This week I am once again on a vegetarian diet, which means that I am freshly returned to Bra from a meat, cheese, beer, and wine-heavy stage. Our study trip in Emilia-Romagna last week was even more gluttonous than last month’s jaunt to Veneto, since the northern-central region is the home of some of Italy’s most renowned (and most cholesterol-heavy) products, like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma. During our trip, we also had a lesson in cured meat tasting given by Professor Mirco Marconi (of beer tasting class fame), who lives in Reggio Emilia. It was a salty week, to say the least.
But this stage also presented the opportunity to better understand the process behind making some of the Italian foods I regularly eat both in Bra and back home in the States. Here are some highlights:
On Sunday afternoon we visited El Ramicero, a true microfarm in Canossa (which is a village in the Reggio Emilia province – the home of nearly all our visits). El Ramicero features just three dairy cows, four calves, four donkeys, one horse, and one whopping 400 kilo pig (and her 12-18 piglets, born yearly). Despite this teeny size, owner Roberto Molinari and his family can live completely off their land. This is because Roberto takes a closed chain approach to farming, promoting the “da terra a tavola” (from earth to table) movement. His Jersey cattle eat “better than he does,” munching on grass and fertilizing the farmland naturally. The cows’ milk gets transformed into seven different varieties of caciocavallo cheese, as well as Grana Padano and Reggionello (Roberto’s own trademarked cheese). He also produces different salumi from the mama pig’s offspring, and incorporates donkey milk into some of his cheeses. After we visited the animals and the small cheese-making and selling outpost, Roberto and his family invited our 31-person group into their dining room for lunch, setting out a spread of thyme-studded caciocavallo, thinly sliced pancetta, and bread from a local baker who uses the heirloom wheat grown and ground at the Rocchetto Watermill nearby. It was one of the most touching Italian experiences I’ve had thus far – a small, back-to-roots farmer opening up his home to us and feeding us the products he made by hand. Don’t mistake me for romanticizing the reality of Italian agriculture — Roberto and El Ramicero are certainly an anomaly in Italy now – but it was refreshing to spend time with someone so dedicated to the land.
Monday morning started out with more cheese, this time an inside look into how Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP cheese is produced at Caseificio Notari. Notari makes a special subset of Parmigiano-Reggiano called Vache Rosse after the indigenous Red Cow breed that supplies milk for the cheese. In the 1990s, Vache Rosse were in danger of extinction, but with dairies like Notari dedicated to reviving the original methods of making Parmigiano-Reggiano with milk from Vache Rosse cows, the breed is no longer at risk. Notari has 75 Vache Rosse, and they are fed on 50% hay and 50% grains. They are milked twice daily — once in the morning and once in the evening — in keeping with the rules of the Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP Consortium (more on that later).
Now for the nitty gritty technical rundown of making Parmigiano: Parmigiano-Reggiano is a raw milk cheese, and wheels are made fresh daily following the morning milking. The cheesemakers combine skimmed milk from the evening milking with full-fat milk from the morning milking in equal proportions, pouring this mixture into large copper kettles called caldaie. Each caldaia can hold about 1,000 kilo of milk, from which two wheels of cheese are produced. The cheesemakers also add fermented whey left over from the previous day’s cheese in order to provoke curdling in the kettle. The caldaie are heated to about 90 degrees F for 10 minutes, during which the curd and whey are produced. Then, the cheesemakers use a tool called a spino, which looks like a gigantic whisk, to break up the curd into rice-size grains (the curd needs to be small for hard cheeses). Then, the mixture in the caldaie is allowed to rest for about an hour, during which time it coagulates into a big ball at the bottom of the kettle. The workers use a huge paddle to lift up the curd ball and they pull a large sheet of cheesecloth underneath it to suspend it from the whey. The ball is then scored to be separated into two wheels. The wheels are molded and spend three weeks in a sea-salt water brining bath (this was the smelliest room), and then are placed on wooden boards in a cellar where they age for about two years. After one year, inspectors from the Consortium check the cheese for defects by thwacking it with a small metal hammer, listening for hollowness in order to detect if their are any internal cavities which would signal improper bacterial fermentation. If the cheese sounds right, it is branded with the Consortium’s DOP seal and can be sold as Parmigiano-Reggiano.
On Tuesday, we learned even more about the fundamentals of Parmigiano-Reggiano with a visit to the very business-like Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium in Reggio Emilia. Parmigiano-Reggiano is a DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta – Protected Designation of Origin) product. DOP (in Italian) or PDO (in English) designation is a form of Geographical Indication under European law which safeguards the reputation regional food products against non-genuine products and decrees the manner in which these items must be produced. DOP branding on a food also signals that the foodstuff is heavily tied to its geographical zone of production, meaning that the specific climate, soil structure, local animal breeds, and even the air quality affect the taste and quality of the final product.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the largest and most important Italian DOP products, with 3 million wheels of cheese made in 2011. In order to control the DOP status of Parmigiano-Reggiano producers, a Consortium was established in 1934. Located in Reggio-Emilia, This body standardizes rules for the production of the cheese, dictating everything from what the milking cows are fed to what constitutes quality worthy of the DOP brand in the wheels.
We had a brief course in sensory analysis of Parmigiano-Reggiano with Dr. Mario Zannoni, who has been working for the Consortium for nearly 30 years. This is a man who has dedicated his life to the sensory analysis of cheese. Zannoni takes his Parmigiano-Reggiano very seriously, and he emphasized the precision necessary when qualitatively analyzing the visual appearance, olfactory sensations (smells), aromas (odors that reach the nose when eating), and tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, and sour) of cheese. In order to be considered quality, meaning that the wheel of cheese under examination fits the regulations of the Consortium completely, Parmigiano-Reggiano should have a fragrant, delicate, savory but not pungent aroma, and the texture of the cheese should be finely granular and crumbly when you cut it with a knife. The cheese should be straw yellow in color and should smell of butter, rind, dried fruit, and fermentation. We tasted two cheeses, one aged 18 months, and one 30, and filled in the official “Descriptive Cheese Card” with help from Zannoni. I am still getting the hang of this whole sensory analysis thing, but was able to detect different smells and aromas between the two cheeses – the younger cheese had a more fresh, milky impression; the older was more like the nutty Parmigiano flavor I am used to.
Lunch on Tuesday was decidedly not typical to the Emilia-Romagna region, but, as I am a New York gal with Neapolitan ancestry, it was one of my favorite meals in Italy thus far. We munched on pizzas from the Piccola Piedigrotta, made by Chef Giovanni Mandara, a transplant from Naples. One of our Italian translators, Renato, said that Piedigrotta is one of the only five pizzerias in Northern-Central Italy that makes truly delicious pizza. Most Americans think that pizza is good all over Italy, but it’s not really a national food; it’s superb in its hometown and sort of mediocre in other regions (when compared to New York staples like Grimaldi’s, John’s and Denino’s). Mandara is dedicated to doing things right though: as the Pizzeria’s website says, “Scegliamo solo ingredienti di primissima qualità. Perchè se dobbiamo mangiare allora è meglio mangiare bene.” (We choose only the highest quality ingredients. Because, if we must eat, it’s best to eat well.”) His crust had that charred bottom and good chew of a fine pizza, and his toppings, like delicate and light natural mortadella (wholly unlike the mortadella we get in the States) and sweet, not acidic tomatoes from Corbarino, really bring his pies to the next level. I would go back for another slice any time.
We bounced back to exploring Emilia’s traditional foods on Wednesday morning with a tour of Claudio Ziveri’s Salumificio, where he produces Prosciutto di Parma. Like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma is a DOP product with lots of regulations that standardize the process of ham-making at every turn. Claudio Ziveri’s business is part of the Prosciutto di Parma consortium, which comprises 150 businesses in the region. Ziveri’s is a small, family-managed business that has been open since 1987.
Prosciutto di Parma has only two ingredients: the hind leg of a pig and salt (no nitrates are allowed in this DOP product). Sweetness makes for high-quality prosciutto, so Ziveri’s challenge is to produce a sweet ham using only dry rock salt. Once the hind legs of Duroc or Landrace pigs are delivered from the farms that raise them, Ziveri applies sea salt from Sicily to the exterior of the meat. The legs then spend 17 days in the Salting Room, a humid and cold environment, where the goal is to allow the meat to absorb the right amount of salt in the right amount of time. The hams are then washed clean of their salt and are left to start their drying process in the Pre-Resting Room, where they remain for two more weeks. Then, they move to the Resting Room, which has a lower level of humidity, allowing the hams to lose more moisture and weight. Finally, they are washed in hot water and hung up in the Drying Room, where they spend the better part of the year maturing at a higher temperature, allowing the salt to fully permeate the meat.
Consortium inspectors check Prosciutto di Parma for quality after a year of aging by inserting a sharpened horse bone into the flesh of the ham, which seems pretty bizarre, but has a sort of traditional logic: the bone is porous and retains the aromas of the meat. If the bone smells sweet and pleasant, the ham is good and gets the DOP brand. Claudio wafted the bone poking out of the ham pictured below under my nose, and it definitely smelled like sweet prosciutto!
For me, Thursday’s visit to Cicciolo d’Oro was like stepping into a dreamland where I had dozens of cute Italian grandparents who wanted to do nothing more than feed me artery-clogging treats. The Cicciolo d’Oro association, located in Campagnola Emilia, was founded in 2000 by a group of (mostly retired) volunteers in order to promote and recover traditional regional products. The men of the Ciccolo d’Oro skilled norcini, or pork butchers, who make their own salumi in-house; the women are resdore, who make savory-and-sweet-pastry and fresh pasta by hand. The association gets its name from ciccioli, the Emilia-Romagnan pork crackings that are made with the leftover fat from the salumi-making process. Each year, the Cicciolo d’Oro seeks to valorize these cracklings (which were once seen as a poor product made from scraps) and the folk professions of the norcino and resdora through a huge ciccioli festival in Campagnola. The festival draws tens of thousands of visitors from around the world who come to sample free ciccioli and watch as the giant Ciccione da Guinness is prepared.
Ciccioli making is a long process that starts with pieces of pork fat that are boiled in giant vats, allowing most of their fat to render into a liquid called strutto that is then used to fry gnocco fritto, a savory puffed dough that the resdore prepare. As the fat renders away for several hours, the meaty bits become crunchy and browned into cracklings. When the ciccioli are ready, the norcini scoop them out of the hot lard and into a large cloth, which they then use to wring out most of the residual liquid fat. Then, they put the ciccioli into a special metal press that squeezes out the rest of the extra fat and smushes the cracklings together into one large cake (normally about 12″ in diameter but 2 meters for the festival), which is then broken into pieces to snack on.
My favorite part of the Cicciolo d’Oro visit was watching the resdore at work on the tortelli (the Emilia-Romagnan name for raviolo) we ate for lunch. Those of you who know me well know that I have a soft spot for old people, and it took some effort not to weep continuously as these amazing women kneaded pasta dough by hand, rolled it out with a big ole rolling pin that made me think of stories of my great-grandmother, stuffed the tortelli with two different fillings (spinach, breadcrumbs, and parmigiano; pumpkin, breadcrumbs, and parmigiano), and cut them into perfect squares.
I chatted with Adriano, who is 73 and the second-oldest member of the association, about why he and co-volunteers have dedicated so much of their time to this project. For him, the association is like a family — he feels a strong bond with his fellow workers and loves wisecracking with them. He said that they are always joking that the oldest norcino, who only has a few months on him, won’t make it to the next holiday, so they always make sure he eats special holiday dishes ahead of time: “Se muore, ha già mangiato il Colombo.” (If he dies, at least he’s already eaten Colombo [the Italian Easter cake]). And of course they make him eat the ciccioli and gnocco fritto and salumi and tortelli too!