A day around Modena and a Cheese excursion

For my husband’s 40th birthday, we planned a trip to Italy to eat and drink until our hips were unrecognizable. Everyone told us it was an easy task to accomplish; one of his coworkers said he gained 18 lbs {eighteen pounds (!)} on a week-long trip to the land of pasta, prosciutto and parmegiano-reggiano; so we set out on a goal to learn about the culture, one pound at the time.

After a quick stop in Paris {more about that in another post}, we flew to Bologna where we picked up our car rental, a Mini, as my husband wanted to surprised me and indulge my unreasonable obsession with the tiny car. This was the bigger, 4-door version, which is like wanting to eat prosciutto and ordering Easter ham instead, it is pork, it is cured, it is not prosciutto. The Mini is a mix of advance machinery and old style glam, pretty leather seats, race car dashboard and incomprehensible computerized entertainment and navigation system.  While we fiddled with the car and the GPS, it began to rain. The black-grey skies circled overhead and the GPS lady couldn’t find her way out of the roundabout onto the highway. 

We had rented an Airb&b apartment in Modena, about an hour drive from Bologna, and the heavy rain followed us all the way to the parking lot our host had suggested for us to leave the car and drag our suitcases to the apartment, because driving in the historic area of town is a privilege for only those with a resident sticker on the windshield of their cars. We sat in the car looking at deep puddles around the parking lot unwilling to soak our entire wardrobe on the first day. We walked to the apartment, without bags, assessed the street situation, went back to the car with drenched shoes and socks, broke the law by driving to the apartment building, jumped out of the car, dumped the bags on the street, I stayed behind and struggled with the bags up four sets of stairs – no elevator-  and my husband drove away. So far no arrest has been made. It rained all night, many pairs of socks were soaked in the making of these memories. 

After a hot cup of coffee and fresh pair of socks and shoes, we put on our rain coats, opened our umbrellas, and set out to explore Modena. The lights shined on the wet roads as we hustled from building to building in an attempt to stay somewhat dry on our way to the local market, Mercato Albinelli, which to our luck stays open late on Saturdays. The front door was adorned with basil, thyme, and rosemary planters, and piles of strawberries and asparagus. Dozens of vendors offering meats, vegetables, cheeses, prosciutto, culatello, porchetta – oh the porchetta! – anything one could need for a homemade meal, I wanted to buy it all, I dreamt of walking there everyday with a my shopping basket to buy the day’s fresh produce chatting with the vendors in Italian, and eating prosciutto for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

After our shopping we walked back to the Piazza Grande and experienced our first aperitivo, the Italian version of happy hour where the restaurant or bar puts out an impressive display of food, banquet style, and the patrons pay a minimal fee, in our case at Caffe Concerto we paid €5 each, for an all-you-can-eat {read all the prosciutto you can eat} buffet, plus the cost of drinks. At this point, one day in, I began to worry about whether we could walk, waddle, or roll by the end of our Italian journey.  

We sat near the buffet and our vantage point allowed us a good understanding of the mechanics of aperitivo. We analyzed the line of people, studied their habits, how much prosciutto they were grabbing, judging those who piled on their plates and came back soon after for a second {or third} helping. We ordered drinks, my husband dove head first into the culture and ordered an aperol spritz to help him wash down the multiple helpings from the buffet, I ordered a glass of Franciacorta rosé, then jumped in to the buffet line and followed as we’ve learned. I visited the buffet three times, each time piled on the prosciutto, the farro and vegetable salad, and the pasta with mozzarella, tomatoes, peas and basil. My husband tried every offering, twice. We waddled back to the rental squeezing water out of our shoes with every step, put on warm clothes, sat on the couch and gazed at the sign across the street – across the rain – that read, Pizzeria e Kebab, and fell asleep thinking, “Do they put kebabs on the pizza, or make kebabs with pieces of pizza?” 

Cheese, Emilia-Romagna Style 
The next morning we ate cold slices of porchetta with piadina, a flat bread typical of the region, and a few consecutive small cups of coffee as the petit sized moka pot allowed. It was still raining and we packed two pairs of shoes and socks, “Armies lose wars due to wet feet,” my husband said. We drove to a cheese plant just outside Modena, recommended by our apartment host, 4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia, where I’d reserved a visit a few weeks prior through a simple process on their website: fill out the form to reserve a tour spot, confirm the appointment by replying to their email reply, show up on time. 

The tour guide, a short lady with a thick, male-like voice and a heavily accented English walked us to a room where we could see, behind thick glass, each step of the parmegiano-reggiano cheese making process. The big, sterile looking rooms housed multiple copper-lined cauldrons where the milk gets heated and rennet is added to separate the curds from the whey. Three man per cauldron worked their hands in circular motions to break the curd, “They have to work slowly to break the curd into small pieces because the quality of the final cheese depends on it,” said our guide. The small crystal texture in a piece of parmesan cheese comes from this process, and it’s through practice and experience that a cheesemaker knows when the curds are ready. 
Over their heads, a pole-like system moved hooks that stopped on each bath, the men collected the curds that were fully worked into a giant cheese cloth, tied it in a pouch {about 100 lb.} and attached it to the hook, which then transported the curd to a wheel-shaped mold smaller than the cloth of curds, “Because the cheese will continue to drain and shrink,” she explained. 
The wheels go next into a saline bath for 2 to 3 weeks, “We don’t use sea salt because it has a lot of minerals and flavors that can change the flavor of the cheese,” she replied when the question came up. The salt initially sits on the outer layer of the cheese and it takes months of aging for it to reach the center. 
“How do they get stamped on the rind?” we asked,
“Each wheel is framed for a day, before they get into the saline tanks, with a metal ring that stamps the name, the plant where it was produced, and the date,” she replied, “a wheel without this stamp is not a traditional parmegiano-reggiano.” She also explained that the rind is a byproduct of the aging process and, albeit hard, it’s safe to eat or use to flavors soups or stews, “just cook it with the soup,” she said. 

We walked to the aging room where thirty-thousand wheels of cheese sat peacefully aging on wooden shelves, getting better, just like us forty-year-olds.
It smelled nutty and creamy, all we needed was some pasta, a cheese grater, and an expert to tell us which wheel was ready to eat. A test expert from the cheese consortium visits the plants to check on the quality of the cheese after 12 months of aging, and all the way until it’s released and sold. He taps the cheese with a small hammer and based on the sound determines if it’s ready or if it needs more time. If not yet ready, the tester comes by for a second visit, if the cheese doesn’t fulfill the standards s/he cuts it in half to examine it closer, all rejected cheese is fed to the pigs. 

As we came around the corner our guide told us about their cows, “We get the best quality milk to make our cheese,” she said, “and we use the whey to make ricotta, which means re-cooked.” She also showed us pictures of a red cow, indigenous of Northern Italy, and told us that they make a cheese with their milk but that the production of red cow milk cheese is limited because that breed produces less milk even though it is bigger than the other breeds of cows from which they get milk, “it’s not better, it’s just limited,” she added. The red cow parmesan needs to age for a minimum of 24 months to receive certification.

“As you can see we don’t have any secrets,” she said as she finished her spiel. So what makes this cheese so especial to be crown the king of cheeses? Tradition and climate, they say. The humid summer, the lush spring and fall that bring plenty of food to the cows, the wet winters, and a thousand years of cheesemaking knowledge passed on from generation to generation. Only parmesan cheese made in the traditional way in Emilia-Romagna, stamped and approved by the consortium can be sold as Parmegiano-Reggiano, all others are imitations, especially the already grated stuff we buy in jars

At the end of the tour we entered the tasting room where each of us had a small plate with four chunks of cheese, representing four stages of aging, 12, 18, 24, 36 months, plus one piece made with red cow’s milk. There was also a demitasse filled with ricotta cheese, small bowls of jam and balsamic vinegar, and a small carafe of Lambrusco wine {their local wine.} Each piece of cheese had a different nuance, some nuttier than the next, some saltier, or more complex.

However, the biggest revelation was the ricotta – whey ricotta also called ricottone – is the traditional way of making ricotta. A byproduct of the cheesemaking process, ricotta is made by boiling the leftover whey to coagulate the proteins and remaining fat. I have never liked ricotta, maybe because I first met with the impostor ricotta-like substance sold in tubs in the supermarkets, filled with stabilizers and preservatives. Not until last year when I tasted a ricotta cheese from a local dairy {this is a whole milk ricotta rather than whey ricotta}, Fruition Farms, did I realize I had condemn the innocent cheese unreasonably. Tasting the ricotta at the cheese plant reaffirmed my believe that it’s not the cheese’s fault, but rather our consumerism and shortcuts that ruins tradition, and subsequently our palate. 

We finished our tasting and left to the next town with the rain as our constant companion. 

~ Paula

With the spring in full swing and the backyard finally finished – for now – we have been indulging in homemade sourdough topped with Fruition Farms ricotta and fresh fruit. 




4 thoughts on “A day around Modena and a Cheese excursion”

  1. What an exciting adventure…I love a simple cheese…its hard to find the real deal but such a great treat to eat real cheese…happy feasting.

    1. Yes! it was great to see the process and to understand its history and importance in this region and in Italy overall. I love learning about traditions and their impact on the community.

    1. Oh! You’ll love your time away, I’ll get to a Paris post before your trip. And thankfully only our suitcases piled on some extra pounds courtesy of some olive oil and balsamic vinegar 😋

Leave a Reply