Europe Trip – Bologna Part 1 – Parmigiano Reggiano

(originally posted on Blogger on July 13, 2010)

Okay, back on track with my next travel post.

If you missed the posts so far we’ve been to:
London
Venice


Bologna

I’m sure most of you are thinking about bologne (the deli meat) when you read this. It may not be well known to North Americans but Bologna is the food capital of Italy – this is where the Italians go on vacation to eat!! It is also home to the oldest university in the western world – University of Bologna was founded in 1088.
Our only goal for this part of the trip was to visit the home of Parmesan cheese, super good Balsamic vinegar, and Parma Ham. All in one day? You bet.
Getting there

We took a train from Venice’s Santa Lucia station to Bologna. I checked online at www.trenitalia.com and found out what time the Eurostar trains were leaving. We arrived at the train station about 90 minutes early and bought our tickets from the machines. We decided on second class tickets since we had heard the only benefit of the first class was a newspaper and drink cart.
bye bye Venice
in Venice the bus driver – boat captain at the helm
train station “panno Americano” for the Yanks
train station ice cream never looked so good
It wasn’t hard finding the platform and our car. I was glad Mr. TC was there to lift our suitcases onto the luggage racks though since space was at a premium in the second class cars. The seats were perfectly comfortable for our short 90 minute ride.
our Eurostar train – no need to validate your ticket, just hop on
carrozza (train car) 7, posti corridoio (aisle seats) 24, 27
second class seats aren’t bad at all
Hotel

We took a taxi to our hotel the Art Hotel Novecento.

old style hotel on the outside
modern on the outside – this is the breakfast bar during midday – free am continental
our Happy Anniversary surprise fruit basket
very modern feeling despite the country-esque look
my luggage nook

love modern showers, especially those with a bench
leopard print robes included
Eating

My dream for Bologna was to see the home of Parmesan cheese. I found a tour on Tripadvisor called Italian Days Food Experience.
For about 120 euro we got an almost full day of eating:
– 7:30am pick up from hotel in a minivan
– arrive at Parmigiano Reggiano cheese factory
– next go to visit a villa where they make special aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
– onwards to the Parma Ham (in this case Modena ham) factory
– lastly lunch at a typical Italian winery (cantina) and a vineyard tour
– back at hotel almost 4pm
Alessandro is the tour guide and is originally from Tuscany. He keeps things entertaining. He and his girlfriend Barbara (who didn’t come on the tour since she’s pregnant) were very good at answering our emails.
In the minivan with us was a girl in her 20’s from Quebec, two women in their 40’s from Washington DC, and a couple from Manchester on their honeymoon.
By the way the couple from Manchester told us instead of a wedding cake they had a tower of various cheeses. Sounds so yummy!!
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese factory
Everyone has to wear a paper coat over their clothes, no hairnets though.
They clean the factory with whey from the milk and not harsh chemicals. The whole place smells very earthy and old milk-ish. Takes some getting used to.

seriously, a cheese map
True Parmigiano Reggiano can only be made in a very small region in the world and factories have to apply for the internationally recognized designation. Milk comes from the surrounding farms.
As we are looking at the map in the entrance of the factory a cart of fresh ricotta rolls by. Fresh = made less than 5 minutes ago!
freshest ricotta ever

We enter and stand in awe of the huge copper kettles in front of us, each filled with 1000 litres of milk. It’s enough to make 2 wheels of cheese each.

The milk comes in the night before and is allowed to sit overnight and then is partially skimmed and then added to the subsequent mornings milk. Fermenting whey from the previous day is also added to the copper kettle. After some slow stirring and heating, a natural milk extract called rennet is added (man this stuff is expensive) which initiates the cheese making!
The milk separates into curd and whey and then the curd is broken up into small rice grain sized pieces. The heat is really turned on now.

huge beater to break up the curd
there is a master cheesemaker who checks to see if things are cooked enough
if the curds stick together when he squeezes things are almost done
curd in cheesecloth which is put into a big circular mold
our guide Alessandro and the factory president
the mold that has the PARMIGIANO REGGIANO to engrave in the cheese
they brine in salt water from the Dead Sea for 25 days
We then go into the gigantic refrigerated warehouse where they age the cheese for up to 24 months. It’s dark and they flick on the lights and it’s like a scene out of X-Files. Cheese as far as the eye can see. This is seriously a foodie’s dream!
I think there are 40,000 wheels of cheese in here
the cheese cleaning machine keeps the oil off the skin
the wheels that are too big for the cleaning machine get manually washes
Quality control
if there’s too much air it can’t be aged too long
cheese on the left is second class Parmesan
cheese on the right has so much air that it’s just cheese 😦
if it passes the test by the inspectors it gets branded
We end our tour being able to quality test the cheese with a percussion hammer. Some very cheesy photos too.
Finally exhausted from an hour long warehouse tour we get to sit and watch their cheese making video. They offer us red wine, freshly made ricotta, and awesome Parmesan cream spread on toast.
It is my new favourite food – Parmesan cream spread is just parmesan and whipping cream melted together in a double boiler. As if either of those foods didn’t have enough calories on their own!
all we can eat Parmigiano Reggiano
ricotta made 20 minutes ago
Parmesan cream on mini toasts – so good!
Lastly we get to hit the factory store where locals also come and buy their cheese for the day.
Mr. TC wouldn’t let me buy any to take home. His argument was that carrying 10 lbs in cheese in my suitcase across the rest of Europe made no sense when we could buy it around the corner at home. God, men are so practical!
Next post – Bologna Part 2 – Balsamic Vinegar Making and Parma Ham
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