This tour is a perfect way to learn about food, family and passion for both. Aside from the early start time (just before 7 am!!), everything about the Food Experiences trip from Bologna, run by Times of Italy/Italian Days was perfect. We were a group of around 20 people, but transported in 4 different luxury SUVs so it felt like we were on a semi-private tour. Owner Alessandro met us at each stop, and acted as guide, cheerleader and Italian “nonna” (“eat, eat”, “it’s small”, “just a little more”!).
And I understand why the early start is needed, as the first stop is Nuova Coop Casearia Spilambertese Parmigiano Reggiano factory where they only make cheese once a day, in the morning.
Since we were there almost at the start of the process, we were able to watch them stir and cook the mixture of milk, rennet, and whey in giant copper vats.
We detoured from the production room at this point to view the aging rooms, and when we returned 40 minutes later, the master cheese-maker was digging out the cheese mass from the bottom of the cauldrons. The cheese now can be gathered in a cheesecloth sling and formed into a smooth ball.
That ball is cut in half, and each half fills a mold, which gives the wheel its characteristic shape, and then set aside for a salt bath and then aging.
After a year, the cheese police arrive (the inspectors that grant the final grade and Protected Designation of Origin designation) and inspect and label the rind of the cheese. If there are flaws, the quality markings are removed from the rind. This, Alessandro said, is why it’s important to only buy Parmesan with the rind intact, so you can see that you’re getting what you paid for.
(For more details on the Parmesan-making process, see my post on The Making of a King.)
We were able to watch the process as Alessandro explained it, then they set up a breakfast next to a vineyard and served us two versions of aged Parmigiano, along with sparkling Lambrusco, salami, mortadella, pizza, foccaccia, and finished off with Italian pastries!!
From there, off to the Balsamic vinegar producer, Acetaia Villa San Donnino, where Alessandro again explained enthusiastically how the product is made, and why the DOP designation is so important. And, of course, again there were tastings of the various balsamic products, including the 12 year-old and 25 year-old versions.
(For more details of the Balsamic-making process, see my post Sweet-Tart, I Love You.)
We went from vinegar to Prosciuttificio Nini Gianfranco (where Alessandro was very solicitous (in a very funny way) of the sensibilities of the vegetarian in the group). Again, he explained in great deal about how it’s made and how to tell the real deal (again, DOP). And again we had a tasting (LOTS of prosciutto, plus a still version of Lambrusco).
(For more details on prosciutto-making, see my post All Pigs Are Not Created Equal.)
Once we were done sampling “pig legs” as Alessandro kept calling the prosciutto, we headed off to lunch!! To what Alessandro kept calling a “light” lunch (using air quotes). The lunch was at Corte d’Aibo, an organic winery where we sat on the porch to a multi-course, multi-hour, real-deal Italian family meal. And a group of 20-some strangers became a family. We laughed, talked, shared travel stories, and had a great time.
We also had 3 pasta courses (including one with truffles), a green salad, guinea fowl and mushrooms, then desserts (two-tone panna cotta, brownies, and some type of polenta cookie. All accompanied by Pignoletto frizzante (the local sparkling white wine), then two reds, and finished off with espresso.
One thing that struck me throughout the day was Alessandro’s repeating of “you are what you eat”, and the fact that the traditional methods of making these foods emphasized purity and simplicity. I don’t think any of the products had more than four ingredients, and in most cases the ingredients needed to come from known, local sources to qualify for the quality designations.
And in all three cases, the key ingredients of the production are time… and passion. Producing Balsamic vinegar in the traditional way, for example, takes at least 12 years, and earns something like 40 Euro per year from a single “batteria” or barrel set of descending sizes. Clearly this is not a “get rich quick” enterprise!
This is the very definition of “slow food” — not food that you eat slowly, as opposed to fast food, but food that is produced slowly, as opposed to fast food. And food that is enjoyed slowly, as opposed to fast food.
After three hours, we were all literally groaning when we rose from the table to return to Bologna. We felt like we had earned for ourselves one of Bologna’s nicknames, “la grassa” (the fat one)… but if we were now fat, we were also certainly happy!