This day was epic.
No matter how many times I rewrote my trip plan, one thing was a constant, this day trip from Bologna. I had come across it on TripAdvisor when looking for food experiences and had been impressed by the consistently glowing reviews. Cheese and prosciutto are also two of my favorite things so the idea of seeing them made was impossible to pass up. With food being a big focus of my trip, this was a no brainer.
The tour is called Italian Days Food Experience. It isn’t cheap but I don’t regret a cent of it.
I had written half this post before coming back to do this paragraph as I realised that I was presuming knowledge that might not exist. So here goes with a little background. The day trip introduced us to the production of DOP products in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. DOP basically refers to protected designation of origin. Similarly to how now only sparkling white produced in the Champagne region of France may be called champagne, there are protections for Italian products as well. Parmigiano Reggiano, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and Proscuitto di Palma/Modena can only be made in certain regions from certain products in certain ways. To get the DOP accreditation requires a step further, it must be inspected and approved once its production is complete. So the products that do not meet the criteria for approval can be called parmigiano reggiano for instance, but cannot have the DOP insignia and be sold as such. More details with each product.
The tour began with pick up from my apartment in a small 8 seater at around 7am, two people were already on board and we picked up three more. But first we stopped for coffee, the guys who were picked up before me were hanging out for coffee and the driver obliged. Then we drove to the first stop in Modena, at a dairy farm. The drive took us out of Bologna past the Ducati factory. As much as Emilia Romagna is a centre of food it is also a centre of all things motor. Being home to museums and factories of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati as well as Ducati.
By the time we arrived at our first stop we had talked up a storm and were ready for a good day. We met a second 8 seater at the farm and the two groups met our host for the day, Alessandro.
Alessandro was everything you would expect an Italian to be. Passionate and dramatic, his love for what he did was evident for every moment of this fabulous day.
After dressing us in the finest that plastic and hair netting can offer he took us into the cheese production area of the farm. Here we found several vats of cheese making glory in several stages of production, perfectly scheduled so that we could see each step. While a couple of vats had waited for us to see the initial steps, the rest were at more advanced stages so that we could quickly move on to seeing the latter steps in the process.
We saw the milk go from being liquid to the formation of the curd once the rennet was added, and watched the expert cheese makers test the consistency of the curd to know the exact time to let it settle to the bottom of the vat to form the cheese. After a time the settled cheese was levered out with a large paddle and caught in a cheese cloth to hang. From there it was cut in two to form the two wheels of cheese that are made daily from each vat of milk.
The workers used the whey to clean the vat and the excess was taken to another room to make ricotta. Ricotta that we got to eat later in the day.
We were shown the molds that the cheese goes into, the template that imprints the writing, the weights that press down the cheese. Alessandro explained to us in detail the rigorous requirements that go into getting the DOP stamp, from the origin of the cows and their feed, the type of feed, to the breeding of cows, to the handling of milk and the production of cheese. It cannot be called parmigiano reggiano until aged one year and not get the DOP stamp until inspected.
The cows must come from the designated region as must their food. Silage is not allowed, nor is artificial insemination. They have four bulls for six hundred cows, they change bulls every two years so that bulls don’t service their daughters. The cows are housed in stables and milked twice a day at 3.30 am and pm.
Cheese is made once a day, beginning at 5am. Each vat holds 1000 litres of milk and from that comes two 50kg wheels of cheese. There are only three ingredients, milk, rennet and salt. A lot of the rennet comes from Australia. The cheese once formed is placed into molds of a standard size, parmigiano reggiano only comes in one size and shape. After initial shaping a template is applied to imprint all of the writing.
After a day or so, I forget exactly, the wheels are placed in a salt bath for 18 days before heading to storage.
The cheese must be aged 12 months before it can be called parmigiano reggiano and every single wheel requires inspection before it can be labelled DOP. Most cheese we get in Australia will be more like two years aged.
The whey is not wasted. It is cooked again to make ricotta. Note that ricotta is not cheese, but a cheese by product. Whey is also fed to pigs that supply the prosciutto.
We moved along to where the cheese is soaked in brine for several days and then to the holy grail of cheese, the storage vault, led in by Alessandro singing like he was in church. The smell was incredible.
After our cheese experience it was time for the ‘breakfast of champions’. Mortadella, salami, parmigino reggiano of various ages, pizza, breads, pastries and lambrusco, yes sparkling red for breakfast. Gotta love Italy! We also got to taste some of the raw milk which was just delicious.
After a quick visit to the cows we visited the gift shop. As an Australian it was depressing to visit given how much cheese there was to buy and how restrictive our customs laws are. I did buy an apron which is my new favorite, and some lambrusco that didn’t make it off the continent. Then we headed off to the second stop.
Next stop was Acetaia Pedroni. A balsamic vinegar producer with incredible history and character. It even featured in Anthony Bourdain’s Emilia Romagna episode, which I had of course watched several times before I visited Italy. Still reeling from his loss.
The factory has a restaurant attached to it and the owner doesn’t allow any mobile phones in the restaurant. It even has a storage unit by the door where you have to deposit your phone! Probably not something that appeals to me as a solo traveller who catches up on communication when eating. I digress.
Balsamic production is fascinating. There are probably three main types of balsamic vinegar of modena that we come across. Firstly there is the cheap stuff we buy at our local supermarket. It is made in modena in factories with fast production techniques to make it in bulk. You can tell which this is because the first ingredient will be listed as wine vinegar. The second type is IGP this is more highly regulated and the better quality product will have as the first ingredient grape must or cooked grape juice, not vinegar. It is the more expensive vinegar in smaller bottles at the supermarket. Another way to tell quality is tipping the bottle and seeing whether it clings to the bottle or just runs off like water.
You won’t find DOP balsamic in your supermarket, well certainly not in the sort I shop at! DOP balsamic is minimum 12 years aged and made to a very rigorous highly controlled process.
DOP balsamic is a tiny part of the balsamic market. The region produces 9 million litres of balsamic each year, of which about 10000 are DOP. DOP has one ingredient, cooked grape juice, whereas IGP, the rest, is not so highly regulated. Unlike the cheaper product DOP balsamic is not for use in cooking, it is for adding to completed dishes.
DOP comes in two ages, min 12 years and min 25 years aging. The DOP makers, like with cheese, are all small private businesses, no big co-ops. Families tend to have been doing it for generations.
The cooked grape juice is stored in wooden barrels. It is aged in sets of barrels called a battery. Each battery is five or six barrels of reducing size. Families tend to start a new battery for each new child, to grow with them and for them to take when they leave home.
When starting a new battery the six barrels are all filled to the top. The top of the barrels is part open and across time evaporation occurs. Each year that evaporation is replaced in a complicated routine that sees the smallest barrel topped up from the next smallest, then it from the one next to it and so on, leaving the largest barrel to be filled from the latest harvest and cook. This process goes on for 12 years. At the end of 12 years the concentrated balsamic is ready to be inspected and approved for sale, but only 10% of the smallest barrel. That is about 1 litre. After 12 years of lovingly looking after the battery, you get 1 litre of balsamic that can be labelled DOP! This is a labour of love.
DOP balsamic is only sold in bottles of a certain shape, 100 ml in size. It is bottled and sealed by the inspectors as part of their process. Sealed in red, unless min 25 years, then sealed in gold. It tastes incredible, but at 45euro for the 12 and 80 euro for the 25 (they also had some 70 year they were selling for 180euro) I’ll stick to the supermarket variety.
After seeing how the vinegar was produced we then got to taste the different types. I could certainly taste the difference in quality. We then finished the visit in the restaurant with the ricotta we had seen made earlier topped with some jam, cherry from memory, and a drizzle of balsamic. Sublime!
Our last production visit was to a factory that produced prosciutto di Modena.
DOP prosciutto we see in Australia is likely prosciutto di Parma. The Parma region, which neighbours Modena, has much higher production, but the process is the same.
The pigs have to be of a certain size and weight. They need to be from Italy. In the factory we toured there were legs that were from other countries and also larger than standard legs. These won’t earn the DOP label, but will obviously still taste great.
The factory receives a weekly delivery of pig rear legs. They are salted then stored at varying cold temps for first three months, then warmer temp for next four months to really dry them out. Then finally hung for another seven months. A minimum total of 14 months. For the final seven months the cut surface is sealed with a mix of lard, rice flour, salt and pepper. Again the DOP label is dependent on inspection.
We were able to see all stages of production, from the fresh legs that had only been recently salted to the aged and stamped ones ready for sale.
And then we got to taste some. The factory staff member sliced a new prosciutto for us and we got to taste the initial cuts and then some from further into the leg, noting the difference in flavour. The taste and texture of a freshly cut prosciutto is sublime. They kept slicing, we kept eating! It was the polite thing to do 😀
After these three amazing visits it was time for what the tour company described as a light lunch. If that was a light lunch I can’t imagine what a large lunch would be like!
The lunch was provided at an agritourismo in the hills of Modena. The view was spectacular. We were fed a set menu of pasta, main and dessert. I should say pastas and mains. The pasta course was three different pastas which came out on serving platters so we could take as little or as much as we liked. Those of us trying to pace ourselves by starting slow soon realised how futile that was when as soon as anyone’s plate was empty Alessandro was right there topping it up. The mains kept coming and so did the wine. They had plentiful local white sparkling and lambrusco as well as full bodied reds for those who preferred it. Once we were so full of food and drink that we couldn’t eat any more Alessandro started getting us to open even more wine with a sabre! Quite a few people got to have a go at doing this after which we were told we had to drink them all! Dessert was pears poached in lambrusco and we finished with liqueur.
Our light lunch went for more than three hours and it was after five when we finally left. All very grateful for the drive back to our doors. I’m guessing no one needed to eat that night! Pretty sure I fell asleep very early.
This day lived up to every review I had read and more. It was the perfect balance of seeing some countryside, learning about the food production, being exposed to the passion and history that governs that food production and having a fabulous sumptuous food experience. I can’t recommend it enough.