• Jenny

A Food Tour of Parma, Italy


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Parma, Italy. Home of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma. Have you ever wondered what magic goes into making the world famous Parmigiano cheese, or how they create the beautifully marbled and perfectly sweet and salty prosciutto? Parma may not be the first place that comes to mind when you are building an Italian bucket list, but if you're planning a trip to Milan, Florence, Bologna, or even Venice, and you want a unique and authentic Italian experience that will entice your taste buds, then a Parma food tour is for you!


As travel begins to open back up, many people are looking for experiences away from large cities and typical tourist destinations. One way to stay away from crowds is by looking into agritourism experiences. Agritourism provides a way for you to discover the best local products of an area by visiting farms, vineyards, or ranches to learn how agricultural products are made, participate in harvests, or enjoy other rural activities.


On a recent visit to Milan, we decided to take a side trip and spend a few days in Parma. We are self-admitted cheese addicts and have come to love all forms of Italian prosciutto, so a trip to Parma was a no-brainer.


We booked a half-day Parma Cheese and Ham tour through Viator, with local tour company Parma Look. Our guide contacted us in advance to arrange our pick up location, and he graciously agreed to pick us up at our hotel in Parma's historic city center. He arrived the morning of the tour right on time, with a professional, sparkly clean van, and a warm, welcoming smile on his face. And off we went on our hunt for Parma cheese and ham!



A Visit to a Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Farm


We arrived at a small farm about 20 minutes outside of Parma, in the beautiful Reggio Emilia region of North Central Italy. It's important to note that only cheese made in this region can be called Parmigiano-Reggiano, and there are strict guidelines for its production. It has only three ingredients: fresh cow's milk, salt, and a natural enzyme called rennet to help with the curdling process.


The dairy we visited is special because the cheese there is made from milk produced by their very own resident cows, as opposed to having milk delivered from another location. By the way, because cows don't take vacation days from producing milk, cheese makers don't take days off either! Creating the King of all Cheeses is a back-breaking, non-stop, 365 day per year job, and the cheese lovers of the world are grateful for it!


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Our guide gave us a tour of the farm, explained how the cows are taken care of, and introduced us to the stars of the show. They were shy but curious as we approached, but a few allowed us to pet them, and one or two even posed for the camera. We learned that cows who are calm and relaxed make the best cheese, so we tried to make the interaction stress-free and friendly.


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Say cheese!

After our farm tour, we went inside to see where the cheese-making magic happens. They run on a tight schedule, because once the milk is collected it can only sit for a certain amount of time before it's heated up to start the curdling action. Our visit was timed so that we were able to watch as two men worked with a cheesecloth to pull curds from a steaming vat into a gigantic ball of baby Parmigiano-Reggiano. The curds were hung to drip-dry for a few minutes, transferred across the room, then press into a form to create the classic "wheel" shape. The process was fascinating and seamless, like a beautiful dance, the same way it's been done in Parma for over 800 years. We even got to taste some of the fresh cheese straight out of the vat. It was warm and juicy, squeaky and salty, and it was delicious!


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After this we were able to visit a room where the cheese wheels rest in water, and finally we arrived at the place we'd all been waiting for. The hallowed ground, the mecca of cheese lovers, a whole room with gigantic wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano stacked to the ceiling in various stages of aging. We each took a turn with the silver cheese hammer, tapping on wheels of cheese of different ages and listening to the sounds they made. The young cheese is more dense and makes a dull, low pitched sound when tapped on. The sound becomes more hollow and high-pitched as the cheese ages. The magic little hammer can also help detect whether the cheese wheels are maturing properly, in order to determine which ones need to be sold at a younger age or used solely for grating. The thought that there is any Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that's not "good" enough to let age is mind boggling to me, but they are the experts and they take their cheese making seriously here. I'll take a bowl full of less than perfect grated Parmigiano cheese any day!


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Did you know that cheese floats?

Then came the glorious tasting. Oh my! I've tasted a lot of cheese since I moved to Italy, but there's just something about sampling cheese in the actual room where it was aged that makes it so special. We tasted samples that were 22 months, 36 months, and 60 months. We tasted them plain, with balsamic vinegar, and with honey. There was nothing I didn't like, as I don't discriminate against cheese based on its age. I could tell it was a successful tasting because we all went in for seconds, and I walked away with a smile on my face, my hands sticky with honey.


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Parmigiano Reggiano paradise!

The Parma Ham Experience