelato, Carpigiani (creators of the eponymous Campigiani gelato maker circa 1946) have established the world’s only museum –come- gelateria- come- university.
Here, visitors can embark on a lively guided tour around the museum, which charts the evolution of gelato from Arab pomegranate sorbets to the Medici family, investigates the ‘democratisation of gelato’ and gives curious visitors like me the opportunity to ride about in an early 20th century gelato-distributing tricycle.
At the Carpigiani gelateria visitors can taste historic (the ricotta is sublime) and experimental (celery and cucumber anyone?) gelato flavours and partake in a masterclass which includes an extraordinarily detailed education into the composition of gelato and an opportunity to make some yourself, after which visitors can a few well-earned days exploring the city’s many gelateria (Crema Saint Stefano is particularly delightful) to consolidate their education.
Imagine, if you will, the love child of a crepe and a tortilla.
Piadina or piada, pie, pijida, pied (essentially it can be loosely interpreted as anything beginning with the letters pie) has ancient origins amongst the rural populations in Emilia Romagna, and the first recipe dates back to 1371. It is an unleavened Italian flatbread, usually eaten hot and stuffed full of salty parma ham, a soft cheese like squacquerone and a slightly bitter leaf rocket, though consumers are encouraged to stuff anything in to it, from pork to Nutella. Interpretations of this ancient form of finger food differ slightly in each town, by the sea in Rimini for example the bread is much thinner. It is nigh impossible to miss this carry snack; it's readily available at kiosks and bars across Bologna.
10. Aceto di Balsamico
By virtue of it no longer being the 1950s, most people in the UK know what balsamic vinegar is. It has fast become a staple in many a middle-class household cupboard, whipped out and laboriously sloshed over salads across the nation. But, the stuff we’re buying from the supermarket is actually a well-below-par imitation; a good balsamic vinegar is more expensive than a decent bottle of wine. It’s thick, syrupy, sweet and acidic in equal measures, and you can only get the real stuff in Emilia Romagna.
The vinegar needs to aged for at least 12 years in high-quality wooden casks or barrels and the final product will have reduced to just 30% of its original volume. This is why you can expect to pay upwards of €50 for 100ml.
Take a day trip to an Acetaia like Acetaia del Cristo, where owner Daniele will let roam with you around vineyards and cellars, then ply you with lovely big spoonfuls of the stuff to ensure you never spend £1.50 on vinegar ever again.