Not long ago, I find myself on a journey in search of art in towns with charming names like Ferrara, Parma, Forlì and Ravenna but as soon as I arrive in Bologna's Stazione Centrale, the train station that is to become my primary radial point, I know that my adventures will be of another kind.
I am in Emilia-Romagna, terra del gusto, the land of taste. A northern region privileged with a broad range of weather conditions thanks to its nearly coast-to-coast span from the Adriatic to the Apennines. The kaleidoscopic location allows the region to produce a veritable cornucopia of PDO (protected designation of origin) and PGI (protected geographical indication) recognized products- a divine 33, the highest count for any Italian region. By those statistics alone, Emilia-Romagna is Italy's gastronomical holy land.
Emilia-Romagna's cult of culinaria is led by the incomparable triumvirate of prosciutto, balsamico (balsamic vinegar) and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Individually, its cured meats, cheeses, wines, vegetables and fruits are more than just table talk. In fact, a plate of salumi (cured meats) or a large chunk of parmigiano is the antipasto introduction to any dinner and the coup de grace to the entire meal. It is not a surprise that eating in Emilia-Romagna is gastro-enlightening, a spiritual awakening of mind and belly.
My days become revelations as I theorize a beatific "circle of life" between the prosciutto and parmigiano as the pigs are raised on the cheese's whey, without one there could not be the other. In Modena, I am intoxicated by aged balsamic vinegar, a luscious nectar home-grown just a few kilometres down the street from the futuristic Enzo Ferrari museum and the Lamborghini factory. I conclude that Ferrari and Lamborghini's meticulous handcrafted details are logically birthed from a town of patience since the very best balsamic vinegar is aged over years and decades. And my postulations, theories and declarations course as much ground as the regional trains: prosciutto, mortadella, felino, piadine, tigelle, lambrusco, pasta...
Everything good comes from Emilia-Romagna. This is my mantra. If pasta is considered the iconic comfort food, then it is Emilia-Romagna we must thank for placating our palates with tortellini, tagliatelle, lasagne and cappelletti. (And I personally thank Parma for adding just a bit of butter.) It is not surprising that the region, whose total population is less than that of city of Rome, has twenty-six Michelin starred restaurants (and 25 bib gourmands), including the world's fifth best restaurant in the world in Modena, Osteria Francescana.
At Osteria Francescana, I come full circle. Art is what motivates Chef Massimo Bottura's avant-garde creations such as bollito misto, non misto (a clockwork of varying cooked meats) and Cinque età del Parmigiano Reggiano in diverse consistenze e temperature (the ever clever five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese). His heart belongs to Emilia-Romagna ~his dishes tell tales of the region's (and Italy's) history and relationship to its food specialties ~ and Bottura is also constantly inspired by contemporary art. A quick look around the restaurant and I spy pieces by Francesco Vezzoli, Maurizio Cattelan, Jonathan Borowksy and Gain Turk. I am having a mini-Venice Biennale moment when my final revelation hits me: art and food, of any genre, are gemelle cosmiche, soul filling cosmic twins whose only requirement is thoughtful digestion.
Emilia-Romagna, I can't quit you.
How to get there: Getting to Emilia-Romagna is quite easy. Region capital Bologna has its own airport that accommodates national and international flights. Bologna also has direct connectivity via rail to and from Rome, Milan, Florence and Venice. With train station Bologna Centrale as home base, most of Emilia Romagna's towns are reachable by inexpensive regional trains via Ferrovie Emilia Romagna and Treni Italia.