We left Bologna early in the morning today to visit local producers of three delicious Italian ingredients: Parmigiana-Reggiano, Prosciutto and Balsamic Vinegar. We were shown around by our wonderful tour guide Fabio and got to see exactly how they are made by the experts. We were told very early on that we were going to go home completely stuffed and we were to embrace it. No holding back, no saving yourself for later and definitely no food left on the table – but nothing could prepare our stomachs for what was about to happen. There was a LOT of incredible food (& even more wine) on the way round as well as a huge meal of over 10 courses at the end 😭, so it’s a bit of a long post and definitely one for the foodies – but bear with me because I can tell you some industry secrets & how to make sure you’re getting the real stuff when you’re shopping at home.
First Stop – Parmigiana-Reggiano!
Parmigiana-Reggiano (often known as Parmesan) is a hard Italian cheese produced in only 353 dairies in select areas of the Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy regions. Parmigiana Reggiano is protected within the EU by the PDO status (protected designation of origin), meaning that any cheese legally classified and labelled as ‘Parmigiana-Reggiano’ (or ‘Parmesan’ in English speaking countries) must be produced in these provinces following specific practices. Therefore outside of the EU, your Parmesan mighty not necessarily be Parmesan PDO, it could be any related hard cheese. Brexit isn’t looking so good now is it!
By law, The production of Parmigiana-Reggiano has to begin immediately when the unpasteurised cows milk arrives at the factory, so when we arrived at 8:30 the process was in full swing. The milk is pumped into huge copper lines vats and heated to begin the fermentation process. A complex of enzymes called rennet is added, which causes the coagulation (setting) of the milk proteins. This leads to the separation of the curd (the raw unprocessed cheese) from the whey (the byproduct). The whey is made into pig feed and sent to prosciutto meat suppliers. The curd is then heated and broken into small pieces by the cheese maker causing them to sink to the bottom of the vat. Here they accumulate into a large ball which is later lifted out, separated into two and tied in muslin. Each ball eventually becomes one wheel of Parmesan. They are pressed tightly into moulds with spring-buckled jackets for two days which imprint the characteristic ‘Parmigiana-Reggiano’ markings, the year and the month of production and the factory’s number into the rind while it’s still soft. Following approximately 20 days submerged in brine, the wheels are then aged for a minimum of 12 months and most often 24 months. During the maturation process the cheese dehydrates, hardens, darkens in colour and intensifies in flavour producing a beautiful tasting cheese – sharp and rich in flavour, with a firm and crystalline structure.
Each wheel is cleaned and inspected periodically during the ageing process. Poor quality wheels with large air bubbles and physical damage are discarded. Poor quality but salvageable wheels are matured for the minimum 12 months and sold off at low prices to some local restaurants and usually turned into the pre-grated packets of Parmesan you can buy in the supermarkets. So if you want top quality Parmesan, buy it in blocks which you can grate or shave at home. The majority of Parmesan is aged for the average 24 months. The whole cheese making process from the raw milk to the final sale is regulated by a consortium founded in 1934. They are called to stamp and approve every single wheel of cheese – if it is not of sufficient quality, it is not considered Parmigiana-Reggiano. Once the wheel has been approved, they can then use the name, and the packing can display the red PDO logo.
Parmesan is a major & highly profitable aspect of Italian food production with over 3.3 million wheels being made every year. The one dairy that we visited had more than €12 million worth of Parmesan maturing in its storage facility. However, because of the way they are stacked in these old facilities, earthquakes can be disastrous for the cheesemaking industry. The 6.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Modena in 2012 caused €200 million worth of damage in the Parmesan and Pecorino factories. The Italian cheese industry in general is also beginning to struggle with recruitment, with few people willing to work the unsociable hours, so who knows what the future holds for this beloved Italian staple cheese.
We tasted both the 12 & 24 month aged cheeses along with pastries, coffee, two topped focaccias, salami and several glasses of Lambrusco wine. Lambrusco is a sparkling red with a poor reputation outside of Bologna. The Bolognese people can’t understand why, and neither can I because the DOC ones are actually quite nice, although perhaps 10am was a bit too early to start drinking.
Next stop… Prosciutto!
Prosciutto refers to dry cured pork leg, usually served raw (crudo) & thinly sliced. The meat has a delicate sweet flavour and soft, smooth texture. The most widely consumed is Prosciutto di Parma (also know as Parma Ham) which is produced in Emilia-Romagna. However in reality the term prosciutto can refer to the dry cured hind leg of any animal and there are over 10 different types of pork prosciutto alone, each holding either a PDO or IGP status.
Prosciutto di Parma has been produced in the same way for thousands of years, only now on a huge industrial scale. First the leg is salted with sea salt and left in refrigerated conditions for several weeks to draw out moisture from the meat. The sea salt also acts as the only preservative for the product. The meat is then rested in refrigerated conditions for around 70 days. This is designed to replicate the way the legs used to be hung out in the cold during winter months. After being washed, the legs are then hung to cure outside of the fridge for 3 months. By this point the outside has hardened but the inside still needs a significantly longer curing period, at least 1 year by law. This final curing is the bit that really stinks 😷. To prevent the outside drying out too much during the final curing, the surface is covered in a paste of salt and pork lard known as ‘sugna’. The prosciutto is tested before sale using a fine needle crafted from horse bone, which has an exceptional ability to quickly absorb the aromas from the prosciutto. These aromas can be used by experts to examine the quality of the product.
As with Parmigiana-Reggiano, the product is protected and regulated by a consortium. If you’re buying prosciutto di Parma, look out for the gold crown logo and the red PDO label as signs of authenticity. Watch out for packets that says prosciutto ‘cotto’, this means the meat has been cooked, so instead of a getting a bargain prosciutto you’ll actually be getting ham.
We tasted three different prosciutto products – di Parma, di Modena, and a truffle infused ham. After seeing the raw pork legs its amazing to think how just air and salt can turn it into this delicious meat. They were all of course washed down with more red wine (about midday at this point).
Next stop …Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
Our next stop was to family run balsamic vinegar producer, much smaller in scale to the previous two factories but still one of the largest in their trade. We we shown around by Francesco who’s the third generation to work on their site in Modena. Although families have been making balsamic vinegar for many years, the first official bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar PDO was actually made as late as 1993 by Francesco’s family (notice the label 0001 in the photo), the same year the consortium was founded. Before this point, there was technically no such thing as traditional balsamic vinegar, and the quality of vinegar on sale could not be guaranteed because their was no specification. It was clear that it really is a family business – engraved barrels are often given as presents for birthdays and weddings etc. Each child born into the family is given a barrel engraved in their name, in this way you age and grow up with the balsamic vinegar.
Balsamic vinegar is generally produced in two ways, following either the IGP or PDO specification. Both products derive from the cooked juice (must) of grapes from Modena or Reggio Emilio followed by maturation in wooden barrels. However the final products are significantly different in terms of both sensory quality and cost.
The first kind is the one we’ve all heard of – Aceto Balsamico di Modena or ‘Balsamic Vinegar of Modena’ (BVM). For producers, this is a fake version of the traditional product. This is the vinegar you will usually find in a restaurant to dip your bread in, or you would have in the cupboard at home to dress a salad for example. This product is cooked grape must and wine vinegar (6% acidity), aged in large barrels for a minimum of 60 days to be granted IGP status, along with many other specific requirements. The key point is that one barrel is used to make one product and that they are used in isolation from each other. The vinegars can of course be aged for several years to change the flavour, viscosity and by extension, the price. Most producers will choose make a significant quantity of this product because of the high demand for cheap, table grade vinegar.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is less acidic at (4.5%) and has a thicker, syrupy consistency to BVM. The flavour is much sweeter & complex due to the long ageing process within different wooden barrels such as juniper, cherry and chestnut, each imparting unique aromas and flavours to the product. TBV is aged in a series of barrels arranged descending volume size. The final product is bottled from the top 7% of the smallest barrel – so a tiny yield, but excellent product. The loss of vinegar through bottling and evaporation is then refilled using the adjacent and next oldest barrel. This then continues along the series with the final one being topped up with fresh grape must. In the way the residual vinegar in the bottling barrel gets older and older, so they cannot put an exact ageing time on the bottle – it can only be ‘at least’ a certain age using a residence time calculation.
The PDO specification for Traditional balsamic vinegar requires a minimum ageing of 12 year, although the finest is aged for at least 18 or 25 years. The age is indicated by the colour of the cap. The time, care and effort that goes into every bottle is also reflected in the price – around €50-€250 for a small bottle. This rounded glass bottle is also patented and a legal requirement for the PDO product. Similar to Parmesan and prosciutto, the vinegar must be tasted and scored by a panel of experts to be given the TBV status.
The vinegar is intended to be used sparingly and in a very different way to BVM. It can be drizzled over a variety of foods including fresh pasta, strong cheeses, steak, vanilla ice cream, custard and strawberries. So if you see balsamic berries on a restaurant menu, it’s probably best to check its traditional, not the fake stuff! The one we tasted was absolutely incredible but unfortunately at €250 a bottle, it’s not going to be coming home with us. Balsamic vinegar producers also makes a huge range of ‘condiment grade’ products to suit people’s needs and budgets, for example balsamic glazes. Look out for white balsamic vinegar, it has a sharper flavour and is great for salad dressings.
Last stop… Lunch
We left Modena around 1:30am and headed to a little family run trattoria fore hat turned out to be the biggest meal of our lives. We started with borlengo, a traditional paper thin bread from Modena, basted with pork fat and topped with Parmesan. Then we moved onto 3 huge platters of pasta to finish between 4 people – pappardelle in a gorgeous sauce of creamy parmesan and salty pancetta, traditional ricotta tortelloni topped with shavings of Parmesan and traditional balsamic vinegar and strozzapreti al ragu. Then we had 3 meat courses – a slow cook wild boar ragu, chicken roasted with garlic and tomato & a steak with salad and mushrooms. They were all delicious but by this point I was so full I couldn’t really enjoy them or even lift my phone to take a photo. Next came the desserts – gnoccho fritto (similar to doughnuts but lighter with an air pocket), served with Nutella & jam, then marscapone cream and crumbles of chocolate cake. And finally out came the coffees, the grappa and the last of the wine that had been constantly filling our glasses throughout the meal. We eventually made it home around 6pm and barely able to walk. Overall it was an amazing day and we met some really lovely people so would really recommend it if you’re in Bologna! Full details of how we booked this experience will come at the end of our trip.
As you can probably imagine we didn’t eat much for a long time, so our last two days in Bologna will be coming together in one blog post very soon. You can also follow our travels on my instagram: @eatwithenzo