If you think Tuscany has the last word on Italian cuisine, think again. The nation’s less-visited regions to the north – Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna – boast their own bounty of mouthwatering, fresh-from-the-earth specialties. Journey with us on our new Cinque Terre, Parma, Bologna & Lakes small-group tour and you can sample them to your heart’s – and your appetite’s – content.
Lake Maggiore straddles Italy’s Lombardy and Piedmont provinces. Ringed by alpine vistas, the country’s second largest lake enjoys a mild climate that is ideal for Mediterranean gardens that yield abundant crops. This comes as no surprise when you learn that many of Europe’s standard agricultural policies were formulated in 1958 in Stresa, the charming town situated on the lakeshore and your home for two nights.
Throughout your stay, one of the region’s most significant sources of food is spread out before your very eyes: Lake Maggiore itself. People have been living off its bounty for generations, and nowhere is this more pronounced than on Isola dei Pescatori, or Fisherman’s Island, the tiny island that is named after the vocation of its inhabitants. Here, the lake still provides and the fishermen still head out each day and deliver their catch to local restaurants. And restaurants still serve some of the freshest fish you will likely taste. It is a joy not only to sample simple yet special dishes for lunch here, but to witness a culture that seems to have been lost to the passage of time.
A bit farther west, the expansive farmlands and vineyards of Piedmont gently roll toward Switzerland to the north and France to the west. It took the rest of the world a while to catch up with this agrarian-focused region: it has been living the “slow food” movement for decades. This is the land of rice, vineyards and cattle. Water-soaked rice fields here might make you think you’ve stepped into an Asian nation but make no mistake, this is the stuff of risotto, Italy’s creamy and heavenly dish. The area’s farms also produce some of the finest cuts of beef, perfect for the boiled-meat dishes, bollito misto and vitello tonato.
Piedmont is also renowned as one of Italy greatest wine-growing regions, with more than half of its vineyard registered with a DOC designation. The legendary Nebbiolo grape is native to Piedmont and is said to be named for that which makes it so unique: Nebbia means “fog” in English and during harvest season a thick mist settles over the Langhe region where the grapes are grown. Famously, the Nebbiolo grape produces the revered Barolo wine. Cherasco, La Morra, Barbaresco, and Neive are also made here – each coming from an eponymous town.
In your small group, you have the chance to linger in local cellars to learn how some coveted wines are made. But none will be so impressive as one of the “cathedral cellars” of Canelli, birthplace of Italy’s famed sparkling wine, Asti. These cellars were designed to hold millions of fermenting bottles and are so central to the local culture that they are being considered for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Nearby in the region of Emilia-Romagna, one of Italy’s richest gastronomies flavours everyday life. Pasta dishes take centre stage here and roll off the tongue as easily as they slide down the gullet: tortellini, lasagna, tagliatelle, garganelli, strozzapreti. In Modena and Reggio Emilia, the world’s finest balsamic vinegar is made to the strictest procedures bound by law. The beloved specialty is made from grape must and the most exquisite bottles are aged for 25 years or more. There is no more succulent way to enjoy it than with two other specialties of the area: Parmesan cheese from Parma and prosciutto from a local farm, which you will have the chance to do.
The centre of Emilia-Romagna’s food scene is Bologna, the region’s capital. One visit and you will know one thing for certain: The Bolognesi people know how to eat. Aside from its vibrant arts and music scene – the city was the European Capital of Culture in 2000 and was named a UNESCO City of Music in 2006 – its citizens enormously benefit from their city’s location in the fertile Po River Valley. Bolognese sauce was invented here and the custard-like torta di riso is a favourite way to end any meal. You can browse the fresh ingredients of one of Europe’s most celebrated cuisines at the Quadrilatero, Bologna’s oldest food market. Traditional shops abound here. As you explore you will be regaled with stories from the market’s rich history and culture and sample a delicious array of specialties. Among them, savour small plates known as cicchetti, the Venetian answer to Spanish tapas.
Of course, one cannot wrap up a foodie tour of northern Italy without sipping its famous sparkling wine, prosecco. Though this lovely wine originated in its namesake village outside Trieste on the Slovenian border, it is enjoyed throughout northern Italy, either on its own or as part of a spritz cocktail. We’ll be sure you raise a glass of it as we toast the culinary treasures you’ve enjoyed during our new 11 Day Cinque Terre, Parma, Bologna & Lakes tour!
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