Parma Italy: Ham, Cheese, and Speed
In Parma, tasting the unique ham and famous cheese, as well as Ferrari’s Museum
By Tab Hauser
Passion for food and cars runs deep in the Parma region of Italy.
Here you can find the finest hand crafted cheese (and Parma ham) in the vicinity of the factories that hand craft Ferrari’s, Lamborghini’s and Maserati’s.
Besides food and cars, Parma has a good mix of historic sites, a small art museum with the renaissance masters and a lively street scene of pubs, restaurants, shops.
It also has what I consider the best gelato in the region. Parma is located one hour south of Milan, two hours north of Florence and two and a half hours west of Venice making it an easy place to get to when traveling around Italy.
Special Access Only
Parma is the region for some of Italy’s best food ingredients. An easy way to see, smell and taste them is with a behind the scenes tour with Food Valley Travel Leisure.
To show you around their guides jump in the back seat of your rented car and direct you to the production facilities where they have special access to. They can also arrange a car and driver if needed. (www.foodvalleytravel.com).
Our first stop was a family factory that produces the famed Parmigiano Reggiano. Here we learned all of the strict rules required to produce this cheese only found in this region.
We witnessed the birth of a cheese wheel only to be immediately swaddled out of the vat, put into the wheel mold and sent and cared for in the nursery. (Yes, they use these baby terms)
We got a chance to take the newly made cheese wheels and flip them in their brine bath during the early process. From the nursery, we went next door to a large warehouse where the 84-pound cheese wheels aged on shelves packed tightly 25 feet high.
In the warehouse we witnessed the robotic washers lift, scrub and flip each wheel to keep them clean and evenly aged.
Afterwards, an inspector picked up a cheese wheel and beat it like a drum listening for air pockets. From the warehouse, it was off to the company store for a sampling of four types of cheeses. One was the new born which was fluffy and had little flavor.
Aged Cheese to Taste
The other cheeses were aged one, two and three years. Each had a different consistency and taste. The oldest being grittier and nuttier, the youngest being a little smoother and mild.
With our favorite being the two-year-old cheese we bought a large size that was vacuumed pack to bring home.
From cheese, it was off to a Parma ham producer via a 20-minute drive on a country road.
Not for Vegetarians
This stop is not a place for vegetarians as you witness various phases of the leg of the pig trimmed, rolled in salt and processed. The end of the tour had us visit the storage area where a several hundred legs were hung upside down to cure and age. Here we learned about the rigorous rules to produce a Parma ham.
It was interesting to see that the most important tools used for passing inspection was the “Ago di Osso di Cavallo”. It is a horse bone shaped like a large needle that is inserted into the ham to absorb the aroma. Sniffing experts then pick up flaws from this bone and accept or reject the ham.
With the 15th century Castle Torrechiara in the background our third stop was a winery lunch and tour. Here we were served a delicious assortment of regionally produced local cured salamis of different types, Parma ham and cheeses to go with the vineyard’s wine.
The last stop for the Food Valley tour was at a family vineyard that specializes in 20 to 30-year-old balsamic vinegar.
Here we learned how aged balsamic is produced and were led up to a room having many barrels of different sizes. We were told of the boiling process on the wine and how the vinegar is aged through evaporation in wood barrels.
The process had different size barrels next to each other. Each barrel had a small hole on the top with a cloth covering it to keep the bugs out but letting evaporation take place. We then saw a couple of hundred five gallon barrels for long term aging.
Some barrels had the names of children that were born when the barrel was filled many years ago. Next, we sampled 10, 20 to 24 and 30-year-old balsamic vinegar.
The tastes were done by pouring this rich textured liquid on half a teaspoon. At each taste we let the complex flavors run around the different sides of our tongue. It was suggested rather than serving a dessert wine after dinner, this can be an alternative. We were so impressed with their quality that we purchased a half pint size bottle of 20 to 24 years old balsamic for $68.
The owner then gave us a bottle of their award winning Lambrusco
Lambrusco from this boutique vineyard is not the same stuff I bought in college for a few dollars 36 years ago. This wine is full bodied and deep purple with complex flavors and just the right amount of bubbles.
About an hour south of Parma is the area of high-performance cars. We spent a half day visiting both of Ferrari’s museums. The Museo Ferrari in Maranello is dedicated to the sport of racing and performance. Exhibits include 70 years of Ferrari engineering, Formula One, and other racing as well as some of the rare high-performance cars.
Visitors here can get behind the wheel in a race car simulator. For those with an itch to drive the real thing, there are a few outside vendors that rent Ferrari’s.
Packages start at $90 for a 20-minute cruise around the neighborhood to a couple of hours that include a few laps at a nearby track for $900. All rentals come with a mandatory “co-pilot” to make sure you and the car come back in one piece.
The Museo Enzo Ferrari in Modena is a high-class art gallery set in a large modern free flowing hanger like building. The “art” in this gallery is the bold and exotically designed cars displayed on pedestals. In front of the gallery, two different themed short movies are played alternatively on large screens every 30 minutes.
Each museum has a store to buy everything Ferrari and has easy parking. There is also a shuttle bus between them if you don’t want to drive.
If you wish to continue on to the other fine Italian cars you can visit see both Maserati’s and Lamborghini’s just outside of Modena. For information go to http://www.paninimotormuseum.it/ and www.lamborghini.com/en-en/experience/museum
Parma Culture and History
Our two-night stay in Parma gave us plenty of time to see the city’s top attractions. For historical or architectural fans a visit to the Baptistery of Parma is a must in the Piazza del Duomo. This pink marble octagonal structure was commissioned in 1196 and towers up to eleven stories. It is considered one of the most important medieval structures to survive.
Inside it is totally opened consisting of 16 interior arches. The walls here are adorned with religious statues, paintings, and frescos from the 1300’s. In the same square are two other medieval buildings. This includes the Bishops Palace and the Parma Cathedral. For information on visiting any of these places in the square go to www.piazzaduomoparma.com
Another place to spend a couple of hours in Parma would be at the Palazzo Della Pilotta. Here you will find the Baroque style theater Teatro Farnese built in 1618, destroyed in WWII and rebuilt in 1962. The National Gallery next door is a small art museum with works from several of the masters of the 14th and 15th century. Go to http://turismo.comune.parma.it/en and click arts and culture for information.
A highlight of our trip to Parma was strolling the streets for an afternoon apertivo, shopping, dinner or a late night beer to watch the locals interact. Here we shopped the stores that had fashions that were fun and affordable. I recommend strolling the streets of Cavour, Giuseppe Garibaldi and wind your way to Piazza Garibaldi to find Luigi Carlo Farini. This is the narrowest and the most popular of the people watching of streets.
Hotel: Palazzo Dalla Rosa Prati is located on Piazza del Duomo just 20 feet from the Baptistery. We chose this place because you have a chance to stay in a suite in a restored 500-year-old palace.
Our one bedroom apartment was complete with small kitchen and a direct view of the Baptistery. During our stay, we met the Marquis and his family who still own the palace and learned about their history.
Their lobby shop has local cured meats, vinegar, and snacks. The location and welcoming service cannot be beaten. www.palazzodallarosaprati.it
Dinner: Atmosfera around the corner from our hotel served regional cuisine catering to more moderate prices. We enjoyed the local pasta, cheese, meat board and seafood.
Lunch / Dinner: Pizza di Parma offers a wide variety of different pies that can satisfy the craving for any pizza lover. They are on a narrow street off Luigi Carlo Farini.
Gelato / Ice Cream: Emilia on Luigi Carlo Farini Street offered us the best gelato we had in Italy during our three weeks in the country. These flavors and texture could not be beaten.