Barrels of balsamico, wheels of cheese, and wall to wall floors of curing ham- sounds like my kind of Saturday! July had already started off with a bang with our long weekend in Tuscany. Maybe that’s why we felt the need to go big again the next weekend. Leaving Friday right after work, a 3.5 hour train ride took us up to Bologna and then again back to Naples on Sunday. So what did we do with that one full day in Bologna? FOOD TOUR! It was kind of a pricey trip combining the last minute train tickets for the fast train and the tour itself but it was absolutely worth it! Almost 10 months into living in Italy and this is as far north as we have been able to go so far- to the region of Emiglia-Romagna. Emilia-Romagna is home to many culinary specialities including Parmaggiano Reggiano, traditional balsamic vinegar, and cured ham. So we joined up with Italian Days tour and set off to explore these specialties.
First up was the cheese factory because the processing of the cheese takes place only in the early morning. “Parmigiano Reggiano is made in the time-honored way from cow milk. 98% of the cows are Holstein-Friesian, a breed known for its huge production levels. But a small number of producers use heritage breeds, including brown cows, red cows, and a very white cow. Regardless of the type of cow, each one is milked twice a day, and the milk from the cows is delivered to the caseificio after each milking. The evening milk is delivered to the caseificio immediately, with no pasteurization, and is then left to sit, overnight. The following morning, the evening milk is skimmed of the cream, which has risen to the top. The skimmed milk is then added to the product of the morning’s milking, which is whole (not skim), and not pasteurized. It is this mixture of both milking’s (one skim and one whole) that then makes its way to becoming Parmigiano Reggiano.” [Minchilli]
Rules for Real Parmigiano Reggiano:
“Each caseifico has anywhere from one to fourteen copper kettles, each of which holds about 1,100 liters of milk. The number of kettles is limited to the number of master cheese makers on hand. According to the strict rules of the Consorzio, each casaro (master cheese maker) can oversee a maximum of seven kettles. So the bigger caseifici tend to have at the maximum of fourteen kettles, with two master cheese makers overseeing production.” [Minchilli]
The process itself is super cool to watch. Each of the massive kettles is sunk into the floor, where it is heated from below by gas-fed steam heat. The milk mixture is then warmed up in each kettle and the starter, which is made from the previous day’s whey, is added, along with natural rennet. [Minchilli]
“After about 10 minutes the milk has transformed into a beautifully silky massive curd. The cheese maker then takes a large wire tool and begins to break up the curd, to begin the separation of what will become cheese from the whey. A machine then takes, to continue this process for a little while longer, over heat, to break up the curd even further. When the curd reaches a precise acidity level, it is allowed to fall to the bottom of the cone-shaped kettle where it forms a solid mass. This stage is critical and only the casaro can make the decision to proceed to the next step. He goes from kettle to kettle, reaching in and pulling off a piece of curd. He looks at it, pushes it with his fingers, squeezes it in his palm, and once he thinks it’s ready, then the wheels can be made.” [Minchilli]
“Taking a pair of wooden dowels, a piece of cheesecloth is attached. A person reaches down into the bottom of the kettle and begins to pull up the massive curd from the depths. As it emerges from the cloudy whey, it is wet and shiny and looks like a giant mozzarella. The dowels are then balanced on the edge of the kettle to allow the curd to drain a bit more, while the cheese makers move on to the next kettle.” [Minchilli]
“Once the curd has reached the appropriate firmness, after about 10 minutes, the cheese makers must make the cut to divide the big curd in two. Using a long knife, it is leveled and then cut decisively down the middle. Each newly formed curd is then caught in its own cheesecloth and is gently rolled back and forth. At this point you can finally begin to see the shape the final wheel will take. Now that the cheese has been formed, the curing and aging begins. The first step is to put each curd in a straight-edged form, lined with cheesecloth. They are carefully attended to for the rest of the day: clothes are changed, and the cheese is flipped as more and more whey leaches out. Finally, in the evening, the cheesecloth is removed and replaced with a plastic stencil bearing the well-known pin-dotted imprint of Parmigiano Reggiano. This plastic stamp marks the still soft cheese not only with the brand but also with the date and place of where and when it was made.” [Minchilli]
“After a few days continuing to drain, the wheels are taken out of the forms and placed in a salted brine bath. The wheels float around in this salty bath for another 24-28 days, with the salt leaching out more moisture from the cheese, while at the same time entering the cheese itself providing flavor. Once out of their bath, the cheeses are moved to storage rooms where the salt continues on its journey to the heart of the cheese, helping to form the crystalline structure.” [Minchilli]
We passed by some ladies making ricotta cheese on our way to the aging room.
Finally, it’s time for aging. Walking into an aging room filled with wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano is an experience like no other. “The wheels are stacked on pine shelves in enormous warehouses where shelves can reach up to 30 feet. How long cheeses stay here, going through seasonal changes in temperature, can last anywhere from 12-24 months, although special wheels are often aged for even longer. The majority though, come to market at 18 months. But before they get anywhere near a store, they must be inspected by the cheese inspector. The consorzio sends its inspector (who must have no personal ties to any cheese-making family) to check on the wheels when they reach the 12 month date. Each wheel is taken off the shelf and placed on a special stool. Using a small wooden hammer, the inspector gently taps the cheese around the circumference as well as on the top and bottom. He holds his ear nearby, listening for telltale signs of hollowness or air bubbles, which would disqualify the cheese from being sold as Parmigiano Reggiano. If this happens (and is a costly occurrence if it does) the tattoo of pin dots imbedded on the side are scrapped off. The cheese is still edible, and can be sold as generic grated cheese, but it can no longer be sold as Parmigiano Reggiano, and cannot be exported as such. But if it passes inspection? The wheel receives on more branding: the Consorzio’s certification.” [Minchelli]
Next, came a tasting of a traditional balsamic vinegar at Acetaia Cavedoni. From an ancient family tradition dating back to 1860, Acetaia Cavedoni is one of the oldest vinegar loft in the area. They have hundreds of barrels with unique features, divided for the aging processes of highly-appreciated Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena D.O.P. (traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena D.O.P.) and of Aceto Balsamico di Modena I.G.P. (balsamic vinegar of Modena I.G.P.). You’ll immediately notice that this small family-run company takes great care with the quality of its product and from this quality begins the careful selection of the ingredients, followed by their constant checking, in the precise mixing and fermentation. The whole process is intriguing. Here’s a little of how they produce the famous “black gold.”
** Interesting Fact: One of the most important things to understand about balsamico is that it is not a vinegar. Unlike wine vinegars, balsamico tradizionale does not begin life as an alcoholic beverage. **
The Rules of True Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena:
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena has to made from 100% mosto cotto (cooked grape must).
The grapes must come from the region of Modena.
The process must be aged in a batteria, a set of wooden barrels.Minchilli, Elizabeth. “Eating My Way Through Italy.”
“Local grapes are used, with each producer adopting his own special recipe, mixing different varieties. The fruit is left on the vine for as long as possible, with the harvest coming around the end of September when the natural sugars in the grapes are at their highest. The grapes are then pressed, similar to wine making, but the process differs. The mosto, or grape juice, is brought into the acetaia and poured into large shiny copper kettles. A low flame is lit and the mixture is left to simmer for up to 30 hours. The resulting brew thickens to an almost syrupy stage. In addition to the original sets of barrels that are handed down through the family, they also continue to add batterie (sets of barrels) to their collection. A variety of woods are used, which lend the essential aromatic flavors to the vinegar. The barrels are lined in descending size and can be of oak, mulberry, chestnut, cherry, juniper, etc. To qualify as “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” the mosto must be aged from 15-25 years! Each year, in the autumn, the vinegars are carefully decanted, from one barrel to another. Part of the contents of the smallest barrel is decanted and sold. The resulting headroom in that barrel is then topped with balsamico from the previous barrel, and so on, so that the largest barrel is emptied to be filled with the new mosto. There is no precise formula! The timing and choice of woods is extremely important and determines the quality and uniqueness of each bottle of balsamico.” [Minchilli]
And last but not least, prosciutto. Il Prosciuttificio Montevecchio S.r.l. was born in 2002 from an idea of Paolo and Graziano. The factory produces traditional charcuterie from 1975. Ingredients are the same from the tradition: meat, salt, natural flavors and climate.
The legs are being covered with salt and stored in a fridge room, kept at controlled temperature between 2 and 4°C, with humidity over 75%. Later, in the first step, the products are constantly dried with a strong ventilation and afterwards with a soft induction of air, they obtain a homogeneous weight loss. The cured meat are then washed with a bracing shower, to remove the salt crystals issued on the surface, during previous phases. The drying is done between 18 and 20°C to facilitate proteolysis of the meat, then the products are stored for min.70 max 120 days in rooms strongly aired.
After a morning packed with factory visits and taste testings, we headed to the hills of Bologna to enjoy lunch at a local trattoria. The view was astounding and our group could barely keep up with the plates of food that kept popping up one after the other!
When the day had reached its end, we arrived back to the city center going straight to our hotel in a food coma and crashing for a late afternoon nap. We woke with a craving to go for a short walk around downtown Bologna to walk off some of the food from earlier and get a glimpse of what makes this city special- it’s piazza’s and porticos.
[Additional reading: Minchilli, Elizabeth. Eating My Way Through Italy.]
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!