Bicycling Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna
A Bike Tour Review by Claudio Strocchi of ExperiencePlus!
There is a famous saying in Italian: "The history and the art of Italy’s different regions were determined by the food people eat in each of these places." Perhaps there is no better example of this statement’s truth than our ExperiencePlus! Culinary Cycling Circus, which winds its way through Emilia-Romagna, one of Italy’s premier pasta regions.
Emilia-Romagna is my region and my home, yet whenever I lead this tour I feel as if it is the first time that I have truly seen her…what a feeling! What the local people do, the landscapes we admire, and the food that we eat (and the wine that we drink): all these things clarify for me the above saying.
Starting with our first meal in Parma, our tour begins with a sampling of some of the many dishes that have made Emilia-Romagna famous. These include a variety of foods and wines, from appetizers featuring parmesan cheese and prosciutto di Parma to cappelletto in brodo (a kind of pasta made only in this region of Italy). During the tour we have a chance to see personally how this pasta is made and are given the opportunity to do it ourselves during a fun pasta-making lesson on the 3rd day.
But the tour is about a lot more than just food. It is about cultural experiences too. Riding through the Emilia-Romagnan countryside we gain an understanding of the connection between the regions’ farmlands, so rich in fruit orchards and vineyards, and its country towns, where people after work sit outside cafés sipping espresso and enjoying gelato, all the while speaking and gesturing with a glass of red wine. (I have to confess, on my last tour four of us stopped at a bar to drink a glass of white sparkling wine, happy to feel part of the town.) It is a scene that repeats itself over and over again as we pass through the main squares of the towns along our route.
What about the route, you ask? While we follow the Apennine mountains during the trip, two-thirds of the tour is actually along the flat, which we cross by pedaling 30 to 50 miles a day. I find that this time allows cyclists to acclimate themselves for the last third of the tour, as we pedal gently into the Apennines, home to the hills where sangiovese and albana grapes grow. All of this leads to our last day’s descent into Ravenna, a shrine for Byzantine art, and on to the seaside for our final dinner. Adjectives alone cannot describe the quality and quantity of this wonderful seafood dinner.
But I almost omitted the most exciting aspects of the trip, our chance to learn and experience first hand the secrets behind the making of Emilia-Romagnan food. First of these is a "behind the scenes" visit to a balsamic vinegar cellar where Signor Cavalli, the owner, accompanies us and tells us about the 12 years (at least!) necessary to produce this wonderful elixir – so good that it was considered magical during the medieval age, passed hand to hand from doctors to kings, from monks to earls. These days it acts as a precious complement for the best chefs all over the world. We enjoy not only the aromas of this wonderful vinegar we also get to taste an assortment of different aged varieties of this stunning food.
Another day we visit a parmigiano farm to see the complete process for making world famous parmesan cheese – from delivery of the milk to the artcraft of its shaping into the forma di Parmigiano and its aging – the cheese must wait 12-24 months before it can be sold and, above all, eaten.
In the end, though, one of my favorite things about this tour is the way it allows people to discover the importance of time: from wandering the cobblestone lanes of the towns, to lingering in palaces and churches, or relaxing and savoring delicious food and wine. To me, these 9 days always seem different and extraordinary as we follow the culinary flavors and rich history of Emilia-Romagna. Ciao!