When I was in Bologna I went on an amazing tour to visit a Parmigiano Reggiano factory, a farm that makes balsamic vinegar and a Parma ham production facility. This is the holy trinity of foodie things to do and eat when you visit the region. There are a lot of other food things to do and eat in the area too, but these three things are at the top of the list. I took a half day tour with Emila Delizia from Modena which its only 20 minutes from Bologna by train.
I loved the trip to the cheese factory and seeing the king of all cheeses being made was fascinating.
Things I learned about how Parmigiano Reggiano is made:
The product is made of only three ingredients because one of the ingredients is the by-product of the previous day’s cheese making so is not an additional ingredient.
The key to the success and uniqueness of this product is a close-knit relationship between the milk from the cow and the cheese maker.
The people that make Parmigiano Reggiano cheese are part of a long tradition that dates back to 1200 when the cheese was first made, and their skill is what brings this cheese into being.
Parmigiano Reggiano is a PDO (Product Designation of Origin) and can only be made in specific areas that are guaranteed by a system of EU rules designed to protect both consumers and producers. The trademark Parmigiano Reggiano can only be put on a cheese that was produced and processed in a place of origin and produced according to the strict rules which includes what the cow is fed. The milk has no additives.
The regions where it can only be produced are in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the west of the Reno River and Mantua to the east of the Po River.
During the long aging process of the cheese, natural fermenting agent’s in the milk give the cheese its particular flavour and it can be aged from a minimum of 12 years.
The cows eat only grass grown in the area of origin and certain foodstuffs like any kind of silage is strictly forbidden. The cows are milked twice a day (morning and night) and the milk is taken to the production facility within two hours of being milked. So the cheese making process happens every day of the year including Christmas day.
14 litres of milk makes 1 kg of cheese and it takes 550 litres of milk to make a wheel of Parmesan.
The cheese is all made by hand:
- The evening milk is poured into a holding basin where the cream separates naturally overnight.
- This partially skimmed milk is then added to a copper cauldron where it is mixed with the whole milk form the morning milking and warmed.
- A natural whey starter is added- which is a by-product of the previous day’s production and this culture of natural ferments along with rennet (a natural enzyme) is added which allows the milk to curdle.
- The curdled milk is broken into small granules by hand using a balloon whisk called a ‘spino’.
- A delicate process of cooking follows, which is closely, controlled by the cheese master which sees water being expelled from the cheese and the granules sinking to the bottom of the copper cauldron to form a solid mass.
- This cheese mass is divided into 2 parts which gets rinsed and shaped and then placed in a plastic mould called a ‘fascera’ for 2 – 3 days.
- Each cheese is marked with a stamp, which includes the distinctive ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ name in a repeated dot pattern as well as the production house, and date so there is total traceability.
- The cheese is then immersed a salt water solution for 20 days which adds the salt for flavour and aging.
- The cheese is then ready to be aged for a minimum of 12 months where it is inspected.
- The certification mark is only applied to the wheels that are inspected and these wheels are suitable for longer aging.
- When the cheese is sold in portions the packaging must show the right certification marks
The tour of the balsamic cellar was also very interesting to see, and learning that it’s made in a similar process to how sherry is produced and takes many years.
We visited a large Parma ham production facility but were taken through the museum where they curate their history and story around the production of the meat. Once again, fascinating to learn how this is made.
The tour ended off in Modena and I enjoyed a short walk around their central market and quick lunch before heading back to Bologna. If you are interested in knowing where your food comes from and how it is made, I can highly recommend taking the Emilia Delizia tour if you are visiting the region. It’s their Foodies delight 3 stop food tour.
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