By Sophie Ibbotson
Many years ago I was told that the difference between French and Italian cooking is that in France, it’s all about the skills of the chef; and in Italy, it’s all about the quality of the ingredients. This may be an oversimplification but it’s a description which stuck in my mind, and after countless visits to Italy — most of them with food on my mind — I don’t recall a single meal where the ingredients were anything less than mouthwatering. I have eaten my way across Rome, Naples, Venice, Verona, and beyond. But just before COVID hit, a friend asked if I’d visited the food capital of Italy. The what?! How come I’d let that slip by?
The province of Emilia Romagna is the home of Parmesan cheese, the finest balsamic vinegars from Modena, Prosciutto di Parma ham, and mortadella, the soft salami which appears on breakfast buffets and sharing platters across Italy. There are extensive vineyards and olive groves, too, producing some of the top wines and olive oils in the Mediterranean. The travel restrictions of the pandemic meant that I had to wait rather longer than I would have liked to visit Emilia Romagna, but as if I were in anticipation of an excellent meal, my appetite simply grew and grew.
Emilia Romagna’s administrative centre is Bologna, packed with Renaissance churches, UNESCO listed porticos, leaning towers, and one of the oldest universities in Europe. The city has direct connections to many destinations, making it an easy transport hub, but for this culinary extravaganza I knew I wanted to leave the metropolis behind and stay as close as possible to the producers growing and processing the ingredients which would end up on my plate. In short, I wanted a farm-to-table experience where the farm and the table were in the same place.
Palazzo di Varignana is just 15 miles from the centre of Bologna, a 20-minute train ride away. The palazzo (palace) itself dates from 1705 and is a grand building occupying a commanding hilltop position, with sweeping views over vineyards and olive trees, with more agricultural land stretching out on the plain as far as the eye can see. It has always been a working estate, but in the last few years it has entered into a new stage of life as Italy’s preeminent agritourism resort.
Agritourism has connotations of farm stays, charming, rustic experiences with simple amenities. Palazzo di Varignana has taken inspiration from this concept but transformed it into a luxury experience for those who want to enjoy the beauty of the countryside and understand where their food has come from, but to do so whilst staying in top quality accommodation, with all the facilities and services to be expected of a 5-star resort.
The first thing I noted on arrival is that Palazzo di Varignana’s architects have created a complex at one with the landscape. The new buildings are contemporary in style, built from natural materials, and in some cases are partially embedded in the hillside so their shape doesn’t detract from the views. Subterranean tunnels link rooms to the reception, a restaurant and bar, and spa, so you are very much at one with the earth. Balconies, terraces, and windows are oriented to look straight out at the hills and ensure that wherever you sit or stand, you are unlikely to be overlooked.
One thing you do get a glimpse of from most rooms are Palazzo di Varignana’s trails. At check-in every guest is given a map of the estate with suggested walks, and there are bicycles to borrow, too. Thinking I’d better earn the feast I was sure to come later in the evening, I set out on a half-hour circular stroll which took me past infinity pools and sculptures to a peaceful olive grove of ancient trees. The benches are carefully positioned in places where you might want to take a rest, or at least sit and reflect upon the majesty of nature. I didn’t venture down into the vineyards, their vines cascading in rows below me on a slope, as darkness was drawing in, but was reassured to think that the wines I hoped to try at dinner had come from just a few hundred feet away.
There are two main restaurants at Palazzo di Varignana, fine dining restaurant Il Grifone, an opulent space within the palazzo; and Aurevo, a more casual dining restaurant in a contemporary glass cube. I stayed two nights at the palazzo and made sure to eat at both: it would have been a tragedy to come all that way and not indulge at every opportunity!
The nighttime walk to Il Grifone is magical, as although it is only a few minutes’ away from the guest rooms, that is still sufficient time to gaze up at the bright stars and appreciate the silence of the air, a rarity in hectic modern life. The palazzo is strikingly lit, and it’s a wonderful nod to the building’s heritage that its tiny chapel has been preserved, the doors left open should you want to pop in and say a prayer.
Up the steps and through the main entrance, the atmosphere immediately changes. Now you’re a guest in an opulent residence; I wondered for a moment if I was here for dinner or a ball. There’s a grand piano in the hallway, glitzy chandeliers, and a level of gold in the decor that might be over the top elsewhere, but here in Italy is the epitome of elegance and sophistication. I had every faith that the food would be everything I’d waited not-so-patiently for months to taste, and Il Grifone’s chef ensured I was blown away.
Given the choice, I will always opt for a tasting menu. It’s not just because I’m greedy, but because a tasting menu gives the chef the opportunity to showcase their most creative ideas, their skill, and the freshest seasonal ingredients. And those ingredients, after all, were the raison d’etre for my trip. It also saves me choosing between dishes which all sound tantalising, and means I taste new combinations of flavours which I might not otherwise select from the menu.
And that is how, foodie friends, I first tried white chocolate and raspberries with anchovies and olive oil. It’s a desert I raised both eyebrows to when I heard it announced and which I approached with a certain amount of trepidation. But what I’ve learned is that a chef will never put a dud dish on a tasting menu; everything is perfectly curated to dazzle your senses and expand the horizons of your palate. It was the fitting finale to a meal which constantly surprised me, from the eel and anchovy with chestnut purée and pomegranate, to the most succulent ribbon of pink duck I’ve ever been fortunate enough to place upon my tongue.
The accompanying wines, as promised, were all made from grapes grown on the Palazzo di Varignana estate. They were so beautifully paired with the dishes that I promptly added “hold luggage” to my flight ticket home, enabling me to pack a few bottles for later. The memories of that meal and of my stay at Palazzo di Varignana will last long after the wine is drunk, but I have at least prolonged the pleasure a little longer.
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