We’ve a slight departure from the norm in our travel feature this weekend, as Karen Yates journeys to a corner of Italy for a specific, singular purpose; to understand the significance of a foodstuff that heralded our understanding of a ‘designated origin’…
It’s 7am, a waxing moon still visible in the sky, and we are covering our hair, clothes and shoes in thin blue plastic caps, overalls and slippers as we prepare to enter the dairy at Dall’Agliofarm, aka dairy 222 (of 335), to learn all there is to know about the simple, still largely traditional method of making Parmesan cheese (henceforth known by its official name); real Parmigiano Reggiano PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), a product so fiercely guarded that since 1934 it has had its own consortium to protect it.
The process begins with just over 1,000 litres of fresh raw milk being poured into a 2.5-metre-deep copper-lined steel cauldron. Added to the milk is 25 litres of whey from the previous day’s production and 15g rennet to start the setting process. It’s labour-intensive; a man stirs each cauldron with a large metal spoon-like object before heating to 55°C, at which point the mixture turns pale yellow as it starts to coagulate. Some whey is put aside for tomorrow’s cheese-making, the rest is turned into ricotta or used to feed pigs.
Once the mixture has cooled, coagulated and the solid mass sunk to the bottom of the cauldron, two men heave it out of the liquid. At this point it resembles a huge mozzarella. It is cut in two vertically, and provided they are of a high-enough standard for the consortium, each of these halves will become a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano worth between 400 and 500 euros.
The wheel then sits in a plastic round (this produces the distinctive dotted words and patterns on the rind) for three days, before being submerged in a pool of salted water for 18 days, during which time a process of osmosis means it takes in salt and dispels any remaining whey. After this, the wheel is cleaned with sweet water to remove salt from the rind and put into a maturation room to ripen along with, at this dairy, 2,500 other wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano for about a year, 24 months, 36 months or longer.
When it is time for the grand opening, a representative of the consortium judges assesses whether it is good enough to pass a strict test. Using a metal hammer, needle and scoop, the representative listens for vibrations from the hammer for equal density and checks visually for any defects, such as cracks and holes, before allowing the oval hallmark of approval to be fire-branded onto the rind. Any wheels that don’t pass the test cannot be called Parmigiano Reggiano but can be sold at a lower price as Italian hard cheese.
There are other stipulations, including one that 75 per cent of the cows’ forage must come from Emilia-Romagna; dairy 222 uses 100 per cent. Indeed, it’s the local alfalfa grass in the cows’ diet that gives the milk and therefore the cheese its distinctive taste and aroma. The genetics of the cows is also important (they must be one of four specific breeds), and no additives or preservatives other than salt are added. Surprisingly, it is also lactose-free because within 48 hours of milking the lactose becomes lactic acid, thanks to three friendly strains of bacteria in the milk from the cows’ diet.
After all this we are desperate to taste some. A wheel of 24-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano, weighing 40 kilos, is opened for us, with some ceremony, using just two knives to cut into the sides before the halves are prized apart. It smells as good as you hope it would and the taste is intense, milky, sweet and salty with a slightly granular texture. Everyone approves and this particular wheel passes with flying colours.
Later that day we visit Acetaia San Giacomo, to taste Aceto di Reggio Emilia PDO. We taste young vinegar, then vinegars of increasing ages up to 25 years. The latter is thick, slightly sweet despite containing no added sugar and is superb served with Parmigiano Reggiano, bread and wines made with local grapes. This is where the terroir comes in – all taste very much of the area and the combination is sublime.
Back in Parma, there are plenty of local tavernas to choose from, including Osteria dei Servi, on Piazza Ghiaia, next to the market place, where chef Enrico Malpeli serves traditional dishes and the local sparkling red Lambrusco (forget any notions of that awful fizzy stuff from yesteryear – this is like a fruity summer pudding in a glass) and sparkling white Malvasia in small white crockery bowls, from a time when people ate and drank everything from one vessel, and offers Parmigiano Reggiano and Parma ham with torta fritta, puffy little parcels of fried bread dough.
In the evenings Parmigiani stop to meet friends at bars like Tabarro, owned by the eccentric Diego, one of the judges at Vinitaly, Italy’s largest annual wine exhibition. Over the course of the evening, the unhurried Diego matches Parmigiano Reggiano and cold cuts to the local wines, including three ages of the cheese (12, 26 and 30 months; for the record, the greatest leap in flavour is from 12 to 26 months, while the cheese is generally sweeter, fruitier and grainier at 36 months) with Albino Maria Cavazzuti, a natural white wine made from pinot noir grapes, and a 10-year-old Parmigiano Reggiano with a Marsala from the 1980s.
As for fine dining, I loved Caffè Arti e Mestieri, where chef Gianni D’Amato makes artistic, elegant, flavour-packed dishes including ‘erbazzone splash’, which looks like a Jackson Pollock painting, and a fabulous risotto made with Parmigiano Reggiano, Lambrusco and saba vinegar, again served with local Lambrusco wines. Gianni’s celebrated food could be loosely described as Italian fare made with a creative flourish; enjoy it in the leafy garden or in the print-lined interior.
Ristorante Inkiostro, on the other hand, is all about modern – both the setting and the food. In this Michelin-starred restaurant, chef Terry Giacomello uses molecular gastronomy to create beautiful dishes including egg white tagliolini, Parmigiano Reggiano sauce and black truffle caviar; and ravioli with whey. Dessert include a spectacular soufflé, made with Parmigiano Reggiano, of course, and served in a white teacup alongside ice cream and flower petals.
On our final morning, we visited the astonishingly well-preserved medieval Torrechiara castle, about 25 minutes’ drive from Parma and filled with exquisite murals depicting fauna, flora and everyday life as well as a great passion, all with opera playing in the background and with sweeping views over the region. Then, on our way back to the airport, we stopped in the village of Coloreto for lunch at Trattoria ai due Platani. It has a Michelin Bib Gourmand and its Emilian cuisine includes Parmigiano Reggiano and excellent cold cuts with more torta fritta, a lovely pumpkin soup with almonds, the best eggs Benedict I’ve ever eaten complete with Parmigiano Reggiano, spinach and shaved truffles; tortilla stuffed with pumpkin, ricotta and Swiss chard; and gelato made in a 1950s machine just before we ate it. All, as with every meal we enjoyed, served with wines made with the local grapes.
That evening, back in England, we couldn’t help but notice a huge, luminous harvest moon in the sky. Considering all the Parmigiano Reggiano and the vivid dreams some of us had experienced in Parma, perhaps the moon really is made of cheese after all.
Karen stayed at Grand Hotel de la Ville. For more information, visit www.grandhoteldelaville.com. Flights to Bologna with British Airways start at £250 return.
Learn more about Parmigiano Reggiano at parmigianoreggiano.com.