Parmigiano, Prosciutto & Vinegar, Oh My! Eating Our Way Through Emilia Romagna

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Think back on your travels. The very best experiences you've had throughout your visits abroad or otherwise. The "check this off my bucket list" travel activities. Or even glance back over your life as a whole. Have you ever done an activity or been involved in something that has made you say, "There is no way I could picture ANYONE not liking this?" Something probably has jumped into your head, like the time you jetskied across the lake while fireworks exploded over your head last Independence Day. Or the first time you saw the Grand Canyon. Perhaps it's just stepping out on the ledge of a castle of a place you didn't think could possibly exist in real life. Well, I've got some bad news for you. That time you went real fast on a jetski while America celebrated by blowing things up above you? My Dad wouldn't like it, his bad knees make a jetski untenable. The first time you saw the Grand Canyon? I'm scared of heights, plus it's too hot in Arizona. Lake Bled? Ask a Slovenian, they'll tell you Lake Bohinj is better. I'm basically Abraham Lincoln-ing you. You can't please all the people all the time. There is no activity that EVERYONE will like.

Except for the Italian Days Food Experience

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: This post is going to read like an ad for Italian Days, like I am exaggerating the experience because we were invited guests on the tour. I promise you, I'm not. There is a reason their Tripadvisor page has ELEVEN HUNDRED FIVE STAR REVIEWS and ZERO BAD REVIEWS. Everyone has bad reviews, it's part of being on the Internet in 2016. You can't please all the people all the time. Even YouTube clips of dogs greeting their owners from war have comments on them like "DOG COULD HAVE BEEN HAPPIER TAIL WAG WEIRD I PREFER CHOCOLATE LAB DOG THUMBS DOWN" Heck, more than likely there's going to be a negative comment at the bottom of this post, "HEY I HAVE A CHOCOLATE LAB WHY ARE YOU PUTTING THEM DOWN I WILL NEVER RETURN TO THIS BLOG." Everyone gets negative reviews. But not Italian days. Why? It starts with Alessandro, the owner of Italian Days and leader of the Food Tour from Bologna.

Alessandro is hard to describe, but picture someone with the energy of Jimmy Fallon, the culinary passion of Anthony Bourdain, the ease of conversation of your best friend, the knowledge of Italian food of Mario Batali, the looks and style of Pitbull, and the exaggerated Italian accent of Joey Tribbiani. His catchphrases, which he consistently and joyfully shouted throughout the day were "Hashtag D.O.P.!" and "What's Up, Bro!". We, along with everyone on the tour, loved him, and this is who greeted us bright and early at a Parmigiano Reggiano factory outside of Modena, and this was the selfie he insisted on taking about ten minutes into our tour. 

When we arrived at the Parmigiano Reggiano factory outside of Modena after a forty-five minute ride in a Mercedes van, one of the first sentences out of his mouth was, "Prepare for your stomachs to be punished. In a good way." As we put on our sanitary garb to preserve the cleanliness inside, he explained to us the painstaking and exact traditions that go into making the "King Of Cheese", Parmigiano Reggiano. A process that has basically been the same for hundreds of years, only changing when technology emerged to make it easier to produce larger amounts to satiate the world's hunger for this deliciousness, it is all done by hand, twice a day, every day, 365 days a year, by the same workers. Then we got to step inside and watch cheese at all stages throughout it's creation, turning from milk which must come from the area around the factories BY LAW into a solid mass through simple induction, being shaped and cut by one specific person who has been training for decades, being handled by real people while it sets (there are very few machines in the whole process), then being molded and immersed in salt water for eighteen days before being stored in a cheese library for up to THREE YEARS. 

The cheese library was probably the most impressive part, housing almost ONE MILLION EUROS worth of cheese, turning slowly from "just cheese" to PARMIGIANO REGGIANO. It was such a different atmosphere here, I kept thinking of shows like Unwrapped, which constantly has Carlton Banks saying the phrase, "And then there is a specially designed machine to form the Raisinets." Or turn the Raisinets. Or coat the Raisinets. Or cool the Raisinets. There are no machines here, aside from the ones used to heat the milk. The cheese you're complaining is so much more expensive than the stuff that comes in the green can is HANDMADE at every step. It's insane. Also, you can take some real goofy facebook profile pics in the Cheese Library if you so dare. 

Then it was outside for a ridiculously lavish Italian breakfast spread with a Parmigiano Reggiano tasting, where we had the opportunity to buy the "King Of Cheese" at a ridiculous discounted price. Always a sucker for a great deal, we bought two kilos worth. We've been cooking with it for weeks. 

Was there Lambrusco (a sparkling local red) available to drink? Was it before 9 AM? Did we drink some? Guess.

Let the stomach punishment begin.

From there it was on to a Acetaia, where we learned the ridiculously pain-staking process that produces Balsamic Vinegar of Modena D.O.P. What does D.O.P. mean, you ask? It's is short for Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or "Protected Designation of Origin", and there are different rules for each product, but what it boils down to is this: Want the best possible version of a particular product? Make sure it has D.O.P. on the label. Because the difference between Balsamic Vinegar of Modena D.O.P. and the balsamic vinegar of Modena you buy at the Piggly Wiggly is infinite.

The first thing you need to know is that the process for making balsamic vinegar is so involved and lengthy, most Italians that make Balsamic Vinegar of Modena D.O.P. (I write the full name every time out of respect) only make it as a hobby. A family affair, because it's next to impossible to make money after you wait twelve years to age it (OH DID I NOT MENTION THAT D.O.P. MEANS THAT IT'S A MINIMUM TWELVE YEARS OLD?) and can only harvest one liter a year? Read all about the process here, but what you need to know is that we were able to see multiple batterias in the attic of an Italian house, including a barrel that was over five hundred years old and Alessandro's personal batteria, which would be a gift to his daughter on her wedding day. I told you, it's a family affair.

We then got to do MORE TASTING, including an Extravecchio Balsamic Vinegar of Modena D.O.P. which was over twenty five years old. Most folks on the tour said they had never tasted anything like it, it tasted more like a fine port than vinegar, and it felt like something you could have by itself on a special occasion. That's right, a special occasion vinegar! We also tasted some other variations, including some gelato with balsamic (YUM) topping, and had another opportunity to buy at ridiculous discounts. There isn't any pressure to buy (unlike some other tours we've taken), but again, we bought, and now we have a Balsamic Vinegar of Modena D.O.P. that we're saving for a special occasion. 

Next it was a short drive to where they make Prosciutto Di Modena D.O.P. While my dad was disappointed we weren't seeing Prosciutto Di Parma, they're made exactly the same way, only in a different town. While Parmans (what do you call people who live in Parma? Parmesans?) will argue that their product is different because of the quality of the air around Parma, all Prosciutto is dried inside now. So there used to be a difference, but now, pretty much any prosciutto you buy (as long as it is D.O.P.) is made with the same processes. Want to know the process? Let me bullet point it.

  • Buy fresh pork legs from a designated area (only certain towns in Emilia Romagna) of a mandated weight.
  • Cover them in salt and age them for a few weeks.
  • Blow that salt off, cover them again and age them another few weeks.
  • Hang them and age them for at least seven months.

That's it! Sounds easy, right? But it's not as easy as it sounds, because that first step is the most important. They had prosciutto aging there (non D.O.P.) made from pigs in other countries and regions, and the way they are fed, grown, and slaughtered makes them taste A LOT different (read: worse). Direct quotes from Alessandro: "If it's not D.O.P., it's shit." and "If a butcher tried to serve this to my kids, I would punch them in the face." There is a consortium constantly overseeing the aging process to ensure that it is done perfectly, and any leg that is not perfect doesn't get the D.O.P. stamp of approval to ensure it's quality. Next time you're having a prosciutto and melon at that fancy Italian place up the street, make sure you ask what kind of prosciutto it is. If they don't say the magic letters, tell them to shove it. Or punch them in the face.

Then it's another tasting, another opportunity to buy at ridiculous prices, and MORE LAMBRUSCO. If I can elaborate concerning the tastings, it's basically Alessandro and his team shoving a ridiculous amount of delicious food at you. Continually bringing over freshly sliced Prosciutto Di Modena D.O.P. and insisting that you eat it, and then looking offended when you turn down your fifteenth slice because you want to save room for the next stop, because at this point, even I was starting to get full. 

And then we went to lunch. 

Lunch was served at an organic winery in the hills of Emilia Romagna, and believe me when I tell you that it is not only an absolutely gorgeous environment, but an INSANE amount of food. And all the while, Alessandro is pushing more onto your plate, assuring you that "no more is coming out" before emerging from the kitchen with another delicious pasta course. Or a huge plate of desserts. AND THE WINE, YOU GUYS. There is an endless flow of ever-changing, delicious wines, a wine for each course (and there are SO MANY COURSES), and your glass is never empty. There were just under twenty people on our tour and every single one of them had the best lunch of their lives.

Drunk, full, and happy we stumbled back onto the vans, asking everyone else how they enjoyed the tour. Everyone had the best time, and they couldn't wait to tell their friends, because EVERYONE WOULD LOVE THIS DAY. Alessandro and Italian Days pleases all the people, all the time.

Unless you're a vegan. But your opinions don't count.