A day around Parma between ham, culatello and castles

Parma is a town in the north west of Italy, not far from Milan and the Cinque Terre. Parma is well connected via train links, motorway and recently even by air with the newly opened Verdi airport which connects the town with London Stansted. Thanking to this new possibility it is now possible to spend a long weekend to explore the best food in Italy, medieval castles and aristocratic palazzoes.

culatello in Parma
Culatello hanging from the humid cellars

The Castle of Torrechiara and Parma ham.

Heading  south just   30 minutes by car from central Parma, we will find the Castle of Torrechiara. An important manor overlooking the Parma river valley. Once belonging to the Rossi family is now a museum open to everyone interested in visiting this splendid example of medieval architecture.  The highlight of the visit is the magnificent “bedroom” once dedicated to Pier Maria Rossi’s lover: Bianca. But this is not all. The Torrechiara castle is only part of the fun. The castle’s adjacent town is the centre of the Parma ham production. In Langhirano you can sample the best prosciutto that you can find around, and directly from the producers too. The best of all comes when you can stay at the castle b&b and have your dinner right at Locanda del Castello a restuarant providing excellent and  typical Parma style dishes.

Farm stay with Parmesan production.

To make things more interesting you could stay a selected farm and wake up in the morning with an amazing breakfast followed with a tour of parmesan cheese production. This is possible in Lesignano Bagni not far from the Parma ham production area and it also close to a balsamic vinegar producer. In fact you can visit all 3 products in just one one day with a 2 night stay.

Colorno, little Paris, and culatello ham.

The Parma province has a lot to offer and maybe you need to start to make choices in your long weekend. The area once under the French control was named the little Paris, due to the charming resemblance of the river side of the two cities. But another important guest was living in the small town of Colorno. Marie Luise duchess of Parma and wife of Napolon. She made Colorno her home and she had a whole palazzo for herself. The ducal palace of Colorno is a splendid example of renaissance architecture. Not to be missed is the hourly tour inside the palace. Do not forget to walk in the English style palace garden that is always accessible during daylight.
But Colorno is home of another delicacy: Culatello ham. Probably it is the first location making the ham heading north from Parma. Remember that many producers are happy to do guided visits inside their cellars, so just follow the culatello road sign and ask.

Polesine Parmense and the Antica Corte Pallavicina.

Heading north from Parma towards the great Po’ river we will encounter an unpretentious village called  Polesine. The highlight here is the building named after the noble parmense family: the Pallavicini. While the village has been moved from the shores for the river, remarkably the Antica Corte still sits next to to the banks of Po’. The Antica Corte Pallavicina has been completely restored by Massimo Spigaroli, who is the keeper of the secrets of culatello. He will oblige to show you the massive brick cellars of the palace literally filled with the precious ham. Massimo also organises cooking lessons, and ham making sessions. Cycling and boat tours of the Po’ river. Of course you can also stay at the palace by renting one of the modern and comfortable room.

Roccabianca.

Roccabianca literally the white castles lies in the flat of the Parma province just few kilometres from the Po’ River. Pier Maria Rossi not satisfied with Torrechiara castle builds another palace for Bianca (his lover) here in the foggy and marshy lands north of Parma. Roccabianca is simply spectacular, the external walls of the inner courts are completely covered in ivy. Here it is easy to imagine tales of knights and dames. But Roccabianca is also the home of the Italian author Giovannino Guareschi, maybe known more familiar to the Italians than the foreign visitors. It is still worth to mention that you can visit his house and discover this stories of Don Camillo and Peppone. Of course Roccabianca is one of the homes of Culatello, so enjoy it while you are there.

Zibello.

The home of the famous culatello and also the headquarters of the consortium. In November there is the culatello festival called Novemberpork. The local fiesta is totally dedicated to swine delicacies. Their tagline is: speriamo che ci sia la nebbia, it translates as we hope that it is going to be foggy. For many might sound strange but the producers claim that they need to open the windows of their cellars to let the fog. Apparently you will need that sort of humidity to cure the ham correctly.

Soragna.

Needless to say that here in Soragna you will find 2 things: a castle and culatello ham. It is a tiny comune with a characteristic porticoed town centre. While you are here you should visit the Rocca di Soragna, another magnificent castle with the advantage of still being inhabited by its prince descending from the Lupi family. English guided visits can be organised and culatello producers are in range.

San Secondo Parmense.

San Secondo is the home of spalla di San Secondo. A pork speciality made with the front shoulders of the animal. The cooked version is served warm with torta fritta (a earthy fried bread) coupled together it is a mind blowing experience  The flat land around Parma do not produce great wines but if you come across the Fortana wine, or Fortanina you should not miss the chance to try it, light and fruity is heart-warming in those foggy nights.

 Cycling Activities from Parma – Discover the great river from Polesine Parmense.

The Po’ river offers plenty of opportunities for those wanting to cycle or walk. In fact it is possible to rent bicycles locally and go on cycling tour of the area. The activities require some sort of fitness but they are considered easy trails as they are in the flat. The day can be also combined with the navigation of the Po’ river and a stop in Cremona. Of course we will include a gourmet visit to a culatello producer.

PDO area of Production of Parmesan Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Where this famous Italian cheese is made.

by Gabriele Monti November 6th, 2012

A while ago the consortium of the Parmigiano Reggiano made the map below to explain where the cheese is made, in order to educate consumers and tourists about the area of production.

Protected designations of origin.

The PDO is a food labelling standard that you find in Europe to protect food that has to be made only in certain areas. This is the case of Parmesan cheese, which is required to be made from the milk coming from the production area. The organoleptic characteristics of the raw materials will be transferred in the final product. Therefore you cannot make parmigiano reggiano using milk coming from other areas, simply because the outcome will not be the same.

The discipline of cheese making.

The consortium has a discipline that imposed on each producer. The discipline is nothing else than a set of  strict rules made according our ancient tradition. In short to make the cheese you need the right raw material: high quality milk and of course the skills the knowledgeable cheese masters of Emilia.

Bologna and Parmigiano Reggiano.

Bologna produces the parmesan cheese only on  the left bank of river Reno. In total there are only 10/12 producers in this province. If you stay in Bologna and decide to take a cheese tour, it is most likely that you will have to go to Modena to see the production.

Modena.

Coming from east, Modena is where the real parmigiano production starts. The area is of a particular interest if we look at the parmesan cheese produced on the Appenini mountains which is said to have a higher quality. This is probably due to the better water and air, being away from the industrial areas. In Modena is also possible to find organic parmesan produced from heirloom cows such as the bianca Modenese.

Mantova 

Although being in Lombardy and not in Emlia Romagna, Mantua falls in the production area. in fact there are several producers of the cheese in the area south of the Po’ River. Mantova is also a producer of Grana Padano.

Reggio Emlia – The cradle of cheese making.

Bibbiano  is a small town about 20 km south of Reggio Emlia, it is the confirmed cradle of the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. We have the first written accounts of the cheese of Parma dating back at least 9 centuries. Reggio Emilia is often overlooked by the tourists but is well worth a stop if you are interested in food.

Parma and the cheese of.

Parma along with Reggio Emlia shares highest production amounts of the area. Also the town already confirmed itself as world’s gourmet destination and food basket of Italy.

Visiting and touring a Parmesan cheese dairy in Emilia Romagna, Italy.

It is possible to visit the dairies however it is best to arrive at least the day before since the cheese is only made once a day and it is early in the morning. In the past we organised tours for people staying in Milan or in Florence, and thanks to the high speed trains it is now possible to arrive early in the morning for the visits. Emlia Delizia is a proud organiser of Parmesan cheese tours in Italy from Modena, Bologna and Parma.

Parmesan cheese production area.

 

 

The cuisine of Emilia Romagna

A short guide to the food of Bologna, Modena and Parma

by Gabriele Monti  November 8th, 2012

Tortellini alla Panna

Lovers of Italian food have labelled the Regione Emilia-Romagna as “the bread-basket of Italy.” It’s easy to see why. The historic cities of Parma, Modena and Bologna are famed  for their food, from the air cured and delicate prosciutto (Parma ham), parmigiano reggiano (parmesan cheese) and traditional aceto balsamico (balsamic vinegar) – some of the quintessential ingredients  of Italian cooking. The verdant Po Valley has given rise to agricultural practices that produce some of the most flavoursome and robust ingredients in the country.

Starters.

When visiting Parma, Modena and Bologna, the starters are most likely to be slices of Parma ham, culatello, Salame di Felino, and shavings of Parmesan cheese. Parma ham has a delicate sweet savouriness that it is unique to this air cured ham. Culatello has also a unique and distinctive savouriness and every bite keeps giving our flavour, with hints of aromas like black pepper. Parmesan cheese is the quintessential savoury flavour, unique and inimitable, due to the long fermenting ageing.

 

First courses: Pasta Dishes

Fresh egg  pasta in Emilia-Romagna is an artistic affair. Indeed, the cooks of this region are believed to be the masters of fresh pasta, producing distinct varieties of stuffed tortellini, and Tortelloni. Such pastas are recognised by their intricate and delicate shapes, as well as their rich fillings, which usually include pork or soft ricotta cheese.

Tortellini or Cappelletti

These attractive little pasta dumplings are filled with the best meats of the region – prosciutto, mortadella (a local variety of sausage) and ground pork. There are many old legends as to how tortellini originally came about. The most popular tale comes from Modena, near the Castelfranco Emilia. Lucrezia Borgia checked into an inn there, and the host was so captivated by her beauty that he spied on her through the keyhole of her private room. He only got a glimpse of her navel, but was so thrilled by this sight that he immediately went to the kitchen and attempted to recreate it in the form of pasta. And thus tortellini  were born. For the real connoisseur they are only  served in the famous Emilian capon broth, but a cream version is also available in most restaurants.

Tortelloni

This is a larger version of tortellini, squares of egg pasta (in Emilia Romagna is commonly called sfoglia) are folded into triangle and folded one more time into a hat shape. They are commonly filled with spinach, ricotta cheese and a generous sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.  They are  served with a sauce – butter and sage being a local favourite, but also with a nice tomato sauce with a leaf of basil.

Passatelli

To your surprise this time it is not going to be a pasta dish. Passatelli is the poor man meal made into an elegant and refined dish, and if you visit Bologna in the winter months, it would be a sin not to have passatelli. This dish consist of dumpling made of bread crumbs, egg,  and parmesan cheese. This is worked and turned into a dough and pressed through a die to obtain the classic shape. The dumplings are then served in a rich capon broth.

Zuppa reale

Along Passatelli, Zuppa reale is one of the less known dishes of the Emilian cuisine but well worth the hunt. Zuppa reale is a sort of spongy omelette like cake which is cut into cubes and served in the capon broth. The ingredients are flour, eggs, a lot of parmesan cheese, butter. The dough is cooked in the oven until golden crispy and spongy inside, then left to cool a little and cut into bite size dumpling.

Meat Dishes

Emilia-Romagna has a thousand-year history of raising swine – making it one of the most distinguished Italian regions for pork. Local pork dishes are layered in flavour, rich and hearty, and are perfect for chilly winter evenings. Veal is also a popular meaty option.

Zampone from Modena

Emilia-Romagna is famous for its decadent range of preserved meats and salamis. Zampone of Modena  is a unique local treat that is often eaten at Christmas time. This winter sausage was born in 1510. Modena was under siege at the time, and food had to be preserved. As a result, ground pork, rind and other cuts were salted and stuffed into a de-boned pig’s trotter. These days, zampone is served with lentils and washed down with Lambrusco DOC.

Cotolette alle Bolognese

Tagliatelle alla  Bolognese (it’s actually called tagliatelle al ragu in Italy) is not the only famous dish to emerge from Emilia-Romagna’s historical capital, Bologna. This original veal parmigiana consists of breaded veal topped with shavings of parmesan cheese. It can be  also layered with prosciutto, but for an authentic and complex speciality white truffles are added as a final touch.

Bollito Misto

As the tortellini go with the broth, the meat is normally eaten as a second course. When visiting Bologna you should ask for the Carrello dei Bolliti, literally the boiled meat trolley. The waiter will oblige and push to your table a serving trolley full of succulent boiled meats. Here you will find capon, boiler chicken, beef briskets, as well as beef tongue for the  more daring. The meats sliced thinly and served with salsa verde or mostarde. Salve verde is a condiment made with a base of parley and cooked carrots, boiled eggs, olive oil, vinegar, the recipes varies from location to location. Mostarda is more typical in the northern areas of Emilia Romagna and consist of fruits cooked in a light mustard sugary syrup.

 

Desserts

Many sweet dishes of Emilia-Romagna originated from traditional festivals highlighting the weeks before Easter. People would often indulge in sugary treats on Shrove Tuesday before the period of abstinence marked by Lent.

Tagliatelle Dolci

This sweet resemble to original pasta dish is one such Shrove Tuesday invention. Strands of tagliatelle are deep-fried, and then coated in honey. This is a popular dessert throughout Bologna. It can also be topped with sugar, cinnamon or lemon zest.

Zuppa Inglese

This directly translates to “English Soup,” but it actually refers to the Italian version of English trifle. During the 16th century, the rulers of Ferarra met with Elizabethan statesmen from England, and this contact introduced them to the delicious custardy dessert. The Italian diplomats fell in love with it, and attempted to make it using local ingredients. The Emilian version consists of pan di spagna (sponge cake), or savoiardi (finger biscuits), thick custard and Alchermes, an aromatic herb liqueur.

These are just a few of the dishes you will discover on a gastronomic journey of Emilia-Romagna. Its culinary legacy is sometimes rustic, but also elegant and refined – and is considered one of the best in all of Italy.

Digestive liquors

A meal in Italy is not finished without a shot of your favourite digestive. In Modena we have the dark and aromatic Nocino made from unripe walnuts which are steeped into pure alcohol, and sugar. The liquid is aged into oak or hash barrels for a minimum of 6 years. In Parma you will be likely to be served Barniolino. This liqueur is made from the berry of the wild growing hawthorn berries steeped into alcohol and sugar. The liquid has hints of strawberry  and cherries  with a pleasant bitterness.

Wines of Emilia Romagna.

Wines in the region and often sparkling red, this is unique characteristic of our products. In fact Lambrusco (Modena) and Gutturnio (Piacenza) are wines that in the tradition where double fermented in their bottles. This would give rise to a first alcoholic fermentation and then a second one which gives the bubbles to the wine. Lambrusco is a wine that is enjoyed young, often the year after the harvest, and it certainly lends itself to accompany the rich local cuisine. Remember that the perfect lambrusco is a dry wine, with an evanescent froth, purple in colour (Grasparossa variety) with hints of violet flowers.

 

 

A food tour in the Bologna province

by Gabriele Monti November 6th, 2012

Picture of Parma hams in Langhirano

The protagonist of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” a university student in the 1930 dines at “Pappagallo” and drinks coffee from “Zanarini,”  the same historical buildings  and establishment  that you might find in Bologna today. The City name is “the  learned ” thanks to the university funded in 1088 and “the fat” because of its agricultural wealth, splendour and culinary heritage, not to mention the sympathetic and friendly inhabitants.

The Bologna glories start from the ancient city. The two towers near Piazza Maggiore,  S. Petronio and the University are inviting you to walk under the arcades, to discover a town centre still full of charm. One of the first discoveries are  the attractive food delicacies of the area. A wealth of products which has not match elsewhere.

The local cuisine has an exclusive sense: the gastronomic tradition of Bologna is both wealthy and celebrated.  Over time the tradition has expanded, the name “Bologna”, referring to the cuisine is now a synonymous of flavour and generosity. The Bolognese  sauce along with the tagliatelle  are still the building elements of Italian cuisine. Another cornerstone of this cuisine is  the tortellini. They are still hand crafted one by one, produced according to ancient recipes  (filed at the local Chamber of Commerce). Then there is the lasagne, thick and succulent as the colours of the Baroque painters seeing in the museum galleries. There is also the “Fritto Bolognese” fried vegetables sumptuous arpeggio between sweet and salty.  Another dish is The Pinza a farmer sweet described for the first time in 1644.
Outside the city gates we have the  circle of the Bologna hills that are just there to be discovered. An extended natural park and reserve. The beautiful countryside around the town of Monteveglio is particularly recommended. An ancient walled town, where you can find  an abbey dedicated to of S. Mary.

The province of Bologna is cut in two by the Via Emilia.  To the north lies the vast Padana plain defined by the River Reno, which stretches and leads to Ferrara. In the opposite direction leading south you will find limestone hills called Gessi Bolognesi, then continuing  there are the mountain of the Apennine range. In the plain there is a  thriving farming and horticultural industry, producing one of its leading product known as  Mortadella di Bologna IGP (the of queen of  Bologna). The same area also produces the potato of Medicina and the green asparagus of Altedo IGP, as for the wine we have the  Montuno Doc produced from vineyards growing along the course of the river.

The vineyard becomes the protagonist on the Bolognese hills between the Panaro and ldice rivers. It is the area of the Colli Bolognesi Doc, which is divided into seven sub-denominations or geographical micro zones. In average vineyards are located  between 100 and 300 meters above sea level, the soils is loose and clay is plenty.
Among the white wines, we have the native Pignoletto, along with a robust red Barbera.

Towards the eastern boundary farmers grow  Albana di Romagna DOCG and DOC wines of Colli lmola.  On the west, the tourist will find the ROUTES OF CHERRY AND CASTLES which is leaving the capital Bologna and leading to Vignola where  the most beautiful places in the area can be admired.

Here the food is a mix of the classic Bolognese cuisine (fresh pasta and salami), with the attractions of autumn fruits such as mushrooms, truffles, chestnuts from the Apennines. Continuing on the mountain, an important destinations for the gourmet traveller is Savigno.  It is named “The City of Truffles (white)” with a major festival and exhibition market in autumn. Also you can visit Castel di Casio, another center for the collection of precious fungi in valley of the Reno. Another renaissance town is  Castel del Rio, in the upper valley of Santerno, from here you can also continue up from Imola Montanara along the road that leads to the impressive peaks a between Tuscany, the capital of the Chestnut (IGP) and Marrons.

The Gourmet Region: Emilia Romagna

The Emilia Romagna, when looked on a map, has boundaries made in linear fashion, a sort of harness between the Po’ and the Apennines with the watershed that diverge slightly towards the bow of the Adriatic coast. Inside we have the two pillars that identify homogeneous parts for landscapes and traditionally run longitudinally through the Via Emilia.  It is in fact the Roman road, which separates the plain from the mountains. Roughly at the height of Imola  we have the historical border  which divided Emilia under the Roman control from  the sphere of influence of barbaric domination, in this case Romagna.

These are the elements that represent geographically and historically our cuisine, it is surprising because of the presence of so many aspects in one small relatively area.  In the same region we have the northern European ancestry. In fact it is one of the reality Emilian gastronomy mainly  based on the rearing of pigs and the use of animal fat. The region has also a Mediterranean tradition such as sheep farming and olive oil. In Romagna has an alternative to bread. The Piadina is a dumpling cooked on cast iron skillet, on also known as piada, and often eaten with ham, salami or soft cheeses. Probably eating flat breads has a Byzantine origin.

In Emilia we have  an astonishing line up of salumi, in Romagna on the other hand a pecorino cheese that acquires a unique flavour by ageing it in a pit. Emilia’s  cooking is rich and persuasive, in Romagna the flavours are a more vigorous and earthy. This is the results of centuries of history and also the differences have been diluted and new realities overlapped to create this modern geography of food.  Indeed such is the variety of products that you want to proceed in a systematic manner. It is worth to travel along the Via Emilia looking out the window with the curiosity of the connoisseur.

The first appointment is Piacenza: salamis in the Apennines (coppa, salami and pancetta) and fine wines, including red and sparkling Gutturnio. The cuisine has influlences from the nearby  Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria regions. Parma follows: the land of a great gastronomical heritage, just think of the Parmesan cheese, Parma ham and Culatello from Zibello with an aromatic Malvasia to be their frame. It is art. A culinary tradition that has caught on all over the world. Then it was the turn of Reggio Emilia, which is the cradle of the  Parmigiano Reggiano and the beginning of Lambrusco production area, a sparkling red wine, which is dear to many Italians. In Modena again salami and Zampone are the kings. On the hills, we have the  Lambrusco grasparossa and the famous Vignola’s cherries. The sharp end of the Emilian cuisine is in Bologna, where the pasta is in the form of tagliatelle, tortellini or lasagna, and the sauce is meaty and it accompanies pasta with dignity.

In the north of Bologna we find Ferrara, with the sumptuous salama da sugo and the wines of the Bosco Eliceo. The grapes are cultivated on the sands of the Po Delta.
By the time we get to  Castel San Pietro Romagna begins, mixing the flavours of the Apennines and the Adriatic sea. Ravenna, with the olive oil of Brisighella and the first vineyards of fine Albana wine.

Forli and Cesena, where component of the cuisine are mainly form the Apennines, with meat and game reminiscent of Tuscan cuisine, and finally Rimini, with plenty of tomato fish soup with strong vinegar and pepper flavours, opening the way to Central Italy, leading to the valleys of Montefeltro in Le Marche region.

In Emilia Romagna there are  13 designated gourmet routes that the tourist can follow, they are well designed and fully operational, The Enoteca Regionale di Dozza (BO) is the headquarters of the gourmet experience with a calendar full of events, from town festivals to street food fairs.