The highlight of our trip to Bologna was our all-day food experience tour with Italian Days. It was a wonderful tour – the best we have had in Europe thus far. The day started at 7am when we were collected by a nice Italian chap named Christian who was wearing sunglasses even though it was still dark outside. Peter and I hopped in the fully equipped Mercedes-Benz van and greeted the four other guests as cheerily as humanly possible at 7am whilst on vacation. We then proceeded to sit in silence while Christian drove us out of Bologna and to a Parmigiano Reggiano factory.
We were halfway to the factory when I noticed a man running alongside our slow-moving van. He was waving his arms erratically and jumping up and down whilst he was running. Christian pulled over to the side of the road and the man climbed in the front passenger seat of the van. I was not sure what the hell was going on until the man introduced himself.
His name was Alessandro and he was the owner of Italian Days, the company of the very tour we were about to embark on. Alessandro would be our guide for the day and apparently, he guides every tour his company offers in Bologna. He’s an amazing guy – entertaining, knowledgeable, funny, and Italian-sized.
Alessandro was full of energy and information. He started talking and did not stop for the rest of the day. I remember telling myself that I needed to wake up and get on pace with Alessandro because I feared what would happen if I was not engaged in his conversation. A short while later, we arrived at a Parmigiano Reggiano factory and got dressed in clothing appropriate for a food processing factory.
Alessandro explained the entire Parmigiano Reggiano cheese making process and we followed him around like school children on a field trip. He’d say, “OK, I need all of the Italian-sized people to come forward and stand in front so everyone can see” and then we’d organize ourselves like little ducklings.
Below is Alessandro explaining the coding system that is used and imprinted on parmesan wheels with a long sheet of plastic. The imprint includes, but is not limited to:
- the four-digit factory number
- the month and year
- Text of “DOP” which is an acronym for “Denominazione di Origine Protetta” and simply means “protected designation of origin”; this is how you know it’s the real deal
- Text of “parmesan reggiano”
Each vat produces two wheels of cheese. The process begins at 4am and is done 365 days a year.
There were thousands of wheels of parmesan cheese in their on-site aging storage room. This was one row of many rows; too many to count.
The photo below shows a close-up of the imprint left by the plastic sheet.
When the aging process is finished, each wheel is put through a battery of tests. If the wheel fails the test but is still of good quality, then horizontal lines are imprinted around the wheel like this mocked-up example I created.
If the wheel fails the tests and is not of good quality, then the imprint is removed and the cheese becomes “table cheese” which you’ll find on tables in restaurants in Italy.
One of the most fascinating things during our Parmigiano Reggiano factory tour was the cheese cleaning machine. The cheese wheels must be cleaned on a regular basis to prevent mold from growing on them. In smaller factories, the cheese wheels are cleaned by hand but this factory had a cheese cleaning machine which worked its way up and down the shelves and aisles.
After the Parmigiano Reggiano factory tour, we walked to the parking lot and we gorged on a “breakfast of champions” which included chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano, mortadella and focaccia sandwiches and Lambrusco (sparkling red wine). The time was 9:30am and I’d smashed my “earliest time of day drinking wine” personal record and we’d also set the tone for the day.
The biggest takeaway from the Parmigiano Reggiano tour was that the culture of everyday life in Italy is very chaotic with no rules but food and wine production is highly controlled and regulated. Many rules must be followed in order to obtain the coveted DOC/DOP/DOCG designations.
Bellies full, we hopped back in the van and drove to a small family estate where Acceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP is produced. To be very clear, this was not a factory that makes “balsamic vinegar” you find in grocery stores – that shit is fake. This was an estate where traditional balsamic vinegar is produced. The process takes a minimum of 12 years and yields only a small amount at the end of that 12-year period.
The balsamic lives its life in barrels like the ones below. It begins in the big barrel and is transferred to the smaller barrels as it ages. This is a good visual of how much quantity evaporates over 12 years.
We were told that it is not possible to make a living producing traditional balsamic vinegar because of the time and space required to produce such small amounts. Barrels are stored in the eaves of homes and barns to take advantage of the cold winters and hot summers.
Producing traditional balsamic vinegar is considered a hobby or a family tradition as the sets of barrels are passed on from generation to generation. Alessandro acquired a set for his daughter when she was born and those barrels will be passed on to her when it becomes age-appropriate and if she accepts the responsibility that comes along with it.
Traditional balsamic vinegar tastes completely different from the balsamic vinegar you buy at the grocery store – again, that shit is fake. The first obvious difference is that traditional balsamic vinegar is thick, slightly less thick than maple syrup. The second difference is that there is no vinegar taste because traditional balsamic vinegar does not contain vinegar.
At the end of our balsamico tour, we tasted the spectrum of balsamic vinegar from the fake shit you buy at the grocery store to traditional balsamic vinegar which is aged a minimum of 25 years. We tasted the “rainbow” of balsamic vinegars in a variety of ways. Most were poured into a tasting spoon, one was poured over fresh ricotta cheese (gross!) and one was poured over gelato (delicious!). When poured over gelato, it substituted as chocolate sauce.
How do you know if what you are buying is the real deal? Traditional balsamic vinegar is only sold:
- in patented 100 ml glass bottles
- in two different age buckets – “minimum of 12 years” and “extra vecchio” which is a minimum of 25 years
Here are examples of traditional balsamic vinegar in their patented 100 ml bottles. The bottle of the left is “extra vecchio” and the bottle on the right is “minimum of 12 years”.
Any website or company claiming that the age is anything other than 12 years or “extra vecchio,” is a scam. An American who happened to be at the estate researching the production process mentioned that Williams Sonoma recently advertised “traditional balsamic vinegar” with a minimum age of 100 years and an inflated price. Naughty Williams Sonoma! Traditional balsamic vinegar is never marketed with an age of 100 years, even if it was aged for 100 years (which I do not think is possible considering the amount of evaporation that occurs).
Overall, I thought the balsamic vinegar tour was interesting but not as interesting as the Parmigiano Reggiano tour. Maybe I was sad there was no wine was served at the end of the balsamic vinegar tour? Probably.
Slightly still grossed out by the piping hot fresh ricotta, we hopped back in the van and drove to a prosciutto processing factory where 22,000 hams (I’m using this term because I am not sure what the appropriate term is) were stored. The quantity of ham in the warehouse absolutely blew my mind. The tour was mostly self-guided and we were given the run of the place. So. Many. Hams.
After we had our fill of canoodling with all the hanging hams, we were fed freshly sliced prosciutto and breadsticks. We washed these goodies down with Lambrusco. I was really digging the Lambrusco and I was stuffed and we still had to eat lunch.
One of the first stages in production is to coat the hams in salt. The hams in this room smelled terrible, like rotting ham.
In a later stage, the hams are coated in lard so that they do not dry out.
Our prosciutto factory tour at approximately 1:30pm. From there, Christian drove us to Corte d/Aibo organic farm and winery. We spent three consecutive hours eating and drinking wine. The food was delicious. The wine was delicious. Alessandro was entertaining and “like an Italian mother” who required us to eat more, drink more and laugh more.
The “light lunch” included:
- Three different pastas
- A beef entrée with side dishes
- Three different desserts
- Loads of wine
Lunch was so much fun and was an excellent way to end the tour. I was so stuffed I spent the night in our Airbnb. I did not eat anything for the next 24 hours and learned that this tour is a marathon, not a sprint.