Today was the day. I don’t often do tours, but given the concentration of interesting and quality food production in Emilia-Romagna, and to make sure we got the most of the experience, a tour seemed in order this time – and it was a good thing, too.
We went with Laura Panella, and she was great. She took us to four family-owned producers, we learned, we tasted, we had a nice lunch…a good day!
Parma is a bit less than an hour train ride from Bologna. Since the Parmesan production occurs in the morning, that meant…we needed to get ourselves going a little earlier than we have been. A lot earlier. It’s good that the train station is only a couple of blocks from our apartment – that short walk lessened the pain a bit.
And as it turned out, the train was late. Only about fifteen minutes, but enough to stress me out. I hadn’t considered that possibility. Which was stupid. Would we miss the cheese production? Would they have pack it all into the forms before we got there?
The train was packed from Bologna to Modena, when 3/4 of the passengers – a lot of students – disembarked. At Parma, we hopped off, met Laura at her car parked nearby, and off we went.
First, to the Parmesan Reggiano factory owned by this farm. And no, we were not too late – we were able to see much of the process. We arrived after the milk and rennet had been mixed and curds were starting to form. While that continued, we saw the storeroom, learned about the various levels of Parmesan, how it is tested, what care is required – the turning, mostly done by a robot, even in this small factory – and the labeling. We were then able to see the workers removed the curds which just sort of rolled into shape, then this huge ball was cut in two, and each half stuffed in a plastic form. It would rest there for a day or so, then move to steel, and then be freed to age. This facility is near Bibbio, which claims to be the site of the invention of Parmesan – by monks, of course, who wanted a cheese that would keep. The invention is memorialized in a roundabout by a statue representing a huge chunk of cheese and the typical knife used to slice it. Some photos – and the video is via Snapchat, which I keep telling you to keep up with, so you can follow our travels in almost real time…as much as I can manage to fool with it.
The earlier (not earliest, which occurred long before we arrived) stage of letting the curds settle out of the milk. The vats are cone-shaped and go down into the floor. 12 vats which produce 24 wheels of cheese a day.
What is happening here is that the curds are pulled together and up with a paddle, then gathered in cloth which is hung from the stick in order to allow liquid to escape. That one big ball is then cut in half, and those two hung in the same manner. In the lower right hand photo, you can see how the whey is being pumped out of the vat – it is traveling directly to a truck outside, which then takes the whey to become part of pig feed.
The balls are removed , floated in water for a second to make them easier to handle, then hoisted up into the plastic forms. In the top left photo, they have been removed from the forms and are floating in sea-salt water to give a bit of flavor while they wait for the steel, curved forms and the imprinting from a plastic form.
There’s also a short video I originally put on Snapchat here on Instagram. Also, a quick survey of my purchases from today is on Snapchat…for the next 24 hours…(amywelborn2)
Then to the winery. Lambrusco typical wine of the region, as the vineyard owner explained, since the food of the area tends to be heavy, a lighter wine is important. We saw the vines, learned about the process of making the various wines, and tasted. Well, I tasted. Lovely wines. What was so interesting to me was that 60-70% of the wineries products are purchased by local families who bring in these huge containers (I can’t remember the name…perhaps one of you knows it) when the Lambrusco is ready, have it filled, and then take it home to bottle it themselves to have their wine for the year. The rest is sold to local delis and groceries – no exportation, it’s just too expensive, and not worth it. Under three Euros a bottle. I wish I could have purchased more, but we are only at the beginning of our trip, and two bottles is about as much as I want to cart around Italy for two weeks.
I asked the owner – the granddaughter of the original owner – if she’d been to the US, and she said no, but she’d been to Mexico – as it turns out, many of the same places – Chichen Itza, Merida, Tulum – to where we traveled a couple of years ago, so that was a fun conversation.
And now…meat. Which is very…meaty.
Another family business, with the 82-year old owner still about. They produce Parma ham, coppa, pancetta…etc. We learned about all of these different cuts, and of course, the curing process. Entering the curing room, you’re hit with incredibly strong smells I can only describe as..meat. With some sea salt and mold mixed in, Phew. It was not exactly delicious-smelling to my senses. The tasting was interesting to me because eating these meats right there, without benefit of refrigeration or industrial production, it is much more evident that these are cured, not cooked meats. It’s hard to describe, but there was a sort of fleshiness about them that I suppose is the way it’s supposed to be, but was still a bit of a surprise.
In the lower left photo, coppa is being tested by inserting a long pick made from a horse bone, used because it is porous and therefore can take in the scent of the meet quickly and then just as quickly release it.
Lunch! I honestly cannot tell you where we ate – I was so turned around by that point, and I forgot to take a card. Somewhere between Parma and Emilia-Reggerio, is all I can say. I think. We had a simple, but good meal of cured meats (of course), an assortment of ravioli, stuffed with pumpkin (typical of the region), swiss chard, potato and turnip greens, in a light butter sauce. The boys had “chocolate salami” – basically chocolate biscotti with hazlenuts – and I had a corncake that you dip in moscato wine. Oh, and Lambrusco, of course. Very nice, and nice people running the place.
Finally, the balsamic vinegar, which is not what you find in stores,most of which is made via flavoring additives. This is the place we visited, and received a tour and instruction from the owner. The tasting was illuminating – such a clear and interesting difference between, say 10- and 25-year aged vinegars. Quite complex. You can read more about it here.
Laura then drove us back to Parma and, at my request, dropped us at the centro where we could see the duomo and baptistry, then walk to the train. I hadn’t bought return tickets, but knew generally when the trains ran, and we hit it almost perfectly, arriving at the station about ten minutes before a train was departing for Bologna.
Baptisteries are lovely things. Constructed in an era when baptisms only occurred at most twice a year in the “mother church” of the diocese, they were made for crowds. I couldn’t get a great shot, but the inner area of this font is made for four priests to do the baptizing at once – and how do they get in? A board was put over the water, that’s how. (Information learned from Fr Augustine Thompson’s wonderful Cities of God.).
The cathedral is covered – covered in paintings. The most well -known is in the cupola, a Carreggio Assumption which:
…features the Virgin Mary ascending through a sea of limbs, faces and swirling drapery.
The imagery of the Assumption has been met with some bemusement over the years, with a contemporary comparing it to a “hash of frogs’ legs” and Dickens commenting that the scene was such that “no operative surgeon gone made could imagine in his wildest delirium.