Day 166 of 400: Parma and Alba – Italy
We couldn’t leave Parma without touring a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese farm. We chose Montecoppe, a fully sustainable dairy farm running the entire cheese making process from start to finish. After a quick introduction, our guide drove us in his car through the farmland. He pointed out the various animals and land as he explained they not only make the cheese from the milk of their own cows but they also grow the grain that feeds their cows.
We parked right outside of one of the massive barns and walked in to see tons of cows were standing behind a gate. Each group of cows from the left side of the barn to the right side ranged from a few days old to the oldest. He explained although kind of sad… that in order to produce enough milk to make all the cheese needed, they have to take the calves away from their mothers after about 3-5 days. Otherwise, the calves would want to only drink their mother’s milk…so, the calves are separated and fed powdered milk and grain.
He also explained that cows only give milk when they are pregnant, so…they impregnate the cows superficially, then give the male calves to the meat farms and keep the females who are then added to the cycle for impregnating and milking. After taking some close-ups of the cows, he walked us to the next barn which is where the pregnant cows were held for milking. He told us the cows get so bloated with milk that they like the relief of being milked which is done quickly by a machine. He pointed out the collars on each cow which are all electronically tracked down to when and what the cow is eating throughout the day. This tracking allows them to tweak the diets according to what is needed for the best milk which leads to the best cheese.
We jumped back in the car and drove over to the warehouse where the cheese is made. There were a couple of workers finishing up their cheese making but we were walked through the process. The milk is loaded into the big tanks, stirred, heated in copper bins and then placed into cheese molds. They also add a secret ingredient during the process which is an enzyme from the cow’s stomach… In the next step, the cheese wheels are placed in salt baths and finally aged for a minimum of 1yr before being stamped as Parmigiano-Reggiano by an inspector from the consortium. The inspector knocks on the wheel with a hammer amongst other things listening for air inside the wheel. There should not be air pockets. He/She also sticks a probe in various places of the wheel checking the aroma…it should not smell bad. And of course they look on the outside to make sure visually it has the correct texture.
Our tour ended in the farm shop where they pulled out three different years of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese as well as various jellies to spread on top. We tasted and compared. The youngest cheese, 12 yrs old was softer than a typical crumbly Parmesan which was due to its being so young. Usually the 12 yr old cheese is used for eating only rather than grating or cooking. The 24 month old cheese had that Parmesan crumble and strong flavor…they also pointed out the crystals on the cheese. They looked like little white specks, almost like mold but it wasn’t…they were crystals that formed due to the aging and is actually a sign of good cheese. The last one we tasted was a 36 month cheese and was very firm and even stronger…many times used for grating.
Now, one would think…we would buy one vacuum packed piece but instead we bought four! It was actually due to a bit of mis-communication but we walked out with a ton of cheese which by the way is extremely heavy…when exactly will we be eating all of this?
We thanked our guide for his time, carried our 10 lbs of cheese to the car and headed for our next destination…Piedmont. The drive was about 3 hours but went by fast. We arrived to our B&B ( http://www.villalameridianaalba.it ) in Alba. We pulled into the driveway which was less than a mile from the town center but up on a mountain overlooking the area. There was a big gate, so we pushed the button to request the gate be unlocked.
The gate opened electronically and we drove around the curvy driveway until we saw the huge mansion with ivy growing all along the walls. We were greeted by the B&B host who showed us upstairs to our room. Our room was very cute with a window overlooking the mountain, a little table and chairs for picnicking and our bed with a TV. They even had a picnic basket full of plates and silverware to use. We put our cheese in the refrigerator, got our things up to the room and went back out to see the town of Alba.
We found the tourist office right away so stopped in to get some maps and come up with a game plan for the next few days. They informed us we needed to make appointments with the vineyards in order to do tastings so they called a few places for us to get them scheduled. Once we had our appointments set and a map with the must see towns circled, we continued our stroll through the streets of Alba. There were many specialty shops, al fresco dining and main squares within the small town. We bought some cookies, truffle candy and found a little wine shop to do a tasting. As we looked around, we noticed right away the theme of this area was truffles. Both black and white truffle flavored items were everywhere. We walked into one of the stores called, Tartufi (tartufieco.com). There were black truffles sitting in the refrigerated glass case, truffle infused oils and cheese and honey etc. The guy working there told us it was a family business as he pointed to the big picture of his grandfather on the wall who was smelling a truffle. He had us taste all kinds of things and asked if we wanted to go truffle hunting with him. The cost was pretty good and he basically takes people out to a secret place in the forest with his dog who hunts the truffles. He said it was black truffle season right now and any black truffles found we could keep (value of a few hundred euros). If it were white truffle season…he would not allow people to take them as they are worth so much money (depending on the size they could be worth 1000’s of euros). We were very tempted but opted not to take the trip only because we didn’t have a place to cook the black truffles and they must be used within a few days. We bought some truffle honey and truffle spread (to put on our Parmesan cheese) and started looking for dinner.
There were many people out sitting and eating little finger foods while having a drink. We sat and joined them…we saw there were happy hour menus to choose from…1 euro each for the finger foods. So, we ordered that, a couple of salads and a glass of wine while we enjoyed the busy square.
We drove back to our B&B and relaxed in our room watching a bit of TV before drifting to sleep.