The pig issue; STEVE MYALL eats his way through a very ham-loving corner of italy Pigging out time in Italy.
Everywhere you look in this region of northern Italy you are reminded of how pigs end up. Stroll past a restaurant and you'll see plates of Parma ham, culatello, salami, coppa and various other cold cuts of pork.
Wander into the many cathedrals and museums and you'll see frescos of the seasons, including one showing a farmer butchering his pig to feed his family through the winter.
There's a hotel with a cavernous cellar hung floor to ceiling and wall to wall with pork leg muscle stripped from the bone, stuffed in a pig's bladder, washed in wine, seasoned and tied tight with string then aged for years on end.
Such is the delight (bordering on obsession) that the locals take with piggy bits that my guide confessed he had spent PS4,232 on an antique ham slicer.
When he told the waiter at the Parma restaurant Trattoria Corrieri (www.trattoriacorrieri.it), where we stopped for lunch, he was regarded with the same reverence that you would expect in nearby Modena if you bought a red sports car with a prancing horse on its bonnet.
So if you are a curly-tailed pig...
steer clear. If, however, you are the other sort of pig, then hop on a plane.
It's pretty easy to reach, 90 minutes' flying time to Bologna gives you a gateway into the region and from there, hire a car or use the train.
The square of Reggio Emilia city is dominated on one side by the Valli Theatre, famed for its ballet. There are cafes along another side where it's possible to pick up a piadina, a flat bread with a variety of fillings, which is a regional speciality.
It's in this town that the Italian flag, or il Tricolore, was first adopted. No one knows why the three colours were chosen. I like the idea of them being tomato red, basil green and mozzarella white, but that may just be my stomach talking, as pizza cheese is not the one that locals are most proud of. For that you must look to Parmigiano Reggiana, which most of us will regularly refer to as Parmesan. Don't ever do that.
Anyone can make a hard cheese using a version of the traditional method and call it Parmesan, but the real McCoy has to come from here - the EU has granted it Protected Designation of Origin status. At a factory I realised the process involves a lot of hard labour and waiting - 36 months for a really good cheese.
It should smell fruity and of pineapple when you break it, and the older the cheese, the more "stars" of salty grains are visible on the surface.
The next time you go shopping, look for the label of designation and consider breaking it into small chunks and serving with a sparkling wine and cold cuts as an antipasto, rather than just grating it over your pasta.
Suitably educated, I headed to Parma - home of composer Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi.
Parma is a small but beautiful place, mixing history, culture and food, and having spent just a few hours there I am seriously considering returning to visit the striking Teatro Regio for the Verdi Festival in October.
Other highlights include the Romanesque cathedral and the neighbouring baptistery - look out for the sculpture of a pig death.
My hotel, the rustic but upmarket country house conversion of Antica Corte Pallavicina (www.
anticacortepallavicinarelais.it), only had six rooms but each was opulent - mine had a huge bath at the bottom of my bed and a downstairs lounge.
The hotel is on the River Po and is home to chef Massimo Spigaroli and his airy Michelin-starred restaurant.
He wasn't at home, cooking instead at the nearby Castle of Fontanellato with several other Michelin recognised chefs for a one-off festival, where I joined him and was treated to delights CONTINUED ON PAGE 43
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 41 including sole and bacon with porcini mushrooms, bonito with cauliflower and potato tortellini with sweetbreads and lemon.
A highlight was a tour of the pungent medieval Culatelli cellars to see the million-euro stock of ageing hams, some of which families order years in advance. It has a window to let in fog from the River Po and another to get fresh air circulating.
At Piacenza, about 40 minutes away, more churches and a stunning cathedral led to more Michelinstarred food at Antica Osteria del Teatro (www.anticaosteriadelteatro.it). After stopping at the tiny Castello di Agazzano winery for refreshment (and more pork), I arrived at the medieval borough of Rivalta. I ate, again deliciously, at La Rocchetta restaurant (www.
larocchetta.pc.it), enjoying a huge plate of grilled fish and some grappa.
One extra treat was a tour of the eerie Rivalta castle by a guide who took me up a tower to watch the sun set, then petrified me with a wander through some rooms stuffed with suits of armour and the bones of a long-departed "saint".
At the airport, I discovered that my bag was 11kg heavier than when I left. That's a lot of cheese and wine, and an awful lot of pig...
get there EasyJet fly daily from Gatwick to Bologna from PS40.99 one way. www.easyjet.com.
Accommodation at the Antica Corte Pallavicina, Parma, starts at around PS131pn B&B. www.anticacortepallavicinarelais.it.
Alternatively, rooms at the Matilde di Canossa Resort in Reggio Emilia start from around PS85pn B&B, and rooms at the Residenza Torre San Martino, Rivalta, are from around PS114pn B&B. Tourism: www.
travelemiliaromagna.com. time zone: GMT +1hr currency: Euro PS1 = 1.14 best time to go: Seasoned well in spring
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first a My guide confessed he had spent PS4,232 on an antique ham slicer most you
PRECIOUS: Steve squeezes into a vault of ageing hams
AUTHENTIC At the Parmigiano Reggiana cheese factory
DELIGHTS: Cafe culture, as only the Italians can pull off
TIMELESS: The cathedral in Parma and, to its right, the magnificent baptistery