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Eating and biking in Italy: The feast of Emilia-Romagna

If aliens had orbited the Earth during the Roman Republic, they would have spied a technological marvel: an arrow-straight highway, 162 miles long, beginning at the Adriatic coast and slicing through the farmland communities south of the Apennines. More than 2,000 years later the Via Emilia still connects the same neatly spaced cities-including the cultural gems of Parma, Modena and Ferrara.

The modernized Via Emilia (SS9 on motoring maps) feels like Italy's answer to California's Highway 49. Transecting the region called Emilia-Romagna, it's a conduit rich with history, linking the past and present. It's poetic justice that the ancient thoroughfare now hosts the titans of Italy's automotive industry: Maserati, Ducati, Ferrari and Lamborghini all have factories here. But it also happens that everything I love about Italian cuisine, from pancetta to parmesan, originated along this road.

"Food in Emilia-Romagna is not a joke," our guide declares as we sit down to our first dinner, in Parma. She's dead serious. This is where tortellini was created, modeled after the navel of Venus; where the width of a tagliatelli pasta ribbon was decreed to be exactly 1/1,270th the height of Bologna's Asinelli Tower; where pork rumps are aged in dungeons. And this was where a 19th-century silk merchant named Pellegrino Artusi, abandoning the family trade, created the concept of "Italian cooking."

Food in Emilia-Romagna is a religion-and to visit is to worship.

[Flickr photo credit: Charles Haynes]

First, a bit of disclosure. Though this is ostensibly a cycling trip, arranged through Colorado-based ExperiencePlus!, we won't be biking very much. It was never our intention to ride along busy SS9 itself, and heavy spring rains have washed out many of our side routes. Instead, we get around mainly by minibus and consume about 6,000 calories for every 1,000 we burn. Normally, I'd be distraught -- but these are very beautiful calories.

* * *

Parma is an ancient city, but it's so cosmopolitan you know you'll never catch up. A late afternoon stroll is filled with contrasting impressions: low sunlight illuminating the 13th-century Baptistery, with its weathered walls of pink and white Verona marble; organic cotton jackets and state-of-the-art espresso machines gleaming behind polished shop windows.

Parma was on the old Apennine pilgrimage route during the Middle Ages, and relics of that era remain, like the ceramic bowls mortared into the façade of the Bishop's Palace, a sign that this was once a good place to get a bowl of soup.

After sundown, the cobbled streets of the old town swell with students and couples. Some huddle in tight groups, while others gather around tables covered with a dozen varieties of pizzas. Nighttime will bring the bar-to-bar pilgrimage that locals call La Movida, literally "the nightlife"-a far more civilized phrase than "pub crawl."

* * *

The next morning we mount our bikes and set off. A country road carries us past farm fields exploding with red poppies, through small towns clustered beneath broken clouds and vivid blue skies. Scarecrows slouch in the fields, warning the birds away from the cherries. After an hour, we reach our lunch stop: Al Cavallino Blanco, famed for its dried meats.

Countless cured hams come from this region, but the most prized and expensive is culatello: a cut from the center of the pig's rump (culo). Unlike prosciutto – the dried haunch of the hind leg – culatello is hung in dingy cellars along the foggy banks of the Po river until it is coated in a revolting green mold. This mold sets up a chain reaction that, as with cheese, breaks down the protein chains. In this restaurant's subterranean vault, an obstacle course of culatellos-some 5,000 in all-droop from the low ceiling. The choicest cuts are marked with small signs, already reserved for their buyers, a highly exclusive club that includes Prince Charles and Armani.

Lunch is a cold cut orgy. We dine on salumi, pancetta, two kinds of prosciutto, warm spalla cotta (cooked pork shoulder), and lardo: pure white fat with a mild, melt-in-your-mouth flavor.

The famed culatello arrives, shaved thin as onion skin and equally translucent. Aged 18 months, it has a powerful, almost fishy taste that requires many goblets of the sparkling red Fortana Rosso to wash away. Pig butt meat, apparently, is where my taste buds draw the line.

* * *

Just west of Modena and slightly south of SS9 lie Reggia-Emilia and Rubiera, famed for their balsamic vinegars. At small factories, the boiled must of the local grapes is aged at least 12 years, and distilled in a series of wooden barrels of ever smaller sizes. It's a careful, complicated process that Giovanni Cavalli, the passionate vinegar master, must explain five times-but once I understand it, the 80 Euro price tag on a three-ounce bottle makes perfect sense.

Cavalli leads us among the barrels, and offers us samples served in tiny spoons. The aceto balsamico is thick, and the color of molasses, but the taste transcends description. Sweet yet sharp, pungent and woody, it is the most complex and delicious flavor I've ever experienced: the world's most sophisticated candy.

* * *
We awaken the next day to heavy clouds, and race through the rain to a parmesan co-op located halfway between Reggio-Emilia and Modena. Here cheese master Giulliano Lusoli oversees the production of some 20-25 wheels a day, on behalf of the local dairy farmers.

The factory floor is spotless, with a long row of cone-shaped copper vats in which milk is mixed with veal rennet. Heated and stirred, the liquid separates into siero (whey) and cheese, which Lusoli tests by hand until it reaches the perfect texture. It's then pulled from the vats in cheesecloth slings, placed in molds, and dropped in a tub of brine for a couple of months.

We sample three varieties of parmigiano reggiano, aged 12, 22 and 34 months. Along with age, there's pedigree: upland and lowland. The difference, Lusoli explains, is diet. While lowland cows eat alfalfa and wheat, the upland cattle (living at about 4,000 feet) dine on a mixture of grasses, wildflowers and herbs. Dribbled with balsamic vinegar, the parmesans are a revelation, with aromas and finishes distinctive as any wine. After dozens of tiny portions, I have eaten about a pound of cheese.

"We'll ride it off," our guide assures me.

Someday, maybe; but not in Italy.

* * *
The massive drawbridge of the vast Este family palace, in Ferrara, barely squeaks as scores of families cross the once impenetrable moat. I'm staggered by the thought that a single family ruled most of Emilia-Romagna for 350 years. It's as if the same family had ruled America's Eastern seaboard since The Dutch New Netherland colony renamed itself "New York."

But Ferrara's most welcoming attraction is found on Via degli Adelardi, an alley just behind the cathedral. Brindisi is the oldest documented bar in the world, providing refreshment as early as 1435. Ancient flagons of port are displayed in one corner, vintage Jack Daniels bottles in another. Musical instruments hang on the walls, along with an autographed photo of Miles Davis-a nod to the musical stylings of owner Frederico, who plays blues harp in a jazz band.

I order a glass of Sangiovese-the "blood of Jove," a well-loved regional wine-and flip through the Guinness Book of Worlds Records, which Frederico keeps at the bar for skeptics who (like me) initially doubt this humble bar's pedigree.

* * *

When we do ride, it's wonderful. Cycling from Faenza to Brisighella we pass rural vineyards and olive groves, and grind up curvy hills lined with wildflowers. Then down we fly, the wind in our hair. Pulling up in Brisighella's piazza, we're lured immediately into the local gelateria, where the feisty proprietor claims she's just made "the best banana gelato in the world." Banana-it's got to be good for you, right?

Famous for its spa waters, Brisighella-surrounded by sheltering hills- also produces the region's best olive oil. We are called into a tasting room to sample several varieties, including Nobil Drupa, the town's signature product, a costly EVO with the pungent aroma of newly mown grass.

"This oil speaks for us," expounds Giulliano Manduzzi, who may be the most passionate olive oil artisan in Italy. "It speaks about our people, about our farmers, about our ancient agricultural tradition. This oil is like our flag!" He swells with pride. "We're very proud to show you this oil from our medieval village."

Manduzzi's enthusiasm is contagious. Sipping the oil, I feel like an honored ambassador. I'm tempted to set up a consulate-right next to the gelateria.

* * *

Via Emilia knits all these towns together, giving them a shared history. But on a culinary level, it was one man-born in Forlimpopoli, just south of SS9-who gathered Italy's flavors and created the very notion of Italian cuisine. Pelligrino Artusi (1820-1911) was a marvelously engaging writer who crisscrossed the Italian Republic during the mid-1800s, collecting hundreds of regional recipes in his venerated Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. As wonderful as the dishes are, it's Artusi's commentary that makes the book:

"Life has two principal functions: nourishment and propagation of the species. Those who turn their minds to these two needs of existence, who study them and suggest practices whereby they might best be satisfied, make life less gloomy and benefit humanity."

The recently opened Casa Artusi is a state-of-the-art culinary institute that serves as a research center, restaurant and cooking school. As one of our final activities, our group is invited to try our hands making piadina: a simple, round Italian flatbread. Our "laboratory" is an industrial kitchen, where each of us is assigned a chef-tutor. Under their exasperated eyes we mix, pound, roll and fry our little parcels of dough.

This might seem a simple task, but-as is often the case with cooking-it's the simple things that get you. My result might not have pleased Artusi, but I found it delicious-smothered in a thick preserve made from local figs.

My visit to Italy, like all visits to Italy, is too short. When I return to Emilia-Romagna, I'll spend more time in the saddle-and much more time at Casa Artusi. Because cooking, I find, is a lot like cycling: No matter where you end up, it's more satisfying to have arrived there yourself.

* * *

Jeff Greenwald is a writer and performance artist. His books include Mr. Raja's Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal, Shopping for Buddhas, and The Size of the World. His new book, which was published in October, is Snake Lake. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Salon.com, among other publications. For more, visit jeffgreenwald.com.

Filed under: Biking, Arts and Culture, History, Europe, Italy

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