Finding the hidden gems and local specialties that are tucked in the corners and verandas of Italy are part of why I continue to return. Each corner more beautiful than the next, with flowers and vines climbing the brick walls, woven in the wrought iron balconies. Smelling the baking dough and cheese waft from the pasticceria down the street. Walking under the delicately hung night gowns and other unmentionables that criss cross from window to window to dry. Charms that are inherent to ones imagination when thinking of spending a day lazily wandering the cobblestone streets.
What they are often missing is the history of those smells.
One of my most favorite things is in the world is cheese. Good, old fashioned formaggio. It was more than a pleasant surprise when I learned I could visit the cheese dairy from birth to storage. It was one of the greatest moments of discovery I have ever known.
So I embarked from Milan to Parma via train, early in the morning, to arrive at the dairy to catch the start of the day. As I pulled up in the cab, I watched the sun rise over the fields and could smell the sharp scent of pigs and their muck. I could not see them, but there was no question they were around.
I was greeted by an extremely knowledgeable guide from the Parmigiana Consortium, which is a group of dairy farmers and cheese producers who work together to protect the identity and authenticity of the parmigiana. The producers, however, are not the cheese makers but the farmers with the milk producing cows. Imagine that this process is so intense and sacred that the people intimately involved formed a group to protect the integrity of the cheese. Amazing.
I bunny-suited up from head to toe to protect the cheese from me, which, I suppose, makes perfect sense. We enter the dairy and I am in it, among the giant bell shaped copper vats of milk swirling and heating. Milk that was delivered fresh, early in the morning, and immediately put to use. A set of magicians are at the giant bowls, one vat at a time, to mix and add the fermented whey and rennets.
While I contemplated leaving my Jersey life and moving to the Italian countryside to live among the cheese and pigs, I am reminded that each of the cheese magicians are trained and come from long lines of other cheese makers. I can’t just take up residence and start stocking my own wheels. So I am neither trained nor really welcomed in this respect. Which is just as well because they work every day including holidays and that isn’t really my style. Even Jesus took a day off.
I turn my thoughts to making some of this glorious cheese at home, given there are only 3 ingredients inclusive of the milk. I am quickly brought back to reality when I get to see a wheel in the mold with the etching that will give it authenticity and the rind we are all so familiar with as its imprinted with the dotted parmigiano reggiano brand.
Once in the mold, each wheel gets its own ID number, its first mark of origin so there is no question as to the authenticity of the product. It’s hard not to appreciate the thought that goes into this whole scenario. Especially since that ID number is directly related to the farmer producers so when it’s sold, the right people get paid. Tracking from the start of the supply chain all the to the consumer…incredible! But, it’s still not official parmigiano yet. It’s just kind of wheel of…cheese-like stuff.
But it is still a wheel of cheese-like stuff I want to bite like an apple. However, I have discerned that this is likely frowned upon so I don’t touch anything.