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A Cena’s Regional Dinners: Emilia-Romagna

July 7, 2014

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It’s always exciting to hear what region A Cena is visiting next on their gastronomic tour of the regions of Italy but I was especially pleased to hear that this time the destination was Emilia-Romagna. Partly because I’ve been there myself recently, staying in beautiful Bologna and visiting Modena, but also because the region is home to many of Italy’s most famous foods: Parma ham, Parmesan, ragu Bolognese, tortellini, lasagna, mortadella and balsamic vinegar. Stretching from Emilia in the north-west to Romagna on the Adriatic there are mountainous areas as well as part of the plain of the River Po. The cooking is robust and rich and definitely an area for meat eaters with its wonderful salami and hams. Ragus here will often feature rabbit, and pigs’ trotters are another popular food. What, I wondered would A Cena’s Head Chef, Nicola, choose from all these wonderful possibilities.

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As always, it’s just great to walk into A Cena. A warm welcome. Low and cosy lighting. Sophistication edged with a nice touch of comfortable relaxation. What a perfect place to spend a Monday evening. Especially with two of my favourite people in the world: my son and daughter-in-law. Jonathan said that he and Lyndsey had walked from their home along the towpath by the Thames – about 20 minutes  – and he’d thought this was a perfect Monday evening: beautiful Richmond, the river, and a fantastic meal to look forward to.

As previously, the meal consisted of three courses with matching wines. But there was also an interesting ‘bread’ course to begin: Crescentine Fritte – Fried Bread with Parma Ham and Squacquerone Cheese. Squacquerone comes from Romagna and is made from full fat cows’ milk which is curdled. ‘Squa’ – from ‘aqua’, water – refers to the liquid state of the cheese; it was very like creme fraiche, I thought. It was a delightful way to begin the meal. We chose the first of our wines to have at that point: Gran Sasso Trebbiano d’Abruzzo – a white wine made from grapes grown at the foothills of the Appenines. Light gold in colour, it had a clean, open perfume of fresh yellow plums and white flowers; a nicely balanced wine with a citrus twist on the finish.

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Our ‘Primi’ course was Homemade Tagliatelle with Ragu Bolognese, White Truffle Oil and Parmesan. This is a quintessential Bolognese dish, of course. Frequently badly represented, it’s also to subject of much debate amongst Italian chefs: tomato or not tomato; how much tomato; and a host of other variations.

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One mouthful and Jonathan declared: Amazing! In fact, he said when he finished it that it was quite possibly one of the best starters he’d had at A Cena, which given how highly he rates the restaurant was saying a lot! The truffle oil was a sublime addition, lifting it into a special realm of excellence. The meat was so tender and tasty, the pasta perfectly cooked and delicious. The Italian half of A Cena – Camilla Healy, co-owner with husband Tim – comes from Emilia-Romagna so it was true Italian heart that went into this. It showed; it was wonderful.

There was a choice for our ‘Secondi’: Cotechino – Italian Sausage with Salsa Verde Lentils and Homemade Mustard Fruits, which Jonathan and Lyndsey chose. Happily Jonathan gave me a taste of his and it was wonderful: the earthy lentils, the slight saltiness of the sausage balanced by the fresh salsa verde and sweet mustard ‘chutney’.

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I went for Pollo di Modena – Poached Chicken in Balsamic and Chicken Stock with Braised Summer Carrots. This was wonderful too: incredibly tender and sweet chicken breast on a bed of soft, creamy potato and a gorgeous, slightly acidic balsamic sauce with the sweetest little carrots. It was light and summery and I really enjoyed it.

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We chose the red wine with our main courses: Ponte Pietra Merlot Corvina, 2013 – the fruit for the Merlot Corvina grown in vineyards next to the Soave zone in the Val d’Alene on warm, sheltered plains and clay soils. It’s a delicious blend of soft, blackberry and cherry blossom.

We were given a choice of 4 things for dessert: one a cheese dish – Parmesan with Apple and Balsamic.

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There was also White Peaches with Sugar, Lemon and Mint. This was wonderfully fresh and the mint a great addition.

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There were Fritelle di Riso – Rice Doughnuts with Raspberry Sauce, but I went for Bigne di San Guiseppe – Choux Buns Filled with Vanilla and Rum Custard. These were gorgeous: perfectly crisp choux pastry with a rich – but not over sweet – custard.

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The dessert wine was Specogna Verduzzo Friulano, 2011 – Deep gold in colour with aromas of honey, dried apricots, citrus and hints of cinnamon from its oak ageing; on the palate it was rich but had a good acidity so it remained fresh. The three wines for the evening – with tasting notes – came courtesy of Liberty Wines.

It was a lovely evening as always: such thought and care go into these menus to bring us the best food of each region. The evening was sold out quickly so there’ll be a repeat next Monday. And they are great value: 3 courses including wines for £30 a head. To find out more visit A Cena’s website: www.acena.co.uk. And wherever they’re going next, I’ll definitely be there again!!

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