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28th Feb 2019

February half-term always seems the perfect time for a city break.  It’s still ages until the summer holidays, many of us will be delighted to have seen the back of dreary January, and if you’re visiting a city, it doesn’t matter too much if it rains.

In many ways, Norwich is the perfect city break destination, but I live here all the time, so last week I set off on a trip to somewhere new.  Now, much as there are good reasons why tourist hotspots such as Paris, Rome and Florence are so popular, nowadays I prefer destinations which feel more ‘real’, where most of the voices you hear are local, and where you can enjoy participating in the daily life of the city, rather than some theatre put on for the benefit of visitors.

If you are a regular reader of this column, you will realise that there is another compelling factor to take into account as well: the culture of wherever I’m going has to be rooted in food and drink.  And boy did I hit the jackpot last week.

My choice of city break destination was the Italian city of Bologna.  Mostly this is a place that is famous in the UK for a dish which doesn’t exist in Italy (spaghetti Bolognese - the Bolognesi eat their ragu with tagliatelle), but put that aside for a moment, because the city and its surrounding region are home to many of the most fantastic foodstuffs not just of Italy, but of the world: parmesan cheese, Parma ham, mortadella, balsamic vinegar, to name but a few.

Although Bologna is quite a bit bigger than Norwich, there are some similarities.  Both are regional centres, both have long histories, and both have in the past played a larger part in national affairs than they do in modern times.  And both lie in the centre of the most important food producing regions in their respective countries.

The difference is that there is no mistaking Bologna’s place as a foodie mecca.  It is impossible to walk the city’s streets without being assaulted at every turn by the sights and smells of a proud food culture.  Everywhere is evidence of local foodstuffs, and of local people indulging in them.

And then, on the outskirts of the city, you find ‘Eataly World’.  Get past the weak multi-lingual pun, and what you will find is the most enormous food theme park – around a million square feet (80 per cent of which is indoors) housing 14 working food factories and a complete farm (all of which you can visit), dozens of food producers offering tastings, enough restaurants and cafes to feed you for a month without ever repeating yourself, as well as a whole smorgasbord of activities designed to show the visitor that Bologna is a food powerhouse.

What’s more, although you have to pay for activities such as pasta-making courses or wine tastings, entrance to the park itself is free. 

It is a manifestation of a region which is supremely confident in the food and drink it produces, and – more importantly – is making a massive effort to tell the world about it.  It also provides a great hub for regional producers, with state-of-the-art premises for their factories and a ready-made showcase for their produce.

It set me wondering: why could we not do something similar in Norfolk?  We have the food producers, we have the tourism industry (Visit Norfolk says that over 13 million nights are spent in the county by visitors every year), we even have the interest in food events, as evidenced by the growing number of food festivals which take place throughout the year.

So how fantastic would it be to develop a major food-related attraction which would serve the dual purpose of attracting even more visitors to Norfolk, and, more crucially, finally starting to bang the drum outside our county borders about how extensive and brilliant our food and drink industry is?

The Emilia-Romagna region, of which Bologna is the capital, has an international reputation for its food and drink.  Much as we might wish it were different, Norfolk simply does not.  It isn’t that we don’t deserve it, we just don’t seem to be able to get the message out there. 

As we approach the day when we uncouple ourselves from the most sophisticated food market in the world, we had better start trying.

This article was first published in the Norwich Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press.