Sara Salvarani, Dean of SQcuola di Blog, told me: to start a diet before my trip to Parma was just an utopia. And so it was.
I was in the city for three days and I continued to eat and drink: it’s not really a case that this zone is called the “Food Valley”. In a tour de force I’ve earlier seen only during the big dinners at my granny’s, where if you don’t end everything she has in the house probably you are sick, I tasted amazing PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) specialties, cuddled and carried around from a food to another by the organizers and also the producers themselves, who in first person where making sure we weren’t out of rations.
The blog tour
Our third day in Parma, after the opening and presenting the project works, was dedicated to a relaxing blog tour organized by SQcuola di Blog in collaboration with Parma nel Cuore del Gusto and the tour operator Food Valley Travel, that took us for a trip on the hills around the city for a visit to the places where DOP products from Emilia are produced.
At 8.00 AM the bus was waiting for us outside the hotel in which we were guests to take us to three places: one where we could see the Parmesan production, another the Parma Ham and the last one where wine is made.
Caseificio Santo Stefano: the production of Parmigiano Reggiano DOP
Our first stop was Caseificio Santo Stefano, one of the production centers of the renowned and unique in the world Parmigiano Reggiano.
As first thing, let’s explain the early morning wake up: this was not because they wanted us to be tired, but, as they explained during the opening conference on Friday, for a production matter: the cheese production operations are done at precise times, and only at those. Tourists and curious arrive later? Sorry, it’s done. This is part of the uniqueness of the product and of the production process, that are, of course, related: a slow, articulated path, never adapted (and corrupted) to please the business. Here exists a time that is not adjusted on something else and it’s the only one resulting in the original product.
The tour started in a room in which we met our tour guide and we had given a little kit to wear on our clothes to protect them and, of course, the integrity of the Parmesan produced in the while: between a laugh and some embarrassment, we wore a plastic cloak, shoes protections, hairnet and a mask.
This was the moment in which all the doubts about the mask (the guide told us that it was an optional precaution) stopped existing: once the doors of the cheese factory opened, we entered a shady, humid and steamy space and our nostrils were tackled by a pretty strong smell. It came from the first ambient we entered, the one where the production starts and that is full of the steam of milk and rennet in the air. So, as first thing: masks down on our noses before continuing the visit.
Now we were ready to enter the big room where the magic production of Parmigiano Reggiano starts: it’s a white space, covered in ceramic tiles in which there are some big metal tanks. They are full of skimmed milk coming from the day before’s milking, that is added to the morning’s fresh one (to produce a cheese wheel are needed about 600 liters), to the natural rennet and to the whey; all these mixed together will trigger a reaction that will have as a result the PDO cheese. All this is realized by a team of workers that pass from tank to tank, under the direction of the Maestro Casario.
The tool you can see in the picture is called “spino” and the action that the worker is doing is “spinatura”, that is needed to break the curd and to create the typical Parmesan granules.
After this the milk is slowly cooked and the granules are collected at the bottom; at this point they are lifted up to create the wheel.
When these operations end, the cheese is taken to the next space to be inserted in the shapes and marked with the so-called stencilling band (the one that the guide shows in the picture):
it is the band that impresses the dot writing you can find on the outside of Parmigiano Reggiano when you buy it. On this, other than the name “Parmigiano Reggiano”, there are some other data, as the producer’s identification number and the month and year of production. To every form is applied a casein plate with a number, the ID document of the form.
The visit continues in the Salting room: here the Parmesan wheels are immersed in special pools of salty water to activate the process of “salting by absorption”. They will remain here for a period between 20 and 30 days.
Finally, there’s the last room: the one where Maturation happens. Here the wheels will rest for the first 12 months on immense wooden shelves; passed these, they will undergo a quality test that, if passed, will permit them to receive the official mark and to continue their maturation up to 24/48 months.
The ambient is pretty characteristic; at the opening conference they talked about “banks” in which the wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO were conserved during maturation, and this room seems exactly this: an armoured deposit.
The big room is fresh and we find inside a worker: he is unloading the heavy fresh cheese wheels on a wheeled scaffold, probably to put them together with the others.
Hundreds of Parmesan wheels rest on the shelves and to walk among them is pretty impressive; it seems to be in a museum of food, it‘s natural to talk low. What you can’t see from my pictures is that actually the cheeses on the shelves have particular colour shades: the light yellow of the fresh wheels, just arrived for the maturation; the full yellow of those around 12 months; then, the orange, sometimes light brown, of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO in full maturation.
After the end of the visit, we are back to the starting room, where we take off our clothes’ protections just in time to have a taste of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO. Do I have to say that if tasted from the producer, in its land, it is a true delicacy?
In the end they gifted us also a bag with the mark of Consorzio del Parmigiano Reggiano (the Consortium for the protection of the originality of the product); inside there were leaflets about the cheese and its production, but also some kitchen tools and a recipe book. All this, together with the portion of Parmesan I bought at the shop of the place, was very appreciated by Stevie, who followed my trip from Belfast and can’t wait to welcome all these new things in his kitchen 😉
The Salumificio “La Perla” and the production of Parma Ham
The second stop of our blog tour was dedicated to another typical product of Emilia: the famous Prosciutto di Parma, the Parma Ham. In this case as well we went directly to the source: Mister Carlo himself, owner of Salumificio La Perla, welcomed us. And he did it in the best way ever: with a long table covered in salumi (cold meats like ham, salame, etc), Parmigiano Reggiano with Balsamic Vinegar Cream and wines of the zone.
The Parma Ham, of course produced there, was so good there that we had tears in our eyes.
Personally I tried for the first time Parmigiano Reggiano dipped in the Balsamic Vinegar Cream and it was an unique experience: the taste was a real surprise.
Ended the tasting, still with a smile on our faces and now really curious about the visit, we went down to the part of the building where they produce the real Parma Ham. Again, before entering the place, we wore plastic protections.
Mister Carlo was our special guide: in the middle of the place, standing on himself, he explained the ham’s production steps during all maturation times. Fridge after fridge, he took us around: every door he opened was letting us see an enormous quantity of hams.
Again, the smell was the master sense, and it wasn’t completely a surprise when we discovered that the right level of maturation is decided on the base of the smell of the ham: in the final phase, just before the marking as DOP product, the ham is probed with a needle of horse bone, material that can absorb the product’s aroma and then let them out very fast, and smelled; the experts, as Mister Carlo is, are able to recognize the smell of the original Parma Ham.
As we previously seen for Parmigiano Reggiano, also the Parma Ham to become PDO has to pass the controls, but most of all to follow the rigid discipline that the Consortium imposed to its production companies to regulate all the production steps following a precise method respecting the tradition.
Azienda Agricola Palazzo: vineyard and wines of Parma
After leaving Salumificio La Perla, we go towards the last stop of our blog tour: we are guests of Maurizio Dodi, President of the Consorzio dei Vini dei Colli di Parma and Wine Entrepreneur, in his marvellous Azienda Agricola Palazzo.
We went up the hills, in the very middle of the country on both sides; then, suddenly, we seen the building among the vineyards. We went off the bus and Mister Dodi came to welcome us: he is a very friendly person, it’s a pleasure to be his guests.
We enter the building and we find ourselves straight away in the beautiful tasting room, with wide windows looking on a terrace with a breath-taking view: the vineyards around, true protagonists of the landscape and of the products for which we are here to Azienda Palazzo, and beyond them a green hill that let us see far away other buildings, villas or factories themselves, immersed in the country under the blue sky.
We enjoy this paradise and in the while we start a live broadcasting from Food Vally Travel Facebook page. There are fully set tables and a cook cutting salume, but after the big tasting break at La Perla we think no more food is waiting for us.
We are wrong: first thing, we are in Emilia, Italian region famous for hospitality, then to be a true wine expert you have to be able to match it with the right foods. And which ones are perfect, but the typical ones of the zone? The cellar of Azienda Agricola Palazzo offers its own wines, but also selected products, typical of the zone.
After a bit the tables are covered in food and it’s clear that they are waiting for us. We sit and start to help ourselves from the plates full of Parma Ham, Salame, Coppa, vegetables and, of course, tasting wines. I’m not an expert and generally I drink very few wine, but the ones we tasted at this table were so good that also the people like me became wine lovers. The first bottle, a Sia Rosè, was combined with the appetizer and it was simply perfect. Then they served us some typical herbs tortelli with butter and Parmesan, combined with a Malvasia Doc. Finally we tasted a selection of desserts.
Between a glass of wine and a chat with my tablemates, the time to go back to the city and then home has come: a bit sad, we get in the bus and, once in Parma, we wave at each other.
Bye SQcuola di Blog, bye Classe IX: it’s been three intense and beautiful days. See you all in October! 😉
p.s. once again I have to say sorry for the pictures; same problem as before: my camera’s lense is borken, so I had to take pictures with my phone :'(