Forget Rome and Tuscany: Here's Italy's tastiest foodie break
Eating in Emilia Romagna
Emilia Romagna is one of the tastiest breaks in Europe, says a happily satiated Nicola Brady.
Set the mood
When you dream of Italian food, what comes to mind?
Silky, homemade pasta with a decadently rich ragù? Shavings of sharp, crumbling Parmigiano cheese, or the tang of balsamic vinegar?
You can find them all in Emilia Romagna. Italy is a foodie's paradise, but this region is home to the culinary capitals of the country - Bologna, Modena, Reggio Emilia and Parma. Here, you'll find producers of all the quintessential Italian foods, some of which can only be made within a small area.
It's also home to 2016's 'best restaurant in the world' - Osteria Francescana in Modena (osteriafrancescana.it). And it doesn't hurt that the region is stonkingly beautiful, with medieval old towns, rolling hills swathed in vines and abundant markets.
There can be no room for guilt in Emilia Romagna, just unapologetic feasting. In Reggio Emilia, the Caffè Arti e Mestieri (giannidamato.it) is a delight, with heavenly plates served up in an illuminated garden.
Nearby, you'll find Acetaia di Giorgio (acetaiadigiorgio.it), one of the balsamic vinegar houses. Forget any balsamic vinegar you've tried at home. The real stuff trickles and drips like syrup, exploding with notes of black cherry, oak and juniper.
Tour the house to find stacks of ageing barrels, and taste the unbelievable reserved blends, aged for over 25 years (if you want to splurge, the most expensive is an eye-watering €350 a bottle).
Sometimes the greatest pleasure is the smallest. Pick up a scoop of organic gelato in Parma's Ciacco (ciaccogelato.it) and stroll to the nearest patch of grass, kicking back to join the city's students reclining in the sun.
Visit the homeland of Parmigiano Reggiano at Caseificio Scalabrini (parmigianoreggiano.com) in Parma. Wheels of cheese are stacked to the ceiling, maturing for up to 32 months. This is the variety you want to try - tart and crumbling, filled with little crystals of amino acid that burst like pop rocks.
Those with food intolerances might find dining out challenging - I found that wheat, gluten and dairy formed the bulk of most meals.
And while tours of production houses may seem interesting, it's usually better to just stick to the tastings. Trust me - after you see endless rows of hanging Parma hams, you're not so keen on tasting them afterwards.
Anyone can order a steaming bowl of pasta, but the real gourmands learn how to make their own at the Culinary Institute of Bologna (cookingclassesinbologna.com, from €60).
You'll learn how to knead and roll your own pasta, before it's cooked, swaddled in a full-bodied ragù, and served up to you with a glass of local Lambrusco. Don't scoff - this lightly sparkling wine is a world away from the saccharine goop you used to steal from your mum's glass.
You can fly into Milan or Bologna with both Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com). You'll want to hire a car to get the most out of the region - both airports are served by Avis (avis.com), among other companies.
In Bologna, stay in the Art Hotel Commercianti (bolognarthotels.it), an historic and arty hotel next to the cathedral, from €170, B&B. Reggio Emilia is a gorgeous city, and handy for Modena - try the Hotel Albergo delle Notaire (albergonotarie.it), from €82.
For more on Emilia Romagna, see emiliaromagnaturismo.com.