Italian adventures: Parma – the new city of gastronomy

If you consider yourself to be a foodie, would like to expand your culinary repertoire or just need an excuse to indulge on cheese and ham for a few days, pack your bags and head for Parma. Situated in the northern Emilia-Romagna region of the country, this beautiful but seemingly undiscovered gem has much to offer in terms of places to explore for the inquisitive traveller – and as UNESCO’s first recognised Creative Italian City for gastronomy (as appointed in 2015), it is well worth a visit.

Everywhere you turn in this city, you can’t help but feel the glow of the terracotta houses and other traditional Mediterranean colours warming your cheeks – it entices you to keep walking. The ‘Parma yellow’ buildings in particular, which distinguish the architecture from its Italian counterparts, have been carried on by modern Parmesan builders since the 1950s.

Parma. Image: iStock/Iryna1

An identifying characteristic of Parma, for those wanting more of an artistic and enigmatic angle, the French architect Ennemond Petitot, who was mainly active in the Duchy of Parma and held a teaching post at the Academy of Fine Arts, was the catalyst in its creation whilst restoring some of the most important buildings in the late 18th century. Allegedly, this was inspired by the “yellow house” residents of the Strada San Michele and Santa Lucia areas of the city, who had apparently started the chosen palette to match the golden tresses of Isabella of Bourbon, as she paraded through the Parmesan streets on her wedding day.

In the middle of this glorious scene, you stumble upon Via Emilia, the Roman road from Milan to Rimini on the Adriatic Coast, which connects a collection of Roman forts throughout the region. Branching off is Piazza Garibaldi, which plays host to some of the sites and stalls of the Gastronomy Festival. Highlights and samples here include the Colli Di Parma Malvasia Convent sparkling wine, which goes particularly well with a hunk of traditional Parmigiano Reggiano. Try some Culatello di Zibello D.O.P, the high part of pork thigh as an aperitivo. According to the experts demonstrating on the day, this is best enjoyed and served with bread from the Po region, north of Parma. Try a little butter and a dry Malvasia or Fortana wine on the side – a good combination to temper its salty and garlicky flavour.

Parma ham. Image: iStock/piccerella

From Piazza Garibaldi, take a trip down on Strada Alla Pilotta, until you reach the striking Cathedral of Parma. Almost destroyed by an earthquake in the region in 1117, conservation work undertaken over the years has left much to be discovered. For starters, the interior is in the form of a Latin cross, with a nave and two aisles. If you enjoy discovering art, the most famous here is the 1530 work ‘Assumption’ by Correggio, which can be found in the central cupola. Considered to be quite scandalous as it features the Virgin Mary ascending through a cascade of limbs and faces, even Charles Dickens was rumoured to have described it on a visit as a work which could have only been created by someone in the midst of the ‘wildest delirium’.  

You cannot travel to Italy without admiring the many frescoes on offer. In addition to its many gastronomic features, Parma provides a plethora of opportunity here. Observe the fascinating 15th-century collection in the Valeri Chapel, which covers stories of the Old Testament and elements from the Passion throughout its artwork. Also nearby is San Giovanni Evangelista church, which is further round Piazza del Duomo. Correggio can be found here along with other beautiful biblical and spiritual scenes. If you want to take a few moments of reflection and peace, step inside and enjoy a moment of stillness in this bustling world of ours.

Cathedral of Parma. Image: iStock/Gim42

Just outside San Giovanni church, but only available on certain days, the Old Pharmacy is a real find. Dating back to 1201 and run by Benedictine monks, the apothecary remained in use until 1766, when it was bought by the state – becoming available for public viewing from 1959. It really is a fascinating place – a variety of apothecary vases still show the archaic Latin descriptions of the products inside; ancient wooden shelves house tall and cylindrical flasks, jugs and mortars for the preparation of remedies, and a very old and early version of the periodic table. Unfortunately, the building is only open on Saturdays between 2-6pm, but closed every day throughout July and August. It is small, but definitely worth a visit and certainly won’t take too much time if you want to see more of the sites.

From here, head for the beautiful Parma yellow Teatro Regio di Parma, the city’s opera house. This 1,400-seat auditorium plays host to four operas each season from mid-January to April. Since 2003, it has also presented an annual festival in October celebrating the works of local boy, Giuseppe Verdi. Also a must on the Italian to-do list: ice cream. Grab a gelato from the parlour, Gelateria la Pilotta, across the street before or after a show (or both) and if you have time and fancy some greenery, take a stroll over to Parco Ducale for a little sit and reflect in the Parmesan sun.

Parma. Image: iStock/Iryna1

In the evening, have a look at Trattoria Corrieri on Via Conservatorio. Open since 1800, the manager and chefs still very much respect and offer the traditional recipes of Parma, observing typical flavours. Very busy most nights it seems – completely booked out on the night we visited – it’s a real hit with vegetarians and meat eaters alike, and the menus can cater to those with allergies, offering gluten-free options, with all courses being very reasonably priced. With the most expensive main course on the menu being €15, this is a winner and can accommodate most budgets. Personal highlights included the Parmigiano Reggiano with sweet balsamic vinegar and the pumpkin ravioli. For carnivores, pork cheek is also served with balsamic vinegar of nearby Modena for a real treat.

Talking of Modena, if you want to escape the city for a day to experience something really special, then head to Cleto Chiarli – a beautiful vineyard on the outskirts – just an hour away from the centre of Parma. Founded in 1860 and a renowned producer of Lambrusco wine, the popularity and admiration of the product back in the day encouraged and enabled new larger premises, Cantina Chiarli, to be set up, enabling larger quantities to sell to a wider market.

Vecchia Modena wine. Image courtesy of Hannah Ramsden

Boasting over 140 hectares of land, this really is a fantastic spot – the ivy swinging and hanging from the beams; the rustic villa with views for miles; the lunch, which offers both meat and vegetarian dishes of the best quality ingredients. On offer on our visit: courgette frittatas with Parmesan cheese (incredible), tortelloni with spinach and mixed cheeses, glasses of their Premium Vecchia Modena Lambrusco (one to pair with cured meats) and an Italian-style omelette with pea and mint garnish – all sublime. You could easily spend a whole afternoon here and by special appointment, the current owner, 25-year-old Tommaso Chiarli, can provide more information on his family history, viticulture and the various fermentation processes currently used at the vineyard.

Although Parma may not instantly be on the list for the vegetarians among us, Italian cooking lends itself particularly well with the variety of pasta dishes available – and that’s just one ingredient that works. Not only is Parma a feast for the stomach, but also for the ears and the eyes – and certainly a city which will no doubt see a rise in tourism over the next few years, as its gastronomic and cultural prowess grows.

Words by Hannah Ramsden

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