Parma, Italy: Food, food and more food
Updated: Jul 16
The last stop before settling into our apartment for a month was Parma. Although it was not exactly on the way from Trento to Florence, Parma was on our must-do list because we wanted to learn how some of our favorite foods are made - what better place to do it than the place that believes craftsmanship and love can make simple food into art. All of the foods we'd experience were PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), which means that they can only be labeled as Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, or Aceto Balsamico di Modena if it comes from these particular regions of Italy and contains only certain approved ingredients (the cows must graze on certain grasses, pigs eat certain local nuts, etc.).
Our first morning in Parma we got up early and set out on a tour to end all tours - an entire day of learning and tasting the true soul of Italy. First up: The Borgo del Gazzano Parmigiano Reggiano cheese factory.
This family-run farm is simply a large building in the middle of fields with some cows right next door. There is no assembly line or teams of workers churning out cheese, just two men working at two large vats using a wooden paddle, some cheese cloth, and their muscles. Cows are milked three times each day and production runs 365 days a year (it's a lot of work to make this cheese!). The production is a closed-cycle supply chain with every single ingredient sourced locally inside the farm. All Parmigiano Reggiano is aged at least one year - this is not the parmesan cheese in the green cans in the US pasta aisle!
We watched as the two men worked their magic on a heated vat that consisted of three simple and natural ingredients - milk, salt, and rennet. Once the milk naturally formed curds the men used cheese cloth to form a single mass from the curds - and then split the one large ball into two. On a single day this is all they make - two balls from two vats that result in four wheels of cheese.
Once the balls are removed from the vats they are placed into molds, where the producer's "stamp" is also pressed into the side of the wheel. Then it's off to aging, where we stood among rows and rows of cheese in various stages - some aging for more than five years!
Then the good part, we tasted various cheeses ranging from one year to five years (drizzled with balsamico and accompanied by wine, of course). It was amazing. We have a new and total appreciation for the the art of making this cheese and will never buy any imitators ever again! Now, off to learn about ham!
Again, we arrived at a small, family-run operation and dressed to enter the facility. The smell...oh, the smell. Let's just say it was pungent as we went through the phases of production.
Known for its slight sweet, nutty flavor, Prosciutto di Parma is made from the rear haunches of the pig and undergoes a painstaking process of curing and trimming before gaining the PDO seal. There are no preservatives or artificial ingredients used, the legs are salted by a maestro salatore (salt master), refrigerated for 90 days, then washed and hung in a drying room where they will undergo an initial and final curing before being stamped.
How does one know when it is done drying and ready to go to market? Well, experts insert a horse bone needle into the meat and smell...these experts can tell exactly when the ham is done curing and ready to be sold. After the tour we didn't simply taste the fruits of their labor, we had an entire lunch of prosciutto and ravioli and wine, and the most amazing dessert - Sbrisolina cake.
Full from lunch, we were next on our way to Modena to visit the Giuseppe Giusti balsamico production facility (which was really just an estate), where the Giusti family has been producing Balsamic vinegar since 1605. Balsamic vinegar is made from grape must (whole grapes with stems, seeds, skin and all) and can come from different varietals, including Lambrusco, Sangiovese, Trebbiano and others.
Recognized throughout the world for its quality, Giusti Balsamic Vinegar was granted the title of "Supplier of the Royal House of Savoy" in 1929 by King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele III. Of all the places we visited, this was perhaps the most surprising, not only because of how balsamico is made but because it's literally a bunch of open barrels sitting in an attic for years! And there is an actual vinegar master who continually tests and tweaks and transfers vinegar from barrel to barrel, it was fascinating. If you love balsamic vinegar, definitely check out their site to learn more. You'll never look at salad dressing the same again!
The older a barrel is, more it allows the wood and balsamic aromas to mature together and that results in a better end product - there are some pretty old barrels at Guisti, dating back to the 1700s and 1800s. There is actual balsamico in that open hole in the center photo, just sitting there getting old until the vinegar master decides it's ready (other pics show the holes covered with cloth - thank goodness, it was driving us crazy thinking about bugs getting in!).
After that tour we tasted a bunch of different balasmicos - just plain shots of vinegar - and purchased a few to take with us. We were told we should drizzle some on eggs, vanilla ice cream, vegetables and all sorts of things but we especially love it drizzled on chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano. We've been doing that a lot - definitely try it. And, if you're ever in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy definitely take a day to discover this special place where tradition, patience, and craftsmanship come together to create some truly amazing food.
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Enjoy a taste of our travels with drink recipes on Instagram - Worldwide.Cocktails.