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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
The Parma Ham Experience
The second part of our food tour took us to a Parma Ham factory. Parma Ham, also known as Prosciutto di Parma (pro-shoo-toe for English speakers who need it broken down), is a salted, dry-cured ham that is usually thinly sliced and served uncooked. This type of uncooked ham is referred to as prosciutto crudo in Italian, in contrast to cooked ham which is called prosciutto cotto.
In the same way that Parmigiano-Reggiano is only made in the Reggio Emilia region, in order for a ham to officially be called Prosciutto di Parma it must be produced here as well. Langhirano, just outside of Parma, is considered the "capital of ham" in this region. In a small valley between the Po and Parma Rivers, there are over 140 Parma Ham factories, characterized by their long, narrow shape and many windows. They say that the sea breeze coming through the valley across the mountains is what dries the hams to perfection.
In addition, Prosciutto di Parma can only be made from the hind legs of specially bred pigs. The ham must be cured in sea salt for a specific amount of time, and refrigerated at a certain temperature range and humidity level before being aged in drying rooms. Government regulations require that Parma Ham must be aged for at least 400 days from the date of first salting, but some varieties of this famous prosciutto can age as long as three years!
The quality control doesn't stop there! Each hind quarter must have a layer of fat that measures a certain thickness in order to pass the Prosciutto di Parma test, as well as undergo a check by an independent inspector for spoilage or flaws in the curing process. We learned that inspectors use a needle made of horse bone to test each ham individually, by sticking it into the ham in several places and smelling for signs of spoilage. The horse bone is perfectly suited for this test, as it retains the smell of each puncture, but releases the scent quickly so it can be used to test other hams.
Our first step was getting geared up for the tour. This was, after all, a working ham factory, and we had to adhere to sanitary regulations so as to protect the precious prosciutto inside! We were able to tour each room as our guide explained every step of the curing and aging process. As we moved from room to room, the smells became sweeter and stronger, and my mouth watered the entire time. There was no tasting inside the factory, but after the tour was over we had a lovely sampling of Prosciutto di Parma with breathtaking views of the valley below.
What else can you do in Parma?
Parma is a historic and beautiful city, a university town rich in architecture, music, culture and art. It may not be as big as other more famous Italian cities, but has an old world charm that will capture your heart. Visit the Romanesque Parma Cathedral and Baptistery in the medieval Piazza Duomo and tour the nearby Diocesan Museum.
If you do anything else in Parma, take time to explore the The Galleria Nazionale. This is no ordinary museum. Inside the 16th century Palazzo della Pilotta, the complex houses a National Art Gallery, Archaeological Museum, Palatine Library, and the crown jewel, the Farnese Theatre. This spectacular circular theater with ornately carved wooden seating was almost completely destroyed during the bombings of World War II, but has been meticulously restored to showcase the extravagant lifestyle of the Farnese royal court.
The National Art Gallery is renowned for its collection of old masters’ paintings, including the famous Head of a Woman by Leonardo da Vinci.
Shop to your heart's content in the maze of cobblestoned streets that zig zag throughout the city center. Take in a classical concert or opera performance at the Teatro Regio, a 19th-century opera house. They even have outdoor performances as part of their Summer at Music Park series. There always seems to be music playing in and around the theater.
Arrange a tour to the Castello di Torrechiara just outside of town. Although this imposing castle looks like a military stronghold, it was never actually used as a defensive fortress, but merely given as a gift from a man to his lover. Men just don't give gifts like they used to, do they?
What else should you do in Parma? Eat! This is a foodie town, and you can happily spend a weekend in Parma indulging in cheese, ham, freshly made pasta with rich bolognese or buttery herb sauces, risotto with creamy mushroom sauce, and flaky puff pastries that fall apart in your hand and melt in your mouth. Locals will tell you that food and sports are the two most important things in Parma. Not only do they produce the world's most famous cheese and ham, but they have also perfected the cultivation of tomatoes over hundreds of years. Bordered by the Po River to the north and the Apennine Mountains in the south, Parma is blessed with a unique climate that makes the food here truly special.
Where to stay in Parma
I strongly recommend if you visit Parma, that you stay in the city center. Parma is beautiful to walk around in, or even get lost! One of our favorite things to do in Parma was to just wander, shop, eat, and repeat. You'll love walking through its streets in the evening on your way to and from dinner, with everything from casual cafes to fine dining all at your fingertips.
How to get to Parma and how to get around
The easiest way to get to Parma is by train, whether you're coming from Milan, Bologna, Florence, Venice, or even Rome. Once you get there, most of the sites are in Parma's historic center, which is only about a 15 minute walk from the train station. You can take a route through the city center or along the Parma River, either of which are about equal in distance.
I do not have an affiliate connection with this tour company, nor did I receive any compensation for writing this article. This was simply a phenomenal tour and I highly recommend it to anyone going to Parma, or one of the other tour options offered by Parma Look. Our guide was a local who grew up in Parma, and I can not say enough about his knowledge of the area, its history, culture and the the products shared on his tour. In addition to the Parma cheese and ham tour, their other tours include wine tasting, truffle hunting, honey and balsamic vinegar factories, cultural tours of Parma, castle visits and even mountain bike riding!
I hope this got your taste buds tingling for some delicious Parmigiano and Prosciutto! If you enjoyed reading this, drop me a comment and check out some of my other city guides below or on my European Destinations page.
Cheers to finding adventure near, far, or wherever you are!