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When I started my retirement travels - the first of which was my solo overseas trip to Italy in 2009 - I wanted a way to share it with family and friends as it happened. Hence, "My Travel Journal". However I realized I wouldn't always be on a trip and wondered what to do with the blog in between times. My daughter pointed out, wisely, that travels can also include trips to the kitchen to try a new recipe, trips to visit family, trips to my neighborhood Starbucks, or a fun day trip with a friend. You're welcome to join me on any of these journeys!

P.S. I've set up separate pages for each of my major trips (see tabs above).

I recently added an "Italian Word a Day" thingie which shows up at the bottom of every page. You see the word and can click to hear it pronounced. I've been enjoying it and I think my accent is improving as time goes by.

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October 09, 2010

Thursday - It's All About the D.O.P. (Denominazione d'Origine Protetta)

I had been looking forward to Thursday's adventure ever since I made the reservation back in the summer - a tour of a company that makes parmesano reggiano cheese, a tour of a family business that produces aceto balsamic of Modena, and a company that produces prosciutto ham - it's not called Parma ham because only prosciutto made in Parma can be called that, but we were assured that it is the exact same process and produces the exact same quality prosciutto.  The tour would also include  a "light" lunch at a winery producing wine from organic grapes.

Our very enjoyable, very knowledgeable and very verbose guide for this trip was Alessandro and in addition to myself, there were a couple from Scotland, 3 couples from America (one from Indiana, my home state), and 2 other women by themselves, so we really had a nice sized group.  I was picked up by Alessandro and his driver at my hotel at 7:20 in the morning, we then proceeded to pick up the Indiana and Scotland couple and one of the single women (she was from Malaysia!) and off we went.

And since it did turn out to be a glorious adventure all thanks to Alessandro and his seemingly effortless ability to make it happen, I want to include his website here because I know most of you will decide you have to come to Italy and do this tour! :)  It is www.italiandays.it.  

Alessandro is really ideal as a host for this type of thing.  He kept up a steady stream of chatter, often quite funny, kept us answering questions until we finally loosened up enough to just talk, and was just very personable.  He's a new daddy (little Emma is just about 3 weeks old now) so I'm sure he's suffering some from lack of sleep, but you wouldn't know that from listening to him.

The drive to the cheese factory wasn't too long and when both vans had arrived, we proceeded to the grand tour.  We had missed the very early morning part of the work, thank heavens; I think he said they start at dawn!  The whole place smelled of cheese - in a good way - and the tour was interesting and informative.  I took a number of pictures and will just plop them in here and hopefully, the pictures will help me remember a little bit about the processes involved (or at least the parts that made me think "hmm, that's interesting...")

When we very first came into the factory I saw this gentleman sitting as shown and had the funny feeling that he was soaking his foot in whey, and sure enough - it is apparently believed to have curative powers.  I think he probably appears when a tour is coming rather than really having a foot that needs help, but it was a fun way to show this traditional soaking method.

Oh, I'm just not going to remember all of this real well.  But this picture is getting close to the end of the actual process of turning milk into future parmesano regianno cheese wheels.  The milk comes in by tanker trucks, flatbed trucks hauling smaller tanks, and even good old milk cans, morning and evening.  It is pumped into milk "tables" (a picture below which should have been here) and allowed to sit long enough for the cream to separate from the milk.  Then (I think) all of the skimmed milk and some of the cream is poured into these vats and some whey from "yesterday's" batch is added, sort of like a starter for sour-dough bread.  Curds start to form pretty quickly and the cheese "master" keeps a close eye on their development.  When the time is right, he first stirs the mixture himself with a sort of basket type paddle.  When the curds have broken up to where he thinks they're right, he then attaches big drill-bit type stirrers to a motorized arm and breaks up the curds even more with that.  Then when that reaches the point he's looking for, he turns various levers and steam starts billowing out around the vat and the steam is heating the mixture to the necessary temperature at which point it is turned off and the tiny, tiny bits of curd will slowly sink to the narrower bottom of these vats (below floor level).  After a specified amount of time, all the curds are down there in a solid mass and then somehow they work that big disk of solidified curds loose, bring it up to the top and enclosed it in large pieces of cheesecloth suspended from rods.  At this point, here are some pictures cause I know I'm losing you - I'm losing myself!

The first picture above, the man had just finished working by hand.  This picture shows the beater working and the steam billowing around the vat.  Do you see how wet the floor is?  Everything in here is cleaned with whey.  I still don't understand exactly why except that using cleaners of any type of have an adverse impact on the whole process.  But with our phobia about spoiling, mold, and such, it seems strange that this system works.

Now, here are the milk tables (now empty cause it's all been dumped into the vats which are right next to this right end of the tables.

This is from a film we watched at the end and shows the process of lifting the large slab of curds up from the bottom.  That is cut in half which is why it shows the men lifting out two cheesecloth bundles.  This picture also shows what we ate and drank when the film was done. :)

 The two halves are plopped into fairly large round containers (looked like some kind of very thick plastic) into which these "stencils" have first been inserted.  These will end up being the printing you find on the whole wheels of parmesan.

The curd product in those plastic rings sits under weighted tops for I think maybe 24 hours, being turned periodically and then the rings are removed and the now solid seeming rings of cheese (which it isn't yet) are put into these stainless steel rings.  And I don't remember how long they stay in those, but not too long.

Then they are removed from the steel rings and submerged in these tanks of salt water which begins the curing process.  I think this is where they are for 21 days - they're somewhere for 21 days I'm pretty sure. 

Once the actual production is complete, the aging starts.  I do know that once they're on the shelves with their date of production (day/month/year) on the rind, they must sit for a year.  During that time, the factory staff turn each wheel over I think every month.  At the end of that year, they will be inspected by an expert from the DOP consortium.

Just an aside here about the consortium...All three sites we visited - cheese, balsamic, and prosciutto, are members of the products' consortiums, which means they can sell their products with the "DOP" designation (providing they pass muster with the inspectors).  The DOP designation provides a complete history of the product - what farm produced the milk, ham or grapes, what day/month/year the production was started, etc., so that if, for example, you bought an entire wheel of DOP parmesan reggiano that had the 1st class stamp and had been aging for 3 or 10 or however many years, got it home, cut into it and discovered mold, you amazingly enough could contact the consortium, give them the various numbers from the rind and receive your money back.  This is kind of hard to believe and I will never be able to test it because I'll never buy a wheel of cheese, but that is the purpose of the DOP - it serves as a guarantee to the consumer that it is what it's cracked up to be.  However, with all three products, some farms and/or producers choose to make the same products, using the same methods and hopefully getting the same results but without being members of the consortiums which means you buy these three products without their being labeled D.O.P., but you have no real proof that it has been made in the traditional way and if the quality is unsatisfactory you're out of luck.  As far as that guarantee, I would think people living here would be more likely to get results with a complaint than, say, someone living in America.  I said to Alessandro I would never get to test that because I'd never be buying a wheel and he said "no, no - buy one today, take it home, cut it up into pieces and sell it - you'll make money!!" Maybe when I learn how to travel really lightly, I'll come over and do that. (tee hee) 

Phew - lecture over (pretty much anyway).

So back to the inspector - he taps all around on the wheel and from that is able to determine what grade the cheese will be - first class, which can be aged indefinitely (read that as years) without molding; second class, which I'm pretty sure can be aged up to 2 years without molding; and "cheese", which better be eaten up pretty quickly.  What makes the difference is how dense the cheese is and that's what tapping the wheel tells the expert.  So, apparently, all year long, they come once a month, tap all the cheeses that were made in that month last year and so on.  Alessandro told us that he and his wife are going to buy a cheese stamped with the date of their daughter's birth after those cheeses have passed the inspection next year and then age it until she gets married which he thinks will probably be when she's around 85 or 90! :)

These are cheeses in their initial 12-month stage.  A LOT of cheeses in their initial 12-month stage.  This is looking down the front of a bunch of rows.

And this is looking way down to the end of two rows.  And these are just the new cheeses!

Here's the president of this company demonstrating the tapping method and letting us hear the difference between the three different grades - and you really could!

And now I'm thinking maybe they only do the tapping at the end of the 12 month period - that would make more sense.

These have now been branded by the consortium and I think that means they passed and are 1st class parmesano reggiano cheeses.  Congratulations you guys!

And here, to put it as delicately as possible, are the LOSERS!!  The one in front made it to second class so you can still see words and stamps on the rind but it has all those lines scored into it.  The "eat it and get rid of it cheese" has had all markings scraped off and has even more lines circling it.  Alessandro said these go to Kraft! :)

Here's an old one - March of 2001!  That's an old cheese...

Following the film, we had a nice little tasting which included some wonderful ricotta cheese made that morning, (and I have to admit I liked this cows' milk version better than the sheeps' milk ricotta at the agriturismo), visited their shop and, of course, bought parmesan reggiano cheese, and then it was off to the villa where the aceto balsimco is produced.

To be continued in Part II,.,.


Christopher said...

Oh dear God, that is a beautiful site, seeing all that Parmesian stacked to the ceiling! How did you tear yourself away!? Makes me yearn for dinner at Artisanal in the cheese cave there...! Can't wait to read up about the vinegar production... very neat outing, so far!

January said...

WOW that's a lot of cheese! It's like cheese heaven or something :) I'm so glad the other two posts are up already and I don't have to wait to hear the rest - this just all sounds amazing! And I'm glad your guide's baby was born already so he could be your guide :)

jamie said...

It reminded me of the cheese cave at the Artisanal, too! Scary that Chris and I would have the same thoughts! :)

Sure looks like a production - and so clean! I guess that is why the cheese is so "pure"!

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