23 November 2015

ITALY - 10/7/2015 - Parma - Day 2 - Part 1 - Making Parmigiano-Reggiano (P-R) Cheese

08:00 departure. Travel time one hour to our first stop at Polesine Parmense, a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factory. This is the source. This is the real thing. Can't get much more pure P-R than this.

How to make it ... the quick version, but this process may vary with the weather, temp, humidity, etc. (Hope my notes are right, but close enough!) 

Cows MUST live in the P-R region and only be fed local grass or hay.

Milk is delivered in the evening and left to rest til morning. The fat rises to the top, is skimmed off, and used to make butter. 
The rest is poured into deep bell-shaped copper cauldrons. Rennet and fermented whey are added. Milk coagulates in about 10 minutes and then a paddle called a "spino" breaks it up into small granules. Then the cauldron is heated with steam and cheesy granules sink to the bottom and form a single mass. After this settles, cheese makers divide and gather mass into several cloths. 

The contents of each cloth is put into a plastic ring mold for one day. This mold has the official dotted P-R markings, dates of its progress, the cheese makers name, and other info regarding that wheel of cheese to make a unique "identity card." After the shape solidifies, it moves to a steel ring mold for two days to relax.


Later that ring is removed and the wheel is immersed in a brine solution (made of Mediterranean sea salt and water) for 22 days. That is where the salty flavor of P-R comes from.


That ends the production cycle and then the maturation / aging cycle begins. Wheels are stored in the refrigerated cheese "warehouse." They rest on wooden shelves for a minimum of 18 months. Starting at the top of the row and moving down, a "robot" device turns and brushes each wheel every day to keep it clean.

This shows just one aisle from floor to high ceiling, there was dozens of aisles and many rooms filled like this. The shelves can be as much as 24 wheels high by 90 in length, or 2,160 total wheels per aisle. And it smells sooooo good!
Outside inspectors examine each wheel at various times in the process to assure high quality. After each inspection a new certification stamp is inked onto the wheel. If a wheel does not meet standards, the previous certification marks are removed. The cheese can still be sold, but not as official P-R cheese. A silver certificate means the cheese aged for over 22 months. Gold is used for over 30 months. 

Fun facts: Each wheel starts with 158 gallons of milk. This facility makes about 60 wheels per day. Each wheel is about 7-9 inches high, 16-18 inches in diameter, and weights 100 pounds. 
Ricotta cheese is also made here, but it is heated a second time. So ricotta means re-cooked.

An aside: We bought some Italian butter once back home and it had a very Parma cheesy taste to it. It was double the price of Land O'Lakes butter, but a fun and delicious treat. It must have been made from the milk fat skimmed off at the beginning of this process. I think the brand was "Burro di Parma."

21 November 2015

ITALY - Lodging at Parma


Once again Chef John picked an ideal location for our hotel in Parma, the Palazzo Dalla Rosa Prati. Per Google Translate, it means Palace of the Rose of the Lawns. No lawn here, but with a corner unit we had wonderful views from two sides.

Out the front we saw the huge Piazza Duomo square, the cathedral to our right, and the Bishop's Palace and tower to our left. Out the side, we looked across an alley to the beautiful pink and white baptistery.



If you stuck your head out the windows, you saw resident balconies with flowers galore or a little business street with outside cafes.

Besides the great views, this place wins for best location. Everything was easily walkable--shopping of all levels (Mike bought peaches at a local produce market); the main town square with the French market stores; plenty of places to catch a caffè, quick bite or elegant dinner; and numerous historical buildings and sights.
In the evening groups of students gathered and had some kind of competition going. As I hung out the window, one group noticed and urged me to root for their team. After dark a lone accordion musician played traditional Italian songs right below our window. It was quite romantic. And at night all was quiet and peaceful for a good night's sleep, even with windows open.










The room was spacious and furnished with antiques. Above our headboard was a crown-like decoration with draping. Reminded me of what you see in movies in the medieval days.


There was a kitchenette, although we had no need for it, and there was a modern, marbled bathroom. We were thankful to be back to a spacious shower. I did a load of hand washing to refresh our socks and let them dry on the handy heated towel racks.



Rather than a B&B room, the hotel had an arrangement with the cafe next door. You could eat the usually Italian breakfast (cheese, sliced cured meats, rolls, fruit, yogurt) or order something more elaborate. There was an assortment of Italian caffè styles to choose from. We all got the cappuccini.

PS - The name of our room was Lucrezia.

Click here to read more about the hotel.

18 November 2015

ITALY - 10/6/2015 - Parma - Day 1 - Part 2 - On Stage

After a 2-1/2 hour scenic drive though hector after hector of vineyards, we arrived in the district of Emilia-Romagna and to the city Parma. We got to the hotel at 15:00.

Our Parma town tour started at 16:00 with guide Elisabetta. She was a cutie--full of enthusiasm and wore to-die-for lime green leather shoes. I did lust after them and asked where I could buy a pair. She laughed and said in Milan. Oh, well, next trip.




The walking tour was two hours. In the 1700s, French Bourbon ruler Philip hired French architect Ennemond Petitot. He introduced the French neo-classical style to this area. Its clean lines are apparent and much less decorative than the baroque style we saw earlier in our trip. We also saw a lot of covered "sidewalks" as we did in Torino. That was good as it was sprinkling. 


Parma's history is also linked to Napoleon's Austrian wife, Marie-Louise, who governed the area from 1816-1847. She loved the indigenous violets. Today violets are used in perfumes, local baking as decoration, or even to eat in candied form. French influence goes beyond architecture and cooking, as a number of Parmasanians (?) still trill their R's quite heavily.


We saw the outside of the Opera House (built 1829) and peeked into the windows.The Verdi Festival was in full swing so visiting hours were limited. Music was wafting out of the building and many people sat on the steps enjoying Verdi's works from there.

Being an all-around theatre person for over 30 years (directed once, acted once, but mostly stage managed and did other backstage crew things), a big thrill for me was to see the Teatro Farnese. It is considered to be the world's largest privately built theatre and constructed in the Italian baroque style. It is also considered to have the first ever permanent proscenium arch (audience "viewing frame").
The entrance is constructed totally of wood, but shaped and painted to look like marble. You can't tell the difference until you get up close to see the wood grain of the facade. Inside it is richly decked out with wood columns, arches, and stadium seating. 


We got to walk up on stage. It was huge and breathtaking to imagine being in a performance with 4,500 people in the audience looking on. At times the floor was flooded for "sea battle" spectacles. Pretty amazing for the time.

It was inaugurated in 1628 during a wedding celebration between a local Farnese family member and a member of the d'Medici family. Only nine performances with held during its prime. It was almost destroyed by WWII Allied bombing. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1962. Here is a model of the original theatre, what it looked like bombed out, and photo as it is today. (YouTube video: here.)
As we continued, we saw the high fashion shopping area and the outdoor tent market, located along the Parma River. They sold everything from antiques to jewelry to clothes (including fur coats) to local food items.

We also saw the French Market. in the main town square. There were cafes and bistros, a windmill, and lots of shops selling French products--lilac soap, croissants, airy macaroons of every color and flavor, perfumes., etc. A large statue of Garibaldi overlooked it all.








We saw a few more churches and town squares, the military academy, and government offices (which also house historic government documents, antique furniture, oil paintings, and an old organ.)


The end of our tour took us to Parma's Romanesque cathedral built in 1106. What makes a church a cathedral is that it contains a bishop's chair or "throne," serving as the central church of the diocese. 

Its inner dome is particularly interesting, decorated by the illusionistic fresco painter Antonio da Correggio. Standing in two different positions in the church, it looks like two different scenes. Google "Assumption of Mary + Parma" and then click "Images" to see some great close-up photos.
Next door to the duomo is the pink and white baptistery built in 1196. It rivals the one we would see later in Florence.

After the tour we had a quick respite before dinner at 19:30. Throughout the day several folks had asked where we were dining. Chef advised Cocchi Ristorante. They all oohed and ached, so we were anxious to try it out.

It was a restaurant in the boutique Hotel Daniel. Very elegant. Traditional Parma food is served here. We were met by the owner Daniel himself. The staff was excellent, including our waiter Onofrio.


We were seated in an out of the way table surrounded by rich and interesting art work. We asked about that and he said much of it was local artists who painted for their dinner. I asked, "Like Picasso?" Daniele laughed and replied, "Yes!"

This place was a meat lovers paradise. After all, this is the "land of ham." One appetizer was a wonderful selection of four cured meats. This was served with very airy "pocket" squares of bread.
The main course for the carnivores was a plate of maybe five different meat and marrow delicacies, including veal tongue tartar. They were cut and served off a cart at table-side. This dish was called Il Nostro Bollito (Our Boil).

Chef chowed down like he was in heaven and so did some of the others. A few in the group probably needed a more refined palate to totally enjoy the meat-filled fare. A very hot spiced fruit named mustarda was served as a side, made of syrup, preserved fruit, and mustard. It was hot like Japanese wasabi--too hot for some, but others really enjoyed it. 


Lambrusco is the wine of this region. I remember drinking it at home in the 70s and it was not so good. But here it was wonderful on the nose and the palate.

There were several choices for dessert. I chose vanilla gelato with wild strawberries. Ummmmh! There was also semifreddo al croccante (crunchy parfait with chocolate sauce) and others. We traded bites, of course!



My personal veggie/fish preference was honored here (as it was at every meal) and I absolutely loved each course. The squash ravioli were particularly wonderful.


Click here to read more about Cocchi.

Again tummies stuffed to the brim with wine and food. Between that and our walking work-out we plunged into bed for a good night's rest.

17 November 2015

ITALY - 10/6/2015 - Parma - Day 1 - Part 1 - 1.5 Million Bottles

Our departure time was 09:45. It was a pleasure to sleep in, but we were ready to roll when the time came. The first leg of today's journey was a 45-minute drive to the village of Canelli and the Contratto Winery. (Website: click here

It was founded by the Contratto family in 1867 and is known as the oldest producer of sparkling wines in Italy. This winery was the personal supplier to the Vatican and many royal houses. The historic cathedral cellars are now designated a UNESCO Heritage Site. Currently, it is owned by the Giorgio Rivetti family (also owners of La Spinetta, where we visited yesterday.)

Contratto produces moscato, red and white spumanti, bruts and vermouths here. We had purchased the white vermouth when we met Giorgio at Zazios back home. It is a sipping vermouth rather than a mix (like in a martini). 

The white has a smooth, slightly piney, sprucey taste. At home I really enjoy it to top off the night just before bed. Tastes healthy and medicinal-isa. You can buy this and the red version at the downtown Grand Rapids Market in the cheese shop. In addition, they also make still wines, tonics, syrups aperitifs and bitters.



The winery and tasting room are in a large and elegant edifice built in the Italian Liberty-style. There are huge wrought iron gates protecting its entrance. The foyer / gallery displays the history of the winery with documents, wine labels, historic presses, and other wine-making equipment.    

The underground cellars have a whole different vibe than La Spinetta. The barrels and bottles are stored in more traditional cave-like atmosphere built into the heart of the hill that protected the town. The caves were excavated through limestone to a depth of 32 meters (104 feet). These underground cellars cover more than 5,000 square meters (or 16,400 square feet). 

I think this winery held more bottles than any other we would see. Many rooms had many bottles in varying configurations--boxes on the floor, upside down, v-shaped stands, shelves lining walls from floor to ceiling, wire cages / bins holding hundreds of bottles. Over 1.5 MILLION bottles were on hand at this time. It is truly amazing!
At one point we climbed a 4-feet ladder to peer across a sea of bottles of "champagne." This one area alone was probably 8-feet high, thirty feet wide and 30 to the back wall. One gigantic stack of bottles. I am not exaggerating! This sight actually took my breath away!!

After the tour, our guide Peter (an Australian who's father is a wine producer there) (and a real cutie) led us to the tasting room. It was like a fabulous dining room / library combo, elegantly decked out with subtle lighting and a huge wooden table. We loved the atmosphere and every "taste" served here. Hated to leave this one so soon. Nothing like a few good wines and vermouth for breakfast!













After Contratto we continued to Parma. We were on the toll road most of the way. We stopped at the Autogrill for gas, the Italian version of a rest stop. I went in without high hopes ... but what a surprise! On some of our trips we have rated U.S. rest stops on a one to five rating. This rates a 5+.

There was a fast food area with pizza, hot cured meat sandwiches on warm homemade rolls, roast chicken, cheeses, capresé salad (for me), etc. There was separate a " hot cafeteria" with meats, veggies, and pastas. There was all manner of beverage including a big selection of beers and wines in single serve sizes. There was a huge variety of homemade Italian pastries and chocolates.

The food was delicious and no one was rushing. Some were watching soccer on TV. People near us were laughing and telling stories as though they were eating around their own kitchen tables. After a leisurely lunch, we took a stroll around this mini shopping mall. There were tasteful souvenirs, toys, magazines, sundries, much more. I could have spent a few hours here. We recommended you check one of these out if you are ever driving in Italy, even if you don't need gas.