Tuesday, November 22, 2011

eating italy part 4: modena

Yes, there is more, despite my posting neglect. I saved the best for last, and really made you wait for it. On our last full day in Italy, to cap off our food pilgrimage, we were lucky enough to tour the Emilia-Romagna countryside to see how some of the best and most important foods in the world are produced. Taking the Italian Days Food Experience tour was a big exception to our anti-tour style, and it was so worth an exception. (Note that we're not necessarily against taking formal tours, we just like wandering on our own. We definitely took tours when that was the only way to see something, like the Vatican Scavi or the Colosseum Underground, or this. Tours can be good.)

The IDFE is worth taking a trip to Bologna, even if you didn't intend to. It was so good that I didn't even mind waking up super early in the morning for the pick-up, since I knew that stop one was cheese and I didn't want to miss the cooking. A relatively short drive with our hilarious and wonderful guide Alessandro to Modena brought us to a small Pargmiggiano-Reggiano factory where they only produce a maximum of 16 wheels of P-R a day. This particular factory is a collective, with milk provided by a handful of small dairies in the region.

The eight copper-lined vats make two wheels each. The "casaro" is the cheese chef, and is the only person in the factory who is allowed to cook the cheese. Only he knows exactly when the cooking is done and what the perfect texture should be.

After it's cooked, cut, and the curds have separated from the whey, two other cheese dudes give birth to a giant wheel by scooping it up from the bottom of the deep vat. The vats are much deeper than they look from the outside, they are set into the ground.

The large wheel is lightly shaped and held up by cheesecloth to later be sliced into two smaller wheels. Finally, they are fished out of the whey and set into a plastic mold. The whey, by the way (ha!), is used to feed pigs for Parma ham.

After a few days, the formed wheels take a bath in a brine for about 20 days. Next comes a whole bunch of aging and whatnot that I won't go into here.

The exciting part is after twelve months when the wheels are tested by the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano inspectors for uniformity and structural soundness. This inspection determines whether it can be considered Parmiggiano-Reggiano D.O.P (protected designation of origin), or just cheese. First class P-R looks like this:

Second class P-R has these horizontal lines etched into it. It is still considered P-R DOP, but cannot be aged as long as first class so will not have as deep a flavor.

Third class has the P-R imprints completely etched out and is called cheese, not P-R. It must be sold fairly young.

Our visit to the factory was topped off with a tasting of the two top classes of P-R so we can see how much of a difference the age of the cheese makes. I love really aged P-R, especially when you get the little salty crystals. We also had our first of many glasses of Lambrusco of the day. It was just after 9AM. It was shaping up to be a long day.

Stop two: Balsamic Vinegar. Real BV, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, also DOP, produced on a family-owned villa in Modena. True balsamic vinegar is made from a reduction of pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes, and only in Reggio Emilia and Modena. The thick syrup cooked from the grapes is aged in these barrels for a minimum of twelve months before it can be sent to the consortium for testing to determine if it can earn a DOP status, or must be considered condimento, a much less valuable but still really tasty result. As you can see by the small size of the barrels on the left, you don't get a huge amount of vinegar after twelve months of work, plus you can only take out a fraction of what that barrel holds, because you want to keep the aging process going. We got to taste condimento on some homemade gelato, plus some balsamic jelly on the still-warm ricotta cheese from the P-R factory (ricotta is a by-product of P-R making). But the best of course was that we got to taste a bit of the 40-year aged vinegar, which was truly like nothing I've tasted before. You really learn how drastically different real balsamico is from the stuff that is readily available here in the states. Interestingly, I also learned that real Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale can only be sold in one shape of bottle, and nothing else can use that shape. It is sort of a bulbous bottom with a long neck. If your BV is not in this shape bottle, it is technically not real!

Also, booze count, we knocked back some nocino - walnut liquer - that this family also produces. Apparently that stuff is about 80 proof. Not even 11AM yet.

Finally, speaking of those pigs that eat the whey from the P-R factory, we next went to factory for Prosciutto di Modena.

Alessandro kept warning us that this place was going to smell funky, but I didn't mind it at all. I freaking love that funky smell of curing meat. It was, however, really freaking cold in that factory, but Alessandro doesn't seem to feel it anymore. Here his is showing us an especially ginormous leg.

And, of course, there is that brand designating this prosciutto as DOP, which can only be produced from pigs in the central and northern areas of Italy, especially Parma, San Daniele, and Modena, where this factory was. The process, like the P-R and BV, is a long and labored one - the ham is first cleaned, salted, and left for about two months. During this time, the ham is pressed, gradually and carefully, to avoid breaking the bone, and to drain all blood left in the meat. Next, it is washed several times to remove the salt, and is hung in a dark environment. The surrounding air is important to the final quality of the ham; the best results are obtained in a cold climate. The ham is then left until dry. The amount of time this takes varies, depending on the local climate and size of the ham. When the ham is completely dry, it is hung to air, either at room temperature or in a controlled environment, for up to eighteen months. Of course we topped off this section of the journey tasting some prosciutto. Plus more Lambrusco. Did I mention that we hadn't even gotten to lunch yet?

Because lunch is what really went over the top on this tour. We drove up very windy roads into the hills outside of Bologna, where I could not believe anyone but hunters would go on a regular basis. By the way, we passed a Lamborgini parked at the side of the road on our way up, so perhaps hunters do very well there? At the top of the hill was a little trattoria that looked nothing like a restaurant, but like a small private cottage. No sign, no indication of its existence. And there we were bombarded with food. The name of this place was not clear, but Alessandro said that it was known as the Hunter's Trattoria, because they cooked a lot of game killed by the local hunters right in that area. Sure enough, soon after we were seated a group of five men with rifles came in for lunch.

The meal started off with pasta. Not just pasta, four pastas. Four. I didn't even get pictures of all the pasta because it was overwhelming and amazing and I was already a little drunk (see notes above about all the booze I drank before I even got to this place). There was a tortellini (very bolognese) with porcini mushrooms in a buttery sauce. Then a caramelle stuffed with meat in a red sauce. Then more tortellini in a cream sauce, because when you're already pretty full of course you want cream sauce! Then there was a tortelloni - a much larger version of tortellini - filled with cheese. All of the pasta was awesome and overwhelming, but then came the meats.

And remember, we're in hunter country right now, so the meats were appropriately hunted right around the little trattoria - rabbit and wild boar. Missed the shot of the wild boar, which was stewed until super tender in a tomato base. The rabbit was done as a fricasse with lots of rosemary and wine. Super delicious.

Oh wait, there's more! Don't forget the house-made salami!

And in case you were wondering, there was plenty of wine at this meal, but that didn't stop them from serving up some gelato milkshakes spiked with rum for dessert. Needless to say, we snoozed all the way back to the hotel, then snoozed some more before it was time to venture back out for our last night in Italy. Shocking for us, but we didn't even eat dinner that night. Some snacking, and of course some gelato, but we stayed stuffed for days. Bellissimo!

Continue Reading "eating italy part 4: modena"