Get ready to experience the sights, tastes and smells of the aromatic region of Emilia-Romagna in Italy. If you can imagine the top two thirds of Italy symbolizing the shape of a human torso, then Emilio-Romagna is in the upper chest with historic Parma at the heart. This region is special to me not just for the food, but because it is the birthplace of my mother.
Traveling, genealogy and the art of food are amongst my favorite passions. There are eight food groups in Italy: wine, cheese, ham, vinegar, olive oil, pasta, tomatoes and gelato! Okay, the list is only my personal opinion, but you have to admit it looks good. We are in the rolling hills surrounding Parma to discover the art of creating and aging three Italian foods: Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar and prosciutto de Parma (pictured, left, above and below).
We narrowed our choices of tours to the travel group Food N Wine Tours. The owners, Nick and Caterina, offer several options to experience this region of Italy. You can choose to drive, walk or be driven through the tour. The gold plated “3 Kings Tour” met our desires on how we wanted to experience these three prized foods. Food N Wine provided a customized tour for my genealogy research. They connected us with an Italian cooking class in an authentic Italian Cucina (kitchen) where we got to prepare a gourmet meal.
But first, we had to find a place to stay. Palazzo Filagni (pictured, right) in Berceto, which rests in the Northern Apennines Mountains about 20 miles from Parma, served as our travel base for the next three nights. The main part of the palazzo (palace) dates back to the 11th century. The area where we slept was an addition made to the palazzo in the 15th century. The inside of Palazzo Filagni is very modern with nice personal touches. Our gracious hosts, Caterina and her uncle Sergio Mussi (pictured, above right), are English speaking Italians.
So how did we find this hidden cozy gem? Facebook, of course. We connected with Sergio through Facebook as his surname is in my mother’s family tree. He is an extremely helpful and knowledgeable historian. Sergio provided research in the local registers for birth certificates, marriages and death licenses of my mother’s family near Parma. He is the originator of the Parma Chorus, a huge choir that performs classical and opera music. Sergio also led us on two walking tours of nearby villages inspiring us with his knowledge of the local lore. You can find Palazzo Filagni on Facebook or through a Google search.
The Big Three
After a good night’s sleep we began the two-day Food Experience. Our first meeting with the Food N Wine Tours owner Nick was over a cup of espresso in a small train depot a few stops down the track towards Parma. From there, he drove and guided us through the countryside that surrounded Parma to sanctuaries of the culinary delights. We entered a Parmigian Reggiano cheese dairy with an air of the 1950’s creamery similar to one where my father worked. We observed expert cheese maker Marco who cut the cheese (no pun intended) after the initial two cooking periods.
The knife used to section the cheese clumps (pictured, above) is a replica of the sword used by the commander of a Roman Legion and is part of the tradition of cheese making. The simple cooking process uses fresh dairy milk and other magical ingredients. The mixture is heated for 30 minutes at 35 degrees C, then stirred and cooked for 15 minutes more at 55 degrees C. The resulting clumps of forming cheese are raised in cheesecloth, cut in half and moved to molds, tagged with a branding tattoo and labels. For two days the cheeses firm up in the molds, then are removed and placed in brine (pictured, above right), then dried. Next, the rounds begin the aging process.
We could see and smell the shelves of aged cheeses. Some are up to four years old, although the average age for market is 24 months. At the end of one year an official inspects each round. If the round does not pass, the rind markings are scratched through or removed to inform the consumer that the round is not top quality. It’s quite an intricate process of cooking, labeling, molding and curing in multiple rooms that look just like this one below. I wonder when a scratch n’ sniff application will be available on our mobile devices and PCs?
The cheese making illustration was the longest duration tour of the three. All the tours included free samples and opportunities to purchase products of varying maturity. The greater the age of the cheese, the more firm and pungent flavor it is. Within Italy, a battle rages between the purists, the Emilia-Romagna based manufacturers of Parmigiano Reggiano, and the similar northern Grana Padano, which has differing standards and controls. What’s better? Decide when visiting Parma!
Our next destination is a balsamico tradizionale factory. Unlike ordinary vinegar, which is a by-product of an alcoholic liquid, balsamic vinegar is produced directly from grape juice. Grapes grown on-site are cooked to make this delicious vinegar; the cooked mixture is called must, or Mosto D’uva. After cooking for 24 hours, the must is stored for six months, then decanted. Then the aging meter starts ticking.
Depending on maturity, balsamic has three grades, or labels. Red label is used for tossed salads and roasted vegetables; silver label is used for cooked meat; gold label is used to flavor fruit, panna cotta, gelato and dipping cookies. These products live up to the tradition of “slow foods” as red label balsamico is aged up to 18 years, silver up to 25 years, and gold over 25 years. We sampled and purchased bottles (pictured, left) of all three to enjoy upon our return and they were excellent! Some producers have a special recipe aged 100 or more years.
These balsamic vinegars were produced at the Azienda Agricola Venturini Baldini factory. This Italian landscape (pictured, right) and grounds’ entrance is used as a backdrop in advertisements for the prestigious automaker Alfa Romeo.
On our way to the Parma ham factory we passed Castle of Torrechiara and endless fields of hearty red tomatoes being harvested by hand. We had lunch at a vineyard just below the Castle of Torrechiara. On this note, I had to say “Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas more.” What a magnificent setting. In the background of the picture to the left are white buildings, which house the numerous prosciutto curing rooms.
The facilities for each of the 3 Kings Food types have their own unique personalities. Arriving at the prosciutto factory was like entering a sterile warehouse of maze-like rooms, each one identical to the next. The chilled lockers were a welcome relief from the summer heat outside. Like the seemingly infinite shelves of rounds of cheese, the thousands of legs of Parma hams hang endlessly in the meticulously controlled storage rooms.
The legs of ham come from English Duroc pigs specially bred for centuries in 10 regions of Central-Northern Italy. The climate, weather and grazing lands all contribute to the finest ham in the world. Following the tour we enjoyed a huge antipasto plate of Prosciutto de Parma, vino and Parmigiano Reggiano (pictured, right). All the delicious meats of Italy can be enjoyed while there. However, none could be brought home as it is a Federal offense to import meat to the U.S.
The best part of the food is making and eating it. The Food N Wine group arranged an afternoon with the gracious Elena Ciotto and her assistant Paola at her boutique hotel and home in Parma. Signora Elena was featured in an Italian magazine during the month we took her class. What a treat! Signora Elena (pictured, left, with her assistant) explains the process of layering the parts of tiramisu. Tiramisu is a creamy, egg-based custard set on a bed of delicate coffee and liqueur kissed lady fingers. Appropriately named, tiramisu means “pick me up!” Delicioso!
Signora Elena (above) gently ladles the rich Bolognese sauce on mounds of homemade pasta as we are drooling for the taste test and a well-earned dinner. This kitchen is part of Signora Elena’s hotel on the outskirts of Parma, which contains six rooms. We plan to stay there in the future and take another class. Bookings for the cooking class and/or hotel can be made through the Food N Wine Tours website.
The proof of a meal is in the eating. A little vino coupled with the fruits of our labor make for a gourmet delight. In this segment we have enjoyed La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life). We experienced the 3 Kings of Italian food and prepared a delicious dinner fit for king! Buon appetite!