Parmigiano-Reggiano is more than a cheese. No Italian refers to it as a cheese. They call it by its name.
To be the real deal, it can only be produced in a few areas around Parma, Reggio, Modena, and Bologna. You can read about the consortium that controls it here.
But, the other very similar cheese that you find around there is also good. It’s called Grano Padano and in a way, it’s better on pasta. Leave the real deal for eating on its own.
Going on a parmesan factory tour is a study in alchemy. How milk (from two different milkings) can, with a few ingredients, and many turns of the wheel, be turned into something that plays a symphony on your tastebuds, is pure magic.
We went on a tour at the Red Cow creamery in Reggio Emilia. Our guide was a wise professor. He had been making parmesan for more than 60 years, and he still got equally excited about it every day. The tour cost 5 euro per person and was conducted in Italian. At the end of the tour, the professor had us try different ages of Parmesan. Wowza.
By the time we got to the factory (10ish), the parmesan was already at the “getting swung in clothe stage. We saw a lot of balls of white curds being transferred from one cloth to another and rocked back and forth by two guys. Then we saw where the girdle with the shape and writing is applied. Then the salt baths. Finally we were in the aging room.
We saw parmesan so old and crystalized that only presidents get to eat them. We also saw parmesan wheels that had scoring around indicating that they were not perfect but still saleable. Then we saw those with “AA” stamped on them. These are the perfect ones that have been x-rayed. These are only ones that get exported.
These cheeses have 30 percent protein and no lactose.
In the old days, parmesan and other hard cheeses were the “meat” for many Italians.
Italians love food. It is an integral part of their family structure. This is evident in the story of balsamic vinegar. In Emilia Romagna, Italy, balsamic vinegar started out as a daughter’s dowry. No gold, no houses, just the sweet product of 25 years of nurturing. This is no longer the case, but in some families, the balsamic production continues. Some also make it when they have a son.
Traditionally, when a baby girl was born, her father would make a “mother” barrel of balsamic vinegar. There is sometimes a misconception that the grapes used to make balsamic are left over from making wine. Not so. The grapes are crushed into a “must” just like in wine making, but then, a mother yeast (like sourdough starter) is added to the mother barrel. From this mother barrel, a “battery” of progressively smaller barrels are filled.
Normally, one should wait till the daughter got married, or 25 years to started imbibing in the balsamic. If the woman got married before she turned 25, she could decide to leave the battery in her paternal home or take it to her new home. On the old battery frames, one can still see the name of the girl painted on the frame, as these are passed down through generations.
So you aren’t supposed to eat the balsamic before 25 years. But, this rarely happened. Also, the balsamic evaporates. To fill up the evaporated balsamic, the smallest barrel in the battery is filled from the next big one and so on. The largest of the battery barrels is then filled from the mother barrel. Which is itself filled with fresh grape must.
This is how one gets “100 year old” balsamic vinegar (where a percentage of the balsamic is from a barrel made 100 years ago). I tried it and it was too musty for me. The barrels used can be old whisky casks and the barrels can be made from many types of wood. The bunghole of the barrel is loosely covered with a stone and/or a lid with a doily. The acid from the balsamic eats away at the stones so it’s cool to see how strong those bacteria really are.
Now, to what it’s called. In Europe and Italy, one must call real balsamic, “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” — if it’s from Modena which is one of the few places where the real stuff comes from. The bottles are distinctive so that it’s hard to copy. There are many fakes. Most of what is sold is fake. The real stuff will not be sour and bite you when you try it. It won’t make you gag. The real stuff is subtle and sweet. With a slight tang. It will be complex. It’s also not impossibly expensive. 25 euro for a small bottle. But that’s the kind that one sips on a spoon or drizzles on a piece of parmesano reggiano.
Most of the acetaia (ah-chey-tie-ah) will sell salad vinegar products that you will like. Real aceto balsamico is not for salad. That’s how you can make it last a long time. Salad dressings are better with apple cider or red wine vinegar. Balsamic is too strong. Also, all those thick balsamic sauces in squeeze bottles are not made with the real deal.
Going for a tasting at a real acetaia is eye opening. It really is. We went to three. La Vecchia Dispensa is fantastic as a destination. Great tour, tasting, and shop. It’s in a fancy building and the tower is medieval (it was a jail/dungeon before), in the picturesque Castelvetro (one can also go on the less expensive tour that does not include climbing up into the claustrophobic medieval castle tower). The tour guide also speaks English, well.
At Acetaia San Matteo, you get a family feel and the son-in-law who shows you around is enthusiastic but doesn’t speak English. It’s marvelous but almost has a Swiss chalet feel. We also went to the a place that claims to be the oldest (they claim that their family has been selling it for 400 years) but the museum is now in a new, from 2017, farmstead. Also, their vinegar wasn’t tasty. And the place had a slight theme park feel. Too touristy. Enough about them. Go to Castelvetro and La Vecchia Dispensa.
When we were in the tower for our tour with La Vecchia Dispensa, we could see the photos of the families who maintain their balsamic there. It’s a heartwarming idea of familial love.
Oddly, or perhaps not, most of these places also sell jams and other products.
There is a lot more to aceto balsamico than I imagined. It was also a delight to go to the acetaia with a balsamic fanatic. When we got to the San Matteo location, my Italian wasn’t up to explaining things so I just blurted out “we are balsamic fanatics!” We were welcomed with a big grin.
Carmelita then showed us the formerly great, the famous, the touristy, and the abominably disgraced. She then showed us the still great shops and vendors downtown. Along the way, we had a snack stop and the history of why Bologna, “La Grasso” is translated too literally — the nickname refers to the bounty that is Bologna.
[A note about bologna, boloney — mortadella. It is a whole separate food product in Italy. It can be eaten sliced, cubed, and in a meat pate like a smear. There are required amounts of lardons per product and, of course, there are standards. People eat it like proscuitto. Yes, just like having slices of proscuitto on a charcuterie board… that’s how they eat mortadella.]
Bologna is a bountiful foodie city with warm red brick porticoes, shopping opportunities galore, and enough foodie gems for a month of feasts. One of the best things about the tour was being taken to the “horse” emporium.
Carmelita ended our tour at an enoteca who kindly stored our wine while we went to Carmelita’s newest “project” – a new gelateria called Sablé. Check it out!
Carmelita also offers cooking classes. I found her through a friend, even though I see that she is famous on TripAdvisor. For a food tour, this was the least amount of food that we ate but the pace was very nice for the more mature traveler. It was a relaxed tour. Carmelita is very communicative and will send all kinds of recommendations even after the tour. A tour with Cook Italy is a gently paced tour.
But Carmelita’s standards and critique of the gastronomy scene is fierce and pointed. Carmelita is passionate about those she disdains and even more passionate about those whom she admires. If you want that style of guide, then she is for you.
Here are some of Cook Italy’s recommendations:
Gamberini via Ugo Bassi I Conoscenti via Mazzini Stefano Cardi same street
Sablè – in a Class of its own Cremeria Santo Stefano – via Santo Stefano Cremeria Cavour – in Piazza Cavour
Best little cakes
Regina de Quadri – via Castiglione La Borbonica – via Riva Reno Stefano Cardi as before Gamberini as before
As my friend commented, we had the least amount of food on this food tour. But, we did stop for a quick snack, and then for the light lunch. Also, a balsamic tasting. For three hours, the tour cost 280 euro for the group.
Carmelita will also come after you after the tour to write reviews. Beware. In the nicest way, but you are forewarned.
Bologna is called “La grassa” or “the fat” city. The correct translation should be “the bountiful” as the fat represents richness. I learned this when on a food tour with Cook Italy.
The origin of the name comes from Bologna’s production of bologna, or as they call it here, mortadella. To be a protected status mortadella, there is a required number of fat squares in each.
Normally, to preserve meat, before refrigeration, is to salt, dry, or cover with fat. Bologna invented the boiling of this meat product and the city became famous for it. Hence why in the United States, mortadella is called bologna or boloney.
Bologna is also famous for its covered sidewalks, over 70 kilometers of them. Also, the red brick. But, mostly, Bologna is famous for being a foodie city. The city anchors the food valley (which is also motor valley) of Emilia Romagna.
Bountiful Bologna is often overlooked by tourists. That’s kind of nice. There are many foreigners in Bologna because Bologna has the oldest (still functioning) university in the world (started in 1088). True, the center of the town is a bit crowded but slip down a side street and you can soon imagine your own medieval scholarly wanderings. Or just shop.
So next time someone calls Bologna fat, you know that it’s bountiful. Enjoy it for yourself. More later about where to eat, shop, and stay in bountiful Bologna.