If waking up for a 7 o’clock morning call to visit a cheese factory is your idea of holiday fun, then by all means seek out Alessandro of Italian Days Food Experience. This charming and funny Italian man is at once tour guide, food historian and pasta-pusher, leading us and fellow food lovers from South Africa, New York and Texas on a food coma-inducing day around Bologna.
Our first stop was Coop Casearia Val Tiepido, a Parmigiano Reggiano factory in the outskirts of Bologna. Despite it being a public holiday the day of our visit, we were able to view the cheese making process because the hardworking cheese makers simply did not take vacation days. While the gift shop was closed, the cheese makers were up and about early in the morning cooking 300 litre vats of milk from neighboring farms to make the day’s cheese.
Parmigiano Reggiano, or more commonly known as Parmesan cheese, is perhaps Italy’s best known cheese, made exclusively in the provinces of Parma, Modena, Reggio Emilia, Mantua and Bologna. It is the base for creamy carbonara sauce, shaved over every plate of pasta at restaurants or eaten as an antipasto, dessert or simply whenever one felt like it. In 2 short hours, we learnt that it took 300 litres of full and skim milk to make two 50 kilo rounds of Parmigiano Reggiano, with the leftover cooking liquid used to make ricotta, feed the pigs or to wash the floor.
We learnt through Alessandro’s animated explanations and by watching the cheese-makers the importance of timing, of cooking the milk at precise temperatures, of agitating the liquid in the giant copper-lined vessels, and of blending each vat of milk uniformly.
We observed the chief cheese honcho ruminating over his curds to ensure they were uniformly sized before letting the cheese settle and form.
We learned that the men were all solidly built by necessity: it takes serious elbow grease to haul a 100 kilo piece of cheese from the bottom of the half-buried conical-shaped pot.
This is how a new-born piece of cheese looks like fresh out of its bath!
After watching the cooking process, we then proceeded to the brining room where wheels of new cheese were submerged into highly salted water baths to absorb salt that imparts the cheese with additional flavor.
Leaving the salt bath, the cheese then enters the cave for a period of aging, at least 12 months before the inspectors of the Parmigiano Reggiano consortium (the controlling board of Parmigiano Reggiano makers) can come by, tap at the wheels of cheese, listen for defects, and certify the cheese with a firebrand that proudly declares the cheese’s DOP (Protected Designation of Origin, aka AOC in France) standards. Besides the consortium’s firebrand of approval, the exterior is also ornamented with the manufacturer’s ID number (here 2552), the month of fabrication, and rows of braille-like points that read the cheese’s name.
Those that do not pass the tapping test bear the ignominious fate of having the exteriors which bear all the markings scraped off, looking bare and half-naked.
After spending the morning in a cheesy funk, it was only appropriate that we tasted and bought some cheese home. Upon tasting a 12 month and a 36 month old cheese the differences were immediately apparent, the older one not only darker in color but more flavorful with larger crystals of amino acid that I had until now mistaken for salt.
We then moved on to Modena, where the most important product of the city, besides fancy Ferraris and Maseratis, is balsamic vinegar of Modena, another gastronomical product with the DOP label and strictly controlled by its own consortium.
Villa San Donnino is small family run producer of balsamic vinegar whose batteries sit under the eaves of the roof the estate’s grand house. Here, the boiled grape must ferments by itself in a series of at least 5 wooden barrels of varying sizes and sometimes different types of wood for 12 years before a small amount can be extracted from the last, smallest barrel to be graded and bottled as aceto balsamico di Modena. Here, Man has no part in the making of the vinegar except to boil the grape must that goes into the barrels and to top up the barrels when there is evaporation. Despite seeing all shapes and sizes of packaging for Balsamic vinegar out there in gourmet shops and supermarkets, there is only 1 round bottle that is sanctioned by the consortium, and each 100ml bottle costs around 75-100 euros, that is to say, a lot of money.
Then again, when you compare it to 12 years of effort and waiting, the rate of return isn’t very attractive. That is why it is a real labor of love and of heritage preservation, and the reason why some families, Alessandro’s included set up batteries as part of their children’s inheritance!
Next we tasted the 12 and 25 year old balsamic vinegar (really smooth and harmoniously acidic), as well as some less aged varieties, either alone or atop vanilla ice cream and rich ricotta brought over from the cheese factory. We could hardly leave without buying some edible souvenirs, so we added a bottle of vinegar jam and 6 year old vinegar each (the 12 year old was too rich for our wallets) to our bag of cheese.
I can’t say we were hungry by the time we got to Ristorante Il Cacciatore, a rustic hill-top trattoria in the countryside for lunch, but we quickly got into the mood with Alessandro and the 2 mini-van drivers acting as professional food and wine pushers, dropping ladles upon ladles of pasta on our plates.
We ate through 4 pastas in quick succession: the classic mini tortellini; a triangle filled with coarse potato puree, fat soft raviolis bathed in the musty scent of porcini mushrooms and my favorite,
a spinach tortellini so fresh you can taste the vegetable juices, in a sauce that screamed GORGONZOLA! Who informed the chef that I loved blue cheeses?
Il Cacciatore means the hunter in English, so it made sense to have game on our table. The plate of simply fried rabbit was excellent, flavorful and moister than other rabbits I’ve eaten before.
The braised wild boar was also tender despite the typically tough meat, though the sauce was a tad too salty.
We couldn’t stay away from the bread despite overextended stomachs, flat little oven baked tigelles with the texture of biscuits with crispy exteriors but soft and chewy insides.
Rosy slices of prosciutto di Parma was served with freshly grilled vegetables, consolation for having missed the ham factory that was sensibly closed on a holiday. We closed our meal with a shot of coffee and chocolate flavored milk shake and strong espresso. Thank goodness for the comfortable mini-vans that took us back to Bologna. If not, we might have had to roll down the bucolic hills. Alessandro delivered on his promise to deliver us back to our hotels in a state of food coma.
We had some hesitations booking the tour with Alessandro because the cost of 115 euros per person seemed high to us for 2 producer visits and a lunch. Finally we decided to go with it since we had limited time in Bologna and had not rented a car to bring us out of town. Alessandro more than delivered with his knowledge and enthusiasm and we definitely did not regret our decision.
Italian Days Food Experiences: http://www.italiandays.it/
Ristorante il Cacciatore (Azienda Agrituristica Venatoria Fossa): di Fraulini Giuseppe e Battista, Via Secchiano, 1646, Castello di Serravalle, Bologna, Italy