THE CHEF BIKE TOUR
What do chefs and cyclists have in common? Hard work? A love of food? A rebellious side?
Why not gather a few famous chefs who happen to be cyclists and ride with them through a region of Italy that has a rich gastronomic tradition ? Perhaps throw in some stops at famous restaurants, a prestigious cooking school and wrap it all up at a Fellini inspired circus tent filled with gourmet street food. Sounds a bit like a strange dream doesn't it ? Chris Balogh explains all.
Welcome to Chef Bike Tour, the dream of Tourissimo’s founder Beppe Salerno, who together with his team, orchestrated five days of riding combined with some of the best food and celebration that Emilia Romagna has to offer. Not one to pass on riding and eating like a king, in what has become one of my favourite regions of Italy, I found myself in the middle of it.
Bikes truly out-number cars in Ferrara; the medieval walled city where our odyssey began. After an easy recon ride around the walled city, our group of twenty became familiar with each others names and hometowns. Next on the agenda was an excellent guided walking tour of Ferrara. The stories gave life to the architecture and of the flourishing jewish community that dates back to the 11th century.
On the way to our first dinner, Beppe explained his idea of a “stage dish.” Since each day would bring us through a new area of Emilia Romagna, the “stage dish” would derive from the specialties unique to each area, while reflecting the seasonality of the key ingredients. A rather delicious concept, certainly one that foodies on bikes can relate to.
Our first “stage dish” was one of many courses served at Cucina Bacilieri in the heart of Ferrara. The capelacci di zucca con burro e salvia or pumpkin capelacci with butter and sage, is the signature dish of Ferrara. Bacilieri’s handmade version was delicate and deep with just a touch of nutmeg recalling the origins of this renaissance dish first recorded in 1584. Also memorable was the twisted Coppia Ferrarese, a hard sourdough bread made with malt, lard and olive oil. Between dessert and coffee, Beppe smiled wryly while briefing us on the following day. By now we all realised that this was to be a gastronomic adventure like no other.
We rolled gently out of Ferrara following the walls of the historic centre. Our destination Ravenna, a mere 97km away, a respectable distance in the cycling world. With all riders equipped with their own GPS, it was pleasant to ride at one’s own pace. Although Chef Bike Tour has its heart in the traditional, the thoughtful touches of technology made the days more enjoyable. A wifi equipped support van turned refuelling stops in the middle of nowhere, into opportunities to post photos eating seasonal cherries!
The highlight of day two which featured a stretch along a large brackish lagoon, was the lunch stop at Agriturismo Prato Pozza. Getting off the bike in 35 degree weather, a cool glass of Merlot Lambrusco went down a little too well. By the time we came face to face with the “stage dish”, Valle de Comacchio eel, we had taken the edge off, so to speak. We learned how the eel was treated with beer, lightly cooked in the oven, marinated and preserved in oil. Stuffed and slightly drunk, thankful for the coffee kick, we managed the last 20 km into Ravenna. Somewhat busy on the outskirts, the centre of Ravenna soon showed us its charms. We cruised by the Dante museum, collecting the factoid of Ravenna being the place of the great poet’s death. Things you learn while pedalling!
Dodging pedestrians over cobbles and through archways, we arrived at the main piazza to find the luggage van. Room keys in hand, with only the suitcase dance left to tackle, we made plans to sample the local Aperol spritz in the square.
What gastronomic delight did Chef Bike Tour plan for in Ravenna? Our group marched through the old centre in the early evening. Still within sight of the old walls, we were welcomed at Antica Trattoria al Gallo, an institution in Ravenna since 1909. Run by the same family for four generations, it exudes style and tradition. Every corner is decorated with early Italian art deco pieces, and the walls are covered with photos of famous patrons. It is intimate, yet opens to a lush garden for lounging amongst statues and fountains. The wines made a lasting impression. I settled into the garden with my favourite, a glass of Sangiovese Noelia Ricci 2014 Superiore , and watched the staff float through their closing routines. The owner and his son stopped the last of us on our way out of the empty restaurant, inviting us to stay a little longer to meet Maestro Riccardo Muti who was on his way. Becoming a Google expert on someone in five minutes. Quite the topic! After a very memorable discussion with the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, we savoured our walk in the cool night air under the lamplight of the old streets.
One of the shortest days distance wise, day three was full of interesting stops. Our first visit was to the Cervia Salt Museum after 27 kilometers of riding. Although it involved some walking on then shade less salt flats, our guide was informative. We even looked at a Styrofoam cup filled with the red shrimps that colour the flamingoes who shared our route.
From Cervia, our next stop was Florlimpopoli’s famous Casa Artusi. The renowned cookery school was founded in the name of Pellegrino Artusi whose book, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well can be found in homes the world over. We settled in for quite a few hours with a surprising hands-on chance to make pasta from scratch, before a large lunch featuring pasta sauce prepared by our three guest chefs; Mary Sue Milliken, Travis Flood and Benjamin Cohn. It was one of our longest lunches but with less then 10 km to our next hotel in Bertinoro, we couldn't complain.
After eating and drinking for days, albeit with some substantial calorie burning, the thermal waters of the Grand Hotel Terme Fratta came along at just the right time. An old majestic hotel set in the hills, its rejuvenating thermal baths have long been a destination for visitors from all over Europe. Going from cycling kits to white robes, we all took advantage of the many springs and treatments, marvelling at the European logic of having the bar open onto the hot springs to add some suds to the soak. Having arrived for the start of the Celestial Nights festival, we enjoyed the views of iridescent blue fabric flowing through town. We were excited to hear that we would follow the festival up into our next stop in Bagno di Romagna.
The penultimate day of riding was the hottest so far and included the most challenging climbs. Reaching our lunch stop at the Tenuta Pertinello winery involved a 16 percent climb on a very narrow rough road on the edge of Emilia Romagna’s border with Tuscany. Accustomed by now to Romagnolo hospitality, we ate and drank with abandon.
Chef Travis Flood performed a sabrage on the last bottle of Metodo Classico Extra brut, achieved with red Sangiovese grapes in the Champenoise method. After a homemade cake adorned with the word WELCOME, ripe in-season apricots and cherries, we were stunned by the care taken to serve us all coffee from several bialettis (known as a moka pot in Italy). Keep in mind that a rural winery’s kitchen is bare basics only. Even the de rigeur schiuma, made with the first concentrated drops of coffee and sugar, was lovingly spooned into our espressos. It would after all be unthinkable to skip the coffee regardless of the extra effort required.
Burning the Calories
I had secretly been looking forward to the climb into Bagno di Romagna, our next stopover. Our climb would follow the exact of the stage 11 route of the 100th edition of the Giro D’Italia. Nothing like challenging yourself on a climb with the names of the pros still painted on the road under your wheels. Even the pink bikes, banners and ribbons still adorned much of the route into this proud stage town. I truly enjoyed every switchback, and easily found our vans in front of the Hotel Tosco Romagnolo. Hundreds of pink umbrellas floated above the narrow streets. The Tosco Romagnolo has a fabulous rooftop pool fed with sulphuric spring water. A soak in the sun after letting the warm thermal water massage the shoulders seemed to make the church bells ring out from a medieval steeple. I really felt like I had gone to cyclist heaven. That night we toured the extensive wine cellar with Master Chef Paolo Teverini before finding our tables for yet another engaging dinner. It was a must, it seems, to wander into the square to the main stage for the Celestial Nights celebration. Despite the announcement of a very early start time, we summoned some energy to dance in the square to a very capable cover band with a hot horn section.
If we would have tried to say something nice to each other about the early start time, it might have been to mention the perfect light or the quiet roads. The reality of the last piece of the tour, the road to Rimini, was upon us. It would be one of the longest days in the saddle so far. The 90 km route began by skirting the ridges of the Apennines before crossing the open plains towards the Adriatic.
The fertile lands of Emilia Romagna were of great importance to the Romans, whose via Aemilia begins in Ariminum (Rimini). It was completed in 187 BC, allowing them access to the riches of the north. Leaving Bagno di Romagna, we were making our way towards the mother load of products, to understand, sample, and acquire the best of the rich region that we had cycled through. Awaiting us in Rimini, the Al Meni market , a showcase of the finest goods from Emilia Romagna, the region with the most DOP and IGP (protected designation of origin status) in all of Europe. Rimini is not only the head of the via Aemilia, but is also the birthplace of Federico Fellini. The Al Meni big top takes its inspiration from Fellini’s film 8 1/2 , which the director shot in the majestic Grand Hotel. Fellini’s pied a terre was room 201 at the Grand Hotel which is still available to guests seeking extravagant accommodation.
Soft Rock and Big Finale
Our ride proved to be a beautiful rolling descent with fantastic morning views of the hills and valleys. We stopped to enjoy the famous formaggio di fossa, which literally means - cheese of the pit. The strong cheese is ripened in pits dug into the soft rock foundation in Sogliano al Rubicone.
Our arrival on wide boulevards was picturesque. The buzz in Rimini was centred around the Grand Hotel where an elegant garden party was in full swing. Only steps away the Al Meni big top filtered the sea breeze, the sunshine, and the intriguing smells. Once again, I contemplated the planning involved and saluted Tourissimo. The idea is wonderful, the fact that it all exists in one region and can be presented in the form of a bike tour, is very special. The ritual of sharing meals had been fine tuned over the week. Now, Michelin starred chefs from Emilia Romagna, set up around the big top would contribute to our last meal together. It was an unrivaled street food party with a treat for dessert. Our three celebrity chefs each created a gelato flavour with the help of the Gelato University of Carpegiani. Stepping back from the laughter as our chefs scooped gelato, I savoured Benjamin Cohn’s olive oil and Cervian sea salt gelato. The setting sun, the food, the smiles… Yes, yet another perfect moment in Emilia Romagna… land with a soul.
Interested in one of Tourissimo’s Chef Bike Tours?
Chef Bike Tours 2018
May 5th - May 12th - Chef Bike Tour Sicily
June 12th - June 18th – Chef Bike Tour Emilia Romagna
Oct 1st - Oct 7th – Chef Bike Tour Piedmont
Tel: ( USA) (857) 997-005
Another event that takes place in front of the Grand Hotel in Rimini about a month before the Al Meni festival is CHALLENGE RIMINI .
Triathlon is experiencing a boom in Italy and this event is very well attended and well run.
It is also offers cyclists the opportunity to try a “draft legal” triathlon with the Saturday Sprint version before the Half Ironman Challenge on Sunday.
Or just hang out and watch from your room at the Grand Hotel ?
Maybe get out on the bike course and cheer them on!
For those interested, check out
I highly recommend the early morning swim in the Adriatic…… Exhilarating !
PUBLISHED JULY 2017
IMAGES COURTESY OF PAUL WRIGHT.