Being in what is reputed to be the culinary capital of Italy, I decided to go on a food tour on Saturday. The tour involved visits to a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory, an acetaia where balsamic vinegar is made, and a prosciutto factory. I was picked up at the unfortunate hour of 7 am, the early start required to witness the initial stages of cheese making which commence immediately after receipt of the morning’s milk delivery. There was an interesting mix of folks on the tour; an ex-pat American couple living in London and their mother from Indianapolis, a couple from Houston on their honeymoon, a family from Australia doing the Grand Tour, and a couple from Holland. The American ex-pats had moved to London from Chicago, coincidentally enough, one having lived not too far from me (Bryn Mawr and Sheridan). Our guide, a very energetic woman from Modena, met us at the first stop, the cheese factory.
This proved to be the most interesting stop of the tour. The factory was relatively new, but the process itself seemed very old, as indeed it is.
In the first part of the process, skimmed milk from the previous night’s milking, the morning’s delivery of whole milk, rennet, and some whey starter from the previous day are poured into a large copper-lined vat. The mixture coagulates into rice-sized curds, and it is then cooked and the curds allowed to settle to the bottom of the vat.
The vats are conical, and the settled curds form a single mass at the bottom.
After half an hour, these masses are fished out, put into a mesh sling, and then deftly split in half with each half given its own mesh sling.
The two chunks of curd are lifted out of the vats with a machine and lowered into plastic molds.
After drying out for a while, the nascent cheese is wrapped in a plastic band, here demonstrated by Antonella our guide, containing various bits of identifying information, date, and of course the characteristic repeated Parmigiano-Reggiano name in dots.
After a few days the wheel of cheese is immersed into a bath of sea salt, that being accomplished here by an artisan presumably from the far south of Italy.
After a few weeks at the ‘cheese spa’, the wheels are fished out and put into an aging warehouse.
Here they sit for a year, at which point an inspector from the Consortium of producers comes and inspects each cheese wheel, initially with a small hammer, but at any sign of trouble, with an x-ray. Those that don’t pass the test have their identifying marks stripped off and are sold as ‘hard cheese’.
Those that pass, but without flying colors, are marked with horizontal rings and sold as ‘fresh’ (i.e., ‘only’ aged 12 months) or Mezzano.
The rest go on to further aging, up to 36 months like this lucky fellow.
Oh, and those crunchy little white bits in the cheese that you always thought were salt? Apparently they’re crystallized accumulations of free amino acids, specifically tyrosine. Who wudda thunk?
After our tour we had a little cheese tasting/breakfast outside the factory, which included young and old Parmagiano-Reggiano, as well as mortadella sandwiches in a type of focaccia style bread characteristic of the region, salami, focaccia with tomatoes, fruit, pastries, and Lambrusco, which I was told people in Modena really do have with breakfast.
Then it was on to the next stop, the acetaia.
To be continued….