SITTING IN A tiny trattoria on the Via delle Bella Arti in Bologna, as I'm eagerly munching on mortadella and home-made bread with olive oil, a 75-year-old Italian woman tells me that I look like I can put away a bowl of pasta.
I hesitate – I mean, she's got me bang to rights, but were this said by another customer eating at a nearby table, or a waitress, I might think about being mildly offended.
It isn't, though – it comes (via a slightly apprehensive translator) from the mouth of Anna Maria, the hard-nosed but incredibly talented and passionate matron of the restaurant; the very same one that's been serving the Bolognese the food they adore and revere for 30 years and counting.
Ah, yes – the 'B' word. I knew this would come up. What image does it call to mind, I wonder? I'll hazard a guess at a steaming plate of spaghetti bolognese, just like mum (or, indeed, mama) used to make. When I say this, I don't say it lightly: banish that thought immediately, and never again mention, or cook, 'spaghetti bolognese'. again. Not only are you propagating a myth; you're arguably insulting an entire region of Italy while you're doing it. Shame on you.
But seriously, since I've been in Emilia-Romagna – quite possibly the most foodie of all Italian food destinations, home to Parma, Bologna and Modena, to name a few – I've been set straight. Spaghetti bolognese is a lie. It doesn't exist; at least not in Bologna. And they should know.
I'm worried I'll have been thrown out before I finish my primo piatto
I try to start a conversation with Anna Maria about it, to see what a Bolognese matron makes of the bolognese misnomer, and the mere mention of it gets her so obviously riled that I'm worried I'll be thrown out before I finish my primo piatto.
After some fiery gesticulation, she explains that real Bolognese pasta is tagliatelle al ragu; it's tortelloni (made with a slightly different filling than the one 20km down the Via Emilia in Modena); or it's lasagne, made only (and I mean only) with pasta verde – make it with white pasta and you may find yourself on the wrong end of a wooden spoon.
If you hadn't quite gathered, the people of this culturally and gastronomically wealthy region are a little particular about their food. But it's with good reason. Ever tried proper mortadella? That comes from Bologna, and only Bologna. Parmigiano-Reggiano? That's from Parma, parts of Reggio Emilia, and Modena – the area known as the 'Treasure Island', where cheese is sourced and made. Parma ham? You get the gist.
But you can't buy Parmigiano-Reggiano from Sicily, Florence or Rome. Well, unless it's been imported from here – and there's such strict regulation involved in getting it from the farm to the shop window that even then it has to have been made with exactly the right milk, from exactly the right cows, with exactly zero additives and preservatives, and aged for a minimum of 24 months. If not, it's Grana Padano, or it's 'parmesan' – the name given to miscellaneous Italian-style hard cheese on these shores. If you didn't know the difference, it's probably just because they don't shout about it. And they don't need to; they let the food do it for them.
My Emilia-Romagna culinary education continues when I visit Acetaia Villa Bianca, a vinegar house in Modena. Balsamic vinegar may be a familiar sight on supermarket aisles, but there's more to it than you might think.
Balsamic vinegar may be familiar, but there's more to it than you’d think
For the liquid to be considered aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, or traditional balsamic vinegar, it has to jump through the same hoops as the Parmigiano-Reggiano. It has to be aged in exactly the right way for a minimum of 12 years (or 25 if it's extra vecchio, or extra old), and then regulated by a consortium to ensure its taste and provenance. Only then can it garner the elusive tradizionale tag it needs if it's going to be sold for what some might consider a pretty lofty price-tag.
Hotel Tre Vecchi
Looking for a place to stay while you eat your own way around Emilia-Romagna? Four-star Zanhotel Tre Vecchi is right in the centre of Bologna on the Via dell'Indipendenza – a stone's throw from its huge stone streets filled with shops and cafés. As you’d expect, its breakfast bar serves a mean cappuccino, too.
Prices at Hotel Tre Vecchi in Bologna start from approx. €75 (£60) per night, based on two people sharing a double room. For more info, go to zanhotel.it/zanhoteltrevecchi.
But you're not just paying for great taste. You're paying for centuries of craft, and products that have been carefully and lovingly perfected over the course of time; and you're buying into an identity and a tradition that's impossible to fake, no matter how hard large-scale industrial producers try. That's why tradizionale means so much.
It's that sense of tradition that means in some parts of Bologna and Modena it looks like barely any time has passed since its most esteemed restaurants and shops were founded. Case in point: Bologna's oldest bakery has been open since 1881.
In some cases, food history is literally built into its cities. In Modena, there are two small, unremarkable dimples in one of the cathedral walls, barely noticeable until my tour guide points them out. Their function? They were built to help its citizens measure portions of ricotta, apparently. Enough said.
Emilia-Romagna food – in pictures
There are a few places I've been in my life that make me a little embarrassed of my home country's food heritage. There might be no better city in the world to eat in than London in 2014, but what exactly is it we're eating? Pretty much any cuisine other than our own, for the most part. And how much importance do our counties and regions attach to their own food heritage? I don't really know. And that's the problem.
The amazing thing about London as a food destination is its unparalleled diversity and level of competition. But if London is a food theme park – brightly-coloured signs, swathes of tourists, queues out the door – Emilia-Romagna's cities are temples: considered, humble and committed to tradition in a way that I've rarely, if ever, encountered before.
If London is a food theme park, Emilia Romagna's cities are temples
How to get there
Bologna is the major airport in Emilia-Romagna, and with regular flights there with easyJet and British Airways from London Gatwick, and Ryanair from Stansted, Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh and Dublin, there's no better time to explore its unique food culture for yourself.
easyJet flies direct to Bologna from London Gatwick, from £36.49 per person, one way. For more information, go to easyjet.com.
Not that I'm complaining – I'm a sucker for a food trend; and I'm British, so I'm excellent at queuing. But despite the love I have for British food, I can't help but feel it's going through something of an identity crisis. Go to the beach anywhere in England and you'll eat the same fish and chips. Yorkshire pudding is as ubiquitous in Sussex as it is oop North.
We could learn a hell of a lot from Italy in that regard. Not the trivialised, caricatured Italy, where enormous families get together to wildly gesticulate over 'spaghetti bolognese' – the real one, wherein food identity isn't only known, but fiercely and proudly protected, and the makeup of a dish can tell you as much about the city that created it as a 15-minute lecture.
I am, of course, not particularly optimistic that after hundreds of years of sub-par food, we're suddenly going to up our game on a national level. But we could at least meet them in the middle – after all, a little tradizione goes a long way. ■
Mike Gibson travelled to Emilia-Romagna as a guest of the Emilia-Romagna Tourist Board. For more info, go to emiliaromagnaturismo.com