Parma food tours
It’s 9.15am and the first batches of Parmigiano Reggiano are underway. The milk trucks have already made one of two deliveries that they will do today. It’s all happening, and I’m excited to be here doing the Parmigiano Reggiano Food Tour in Parma Italy.
When I knew we were going to be near Parma, it quickly got locked into our itinerary. Parma is a beautiful town, but we had one primary goal. We wanted to do a food tour.
Now, food tours are plentiful, especially in Italy.
But, for those not in the know, Parma is both equally unique and famous for its role in international cuisine. For it is in Parma, that traditionally crafted Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Modena Balsamic Vinegar and Parma ham had their origins.
Parma, in conjunction with Modena, Reggio Emilia and parts of Mantua and Bologna, are the only officially recognised, authentic producers of these products in the world. Anything else is an imitation.
We elected to go on the Three Kings Tour, largely due to great reviews online. It covered off visits to all three factories on a full day tour. It was a massive day, but incredibly worthwhile.
Here’s what I saw, learned and tasted at first tour of the day.
Touring the Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Factory
As I got out of the car and headed towards the factory entrance, I got an enormous smell of something that must have been dead for quite some time. I just hoped it wasn’t coming out of the factory, or else the next few hours were going to be excruciating.
My stomach is at its weakest point when it comes to bad smells! As everyone else in the group got their equal share of noise pollution, our guide Amalda quickly explained that it was from the nearby pig farm and it would fade away once we were inside.
Caseificio CPL is a traditional Parmigiano Reggiano factory that has been in existence since it was operated by the Monks in the 13th century. It is one of only 384 authorised producers in the area. It is especially authentic as all cheese is still made largely by hand, with minimal machine operation.
It’s a fact of life that most factories these days are fully automated. This factory also operates seven days a week and uses only fresh ingredients and adds no preservatives. Once held by a family for many years, the factory is now owned by a private partnership.
This is a food tour, not a fashion show
As this is a working factory, we must first cover ourselves up. This will become a common theme today as we factory-hop. I think I must be completely mad for sharing these photos, but they just tell the story so well. And anyway, I’m not writing for a fashion magazine.
Given my smell episode outside, I was quite surprised by the complete lack of smell inside, despite the volume of milk being worked on.
The addition of our stunning blue slippers made walking on the wet slippery floors more than a little treacherous, but manageable with a little common sense.
As the daily production process was now underway, we took our positions on the level above the main floor so that we could watch all the action below.
Making Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Unpasteurised milk is delivered to the factory twice a day, usually within two hours of the cows being milked.
When the milk is delivered in the evening, it is placed into a shallow vat and left to rest overnight. During the night, the cream rises to the top and in the morning it is removed.
The great thing about this process is that nothing goes to waste, with the cream being delivered to a local butter producer.
Unusual fact: The cows that produce the milk for the Parmigiano Reggiano here are fed alfalfa. 70% of the fields around Parma are used to grow alfalfa.
In the morning, a half/half mix of fresh full fat milk and the milk from overnight that has had the cream removed is mixed together in a cauldron. Rennet and a whey starter (whey from the previous day that has been fermented overnight) is also added.
At a constant 39 degrees Celsius, the contents start to coagulate and we can start to see the makings of cheese. But it is now the manual processes that have me completely fascinated. Weaving figure eights through the milky liquid, the cheese makers are feeling for the curds to see if they are coming together.
It’s lucky my husband assigned himself the photographer duties for the day or else I wouldn’t have much of a record, such is my focus on all that they are doing.
As the temperature is increased to 52 degrees Celsius, the curd starts to sink to the bottom of these huge copper cauldrons.
Wielding enormous sticks called Spinos that have “whisk” like ends , the cheese makers move through the cauldrons cutting up the curds. It’s an efficient process, one they have clearly done many times before.
Once the curds have been dispersed, the cooking process begins, and big machines are used to stir the curds very quickly.
The making of cheese, especially Parmigiano Reggiano, can only be done by experienced cheese makers who have taken years, if not a lifetime, to master their craft. It was incredible to watch them determine whether the cheese was ready to come out of the cauldrons through simple observation and feeling of a sample in their bare hands.
After this stirring, it is left for about 40 minutes. During this time, the cheese will settle to the bottom of the cauldrons. The weight of this (around 90kg) will cause it all to settle on itself and form into one lump of cheese.
At this stage, it almost resembles another famous Italian cheese…..mozzarella.
Then it’s time for the cheese makers to use their muscles. The 90kg piece of cheese has now well and truly settled to the bottom and it must be dragged up to the top. Using a large wooden paddle, the cheese is moved around until it can be brought to the surface and placed in a large piece of muslin cloth.
It’s quite amazing to watch them do this with what appears to be considerable ease, despite the enormous weight. I think if I tried to do it, I’d end up in the cauldron along with the cheese!
The muslin cloth is tied to a stick that rests across the cauldrons and the cheese is then rolled backwards and forwards, until it forms a (very large) ball and all the whey has drained off it. The cauldron is then drained of all the whey, leaving it empty with just the ball of cheese hanging overhead.
Unusual fact: The whey is used every Thursday to make ricotta. Any leftover whey is then given to the pig farmers for feeding. Once again confirming that nothing in this cheese making process is wasted.
The large cheese ball is then separated into two halves.
Each ball is washed before it is placed in to muslin lined, round containers.
The process for making Parmigiano Reggiano is incredibly strict and it is important to be able to trace back each cheese to its origins, in order to pass the stringent authenticity tests. Specifically, the inputs into the process (like the milk) must come from the local area.
The green numbers written on top of the cheese note the date the cheese was made and the number of the cauldron it was made in. This allows for each cheese to be traced back to a provider.
Finally, heavy weights and tight ropes are placed on and around the cheese to help strengthen it during this early stage.
The Shaping Room
After sitting in the Shaping Room for several days, the cheese is removed and placed inside metal rings which further strengthen the cheese and compact it.
Following time in the metal rings, the cheese is then placed into another wooden container, this time lined with a plastic template that contains all of the information necessary to authenticate the cheese and thus be approved to use the name Parmigiano Reggiano.
As noted earlier, there are strict controls around the use of the brand Parmigiano Reggiano and the Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O). Only cheese that conforms to all the regulations may carry this brand and is therefore entitled to mark it’s cheeses accordingly. This protects the traditional methods of making great Parmigiano Reggiano.
The template above, therefore, plays an integral role and must be applied in the early stages of the cheese process to enable all the markings to be imparted onto the outside of the cheese.
The template is covered with small dots that make up the words Parmigiano Reggiano. This is the most prominent feature of authentic cheese. I will admit to having noticed this on the cheese that I’ve bought before, but never knew just how important it really was.
Other details on the template include the number of the factory, the date it was made and the community number.
Fact: When you are buying Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, look for the words (or parts of words) on the outside. If you cannot see the dotted lettering, this will not be Parmigiano Reggiano. More than likely, it will be Grana Padana, and whilst still Italian and still a good cheese, it is made in a factory without the required protocols of the P.D.O. As a result, it will also be much cheaper to buy.
The Brining Room
After five days in the Shaping Room, the cheese wheels are completely submerged in a combination of water and sea salt from West Sicily. The wheels spend 23 days in the brine, as the salt does its work to remove the water from the cheese, to ensure the cheese becomes hard.
Unusual Fact: Parmigiano Reggiano is lactose free. Despite it being made completely from a dairy product, the production process and length of ageing removes the lactose from the cheese.
The Cheese Bank
I’ve learned so much, but I really just want to set my eyes on some of the finished product. It must be around here somewhere right? Enter what I call the Cheese Vault or the Cheese Bank. I call it a bank I know that the thousands upon thousands of wheels of cheese, that are now in front of me is worth an absolute fortune.
Each wheel of cheese is worth around €500 (market price). Still, at €12-13 per kg, I can feel the “it’s not fair” comment wanting to pass my lips once more. Back home I pay around five times more per kg!
The wheels are stored in the vault for anywhere from 12 months to 36 months. Some are kept for 45 months, but 30-36 is the most common. Anything over 36 months and the cheese becomes too hard.
During the ageing process, the cheese shrinks (as it releases fat). As such, the cheeses have to be cleaned every week.
When the cheese reaches 12 months of age, an expert from the consortium comes to test the cheese. Like every part of the cheese making process, the testing is bound by rigorous process and tradition.
A cheese wheel is selected and put onto an official table, where it is then tapped with a hammer (called a battitori) all over. The tester is looking for specific sounds that will indicate that the quality of the cheese is above standard. Hollow sounds for example indicate a possible problem, like air bubbles. Visually quality inspections include looking for mould and any surface bubbles or cracks. Finding any of these would remove the cheese from being classified as first grade.
Bubbles near the middle or the surface could still mean that the cheese could be branded on the outside as Parmigiano Reggiano, but it would be graded as second class (Mezzano). Using another special marking tool, lines would be scraped around the edge of the wheel.
If more than three bubbles are found, the entire wheel would be rejected. As they would no longer be able to be called (or branded) as Parmigiano Reggiano, the scraping tool would be used extensively on the outside to remove the visible lettering. This is highly unusual.
Unusual Fact: Any cheese found to be mouldy is fed to the pigs.
Time to taste
Any food tour worth their salt (or cheese) needs to have time for tasting. Thankful to be rid of our plastic capes, we headed outside for some fresh air and a visit to the factory shop. This is a chance for you concentrate on the flavour and the composition of the cheese. It’s a chance to see if we can taste what we’ve just learned.
The older the cheese, the more the proteins break down, causing these salt-like grains. We had learned about this, and suddenly I could feel that “pop” in my mouth as I got a tiny granule. Now, when I eat Parmigiano Reggiano, I can tell that it’s got some age on it just by that feeling in my mouth.
My pre-conceived thoughts of “cheese is cheese” were thrown out of the window as a very good 12-month-old cheese was eaten and then followed up by an incredible piece of 24-month-old. Imagine the taste sensation when we got to try the 36 month. The depth of flavour improves as it ages and it is truly noticeable.
The other pre-conceived idea that I had about this particular cheese was that it was for putting on the top of pasta, or in a baked lasagne. How unrefined of me the Italians would think. Sure, it’s the best thing to reach for when you are serving up a steaming bowl of your favourite Italian carbs, but it is so much more.
Parmigiano Reggiano was made for eating on its own
It is without a doubt one of the most delicious cheeses I have ever eaten (and I’m no stranger to cheese!)
As we walked away from the shop with two pieces of glorious 24 month Parmigiano Reggiano, I knew it would be eaten with enormous pleasure over the coming weeks of our trip. I also knew that I would never, ever look at the cheese we all call Parmesan in quite the same way.
This experience changed what I knew about the cheese and how it could be eaten and also how lucky the Italians are to have this beauty at their fingertips.
Part 1 of the Three Kings Tour Parma went for two hours. For me, it was two hours of pure fascination and learning, topped off with some incredible cheese at the end. I can’t wait for Part 2 to commence.
Proving that food tours in Italy are the thing to do, check out what Laura from Savored Journeys got up to whilst she was in Bologna on another food tour.
Looking to stay around Parma? Why not check out these hotels?
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Kerri now travels regularly with her husband, Stirling, where eating great food, drinking quality beer and wine, and cooking international foods are integral to their adventures.