Pre-Christmas Tuscan Trip

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Orvieto, Perugia

Orvieto, Umbria

Fidz had been wanting to see an exhibition of contemporary art at a gallery in San Gimigniano, Tuscany for a long time so since the weather is still fairly warm and sunny, we decided to take a short trip.

Glass Deer Heads, Janet Mullarney

Glass Deer Heads, Janet Mullarney

We are lucky to know an Irish artist, Janet Mullarney, who has a studio in Tuscany. We were able to stay with her which was an added bonus as we were able to see some of her pieces as well. Given that we are close to Christmas, I’m featuring her glass deer masks which were the first things that caught my eye when I walked into her living room. I find masks fascinating as they alter the perceptions of both the wearer and the viewer and if the mask is glass, what are the perceptions then?

Cortona, Toscana

Cortona, Toscana

Anyhow, driving from Rome to Tuscany is a lovely journey. One goes through the provinces of Lazio and Umbria and the landscape changes as you go along. If you take minor roads as opposed to the Autostrada, there are spectacular views of towns such as Orvieto along the way. We stopped in Castiglione del Lago in Umbria and Cortona in Tuscany, which are normally full of tourists but which were strangely deserted this time. One doesn’t see a lot of Christmas decorations but most towns have a Christmas tree and lights in the main Piazza.

Ribollita Soup

Ribollita Soup

The exhibition in San Gimigniano didn’t disappoint. We also enjoyed a fine lunch there which included ribollita, a hearty Tuscan soup made with bread, canellini beans and vegetables.

San Gimigniano, Toscana

San Gimignano, Toscana

The last time we were in San Gimignano in the spring, the town was packed with tourists. This time, there was hardly anyone there. Clearly, the week before Christmas is not tourist season in these Tuscan towns.

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December Ritual

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Statue of the Virgin, Piazza Mignanelli

Statue of the Virgin, Piazza Mignanelli

Yesterday December 8th was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a national holiday in catholic countries such as Italy and Spain. I had a misconception about the Immaculate Conception thinking it signified the conception of Jesus but in fact it signifies the conception of Mary and celebrates the belief that she was born free of sin. I’m not sure what this means, was it a virgin birth? Apparently, this question has been debated for centuries among catholic theologians including St. Thomas Aquinas. In any case, it was officially declared a feast by Pope Pius IX in 1854 and now marks the start of the Christmas season in Italy. Banks and government offices were closed but all the shops were open.

1418133554746It was a beautiful sunny day yesterday and I was putting a load of laundry out to dry at around 11am when all of a sudden I heard sounds of a brass band coming from our local church a few doors down from us. The church is called Chiesa dell’Immacolata so yesterday was also its particular feast day. Last week, there was a door to door collection on our street for celebrations of the feast and in exchange for our donation, we got a picture of the statue of the Virgin in the church. I find it quite beautiful as the Virgin almost looks like she could be wearing a saree with her hands in the prayer pose of Namaste.

 

1418133423369Anyhow, I rushed out to see what was happening and a small procession had set out from the church and were proceeding down the hill. Heading it were a group of cheer leaders followed by a brass band and a surprisingly small group of followers. I came home to continue putting out the washing when all of a sudden at noon there was a cacophony of church bells. Bells ring everyday at noon to mark the Angelus but today was noteworthy. Then the Pope’s voice giving a sermon or a blessing could be heard over the roof tops. By 1pm, our local procession had returned to the church but the band continued to play and kept us entertained through lunch.

Piazza Mignanelli

Piazza Mignanelli

Traditionally, at 4pm, the Pope goes to Piazza Mignanelli which is close to the Spanish Steps and lays a wreath on the statue of the Madonna. The statue is atop a very tall column and a fireman actually transports the wreath to the top. I decided to go and take a look though I knew there would be little chance of actually getting close enough to see what was going on. When we got there, the streets were jammed with people and the fireman had already put the wreath in place. The Pope arrived and prayed including asking that humanity be freed of slavery to material things. I don’t think people were listening in this upscale area close to the Via Condotti and the Via del Corso as shoppers thronged the streets and business was flourishing.

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Meanwhile back in our neighbourhood, the feast day at the church ended with a grand finale of fireworks which we were able to watch through our window. I’m a slave to spectacle and greatly enjoyed watching the show in comfort.

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Prosciutto di Parma

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I am not a great meat eater and so I’m not drawn to the meat section of the market unless we want something specific. However, we noticed that there was always a long line-up at one of the shops selling prosciutto and cured meats so we decided to try their prosciutto. I just found out that the word prosciutto comes from the Latin ‘pro exsuctum’ which means to suck out thoroughly i.e. to dry. So know you know! There’s prosciutto crudo which is served uncooked, and prosciutto cotto which is cooked.

1417374612396Since Fidz comes from Emilia-Romagna, he opted for prosciutto di Parma. This is made from the hind quarters of selected breeds of pigs which have been fed grains, cereals, and whey from the making of cheese. The pigs must be at least 9 months old and weigh 140 kg at the time of slaughter. The meat is cured with salt alone and no nitrates are used. A maestro salatore or a salt master adds only enough salt to cure the meat so it is less salty than other types of prosciutto.  The hams are left in controlled humidity and refrigerated for about 2 weeks in salt. Then the hams are hung for 70 days under refrigeration and controlled humidity before being washed and hung to dry in well-ventilated drying rooms. The drying process is complex and goes on for at least a year and this stage apparently, is what gives Parma ham its distinctive flavour. After being tested, it is stamped with a crown shaped stamp as you can see on the left of this ham.

Trionfale Market, Rome

Trionfale Market, Rome

Anyhow, at the market, we had to wait for at least 20 minutes before we were served as everyone in front of us wanted various types of prosciutto. The woman cutting the ham was truly phenomenal. She was able to cut paper thin slices which she carefully transferred to a sheet of paper. I was mesmerized by the sight of her cutting such perfect slices. In order to get the best taste from prosciutto, it not only has to be cured properly but the slices need to be fine enough to almost melt in your mouth. The one we bought certainly did and we had a fine lunch as you can see above with prosciutto, mozarella and tomatoes. Note the basil still growing on our balcony at the end of November!

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The Dark Side of Paradise

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1416680174386We have a wonderful life here in Rome. The sun shines constantly, the winters are mild, the city is beautiful, historic, and has much to offer in terms of culture. It is perfect for people like us who don’t have to work here. However, there is a dark side and life is tough for people who have to earn a living. A UK-based ranking body, The Legatum Prosperity Index, ranks the prosperity of a large number of countries based on a number of sub-indices which take into account not only the economy, governance etc but also individual wellbeing. The 2014 ranking has just been published and Italy has dropped to 37th place. In case you’re wondering, Norway heads the list, Canada is 5th, the US is 10th and the UK is 13th.

1416680250121Other people including the poet Shelley have noted that there are two Italies. One which is beautiful and culturally rich and the other which has an oppressive reality. The other side of Italy is the one ruled by grinding bureaucracy, inefficiency, corruption, nepotism and organized crime. In times of economic growth, this side can be pushed into the background but today, the economy is in a dire state. Unemployment at 12% shows no sign of improving with youth unemployment at a staggering 43%. Young people are leaving in droves seeking jobs in England and the US. People fear that in 10 years time, there will be no youth force to keep the economy going and there will just be pensioners left. The poor Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, is trying to bring in better practices in the workplace such as terminating employment of people who are inefficient (lots of these!) but the powerful Unions won’t hear of it. His plans to improve the economy and create more jobs are thwarted at every turn and since he does not head a majority government, he meets opposition from the other parties and nothing moves forward.

Modena, Emiglia Romagna (photo by Cinzia Orlando)

Modena, Emilia-Romagna (photo by Cinzia Orlando)

The weather has been kind to us in Rome so far, but there have been devastating floods in the north. The Po river has burst its banks in places and people have had to be evacuated from their homes. Crops have been badly damaged so the agricultural sector will suffer this year for sure. Whole towns are flooded and huge amounts of money will be needed to restore the damage. Nobody knows where this money will come from.

Italy is one of the main landing points for refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Last week in Rome, there were protests about immigration and residents of a suburb actually attacked a migrant reception centre. Almost every week, there is a protest of one sort or another, against unemployment, or the economic crisis, or labour reforms. 0,,18063522_303,00The most entertaining protest last week which unfortunately, I did not witness, was by a feminist group called Femen. A Ukranian women’s activist group, they were protesting about the Pope going to Strasbourg to address the European Parliament later this month. Apparently, some of them showed up in the Piazza of St Peter’s only wearing leather mini-skirts and making obscene gestures with crucifixes. Their main complaint was that the Pope is not a politician. I think even if he tried, and he’s certainly more politically outspoken than his recent predecessors, nothing would change. When Italy was unified by Garibaldi in the mid-1800s, three distinct regions were brought together, the northern areas ruled by foreign powers, the central Papal states surrounding Rome and the southern region of the Two Kingdoms of Sicily. There are huge cultural differences between these areas and some people are still of the opinion that the regions are too diverse to form a single country. From this comes an underlying principle of watching out for ones own best interests first, then for ones family and friends, then for neighbours and those geographically close. Thinking of the common good at a national level does not come easily to many Italians so they continue to argue and disagree and meanwhile, the country heads towards eventual ruin.

 

 

 

 

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A Week in Veneto

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Piazza San Marco, Venezia

Piazza San Marco, Venezia

We just got back from a week spent in the Veneto region with two friends from Toronto. The plan was to spend 2 days each in Venice, Vicenza and Padova.

1415886224516Going from Rome to Venice is a pleasant three and a half hour train ride. We left early on a Sunday morning and arrived by noon in time for lunch. Venice is beautiful as always despite the hordes of day-trippers who disembark from massive cruise ships just for the day. One of the things I like most is just walking around the narrow streets looking at the traffic on the canals.

18th. cent. Venetian Urinal

18th. cent. Venetian Urinal

It was a nice afternoon and we we went to see the Architecture Biennale. The theme was ‘Fundamentals’ with part of it devoted to fundamentals of living spaces used by any architect. Unfortunately, it was rather disappointing on the whole but I did enjoy a display of toilets through the ages. They haven’t changed much and indeed some from antiquity were rather magnificent like this 18th cent. Venetian urinal.

Monday was foggy and dull and since this wasn’t our first time in Venice, we decided to explore the islands nearby, in the Venice lagoon. For 20 Eur/person, one can buy a day card which allows unlimited travel on the boats in and around Venice, a good deal considering that the cost of a single fare is 7 Eur. Our first stop was the very quaint island of Torcello which has just a basilica and a small church on it and a hotel or two. The basilica has an entire wall of beautiful 11th cent Byzantine mosaics, the earliest still remaining in the Venice region.

Burano

Burano

Before catching the boat for the next island of Burano, we found a little outdoor cafe and fortified ourselves with fried seafood served on plates of baked dough which could also be eaten. Burano is just a 20 minute boat ride away. It is noted for lace-making though I can’t imagine that there is a great demand for lace anymore. Very picturesque, the buildings are painted in various colours and were quite striking despite the fog.

Murano Glass

Murano Glass

The next island, Murano, which is actually a series of tiny, little islands, is where all the Venetian glass is made and one can see the glass being blown and shaped. It is quite an industry as in addition to bowls and vases, they also make chandeliers, jewellery and various ornaments.

The next day, we rented a car and drove to Vicenza along the Brenta canal which is dotted with fine Palladian style villas. Andrea Palladio was a 17th cent. Venetian architect strongly influenced by Greek and Roman architecture who has had a great influence on Western architecture. Many buildings all over the world including the American Capitol building are built in his style.

Villa Rotonda, Vicenza

Villa Rotonda, Vicenza

Vicenza itself, which is a World Heritage Site, has grand palaces and small villas in the Palladian style. One of the most notable is the Villa Rotonda which was built as a private home and still privately owned. It sits on a little hill with wonderful views all around. The main floor is dominated by a domed hall filled with frescoes and off this are the rooms. Despite the imposing hall and grand exterior appearance, the rooms are bright, cozy and of a human dimension. I could imagine a family living there quite comfortably. We didn’t get to see upstairs as the family who now own it still live there. It rained most of the time we were in Vicenza but at least we were able to enjoy the interiors of the villas and buildings.

Padova

Padova

Our final stop was Padova which is only about 40km from Vicenza. The streets in Padova are narrow and lined with long covered arcades below the buildings. A good thing as it was cloudy and raining here as well a lot of the time. There is plenty to see in Padova, the most visited being the Scrovegni chapel which is covered with frescoes by Giotti. Before going into the chapel which was a private family chapel and is consequently small, one has to sit in a room and acclimatize for 15 minutes, then you only have 15 minutes to actually view the frescoes. They are spectacular and Giotto was the first to introduce perspective in painting. Needless to say, no photos are allowed so I can’t show you an example but you can find lots of pictures on the internet.

Anatomy Theatre, University of Padova

Anatomy Theatre, University of Padova

Another notable sight was the Palazzo Bo which houses the oldest anatomy theatre in the world built like an amphitheatre. It is made of wood in a spiral shape and is really quite beautiful. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed but I managed to find one on a Padova tourism site. Galileo lived and taught at Padova University and the podium and chair from which he taught are still there. The first woman graduate in the world, Elena Piscopia graduated from Padova University in 1678.

Il Santo (Basilica of San Antonio)

Il Santo (Basilica of San Antonio)

Padova has an impressive basilica with many domes, dedicated to St. Anthony whose remains are in a chapel within. Not only that but rather disturbingly, his tongue, lower jaw and vocal chords are on view in a reliquary. One of his claims to fame was that he was a wonderful preacher and legend has it that his body was exhumed many years after his death and his tongue was still preserved. He is also credited with finding lost items and interestingly, I remember my mother praying to St. Anthony of Padova when she lost something. On one occasion, she couldn’t find her purse and immediately began to pray to him. I on the other hand, went around searching for it and eventually found it whereupon she said ” See! He answered my prayers”. Go figure!

 

 

 

 

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Back in Rome for Halloween

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1414846552715The Fall colours in Ontario were spectacular just as we were leaving. The intense reds of the maple trees never ceases to amaze me.

Back in Rome, it does not feel much like autumn except that there is sudden drop in temperature in the evenings once the sun has set. The days are still warm and perfect for walking. Crossing the Tiber a couple of days ago, it felt like summer with people kayaking in the river. The Romans of course, are wearing coats and boots while the tourists can be identified by their sandals and T-shirts.

1414846268921Yesterday was Halloween and I was thinking of the carved pumpkins and decorations I had already begun to see earlier in the week in Toronto. Halloween  is not an Italian festival and the only evidence I saw of it here yesterday was this pumpkin outside a local cafe. A couple of kids were out in our neighbourhood but with minimal costumes, just a pair of fangs or a few smears of red paint to resemble blood and I’m not sure whether or not they were ‘trick or treating’ as I can’t imagine that anyone would have treats ready to give out.

Our return to Rome is a short one, just enough time to unpack and do laundry. Tomorrow we leave again for a week in Venice and the Veneto region. I will keep you posted!

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Pumpkin and Squash Harvests in Ontario

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Squash Display, Norfolk County Fair

Squash Display, Norfolk County Fair

Southern Ontario is colourful at the moment with the leaves on the trees changing colour and fields full of pumpkins.

Largest Pumpkin, Norfolk County Fair

Largest Pumpkin, Norfolk County Fair, 2014

We went to the Norfolk County Fair and Horse Show which is usually held over Thanksgiving weekend in the town of Simcoe. It is one of the oldest fairs in Ontario having been started in 1840 and is a great place to see all the different varieties of vegetables, fruit and livestock. A colourful array of squash were on display and this year, the largest pumpkin weighed in at 1,442 lbs! Not as large as the last time we were at the fair but impressive all the same.

In Italy, it seems to me that there are fewer varieties of squash and pumpkin and they are quite expensive. Pumpkin is even sold in the market by wedges.

1413987616003Now, I find it surprising to see how many pumpkins here are used for decoration and carved for Halloween when they could be used for food. They are rich in vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, and potassium. Not only the flesh, but also the seeds and flowers are edible and they can be kept for a few months.

Speaking of flowers, stuffed pumpkin or zucchini flowers are a popular appetizer in Italy during the spring and summer. The flowers are also used in pasta sauces and as a pizza topping. I often wondered why the flowers would be pulled off before any fruit were produced and sold so cheaply. I thought that this would prevent a crop from being produced which could be sold at a better price.

Pumpkin Harvest, Norfolk County

Pumpkin Harvest, Norfolk County

I just discovered that there are male and female flowers on the same plant and the female flowers have to be pollinated in order to produce fruit. The male flowers often appear before the female flowers and have a straight stem. Female flowers on the other hand, have a tiny ovary resembling a miniature zucchini or pumpkin at the base. Now that you know, you can pull off some of the male flowers from zucchini/pumpkin/squash plants and try them stuffed with anchovy and mozarella, or in other ways, and still have a good yield of the fruit.

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The Beauty of British Columbia

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First Nations Totem Poles

First Nations Totem Poles

Pacific Temperate Rainforest

Pacific Temperate Rainforest

Living in Italy where people like to enjoy life, I have come to appreciate the joys of celebrating all sorts of things. As my niece says, “best to celebrate as much as possible before the final celebration” (at which, of course, you yourself will be absent!). So I decided to fly to Vancouver Island to celebrate my sister’s birthday and to see her family who I do not get a chance to see much of. We had a great family re-union and I also got to enjoy the BC wilderness.

Vancouver Island has mountains, forests, rivers and of course the ocean. The best part is that it is possible to experience all of these in a day. The West Coast temperate rainforests with their tall redwood and red cyprus trees are spectacular, many growing to over 100 ft tall.

Kinsol Trestle

Kinsol Trestle

We walked along part of the BC trail in the Cowichan Valley and came across the Kinsol Trestle, a wooden railway trestle bridge built in 1920 over the Koksilah river. Reputed to be one of the highest railway trestles in the world, it is around 145 ft high and over 600 ft long. All the vertical supporting beams are fashioned from single tree trunks which is quite amazing when you think about it.

Although I’ve lived in Canada for 20 years, I had never actually seen a bear in the wild. One morning, we went for a walk in the forest, stopped at a farmhouse cafe for lunch and as we were driving back, we rounded a bend and suddenly came across a black bear calmly wandering accross the road.

1413068462306Good thing I didn’t hit it but I did manage to stop the car and get a photo. What surprised me was that we were well out of the forested area where we had seen signs warning people about bears and we had just passed several houses. Apparently, at this time of year, bears go around foraging for food to build up their stores of fat before winter sets in.

Capilano Rope Suspension Bridge

Capilano Rope Suspension Bridge

Taking the ferry from the island to Vancouver city is a short and picturesque trip as you pass other Gulf islands and often see dolphins or whales. Vancouver has a wonderful geographical location, with mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. My friend Evelyn does some work for the tourist board and has free access to all the major tourist sites. She took took me on a great tour of the city starting with a walk across a 450 ft long and 230 ft high rope suspension bridge over the Capilano river in north Vancouver. The bridge sways a little as you walk along it which is a little disconcerting at first but you soon get used to it. I wouldn’t recommend it for people with a fear of heights!

Capilano River Salmon Hatchery

Capilano River Salmon Hatchery

This is the time of year when salmon swim upriver from the ocean to spawn and I was lucky to see them in the Capilano river. There a few different species of salmon and it is quite a sight to actually see them swimming against the flow and jumping out of the water. Fishing depletes their numbers and in order to repopulate the stock, a salmon hatchery close to the mouth of the river traps them as they come upriver. The trap consists of a small wall built across the river such that the fish are diverted into a narrow trench leading into the hatchery. Here, the fish spawn, the spawn is allowed to hatch and when the fish are big enough, they are put back into the river again to continue their lifecycle in the ocean. At the end of their lifecycle which may last for 1 to 5 years depending on the species, they return to the same river to spawn.

Bailey Beehive

Bailey Beehive

I stayed with my niece Charmaine and family who live in the city. They have a little garden where surprisingly for a small city space, they keep a beehive. This year, they harvested around 100 lbs of honey and had a spring, a summer and an autumn collection. The spring and summer varieties are lighter in colour and more fluid while the autumn variety is a rich brown. I have samples of each and we are going to do a tasting this Thanksgiving weekend, back in Ontario.

 

 

 

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Something New in New York City

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Ground Zero Pool

Ground Zero Pool

It was exciting to be in Manhattan which is the opposite of Rome. Where no building in the centre of Rome is taller than St. Peter’s Basilica, Manhattan’s skyscrapers soar into the sky creating a vertical landscape. There is a sense of intense energy and freedom of expression, from the designs of the buildings to how people dress. One gets the feeling that anything is possible and you can be whatever you want.

Chrysler Building

Chrysler Building

We stayed in a lovely and spacious apartment on Mott St. on the edge of Chinatown and Little Italy which we got through friends who rent it out on Airbnb. We loved this funky area with lots of restaurants, cafes and interesting shops. Great changes are occurring in the neighbourhoods on the Lower East Side. The Bowery, which was once derelict and crime ridden, is becoming gentrified and we felt quite comfortable walking around, where a few years ago, there would have been the fear of getting mugged. As always, it was a pleasure to see the old iconic buildings like the Chrysler and the Empire State but it was some of the new things that caught my attention.

High Line

High Line

The High Line is a green walkway constructed on the disused elevated railway line running along the west side of Manhattan between the buildings. Trees, plants and wild flowers line the sides and there are places to sit and enjoy the view. Starting in the Meatpacking district, on Gansevoort St., it now spans about 20 blocks or so with a further extension planned. Close to the beginning of the Line is a new building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano which will be the home of the Whitney Museum of American Art early next year.

Robert Indiana Sculpture

Robert Indiana Sculpture

In NYC art installations are no longer confined to museums and one suddenly comes upon pieces like this one by Robert Indiana installed on 7th Avenue and 53rd St to mark the 1st International Hope Day on Sept 13, which also happened to be the artists 86th birthday.

Time Square

Time Square

 Time Square is visually overwhelming with its giant electronic screens, fluorescent colours, advertising, and constantly changing pictures and slogans. A part of it has been pedestrianized and there are stalls selling various types of food and tourist knicknacks. People dressed like Disney characters (or hardly dressed at all) mill around trying to make a few bucks by posing for photos with tourists. Its all quite surreal.  I found it too frenetic with the constant movement, changing images, noise, and people and couldn’t stay there for too long.

 The Ground Zero site where the twin towers used to be, now has two large pools each occupying the footprint of the tower that once stood there. The pools have a second pool in the centre which you can’t see the bottom of, giving the quality of water falling into a hole in the depths of the earth. The names of the people who died on that day are engraved on burnished bronze ledges running around the perimeter. A white rose is placed on the name of a person whose birthday is on that day which is touching. A Memorial Museum stands between the two pools.

Freedom Tower, 1 World Trade Center

Freedom Tower, 1 World Trade Centre

At the edge of Ground Zero Square stands “1 World Trade Center”, supposedly the tallest building in America and called the Freedom Tower. A stylized soaring dove, designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, will span the site and is now under construction. We thought that the portion of the Calatrava piece built so far looked more like a dinosaur than a dove but it might look different when completed.

We did a lot of walking including tramping around the major museums which are magnificent in their wealth of exhibits. Museum entrance fees are not cheap and neither is eating out compared with Toronto and Rome. Even food in the supermarkets is quite costly except for junk food. However, electronic goods are still relatively inexpensive. I bought a little ‘point and shoot’ camera. Hopefully, my posts will benefit from improved photos!

 

 

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Parmesan Cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano)

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1411487029543We are going back to Canada soon and my niece asked me to bring her back some parmesan. I only recently discovered that it is perfectly legal to bring cheese into Canada as long as its no more than 20kg at a value of $20 or less. Whoever came up with that price must have last bought cheese about 50 years ago!

Valley in the Appenines

Valley in the Appenines

Anyhow, what better place to get parmesan than Fidz’s home province of Emilia-Romagna where we were last week. A cheese can only be called Parmigiano-Reggiano if it is made in a small area between Parma and Bologna. Supposedly, the milk produced by cattle who graze in that area is different from elsewhere and the cheese does not taste the same if made with milk from anywhere else. Cheese made in exactly the same way in other parts of the province is called Grano Padano. We were able to compare as we had lunch with Fidz’s uncle near Piacenza and were offered the local Grano Padano while we went back to Fidz’s home south of Parma for dinner and had Parmigiano. I have to admit that they do taste slightly different and Grano Padano has a grainier texture. However, one likely would not be able to tell the difference when used for cooking and Grano Padano is cheaper.

1411487148765The making of Parmigiano started in 1200 or so with Benedictine and Cistercian monks living in monasteries between the Po river and the Appenines. Until around 40 years ago, there were many small farms making Parmigiano. A lot of these farms would also raise pigs for making prosciutto as the pigs would be fed with the whey left over from cheesemaking mixed with wheat chaff. Now, the operation is more centralised and streamlined. We went to a co-operative in Migliara where milk is brought in from the high plains in the mountains so the Parmigiano made here is ‘mountain’ parmesan which has a superb taste and is delicious eaten on its own. These ‘mountain’ producers are slowly fading out as the logistics of bringing in milk and transporting cheese on narrow mountain roads make it more expensive to produce.

1411504434628The milk collected in the evening is poured into large stainless steel trays and allowed to settle so that the cream (which is used for making butter) rises to the top. The next day, the bottom layer is allowed to flow into a large copper vat and milk collected in the morning is added. Some whey from the day before as well as rennet are also added. The milk coagulates and is stirred at a temperature of around 55C using a huge stainless steel balloon whisk called a spino so that the curds form little granules. We actually arrived at the co-op in the afternoon and this part had already been completed and the vats cleaned ready for the evening milk.

1411504531844After the granules have been stirred to the right consistency, the curds are are put into muslin and allowed to drain. The contents of each vat are divided in two, called gemelli (twins), and placed in large plastic moulds called fascera still wrapped in muslin. In the afternoon, the muslin is removed and perforated stamps are placed between the cheese and the side of the mould giving the name of the cheese maker and the date. This will become imprinted on the cheese and represents its mark of origin like on a wine label.

1411487419852The next day, the cheese wheels are moved into stainless steel moulds and allowed to rest for about 2 or 3 days.

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Then they are placed in salt water where they are turned every day for about 3 weeks.

 

The production process is now completed and the wheels are  taken to the storage room where they are placed on shelves and mechanically turned every week. The outside of the cheese dries forming a natural crust which, by the way, is edible. Maturation has to be at least 12 months and at this stage, the cheese can be sold as a ‘fresh’ parmesan called mezzano, not really Parmigiano but the promise of one and regarded as inferior.

1411487236187At this point, Parmigiano experts called ‘battitori’ check the consistency and quality of the cheese by hitting the wheels with little hammers and checking for the right vibrations. Wheels with cracks or faults in them are discarded. The ones that have passed the test are fire-branded and allowed to continue maturing for another 2 years. The cost of the cheese depends on its age. Fidz’s father used to be a Parmesan inspector on the fiscal side and his job was to visit the small mountain cheese makers and make sure they weren’t branding cheeses as older than they really were to get a better price. Part of the work entailed inserting a thin tube into the centre of the wheel and removing a sliver to taste in order to confirm the age of a batch. What a great job!

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