Alessandro was our Emilia Romagna guide for the day, charming, funny, smart and had the most melodic voice as he told us the how and why of Parmigiano, Balsamic and Prosciutto. I could fill a warehouse with all the photos and video of our day, but I will save you that suffering (unless you WANT see it all!).
There are dozens and dozens of Parmigiano factories throughout this region and they ALL do the SAME process the SAME way. Otherwise it is NOT Parmigiano Reggiano. All the cows have to eat alfalfa grown the same way, in the same region, eat the same “cereal” (grain) from the same area nearby, grown the same way. All the cows throughout the Emilia-Bologna region are milked at precisely the same time each day, twice a day. EXACTLY the same amount of morning milk is mixed with EXACTLY the same amount of afternoon milk from ALL the Emilia-Romagna cows, who are all one of two breeds.
All the milk goes into giant copper kettles and is heated to just the right temperature, not too hot as Parmigiano is a raw milk product. The wheels are molded, then wrapped in the plastic collars that have all the braille marks and stamps that label it Parmigiano Reggiano. (see photo above). After drying for a bit, hundreds of wheels of cheese go into the giant stainless steel vat of salt brine, which we were allowed to taste. Oh yeah, that is salty. More drying and aging and testing. Parmigiano Reggiano is subject to many inspections, testings, thumpings along the way to maturity and to you and I for enjoyment.
We tasted 6 month old, 16 and 66 month old cheese. The older (more aged), the cheese, the more crunchy and flaky. I too will be crunchy and flaky one day.
From Parma we headed to Modena and the magic land of Balsamic vinegar.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP is vinegar like I had never tasted until 8 years ago when a friend gave me a taste from a bottle she brought home from Italy. Thick like molasses, sweet and sour with both taste and aroma from wood of the barrels it aged in for at least 12 years.
Mulberry, oak ,chestnut, and juniper from the same region as the grapes that make the must that make the vinegar. All of that flavor and the ONLY ingredient is grape must. This fun 5 minute Pedroni Traditional Balsamic video explains the magic so much better than I. The barrels in the photos below are in a specifically controlled, closely monitored environment and that biggest barrel near the floor holds 100 year old vinegar, which we tasted; like sipping velvet. This particular Balsamic maker has been in business since 1862 and it has stayed in the family all this time.
Sometimes just a drop of this magic elixir is just the perfect finish on a June ripe strawberry or a scoop of smooth vanilla ice cream or a fillet of fresh salmon or a bowl of just harvested salad, or a piece of really good, local cheese….
We completed this gastronomic triumvirate with a trip to a Proscuitto di Parma facility. As a farmer who has grown pigs for 17 years, I was a little disturbed to see THAT much pork in one very large room in a very controlled environment.
Now it was time for our “Light Lunch” at Agritourismo Mastrosasso in the hills of Bologna, with hundreds of acres of vineyard owned by lovely family who filled us with a perfect autumn mid day meal. For our party they hadmade three different pastas, a curly pasta with a simple sage butter sauce, ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and ricotta cheese AND spaghetti Bolognese. If that was not enough, they brought us platters of wood fired meatballs and sausage.
Lots of wine, Nocino, Amara and mom and I were ready for a nice long nap on the drive back to our top floor flat with 82 steps to climb.
We walked the streets of ancient Bologna. Settled in 1,000 B.C., conquered, invaded and sacked by many. Ornate, beautiful and lively. One more cappuccino, then we winged our way to the next ancient and man times conquered city, Palermo.