Perhaps from a culinary point of view, I was most excited about traveling to the region of Emilia Romagna. Or more specifically to Bologna, Modena and Parma. Situated just 50 kilometers from each other, even tourists seldom visit these cities for anything apart from their gastronomic delights.
|View of Bologna from Torre degli Asinelli|
Bologna is renowned for it's ragu (known to the rest of the world as bolognese sauce) and tortellini; Modena for its balsamic vinegar; and Parma for its parmigiano reggiano and prosciutto di Parma. As a chef who's worked extensively with these products and recipes for years, this was a field trip to food heaven.
Given that I'd relied on hostels and sponsored accommodation until this point, I decided to try something different. Couchsurfing is an online platform that connects 'surfers' like myself who are looking for a couch to sleep on with locals who can spare one.
Bologna is home to the world's oldest university and youngsters from all over Italy go to study there. So it was only apt that I stayed with a group of students. I found Isabella's apartment among the many listed on the website and it seemed like the perfect fit.
Isa and her six flatmates are a closely knit group of friends tightly woven into a three bedroom apartment in the center of the city. Posters of political rallies for a separate Palestinian state and peace in Egypt as well as those of past music concerts they've attended adorned the walls; on their dining room table where they often had communal meals together, food was central.
The gastronomic highlight of my four-day stay in Emilia Romagna was not the authentic tagliatelle al ragu I tasted at Satyricon, a traditional family-run osteria situated a 20 minute bus ride from Bologna. It wasn't taking in the seductive wafts of prosciutto and Parmesan inside the marvelous Salumeria Verdi on the main street of Parma. Heck, it wasn't even my elaborate private tour of Leonardi's spectacular balsamic vinegar production house in Modena where I tasted perfectly balanced vinegars aged from 30 years all the way up to a 100!
|Tagliatelle al Ragu at Osteria Satyricon, Bologna|
|Parmesan wheels and salumi at Salumeria Verdi, Parma|
|Barrels of aging balsamic vinegar at Leonardi, Modena|
|Chef Massimo Bottura at Osteria Francescana, Modena|
|The 'Broken' Lemon Tart at Osteria Francescana, Modena|
It was the meal I had (thanks to a last minute cancellation) at Osteria Francescana, Modena's three-star Michelin modern Italian restaurant that in 2013 was voted by Restaurant magazine as the third best restaurant in the world. The chef-owner Massimo Bottura is known to seamlessly blend culinary tradition with contemporary technique and design. His wife Laura works the dining room and explains the inspiration behind each dish with a passion rivaled only by that of her husband.
Nevertheless, this particular dinner was so memorable not because of what was on the plate. Sitting in Osteria Francescana listening to Laura eagerly describe chef Bottura's affinity towards his grandmother and her influence on his cooking, I had an epiphany. In a priceless moment of self-revelation, I suddenly realized the answer to a question I had locked away for years. What kind of a restaurant will I open?
For now, I'll only give you a clue. It won't be Italian.
|Scene from within at the apartment in Bologna|
Back in the apartment in Bologna, the language barrier was thick. However, they did their best to make me feel at home. On the day I reached, they took me to a Mortadella fest in the nearby town of Zola Predosa. On another night, we snuck into a secret student's bar at two o'clock in the night for beers and lessons in Italian card games.
Our conversations spanned everything from music and food to politics and culture. I got to witness the fun student life in Italy but also learnt about how the meagre job market made it a tough time to graduate. It was a cultural exchange in every sense.
Couchsurfing thrives on the idea that you don't pay a cent for the accommodation, but etiquette suggests that you show you appreciation with a bottle of wine, a souvenir from your own country or an offer to cook for your host.
On my last night in Emilia Romagna, I did what I know best. I cooked Isa and her ten friends an elaborate Indian dinner involving pulao and baingan bharta, murgh jalfrezi and meen moilee among other dishes. When I insisted that everyone eat with their hands, they obliged without a blink. They loved it.
Couchsurfing has gained strong momentum in the past decade and there are thousands of travelers surfing every day in all parts of the world. To think that it is so simple today to connect a professional chef working in Mumbai with a bunch of pharmacy students in Bologna is mindblowing.
"Our goal," the Couchsurfing website states, "is nothing less than changing the world, one couch at a time." In many ways, it already has.
My Quick Guide to the Main Cities of Emilia Romagna
Traditional Bolognese food at Osteria Satyricon in Bologna
Modern Italian at Osteria Francescana in Modena
Try typical Parmesan fare including horse meat at Gallo d'oro in Parma
For salumi at Mercato delle Erbe in Bologna
For the finest prosciutto di Parma and Parmiggiano Reggiano at Salumeria Verdi, Parma
Climb the Torre degli Asinelli tower and discover Bologna from above
Hang out with the students at La Scuderia caffe in Bologna
Picnic at Parco Ducale, Parma
Tour Leonardi's balsamic vinegar production facility in Modena