By Chrissie Walker
It’s not the best-known of Italian regions but Emilia Romagna has several claims to fame. It’s the birthplace of the unified Italian flag and is the home of some rather good produce. Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar along with Lambrusco wine all hail from Emilia Romagna vines and pastures.
Lambrusco was once a popular drink in both the US and Europe. However, it gained a deservedly, at that time, dubious reputation for poor quality. It’s a negative accolade that the modern-day producers are slowly shaking off.
Emilia Romagna and Mantova are often referred to as being in the ‘Lambrusco region’ but that just describes the wine typical of the area. Lambrusco is the name of both a red wine grape and an Italian wine made principally from that grape. It isn’t a new variety as it’s been discovered that the ancient Etruscans cultivated these same grapes. The Romans enjoyed Lambrusco and prized it for the high grape yield of its vines.
Lambrusco is a sparkling wine but not usually made using the ‘Champagne method’ (metodo classico). It is typically made using the Charmat process (like prosecco) where a second fermentation is undertaken in a pressurized tank rather than in the bottle. The better-quality Lambrusco wines differ from the cheap supermarket bottles with which were afflicted a few decades ago. They’re more potent, having an alcohol content of between 11 and 12 percent, as opposed to four percent for those over-sweet wines that gave Lambrusco such a bad name.
One might be tempted by a little cheese along with those bubbles and the local cheese in Emilia Romagna is parmesan. It’s the real thing here and is likely very different from the pre-grated savory sawdust which so many international supermarkets peddle.
The real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese has been around for 800 years or so and is made, broadly, in the same way in the same region and sometimes by the same families who have been making cheese for generations. During the Great Fire of London of 1666 diarist, Samuel Pepys buried his cheese: “I did dig another hole, and put our wine in it; and my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things” to save them from the approaching inferno. Its popularity continues.
This king of cheeses is made with milk, non-vegetarian rennet, heat and the skill of the maker. There are around 450 small artisan dairies and nine thousand milk producers who have to work 365 days of the year, as cows don’t have holidays. Traditionally, cows must be fed only on grass or hay to produce the milk for this particular cheese. Parmesan wheels undergo rigorous quality checks before they can be sold to the public. Warehouses are full of cheeses, thousands of them, and they are even accepted by banks as collateral, such is their prestige. It’s worth noting that it’s very often the less remarkable cheeses that are grated and sold in tubs. Another example of ‘you get what you pay for’.
The whole unpasteurized milk of the morning milking is mixed with the skimmed milk of the previous evening’s milking. Starter whey is added, and the temperature is raised to between 33 and 35°C. Rennet is added, and the mixture is left to curdle naturally for 10 minutes or so. The curd is then broken into small pieces. The temperature is raised to 55°C and the curd is left to settle for about an hour. The curd is scooped up in a large piece of muslin and hung to drain for a few minutes before being cut in half and placed in stainless steel moulds to drain still more. At this time each cheese weighs around 45 kg.
The cheeses go through several other maturation steps, and after one year an independent assessor evaluates each wheel of cheese. He does this by tapping each one with a special hammer. The assessor listens for the change in sound indicating whether the cheese has aged properly. The cheeses are then branded with the distinctive oval Consorzio Tutela Parmigiano Reggiano certification mark. Those rare cheeses that do not pass the test used to have their rinds marked with lines or crosses, but now the rinds are usually removed.
The third product which is more famous than its region of origin is balsamic vinegar. It pairs marvelously with the best parmesan cheese but the aged balsamic runs like honey and commands a high price. Balsamic vinegar, in Italian ‘aceto balsamico’, is a syrupy dark-brown condiment which doesn’t contain any balsam at all – the word balsamic refers to its supposed healthful qualities. The label to look for is one that says it’s traditional balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale) – once tasted you will realize that it’s worth the price. It takes years to produce the best, and real balsamic vinegar must be aged for a minimum of 12 years. This is done in a battery of five barrels of between 50 and 15 liters. It’s a tradition that a new baby girl is welcomed with a new flight of barrels, with the resulting vinegar being presented to her when she marries. The barrels are made of different woods such as oak, chestnut, cherry, mulberry, ash or juniper. Each of these woods imparts a different flavor. Some producer’s largest barrels are those which have previously been used for making wine.
Emilia Romagna offers iconic food and wine, history and beauty. It has remained relatively unspoiled by international tourism and so allows the visitor to explore the real Italy. It’s tasteful in every regard.
To learn more visit http://www.emiliaromagnaturismo.com/en
Read more about Chrissie Walker and her travels at Mostly Food & Travel Journal http://www.mostlyfood.co.uk