The best part about living in Italy is the food. Last fall I went on a trip to see first-hand how Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan in English), Balsamico di Modena and Prosciutto di Parma are made. If I do say so myself, it was quiet a gastronomical adventure. The first stop was in Parma to a small cheese factory where I got to see exactly what goes into making Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, which is surprisingly not a lot: milk, whey and salt. Basically all true Parmigiano-Reggiano factories are open all year long with no days off because the cows must be milked. The cows are milked each morning and by the end of the afternoon the process of making cheese has already started.
There are very strict requirements as to what can qualify as an official wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The cows must be fed food from the farmers, so no more than 20% of what the cows eat can come from somewhere other than Parma. This is because what a cow eats affects its dairy production and how it tastes. The milk used for the cheese must come from cows that are raised in Parma, therefore, no milk can be imported from anywhere else, even from a nearby town. Then the milk has to be processed in Parma, after the cheese has been created it goes through several vetting processes. First, it has to be aged for 12 months then EACH wheel (not a sample or a test batch) is tested by the cheese consortium. There are a couple levels of quality. If the cheese is found to be perfect they fire brand the outside to make it official Parma cheese. The next level down is that it is a good wheel of cheese with no defects, but it is not perfect, this type of cheese is also fire branded but the crust of the whole wheel is scored; Italians call this Ribbed Cheese. Then there is substandard cheese. This cheese is not fire branded but instead the rind is cut off (to remove the stamp of the farm which is made in the cheese making process) and that cheese is sold as generic table cheese. The lowest quality is defected cheese, that is to say, something went terribly awry and it is moldy or something like that. Wheels that fall into this category are, of course, thrown away.
A master cheese maker makes the cheese. The one I met was one of the best in the region, and she was very nice. These cheese makers don’t go to school for cheese making but instead are trained by another master cheese maker, in a master/apprentice relationship until they are deemed good enough to trek out on their own. These cheese makers must follow the requirements to make the cheese, but it is up to them to figure out how much whey to add, how much cream to remove, when to take the cheese out, etc. They base these decisions off of years of experience working with cheese and knowing that climate and conditions can change their whole product.
After learning about Parmigiano-Reggiano, I moved on to a prosciutto manufacturing building. This was far less interesting to me, but what I did find shocking was that one leg of prosciutto is worth anywhere from €250-300. In this one building there was over a million dollars worth of ham…Crazy.
Finally, I concluded my gastronomic adventure in Modena. This is where balsamic is famous for being made. Now, the majority of grocery store balsamic is made in the span of a few days, adding caramel coloring and preservatives. This is why the label says balsamico di Modena and doesn’t have the official seal of the balsamic consortium. To qualify as authentic balsamic it must be aged 12 – 24 years, with grapes grown in Modena and the soil must be certified to be without certain pesticides. Inside of one of the rooms there were lines of various sized barrels. Each barrel is made from different woods: maple, apple, olive, etc. Each wood flavors the vinegar slightly different. Those caskets are the original caskets from before the year 1800 and are used to retain the good bacteria, flavors and stay true to how vinegar was originally produced. What they do is place the vinegar in the largest casket (just like they used to do it), every year through evaporation around 10% of the liquid disappears, each year they take 10% out of the second smallest barrel and place that in the smallest barrel, 20% out of the 3rd barrel into the 2nd barrel, 30% out of the 4th barrel into the 3rd so on and so on. Until the last barrel is empty and ready to be reloaded with new squished grapes. If a barrel breaks or gets a hole in it from the acid erosion, a new barrel is created around the old barrel to preserve the original wood.
After 12 or 24 years the vinegar is taken to the consortium to be tested for its quality. This consortium owns the official bottles as authentic balsamic and therefore must be put into these specific bottles; any manufacturer of this vinegar sends it in and then labels the bottles with their family name.
I then got to sample, 12 year, a 24 year and an 80 year old balsamic, a white, apple and orange balsamic as well… It was beyond my wildest dreams. The 80 year old balsamic costs upwards of €200. That is one expensive salad.
I just ate cheese in Parma and 80 year old vinegar in Moderna, and saw how prosciutto is made (no not what they do to the piggies, but how they cure the meat). I would vote that a pretty successful weekend!