Postcards from Italy

Parma Food Tour

There are places in Italy where you also visit for the food. Puglia has its wonderful Baroque and beaches, and also the food. Sicily has its unique history and culture, and also the food. Tuscany is all wine and landscapes...and also the food.

Emilia Romagna, specifically the area surrounding Parma, is pretty much only the food. Yes, there are a few interesting cities to visit, and, as in all of Italy, there are important historical sites and museums. But let’s face it: the main reason for stopping in Parma and environs is to eat, so much so that this area is known in Italy as “Food Valley”.

wall-of-prosciutto-parma-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Parma’s most famous products are prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano, its dried and aged ham and iconic cheese. The nearby city of Modena is home to Italy’s most prestigious balsamic vinegar (check back Friday for more details!), and, if you are still hungry, you can head to Bologna for egg pasta, in particular tortellini. The best way to fit in tastings for all the best of these local products in one day is on a food tour, where you visit producers and see the process up close, and then taste directly from the source.

parmigiano-parma-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

We recently toured Parma, forks in hand (Ok, not with forks. But definitely with appetites.), and were struck again by how much more we were able to appreciate the subtleties in the tastes and textures after having the opportunity to see first hand the time and care that goes into these products. Here’s what you can expect:

Parmigiano Reggiano

Our first stop was to see a caseificio, or cheese factory, where giant wheels of Italian Parmesan, or, to be more exact, Parmigiano Reggiano, are made. This hard, aged, umami-rich cheese is produced in an area covering the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and parts of Mantua and Bologna, and has a history dating back almost a millennium when a group of Benedictine monks began producing cheeses specifically for long maturation.

birth-parmigiano-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

The base ingredients for Parmigiano are strictly controlled, and only milk from certain farms where cows are fed exclusively locally-grown forage is allowed to be used to make this prestigious and geographically certified cheese. Twice a day, fresh milk is delivered: the evening delivery is put in large stainless steel vats and left over night to let the cream rise. The next morning, the partially skim milk is drained from the bottom of the containers into large copper cauldrons where the morning's delivery of fresh whole milk is added followed by calf rennet and fermented whey.

parmigiano-parma-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

The milk starts to coagulate quickly, and the curd is broken down by a special tool called a spino and then slowly cooked until the cheese granules sink to the bottom and form a single mass. After a half-hour rest, the mass is deftly removed by master cheese makers, divided into two portions, wrapped in cheesecloth, and placed in the round mold which will give the Parmigiano wheels their iconic shape.

salt-bath-parmigiano-parma-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Each wheel is marked with a unique ID code, indicating the date, dairy registration number, and traditional dotted pattern around the circumference and, after a few days, immersed in a water and salt solution for a month-long salting cycle. Once sufficiently salted, the wheels are laid out in long rows in the aging chambers, where they slowly dry and form a natural crust over anywhere from 12 to 36 months. It is during this period that the cheeses form their unique grainy texture, and, when cut, become crumbly.

parmigiano-parma-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

The process is not complete until the final product is tested by a quality control expert, who examines each round and marks it with a red seal for cheeses aged 18 months, a silver seal for those aged 22 months, and a gold seal for those over 30 months. You can taste samples aged different lengths, and notice immediately how the younger cheeses taste strongly of milk and herbs, the older cheeses more deeply of fruit and nuts, and the longest aged have the most complex and pervasive flavor.

Our insider tip: Each Thursday, caseifici make fresh ricotta so you can purchase some and use it to make tortelli (stuffed pasta) for Friday.

Prosciutto di Parma

We moved on to an artisan prosciutto di Parma workshop, or prosciuttificio. Locals have been curing ham here for over 2,000 years, though in the very small area in the hills surrounding Parma, the process has become so perfected as to merit its own geographic certification and brand with the famous Parma crown. This prosciutto is made from just a few breeds of pig, which are raised in a specific area of Italy on a regulated diet (including the whey from Parmigiano Reggiano cheese production), reaching an age of 9 months and a weight of at least 140 kilograms before being suitable for prosciutto di Parma production.

At the prosciuttificio, they are no longer pigs but already pork. You begin your visit in the salting room, where rows of 15 kilogram fresh legs from specially selected and authorized slaughterhouses are covered with pure sea salt by a maestro saltatore, or salt master. This is the only preservative used in genuine prosciutto di Parma, which contains no nitrates or nitrites, and dampened salt is used on the exposed meat portions while dry is used for the rest of the ham.

prosciutto-parma-ruliano-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

After a week in cold storage, a second salting, and another two to three weeks absorption time, the hams are left to cure for at least 70 days before being washed and brushed to remove all the excess salt. Now the real curing begins, with hams hung on towering frames in well-ventilated curing rooms which allow for the hams to dry gradually until the surface has dried and hardened, about three months. Though these rooms are temperature and humidity controlled, most also have large windows which are opened when the weather is favorable to allow outside air in, which many believe contributes to prosciutto di Parma’s unique flavor.

prosciutto-parma-ruliano-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

After a final coat of sugna —often a mix of lard, salt, and sometimes pepper or spices, though the prosciuttificio we visited uses a unique rice flour paste--is applied to prevent the surface from drying too rapidly, and a final curing in the cantine cellars which lasts from the 7th month to anywhere from the 12th to the 36th month, for the maximum three year curing time allowed, the hams are carefully checked by quality control. A special long “needle” made of horse bone is inserted in five points, and sniffed by experts to check for any anomalies in the aroma that might mean imperfect aging. If the prosciutto passes this final test, it gets branded with the five-pointed Parma crown attesting to its quality and origin.

prosciutto-parma-ruliano-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

After our tour of the facility, it was time to sit down and sample some paper-thin shavings of this carefully selected and aged prosciutto, and it’s rich flavor and delicate texture made the three year aging time seem just right.

prosciutto-parma-ruliano-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Our insider tip: Fridays are meat delivery day, so passionate home butchers can see the arrival of the legs that day.

What struck us most about both our visit to the caseificio and the prosciuttificio was the scent. At the caseificio, the outside smelled of cows. Just inside the door it changed to fresh milk, in the salt soak room it evolved more to a cheese smell, and in the aging chamber you get the full on Parmigiano smell. It was very intense and you really got a "whiff" of the transformation from milk to cheese. It was the same at the prosciuttificio: the smell begins with raw pork and slowly as you go through each of the aging chambers, it transforms (like the meat) into a delightful prosciutto scent.

Related posts:
Italy’s Best Charcuterie: From Prosciutto Crudo to ‘Nduja
From Young to Aged: Italy’s Best Cheeses
Bologna: The Stopover Worth a Stay

Contributor: Rebecca Winke

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