A Day of Cheese, Vinegar, Prosciutto, and Food Coma!
When I was choosing where to spend my weekend after Milan Design Week, I originally had decided on Cinque Terre. It was a place I missed visiting on my Pisa/Florence/Bologna trip a few years ago, and it seemed like a relaxing place to be for just a couple of days.
When I looked into it more, though, it seemed like a combination of cute buildings, stunning scenery, and a bunch of tourists. Which isn't bad, Lake Como is kind of like that. But I thought back to my Pisa/Florence/Bologna trip, when I had already taken a gelato-making class and a pasta-making class, and remembered another part of the region that I missed: learning more about the vinegar of Modena ("balsamic vinegar" as we call it in the US), Parmesan cheese, and Parma ham.
I investigated doing a tour of my own, looking up different cheese factories and their opening times, seeing how much it was to go by taxi to the different spots. I quickly came to the conclusion that a food tour would be much more convenient, relaxing, and potentially cost-saving. The food tour from Italian Days had wonderful reviews online, so I just booked it and didn't think twice about it.
Last time I stayed over in Bologna, so this trip I wanted a change of pace and decided to stay over in Modena instead (Bologna is lovely, small city, while Modena is more of a charming, large town). The food tour mainly took place in the province of Modena, but it departed from Bologna. So I took an super-early morning train to make a 7:00am pick up from the Bologna train station. The van was already waiting with a full load of participants, so I jumped in the front seat and off we went into the countryside back towards Modena.
Our first stop was the factory of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Tours of the cheese factories usually take place early in the morning, because that's when the dairy farmers come with their deliveries of milk and the factory is active.
Throughout the tour we learned about the DOP designation, Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or protected geographical designation of origin. For Parmigiano Reggiano, even the milk needs to come from the area, the cheese weighs 40 kg. (88 lbs.), and the minimum aging time is 12 months. Here in the mixing room, the cheesemaker is lifting out the curds for exactly two wheels of cheese.
Here the two wheels are draining for the first time.
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is made from half whole milk and half skimmed milk. With the leftover fat from skimming, they make ricotta cheese. This must be the freshest ricotta there is!
The cheese is then placed into molds, further pressed and drained, and then submerged in a saline bath. Then they're brought to the aging room where they stay at least until they reach their 12 month birthday. They're also flipped every now and then.
Then they're tested, by using a hammer and listening to the inside. A hollow sound means there's air inside, and therefore potential bacteria growth. If they pass the inspection, the Consortium, which regulates Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, gives the wheel its stamp of approval. Finally it's officially "Parmigiano Reggiano" cheese.
After the tour, we had our "breakfast" of pastries, focaccia with mortadella, salami, and of course, a tasting of 12 month cheese and 24 month cheese. This factory is known more for their 12 month cheese, because it's sweeter. The average age of maturation is 24 months for Parmigiano Reggiano. We washed it all down with sweet, bubbly Lambrusco wine, which also comes from this area.
We hopped back into our vans (there were quite a lot of us, maybe about 15), and drove across the street to the acetaia, where they make the balsamic vinegar. In Spain, we actually call balsamic vinegar "Modena." But I'm sure none of the balsamic vinegar we use, even labelled "Modena," is DOP vinegar from Modena.
True Modena vinegar is made from only 100% cooked grape juice, and then aged in these ex-wine barrels. They have this series of wine barrels called a battery, and every year 5% of the first barrel is added to the next one, and on and on until 5% is taken out of the smallest barrel for consumption/selling. The barrels get smaller and smaller due to natural evaporation - the barrels aren't sealed, but just covered with that cloth on top. In this family, they make a new battery when they have a new baby, so all of the barrels in this battery are named after the daughter Giorgia.
To get the DOP designation, the grapes must be of a handful of varieties from the region, and the minimum aging time is TWELVE YEARS!! So if you were a "startup" vinegar producer, your first product wouldn't come out until 12 years from the day you put the grape juice in the barrel.
Then we got to taste the different vinegars of different ages, and also the balsamic vinegar "IGP" product. The "IGP" just means it's aged for at least 60 days and is mixed with wine vinegar. They say the IGP product can be used for salad dressing, but the DOP product is good with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, ricotta, ice cream, or even just eaten straight up from a spoon.
Then we visited the prosciutto ham factory. This was a bit less interesting as no one was working at the time (of course, being a Saturday). Still quite impressive to see all of the meat hanging, and moving room to room from raw to finished product. Each room has a different temperature, mimicking the temperature and humidity of the seasons, just as prosciutto used to cure over the course of a year.
And of course, we had our tasting too!
Our final stop was a restaurant called Antica Trattoria Moretto, for our "light lunch" as Italian Days jokingly calls it.
First, a lasagna with green noodles, and celery inside...
Then tagliatelle with ragu... and also a delicious dish of huge tortelloni that I didn't get a picture of!
The pasta was just the appetizer! Then out came the "main course" platters, and these big puffy fried bread, gnocco fritto.
Tigella, another sort of bread from the region...
By this time, I could only manage to take a spoonful of the main course platters: braised beef, braised chicken, mushrooms, and polenta and cheese sauce.
Then came dessert part one. This isn't a shared platter, it's an individual serving! On the top is a chocolate "mortadella," then a chocolate mousse, a version of tiramisu, but with custard and brandy-soaked cake on the bottom, and a cream in ice cream cone.
And then there was this other dessert with cherry pie and I guess an apricot pie? It was kind of a pity to have so much food, and not enough stomach to eat everything. And this was followed by coffee!
On the Italian Days website, they say:
Tour includes: 3 Factory Tours with FULL TASTING, Lunch, Wines, FUN, Kit visitors for the Parmigiano Factory, Transportation, Insurance and FOOD COMA!!!!
Indeed, on the van ride back to the Bologna train station, I fell into deep food coma!
At the end of the day, I was wiser with all of the knowledge I gained about the world-renowned foods all from this region, well fed, and carrying some nice souvenirs home. I got a wedge of each 12-month and 24-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano (I think they were cheaper than the "inferior" grana padano that we get in the supermarket in Spain), and a bottle of the "real" Modena vinegar. A splurge at 62 € for 100ml, but I thought it was a unique souvenir.
At 150€, the tour isn't cheap, but I actually found it to be a great value considering all of the transportation among the different sites, the organization, and of course the food. It was quite a big group, as I think word has really gotten out about this particular tour (check out any TripAdvisor message board thread about Bologna or Modena), but the group didn't feel too big. And the benefit is that for a solo traveler, I didn't have to worry about the tour cancelling for lack of participants.
In a country chock full of grand food traditions, Emilio Romagna stands even higher above the rest, as the home of Parma ham, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar of Modena, ragu (Bolognese sauce), mortadella (bologna), etc. etc. etc... I'd highly recommend this tour to get immersed in some of these traditions!