Friday, September 27, 2013

Italy's Food Valley

Most Americans associate Italian food with pizza and pasta, then Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto and Balsamico.  Unfortunately the poor imitations are what you will find in most stores and restaurants.  My friend Kellie and I did a food valley tour in the region of Emilia Romagna, basing ourselves in Parma a beautiful university town, and then went out from there.  Our friend Sara Dallacasagrande was our guide for the tour, and she first took us to a family run producer of Parmigiano Reggiano.  It’s important to realize that Parmigiano Reggiano is a cheese that is made according to traditional methods, and anything labeled Parmigiano Reggiano has been approved by the consortium in Parma.  The milk has to come from Parma (talking to you Argentina) They use the evening milk and the morning milk from the cows, rennet and salt.   

From one vat of milk they get two wheels of cheese.  The cheese is then packed into molds, stamped with its date, etc. then dried. 

 It goes into a saline water bath, and is turned each day. 

 Then it is sent to the aging rooms.  They call them the cheese cathedrals.  Love that!   

The consortium tests the cheese at different aging stages, and when it is deemed to be the highest quality, it gets a stamp burned into the side of it.   

If the cheese is good, but may have a few cracks or bubbles in the center, the stamping is filed off, and this is sold at a lower price to the customer.  

This is the "B" grade--nothing wrong except a few air bubbles within

 Other cheeses that don’t make the grade (but are still delicious) have all the stamping filed off and look like this.   

Stamp is totally filed off this one

We were told that after 12 months the cheese can be sold, but most customers want the cheese to be at least 24 to 30 months old.  You may see some that is sold as “stra vecchio” or extra aged.  We did a nice tasting of the different ages of the cheese, and then were on our way to a prosciutto producer.   

Most prosciutto producers don’t allow visitors, but this one was very accommodating.  We were able to see the legs as they were initially salted; there is a special prosciutto massager who works just the right amount of salt into the raw legs.  

 The pigs are a hybrid of the black Parma pig and a white Berkshire; they grow big and fat, and can be grown outside the area of Parma, but must be slaughtered in Parma to be considered Prosciutto di Parma.  The aging of prosciutto is what gives it its delicious flavor.  When the prosciutto master uses a piece of cartilage from a horse to tests the sweetness of the meat, then it is deemed ready. 

He sticks this into the fat, and into the meat and smells the aroma on the cartilage.  Prosciutto is normally aged for 2 years, then sold and most of us know it from pannini or prosciutto e melone.  All of this production is done by hand, nothing is done by machine, except the stamping of the prosciutto with a machine.  Buying anything other than Italian traditionally made prosciutto is really buying something entirely different.  The cost of the prosciutto is high because of the strict regulations, and controls, as well as the hand made product and the amount of aging.
We were then taken to a beautiful winery outside of Parma, where we sampled typical products, Parmigiano, Prosciutto and salumis, tortelli, and an amazing crumble cake which I’m hoping to replicate at some time. 

The winery makes mostly sparkling wines, malvasia, lambrusco, and a sweet dessert wine.  It was a gorgeous day, we sat and had a wonderful lunch, with a vista that was gorgeous of the surrounding hills.  

Our last stop was Villa San Donnino to see how the balsamico is made.  Davide is a welcoming guide, and showed us the difference between traditionally made balsamic vinegar and balsamic vinegar or Modena.  Balsamic vinegar of Modena (that $5.95 bottle from the grocer) is usually red wine vinegar, caramel color and brown sugar that is boiled down.  Traditionally made balsamic vinegar is made from either trebbiano grapes or lambrusco grapes grown in Modena, and pressed.  Traditionally made balsamic vinegar should only be GRAPE JUICE, nothing more.  

 It is then put into old barrels of varying woods, in an attic, or acetaia.  Each year, the owner will transfer some of the previous years vinegar into the next barrel, and the consortium only tests the vinegar after 12 years.  

 So the investment in the vinegar is enormous, waiting longer than most wines to age, and then not knowing if the consortium will accept it at 12 years.  If not, you wait till it does---so the first type of balsamico that you can buy that is traditionally made, is aged a minimum of 12 years.  The next is aged a minimum of 25 years.   What’s the difference?  Complexity---the 12 year old is delicious on ice cream, strawberries, and as a finish for a salad, steak, or risotto.  The 25 year old has a beautiful complexity that will compliment almost anything.  You never heat traditionally made balsamic vinegar, it will lose its complexity.  Some other types of true balsamic containing only grape juice that are sold, are called condimento, since they are only aged 8 years, and cannot be sold as traditionally made.  These of course are much less expensive.  A bottle of 25 year old with a gold seal will cost upwards of €120, the white label minimum 12 year old will cost upwards of €45.  The difference between the traditionally made and the balsamic vinegar of Modena is night and day---the cheap imitation has none of the complexity and natural sweetness of the traditionally made.  Davide then showed us his beautiful villa that has been in the family since the early 1900’s—it was beautiful frescoes and art deco accents, as well as gorgeous grounds. 
Traditionally made Balsamic vinegar (approved by the consortium labeled DOP) can only be sold in these bottles.  Anything else, is not traditionally made.
Our full day tour was enlightening, and informative, but most of all it was fun.  Being out in the country, meeting the producers and enjoying a day of food, wine and seeing new places is hard to beat.  I highly recommend this part of Italy, Parma is beautiful, Bologna is the epi-center of Italian gastronomy, and Modena is home to the worlds’ most delicious vinegar and Ferrari, what’s not to love?    

 Note:  the initials DOP or DOC in a region denotes that it is a denomination of protected origin; expect to pay more for products with this seal, as they have been made according to strict guidelines instituted by the local consortium.  As saying goes, better ingredients, make better food, and this is true no matter what the cuisine.  

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Day in Chianti


Dario Cecchini is the Pied Piper of beef; specifically Chianina beef from Tuscany.  Headquartered in the tiny town of Panzano in the heart of Chianti, his matchbox of a store sells his wares, and he sells to restaurants, and the people who come from far and wide to buy his meats, sausages, salamis, and his “perfumo di Chianti”, basically Dario’s season salt—which is awesome!   Dressed in a white shirt, leather vest, red pants, red crocs, and a red scarf, he is larger than life, even in person!

If you have read the book Heat, you have read about Dario; the son of a butcher, who would rather be studying the classics than butchering as a young man, he left University when his father died to take over the family business.  Dario is known to quote Dante, and sing arias while he's working, but while we were there his only musical notes were tooted on some kind of hunting horn that sounded like a vuvuzella.  When I describe Italians, I describe them as passionate, and Dario and his band of merry men and women are definitely passionate about life, their work, and the place they live.  Dario’s wife Kim arranged for our “butcher in a day” tour, and it was more than we could have imagined.  
Off we go to see the cows!

Brand new one!
We started with our new best friends, Nicola and Ricardo taking us to the cows, seeing the white cattle raised by Giovanni Manetti; then went to the Fontodi vineyard where they are growing grapes biodynamically, and of course did a bit of tasting. 

Vines are hand picked and then sorted by hand by WOMEN because, in the words of our guide, women are pickier! You know it!

Ricardo, one of our new best friends!  Ricardo runs things at Dario's

Our other new best friend, Nicola, who was our guide---perfect English too!

So much wine, and so little time, it's time to go cut some beef!

Just a little tasting; Chianti classico
Then to the meat fabrication area (separate from the shop and restaurants) Here we met Liam who is studying butchery with Dario and Orlando (in the book Heat, Orlando is the Maestro and taught Dario how to butcher)—we donned polar fleece, and stepped into the walk in coolers where they were fabricating (cutting ) the beef.  Dario prides himself on the freshness of the meat, and serves a lot of things raw—they make what they call beef “sushi” which is like steak tartare only so much better!  We were asked not to share photographs from the fabrication area, and I am respecting that request, but I will tell you I got some really great shots!

This is from the cold room at the store, not the fabrication area (keeping my promise!)
Liam fabricated half a side of beef for us, showing us the cuts they make and use here.  Nothing is wasted, they use the nose to the tail, and everything in between.  At this point, I should say that this is hard work, and these men and women work all day long, cutting up the beef.  It’s then put into vacuum bags, and refrigerated until it is sold.  
Lardo--no words to describe how amazing this is!
After our fabrication lesson we headed back to the shop where we prepared sausages for the day.  Keep in mind this is a tourist attraction, so there are people lined up out the door….just to see Dario, be in his presence, and to get a glimpse of the beautiful meat display. 

And, yes, those are little meatloaves!

Visitors are greeted as they walk in with a small glass of Chianti and some tasting samples along with Dario doing his thing, which is butchering meat.  

We headed back to the sausage prep area, and proceeded to grind the pork and fat together, and get it ready for its seasonings. 

With Nicola and Kellie--our aprons look so clean!
Grinding the pork

23 kilos
This is where it got to be interesting---only Dario can season the sausage, so we went to him and he ground garlic cloves, and then seasoned the sausage with their special seasoning, Sicilian sea salt and pepper that is ground to a fine powder along with a few undisclosed herbs.  

Perfumo di Chianti--way better than the Colonel's seasonings and you can buy it!

Ground garlic

Adding just enough

OK, let's do this thing!

Ricardo and Kellie getting down with the sausage

You massage this sausage till it no longer looks like ground meat--amazing what happens

There is a formula for the salt/pepper thing but it was all in metric, and way too much for me to break down (we had 23 kilos of meat)  they only use natural casings, which they soak in vinegar and then rinse. 
This is easy--our aprons are now trashed!

Miko helping us tie the sausages--he has a nifty little tool that makes it simple

Nicola helping Kellie---being dyslexic I passed on this, I'd rather mess it up at home!
They plugged in the casings, and we made sausages!  This was simple, I will be making it at home. I bought the special seasoning so I’m ready! 
Then it was time for lunch, by this time we were starving, but with 6 to 8 courses of meat, it was a long, and delicious lunch which none of us could finish. 

The captain of the grill

Lunch--we ate more meat in 2 1/2 hours than I think I've eaten in the past year!
But then they came out with Simonetta’s famous olive oil cake which I will try to make when I get back to the Enoteca in Spello.  The recipe is for 4 of these cakes that are as big as a manhole cover, so the recipe contains 90 eggs and 1.5 liters of oil---as I said, I’ll cut it down and publish it when I’ve got it perfected. 
After lunch, we waddled downstairs to the butcher shop to watch Dario in action (I can't get enough of this stuff) said goodbye, Dario signed our aprons (they do not sell the aprons, you have to earn them) and we were on our way to Florence after a magical day in the beautiful city of Panzano.  

Amazing day with the crew at Dario Cecchini---GRAZIE!
If you are serious about food, and please don’t call yourself a “foodie”; but if you are someone who buys grass fed beef, drinks organic wines and cooks with organic and local ingredients, this is a place to visit---it’s out of the way, but worth the trip just to have lunch, and enjoy the best that Tuscany has to offer.  Grazie Dario, Kim, Orlando, Liam, Nicola, Ricardo, Miko and the rest of the passionate band that makes this place so special.