- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

Forget Tuscany and Umbria. Lombardia is the place. Lombards are proud. When asked what makes his region in northern Italy so special, a resident answers, “Everything.”

He is a well-dressed, healthy, wealthy 40-year-old farmer in a silk tie; his cows produce 250,000 tons of milk a year. He has good reasons to boast.

“We’ve got mountains, lakes, cities, plains,” the man says. And that’s just for starters. He could have added painters and palaces, cheeses and meat galore, and a town that is home to 150 violin makers, as well as Milan, the thriving, striving industrial and financial center of Italy.

Tuscany and Umbria, Florence and Rome, all beat the tourist drums year-round. Lombardy, whose assets were heralded even in Shakespeare’s time, has an abundance of quieter charms to offer. A character in “The Taming of the Shrew” speaks of Lombardy as “fruitful … the pleasant garden of great Italy.”

Lombards are prosperous, in great part because of the land. Their cheeses are a propaganda machine for the place, which is home to an assortment of the country’s best, including provolone, Gorgonzola, and Taleggio.

The region’s agricultural trade groups are eager to explain to the world the connoisseurship that attends the making of grana Padano. The name comes from the word for grainy, as in texture, with Padano a reference to the Padano Plain from Piedmont to Veneto.

Those same groups have had to give up insisting that, by law, foreign manufacturers of commercial brands such as Kraft should not use the name Parmesan when it doesn’t come from the region of origin.

Which brings to the fore questions about the difference between grana Padano and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Arguments abound about their respective merits.

The differences can seem slight to inexperienced palates. Ah, but wait. The devil is in the details of cheese every bit as they are in wines. Grana Padano may age — technically ripen — a minimum of nine months, the Parmigiano-Reggiano must age at least 12 months. But the real difference, say the experts, is in the kind of feed given the cows that produce the milk as well as the way each cheese is made: subtle factors having to do with soils and grasses that are different in different fields.

Grana Padano comes from cows who eat dried alfalfa as well as fermented corn from silage, while the Parmigiano cows get dried alfalfa and fresh corn. It’s clear from factory visits that both cheeses are lovingly made and a great deal of work is involved as well as technical expertise. The tools employed to test the finished round hunks are equal to any doctor’s kit.

The land that cows love has more than a few other attractions for visitors, even in late fall and early winter when mists cross the watery plains from the long languid lakes touching the Dolomites in the north. Lakes Como, Maggiore, Garda and Orta are like fingers reaching for the sun.

Not surprisingly, agri-tourism is big business in this area, although most farms and ecological preserves are off-limits in winter when even tourist buses seem locked away for the duration. None of the kiosks in Mantova — alias Mantua, one of the more attractive and enticing cities in Lombardy — stocks English-language newspapers off-season.

Like the cheeses, Mantua and Cremona can keep a person occupied any time of the year, being charmed sites of civilized living that combine art and architecture in original ways.

Mantua is a shrine for visual artists hungering for a look up close at works of the 15th-century painter Mantegna.

Cremona draws string musicians from around the world since, from the early 16th century, it has been the home of the fabled creators of instruments named after their makers Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari in the late 17th century.

The original Strads, as they are familiarly called, are on view in the City Hall. This is in the Piazza del Comune, notable for its 12th-century Romanesque cathedral.

The Museo Stradivariano shows off the master’s plans and models and some instruments by more contemporary luthiers. A modern international school of violin making is headquartered here as well and welcomes visitors.

Mantua, 41 miles east of Cremona and 102 miles southeast of Milan, has a storied past that comes alive in its well-preserved colonnaded streets and Renaissance buildings.

Here you can visit the house where Mantegna once lived. The much larger magnificent 500-room ducal palace built to the wishes of Francesco Gonzaga — head of one of the richest and most powerful family dynasties from 1328 to 1708 — contains what many regard as Mantegna’s masterpiece, his “Camera Picta” fresco in which he sought to imitate the experience of human vision in his representation of a royal couple at home.

Also within the city center is the high-domed Basilica di San’ Andrea, hallmark of 15th-century architect Leon Battista Alberti, whose work is mandatory in nearly every art history course.

Palaces abound in and beyond the city walls, including the elaborate and expansive suburban villa called Palazzo Te — another of the Gonzaga residences overflowing with paintings of startling immediacy and power. It can take a full afternoon just to survey the interior, and more time to enjoy the exterior landscaping that includes a large city park.

The cultural heart of the town is the Teatro Bibiena, an elegant jewel box of carved wood and red velvet and whose inaugural concert was led by a 14-year-old Mozart. And since Mantua is bounded on three sides by water, boat tours and walks by the lake shores and cycling offer respites from immersion in cultural and historic sites.

Cultural indulgences include such local gustatory specialties as a beef carpaccio, guinea hen with green peppers, zucchini fritters, and tortelli filled with pumpkin, nutmeg, butter and crushed amaretto cookies.

Restaurants of note include Il Cigno, Grifone Bianco, and L’Aquila Nigra, all resembling stage settings for Italian opera. Reservations are essential. For a gourmet farm stay, try Casina Lago Scuro run by Paola and Gabio Grasselli, at telephone or fax 39/037-257-487 or at e-mail [email protected]

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