Even though I’d prepared myself for the smell, I wasn’t prepared for the smell. Nobody’s ever really prepared for the smell. Our tour group had just arrived to the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factory in Modena, Italy, which was the first stop on our three-stop tour. The other two being authentic Italian balsamic and procuitto ham mills. I’d been to milk factories when I was in college, all of which had a distinct smell not unlike the sour breath of a freshly nursed baby mixed with sullied backend of specific milk-producing farm animals.
The Parmigiano-Reggiano factory sits in the countryside of Modena on farmland next to their primary milk sources: brown and black fatties grazing in an adjacent field with utters that bulged like fully distended bagpipes. If bagpipes also produced milk, I might be more inclined to forgive them their existence.
Though I refer to it as a cheese “factory” it really is more an artisanal cheese processing building than any kind of standard factory. There are no industrialized machines producing the cheese, instead it is produced exclusively by the bare hands of burly men who, at 5 AM every morning, start the extremely physical and arduous process. The cheese chef (or the “big cheese”, if you will, which I will because I clearly can’t help myself) works 365 a year with no vacation to ensure the entire process is completed flawlessly 100% of the time. I envy this man’s job as much as I envy the presence of an obtrusive goiter.
The facts of Parmigiano-Reggiano:
- Only if it’s produced in the Emilia-Romagna region can the cheese be named Parmigiano-Reggiano.
- “Parmesan cheese” is not Parmigiano-Reggiano. Parmigiano-Reggiano is the only Parmigiano-Reggiano, and anything that comes in a green can from your grocery store is a sad substitute.
- To be called Parmigiano-Reggiano, each drum of cheese must pass a list of rigorous inspection points according to the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO).
- The cheese is made half with unpasteurized whole milk and half skim.
- Each vat of milk (shown in the pictures) produces 220 lbs of cheese.
- There are two grades of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses:
- First grade is a perfectly solid round of cheese with no holes, cracks or other deformities that can compromise its aging process. This cheese can be aged for any amount of time.
- Second grade means there are holes in the cheese or deep fissures, and this grade of cheese can only be aged up to 16 months before there is a danger of mold growth.
- Regardless of grade, all Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese must be aged a minimum of 12 months.
- The leftover whey is then used to produce fresh ricotta cheese, “ricotta” meaning “recooked” in Italian.
- Cheese factories, like milk factories, smell like the place where back alley criminals hang out. Which I guess is in back alleys. Back alleys that smell like depression and feet.
Our second stop was at an Achetaia where we observed the tedious process of producing quality balsamic vinegar. The Achetaia stood as a three story high home in the style of Tuscan villas on a grape orchard below a faint, distant mountainscape. We congregated outside to begin our lesson on what makes balsamic vinegar “balsamic vinegar.”
The Facts of Balsamic Vinegar:
- Most of what’s found in grocery stores under the guise of “balsamic vinegar” is an evil acrid deception that doesn’t come close to the real deal.
- There is only one ingredient in balsamic vinegar: cooked grape must. If there are any other ingredients, it’s an illusion. A sad illusion.
- The vinegar must be aged for 12 years minimum for a young vinegar, and 25 years minimum for an old vinegar.
- It must be aged in a series of barrels, each made of different wood such as juniper, mulberry, chestnut and others which impart hints of flavor into the vinegar.
We tried the authentic balsamic vinegars in its various stages of aging against commercial balsamic vinegar at 6 years, 25 years and 45 years. The longer the vinegar had been aged, the sweeter it tasted and the thicker its consistency was. The 45 year old vinegar was the crowd favorite, resembling more of a thick dessert syrup than a vinegar, and was only nominally cheaper than a crack rock from Harlem.
Our final visit on the tour was to a procuitto factory where thousands of gleaming, semi-cured pig legs were hanging from twine in dozens of rooms. For one tourist, the sight of thousands of severed pigs legs was unsettling enough to send her outside to compose her self after heaving silently in the first meat locker. Conversely, I couldn’t have been any hungrier. I poked the taught skin of the legs which gave slight yield to the soft meat directly behind it and started fantasizing about taking a large bites out of each leg like a fearsome T-Rex or a homeless man on bath salts.
The Facts of Italian Procuitto:
- Only two pigs are used in the formation of procuitto: Landrace and Large White.
- The pigs for procuitto are either from females or castrated males.
- Only pigs born and raised in Italy are used in true PDO-certified Italian procuitto.
- Procuitto must be aged a minimum of 14 months before being sold.
- When possible, buy procuitto that is sliced directly from the leg. This will ensure you don’t get a product full of cancer-causing nitrates and nitrites.
The one take-away from this visit was that good food takes time. You can’t expect to cook a decent meal in 10 minutes, nor can you expect a balsamic, prociutto or Parmigiano-Reggiano of any substantial quality without a allow for a little time and patience.
After the tour we were taken to a “secret eating place” up in the mountains where an 85 year old grandma chef cooked an amount of food that showed she neither understood the meaning of modest portions, nor did she care. And frankly, neither did anyone else.
What we had during lunch was:
- Porchini tortelloni
- Black truffle tortelloni
- Ravioli with Bolognese
- Pork sausage and procuitto tortellini in a crème fraiche sauce
- Braised rabbit
- Roasted rack of lamb
- Grilled eggplant, mushrooms and zucchini
- Chocolate and rum shooters
- Abdominal pain
To the surprise of nobody, I regrettably ate everything set in front of me and was uncomfortably full. After lunch, while my taxi drove forty minutes down an extremely narrow and winding mountainous road toward my apartment, I fixated on the passing greenery and perfectly rolled hay bales to keep my stomach from releasing its contents over the taxi’s pristine interior. I began mentally bargaining with every deity and prophet under the sun in hopes that one under any of the religious umbrellas would hear my pleas and let me hold my lunch. Yahweh, Allah, Jesus and/or Oprah, help me. Just as the nausea subsided, we passed a goat who was fresh on the squat, defecating near a trench, and my stomach churned violently.
When an Italian invites you to lunch, eating pants are a mandate. Lesson duly noted.
For more information regarding this specific tour, visit Italian Days Food Experience.