Enjoying Parmesan Cheese, Balsamic Vinegar, and Prosciutto in Parma

On the Overseas Adventure Travel trip Tuscany and Umbria: Italy’s Rustic Heartland, we were treated to many fabulous food experiences, including learning how some of their great food is made in Parma. While on the pre-trip prior to the main trip, we learned and saw first-hand how Parmesan cheese and their additionally famous Balsamic Vinegar are produced. All three of the food specialties in this article have the EU designation which indicates they are from the region and have the highest quality. The packaging appears as DOP in Italian. This stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (in Italian). In the US it is translated to “Protected Designation of Origin” or PDO. It’s a legal designation that the food was produced by trained individuals, and that everything used for production is from the region.

 We actually watched Parmesan cheese being made manually in huge vats. It was quite a production!  They manually separated the curds from the whey in one vat. Then in the other vat, left over from the day before, they were able to extract 50 kilos of Parmesan cheese from the whey in the previous vat, and carried it out by cheese cloth then cut it by hand. From there, they placed each half in a container so it could form the shape of a large wheel, before going off for ageing. They even washed down the vats and all the utensils with the whey from the vat. They had their hands inside it too, but later put a huge thermometer in so we could see how very hot it was. The left-over whey was siphoned out of the vat and saved for the next day. We missed watching them add the cow’s milk, which was an early step in the process. We observed this cheese production at an agriculture and hospitality school, where the students learned all the elements of the program, then selected their specialty based on interest. 

From there we drove outside of Modena to a family owned and operated balsamic vinegar production facility. It may as well have been a winery, since the vinegar is produced from grapes, and is aged for 12 or 25 years, depending on the product they want to sell and the quality they want to produce. They also make a younger balsamic vinegar that obviously has a different quality and sells for a much lower price. We learned that most families always have some balsamic vinegar on hand, and the more expensive vinegars that age for 12 or 25 years are typically consumed on special occasions. But balsamic vinegar is very much a part of the local food culture.

This process has been around in Modena since about the 12th century. The famous chef in Modena Bottura has his own balsamic vinegar production facility. So, he’s using in his cooking a unique product of the region, and not the other way around, although he may have his own special variations for balsamic vinegar production.

The process of producing the vinegar was fascinating to learn about. Besides having the vinegar from grapes age for lengthy periods of time, it matters what kind of wood is used for the barrel when ageing to determine the taste. As with a fine wine, the balsamic vinegar will pair with different foods better than others depending on which type of wood barrel it was ageing in. Types of wood barrels they use are mulberry, chestnut, cherry, juniper, and oak.

Balsamic vinegar that ages in oak is one version of traditional balsamic vinegar, has a taste classified as ” old,” and has different fragrances ranging from coffee to chocolate. When the barrels are made of cherry wood however, sweet and fruity flavors are produced in the vinegar. When it’s aged in juniper wood, the taste is much stronger and pairs best with heavy dishes such as meat and potato dishes. Since many families create their own balsamic vinegar using family recipes passed down over the years, the production facility we visited had their own unique family twist on how to make balsamic vinegar. But of course, the recipe is based on traditional methods, with their own family traditions added. Lunch was pasta with fresh parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar, of course! The pasta was some sort of tortellini or another similar pasta specific to the area near Modena.

We had a prosciutto learning experience as well, followed by sandwich at a restaurant famous for it. Prosciutto is produced in four different regions in Italy, and there are even different types. We of course, had the Prosciutto of Parma, which is cured in salt, hung up to dry for a specified period of time, and is thinly sliced. This Prosciutto is produced following the strict legal guidelines required to earn the DOP designation. I wanted mine with cheese, eggplant, and a little mayonnaise. My tour leader said I couldn’t have the mayonnaise. Why, I asked? Because she said it was ” against the rules!” We all got a chuckle out of that one! You need follow the rules when you eat in this part of the world!  At least if it’s food with a legally certified designation. I managed to sneak in the mayonnaise anyway.

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