Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Parma and Modena: An Italian Gourmet Food Tour






Emilia-Romagna is considered by many to be the heart of Northern Italian food. In order to take full advantage of our stay in the region, we signed up for a gourmet food tour organised by Parma Golosa, to visit the production sites of some of Italy's most famous DOP food products: Prosciutto di Parma ham, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese as well as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. Established in 2000 Parma Golosa is the leading dedicated gourmet food tour company in Parma. Extraordinary DOP products that take years to age, such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia, all artisanally produced according to age-old traditions from the very land they stand on. Through Parma Golosa, we were able to visit the production sites, and touch the rich culinary history of Parma and taste the art.




The family-run Damiani Parmigiano Reggiano operation or 'caseificio', 
in the countryside outside Parma



Visiting a caseificio is like going back in time. The 'King of the cheeses' actually has very old origins and today, as it was 700 years ago, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is still made following the same traditional methods. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is protected by the European Union and can only be produced in a restricted area, the so called 'zona tipica', which includes the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and a part of Bologna, left of the Reno river and Mantova, right of the Po River. We met our guide at 8:30am at a meeting point off the autostrada outside Parma and started our tour at a small family run business at 9:00am at the Dumani familiy's 'caseificio', when the cheese masters start to pull out the product from the milk vats. The visit lasted about 2 hours, with tastings of different seasoned Parmigiano at the end.




Anna Damaini, testing the consistency of one of ten vats milk, 
which is brought in fresh every morning 

As the milk cooks, the curdled grains sink to the bottom and the whey sits on top

The curd is dislodged from the bottom of the vat and rolled up into a large cloth...

Rolled back and forth a few times...

Then the ball is cut in half, which will make 2 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano

One bag with half a ball of curd is attached to the rod and hung to drain

Both bags are hung to dry as the vat is emptied of the whey, 
which is later fed to pigs reared for Prosciutto Parma

Each drained bag of curd is lifted off the rods and rolled back and forth 
into a more spherical shape...



one at a time...

...then placed in a plastic container to shape the final Parmigiano cheese

A heavy lid is placed overtop to weight down the 'cheese'

The 'cheese' is left to mature for a week...

Then the cheese is placed in a water bath...

,,,with salt that is added each day

The Parmigiano is left to mature for a year or two...

...at which point each and every wheel is tested by professionals
to ensure the Parmigiana adheres to DOP standards

Approved wheels get the DOP 'stamp of approval' seared into the rind

Second best are marked with horizontal stripes



Next stop was to visit the production area of Prosciutto di Parma or Parma ham, located in the southern part of Parma province. Here, and only here, can genuine Parma Ham be produced. Using very heavy and selected Italian pigs and following the traditional and genuine method, Prosciutto di Parma is still produced like it was about 2000 years ago. Only four ingredients are necessary to produce Parma ham: a pork leg, a minimum quantity of salt to preserve the meat, the air to dry it out, and time, a lot of time, at least 12 months to get a perfect flavour. We were able to visit the cooling and salting rooms before ending in the magical aging cellar. 




Once the Parma ham is cured, the open end is rubbed with suigno, 
a fat that protects the flesh from drying out

The hams are then left to dry

Then, like wheels of Parmigiana-Reggiano, every ham is tested by the DOP, 
and seared with the 'Parma' stamp of approval 



The final stop — Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia at Medici Ermete, a renowned winery and producer of fine TBV. Emilia-Romagna is the birthplace of that most delectable of vinegars: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. Syrupy, rich balsamic vinegar, aged in wooden barrels until it acquires the depth and complexity of a fine wine. Dubbed balsamic thanks to its curative powers, it is still fermented and aged just like it was in the Middle Ages, when only the noble classes could afford it. The prized condiment is produced directly from grape juice. The liquid is then placed in wooden barrels and through an oxidation process over several years, is transformed into the prized elixre. The tour started with a visit to the rooms where the 'black gold' is produced, aged and preserved in old French oak barrels. We were then able to taste 3 traditional balsamic vinegars which were 15, 23 and 30 years old. 









The Medici Ermete Winery, where they've also been making 
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale for generations

The balsamico is stored in large French oak barrels for a few years
until it matures, at which point it's transferred to small barrels 

The Aceto Balsamico is moved upstairs to the Acetaia, and into smaller casks 
for the final aging for up to 40 to 50 years!



The barrels, held in an attic where the sun's rays are allowed to filter in and play their part in the vinegar's evolution, are topped up with vinegar from the next larger barrel so that they are always two-thirds full. It takes almost 800 pounds of grapes to produce 15 quarts of vinegar, which explains the high cost of genuine balsamic vinegar.



The tiny little casks of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale are open on top with cloth covers, 
allowing the makers to smell the balsamico as it ages

The final product - Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale - red, silver and gold 




We ended the day with a gourmet lunch at the historic 15th-century Castello di Torrechiara, which is located just outside Langhirano, in the beautiful Emilia-Romagnan countryside.



The15th-century Castello di Torrechiara in the Langhirano Valley, 
home of Prosciutto di Parma, where we had lunch


Ristorante Taverna del Castello

A nice bottle of wine was included in our meal at Torrechiara Castle

Antipasto Mista with Prosciutto Caldo, Culatello and Salumi

Tortelli di Zucca (pumpkin) e di Erbetta (spinach and ricotta)