Siobhan has organized a trip with Emilian Land Tour, a company which specializes in small tours of the region Emilia-Romagna, highlighting local food production. We start by leaving Bologna into the countryside, small towns interspersed with commercial buildings along the road and farms. The Modena area has Italy’s only plains, while the rest of the country is mostly mountainous, so it is primarily flat. Unlike some of the rural areas where we’re from, the roads are strangely routed around irregular shapes.
Our first stop is a local dairy farmer who raises about a hundred cattle to make Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. The cows are milked twice daily and the previous day’s production is used to make cheese in the morning. The process starts with heating and skimming the milk, removing the whey and adding the rennet which begins the solidification of the cheese. As we watched the result was drained and lifted carefully into a form, then pressed to remove liquid. We also got to see the curing and aging process, where the individual rounds, each weighing about 50 kilograms, are left to dry a bit, then put into large baths of salt water.
As we walked through the small rooms, we could see the skill and techniques used: Perhaps what was most striking about this whole affair was that a certain pride and individual quality was achieved by individual cheesemaker’s skills and tradition, not by the mechanized quality processes of major industry. The farm, with about four people, makes about five rounds a day. At the same time, the rounds are checked by a governing body, a consortium of Reggiano producers who ensure that the cheese meets standards and cannot be sold with the Parmigiano Reggiano name if not up to them. While each wheel leaves with the farm’s serial number, they then enter a global market place with the same description and label as 450 other producers.
Our next stop was to acetaia, or vinegar making concern. Here, grapes are crushed and cooked for a few days until boiled down into a very sweet reduction. This must is then transferred into large vats for mixing with regular vinegar to make commercial balsamic vinegar, or put for traditional production into an array or battery of barrels which as a progression, ages the vinegar year by year. The main vats of this liquid are poured into a year old wooden barrel, which in turn is partially siphoned and mixed with two year old barrel. Over time, the vinegar changes and progressively grows in flavour and thickness.
The barrels are purchased over time by the acetaia owners: Some dated back to the 1930’s, others with the names of babies in the family the year the casks were purchased. As a result, the vinegars are 12 or 25 years old by the time they are bottled for sale. The end result of the balsamic vinegar is very different than what we’re used to from the supermarket– they are sweet and surprisingly flavoured like the grapes they come from.
Our final stop before lunch was to visit a company which made proscuitto, the delicious Italian cured hams. The various places we visited on the tour were very small firms producing traditional Bolognese products. Particularly delightful was how real the visits were, without tourist visitors’ centers or the like. In the case of this company, we walked through the loading dock area, workers handling racks of raw hams fresh from the slaughterhouse. With the rest of the staff away at lunch, we got a tour through the family run business: The hams are trimmed and inspected, then salted, and then hung to age for fourteen months. At the end, again, like cheese, they are inspected by a governing body which then allows them to be branded as the controlled proscuitto di modena.
In the afternoon, we visited a small winery up in the hills of the area. With only a few small fields, production is small but heartfelt: Three generations of the Ghedini family have made wine, only managing their own grapes, perhaps to better understand and control the quality of their product. The proprietor was obviously passionate about making wine and honest about each year’s changes. Every year’s harvest changes due to weather and conditions, while the terroir, or environmental context of the grapes don’t change much, the amount of sun and rain makes each batch different. We got to walk along the now fallow fields, vines still tied in place along the heavily sloped field. We stood in the red grape field, filled with Barbera and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and as expected the BlackBerry said we were facing south to catch the sun, then followed through the winery, inspecting large stainless steel cylinders and giant wooden casks. It was delightful to hear an individual’s enthusiasm and criticisms for their business, compared to the large vineyards run as corporations with industrial quality control and processes. The individual choices, like sacrificing one type of grape’s harvest to finish another, better one, is exciting and interesting to hear.
Osteria dell’Orso is in the heart of the university district and tonight we walked out there to have dinner there. It’s always an easy check to see if a restuarant is any good: They are always filled with people and have a wait to get it, not due to exclusivity, but due to popularity. This restuarant served some classics, but also unusual items for the college crowd including fish and chips. Led into the basement, a room of racuous laughter and cheering met us, young people having a good time, seated at plank benches and old tables, dorm cafeteria style. The waiter, upon seeing old friends, delivered beers while taking a sip from them, a pat on the back and sitting on the bench with you signified a casual style and friendliness. I had a great time there, eating a carbonara of house made noodles, pecorino and pancetta.