Emilia Romagna: they keep a welcome in these hillsides
Published 20/08/2008 | 10:51
She was born in Britain, but her roots are Italian. That's why top chef Angela Hartnett likes to regularly visit her grandmother's village in northern Italy. It's also home to some great food. Interview by Andy Lynes
My grandmother was born in the village of La Costa, in the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy. Bardi is the nearest town, about five miles away. I say a town; there are three buses a day, no trains and you have to book the taxis a week in advance.
Between the wars, people left the region to move abroad. People from Borgotaro came to London; families from Piacenza would have gone to Scotland and Paris and the people from Bardi all seemed to go to Wales.
Italy had nothing then. The farmland wasn't there: they'd just come out of a war; it was destitute. Wales had a huge mining community and there was money to be made. My grandfather moved to the Rhondda Valley and then brought my grandmother over. That's where my mother was born.
The Italians in Wales would go back to Bardi every summer. Most of them kept houses there or they had the family house; we've still got my grandmother's place. My first memory of Bardi is from when I was three or four. My father had a cine camera and there's a film of my brother and me playing there.
Now I go back to Italy two or three times a year and visit Bardi when relatives are going to be there. It's a real security blanket for me because I can go to the same place every time and know that a certain shop will still be there and it won't have changed hands or have turned into something else.
I fly into Bologna (not Bologna Forli which is further down south) or Parma. When we were kids, we used to fly into Milan and it would take three hours driving along winding roads to get to Bardi. Now you can be there within an hour and a half of landing.
I think Bardi is beautiful. People laugh when I say it reminds me of Wales, but it is in a big valley – the Po – after all. It's very hilly and a great area for walking. There are a few little guest houses in the town and there's a big hotel in nearby Fornovo, or you can stay in the neighbouring village of Borgotaro.
It's a good base if you want to discover that part of Italy. Pisa is two hours away. The spa town of Salsomaggiore is less than an hour and you can easily drive from Bardi to Cinque Terre on the Ligurian coastline. Bologna, the regional capital, is only an hour and a half away. It's the oldest university town in Europe and it's got absolutely beautiful architecture, fantastic squares and wonderful shopping. Parma is smaller but still a great city. I love its little promenades and covered walkways.
You can't walk down the street in Bardi without someone spotting you. If you want to go out and have a quick coffee without having to talk, you have to be out before eight in the morning. If you're out at 10, forget it: your morning's gone because you meet people and it's chat, chat, chat. It's the same in the evening, but it's good fun. The Italians remind me a bit of the Irish; they're all embracing. If they see you making an effort with the language, they're very flattered that you care enough to try and they encourage you.
If you go to Bardi in the middle of summer you'll hear Welsh Italians. One moment they're speaking with a Welsh accent and in the next breath they're speaking fluent Italian. My mum's generation speaks Italian, but the older generation speaks local dialects.
Everyone congregates at the Piccolo bar, and at Bar Grande you'll find a mixture of the locals and the Welsh Italians. Bar Enzo is referred to as the socialist bar or communist bar. All the bars close in the winter because there's no one around.
When I'm in Bardi I live off cheese, ham, wine, bread, salads and fruit; you really don't need to buy anything else. The things I love more than anything else are eating the tomatoes and smelling the rosemary. The fact that peaches and everything else in the shops are ripe – as they should be – is one of the great things about going to Italy.
Agriturismo, or agricultural tourism, has become so big in the region that there's even an organic shop in Bardi; it's called Ca' d'Alfieri. It was such news in the town that my cousin rang me when it opened. All the produce is sourced from the local area; they sell the most amazing tomatoes you'll ever see in your life.
Whenever anyone from the family goes out to Bardi, we load up with bricks of Parmesan, which we buy and get vacuum packed at the local co-operative store. It's the best you'll ever taste. Another thing I like is the very dark variety of plum they grow in the region, which is used to make a strong, tart jam. Because they use less sugar, they boil the hell out of the fruit to make the jam nice and thick.
The salamis from the Emilia Romagna region are harder than the varieties you find in France – I like them like that. They're not really peppery or spicy, but they're brilliant and so tasty. Spaccio dal Casaro in Bardi makes its own, as well as honey, peperoncino and stuffed peppers. I'm hoping to import the salami for the deli I'm opening at my new London restaurant, York and Albany.
The great thing about all the restaurants in the area is that you never get a menu. The waitress runs through the dishes in Italian and asks what you want. That's what they're cooking, and if you want it you have it; if not, you go somewhere else. I quite like that. It's very much mother's cooking. The women who work in the restaurants cook exactly the same way as they would at home, just for bigger numbers.
When I go back, I particularly look forward to eating anolini – pasta stuffed with veal, beef and Parmesan, served in a broth – which I've eaten since I was a kid. Maria Teresa Labadini serves great anolini at her trattoria in the nearby village of Tosca di Varsi. It's a family-run business and serves all the great regional dishes, including tortelli (pasta stuffed with spinach and ricotta) and polenta.
Whether you go to restaurants such as Baraccone in Fornovo or Sorelle Picchi just outside Parma, they all serve variations of the same menu. Some might do pasta fritta – deep fried pasta with Parma ham – another may just give you cured meats. One may have a bit more spinach or ricotta in their tortelli or one might use pumpkin. They have their own style, but it's all from the traditions of the region.
One of the best meals I've ever eaten was at Ristor in Varano de' Melegari, about 20 miles from Bardi. We call it "the road café"; it used to be a garage but the family turned it into a restaurant. You have amazing antipasti, then tortelli, anolini, roast veal or roast pork and then desserts, and it's cheap, too. That's the thing: you can go out and eat so cheaply there. You're not going to be blinded by science; it's just honest, regional Italian cooking.
One of my truly favourite restaurants is Hosteria Giusti in Modena, an hour and a half from Bardi. It was founded in 1605 and was originally a butcher's; you can still see the drain in the floor where the blood would have seeped away. It's in a courtyard and there are only about four or five tables. It's run by a husband and wife team and you often see him nipping out to his cellar across the road to get the wine.
The summer months are the best time to visit Bardi. They have some wonderful festivals in August including La Festa dell' Emigrante, a big party in the town centre, and Fiera di San Bartolomeo, a huge market day when the whole of the market is covered with food and clothes stalls. There's a lot of cheap tat, but a lot of nice stuff, too.
The only problem with visiting in August is that it's not a good time to explore the region. Parma and Bologna are effectively closed because everything shuts down for the Italian summer holiday. The alternative is to go either in May, when it starts to get really sunny and there are fewer people on the roads, or in September when the weather is still good and Italy has gone back to work.
September is also a good time to be in Borgotaro. They're famed for their mushrooms, especially dried porcini – that's another we smuggle back, although their strong aroma can make your clothes stink – and in September they have various feste dei funghi where everyone eats mushroom risotto on big trestle tables.
If you go to Bardi you won't get the rolling hills of Tuscany, but you will see authentic Italy.
Angela Hartnett opens Murano, 20-22 Queen Street, London W1 (020-7592 1222; www.gordonramsay. com ) on 21 August, and York and Albany, 127-129 Parkway, London NW1 (020-7388 3344; www.gordonramsay.com ) on 22 September
Gambarini Umberto Piccolo Bar, Piazza Vittoria 45, Bardi (00 39 0525 72220);
Bar Grande di Basini Toni, Piazza Vittoria 4, Bardi (00 39 0525 72219);
Bar Enzo di Marzani Luigi, Via A Moro 1, Bardi (00 39 0525 72377);
La Bottega di Ca' d'Alfieri, Via Pietro Cella 86, Bardi (00 39 0525 77174);
Caseificio Cansaldi Societa' Agricola Cooperativa Formaggi Latticini Burro, Localita' Diamanti,
Bardi (00 39 0525 72366);
Spaccio dal Casaro, Via Vittorio Veneto 11, Bardi (00 39 0525 72069);
Ristor, Val Ceno, Via Provinciale 135, Varano de Melegari;
Trattoria Città d'Umbria di Labadini Maria Teresa, Tosca di Varsi (00 39 0525 759103);
Baraccone, Piazza Mercato 5, Fornovo di Taro (00 39 05 25 34 27);
Sorelle Picchi, Via Farini 27, Parma (00 39 0521 233 528);
Hosteria Giusti, Vicolo Squallore 46, Modena (00 39 059 222 533).