Discovering and exploring local food is increasingly a significant part of our travelling experience, wherever we go. Even when the cuisine is fairly familiar to us – and for many of us, our diets include more and more international dishes and flavours – tucking into a really authentic taste experience is one of the big thrills of a holiday overseas.
Take Italian food. Many of us eat pizza or pasta on a regular basis yet ask anyone about a recent holiday in Italy and there’s every chance the subject of food will still take centre stage! In fact, spend time with someone who’s just returned from Italy and there’s a strong possibility that you’ll hear as much about the antipasti and ice cream as the art and architecture!
Part of my fascination with Italian food is that it’s so specific to each region. Recipes and flavours trickle down from one generation to another with a local twist that sets them apart from the next region or even town. The end result is that wherever you go in Italy, you’ll enjoy variations on a theme and never quite get to the end of the learning curve.
Fortunately, whether you’re a foodie or simply appreciate a delicious meal, there are plenty of ways to learn about Italian food. Read on for a whistlestop tour of some of my favourite gastronomic experiences in Italy, guaranteed to whisk you straight into the heart and soul of the country.
Nothing will immerse you into the local foodie culture as effectively as dropping in on a food festival. Whether it’s onions, pistachios, chestnuts, mushrooms or truffles, many food items have their own designated festivals which provide a wonderful opportunity to mingle with locals and sample some local goodies.
The region of Emilia Romagna in northern Italy is renowned for its superb gastronomy, and in particular for its parmesan cheese and Parma ham, but I have a particularly soft spot for the Borgotaro Mushroom Fair which we include whenever possible in our Parma, Tuscany and Ligurian Sea tour.
Taking place over two weekends in September in Borgo Val di Taro, the festival celebrates the aromatic porcini mushroom with a full programme of tastings, street food, exhibitions and music.
I think we can safely vouch for the fact that regardless of your age, eating ‘al fresco’ just gets better and better! There’s simply something about eating under blue skies, with splendid views, that just makes good food taste even more delicious!
My favourite way to spend the day is a quick zip to the local shops for a picnic of fresh bread, creamy fragrant cheese, cold meats and mouth-watering peaches, before heading off on a hike.
When I’m leading a group, our picnics are more elaborate, but still focus heavily on showcasing the best local ingredients. But the view is always a top priority, with the most memorable picnic spots overlooking lakes, mountains and flower-strewn meadows.
Naturally, with such a focus on regional food, some gastronomic experiences in Italy rely heavily on the local environment. On our tour of Sardinia, a traditional Sardinian barbeque lunch prepared by local shepherds is a firm favourite.
Surrounded by thousand-year-old holm oaks, we feast on roast suckling pig (‘porceddu’) flavoured with wild thyme, rosemary and myrtle, and on smoked ricotta, pecorino cheese and typical ‘carasau’ flat bread.
Truffle hunting is another memorable gastronomic experience in Italy. Available during the autumn months, truffle hunting takes place in several northern Italian regions including Piedmont, home to the legendary white truffle of Alba.
Stopping by an estate to try their olive oil and wine is both great fun and a good way to further your knowledge of the country’s gastronomic traditions, with both playing a significant role in Italian daily life. In fact, Italy is the second largest producer of olive oil in Europe.
Much of the country’s olive oil is produced in Puglia and the south, but Tuscany is also a major producer. Its olive groves are responsible for growing several types of olives, including Frantoio and Moraiolo, each with their own distinctive characteristics.
You’ll find Tuscan extra virgin olive oil featuring heavily in many traditional Tuscan dishes such as ‘ribollita’ (vegetable and bean soup) and the typical appetiser, ‘fettunta’, a slice of roasted saltless bread with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
A wine-tasting experience is an excellent introduction to the complete winemaking process and will also give you an appreciation of different wines. You’ll see where the grapes are grown, processed and fermented and will learn about the history of the vineyard and winegrowing in the area. Better still, you’ll get to taste some fabulous wine!
In Italy, start with the big hitting names such as Montepulciano in Tuscany or the Barolo vineyards in Piedmont, but if you’re feeling adventurous, head for one of the exciting new wine regions such as Bolgheri in Tuscany, home to the region’s famous Super-Tuscan wines.
Where better to pick up a few cooking tips and learn how to cook like a local? If a whole week in a kitchen is not your idea of a holiday, relax in the knowledge that you can still pick up some valuable information – and have a whole lot of fun – in a one-off lesson that just introduces you to some of the most traditional regional specialties.
You don’t need to splash out to eat well in Italy. As it happens, sometimes the best food is to be found in the humblest local trattoria. But if you do fancy a truly extraordinary gastronomic experience, head for a Michelin-starred restaurant such as the outstanding Arnolfo restaurant, run by brothers Gaetano and Giovanni Trovato, in Tuscany’s Col Val d’Elsa.
Have you ever tried any of these gastronomic experiences in Italy or elsewhere? Can you recommend any others? Which would you choose, a picnic or a Michelin-starred restaurant?