Paolo Tullio on a gastronomic tour of Parma, Italy
I had a short trip to Italy this week, a kind of gastronomic tour with a plan to investigate prosciutto, pasta and Parmigiano cheese.
It's a curious fact that most countries have a gastronomic centre, an area where the food, for some reason, is better than it is elsewhere. In France, you could argue that Burgundy is that special area and in Italy there's not much doubt that the area for the best food is the Emilia.
This region of Italy lies at the southern edge of the Po Valley and encompasses such well known cities as Bologna and Parma. Just to prove the connection between the area and good food, Bologna's adjective - Bolognese - gave its name to what is probably the world's most ubiquitous pasta sauce, while Parma and its adjective - Parmigiano - gave its name to one of the world's great cheeses, to a dish of roasted vegetables, and of course, to cured ham.
There's a reason why these foods developed in the Emilia. It's one of the few areas of Italy that isn't mountainous, so there are plains and pasture. The farmers of the region were able to rear cows and therefore produce milk, and with milk came cheese. Cheesemaking has a by-product of whey which was traditionally fed to pigs. With pigs came hams, and with those two ingredients, plus butter and cream, you have the central core of Emilian cookery.
Parma is also home to one of Italy's longest established pasta factories, Barilla, whose distinctive blue packaging I've known since childhood. A few years ago, it outgrew its city centre premises and moved to the outskirts to a massive new plant that produces 1,500 tonnes of pasta every day. Watching giant machines turning out pasta by the mile put me in mind of the presses that turn out newsprint, with everything running at around 20 kilometers an hour.
These days, Parma-ham producers tend to be big businesses, but small, artisan producers can still be found. I went to visit Rosa dell' Angelo, a small artisan producer who makes two kinds of ham - the classic Parma ham with the crown logo, and a ham made from free-range black pigs.
This last ham has a lot in common with the Spanish Iberico, except that here the pigs are reared outdoors their entire life, rather than just the last six months. The resulting ham is like Iberico - delicious, dark and expensive.
Gastronomy has had a long history in Parma, so it's not surprising that the Academia Barilla, a centre for the propagation of gastronomy, is housed now where the factory once was. It has several state-of-the-art kitchens for demonstrations and a large auditorium for lectures, as well as a huge library of books on food and cooking, some as early as the 15th Century.
Parma's city centre is filled with good restaurants, but on the advice of Barilla's Eleonora Allegri we went to the outskirts to find Le Viole, a restaurant renowned for its innovative food.
Set just back from the road in a small farmhouse, Le Viole is welcoming and comfortable. We were four - Eleonora, her friend Eleonora, Marian Kenny and me.
Like many Italian restaurants, Le Viole is family run and the family have been running it for many years. They themselves decribe their cooking as Parma cuisine, but with a modern twist. The first thing you notice when you read the menu is the prices. All the antipasti are under €10, except for the goose liver pate at €12, then the pastas are all under €10, and the main courses are either €10 or €12.
If you were to have a full Italian dinner, you'd have all of the above - that's to say you'd have an antipasto, then a pasta dish, then a main course and lastly a dessert. None of us could manage a four-course dinner, so we had an antipasto, a main course and then a dessert.
The antipasti, or appetisers, were a duck salad, fresh salami with wine and figs, potato strudel, a Parmesan cheese flan, baby octopus salad and goose liver pate. There were four pasta dishes, a rice savarin and blinis for the first course, and for main courses there was a choice of beef cheeks in red wine, loin of suckling pig, rabbit with tarragon and rosemary, roast pork neck, turkey parcels and Guinea fowl rolls with grapes. On the night there was also a special of pan-fried calves' liver.
I felt that being in Parma I had to have the Parmesan cheese flan, which was light and flavoursome and came with a sauce of porcini mushrooms.
Marian had the pate, which came with a home-made brioche, and both the Eleonoras had the fresh salami. This was new to me, being a salami that hadn't been air-cured, but instead cooked by being simmered in wine. The result was soft like a sausage, but with all the taste of salami.
For main courses we had two suckling pig loin, one braised beef cheek and the daily special of calves' liver. Considering not one of these dishes cost more than €12, I thought that the quality was excellent.
We finished with just two desserts, a custard flan with coffee sauce and a hazelnut semifreddo with a chocolate and zabaione sauce. Mineral water, coffees and one glass of house wine for me brought the bill to €115.
The next day we had a good lunch in Parma city centre, in the Trattoria del Ducato (Via Nicolo Paganini 5, Tel 0039 0521 486 730) that specialises in traditional Parma cuisine. This is where you go to eat tortelli alle erbe, a pasta filled with ricotta and herbs. I couldn't resist the polenta, cooked with cream, butter and lots of Parmesan. It was quite simply delicious.
This short trip confirmed what I've long believed - the food of the Emilia is superb. Yes, it's a cholesterol bomb, but it tastes great. Not for nothing is Bologna known in Italy as Bologna the Fat.
9/10 value for money
Whispers from the Gastronomicon
Irish patient-led charity Fighting Blindness has teamed up with Dublin South Arch Club and Roly Saul The Restaurant in Dundrum to host Dining in the Dark at 7.30pm on Thursday August 28.
This innovative initiative will raise funds to support teams of cyclists from both Fighting Blindness and Dublin South Arch Club who are undertaking a cycle from Paris2Nice (700km over 6 days).