Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Parma & Modena: Food field trip

The first weekend of December my Economics of Food class and another one of the food studies courses offered at Umbra took a trip to Parma and Modena to explore some fantastic, authentic Italian delicacies.  Parma is known for their Parma prosciutto, so we went to the prosciutto factory.  We took a tour through the factory and got to see the meat hanging and drying throughout its different phases.  Then, of course, we got to indulge in a lunch of fresh meat.  I have never tasted prosciutto as fresh and savory.  It literally melted in my mouth.  The stuff we eat at home fails in comparison to the most authentic prosciutto out there in the world.  Served with the fresh prosciutto and salami was Parmesan cheese and walnuts with a balsamic reduction sauce on the side for dipping.  This was my kind of lunch-I could have grazed all day.  After filling up our stomachs with more meat than I think any of us have had in a while, we were served two types of homemade ravioli.  The first was squash ravioli, which was followed by ricotta and spinach ravioli. Yum!

The next morning, we headed to the parmegiano-reggiano factory.  Here, we got to see just how that famous regional cheese is made.  The factory, believe it or not, is actually fairly small for a company who manufacturers cheese worldwide.  It is family owned/run and all the work is done manually.  We walked right into the middle of the big kitchen where the workers had milk in several huge vats and were starting to churn it into cheese.  We watched the process of churning the milk (the workers’ hands go right into that vat-sanitary? Guess so…).  After, the vat is drained; the residual product is left to then hang dry for a few minutes and then transferred into a round apparatus to take shape.  These containers are moved to a storage room where they will sit and age until ready to sell.  The woman who took us on a tour of the factory showed us the stencil used to imprint the date, location, and company brand on the rind of the parmegiano-reggiano.  I went into Whole Foods when I got back to the States and I saw a wheel of parmegiano-reggiano in the cheese department.  I saw the stamp from the factory I was at; I thought it was the coolest thing ever!  Now I know why it is so expensive to buy a small piece of cheese in the States.  What is amazing is how these large businesses that are huge suppliers for the rest of the world are small-scale factories all family owned and run.  This just shows the level of investment and commitment to the passion an individual and/or an entire family has for what they do.  Our tour guide showed us a much larger storage room that has aisles and aisles that contain shelves upon shelves of wheels of cheese aging and getting ready to be sold.  It was unreal how much cheese I saw.  I think the best part of the tour was getting to sample fresh parmegiano-reggiano.  Now, I’ve had this cheese at home before, but getting to taste a batch first-hand at the factory itself where I just watched how it was produced was super satisfying.  The cheese is incredibly tasty.  It is the right amount of sweet, salty, and sharp. 

The last stop on this fantastic field trip was to Modena to visit a balsamic vinegar farm.  On this farm there was a beautiful house in which we got to see the interior where an Italian movie was filmed.  Inside was extremely artsy and every area of the house was decorated.  It was quite lavish and grand and I was in awe.  Apart from the house there was another building where the aging process took place.  Upstairs, different sized barrels of balsamic vinegar were kept in low-lighted rooms.  Different ages produce different tastes as I found out when we got to sample several different types of balsamic vinegar.  We tried anywhere from 6 months aged to 18 years aged.  The longer the age, the sharper the flavor it appeared.  We even got to sample a lighter type of vinegar over vanilla gelato-surprisingly delicious!  This type of vinegar you can use over strawberries too.  I can’t wait to do this at home!

Overall, this field trip provided me immense insight into some of the essential Italian delicacies.  I have always loved prosciutto, parmegiano-reggiano, and balsamic vinegar but the process of making each had never really occurred to me.  I’m surprised how small-scale the factories themselves are in proportion to how big of suppliers these family-based companies actually are in the world of Italian foods.  I was also surprised by how manual the labor actually is.  The workers seem to handle the food products many times during the production process, whereas in America it seems that machines are likely doing most of the work that mankind physically in Italy. 

Check out my pictures-they are pretty fascinating to see the foods you and I both have eaten numerous times mid-production process.  


Doing a small test-he samples from 5 points on the meat and uses a small horse bone

Applying lard to the prosciutto



Parma at night

Christmas lights in Parma

Bar of the restaurant we ate at in Parma

Marinated artichokes and mushrooms-YUM

More meat...as if we didn't have enough already :)



Parmegiano-reggiano factory

Nice shoes

Look!! His hand is right in the cheese!


Taking shape

The stencil

The cheese floats in water for a while...

A room full of floating cheese

Draining the vat

...And this is what's left...

Putting the cheese in its mold


I love cheese :)

Look for that stamp/seal next time you want authentic parmegiano-reggiano (all the other stuff is fake!)


Inside the house

Where we were


The house