Take an entire day to savor the edible jewels of Emilia Romagna.
Italy is known for many spectacular attributes, but it’s the food for which it is most famous. Each region has its unique cuisine, culinary history, and traditions. On our most recent trip, it was the food of Emilia Romagna that stole our hearts. And it was the food and wine of Bologna #1 tour from Italian Days Food Experiences that transported us beyond the fabulous foods we discovered into a culture of traditional techniques and commitment to quality that made our experience unique and exciting.
Simon and I dragged ourselves out of bed at 6:00 am on a rainy Bologna morning to wait for the black van that would take us to our first meeting point. We picked up two more couples on the way and arrived at a Parmigiano Reggiano factory outside of Modena, where we met the rest of our group and our guide, Alessandro. Within minutes, we all knew that this upbeat friendly young man would be as much of a treat as the food we were going to consume
The first lesson Alessandro imparted concerned Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) which translates as “Protected Designation of Origin” products. Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna are the only areas of Italy allowed to produce Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. We learned that DOP applies to other products and regions in order to protect the quality of certain foods.
Alessandro then passed out disposable gowns, shoes, and caps which we had to don before we could enter the factory. This was where our adventure in Emilia Romagna began, and Alessandro guided us through it all with his knowledge, charm, and wit.
The Bologna Food and Wine Tour#1 wasn’t our first encounter with Italian Days Food Experiences and a man named Alessandro. It was at the 2018 New York Times Travel Show where we encountered Alessandro Martini, the company’s jovial owner at his booth. We were impressed with the Bologna tour, and he generously invited us to road test it for ourselves the next time we visited that area of Italy.
Fast forward nearly two years, and there was our guide, also named Alessandro. His background was in political science. He told us he had earned a master’s degree and immediately found it to be, useless.
While working as a waiter, he met Alessandro Martini, who regularly came into the restaurant with tourists. Since Alessandro was the only waiter who could speak English, the two interacted frequently.
Recognizing talent, Alessandro Martini persuaded his favorite waiter to quit his job and work for Italian Days Food Experience as a tour guide.“He had faith in me,” Alessandro recalled affectionately, “More than I had in myself.”
Alessandro Martini’s faith was well placed. Alessandro answered all our questions, and he kept us interested, entertained, and amused for the entire day.
The process of producing Parmigiano Reggiano begins with fresh unpasteurized whole milk from 17 nearby farms. The grass-fed cows are milked only twice a day and have space to roam. There are no hormones or chemicals involved in this or any part of the cheese-making process, and the cows are naturally bred. Those Emilia Romagna cows have it pretty good.
The milk must arrive within two hours of milking to ensure freshness. It then goes through the cooking process twice in four vats holding 250 gallons each. The cheese is pasteurized during cooking.
The curd from the first cooking is discarded. It’s the curd from the second cooking that is precisely cut in half with a “cheese machete”, lifted out of the vat in linen slings that eventually becomes Parmigiano Reggiano. If this sounds easy, keep in mind that the curd in one vat weighs 240 pounds, resulting in two 120 pound twins.
Alessandro walked us through the process of shaping, molding, turning, washing, brining, drying, inspection, and branding. Yes, these cheeses are branded to indicate that they have been produced under strictly-regulated procedures, inspected, and approved for sale as Parmigiano Reggiano.
Parmigiano Reggiano is made by hand as it has been for centuries. “Twelfth-century monks had very little to do,” Alessandro explained with a wink, “so they made cheese and grappa. So they were drunk when they made the cheese.” The cheese is as timeless as the process of producing it. Parmigiano Reggiano can last indefinitely and continue to age.
At the end of it all, the cheese is transferred to “the holy temple of cheese…the warehouse,” Alessandro proclaimed as he led us into an enormous space lined floor to ceiling with shelves of cheeses. The warehouse contained 23,500 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano, aging away. The shortest aging period is 12 months, but the best cheeses are the ones that have been aged for 36 months. He then handed me a mallet and showed me how to tap the cheese to see if it was good. The good cheese had a different sound from one that had gone bad. So along with my education on the intricate process of producing Parmigiano Reggiano, I had the unexpected pleasure of assaulting a couple of them with a weapon.
By the time we left the cheese factory, our stomachs were rumbling for the promised breakfast. We didn’t have long to wait. Our Italian Days Food Experience van drivers dropped us off at one of the 350 area businesses making balsamic vinegar. We were greeted by Paulo and his son, Marcello, who sat us down to a morning feast that was worth the wait.
They began the meal by pouring Lambrusco, an organic wine produced by the family. Now, that’s Italian. It was ruby red, sparkling, and tasted delicious. With an alcohol content of 8%, we felt no pain or guilt. Alessandro proposed a toast, “to you all for waking up at 6:00 in the morning and being kidnapped in a black van.”
Then they passed around the food. We were served crusty, chewy homemade bread with 12-month and 36-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano. The former had a creamy texture, while the latter was more crumbly and with a much more intense flavor.
The cheese was joined by slices of salami that had a slightly nutty flavor and peppery mortadella. Cake drizzled with balsamic vinegar was the delightful finale.
While we ate, Alessandro filled us in on the history and production of the “black gold of Modena”.
The balsamic tradition goes back to Roman times, but Modena families took the process and changed it. They replaced the terracotta vessels used by the Romans with wooden barrels. This changed the color and flavor of the vinegar, and they recognized it needed to be aged.
Paulo and Marcello’s family has been producing certified DOP, artisanal balsamic vinegar since 1860. They have held to the traditions and values that enable them to be part of the consortium that produces the finest product on the market.
The thickness of certified DOP, artisanal balsamic comes from aging the vinegar 12 to 25 years.
Alessandro explained how food fakery is prevalent with Parmigiano Reggiano, balsamic vinegar and prosciutto. Cheese in plastic containers that looks and tastes like sawdust, balsamic vinegar diluted with water, and prosciutto full of sodium nitrates, make a lot of money for their manufacturers while pretending to produce what takes these families years of hard work and patience. It’s sad to know these 250 families don’t even produce 7,000 liters per year.
Alessandro led us to the low-roofed building where the certified DOP, artisanal balsamic is aged. There we saw rows of barrels called batterias. In each line, the mother barrels are the largest, with the others decreasing in size. The oldest balsamic is in the smallest barrel. This occurs through a series of top-ups going down the line from the mother barrel, which is topped up from the current batch of vinegar.
Alessandro pointed out the Georgia batteria with six baby barrels named after Marcello’s three-year-old daughter. The tradition is for a new line to be created with every new birth in a family. But each line must remain pure, so the balsamic can’t be mixed between mother barrels, only down each line.
After 12 years, only 10% of the balsamic in the smallest barrel can be removed, which amounts to about 1 liter. Some of these small barrels remain untouched to age for 25 years.
The tasting of the fruit of all this effort was a definite eye-opener.
The five-year balsamic was sweet with an acidic backbite. The seven was less acidic. The eight had no acidity and was sickly sweet. Then we got into the good stuff. The 12 was well balanced with slight acidity. But the 25-year was perfectly balanced with a smooth, rich flavor.
Along with the certified DOP, artisanal balsamic, the family also produces lesser grades of vinegar like the five, seven, and eight-year aged product. Known as IGP (Protected Geographic Identification), these balsamic vinegars can’t be labeled as DOP. IGP helps the family survive considering the time, effort, and taxes it takes to make artisanal balsamic.
“The thing they care about is not the money. It’s the legacy,” Alessandro explained.
The last part of the Italian Days Food Experience before lunch was a prosciutto plant owned by the third generation of a local family. They produce 500 DOP prosciutto de Modena a week, 25,000 a year.
Modena prosciutto ages 14 months. The meat comes from 340-pound pigs that have to be very fat. Prosciutto contains 25% fat, and the fat should be marbled and not chewy. Remember what I said about food fakery? The real deal contains only salt with no sodium nitrates.
Our tour began at the end of the process in the aging room. As with the Parmigiano Reggiano, the place was lined with an abundance of product. This time, in the form of hanging pig legs. Alessandro clued us in on the fact that “the femur bone sticking out makes it prosciutto”. He also noted that the continuous tattooing that begins when the pigs are four days old to the end of the process, indicates authenticity.
We were relieved to learn that the slaughtering of the pigs is done at another facility.
Alessandro led us through several rooms varying in temperature, humidity, and smell. He showed us a machine that squeezes the blood out of the meat. He explained that the pork leg is then massaged. Then the salting process begins.
A total of 2.2 pounds is applied to every leg, half is applied by machine, the other half by hand. After 10 days, the identical salting process is repeated.
We saw legs covered in salt expelling liquid in a cold, humid room. Then we entered an even colder and smellier room where legs hung covered in salt crystals. Alessandro explained that the final process involved a series of brushing and hand applications of a paste consisting of a mixture of pork fat, salt, and white pepper to make sure the meat is properly sealed
Finally, three pinches are inflicted upon each leg by inspectors, each with a different purpose, to make sure each leg is perfect. There’s no downgrading here, just rejection. The legs making the grade are then branded and ready to pursue the perfect melon.
The tasting involved as much meat as we could eat washed down with more Lambrusco. They kept slicing and offering us more samples. We had to try and pace ourselves because we knew our next stop would be what the tour promo called a “light lunch”. Of course, it being Italy and all, this was an absolute misnomer.
A “Light Lunch”
We piled into the black vans and headed for Casa Selene, located down a country road off the main stretch running between Bologna and Modena. The two-story Mediterranean style beige building with a tiled roof was built in 1867 and sits on a rise overlooking gently rolling countryside. The restaurant/hotel is an agro-tourism business, so we knew what we were about to consume was fresh and healthful.
Our “light lunch” began with a generous bowl of thick and savory pasta e fagioli, a pasta and bean soup. The rest of the meal was served family-style, and it was a good thing, too. We were able to try a little of everything, and there was a lot.
The first course options consisted of sausage cooked in wine with fat short pasta and tagliatelle Bolognese, a thick meaty sauce. Simon and I tried a bit of both and found them superbly warming and tasty. Casa Selene makes its own pasta and makes it well.
The only way to describe the “Secunda” is that it was an onslaught: fresh green salad, platters of chicken cacciatore, pork cutlets with balsamic, and some of the best meatballs I’ve ever tasted. Each course was accompanied by wine, including Lambrusco, for which Simon and I had developed a strong preference. Tigella, a small round flatbread was also served, although I don’t know how we managed it.
Dessert was a stunning large crème caramel from which everyone indulged in a piece. Rich, creamy and sweet, we kept telling ourselves it was light. Well, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Alessandro offered us grappa, a rough drink sometimes described as battery acid. It does have a good flavor if you can stand the burn.
The meal ended with coffee, which we hoped would help cut through our food-induced stupor. And then it was time to head back to our respective hotels and a nap.
Our Italian Days Food experience was far more than a tour. It was as much a feast for the mind and soul as it was for the palate. And although I didn’t arrive home and immediately use our inferior balsamic vinegar to clean the toilets, I learned too much in the 10 hours we spent with Alessandro to ever look at it the same way. This goes for the typical parmesan cheese and prosciutto sold at the local supermarket, as well. Knowing what I now know about the family history, commitment, hard work, and love that goes into the finest of these products, I will buy them when I can afford them and use them with care and respect.
If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, something that will make your tastebuds sing and your head spin, then Italian Days Food Experiences is for you. But take my advice. Go hungry.
If You Go
Price per Person: The cost of this 10-hour Italian Days Experience is 150€.
The tour includes:
- Pickup and drop off in an air-conditioned Limo minivan with private driver for the entire day
- Parmigiano Reggiano Factory Tour
- “Breakfast of the Champions” with Lambrusco wine
- Balsamic Vinegar tour and tasting
- Ham factory tour with fresh sliced prosciutto tasting and more Lambrusco wine
- Multi-course “Light Lunch” with WINE
- Taxes and insurance
You can find Italian Days Food Experience in Bologna, Florence, Venice, Rome, Verona, Ravenna, Milan, Naples, Sicily, Amalfi Coast, and Apulia. The Bologna Food and Wine Tour is conducted in English and available Monday – Saturday.
Not able to get to Italy in time to satisfy your next craving for the good stuff? If you live in the U.S., your foodie fix is just a click away. Alessandro’s Selection is an online store focusing on quality Italian food and travel. Italian Days Food Experience owner, Alessandro Martini, has opened an online shop featuring 25-year-old balsamic vinegar, authentic Parmigiano Reggiano, and fine charcuterie.
Alessandro’s Selection USA Corp
1065 SW 15th Ave, Suite C4
Delray Beach, FL 33444
Licensed Travel Agency & Tour Operator
Galleria Ugo Bassi 1
Bologna, IT 40121
Phone: (+39) 338 421 6659
Disclosure: Our extraordinary day of intake and insight was generously hosted by Italian Days Food Experiences. However, all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.