For trends, the world watches us. But for Old World traditions, Americans must always look to distant shores. Italy is a study in contrasts. Tension between the future and the past is omnipresent, and defines what is perceived as Italian style. Veer the conversation toward food, however, and Italians unite. The rest of us need no translation for what tastes great.
For an atypical holiday–one that is not only restful but also educational and delicious–try a gastronomical tour of the home of true Parmesan cheese. In fact, in 1955, the Italian parliament sanctioned both the ingredients and the region.
For 800 years, the Emilia-Romagna region in North-Central Italy has been preparing its lordly Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese the old-fashioned way: one golden wheel at a time. Situated north of Tuscany and a two-hour drive south of Milan, the Emilia-Romagna region (which also produces succulent Parma hams [prosciutto] and heavenly balsamic vinegar, aged over a decade) is Italy’s food capital.
The famed Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, like any artisan product, has its own character. Each 80-pound wheel, aged 12 to 24 months, is an alchemy of cow’s milk, the cooking process, and aging. The result awakens the senses. The longer the cheese ages, the grainier the consistency and the more complex the fragrances–butter, white wine, almonds–that issue forth. Arguably, it could be called the national cheese. Ask any native Italian, this stuff is not considered a Parmesan cheese, it is the Parmesan cheese.
Production commences on a string of cooperative farms and dairies along Via Emilia, an ancient Roman road that runs southeasterly across the agricultural province, from Piacenza in western Emilia (in the Apennine hills) to Rimini in Romagna, where it vanishes into the Adriatic Sea.
Timelessness pervades life at Le Lame villa, one of 1,700 rural bed and breakfasts that is also on one of the cheese-producing cooperative estates (near Salsomaggiore Terme in green, hilly, western Emilia). On a terrace above the house, cows graze on a special diet. It is the first phase in Parmigiano-Reggiano’s ancient recipe. By nightfall, the cows will be milked, then they will be milked again in the morning. Both milkings are combined at the nearby dairy and the cooking process begins.
The result can be savored inside Le Lame. An international mix of guests anxiously awaits Madame Ruina, who prepares a nine-course meal from scratch. Regional delicacies include tagliatelle dressed with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and, variously, poison ivy leaves (yes) and donkey meat (yes). A week’s stay costs approximately (U.S.)$350, including meals.
Signs bearing the distinctive golden wheel greet gourmands and novitiates traveling down the Via Emilia and signify that dairies with retail outlets are nearby. And with the present exchange rates, plus vacuum sealing for international transport, an American-style bargain awaits.
To arrange a dairy tour, contact the Consorzio Del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano (www.Parmigiano-Reg giano.it). For details about lodging in Italy’s rural B&B’s, such as Le Lame, consult www.agriturist.it and the guide to Italian farm holidays on the Internet. It is listed in Italian, but the Google search engine offers an English version. Enter “Guida