The scene resembles an oil by Vermeer, the half-light of the day giving a warm glow to the canvas as a man and woman somberly and silently lard hundreds of prosciutto legs. A tinny radio brings the only voices to the air as the mute two concentrate intensely on what is one of many stages in the production of world-famous prosciutto di Parma. This sugna of pork fat, salt and rice flour helps shield the meat from external impurities and stops it from drying out.
In this factory on the outskirts of Parma, I’m taken through the 10 steps of the year-long process, which begins with a raw pig leg and ends with the sweet-but-salty cured beauty being fire-branded with the five-point Ducal Crown logo. Prosciutto di Parma comes from pigs fed solely on the maize, barley and whey used in the production of parmesan. Under the rules of the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), it can only be produced within a strictly defined geographical area — where the air is fragrant, dry and ideal for curing ham. I walk from curing room to curing room, the porcine smell becoming denser, yeastier even, as the hams come towards their time of maturation. I’m shown how they’re tested with a horse-bone needle that’s inserted into areas of the ham then sniffed to ensure it has exactly the right sweet but slightly nutty aroma.
The next day I’m at Caseificio San Lucio, a parmesan-making farm in a hilly area on the outskirts of Parma. I’m standing next to vertiginous towers stacked with vast wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano, in different stages of the ageing process, all branded with the mark of origin that confirms they’ve been made according to the strict set of guidelines governing this prince of cheese.
I’ve watched the fast-paced art that is the cheese-making process and Igino Morino has shown me how to tap the cheese and listen for imperfections. Now he’s teaching me the best way to taste three cheeses — each one a different age. “You must use the five senses — touch it, break it, smell it, taste it, look for varying characteristics, then to try to discern its aftertaste,” he instructs.
There’s butter and milk, but also fruits, spice and a slightly meaty taste to the maturest, which is over 30 months old. Igino smiles. This cheese, he pronounces, is pretty perfect.
Sweet, spectacular ham and salty, rich parmesan are the backbone of this region and the stars of the show at Ristorante Cocchi, an old-school wood-panelled place across the Parma River in Oltretorrente. It serves Tom and Jerry-esque chunks of parmesan with sparkling Franciacorte.
Waiters in ties and long black aprons dart between tables. I’m brought a flan di zucca con fonduta di parmigiano, a souffle of almost unfathomable depth, dotted with candied pumpkin. There’s a tiny taster of polpettini di vitello (veal and ricotta meatballs) before the house dish is delivered, savarin di riso, a buttery risotto thick with parmesan and porcini, wrapped in slices of cooked ham.
When I return to my baroque room at Palazzo Della Rosa Prati, I end up dreaming that this city is known as ‘Yellow Parma’ — not because of the colour of its historic public buildings, but because they’re all made of cheese. I’m relieved when I open the curtains to see that the Duomo and neighbouring Bishop’s Palace on the piazza are all still sculpted from stone.
Cookery writer Cristina Bottari helps me navigate the culinary backstreets of her city the following day, leading me to a horsemeat butcher who offers a taste right there at the counter of raw peppery equine mince dressed with lemon. At Panetteria Rosetta, Cristina tells me the handmade cappelletti (pasta) is award-winning and, in her opinion, the best in the city. At Ristorante La Forchetta she introduces me to torta fritta — light, puffed-up hollow squares of fried dough draped with petals of Parma ham.
We wander in and out of delicatessens, festooned with prosciutto and salami. At La Prosciutteria, on Via Farini — a thoroughfare dotted with great culinary pit stops — I buy sbrisolona, which translates as ‘supercrumbs’ and is a biscuit made with both white and corn flour, almonds, butter and sugar.
Up a tiny alley off Via Farini, we come to Pepèn, a panini shop that’s a Parma institution. At lunchtime this little star is toe-crunchingly crowded — orders are being shouted, along with affectionate insults, to regulars from the dexterous sandwich makers, and above it all, little glasses of Lambrusco and Malvasia (a local, slightly fizzy white wine — malva for short) are being passed over people’s heads. I try the famous spacca balle — roasted pork and hot salsa on toasted crustless bread and la carciofa, a slice of hot, salty artichoke pie, baked with ricotta and parmesan.
I return later to Via Farini to hop along the wine bars and sample a small calice (goblet) of Lambrusco and find myself astonished by how much I like this ill-reputed plonk of old; it’s plummy but light, dry with a generous fizz, and is nothing like the stuff I used to steal a sniff of from the bottles my mum drank in the 1980s. At Tabarro, a wine bar proffering small plates, I take a wooden plate of prosciutto and parmesan to a high table on the pavement and watch locals as they wander past. With a glass of brilliant deep red fizz I toast this famous opera city, but then I raise a glass to the place’s amazing produce — it sings a beautiful libretto all of its own.
Five Parma food finds
A tour of a parmesan-making farm is free and is a fabulous way to understand this amazing cheese, but it must be booked well in advance. Scheduled for 8am on weekdays only. Book via the Parma tourist office at Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium. T: 00 39 0521 292700.
With windows festooned with legs of ham, La Prosciutteria has an amazing selection of prosciutto, parmesan and lambrusco, as well as other local goodies. T: 00 39 0521 234188.
The award-winning, handmade cappelletti is, according to cookery writer Cristina Bottari, the best in the city. Via XXII Luglio 10.
Try fabulous Lambrusco wines with platters of meat and cheese in this small, funky wine bar. T: 00 39 0521 200223.
Across the road from Tabarro is slightly scruffy but fabulous and always bustling Enoteca Fontana, selling glasses of wine, sandwiches and snacks. T: 00 39 0521 286037.
Four places for a taste of Parma
Buzzy little Pepèn is a Parma institution — a panini shop where locals queue for the best-priced, best-quality sandwiches in town. Try the famous spacca balle — roasted pork and hot salsa on toasted crustless bread and la carciofa, a slice of hot, salty artichoke pie, baked with ricotta and parmesan.
How much: Two paninis, la carciofa, arancini (rice balls), €15/£12. T: 00 39 0521 282650.
Parmesan is whipped up into a souffle — flan di zucca con fonduta di Parmigiano — of gooey cheesy depth, dotted with candied pumpkin, in this old-school restaurant across the Parma River in Oltrotorrente, the studenty part of town. A special is savarin di riso, a buttery risotto thick with parmesan and porcini, wrapped in slices of cooked ham. A simple starter is a plate of crumbling, crystalline parmesan, accompanied by a glass of Franciacorte.
How much: Three courses from £35 per person without drinks. T: 00 39 0521 995147.
For a taste of Michelin-starred cuisine using the best of the region’s produce, head for swish Parizzi. Try three different-aged Parma hams (24, 30 and 44 months) or tortelli stuffed with herbs and parmesan. Alternatively, opt for chef Marco Parizzi’s tasting menu, offering either a flavour of the land or the sea, with highlights including ravioli of guinea fowl on a bed of nettles.
How much: Three courses from £45 per person without drinks. ristoranteparizzi.it
This family-run restaurant offers typical Parma cuisine, with homemade breads and pastas and dishes made from locally sourced ingredients. Slices of Culatello di Zibello ham can be draped over torta fritta, light, puffed-up hollow squares of fried dough. There’s also a parmesan risotto, and butter, pumpkin and parmesan tortelli.
How much: Three courses from £24 per person without drinks. laforchettaparma.it
Published in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)