Emilia-Romagna has been known for its immense agricultural abundance since ancient times. The Roman Empire might have been forged through the sword, but its armies were fed off the fields in this region of northern Italy. The road the Romans built through here, the Via Emilia, still connects a string of places today – Parma, Modena, Bologna – whose very names have come to represent some of the world’s most sought-after foods

MILE 0 Parma

Spend five minutes in Parma and it becomes clear this is a city of the well-heeled. Lamborghinis and Maseratis zip round its outskirts. In the pedestrianised historic men in sharply tailored suits and women in pearls and stilettos cycle past ducal palaces, Baroque opera houses and the medieval cathedral. Boutiques are plentiful, but some of the most elegant shop windows belong to the delis, where hams and cheeses are displayed as meticulously and stylishly as the contents of an Armani store.

To the south lies the source of much of the city’s wealth: fields packed with pigs and the factories where their hinds are salted, cured and transformed into Parma ham. Among the smaller-scale producers here is Rosa dell’Angelo, which offers guided visits of its farm. Manager Luca Ponzoni shows guests around the pens where his hogs play in the dust under old oak trees, treating themselves to fallen acorns. ‘When you eat our ham, you’re tasting Parma’s countryside,’ says Luca. ‘It’s not just what the pigs eat – it’s how it’s aged. We leave the windows open to dry the meat. The wind brings in the aroma of beech, oak, chestnut and pine.’

Luca ushers the visitors into his 4WD and ferries them to the Rosa dell’Angelo Prosciutto Bar around the corner, so they can test his claims. Waiters shave paper thin, rose-coloured slices, laced with white ribbons of fat. After the tasting, Luca reveals the cellars where enormous haunches dangle from wooden frames. The air in these smells sweet, because of the sugars in the meat, with a slight, nose-tingling hint of the white pepper used to coat it. Each ham bears the re-branded outline of a crown, the sign it has passed official inspection and can be sold as Prosciutto di Parma.

As well as rearing white pigs for Parma ham, Rosa dell’Angelo has started selling prosciutto made from an ancient local black breed. These black pigs are a key ingredient of another regional speciality, culatello. Even more highly prized than Parma ham, this cured meat is sold at £110 a kilo. In the countryside northwest of Parma, at Antica Corte Pallavicina, a Michelin-starred restaurant in a Renaissance mansion, the impeccably moustachioed manager, Giovanni Lucchi, shows off one of the few cellars in the world where culatello is produced.

Hunks of meat the size of boxing gloves hang low from the ceiling and from walls of metal chains. In the half-light, the culatello appears fuzzy. ‘That’s the mould – we’re closer to the River Po here than the hills where Parma ham is made, so we get more moisture,’ says Giovanni, as he ducks to avoid knocking into the suspended meat. He explains that this is all part of the normal ageing process that gives culatello its unique flavour, a bit like some cheeses. Back out in the daylight, the tour continues to the pigpens. ‘This black breed grows very slowly. Then the meat is aged for at least 18 months,’ says Giovanni. ‘You could say the secret to good Italian food is taking your time.’

MILE 16 Reggio Emilia

Further southeast along the Po Valley, towards the town of Reggio Emilia, a lazy sunrise is in no hurry to burn off the earth’s misty blanket. When the fog finally departs, it reveals a landscape so fecund that even telephone wires are overgrown with vines. At Parmesan dairy farm Fattoria Marchesini, six-foot haystacks, built high like forbidding castle walls, attest to how easy it is to grow animal feed here. And that’s a good thing, since Parmesan can only be produced in a land of plenty – it takes the milk of 100 cows to create just six wheels of the cheese.

Maria-Luisa Marchesini and her brother Andrea are overseeing the morning’s production. Milk heating in a copper vat coats the room with a comforting scent like rice pudding. Soon fragments of curd clump together to form a 100kg mega-wheel, which Andrea cradles into a linen cloth and cuts in two. The twin cheeses are settled into a brine bath for several days, then transferred to a maturation room, where they are watched over by CCTV. Such is their value that, in Emilia-Romagna, banks take Parmesan wheels as security deposits. After a year, they’ll have hardened, gained the amber patina of age and be ready for examination by inspectors, who tap the cheese with acoustic hammers, listening for structural impurities. ‘Our ears, our eyes, our noses, our hands – we have to use all our senses to check the Parmesan is developing correctly,’ explains Maria-Luisa. ‘Growing up on this farm, these skills are in our DNA.’

MILE 38 Modena

All along the Via Emilia there are families producing food according to artisanal practices honed over generations. Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca, an estate just outside of Modena, is one of many places along the road where time seems to stand still. A wrought-iron gate opens to a white-walled mansion dating back to the 1600s. Classical opera pours out the windows into the garden, where wooden pergolas are loaded with plump Trebbiano grapes. There is one concession to modernity: a pair of robotic lawnmowers stalk between the vines, silently creeping up on proprietor Emilio Biancardi. ‘We bought two because we hoped they’d reproduce,’ he jokes.

Up in the mansion’s timber-beamed attic, dozens of wooden casks are arranged in descending order of size. Grape must is matured into traditional balsamic vinegar by decanting the evaporating, fermenting liquid into a smaller barrel every 12 months. After 25 years, around 90 per cent of the original volume has disappeared and what is left is sweet, tangy and syrup thick. ‘These barrels were a dowry gift from my great-grandmother to my great-grandfather,’ says Emilio. ‘The people of this region have a real aversion to waste. We preserve everything.’

This commitment to conservation is evident in Modena’s centre. A pair of lion statues dating to Roman times prop up the columns of its medieval cathedral. Erected in the 12th century, the 86-metre steepled bell tower is still the tallest building by far, and the narrow streets trace routes first laid out by the Romans. Restaurant terraces spill out onto them and come lunchtime they are crammed with locals leisurely washing down first, second and third courses with glasses of sparkling red wine.

MILE 54 Bologna

Lunch is a no less important an affair in Bologna, the regional capital. Known as La Rossa, ‘The Red One’, thanks to the terracotta roofs and burnt-umber walls of its porticoed buildings, the city has also earned the nickname La Grassa, ‘The Fat One’, thanks to its rich cuisine. Le Cesarine is an association that shares the secrets of Bolognese cooking through lessons by locals in their homes. Luisa Mambelli is one of these family chefs. Slender, but strong-armed after many decades of practice, she invites people to learn the art of pasta-making in her apartment on the edge of the city. On her kitchen table, which has an inbuilt rolling board, she cracks eggs into a well of flour, kneads the mixture into a ball and then, as her grandmother taught her, marks a cross on top – a thank you to God for her daily dough.

After rolling out the ball with a long pin that’s half as tall as she is, Luisa cuts one sheet into ribbons of tagliatelle. Another is used to make tortelloni – round pockets of ricotta and spinach, as plump as down pillows. To complete the trinity of pastas, she makes marble-sized tortellini stuffed with pork, Parmesan and a pinch of nutmeg, served in clear broth. ‘Machine-made pasta is too smooth. The sauce won’t cling to it,’ says Luisa, as she ladles meat ragu over the tagliatelle and smothers the tortelloni in butter and sage. Her mother joins her and over lunch they discuss the difference between tortellini and cappelletti, a similar dish made east of Bologna. The city, they explain, is something of a dividing marker between the culinary culture of Emilia to the west – built on pigs, cows and the Celtic traditions of northern Italy – and that of Romagna, which shares more in common with the sheep and goat-based agriculture of southern Italy and civilisations east of the Adriatic.

MILE 81 Brisighella

To the southeast of Bologna lies Brisighella, a medieval village that appears lifted straight from Italy’s heel, flanked as it is with hillsides of ancient olive trees. They shouldn’t really be able to flourish this far north, but they have stood here for hundreds of years, like gnarled centurions guarding over the hamlet below. ‘The secret to their survival is under our feet,’ says Franco Spada, president of the local oil producers’ collective, as he picks his way through a grove. ‘A vein of gypsum runs just below the soil. This mineral absorbs and retains heat, so we’re two degrees warmer than surrounding areas.’

Through the branches, Brisighella’s 13th-century crenelated castle is visible on the next hill over, clear gypsum crystals in the rock below it glinting in the bright daylight. The pale-green olives are a distillation of all this Italian sunshine and by early November they’ll start to yellow, signalling to Franco and the 300 other growers that it’s time to get out the nets and shake down their bounty. ‘To make extra virgin oil, olives must be pressed within four days. We have to work quickly and all together,’ says Franco. ‘When you taste our oil, you’re tasting the efforts of the entire community.’

MILE 121 Rimini

In the valley below Brisighella, fields are colonnaded with trees bearing pears, apricots, peaches and even kiwis (Italy exports more of them than New Zealand). Orchards, alternating with vineyards, are constant roadside companions on the drive southeast along the Via Emilia towards the Adriatic coast. They are a prelude to the Eden-like scene at I Muretti,an agriturismo farmstay in Rimini’s hinterlands.

‘People like to understand where their food comes from. We had children here yesterday crushing grapes with their feet – they loved that,’ recounts Nicolò Bianchini, the son of I Muretti’s owners, as he walks between vines bunched with purple-blue Sangiovese. The rest of the 32-acre farm is filled with beehives, hazel trees (‘I tell kids that’s the Nutella bush’), a herb garden and an enormous vegetable patch, where butterflies and ladybirds are proof of the family’s organic practices. Nicolò picks figs from a tree and pulls out beetroots for dinner.

Back in the kitchen, as his mother transforms the beets into a filling for her ravioli, Nicolò sets out piadina flatbread. As he places some local cheeses on another plate – ricotta wrapped in purple borage petals and a pecorino cheese aged in a walnut leaf – he explains that the further east you go in the region, the flatter the bread. ‘You can talk about differences between Emilia and Romagna,’ he says, ‘but you only have to move to the next village and there’s a completely different set of ingredients and recipes.’

MILE 145 Sant’Agata Feltria

What unites Emilia-Romagna is that it’s a region of industrious farmers, carefully cultivating their fertile soil, but there’s one local food speciality that’s all the more exceptional because it can’t readily be reared by human hands. All anyone does here is let nature carry out its work.

October heralds the start of truffle season in Sant’Agata Feltria, a community near Emilia-Romagna’s southeast border. The villagers have all been waiting for this moment, among them pizzeria owner Sauro Po d’Esta, who heads into the forest with his six-year-old spaniel, Chicco. ‘The secret behind truffle hunting,’ he says, ‘is to love your dog.’

Chicco scampers over a long grass meadow bejewelled with shimmering dewdrops. Moisture in the air heightens every woodland smell, but Chicco knows what he’s after and is soon digging furiously beside an oak. He reveals what looks like a burnt, knobbly cedar cone. Sauro recognises it as a black truffle and rewards Chicco with a sausage. ‘I used to bring them home for myself. Nowadays, a black truffle goes for £300 a kilo, a white one for £1,300,’ he says. ‘In a village of 2,000, 500 people now have truffle licences. The hairdresser, the butcher – everyone tries to find them.’

The collective haul is sold during the fair that takes over every square and alleyway in Sant’Agata each Sunday in October. Truffle oils, truffle cream, truffle pastas, salami laced with truffles, truffle-flavoured cheeses and baskets bulging with actual truffles are all to be found here. It’s clear what’s the star of the show. Their rich, bosky scent fills the entire village and crowds file in from all over Emilia-Romagna – for, unlike other regional delicacies that improve with age, this is one best sampled fresh from the ground.

First appeared in Lonely Planet magazine in 2017.