trip report: parma
For Modena, click here.
As I mentioned before, the main reason why we traveled to Emilia-Romagna was for the food. And no food makes me quite as excited as cheese, especially Italian ones. One of my all time favorites is, you guessed it, Parmesan, so visiting a factory was an absolute bucket list item.
I did a lot of research on the best tours and we landed on Parma Golosa for a few reasons. First, since we opted not to rent a car (a decision with which I'm very happy), we needed a company that could provide a van or driver. Second, as we were touring with a toddler in tow, we needed an excursion where we could pick our time and the number of activities (not to mention a vehicle that could accommodate her carseat). Parma Golosa has a bunch of tours to choose from, so we were able to decide on the number of factories and the length that made sense for all three of us. We ultimately decided to skip the Parma ham, since ... ham factory? ... and just tour Parmesan and balsamic vinegar production. All of their tours also happen to be private, so that was a nice added perk.
N.B.: Parmesan factory tours are always early in the morning, since the lifting of the cheese from the vats takes place generally around 8 or 9 AM. This meant taking a very early train from Bologna to Parma, but it was definitely worth it.
As a total cheese head, learning about the process would have been interesting for me even if we were sitting in a classroom, but getting to see the cheese masters at work was truly incredible. The head cheese dude had been there for something like 50 years. Our guide was even a Parmesan cheese judge (!) on the side, so he knew the answer to every single one of my questions (and there were a lot). The only downside? Now I'm even more of a cheese snob than I was before. Once you try Parmesan from Parma, I guess there's no going back. Luckily, we were able to purchase a huge block at the factory, for way, way less than what we'd pay back home. And since it's such a dry cheese, it's not a problem to bring it back to the States in your suitcase; it can stay unrefrigerated for a few days and live in your fridge for months after.
From there, we drove into the town of Reggio Emilia, which also makes excellent Parmesan (hence the Parmigiano-Reggiano), but is also known for their superb balsamic vinegar. Modena is also known for theirs, but, as we learned, there are actually two separate governing bodies for authentic vinegar from these towns. Modena has one and Reggio Emilia has its own. God, I love Italy.
Balsamic vinegar is aged in open barrels, like the ones you see above. If you want the sweet, syrupy, aged kind, you have to wait for it to get pretty old, at least 10-15 years. Basically, as it ages and evaporates, the vinegar is transferred from larger to smaller barrels. So, the smaller the barrel, the better the product. We tasted three different varieties at the end of the tour and I can attest that this stuff is both potent and delicious. We obviously splurged on a bottle. And while I won't be eating it only on a porcelain spoon like the owner advised, I will be drizzling it sparingly. On my tongue.
From the balsamic factory, we headed back into Parma, where we had lunch at Angiol d'Or. Unfortunately, this meal didn't blow us away. The ham was excellent (of course), but the pasta Mike had was fairly standard and my pork with Lambrusco sauce, which sounded awesome, was kind of eh. Considering how good the quality of food is in Parma, I was a little bummed that we didn't pick a different place, but all the more reason to come back.
Parma is also home to some really off-the-charts architecture. My favorite was the Medieval baptistry, which is quite the au courant shade.
Like Modena, a lot was closed in the afternoon hours, but we still had fun wandering around. And eating more gelato.
This city definitely merits more than an afternoon; until next time, Parma!