Something I learned quite quickly after landing in Parma, in northern Italy, was that this would not be your typical holiday where you only indulge in eating to fill the time between sightseeing trips. No, in Parma, you sightsee to fill the time between finishing one meal and starting the next.
And make no mistake, this has nothing to do with a lack of historic sights or culture or heritage – these are aplenty in this bustling city in Italy with its grand squares of fountains, medieval architecture and rolling hills. But you go to Parma for the food. And you stay for the food.
One of the largest cities in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, an agricultural powerhouse in the fertile Po valley, Parma’s economy is strongly related to the food industry and tourism. The region is the gastronomic epicentre of the country, and Parma lies at the heart of this Italian food scene in so many ways.
The city has been named Italy’s capital of culture for 2020, and has been proclaimed by Unesco as a Creative City for gastronomy – the first time an Italian city has received the honour. It’s making a case to be the food capital of the world, and it has some very robust arguments in its favour. The cuisine is not just a source of regional pride – so many products from the region make its way across the country, ingredients that lie at the heart of Italian cuisine. And if Parma gets so many votes from gourmand Italians all over the country, you’d be foolhardy not to believe them.
From humble tratorrias to grand ristorantes, you’ll find it all in Parma; culinary superstars sprinkled through its verdant landscape. A culinary tour here will see you weave through ingredients that are staples of Italian food; the region is the source of everything from Pamigiano-Reggiano, Parma ham and balsamic vinegar to fizzy Lambrusco, Duchessa cake and handmade pasta – foods with so much history behind it. Walk into one of the narrow backstreets, and you’re sure to be hit by aromas of food history as stumble into delicatessens stocked high, each tempting you to take all the local specialities home. Colours, textures, fragrances… it all forms a heady mix in this region.
Parma is one of Italy’s wealthiest towns, ranked high for quality of life. It gave the world composer Verdi, film director Bernardo Bertolucci, conductor Arturo Toscanini, and the University of Parma, one of the oldest universities in the world. Located near the city of Bologna, with a population close to 200,000, it’s a small, buzzing town, and it views like a city that’s been coloured via a centuries-old Insta filter. It’s got a sophisticated air about it, and well-dressed locals walk the streets laden with designer shops. There’s a carnival-like vibe at the town centre Piazza Garibaldi, your typical charming Italian square. Compact and cobbled, this is where most of the city’s life plays out, and we found this is not just on the weekends.
If you’re touring Italy, allocate a couple of days for Parma – not a tough undertaking as it connects via rail lines to all major cities, from Rome to Milan. Parma is a great example of veering off the track of just the big, popular cities. It lends itself perfectly to exploration on foot or via bicycle or biking – which is good, because walking/cycling off all those (mostly rich) meals will come in handy as you try keep that waistline intact. But in this region where you get to taste all your favourite Italian foods at its source, you certainly won’t find yourself feeling guilty about not having a salad.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be all about food (though we don’t see why it shouldn’t). Yes, culture is food here. But the arts are aplenty too. Opera, architecture, theatre, music… the city brims with it all. For a taste of this, start your journey at the Duomo, the 12th-century Romanesque Cathedral off the town centre. The relatively plain façade is deceiving – what lies inside forms the true prize. Walk in and your eyes will be immediately drawn to its dome – its fresco by Italian painter Correggio is a kaleidoscopic masterpiece and a visual illusion, a tangle of figures, of Apostles and cherubs and angels in concentric bands of clouds, opening to reveal a dazzling burst of sunlight. Give in to it fully, and you’ll feel as if you’re being carried heavenward. The fresco was not well received when it was unveiled, and a bishop famously branded it “a mess of frogs’ legs”. To us, those frogs’ legs looked nothing short of miraculous. Correggio is now placed among the great masters of Italy’s 16th century painting by critics.
But overshadowing even the cathedral is the octagonal pink Parma Baptistery next to it, its colour derived from Verona marble. It’s one of the most distinctive buildings in the city, and also considered the transition from Romanesque to Gothic art in Italy. Inside are richly-coloured frescoes and decorative sculptures. Also part of the complex is the San Giovanni Evangelista church, where you can view more magnificent frescoed domes from, you guessed it, Correggio. A short distance away is the imposing 16th-century Pilotta palace, named after the game pelota that was played in one of the courtyards. It houses the stunning Farnese theatre, The National Gallery and The Palatine Library with its collection of rare books and manuscripts, so that’s another afternoon of pleasures. Have a few more hours to spare? Check out a performance at Teatro Regio, the world-class opera house with its red velvet and gilded accents. We chose instead to head to the countryside, to the castles and vineyards on the outskirts of the city, for a panorama of gentle rolling hills – it was as idyllic as it could get, and as jaw-droppingly, time-stands-still-style beautiful as you’d imagine.
But all of this was just a foreword to what we were actually here for: the cuisine. Whether you know it or not, everyone has savoured Parma’s food. And right on top of this list of exports is Parmigiano-Reggiano. The hard and highly gratable King of Cheeses (yes, it actually wears that crown) with its unique taste has a history that goes back centuries. And only cheeses produced in Parma and a few other parts of the Emilia-Romagna region can be called parmesan in Europe, I’m told. Not only is it one of the most imitated cheeses, it is also one of the most imitated agricultural products in the world. Confuse the Parmigiano with the parmesan you get in tubs in Dubai, and you’d find yourself facing a volley of full-blown arguments.
Step into restaurants in the region, and Parmigiano-Reggiano turns up everywhere. It’s an appetiser, a first main, a second main and anything in between. It doesn’t stop there though – it’s also added to desserts. It has been added to drinks. It’s stuffed, grated, sprinkled and eaten whole. And it’s never drowned in a sea of sauce or seasonings, with the Parmese instead preferring to let the cheese do the heavy lifting. In a country where you can buy cheese in vending machines, Parmigiano is presented as a work of art.
Dairies producing Parmigiano-Reggiano often open their doors for tours, so you can see the physically demanding, exacting production for yourself. These tours aren’t just frequented by tourists as you’d be inclined to think, as we saw so many Italians on the day we visited – they get serious about their cheese here.
Wake up early, and you’ll get to see the process from the beginning, rather than just hear about it. At about 7.30 one morning, we found ourselves donning plastic overalls in preparation for our tour at the Santo Stefano dairy. We entered to steam, strong smells and rows of huge copper cauldrons with bubbling milk. About 550 litres of milk – skimmed milk from the night before mixed with fresh milk from the morning’s milking – has been poured into the vats. The milk comes from producers in the area, and from cows with curated diets – the use of silage and fermented feeds is banned.
After, rennet and whey is added, and the curd formed is broken down into smaller granules with a traditional tool called a spino. We watch as it is then gently cooked in the heated vats, and our guide explains how the granules sink to the bottom and form a huge mass of cheese. After close to an hour, the cheese is lifted out in large muslin cloth sheets, cut into two, wrapped in a cloth, and placed in a mould for its shape.
Technology might have made things easier for the cheese-making process, but without an experienced cheesemaster carefully monitoring everything, it could be so easy to get things wrong – to add in too much rennet, to get the temperature wrong, to not rest the ball of cheese long enough in the cauldron to form a mass. Cheesemaking is a family affair – you’ll often find the cheesemaster and his wife fretting over cauldrons together.
The cheese rounds are then branded with the year and month, so you know if you’re biting into 18-month cheese with its strong milk flavour and aromatic notes, or three-year-old cheese with its distinctive flavour. About two years is supposed to mark peak perfection. A pin dot pattern engraved over the cheese tells you it’s the authentic stuff.
After a few days of resting, the rounds are immersed in a water- and salt-saturated solution and turned daily, for about a month, so the salt slowly penetrates.
But the best part of the tour is yet to come, and we find it in a giant silent maturation room – row after row of giant golden wheels, stacked so high up I almost cricked my neck trying to do a quick count. Our guide quickly puts me out of my misery – it’s over 20,000 wheels per room. As they rest, the outside of the cheese dries, forming a natural crust. Each wheel is about 40kg, and the minimum maturation is 12 months. Inspectors from the Parmigiano consortium visit, tap each wheel with a special tiny hammer to detect problems, and firebrand an official mark on if they are no hollow sounds indicating lower quality. Want a taste? A wheel will set you back about Dh3,000.
The result is a cheese that’s low in lactose, so versatile, and ages so exceptionally well that it is even used as currency. Yes, you read that right. Banks allow producers to use cheese as guarantees against bank loans, and interest payments are accepted in cheese. The term wheels of fortune finds new meaning in Italy.
But even as the cheese can be eaten just as pure golden chunks, Italians attest to one more great way of eating it – drizzled with aged, original balsamic vinegar from neighbouring Modena, the birthplace of balsamic vinegar. Bear in mind that this won’t be like vinegar you’ve tasted anywhere else – it’s rich, complex and velvety; it’s the real stuff.
Aziz Ansari’s TV show Master of None season 2 brought Modena some much-deserved popularity. The birthplace of Ferrari might have given the world fast cars, but its food doesn’t have to be flashy to be as fabulous. The site of the Enzo Ferrari museum and the birthplace of famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti now produces the Maserati too, but it’s still its vinegar that you should go for.
Historical documents from Modena suggest aristocrats exchanged bottles of it at least as far back as the 11th century. Just like cheese in Parma, balsamic vinegar too is a family affair here, with the torch of production being passed on from one generation to next – making traditional vinegar is a several-decade-long journey. It’s also tradition in the region to start making a batch of vinegar at the birth of children, and a small vial is often gifted at the birth of other children.
Just like the cheese process, you can visit a local producer in Modena to see the craft – and the patience involved. We went to Acetaia Giusti in a beautiful countryside estate, where 17 generations have been using casks dating back to 16th and 17th centuries to make vinegar in a protected family secret. The whole process depends on just three factors: grapes, vessel quality and time.
The careful selection of grapes are pressed, the resulting juice cooked, which then ferments and thickens for a minimum of 12 years in a multi-barrel process, absorbing the flavours of the seven or so barrels in which it ages. We walked into a room filled with casks of various woods and sizes – the older the cask, the better the vinegar. Vinegar gets thicker over time due to evaporation from the barrels. The result is a liquid gold of sorts, chosen by chefs worldwide. The process speaks to a form of magnanimity: a generation is always preparing vinegar not for itself, but for the next ones.
The thought of having vinegar straight out of the spoon might make you squirm, but we did just that – traditional balsamic is not bitter but intensely sweet. The colour is close to black, the depth of flavours is extraordinary, the aroma pleasant, the texture more syrupy than the vinegar you’re used to having. On a tour, you’ll get to sample vinegar from before you were born – we tasted a 100-year old one – super thick and super sweet. Cooking authentic vinegar is not ideal – Italians say you must let the flavour shine by drizzling it on cheese, berries, baked desserts, or a rich risotto or even grilled meats. It is often also sipped from shot glasses after a meal. This is the good stuff.
To see how this infatuation with cheese and vinegar plays out, you only need to step into any restaurant in the region. Take Les Caves Restaurant near Parma for example, which as locations go is near perfect – it’s set in an underground cellar part of a 13th-century historic fortress, the Sanvitale castle. Chef Maria Amalia Anedda started her career at the Alain Ducasse’s restaurant Le Jules Verne, on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower. These days she flows local Parma tastes and traditions with Japanese and French tastes, and the result is as surprisingly good as it is unconventional. Think Parmigiano pasta and eggs in a mushroom broth, cod with onion Parmesan paneer crust, ginger mayo Parmesan biscuit and mille feuille with Parmesan saffron cream and wasabi.
Right at the opposite end of the spectrum is Antica Moka. It is as resolutely nonna’s cooking as Les Caves is nonconformist. Chef Anna Maria Barbieri heads this Michelin-listed restaurant in Modena that has been impressing Italians for 30 years, and she served us everything rich and rustic, from fried Parmigiano dough and meat-stuffed tortellini served in a fried Parmigiano crust bowl with balsamic to spinach pie with Pamigiano ice-cream. There was no skimping on the butter here, yet it was satisfying without being heavy.
While it would have been tempting to say enough to cheese for now, it would have been a reckless move considering what awaited us at Michelin-starred Ristorante Inkiostro the next night – egg white tagliolino, potato ravioli, Parmigiano risotto, Parmigiano mousse… chef Terry Giacomello cooks in a cutting-edge fine dining, minimalist space, and the imaginative twists to each dish and fun, creative presentation were as minimalist as they were daring – and delicious.
But we’d still not had enough of cheese, so the next day we lunched at Croce di Malta – it’s right at the town centre, perfect for weary legs after some exploring. Anolini in broth, capiletti with spinach ricotta and green bean flan with Parmigiano made for perfect comfort for us on a rainy day. For more comfort, we didn’t pass up on dinner at a traditional pizzeria before we left.
And for us visitors, cheese and vinegar and pasta might come down to only that – comfort. But for Italians, it’s a lot more – it’s about long-lasting tradition, centuries of craft, and family and identity. After you leave the country, you’ll take some of that with you – if nothing, you’ll never view your Italian favourites the same way. While this might be an expensive habit that’ll set you back quite a few dirhams, you’ll only come off richer for it.
Flights from Dubai to Bologna cost about Dh3,000 on Emirates. Parma is about an hour away by road. To book a cheese tour, visit parmigianoreggiano.com. To book a vinegar tour, visit giusti.it. Stay at Grand de la Ville Parma from about Dh600 per night, with breakfast.