Banging the drum: getting to grips with Parma's culinary traditions
Parmigiano-Reggiano isn't just a cheese – it's a huge part of Parma life, as we found out when we travelled to this northern region of Italy for a lesson in cheese and pasta making.
I'm not even two minutes into my first meal in Parma when I'm alerted to just how seriously they take all things edible in this part of northern Italy.
Sure, the association of this country with good food isn't exactly breaking news, but the enthusiasm I'm witnessing in this trattoria in Felino – one of the region's many sleepy, laid-back towns – is something else.
As my guide Maria Chiara – who has lived and worked in Parma all 32 years of her life – sprinkles spoonfuls of snowy Parmesan over a plate of ricotta tortellini, gold and glistening under shafts of sunlight filtering through the restaurant's wooden slatted roof, she enquires earnestly: "What is it you say when you're in the sea dying?" "Drowning?" I offer. "Yes!" she proclaims, gleefully. "We drown our pasta in butter here!"
No credence is given to the usual mantra of 'I shouldn't really' or 'but it's bad for you' in this part of the world. The food is good. It's plentiful. And it's a big part of life.
Chiara recounts a trip up the mountains she took with friends the week before: "Before we'd packed anything else, we made sure we had 1kg of Parmesan, a salami, and two knives. No-one from here ever goes anywhere without knowing that they can eat."
We make the short trip to the neighbouring town of Calestano, where we duck into an osteria for more pasta and hunks of bread that's so good I assume it's homemade.
"Oh no," the restaurant owner says, "we get it from up in the mountains." Chiara elaborates: "Thousands of years ago, people who lived in the mountain villages made stone ovens for cooking bread and they're still used today. It's like a communal oven where you can go and bake."
I think to myself what the artisanal bakeries of London would give for such a story. And what they would charge.
Walking off the carb coma, we make a pit-stop for a cone of pistachio-flavoured gelato made from luscious milk produced by local cows. And it's that milk that largely accounts for my presence in Parma. Or rather, one of the other products it's used to create – Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Parmesan cheese, as it's more often referred to in the UK.
One of the world's best-known cheeses – and, with a history dating back to the 14th century, certainly one of its oldest – Parmesan is undeniably one of Italy's most famous exports. Its salty, tangy, umami-rich flavour is savoured by millions, but when it comes to production, the scale is often smaller and less industrial than you might imagine.
We head up into the lush hills surrounding Calestano to meet a man who's dedicated his entire life to producing the stuff. I kid you not: Damiano Delfante works from 5am until 9pm, 365 days a year, making giant, amber-hued wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano using a method that – give or take a bit of labour-saving machinery – isn't vastly different to how it was first created.
There is nothing about the cheese that he doesn't know, and he's quick to impart his expert knowledge, from the exact blends of milk he uses to the important business of bar-coding each and every wheel. And it's this part where it gets serious – all producers are obliged to mark every cheese using a number stamp that identifies them, and if it's lost, the repercussions can be big. Delfante once misplaced his code and had to report it immediately to the police in case someone found it and tried producing fake Parmesan.
We exit his small factory and stand in front of what looks like an old lock-up but is about three times the height of your average garage. Delfante unlocks the doors, throws them open, and I stand slightly stunned by what's in front of me. It's Willy Wonka's factory-esque: shelves run too far back to see, right up to the ceiling, on which sit wheels of Parmesan, their golden colour making them appear to glow through the dim light of the room.
The cheeses age here for a minimum of 12 months before being given another stamp, this time from Parmigiano-Reggiano consortium inspectors, whose job it is to hand-check every wheel by tapping them with a hammer to gauge the texture inside. That's three million cheeses. Per year.
Three million wheels of parmesan are hand-checked by inspectors every year
No wonder it's an integral part of Parma's cuisine. I don't realise quite how central it is until the next day, when I find myself in the kitchen of Maria Elisa, a fifty-something-year-old who lives just outside Calestano. She asks me to pass her a wide, deep dish that's covered with a tea towel, and removes the cloth to reveal a mound of Parmesan that would last me a year at home. She adds half into the mix for a quiche-like onion pie that, when it comes out of the oven half an hour later, tastes just as good as you'd expect for something containing such a volume of dairy.
While the pie is baking, Maria makes a pasta sauce with porcini mushrooms from the woods surrounding her home, and tells me that recipes are passed down through generations here, like a surname, to ensure they are never forgotten. As we sit down for lunch, family members begin to appear, and they're each loaded up with bowls of the porcini pasta.
As Maria's grandson devours his second helping I get the sense that, somewhere down the line, his grandson will be eating exactly the same thing.
From Maria's we head further still up into the hills, to meet Francesco Dall'Argine, a man whose passion for Parma's produce led him to give up a career in accounting to run an agriturismo – essentially a farm with a restaurant.
To be granted agriturismo status, at least 25% of produce he uses in the kitchen must come from the farm, but that's no problem for Francesco, who is bursting with pride as he explains to me how he hand-harvested 1,600 crocuses for the saffron that he's currently sprinkling into a pan along with lashings of cream and nuggets of gnocchi.
I enquire about the day-to-day processes involved in running a place in such rural surroundings (the only other living things we spotted on the drive were a couple of playfighting hares), and he reveals that the remote lifestyle suits him just fine: "It's a 6am start for harvesting the vegetables, and as there's no-one else up here, I can do it in my underwear. It's like a modern-day garden of Eden!"
When I ask why he changed his life so radically, he gestures at the mounds of truffles, vegetables and wheels of Parmesan that surround him, and my question is answered without words.
It's clear my host doesn't ever stop cooking
If Francesco is a character, he has nothing on Silvana, whom I meet in her home in Calestano later that day. You might not immediately associate the word 'swagger' with a 72-year-old housewife who is just shy of five feet tall, but the minute she ushers us in, I'm hypnotised: she's wearing a pair of sequined mules, chandelier earrings and bright red lipstick, and speaking animatedly about her recent visit to London, specifically the John Lewis homeware department (she's a big fan).
She quickly gets to work on her pasta machine with some impressive might, and encourages me to try too, but my effort is, quite frankly, pathetic – feeding the golden dough through the press is a lot harder than it looks, despite Silvana making it appear as easy as breaking an egg. This is one lady who is definitely not messing about.
She's prepared a 'light' lunch featuring sweet pumpkin tortelli, roasted peppers, potatoes with Parmesan and cream… When the food finally stops coming, she places several bottles in the centre of the table with a glint in her eye – they're liquors that she's made using walnuts and berries from the garden. She pours us each a generous shot with the mischievous air of a woman who knows her guests are going to leave a little less sober than when they arrived.
I ask her how long she's been cooking, and her answer is immediate: "I can't remember. I have always cooked, and can't recall not cooking."
Glancing around, it's clear that she doesn't really ever stop: there are three chest freezers in the garage that she acquired to accommodate all the food she makes, and they currently house 140 litres of minestrone. "I cook every single day," she says. "My granddaughter doesn't go to the supermarket – she comes here instead.
As I stand up to leave, Silvana thrusts a generous slab of almond cake into my hand "for the journey", and imparts a final pearl of wisdom: "The food in Italy is better than anywhere in the world, and everywhere in this country is good, but in Parma, we have things that nobody on the planet can have."
I make my way home secure in the knowledge that Parma's culinary traditions are in pretty safe hands.
To learn more about one of the world's most iconic cheeses, head to parmigianoreggiano.com. Want to get a taste of that traditional Italian cuisine closer to home? Why not check out our round-up of London's best regional Italian restaurants?