I've said it before, Italy will ruin you forever on Italian food. But never has it been so apparent than on the Italian Days Food Experience. This tour WILL ruin you but in the best possible way. So, if you're OK with this...if you're prepared to go without balsamic for a while until you can find the best quality, or get the eye roll at a friend's dinner party because you ask if the parmigiano reggiano they're using is DOP, then read on at your own risk!
What a beautiful sunny morning in Bologna. The van arrived right on time at 7:00am to take us on our food “experience”, and our fellow foodies were already in the van - two other couples, one from England and the other from California. The van was comfy and new, and air-conditioned on this warm early fall day. After introductions and the usual "where are you from?", "where are you staying?", we were off to eat our way across Emilia Romagna. Good weather, good company, and local delicacies? This was going to be a fun day.
We were met at our first stop of the day by our host and guide, Alessandro Martini, the creator and owner of the Italian Days Food Experience. And if his upbeat demeanor was any indication of what was in store, this was definitely going to be quite an “experience”.
Our first stop this morning was Consortium #1384, producers of fine Parmigiano Reggiano, also known as the “King of Cheeses”. The Consortium operates under DOP, which in English stands for Protected Designation of Origin, a strict set of government regulations established to ensure total traceability from farm to table. Parmigiano cheese production is labor intensive to say the least.
Alessandro started his humorous and rambunctious spiel, emphasizing DOP to the nth degree, chanting it again and again so we got the full measure of its importance. He even ended his statements with the occasional “hashtag DOP” in case any of us were tweeting or posting pics on Instagram, which of course we were. Even the hat he wore had it right on the front (#) and back (DOP). Not only was this guy upbeat, he was a clever marketer too.
The factory's main room was lined with rows of copper-lined cheese tubs the size of a 4-person hot tub, and we followed along as Alessandro explained the stages of forming the cheese from beginning to end. After all is said and done - from milking the cows, processing, and aging it 12 months and longer, to final inspections - there is the birth of the King. Beautiful, golden, and delicious Parmigiano Reggiano. By this time in the tour, I was a complete convert. Alessandro’s cheese evangelism had worked! True Parmigiano Reggiano cheese takes time, care, and oversight, and results in a product of excellent quality. Top quality = a higher price. And It never ends up in a can! :-)
We finished this first tour around 10am and were dying to finally taste the cheese. And taste we did - big chunks of cheese, prosciutto, crostini, salami, pizza, small pastries, espresso and a local Lambrusco, which tastes nothing like the sweet Lambrusco we find here in the US. It was sophisticated and smooth. What a great breakfast and a perfect way to end the cheese tour.
Balsamic di Modena
Alessandro was waiting for us when we arrived at our next stop, the home of one of the 310 families in Modena that produce Traditional Balsamic di Modena, DOP. I can't call this vinegar, because it's nothing like that! They also produce lesser grades of balsamic like IGP (Protected Geographic Identification), Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and what he called "Condiment", a viscous-y and delicious concoction that's similar to DOP balsamic but contains grapes from other regions, so it can't be labeled as DOP.
Like Parmigiano production, all 310 producers are under the control of one consortium. Each family produces balsamic in their attic where the hot and cold temps have a big effect on its production. The DOP variety is produced under much stricter regulations than the IGP. Here’s the difference: IGP balsamic requires aging a minimum of 60 days to 3 years. DOP requires a minimum of 12 years! Quite a difference.
Up in the small attic we saw rows of between 5-7 barrels, called a batteria, each decreasing in size from the largest to the smallest, and containing progressively older balsamic. Every winter, through a process called travasi, about 25% of the vinegar in the smallest barrel is removed and bottled, and younger vinegar from the barrel next in line replaces it. This “topping up” siphoning cascade continues on up the line, with young vinegar replacing the older vinegar that has moved on down the line. The largest barrel is then replenished with the cooked concentrate and all are then left to do nothing more than mature and age.
After 12 years only 10% of the product can be taken from the smallest barrel, about 1 liter or .25 gallon. Some are left to age for 25 years. So after all that time and only performing cooking and topoffs, there's a yield of just 1 liter.
Given all that, the label of Balsamic of Modena, DOP can not be given until five inspectors agree on taste, smell, and viscosity - while blindfolded - and finally, eyes open, on color. Then and only then can the consortium bottle the liquid but only in the prescribed uniquely shaped bottle with the appropriate label. I told you this is serious business in Italy!
Given the time needed to produce the very best balsamic, this is clearly not a money-making venture but rather one of love for the process and the balsamic itself. One batteria is forever, and is traditionally passed on to the next generation, often as a daughter’s dowery. As it turns out, Balsamic di Modena, DOP is not only delicious and aromatic, it’s romantic too.
OK, so now I understand why the good stuff is so rare, and expensive. But does the taste really justify the insanely high price? Downstairs in their tasting room, we finally sampled a variety of the balsamic products over little cups of ricotta and gelato, getting the full flavor and intensity of each product. And then drop by drop beginning with the lesser grade and working our way up until at last…a large drop of the 25 year old. It was like tasting a fine cognac. And I was absolutely and deeply in love.
Prosciutto di Modena
Our final tour stop today was Prosciuttificio Nini Gianfranco, producers of Modena prosciutto. The company, now run by the family’s third generation, has been producing these hams since 1910. Before we started through the tour, Allessandro filled us in on what we’d be seeing. And there’s a lot about this that makes Prosciutto di Modena DOP the special delicacy that it is.
To be labeled DOP the hams must come from only Italian pigs raised under strict DOP regulations. Though other regions like Parma get the attention because of their higher production, Modena produces about 180,000 hams per year of excellent quality.
As with the dairy cows, strict DOP guidelines apply to the raising of the pigs ensuring the right texture and fat content. The actual production process takes 14 months, 11 of which are for aging alone. There are several stages of salting and washing at precisely timed increments, but the most labor intensive phase of production is the moving of the legs from one humidity and temperature controlled room to the next. It’s like a giant assembly line. In one of the rooms we toured there were 22,000 legs hanging, and that’s a lot of meat.
After 14 months, inspectors use a horse tibia bone to stick the ham three times to check the smell and make sure the meat isn’t showing signs of spoilage. If the meat has matured properly it can be labeled as Proscuitto di Modena DOP. The tour ended with yet another tasting of prosciutto and it's slightly fattier counterpart, speck. It was yummy!
Lunch (aka The Food Coma!)
We spent the entire morning learning about these iconic Italian foods and our appetites were churning in high gear despite the many nibbles in between. Our last stop of the day was a fabulous luncheon at Ristorante Bonfiglioli in Ciano, about 14km from Bologna. Alessandro couldn’t have been a better host and we truly felt like we were having dinner at his home! It’s a shame the magnificent view of the rolling hills from the deck out back was largely ignored since we were too busy feasting on platter after platter of amazing food.
There were appetizers of cheese and cured meats, followed by an endless parade of Bolognese style meats and pastas served family-style. Our favorite was definitely the Tortellacci, an oversized tortellini stuffed with ground meat, parmigiano, and spices. Next was roast chicken, beef with rosemary, and roasted potatoes. Then came 5 or 10 different kinds of bread, and then finally desserts. As the food kept coming, Alessandro told us what we were eating and how it was made. In between, dishes were accompanied by a variety of locally produced red and white wines, expertly paired with each course. They were all delicious.
What was also nice was relaxing, chatting, and laughing over great food and wine with others we’d only just met that day. We suspect the wine helped facilitate this but we can’t be sure. :-) After two hours with our appetites more than satisfied we all began to slip into the food coma Alessandro promised. He wasn’t kidding about that. Time to head back to our flat in town and take a nap. After all, this is Bologna and we had to get ready for dinner.
IF YOU GO
The Italian Days Food Experience will ruin you for forever for Italy's most iconic foods, but in the best possible way. Alessandro puts his heart and soul into making it so much more than a tour. You'll be a Parmigiano cheese convert and balsamic lover after the day is done. Book your tour online or at the Bologna Welcome infopoint in Piazza Maggiore.
Visiting Bologna soon? Make sure to grab the Bologna Welcome card for 48 or 72 hours, for free admission to museums and attractions, reduced admission on some fabulous exhibitions and events, and a complimentary guided tour of the city. Highly recommend it!