Categories: Rambler E-Newsletters

My First Trip To Italy – Or Feasting In Emilia-Romagna

by Erik Lunde - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Eating In Italy, Or, How Pavarotti Built His Figure

A Short Tale Of My Visit To The Emilia-Romagna Region

Pavarotti’s was the first smile I saw in Italy. His round, beaming, welcoming face and black beard beamed sunnily from an exhibit in the baggage claim of the Bologna airport and his proud girth and joyful presence seemed to proclaim the message: Welcome fair traveler. It is good here – very good- and a great abundance of food will be eaten.

Looking back, I can see now there was something truly symbolic in Pavarotti’s welcoming smile and the message implied in the glory of his full-figured benevolence. Upon reflection, a month later, nothing remains more important in my memory of the region than the warmth and generosity of the people, the beauty of the towns, cities and countryside, and the abundance and flavor of the wonderful food, flowing wine, and excellent hospitality of my Italian hosts.

But first, an introduction is in order. Who am I, how did I find myself in Bologna, Italy, considering Pavarotti, and why am I sharing this story?

Well, this is how it began. Imagine you had applied for a marketing director position with an international bike touring company. Imagine that at the close of your third and final interview, you were asked this question by the co-owner of the company: “Can you start in December – and would you be available to go to Italy for a 10 day work retreat on your second week with us?”

~ Um. Okay. Yes. Of course.

If you feel a certain jealousy growing in your breast at the splendid luck I had in my new job assigment, let me clarify the meaning of the phrase Team Work Retreat. While that phrase sounds wonderful, in truth the bulk of my days in Italy were far more WORK, than retreat.  That said, once the sun had set and the business of the day was done, the evenings were devoted to dinner, Italian-style. This meant long, indulgent dinners, great company and conversation, several bottles of good, affordable, regional wine, and oh such wonderful food. Food beyond my realm of normal experience; food that likely made Pavarotti sing; food memories that will remain until I am in my grave.

But first, we must begin at the farm. Where all food begins.

Why is food so important to this tale?  Well, exclamations about the excellence of the food is the one thing you hear from all travelers who’ve been to Italy.  And I will follow in that cliche.  But my experience was heightened, perhaps, because I found myself working for a family of dedicated and highly-experienced food lovers whose European headquarters happen to be based smack dab in the midst of an orchard in the heart of the Emilia Romagna region- justly renowned for its cuisine – and heralded widely as the breadbasket of Italy.

The Experience Plus “Bike Farm” and Headquarters in Forli, Emilia-Romagna

The Bike Farm1

If you’ve never been, The Bike Farm in Forli is the beating heart of the operation: a large, sprawling old Pig Farm that’s been wonderfully converted to house the people and the bikes that run the European operation. The farm is located in the midst of the Po River Valley, amid a broad, vast, fertile plain covered in farms, orchards and vineyards.  To my eyes, the most striking feature was the sense that,  as far as I could see,  the land was under cultivation, and mostly of fruit grown on trees.  I had never seen such a landscape.  Company founder Rick Price has a better explanation of the agricultural landscape I saw about me: “Our headquarters is in a converted pig barn surrounded by 11 hectares (27 acres) of vineyards, peach orchards, apples, plums and field crops consisting mostly of wheat, sugar beets, and alfalfa. If you drive the freeway or take the train from Rimini to Milan along this corridor you’ll notice hundreds of farms like ours. The crops may change slightly: near Cesena you’ll see intense strawberry cultivation for a short distance, near Modena and Reggio Emilia you’ll see the vineyards producing the lightly alcoholic Lambrusco wines, and near Parma you’ll likely notice large barns enclosing pigs for the production of Parma’s famous ham (“prosciutto”) or for the dairy cattle whose milk is used to make parmesan cheese (“parmigiano reggiano”).”

The Streets Of Faenza At Night 

Collages

Should we eat at the farm or go into town?  “Town”, I begged.  I was fortunate that Maria Elena, my generous host, wanted to give us all a solid immersion into the heart of Italy that night. So we took a short drive from the farm into the small beautiful city of Faenza and I was soon deeply grateful to find myself walking the streets of a medieval Roman town in the ambiance of the week before Christmas. After leaving the relatively square, modern, straight suburban blandness of my Fort Collins, Colorado home, the deep romance of the streets of Faenza, with its old apartments, churches and Romanesque scenes, all alight in the slightly foggy glow of the sparkling pre-Christmas night, penetrated my soul and made me happy.  I felt giddy with expectation and filled with a deep appreciation for the charm of the cobblestone streets and the ancient, humane, walkable, and aesthetically pleasing city plaza that had been designed for a time and people who never knew the automobile.  The delicate blue and white light decorations arching over the narrow walkways gave the city center an even deeper sense of Christmas spirit and romance.  Everywhere the eye beheld some kind of elegance and beauty, even in the cut of the clothes and the way the people of the city held hands and walked and talked. I thrilled with anticipation at the food that must accompany a place of such natural beauty.

Dining At The Osteria

Night In Faenza1

The Osteria was located in a subterranean cavelike tavern that seemed it had been there for centuries.  When we arrived at the Osteria, I attempted the first of many poor translations. “Osteria,” I said to Maria Elena, “Oysters! How great!” 

“No Erik, this is an Osteria.  It means host in Italy.”  Maria went on to explain the derivation of the word.  In the middle ages, an Osteria was a type of roadside tavern that was known to feature the authentic, affordable, rustic food of the area.  It was good honest food for hungry travelers. My dinner companions for the evening included Maria Elena and her sister Monica, my new employers and hosts of this experience, and Julie, Nadine, and Joeanne, my  new coworkers. Hungry travelers indeed.  And so the meal began and the wine flowed.  And since I was dining in the land for which the Bolognese sauce was named, I ordered the Tagliatelle Bolognese.  It was excellent. 

The Best Pizza of My Life Was Neopolitan, With A Crust So Good I’ll Never Know It’s Equal

Pizza

The next night I was told we would be going to the best Pizza place in the area. Just down the road from the farm. A place owned by a Neoploitan family. It is not hyperbole to say it was the greatest Pizza this man has ever eaten. And then a perfect Limoncello to end the most perfect pizza of my life. I could go on and on. But I already have. But the newsletter must go out. And so the tale must end with a feast of fishes. 

The Feast Of Many Fine Fishes

dinner-cesenatico

There were many grand nights of dining, but on the final night, Maria promised to take us to the Adriatic coast, to Cesenatico, to see the nativity scenes built on the boats that floated in a canal designed by Da Vinci and to visit the restaurant owned by her Uncle Max.  While I had experienced night after night of wonderful dining, conversations and hospitality, the feast that Max and his staff brought  to us was indeed, the greatest seafood feast of my entire life.  And though I have been an Oysterman in British Columbia, worked as a cook and waiter at some fine seafood houses, and eaten my share of excellent seafood from coast to coast, the dizzying and never-ending array of Adriatic fishes, crustaceans, and god knows what else that lives in that sea and came from that kitchen to our long and happy table will live in my memory as a shining emblem of the generosity, hospitality and flavor of the Emilia-Romagna region and the Malpezzi-Price family. 

For Opportunities To Make Your Own Culinary Memories

Check Out These Tours Of The Emilia-Romagna Region

> Whole Journeys Culinary Delights Plus! The Farm

> Bike Across Italy – Venice to Pisa

>Bicycling Venice to Florence

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