If you’re anything like us when travelling, immersing yourself in the local cuisine of the country you’re visiting is an absolute priority. If you’re also able to meet the families who have been producing those foods for centuries, experience farm-to-table processes firsthand and eat around family tables, you have most certainly found yourself in food travel utopia.
Our recent trip to Parma, Italy, was all this and more. One of 26 global UNESCO Creative Cities of Gastronomy, the region is home to culinary feats including Parma ham, Barilla pasta and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Nearby is the ancient city of Modena, famous for its production of balsamic vinegar.
This gastronomic heritage is evident in all aspects of the city, from its identity and history to its modern culture. In Cathedral Square, next to the striking Duomo de Parma, stands the Battistero Di Parma (Baptist church), its frescoes painted in 1196 depicting stories of seasonality and food. Records from the 12th century suggest that Parmigiano Reggiano was once used as a form of currency. Interspersed with banking and religion, there is seemingly no part of life that has been untouched by Parma’s foodie history.
As the only Italian City of Gastronomy, Parma’s role is to promote the original culinary experiences from the region, which are impossible to replicate elsewhere. One of the most important of these is Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which is the culinary star of the region. Made using a process which has changed very little since antiquity, the cheese is produced by 329 dairies across five provinces, all accredited by the Consortium for Parmigiano Reggiano. The story of Parmigiano Reggiano’s origins can be traced back to an excess of milk from the many cows in the region, and a need to prevent wastage. Fast-forward 11 centuries and Parmigiano Reggiano’s commitment to tradition means the dairies produce the cheese twice-daily, 365 days a year. As our host says, “nature never stops and neither do we”.
Made by hand
The cheesemaking process is extremely labour-intensive and requires the farmer’s manual involvement throughout all stages of production. This begins with raw milk, rennet and hand-mixing, to ensure the granules are broken in the perfect size. The hands-on process continues through to the start of the ageing period, when each wheel will be stored in the warehouse for a minimum of 12 months. After this, each wheel will be individually inspected by a member of the Consortium, who conducts a series of checks by hand. Only after this will the cheese receive the official mark of Parmigiano Reggiano and be given a unique code linking the wheel back to a database, which details its authenticity. One of these farmers, Paolo Caramaschi, represents the 5th generation of cheesemakers in his family. He also has 25,000-plus wheels in his warehouse. As we walk through his dairy, he explains that being a cheesemaker is not a job but his way of life, and his identity. Every member of Paolo’s family has married in the small church on his grounds, and when his grandson was born earlier this year he marked the top of the 60 wheels produced that day with the child’s name. His family plans to open one wheel each year to celebrate his birthday, for the next 60 years.
For a city and region with its heritage so firmly rooted in tradition, the sense of creativity is startling. The city’s residents are embracing change, realising that to protect their identity they must continue to evolve and open up their unique products to the world. Chef Anna Maria Barbieri, who has been cooking for more than 50 years, demonstrated this spirit when she prepared a five-course meal for us using fresh, local ingredients.
Parmigiano Reggiano is used in each dish, but in unexpected ways: for example as a crisp cheese basket filled with tortellini; in handmade crackers; in a mille feuille of vegetables and in a refreshing gelato. Chef Anna Maria learned to cook from her mother and now is the head chef in the restaurant owned and operated by her son. This taste experience is not singular. The food at Ristorante Inkiostro, Michelin-starred and headed by Chef Terry Giacomello, is experimental and creative while still allowing the quality of locally sourced produce to take centre stage. His egg white tagliolino, with Parmigiano Reggiano sauce and caviar, is a culinary highlight.
Sticking with tradition
The modernist movement is perfectly balanced by the perseverance of eateries such as Parma Rotta, where Chef Antonio Di Vita prides himself on using local ingredients that uphold tradition. He started working in the kitchen at 13, and is now assisted by his two daughters, who offer the residents of Parma food just the way his grandmother cooked it.
These stories of family, artisan food and heritage are immense, and the sense of pride and responsibility to promoting Parma and it’s culinary delights are humbling.