My real motivation for visiting Emilia-Romagna was to see first hand the production of the region's famed Parmegiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, and balsamic vinegar. And of course, to eat copious quantities of said products. Now I'm not usually a tour group kind of girl, but with concerns of access, language barriers, and crazy drivers, we turned to Alessandro at Italian Days Food Experiences to put together a private guided food tour for us. The funny and charismatic Alessandro did a fantastic job, and our tour was amazing.
We started the day early with a visit to Coop Casearia Castelnovese outside of Modena. It's the largest parm factory in the region, producing 58 wheels each day using traditional methods.
Some 27 farms deliver the milk of black and white (not red) cows there twice daily. Things seemed rather quiet when we walked into the room with the giant copper cauldrons of steaming milk.
Too quiet for me to get away unnoticed with the giant whisk that would make such a nice addition to my collection.
It's used for cutting the curd into small pieces.
While we didn't get to observe much of the cooking process, we were able to see the resulting parm in its various stages. This is the first form the drained curd, still in its cheesecloth, is placed into.
The cheese continues to drain this way, and the stamp which identifies the producer and month and year of production is applied.
After a couple of days, the cheese is transferred to another form that gives it its characteristic shape.
Each heavy wheel must be turned periodically by a well-muscled man.
Then the cheese goes for a three-week dip in brine made with Israeli sea salt.
The brined cheese is aged for months and years. The young cheese is pale.
And it's easy to see that the salt hasn't penetrated the center of the wheel.
The parm takes on a golden hay-like color as it ages.
Parm made from winter milk, which has a higher fat content, can be aged longest.
Walking into the aging rooms is an awe-inspiring experience.
The salty-savory umami smell of thousands of wheels of parm overwhelms your nose and makes each of your taste buds tingle with anticipation. The heady atmosphere induces you to skip up and down the aisles, hugging each wheel in turn…
At least that's what it made me do.
A special hammer and a keen ear are all that's needed to evaluate the parm.
An expert can determine the quality of the parm based on the sound it makes when tapped.
A hollow sound indicates an air bubble, the sign of a less than perfect wheel of parm. Not suitable for long aging, imperfect wheels are stripped of their identifying marks and sold as lower grades.
As luck would have it, experts from the consortium happened to be there inspecting the parm on the day we visited.
Only after it passes this test can each wheel of 12-month cheese be branded with the parm logo.
A tasting included the Coop's 24-month parm, 36-month parm, luscious parm cream, and rich and flavorful still-warm ricotta.
All washed down with the local sparkling Lambrusco. As we nibbled on cheese, Alessandro offered up various inspiring ideas for cooking with parm…Make parm cream at home by simply heating milk in a double boiler and adding shredded parm to the desired consistency. Add parm crust to soups or stews, use it as a serving vessel for pastas, or drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil and grill. And his favorite: top grilled steak with arugula, cherry tomatoes, parm, and balsamic.
The thing that surprised me most about the parm factory is that the only cleaning product used is the whey that is the bi-product of parm production—no obsession with antibacterial soaps there! The other thing that surprised me is that you don't see cows grazing on grass anywhere in the countryside. Apparently they're all kept indoors where their diet can be strictly controlled. I wish we could've spent a whole day at the Coop to witness the entire parm-making process.
A car ride of, as Alessandro put it, five German minutes and we arrived at the grand Villa San Donnino to see how Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is produced. Interestingly, just 65 families in Modena make the traditional balsamic, which can only include one single ingredient: the reduced juice of Lambrusco or Trebbiano grapes. I began salivating from the moment we entered the building—the air was so thick with the pungent sweet and sour smell of balsamic you could almost taste it. And that was two flights of stairs before we even reached the charming acetaia.
It turns out that real balsamic vinegar is made in the attic—balsamic needs the heat.
The set of progressively smaller wooden barrels in which balsamic is made is known as a batteria. The first, or largest, barrel is for fermentation, the middle barrels are for maturation, and the last, or smallest, barrel is for aging. The barrels are open to the air, with squares of cloth protecting the precious liquid within from dust.
Each year any evaporated amount is replaced with liquid from the preceding barrel, with additional boiled grape juice being added to the largest barrel.
It is this process of evaporation that concentrates the balsamic over time, yielding a rich, thick vinegar with a deep brown color and the perfect balance of sweet and sour. Only after 12 years can the vinegar be called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena if the consortium approves.
We tasted the 12-year balsamic, the 25-year balsamic, a balsamic jelly, and a balsamic "condiment".
This last product, aged for only three years, was much lighter in texture and flavor but still far better than the vast majority of the stuff that passes for balsamic vinegar over here. One final tasting of vanilla gelato drizzled with balsamic had my palate doing summersaults—the gelato brought out intense chocolaty notes in the vinegar. I could hardly believe my tongue.
Five Italian minutes—that's 20 minutes by the clock—and we reached Corte d'Aibo to observe the end of a cooking class, taste wine, and have lunch.
The chef assembled lasagna with homemade pasta, bechamel sauce, ragu (I dare not call it "Bolognese sauce" lest I offend Alessandro), and parm.
By the way, where American kitchens have built-in deep fryers, Italian kitchens come equipped with pasta cookers.
Tiramisu was made with homemade lady fingers.
If the length of the loaf of bread, which came straight out of a still-life painting, was any indication of the length of the meal, our lunch would go on and on, course after delicious course, forever.
We nibbled on a stunning array of cured meats and cheeses.
Then came salad and a robust tagliatelle al ragu that I still dream of. (I caught the chef adding several glugs of heavy cream to the leftover ragu for his own lunch, as if it weren't rich enough already!) And just when we couldn't eat another bite the lasagna was served. Like a grandmother, Alessandro refilled our plates and assured us that we could keep eating. The tiramisu had the most heavenly fluffy cream ever, so of course we managed to make room. Everything was washed down with Corte d'Aibo's own wine.
We piled back into the van for our final destination, Prosciutto di Modena producer Prosciuttificio Nini Gianfranco. But to be completely honest, by this time we were all in a food coma—Alessandro called it abbiocco in Italian—so I wasn't able to internalize much there, whether it was information or pork. I did manage to catch that Modena has only 12 prosciutto producers to Parma's 180.
Warnings about the smell of large quantities of raw meat came before we were allowed in.
I didn't find anything offensive about it. The prosciutto maker, who by the way, was quite muscular from all the heavy lifting, trimmed each impeccably fresh ham, exposing the bone just so.
Trimmings were reserved for making salami. The curing process begins with salting the hams.
Then they are washed and dried, and the aging begins…
With over 35,000 legs of prosciutto in these aging rooms, a wave of salty-sweet cured pork aroma floods your senses when you walk in. Lard paste is applied to the exposed meat to protect it from drying out.
Oh, to get lost in the dimly-lit maze of racks.
I'll take that one.
And that one.
Prosciuttos age for about a year. To determine if it's ready, an expert pierces the prosciutto with a special needle made of horse bone, then evaluates the aroma that the needle carries.
Only prosciuttos deemed perfect are branded with the symbol of the consortium.
Our final tasting of the day consisted of slices of prosciutto so thin you could see right through them. So thin, yet I could only manage two as I was still stuffed from lunch. But even a whisper-thin slice of prosciutto is packed with salty, sweet, and savory flavor.
We returned to our hotel full of food and full of understanding. It's clear why Parmegiano-Reggiano, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, and Prosciutto di Modena are able to fetch so much at market. The wealth of tradition, resources, labor, and love that goes into these products is priceless.
If you ever plan a food tour of Emilia-Romagna, I highly recommend Alessandro. Please tell him Lucy says ciao!
Previously: Bites of Bologna.
Next up: Pictures of Paris.