It’s been another busy year at Fuller Flavour HQ, the passage of time hurtles by at an alarming rate. Growing older for sure, wiser not so sure, but it’s apparent that I still have a child like glee that engulfes me taking control of my senses & sensabilty meaning only one thing; I’m plotting a foodie trip……
The issue being that during this altered state of child like glee,all rational decision making goes astray. I lose all perspective and any concept of budgeting and expense goes up in a flambé of ill judgement. Which is how I found myself in Bologna.
I had watched Rick Steins long weekends series and had decided that if Bologna was the gourmet Nirvana that Rick had portrayed it to be, then it was certainly worth a visit. The reality was a slightly more daunting prospect with my two boys (6 & 10) and my long suffering wife en tow. Reality struck hard when after hours of trapsing the streets looking for a cornucopia of gastronomic delights, the chasing of Pokeman for the boys had ceased to be fun!! They were tired & we needed to get back to our hotel. Rick Stein had made it look so easy there was an abundance of gourmet delights & eateries just a stones throw from his hotel in the programme. It suddenly dawned on me that there was most probably an army of researchers doing the leg work & making everything accessible & just so, and that I was well and truly on a wing and a prayer.
Whilst travelling I’m not really phased by exploring cities & sights by myself, in fact I quite like putting in the leg work, getting the shape & feel of somewhere new. Pounding the streets for hours is a happy part of this process, and getting a little lost Is all part of the fun. As I’ve mentioned before in previous blogs I’m not a fan of tourist traps; I choose instead to walk stoically in the opposite direction of any crowd whilst looking out for the lesser beaten track. But with little time and a limited budget I was going to have to suss this one out fast. It quickly became clear that this would be a trip of two halves, with me having to do the leg work whilst the “Mrs” and the boys were chilling by the pool at the hotel.
The following day I’m up early and go straight into Bologna on the bus; it’s a very different place to the evening before. The streets are full of vendors, market stalls and all the shutters, that were down the night before, are open revealing a vast array of cafes, delicatessens, meat, fish and vegetable stalls- the bustle is intoxicating. The heady mix of aromas, noise and sights draw you in willingly. I was gone for hours, an espresso here, and a macchiato there, wandering in and out of Salumificios checking out the air dried meats, sniffing fresh summer truffles and tasting 3 year old Parmigiano Reggiano. My wife called “You were meant to be meeting us for lunch hours ago, are you okay?” in her concerned but sympathetic tone, she already knew that I was not going to be there long before I’d even realised myself. That’s where the long suffering thing comes in, that’s what being married to a chef and self proclaiming food nut does to you, intuition of the female kind has my wife always one step ahead, already making those excuses as to why I’m not where I should be at any given time. I apologise with my “kid in a candy store” eyes bulging, I had just lost all track of time-again.
Later that night we all came back into Bologna & with my days reconnaissance paying dividends, we head straight to a small restaurant in the beating heart of Bologna known as the Quadrilatero near the Piazza Maggiore. Here, an intricate network of small streets and alleys inter-twined are lined with tapas style bars, restaurants & cafes. We are seated and I order an Aperol Spritz and Moretti beer to take the edges off a busy but good second day. We then order a fritto misto of tiger prawns, squid & dorado fish to share, then a monstrous meat & cheese platter with all the local products including mortadella di Bologna, Proscuitto de Parma & Culatello. We all dig in, the boys enjoying every bite. It’s then off for a walk to the two towers where I’m assured by my youngest that it is a Pokeman hot spot??! We sit and eat fabulous gelato in the shadow of the now lit up towers a perfect end to a busy day we head back to our hotel…..
My mind is now buzzing and whilst the others are a sleep I’m trawling through pages & pages of reviews and blogs about Bologna, where to go, what to see, guided tours and such I click a link to a site that takes me to the “Italian days food experience website” here they do food tours taking in all the regions top producers a Proscuitto factory, Parmigiano factory & balsamic vinegar production. It’s not cheap at €150 but it’s a full day including lunch & tastings.
Over breakfast the next day I pitch my idea, acknowledging the fact it’s quite expensive and that it will blow our budget out the window. We chat about it and agree to book it, I’m over the moon but also feeling a little guilty that yet another day will be spent away from my family. So that day we spend a full day in the pool at the hotel. I realised yet again my wife was knowingly already one step ahead of me, she’s known me all of our adult lives over 20 years living with a chef (that’s a rarity for a start), she knows only too well how I get wrapped up with this stuff and how it’s “my thing”, putting up with my craziness and long work hours, then with me being so wired and constantly on the look out for my next foodie fix, it must be hard. I couldn’t put up with me, I’m constantly at odds with myself so we just deal with my oddities and get on with it!
The day trip
I clicked the link on the website of and asked about availability for the Saturday (2 days time), they replied swiftly and my booking taken with confirmation returned later that day. I was immediately impressed with their professionalism and with all my questions answered in a flurry of emails, I knew I was in good hands. I was picked up promptly just before 7.0am from my hotel in a very smart new Mercedes people carrier. With the air conditioning primed as the day was already warming up nicely the journey into Bologna was very comfortable. We picked up two people in Bologna a delightfully intellectual and equally enthusiastic mother and daughter from south London. They were out on a language taster course in Bologna as the daughter wished to return to teach English the following year. They were well travelled and knowledgeable about the food & wine of other countries. Our first stop was the Parmigiano Reggiano factory, we met up with two other vans of day trippers so after brief introductions and the ceremonial hair net & white coat make over we were ready to enter the production facility.
Parmesan versus Parmigiano
Say “cheese” Andy surrounded by 7 million Euros worth of cheese!
Simply put, Parmesan is an offensive deeply unholy word in these parts, it sums up the complete polar opposite of the nature of the artisan product that is Parmigiano Reggiano DOP. The letters DOP being the seal of authenticity which defines the product, it stands and guards the gateway of the artisanal world of the master craftsman against the imposter that is Parmesan cheese production. Although Parmesan does have protection in Europe as being English term for Parmigiano and is treated as such, in America & the rest of the world Parmesan doesn’t have this legal protection. In a nut shell Parmesan cheese outside the EU can be made anywhere and anyhow. As the highly processed bastard child of intensive manufacturing it can use second grade milk & other dubious ingredients more concerned about extending shelf life than flavour satisfaction. This Parmesan is produced in huge quantities, where as Parmigiano Reggiano DOP on the other hand is produced to a strict criteria the protected status ensures that only the best milk from cows within the region of Emilia Romagna is used. The numbers of selected producers is limited and the diet of the cows is strictly monitored, feeding on grass fed pasture during the summer & dried grass in the winter with no supplement or fermented feeds which may effect milk quality is used. The method of production is also strictly monitored & hasn’t changed much in the last 800 years! The godfathers of the DOP watch over the production from start to finish & only if all the criteria has been met does it then have the final ceremonial tapping of the hammer. They listen for any imperfections or hollow noise that flag up any flaw in the cheese making process, then if it’s not right the cheese will be stripped of its grade 1 status and be used only for grade 2 (grating or cooking as a fresh cheese) removing any trace of the DOP markings. The grade 1 cheese will then go on to be aged up to 3 years, some maybe kept longer. The grade 2 cheese is not aged and is used only as a fresh cheese.
Grade 1 Parmigano Reggiano DOP
Taken from http://www.parmigianoreggiano.com/
Nine Centuries of Excellence: its Origins
When it is said that Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese has been “a great cheese for at least nine centuries”, it is not only highlighting its ancient origin. Indeed, it means pointing out that this cheese today is still identical to how it was eight centuries ago, having the same appearance and the same extraordinary fragrance, made in the same way, in the same places, with the same expert ritual gestures.
Historical evidence shows that already in 1200-1300, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese had reached its perfect typicality that has remained unchanged until the present day.
Today like in the past, cheese masters continue in their effort and in their risk by sincerely and proudly persisting in making their cheese with solely milk, rennet, fire and art, and in abiding by the rigorous centuries-old methods and application of the technique that is the result of special vocations and matured experiences.until the present day.
Today like in the past, cheese masters continue in their effort and in their risk by sincerely and proudly persisting in making their cheese with solely milk, rennet, fire and art, and in abiding by the rigorous centuries-old methods and application of the technique that is the result of special vocations and matured experiences.
Once inside the facility the large copper lined cauldron style vats that were sunken into the floor came into view. Large wooden paddles were resting alongside or across the top. Instantly you knew you were about to witness something special. I watched as the workers stirred the watery whey, I realised that I was actually quite excited peering into the copper vat looking for the first glimpse of “The King of Cheese” as it’s known. A worker started pushing the paddle firmly down in a prising motion two other workers reached into the whey with a large sodden cheese cloth. The cheese was about to be “born” with a final push of the paddle the cheese bobbed up it was huge at 110kg in weight, it was wrapped in the swaddling like cheese cloth then tied to a metal bar over the vat in a swinging crib of cheesey goodness, such a wonderful sight to behold. I couldn’t help but smile as the giant pastey white curd got its first introduction to the outside world. The whole process took only a few minutes from start to finish as they swiftly moved to the next copper vat.
A breakfast of fresh baked bread, croissants, local ham and of course Parmigiano Reggiano awaited us as we stepped out side the facility on a beautifully sunny summer morning. For the ambitious amongst us there was also Lambrusco to wash it all down with, I stuck to coffee. I left the others quaffing more Lambrusco & wandered back into the facility to get more photos & videos it was only 8.30am after all & fizzy red wine isn’t really my thing anytime of day.
The birth of “The King” of cheese at 110kg that’s one big baby!
It was an amazing insight into what is obviously a major production facility, on this site alone there was an estimated 7 million Euros of cheese in the maturing rooms. The fact that it takes 2 years on average to see a return on the days production and the ritualistic methods of preparing this product that is effectively 3 ingredients; milk, salt & rennet combined with heat and then left to mature make it all the more appealing to a chef. I’m now a fully converted disciple of Parmigiano Reggiano, I have always enjoyed the sweet savoury flavour & aroma of good Parmigiano, it has a unique crunch as crystals of glutamic acid formulate during the aging process shatter in your mouth releasing intense Umami flavour that is unmistakable. It tastes good on its own but also enhances the flavour of anything you add it to. When buying just look for the DOP sign to assure the real thing.
We then got back into the Mercedes Van and headed off towards Modena. Here awaiting us at the Aceatia Villa San Donnino was the Balsamico di Modena DOP
To be continued………..