I live in a beautiful town called Piacenza. It is often overlooked by people visiting the Emilia Romagna region because either they think that were in Lombardia (we’re right on the border), or they bypass us for the more famous tourist places like Bologna, Parma, Modena or Reggio Emilia.
However, they are missing out on some fantastic food and wine. This region, like any other region, has its own dishes, wines and specialities which are not available anywhere else in the country, even 50 miles down the road.
This was first brought home to me when I told my English students that I was going to a salami festival just down the road in Cremona. All the replies I got was “that will not be proper salami, it’s not Piacentini salami.” As with everything food related the Italians are completely right!
Salame Piacentino is a large-grained stuffed salami, and all the pigs used in the salami have to be raised and killed in Emilia Romagna. The meat is minced and is seasoned with salt, pepper, nutmeg, garlic, wine and sugar. It is then cured for at least 45 days. The taste is sweet and mellow compared to the ones I tasted in Cremona.
Pancetta Piacentina PDO is a charcuterie product obtained from the so-called pancettone, a fatty cut of pork. After the meat is selected, it is cut into squares, trimmed and left in the refrigerator until salting. The bacon is dry salted by hand, using a mix of salt, pepper and spices. The salted product is then left in a refrigerator for a minimum of ten days. The bacon is rolled and tied, attaching natural pig casings at the ends of the roll or on the side seam; lean pork may be also be added. The product is dried and cured for a minimum period of four months. It melts in the mouth, and definitely rivals the more famous Parma ham up the road!
Coppa Piacentina PDO is a cured charcuterie product made with the neck muscles of the local pig which must be isolated immediately after slaughtering and transported to the processing plant in refrigerated vehicles within 72 hours; it is then trimmed and the blood is drained. During the dry salting process, the muscle is massaged with a mix of salt and spices and subsequently placed in a cool environment for at least seven days. When cut, the slices should be uniform, with a bright red colour alternated with pinkish-white fat. It has a sweet and delicate flavour that becomes stronger over time.
You cannot talk about Piacenza cuisine without mentioning pisarei e faso, the most traditional dish of the area. The farmers of the Piacenza Province actually anticipated what today is considered macrobiotic nutrition. The combination of flour and beans provided the necessary proteins in place of meat which was too expensive or not available. The ‘pasta’ is made from flour and soaked breadcrumbs, which are then kneaded until it becomes soft and forms half a cm thick “snakes”. They are then cut into equally small pieces, and pressed gently with the thumb, thus shaping them into small dumplings. The sauce is made by browning butter, oil, a small chopped onion and lard. Add a good amount of beans, salt, pepper and roast them slowly; Add the tomato sauce, diluted with warm water (or broth), then keep cooking slowly, adding some water or broth if needed. The sauce will have to look “velvety”.
You cook the pissarei in salted water until they float and then you mix them with the sauce and grated Grana Padano cheese.
The recipe dates back to the Middle Ages and was served in convents as a poor but nutritious meal to pilgrims on their way to Rome on the Via Francigena.
Another typical local dish is Anolini in brodo. The origin of the recipe has been handed down by way of mouth from mother to daughter through the centuries. Preparation of anolini is a ritual: Christmas Eve the family gathers to help prepare Christmas Anolini or “anvein d’Nadal”. A rich, elaborate and refined dish typical for special holidays. The pasta is made from white flour, eggs and water, while the main ingredients of the filling are lean beef, butter, grana padano cheese, breadcrumbs and eggs.
They also, of course, have wines local to the area which are absolutely delicious. Firstly Ortrugo – Ortrugo? I have to confess that before I came to this region I had never ever even heard of this wine! It turns out to be the region’s most important white grape variety, yielding mostly fizzy wines that really float my boat: crisp, dry, and much better than most of the non-Champagne plonk being proffered around the world. It is the name of the grape variety, but also the name of the wine. It’s almost always sparkling, rarely still. But there are two slight complications in it:
1) A bottle of Ortrugo must contain at least 90% Ortrugo grapes; the rest (if the winemaker chooses to use others) may be drawn from a variety of other Emilia-Romagna white-wine varieties
2) Ortrugo is usually sparkling. It can be frizzante, which is to say lightly sparkling…or it can be spumante, more sparkling. I’ve encountered some producers who have taken the latter more expensive Champagne production method, hiking up the price of the wine. For the moment: I think I’m an Ortrugo Frizzante guy.
Gutturnio – So here’s the twist in the local wine logic: Gutturnio is not a grape variety, but it is the ubiquitous red wine of Piacenza.
It is frizzante: a dark bubbly dry red and is very drinkable!
Gutturnio is made from the Barbera grape (usually 70%, but officially 55% to 70%), and the Bonarda grape (usually 30%, but officially 30% to 45%).
You can pick up a one and a half litre bottle of either of these wines in the local supermarket for €4, and they taste as good, if not better than more expensive wines I’ve tasted in the past.
So, next time you’re in Italy, don’t bypass Piacenza. If you do you’re missing out on some delicious food and wine!