By a stroke of luck I ended up in Emilia-Romagna, an Eden of fine cooking and savory ingredients. Id been living in France for nearly a decade and, while the food captivated me, each trip to Italy begged another. Growing up in the U.S, I had an idea of Italy as a European state, but now I was discovering its infinite provincial diversity. The nation has millennia of history, but its only been a unified country since 1861. Twenty individual regions weave a multicolored patchwork of provinces, cities, and villages: bygone kingdoms and feudal states.
In 2000 I landed a job as a tour guide with a company based in Forl. No idea where that was. I hefted my world atlas onto the kitchen table and thumbed through the index: F … For … Forl. Italy sculpts more of a leg than a boot on the map. Forl lies in Emilia-Romagna: a broad expanse spreading across her thigh like a garter. The region takes its name from the Via Aemilia the 160-mile ancient Roman road stretching east, straight as a tightrope from Piacenza to the Adriatic Sea.
The Apennines, Italys mountainous spine, arch east then south from the Mediterranean Sea to form the territorys lower border. Slanting vineyards and soft grassy slopes smooth north into orderly orchards. Parcels of kiwi populate the flat Po River plain. Renaissance towers, medieval ruins, and cypress spires cap rolling hills. And wavy grids of silvery olive trees garnish the slopes.
Emilia-Romagnas cultural heritage embraces Parmas powerfully arched cathedral, Bolognas leaning brick towers, and sixth-century mosaics in Ravenna; once the Western Roman Empires capital. Pellegrino Artusi, the father of Italian cooking, grew up in Forlimpopoli.
But Emilia and Romagna are one only on paper. In the eighth century, the Frankish King Pippin III pawned off the troublesome southeastern regions on the papacy. Like twins separated at birth, they matured into individual personas. Romagnoli are “chicken-farming country bumpkins,” say the “snooty, know-it-all” Emiliani.
Emilia prospered under centuries of wealthy, highborn families who maintained their prestige through lavish banquets. Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto di Parma, and bollito an opulent dish of boiled meats all hail from the region. Mortadella sausage too, even if I only knew its poor American cousin: baloney. In 1088, Europes oldest university opened in Bologna la Grassa (Fat Bologna) also Italys culinary capital.
Lucky for me, its the cradle of handmade pasta too: the centerpiece of weekly family get-togethers. Sunday mornings, Emiliana grandmothers pour mounds of flour on their table-sized cutting boards. Mixing in only eggs, they knead it into sticky yellow balls. With yard-long rolling pins, they flatten this sfoglia thin enough to see the boards wood grain. From the far edge, they curl the immense sheet into a tube, take a wide flat-bladed knife and slice off quarter-inch rounds. As the spirals unfold, classic tagliatelle emerge. The noodles rough texture will soak up a rich ragu of slowly simmered ground meats, tomato sauce, red wine, and minced aromatic vegetables.