Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Today, we toured the greater Emilia-Romagna region, which stretches from Bologna near to Genoa in the north, and down just past San Marino (a small, enclave country I wish I’d had the opportunity to go to!) in the south.


We started not-so-bright and early on our trek, heading first to a producer of parmesiano-reggiano cheese, where we were met by an incredibly dynamic and energetic guide, Ricardo. Apparently, parmesan is only produced once a day – early in the morning, after the first cows have been milked. When we arrived around 7am, they were deep in the cheese cooking process, and by the time we returned to purchase cheese at around 11am, they had completely finished production for the day.


While we waited for the tour to begin, we saw many trucks coming in to drop off milk for the daily production or dropping off tanks to clean after their milk had been utilized.

A couple warm espressos later, we were in the factory learning the mysteries of parmesan production. Essentially, everything in the factory begins in 20 large vats, each of which holds a huge amount of milk, which is then heated to skim fat off and separate the curds from the whey. During this process, a master cheese-maker will use their fingers, in the 185+ degree liquid, to determine if the cheese is at the right temperature to move to the next stage of production.


Once the curds are ready to be formed into the soft cheese, a second master cheese maker will feel them and then begin ‘fishing’ for the cheese, creating huge blocks, which are then rolled into balls over the course of production.


Then, the cheese is gathered and cut into fourths, each of which is put into a round and put through the curing process.


Since we are in a DOP (designated product of origin) facility, traceability of the ingredients is key. The markings above help to do this – the QR code will eventually provide each detail, including the production facility we were standing in. The numbers refer to the date this cheese was created – January 2, and the ’20’ actually refers not to the year, but the vat it was produced in. The handwritten “M+R” refers to the local farmer whose cows provided the milk; some parmesans include only milk from one breed of cow, so if a farmer provides milk from multiple of the ~5 acceptable breeds in one batch, it’s noted here.


The cheese is then pressed with a plastic casing, which imparts the words you see on the rind. Then, it’s put in a room to dry a little bit; it then goes into a salt bath for several days, which imparts salt to both create the rind and impart enough salt to allow it to become the robust, lactose-free cheese desired around the world as it ages.


Finally, the cheese is put in the warehouse to rest, and is taken out by a special machine every 10-15 days to be ‘brushed’ lightly to ensure it doesn’t attract too much moisture / get moldy.


As the parmesans age, they gain different colors – the deeper, the more aged (12 months is the minimum, 36-40 is typically the maximum). They also strive to get the approval of the DOP Consortium, who will listen to the cheese (to identify any holes / air pockets inside) and inspect exterior cracks; any wheels which pass receive a stamp on the rind itself.


After the parmesan factory, we went to sample balsamic vinegar of Modena at a local producer’s home.


The producer and his son.

Breakfast was served at around 9am at their home, which included multiple glasses of lambrusco wine, as well as delicious mortadella ham (which featured in one of our sandwiches yesterday!) and salami, as well as some of the parmesan cheese from the factory. Despite being so early, we learned that typically farmers drink wine with lunch, as do all Italians – and, given they typically start their day around 4am, 9am is basically lunchtime so we could enjoy as well. We also got espresso with a special ‘correction’ (i.e., walnut liqueur!). Then, we learned about vinegar production, and how this is really more of a hobby / life passion / family tradition than something done for financial gain.


We also learned that many of the versions of balsamic vinegar of Modena are, in fact, basically a fraud and better suited for cleaning your toilet (to paraphrase our guide, who cleverly displayed them as above). Real vinegars should have 2 ingredients: cooked grapes, and wine vinegar. Great balsamic should actually have only one: cooked grapes.


For the ‘real deal’ there are only two options: at least 12 years aged, or at least 25 years aged. They use ‘at least’ as the designation, as you use something called a ‘botteria’ which essentially includes 7 barrels of decreasing size, each of which is fermented until finally the DOP consortium bottles (yes, you have to pay them to both approve and to bottle your product, purchasing it back so you can then sell it to consumers) 1L of your total product each year.

Because it doesn’t make financial sense to get into the vinegar business, this is typically a family affair; when a new family member is born (for example, the proprietor’s granddaughter, who is now three), a new botteria is added to the family warehouse, and production is started. Originally, the 12 year aging was used as a dowry – children of 12 years would be married, and their vinegar business would be part of the marriage transaction. However, now it’s essentially just decided by the family beforehand if the vinegar will be bottled at 12 or 25 years.


Interestingly, the ‘age’ of the bottle stays the same regardless of the number of years you’ve been producing after your first bottling – for example, Beatrice’s botteria, started in the mid-1970s, makes 12-year vinegar; so, now its produced and packaged as 12-year vinegar, despite having been producing 12-year vinegar since the mid-1980s. When barrels get old, they break down; instead of replacing the barrel, a new one is simply built around the existing one and the existing one is simply broken down by the bacteria in the vinegar and included in that production. The proprietor’s home we visited had a couple barrels from the 1860s which were in the process of breakdown; it was quite fascinating to see!

You can barely see the original barrel inside this outer one – the inner barrel is being broken down by the bacteria and will become part of the vinegar production.

Then, we headed to our last stop before lunch: the prosciutto factory. This was a much smaller factory than the parmesan one, but still interesting – although the smell was pretty horrendous to me (I’m sure its better once you get used to it!).

The prosciutto can technically come from the hind leg of any animal, although Modena pigs are used for the DOP prosciutto we saw. The key is to keep the femur and hip bone in while it cures; they then apply a greyish paste, which includes salt and black pepper, to the exposed pieces to avoid rot; they add flour into the paste for a second finish after several months of aging.


Of course, as with the parmesan, the meat has to get official DOP stamp to be considered legit.


After the prosciutto factory, we headed for our final activity: lunch! We had a massive lunch as a group, including many regional specialties:

  • Three pasta courses, including a bean soup with roughly cut pasta; a pasta with pork and corkscrew noodles, and of course, tagliatelle ragu (aka what we know of else where as Bolognese)
  • Several meat courses, including:  braised beef, chicken cacciatore, meatballs with peas, and a traditional Bolognese flatbread
  • Of course, we had multiple wine courses, including a red and white lambrusco, a grappa, and a cherry ‘elixir’ developed by the restaurant

Overall, it was a beautiful ending to the day!

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