EN VOYAGE – Gastrohike

19 Nov 2003

Mirko Esse, singer with the Verona-based rock band Frastuono Urbano, raises his sunglasses in order to investigate more closely a slab of Little Hereford cheddar the size and shape of a fish finger. He runs his nose along it suspiciously, as though investigating its potential hallucinatory properties. Then he takes a cautious nibble, followed by a mouthful of a scone-like Welsh cake. He washes down both with a swig of a beer called Hobsons’ Old Henry. “It’s a strange combination for an Italian,” he muses, “but a good one.”

It is the middle of a sunny Sunday afternoon and the members of Frastuono Urbano are relaxing in the square outside the 16th-century Venetian-style Commune Muncipio in S. Pietro, one of five towns dotted around the vineyards of Valpolicella. This is the fifth and penultimate stage of the Magnalonga (literal translation “the long eat”), a gastronomic hike designed to showcase the region’s wines. Walkers cover roughly five miles along narrow lanes, dusty tracks and orchard paths, stopping every mile or so, in winery courtyards or the gardens of elegant villas, to sample a different course with a different Valpolicella—the Classico, the Superiore, the formidable Amarone and the rich Recioto pudding wine.

Just 300 walkers turned up for the first Magnalonga six years ago. Today, 2,500 have forked out roughly £12 a head to take part, and those who have reached stage five, the cheese course, are in for a surprise. For the first time, they are English cheeses, which have been transported across the Channel and the Alps all the way from Ludlow, Shropshire, on a Hobsons’ lorry.

Ludlow is twinned with S. Pietro, and its reputation as the foodie capital of the England that lies beyond the M25 has not gone unnoticed by civic leaders. Every September they join the 17,000 or so who flock to the Ludlow Food and Drink Festival. The Italians have become aware that it’s somewhat unusual for an English town of fewer than 10,000 residents to have five butchers, four bakers and three Michelin-starred restaurants. In short, they know that Ludlovians are serious about their grub. Serious enough to be invited to take part in their twinned town’s equivalent festival, the Magnalonga.

Now here are the Ludlow committee, lined up behind red check table cloths, dispensing 40-gram wedges of cheese—hacked from great rounds of farmhouse Cheddar and Cheshire, for the most part—and topping up wine glasses from huge, frothing jugs of Old Henry drawn straight from the barrel.

Many of the crowd are dancing wildly. Alcohol consumption over the day has been prodigious in some cases, but good humor has prevailed. “We Italians always take food with our drink,” confides Marco Giusti, a supporter of Hellas Verona FC. “Even when we had a meeting with fans of Chelsea, we had brioche with our Guinness.” No Guinness today, but Marco and two friends are enthusiastically knocking back the Old Henry, soaked up by ‘chasers’ of Cheddar and Welsh cake.

The original plan was for Peter Cook, managing director of Price’s 60-year-old bakery on Ludlow’s Castle Street , to cook small, white batches on site. Alas, that proposal was promptly vetoed by the Italians on the grounds that they didn’t have an oven big enough. “I must admit to being a bit relieved,” the baker confided. “Welsh cakes seemed like a good alternative. We sell them in the shop and they have a shelf life, so they could be transported on the back of the beer lorry. What’s more, I reckon they go very well with cheese.”

Surprisingly, cheesemakers are not exactly thick on the ground in south Shropshire. But there is Little Hereford, made not far from Ludlow by Mark and Karen Hindle. They sell it at their Mouse Trap shop on Church Street, just across the market place from Price’s. “Like a Pecorino only not so dry,” is how Karen describes it. Unfortunately, she and Mark couldn’t produce anywhere near enough at their small, farmhouse dairy to meet the voracious demands of the Magnalonga. So John Fleming, a long-time stalwart of the Food and Drink Festival committee, was despatched on a mission to the far north of Shropshire.

At Whitchurch, he unearthed Appleby’s Hawkstone, last of the hand-made, cloth-bound Cheshires. The rounds have a mottled brown rind which gives them the appearance of exotic bongo drums. Unfortunately, Appleby’s couldn’t fully make up the shortfall. Nearby Belton Cheese had to be called in to supply a selection of Red Leicesters, Double Gloucesters and Sage Derbys—names that don’t trip easily from the Italian tongue. The Sage Derby, though, proves surprisingly popular on the big day. Calls for the ‘forgmaggio verde’ are almost as frequent as those for the ‘birra inglese’.

The Old Henry has gone down well. Hobsons was a natural choice for the Salopians to bring with their ‘ploughman’s lunch’. This small, family-run brewery has just celebrated its 10th anniversary at Cleobury Mortimer, just up the road from Ludlow. Nick Davis and his father, Jim, produce distinctively hoppy beers and the Old Henry weighs in at a hefty 5.2 per cent alcohol. “About the same strength as an Italian bottled beer, like Peroni,” says Nick who is convinced that there’s a growing niche market for English draught beers in northern Italy. “Apart from giving away the draught stuff, we bought 55 six-pack bottles to sell. We could have shifted at least twice as many.”

“We’re not allowed to call it beer; we have to call it ‘wine of the hop’,” said Mario Lonardi, the main organizer of the Magnalonga, hinting at the fierce debate that has gone on behind the scenes over inviting an English beer into what is essentially a promotion of Italian regional wines. At the beginning of the ‘long eat’, walkers were issued with a plastic wine glass apiece, coralled into parties of 200 and despatched at regular intervals with a volley from an ancient Austrian canon. By the time they returned to the starting point for coffee and grappa, six or eight hours later, each would have tucked away bruschetta with tapinade, polenta with salami and peperoni, lentil soup, baked pork with chicory, peas and cheese and a dry mountain cheese called Monte Veronese. Most would have found room for pasta frolla, a brittle shortcake, served with the Recioto, before moving on to the ‘formaggi inglesi’.

By six o’clock all that’s left on the Ludlow stand are a few slices of Red Leicester and Double Gloucester. The Sage Derby has long gone. So has the Old Henry, of course. The Ludlovians are exhausted, but elated. It’s time for them to emerge from behind their red-check table cloths and hit the town. Celebrations go on well into the following morning. The Classico Superiore, the Amarone and the beer—newish Peroni in the absence of Old Henry—is soaked up by plenty of food. In matters gastronomic, the Brits can always learn something from the Italians. Even from supporters of Hellas Verona.

Chris Arnot is a British free-lance journalist

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