Sunday, May 30, 2010

Chef David's Culinary Tour: Day Ten

Day 10 was perhaps the best foodie day of them all!

It was our last day in Parma and right after breakfast we had a tour of the co-op that produces Parmesan cheese. This co-op is run by 5 small farmers who are only interested in producing top quality. Since we already had been on the farm for the last two days, that tour was done.  Parmesan cheese is made with non-fat, raw milk, salt and rennet. There are no preservatives like other cheeses, such a Grana Padano, or American Cheese. The cream from the Parmesan cheese is pasteurized and then used for a special butter from Parma. Leftover whey from the production gets used as pig feed for the Parma Ham, and in this way they are connected.
The milk used to make Parmesan cheese comes from dairy cows that are in the region specified by the Italian government. The cows are well taken care of and have specific food regulations such as how much hay to grass they can eat in a given time of the year. Today's tour started out in the cheese
production area where there were 5 or 6 copper lined, steam-jacketed kettles shaped uniquely for cheese making.

First, the cheese is heated to a specific temperature and the whey from yesterday's production is added. This whey has all the cultures needed for the cheese. Then after being held for a specific time, liquefied rennet is added, and the cheese it held for a while longer while the curds set.  Once the curds have set and pass the "clean break," test then the curds are cut using a unique balloon whisk.
The pieces of curds are cut to the size of rice, then heated again to a specific temperature. Once they achieve the right temperature, the batch is left to cool and the curds fall to the bottom and separate from the whey. Afterward, they use cheesecloth to remove the curds and then the cheese is pressed.
Inside the press, a plastic sheet used to label and date the cheese. This also records the specific origin of the cheese.
 Second press.
After pressing the cheeses, they take a bath in a super saturated salt brine for 28 days.
 Then left to air dry:
 Then the cheese is put in a aging room:
When the cheese ripens, the rind becomes yellow.  This takes approximately 2 years.  You can see the cheese just below has a date (upside-down) of October, 2009.
This cheese is from May 2009, and has been graded the the Parmesan Consorsium.  Thus Consorsium is kinda like a union of parmesan cheese producers who sets the standards for grading and producing the cheese.
The consorsium grades the cheese by flipping it on it's side and tapping it with a hammer to hear the noise in the cheese. This way the can tell if there is a problem.
Cheeses that are not of the best quality, but still tasty, are marked with lines:
After our tour we left our wonderful bed and breakfast, B&B Cancabaia. We hope to see them again someday.
We then headed to a Balsamic producer in Reggio-Emela, outside of Parma. Normally you only see balsamic from Modena, but this small producer is building a case for her balsamic, claiming that Modena has ruined their name by diluting their products with grape must and vinegar. Her products
have been aged a minimum of 12 years, and have nothing else added.
We got to see how it is made. First off they use Trebbiano Grapes, which are white grapes, often used in wine making, as well as for making cognac and brandy.

Baby Grapes!
The grapes are pressed for their juice, then the juice is reduced to 1/3 of its original volume. After cooling, the grapes are placed in Oak Barrels that have previously been used for wine making. This is important because the cooking process done to the grape juice kills all the yeast cells needed to ferment the juice, and the barrels contain yeast cells left over from their previous use. The grape juice ferments into wine over the next two years in these barrels.
After two years, the wine is transferred to the largest barrel of five, used to make balsamic. The wine is exposed to the open air through a hole in the top of each barrel. As the product is aged in a non-temperature controlled area, the balsamic evaporates through the barrels, and every other year, the
barrels get filled and the aging process continues. The barrels get filled in a specific way: the smallest barrel is always filled with the next larger barrel, and this continues up the barrel sizes until the two year old wine is added. There are traditionally 5 barrels used and it takes 12 years before they take the smaller barrel and fill bottles, or age it longer. The barrels are made or either oak, juniper, cherry or acacia wood.
The bottles are filled by a balsamic consortium, much like the ones for Parmesan and Parma ham, to ensure quality.

Because it takes 12 years to sell your product, most balsamic producers also make wine.

Day 10 continued, 11 and 12.

I am calling this my final blog for this vacation. Internet connection has become very hard to come by since coming to Italy. After the balsamic tour, my wife Lauren, and I headed to Florence (Firenze), to see the "David," and some art museums. We we are staying right across Duomo square. The artwork here is amazing, but not really food related, and most of the time they don't allow pictures. But as some do I have a few attached.

I hope my food trek has been interesting for everyone to read. It has certainly been educational for me and although I can't put everything I learned on the blog, I hope you learned something too. If you have questions or comments please feel free to email us!


Chef David's Culinary Tour: Day Nine

Parma is Beautiful!  
 If anyone wants an easy place to visit in Parma, I highly recommend this place. Our hosts at the B&B Cancabaia are wonderful and serve as excellent guides to point you in the right direction for great
restaurants and things to do. Our breakfast consisted of homemade yogurt (made from the Parmesan cow's milk) and bread with homemade butter.

We then left for a town called Quinzano where we toured a Parma Ham (prosciutto) factory. It was a really cool tour and it was amazing to see and smell all that ham! There we learned how they cure and age the ham, how they mark the product for quality, and how they test the ham to make sure it's a
quality product.

For dinner we ate at Veichio Mulino in a small town called Lesignano. The restaurant is also a mill for making ground corn for corn meal and polenta. They mill the corn the traditional way, using the water from the river that runs under the restaurant. There we ate wonderful asparagus tortellis, a mixed grill platter, and an orange-infused white chocolate tiramisu. In Italy, it is apparently OK to serve pork medium, something I've never had before.
Tomorrow we are going to take a tour of a Parmesan Cheese production and aging area, as well as a balsamic producer.



Saturday, May 29, 2010

Chef David's Culinary Tour: Day Eight

 Due to some internet and technical issues, the postings fell behind a couple of days, but we're back to catch up on some tasty new ones from Chef David!
Lauren and I left the Piemonte region yesterday and headed to Parma. Here we are staying in a Bed and Breakfast that also produces Parmesan Cheese. We are promised a tour before we leave, and they also booked our tours to see both Parma Ham, and Balsamic producers.
Restaurants don't open for dinner until 8PM here, as it's hot in the day and cool at night. While my wife rested, I took an hour-long stroll up a hill that over looks the whole valley. You can see snow capped mountains in the distance here, but where we are at it's about 80 degrees. A lot of people have wood burning ovens in their backyards for cooking during the hot summer. Unlike Asti, there is the constant smell of hay here. There are a lot of cattle, goats, chickens, bee hives, and horse ranches. This area is also famous for Porcini mushroom hunting, and they do some truffle hunting here almost year-round. 

On our way to eat at a restaurant recommended to us by our hosts, we stopped at the Torrechiara Castle, where everything was closed, but the structure is beautiful. The restaurant was difficult to find, as it was located in a small village and looked just like a house.  The only way to know about this place is by word of mouth.
It was recommended to us as the best place to find home-made traditional foods for this area. No-one in the restaurant spoke English, but they were happy to serve us. Our server owned the restaurant along with his wife, and I think it was his mother-in-law cooking in the kitchen as well. All the food was served family style, meaning everyone shared what you ordered.
We had a plate of Salumis as our antipasti, which included 27 month old prosciutto, lardo, cured head cheese, and a salami. This dish was accompanied by a plate of extremely crunchy fried polenta sticks, and we were instructed to spread the lardo on them like butter. We also noticed that there was no grissini in our bread-basket which seemed to come at every restaurant in Northern Italy.
We ordered "tortellis," as our first course which were pumpkin (zucca) stuffed raviolis served with a moderate sprinkling of Parmesano-Reggiano cheese as well as a plate tagliatelle pasta with both ground and shaved summer truffles.
We had a small bowl of gnocchi just to try it.  The sauce was vegetable-based, with the dominant flavor of cippolini onions.  The gnocchi was homemade and very delicate.
Our second course was stewed wild boar and stewed chicken, served with a side of polenta. The polenta was very plain, but worked as a nice base for our stews.  The stews seemed like they were thickened with toasted bread crumbs and were very flavorful.
Our dessert was a multi-layered cake with lot of flavored liquors. It was good, and as we learned from eating Amaretti cookies, the Italian like a lot of this kind of flavor.

Tomorrow we visit a Parma Ham producer.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chef David's Culinary Tour: Day Seven

 We started off today without quite knowing what to do. It seems there is so much to take in here. We began with breakfast downstairs and it looked like they had cleared out their entire kitchen cabinet for us. As we are both trying to eat healthy, I opted for an innocent looking orange on the table. To my surprise it was a blood orange! I have had them before from places like Wegman's and Whole Foods, but the inside looked more like fruit punch, or a grape fruit. This blood orange was so deeply red, it really looked like animal blood, or red meat. It was kinda gross to some extent, but wonderfully tasty at the same time. I guess the color is something you get over quickly.
On our way to the our first destination we stopped at a wine Co-op for Vinchio growers (I think I spelled it Vinchino yesterday, wrong). The co-op processes and bottles wine for it's 200 members. About 50 are large enough to have their own vintages, while the rest combine their crops to make the wine. 40 percent of the wine from Vinchio is made for export.

Afterwards, Lauren and I decided to visit the city of Asti. Asti is a region in Italy, but also a city. We figured there might be some great culinary treasures and markets to  be discovered, wrong. Well, OK, we did go to one cool shop called "Eataly," which was like an Italian Williams-Sonoma. We bought some pasta made by Gragnano, we have been told that's Italy's best dry pasta. I bought some jarred pesto, and some Amoretti cookies as well.  I think there is a bigger Eataly store in Torino (Turin), but we wanted to avoid the big city.

Because Asti didn't seem to offer us anything, we quickly ate lunch and then left for Alba. Alba is south of Asti and is the truffle capital of Italy. In October they have a bug truffle festival as it is the season for the White truffles they are known for. Right now there are summer truffles, but apparently they are not important to the Italians. Alba didn't have much going on at this time, so we decided to drive through the countryside in search of good wine.
The country side is scattered with vineyards, probably 80% of the land is covered in vines. Everywhere you go, you're driving either up or down huge bowls with tiny little roads with no guardrails. It's impressive that they are able to farm such steep terrain. If you go to this region to taste wine, you need to make appointments with the vineyards--it's not like Napa where you can taste anything, anytime, and leave with souvenirs and wine. Most of the vineyards are looking to sell to exporters and brokers, not to tourists driving up to their houses. I think this is mostly because the owners are out working in the fields, and because of the number of vineyards. But if you can manage an appointment or two, you will find they are most hospitable, and love to tell you anything they can about Italian wines.
 We visited the Tintero Vineyards, where the owner there was thrilled to have us taste his wine. He told us that most of is wine is exported to the USA. We asked him about the differences between Italian DOCG, and DOC wines, and he told us about the difficulties he faces trying to consistently produce great wine.  He told us nature controls 70 percent, and he can manage the rest.
After finding our way back to where we were staying, and having to do some off-roading to get there, we went out to a Pizzeria about 15 minutes away. The pizza was cooked in a wood-fired pizza oven, as is all the pizza we have seen here. The crust tasted more buttery and flakier than I've had, but other than that it was like a good old New York/New Jersey Pizza. It was a nice way to end a long day of driving around in our Citroen.