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Parma: You’re never too far from a truffle in Parma

Parma
Emilia Romagna
Cuisine: Italian
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You're never too far from a truffle in Parma, says Liz O'Keefe
 
If you are not passionate about food when you go to Parma, then I guarantee you’ll leave with a newfound appreciation, and probably an extra half a stone on your waistline (don’t give it a moment’s thought; it’s so worth it).
 
From ham to cheese, mushrooms to wine, and everything else in between, it should be clear that visiting Parma is a gastronomic experience. Just announced as a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO, there has never been a better time to go and see what the northern Italian city is all about.
 
A city that produces the world famous Parma ham and Parmesan cheese is already enough to get any self-respecting foodie’s taste buds, but there is so much more to beautiful Emilia-Romagna. Amazing-quality, locally grown black and ever-coveted white truffles, balsamic vinegar so rich you could happily put it on ice cream (next mission), ruby-red sparkling wine, delicate anchovies and the lesser-known, better-kept secret culatello ham, all wait, ready to be discovered amongst the intricate and colourful renaissance streets, mouth-wateringly full delis and historic buildings.
 
Parma Ham
Our first port of call was Borgo 20, on an off-turning down Borgo Santa Brigida. Just a quarter of an hour’s walk from Parma train station, this restaurant is a real treat and I would seriously consider flying over to Parma, just for the tasting menu here. It’s a celebration of pretty much everything produced in Parma, set in a rustic, yet sleek little building with more than a touch of the supper club about it.
 
On table settings set out to please, our menu started with probably their most well-known export, Parma ham, in both three- and five-year aged versions. Covered by a Protected Designation of Origin (‘DOP’ in Italian), Parma ham must be air-dried for 10-12 months, amongst other things, to be worthy of its name, so it was interesting to compare and contrast two such aged hams, which we were told should always be eaten at room temperature. Both hams were deliciously salty and soft, with that faint chestnut essence characteristic to the ham, but the three year old was more dry and had a little more solid fat on it, than the very juicy and obviously more refined five-year-old meat. We set about devouring the ham, with our fingers as advised, along with focaccia made on premises, another local delicacy of nutty and fatty Felino salami (Felino is the village, not the meat…) and the softest, sweetest tasting anchovies in a spicy tomato oil.
 
Truffles
The hills of Parma are a great area for truffles and a lot of restaurateurs forage, as well as buy from professional foragers. The city, in general, seems to have an ongoing affection for the world-prized fungi, with many a deli in the area offering various local finds, as an everyday autumn must-have. And, when it comes to price, its probably around a third off the going rate, certainly when it comes to what you can pay London. All very exciting for Food trippers like me.
 
Our next course at Borgo 20 was the Voladora salad, a common salad course in Parma, which featured a generous scattering of both white and black truffle shavings, on nobili pear slices, walnuts, crispy bacon and a mustard dressing. The black truffle was from Fragno, a nearby village famous for truffles. Black truffles are most flavoursome as soon as they come out of the ground, so this is an opportunity to get them as fresh as they come, not to be missed if you visit Parma in the autumn or winter. You can also have a go at some truffle cookery yourself and grab a truffle or two, and much more besides, from the many food markets and farmers’ markets that run throughout the week.
 
Parmesan
Ticking off the Parma boxes, Borgo 20 then presented us a ridiculously creamy yet punchy Parmesan Rice, made with cheese aged 30 months, which gave it an extremely nutty, salty and almost fruity taste, along with another wild mushroom treat of fresh, sweet porcini (or ceps, as you may recognise them), grilled separately and an only slightly tart tomato balsamic to lift it all. This dish went particularly well with our chosen tipple, a sparkling white wine from the Parma hills, Malvasia Igt – a crisp, fresh and very bubbly number, with a touch of elderflower about it. Neither tangy nor overbearing, the wine even went well with the hot chocolate soup with homemade Emilia-Romagna traditional nutty liqueur, nocino. The nocino’s bittersweet syrupy taste, which comes from the green young walnuts used to make it, had an element of bitters to me, although me and my taste buds were, to be honest, obviously slightly merry by then. No matter how tipsy your are, I think it would be difficult to leave Borgo 20 unhappy, especially considering the tasting menus started at €22 per person.
 
Pasta
For further tastes of the city, the Michelin-star restaurant, Al Tramezzo, may be more up your strada if you’re up for somewhere with a little more sense of occasion. Winning a star back in 1992, the restaurant has been able to pretty much hold on to it ever since. Although generally serving top-notch food, the Ricotta cheese and spinach ravioli Parmigiano Reggiano and local black truffle (after all, you’re never too far from a truffle in Parma) was melt-in-your-mouth fantastic (€19). The egg pasta, made freshly on site, was soft and light, and let the raw black truffle shavings’ earthy taste shine through. And in a modern take on a traditional dish, the dessert, Duchessa di Parma with candied violet, featured orange shortbread with hazelnut ganache, with the 19th century’s Duchess of Parma’s favourite sweet, made from violets – like posh Parma violets.
 
Over in what they call the ‘Food Valley’, Ristorante al Vedel, situated in a ham-curing facility that I’ll mention a little later, does a really cleansing and reviving Anolini in capon broth. Anolini is a more delicate version of tortelini and a traditional Parma dish, pretty much unique to the area. This dish is meaty, hearty and moreish, and a favourite at Christmas time.
 
If you manage to stay in an Air Bnb or somewhere where you can use cooking facilities, a deli sweep would be a joy in this area. All kinds of fresh pasta, filled or otherwise, can be found amongst the stock of many a deli throughout Parma, with La Prosciutteria pretty much being the epitome of what a good deli should be, offering a cold takeout service that Selfridges’ food hall would be jealous of.
 
Wine
If eating out and wandering around the city’s many delis full of hanging hams, truffle oils, fresh pasta, dried mushrooms, sauces, pickles and burrata doesn’t curb your appetite for food, there’s plenty of further gastronomical digging to be done in the city.
 
While red sparkling wine may seem a little out of your comfort zone, these Italians know what they are doing and a good red Lambrusco is pretty much the best of both worlds in both summer and winter. You can take a tour around the Monte Delle Vigne winery, located in the much-talked of Parma Hills, where the company has been producing Lambrusco for 30 years on a setting of 16 hectares of vines. The controlled-origin grapes are handpicked on site then processed and aged or stored, and sometimes consumed, all in the same location (group wine tasting are available). The soft and fruity I Calanchi Lambrusco Maestri (12% ABV) is a good place to start with sparkling reds, and featured on a few of the restaurant menus in the area. A combination of baraera and merlot grapes, the Nabucco red wine (14.5% ABV) is worth bringing home to show off with – and I wish I’d bought twice as much, and then again. It’s bold and full, and went exceptionally well with saltiness of Parma ham and Parmesan, as you might expect.
Back to ham…  
Because you always have to go back for one more piece. I know it’s not just me. Especially when you visit Parma’s ham-curing butchery Podere Cadassa, where it proves beyond doubt that there’s more to these Parma pigs than Parma ham. The butchery, which consists of curing cellars that date back to the 1970s, produce cured products called coppa (a salami using the highest part of the pig’s neck), salami gentile, fiocchetto (lower fat part of the pig’s leg), Cotechino (rind and port meat) and culatello di zibello, which is considered by some as better than Parma ham and has a DOP of its own. Set in beautiful surroundings alongside the Po river, Podere Cadassa worth a visit to see how the ham has been made and cured through the years – a process that is still carried out as traditionally as possible, then sample its wares, of course, in the handy adjoining Ristorante al Vedel.
 
Where to stay
Slightly off the beaten path, the Abbey of Valserena  is now a hotel and restaurant, known as Locanda Abbazia, and is a 20-minute drive from the city centre. It’s also the home of the Study Center and Communication Archive (CSAC) of University of Parma, which is open visitors to explore and contains no less than 12 million artifacts. Beautifully atmospheric, the abbey dates back to the 14th century and the hotel rooms are the original monks’ cells. Prices start from €100 a room, but it’s also worth a flying visit too, with a Aperitif Menu, a guided tour of the museum, cocktail and canapés, available for €20.
 
Celebrate Parma
Here’s a list of great excuses to book that ticket…
Celebrate local artists at the Arte Parma exhibition of modern and contemporary artwork in mid-March
 
Parma Poesia Festival - held in various venues around the city each June, this festival brings together poetry, literature, cinema and music
 
In July, Parma’s Torrechiara Castle holds the Festival di Torrechiara where you’ll find performances of classical music, jazz and dance
 
September is all about Parma ham. Well, more so than usual, that is. Festival del Prosciutto is held at various locations in the neighbouring villages
 
Join the Verdi Festival in a month-long festival of operas and concerts at Teatro Regio and many smaller venues in the city, throughout October
 
They are certainly mad about truffles. Catch the bug, too, at the National Fair of Fragno Black Truffle, in Calestano and Terenzio, usually from mid-October to mid-November
 
Liz O'Keefe travelled with Parma Alimentare www.parmalimentare.net
 
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7 January 2016
By: Liz O'Keefe
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