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Eric: A great day with cheese, ham & vinegar

June 3, 2010

Another full day of excursions. Today we went out of Tuscany into the Italian region of Emilia–Romagna, where we visited Parma and Modena. Since it is a pretty long ride from Florence to Parma (almost 3 hours), we stopped in the middle of the trip for some coffee and breakfast. We picked up our tour guide at a bus station in Parma, and headed for a local Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese production house. Run by family, it wasn’t a big place. As we were a little late, the head cheesemaker (yes, it’s an official title) was already mixing the milk when we walked in. We saw him taking some fat out of a huge upside-down cone shape pot full of milk and starting stirring front and back. As much as the substances in the pot looked like liquid, they were slowly forming into little grain-like cheese particles. A machine then took over the job and started stirring.

We went down to the basement, where newly form wheels of cheese were stored and salted in brine (water + sea salt). Since the amount of salt in the water was as much as the water could dissolve, the wheels of cheese actually floated in the brine, despite their heavy weight (more than 80 pounds per wheel). We then went into their storeroom, where we saw wheels and wheels of cheese of different age sitting on shelves, waiting patiently until they can finally be called and labeled Parmigiano-Reggiano, which takes at least 18 months, after which a wheel also has to pass inspection. Now, Parmigiano-Reggiano is often translated as Parmesan in English. But those green bottles of grated cheese labeled Parmesan are absolutely different and definitely not Parmigiano-Reggiano. According to the European Union, cheese that could be called Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be produced in the Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and parts of Mantua and Bologna, and has to follow specific procedures. This includes only using milk from local farms, where the cows are fed specific diet, using sea salt, aging it 18 months, etc.

Visiting a cheese production house obviously won’t be complete without tasting the cheese, so we were led to the sales area, where two plates of cheese (one being 12 months old  and the other 18 months) served with white wine, walnuts, balsamic vinegar, and honey. Now, this may sound a little strange, but cheese with honey or with balsamic vinegar tasted absolutely delicious. It has something to do with the saltiness of the cheese being balanced by the sweetness of honey or balsamic vinegar. It was also the first wine I liked, as it was sweet and really easy to drink (it was 10 am in the morning).

We also got a free gift bag containing information about the cheese, a cheese knife, and a cheese slicer. The wife of the head cheesemaker was so nice that you would want to give her a hug. She was really passionate about what she does, and really eager to share everything she knows with us. It’s like visiting grandma, she just kept telling you to eat more food!

After the little “snack break:, we went back to the production place, where we saw the huge formed curd of cheese being taken out of the whey (the pot) and put into mold. It was really impressive, as we only saw 3 people working there: the head cheesemaker, his wife, and his son, and those cheese wheels are extremely heavy. They have to do a lot of things by hand, and they do this 365 days a year. Everyday they produce 10 wheels of cheese.

Next, we headed to Salumificio La Perla, a prosciutto curdo production place in Parma. The view on top of the hill where the production is located was amazing. We were led inside by Signor Lanfranchi, who taught us the process of making Prosciutto Curdo, which is basically ham. The rear legs of Italian pigs are brought up to the production, covered by sea salt, and stored at a specific temperature. Then, the sea salt is washed off, and the legs are moved into a different room with different temperature. They are then hung onto racks and stored at another temperature. After certain period of time (I can’t remember the specific number as there were too many), the area that covered by fat or skin are covered by lard from the area near a pig’s ribs (best lard there is apparently). The legs are then moved into the final room, where they are stored at 12 degrees Celsius for a minimum of 12 months. Like Parmigiano-Reggiano, for ham to be called Crudo di Parma, there are specific procedures to be followed, and the ham must be produced in Parma. There is also an inspection process to certify the ham as Crudo di Parma.

As it was lunch time, the tasting of ham was very welcomed. We were each served an assortment of sliced meat, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, bread, wine, and cake. It was a very satisfying lunch, even though I did feel bad for the vegetarians in the group. The different cuts of meat all worked great with the bread. Today was a very high-protein day.

After lunch, we headed for Modena, where we visited Acetaia San Matteo, a place that makes Modena’s traditional balsamic vinegar. Even though the name has vinegar in it, balsamic vinegar actually has a sweet taste that makes it perfect to add on to many things. We learned that to make traditional balsamic vinegar, time is of the essence. After the grapes are picked, cooked, and stored in barrels (this is extremely simplified version of the process), the liquid has to sit in the barrel for at least 12 years to be called balsamic vinegar, and even this is only the medium-quality. The most traditional high-quality aceto balsamico has to sit in the barrel for 25 years, at which point it has to pass a series of inspections to determine its quality, density, and other properties. Once the liquid passes the inspection, it can be called balsamic vinegar of Modena. Like the previous two food items, the vinegar is place-specific, and must be produced in Modena. For the tasting, we were offered vinegar of 7 years old, 17 years old, and 30 years old. You really can tell the difference, as the sweetness of the younger is a little more obvious, while the older ones are more dense and have stronger after tastes.

Following the pattern above, the family owning the place prepared food to be tasted with balsamic vinegar. This kind of hospitality must be really common, as pretty much everywhere we go, they treated us like their children and prepare more than enough delicious food for us, just because we came to learn about them. It really reminded me of the kind of treatment I get whenever I visit my relatives in Taiwan. Back to the food: we got a full long table of different “snacks,” and we were suggested to put balsamic vinegar on every single one of them. Believe it or not, brownie and prosciutto pizza both didn’t taste bad with balsamic vinegar. I had more than enough food that I considered this dinner. We even got gelato with strawberry jam (that has balsamic vinegar in it) as dessert. The place also sells balsamic vinegar, which can actually be pretty pricey if you want to buy the really old ones. On the shelves, 100 ml of  30 years old balsamic vinegar costs 85 euros, 17 years old costs 50 euros, and 7 years old costs 15 euros. And since this is where the vinegar is originally produced, the price is still cheaper than what you would find in Florence.

Before we left, we went to the top level of the store house, where more different ages of vinegar are stored, most notably being the 200 years old barrel. Imagine the vinegar in it existed when Napoleon was still alive, the US was still a young country, and none of us even existed! The production had a really nice view, with the vineyard outside and clear blue sky. Today was a really good day.

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