I have read that the people of Emilia-Romagna eat more, care more and talk more about food than all other Italians. I am descended from the people of that beautiful place and I have to admit, food is something I dwell upon a lot of the time.
Pellegrino Artusi‘s famous book La scienza in cuncina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Good Eating) published in 1891 represented the ideal Italian cuisine. It was reprinted over one hundred times. It was the first book to deal with the whole of Italian cooking. The author wanted to ‘create a national cuisine that would achieve cultural unity’. Although Artusi did not come from Emilia-Romagna, the place was his model.
Emilia-Romangna lies in the long plain of the River Po and has always been the greatest food-producing area of Italy. I can trace my father’s family back to the village of Morfasso for several generations. My mother’s family came from the nearby town of Bore in Parma. I know that my father’s father owned a farm of some 1000 hectares and that with his sons, he built the farm-house. When the young people left to make their lives in the UK or America or Canada, the farm was handed on to older cousins and that strand of the family still own and work it to this very day. My father came to London and worked as a jazz musician, making early records and playing in the opulent clubs and restaurants in the 1930’s and 40’s. Music and food were his passion.
When I returned to visit the family house some years ago, those traditions – music and food, were alive and well. I remember walking around the local cemetery and meeting many relatives; their grave stones told me they were part of my family; their photos told me I looked like them. It was a salutary experience. The cousins that acquired my father’s house and land, welcomed me back and I spent a very happy day with them, listening to stories of his childhood and learning more about him from them than I had ever known, as he’d died when I was a child.
I discovered that Coppa, the dried meat that I ate so often when I was growing up, came from the area; that the recipes my mother cooked were recipes that had been handed down for hundreds of years in that village. They’d survived war and famine and were still being cooked. I remembered how much my father loved eating pigs trotters (I hated them!), that he would eat frog’s legs and offal and polenta, things that were the staple diet of the poor in rural Italy when he was a child. War and political upheaval made those lean times for him and his family, even though they owned a house and much land, land that is now worth a great deal of money. I remember him talking about the many kinds of Salami and this was backed up by my cousins. We always ate a selection of cured and cold meats and salamis at every celebration. No wedding or christening was ever without those glorious platters of meat, accompanied by figs or melon; the perfect way to start any meal.
Then there was the Parmesan Cheese. The cheese was originally created in Val D’Enza in the Province of Reggio, but it was first sold in Parma. That is why it is known as Parmigiano-Reggiano. The best of cheeses, its lineage is guarded jealously by law and a consorteum to control and manage quality. I remember going to our larder where our store of the precious cheese was stored under a muslin cloth and breaking off small chunks of sweet, salty, golden heaven! I would secret it in a pocket and shut myself in my bedroom to nibble and enjoy.
Mum used Parmesan cheese in nearly every meal she cooked. She explained to me that the production had not changed in seven centuries and that it was made from a mixture of the morning and evening milk from cows fed on grass and clover from April to November. When it is made, it has to be aged for two to three years. I always pondered on how it was that something that had to be kept for three years could taste so wonderful. For me, no bowl of soup will ever be finished without a good sprinkling of Parmesan.
In Emilia-Romagna, pasta is very important. Fresh pasta must have been born here! There are so many recipes. Mum used a pound of flour mixed with four eggs – the yolks had to be very yellow to give the pasta that golden look – and made this raw material into dozens of different shapes with many different fillings. Nutmeg was one of the spices that was always used, as was butter and salt and chicken livers, in some form or another. Of course, Parmesan cheese was an absolute must! Sometime her pasta shapes would float lazily on the surface of a delicious soup or brode, sometimes they would be smothered with a tomato sauce and for plain, simple supper time, coated in melted butter and chopped fresh sage leaves. Fillings might be made of veal or pork or the ubiquitous chicken livers. When chestnuts were around in the autumn and winter, they would be used to make a sweet filling. The shapes to contain all this would include little hats, little squares, big squares, triangles, half-moons… The list was endless. The back of chairs were always covered in tea clothes with long strands of spaghetti or linguine hanging over them to dry!
So what about this small village where my father and generations of his family lived? It is surrounded by the Colli Piacentini(Piacentine Hills), an important area for wine production. The most important wines produced in the Colli Piancentini are Gutturnio, Bonarda, Ortrugo, Malvasia, and Monterosso Val d’Arda. Other beautiful and historical towns nearby are Veleia,Castell’Arquato and Bardi. There is a particularly ancient Roman town Veleia, known as the “Pompei of the North”. The area’s wine-making history was unearthed here by archeologists in 1760 when a small bronze statue of a drinking Hercules dated C I AD was dug out during excavations at Veleja Romana. In 1877, the “Etruscan liver” (C2 BC) was found in Settima, near Gossolengo in 1877. This small bronze model of a sheep liver used in divination is covered with inscriptions, including the name of the Etruscan god of wine. In 1878, archaeologists unearthed the famous Roman silver goblet called “Gutturnium”, in the waters of the river Po.
There have been many excavations where fossils of vines and grape-seeds were found, together with stumps and small vessels (paterae) which date back to the pre-Roman period. The medieval city of Castell’Arquato, known as the City of Art, is a traditional medieval town which, like many Italian towns, still looks the way it did in the early 10th Century. Castell’Arquato stands on a high rock, dominating the valley. Here events are held in the town hall, including gastro-fares, concerts and festivals in historical costume. Just across the Pellizzone Pass in the province of Parma is the medieval fortress town of Bardi. The fortress was constructed in 898 in a strategic position to defend the territory against attacks by the Hungarians. In 1868, the fortress became the local Town Hall.
Italy’s past has not always been happy. The Diaspora meant that many of its citizens left, but thankfully, they took their culture and their food history with them. Today, Italian food is part of the mainstream across the world. Where would we be without the pizza, spaghetti bol, lasagna, pasta? Every supermarket stocks these foods now. When I was a child, they were considered wild and exotic!
Food is so important to me, not just as a way of keeping fit and healthy but as a representation of everything that I am. It is part of my genetic inheritance and without my passion for good food, my life and the lives of my family would be far less rich.
Now one of my daughters has taken up the challenge. She cooks beautiful and delicious food at MUCKRACH LODGE HOTEL in the Scotland. Well worth a visit.