I've mentioned before that our holiday didn't have a strong gourmet focus. This is not strictly correct. To elaborate, I didn't look up Michelin star restaurants that needed bookings months in advance and I didn't research top rated eateries online. The reason is that I didn't want to commit ourselves to desperately searching for single locations within huge cities we had were unfamiliar with. There's nothing worst than trying to make for eg an 8pm booking at some street you can barely pronounce when there's no access to GPS and the only internet we have is at the odd free wifi spot. I had enough of that kind of stress just looking for our hotels.
Instead, I filled my food quota of the trip with a number of well-placed food tours. A food tour is my preferred way of learning about and enjoying the edible offerings of a country, especially one like Italy or Greece because I believe the cuisine is more about produce and wholesomeness than what any one particular restaurant can offer.
I found out about the Italian Days Food Experience tour via its rave reviews on Tripadvisor. The tour departed from Bologna and made our way through a few other key areas in the Emilia-Romagna region.
Our first stop, very early in the morning, was the parmigiano reggiano cheese factory. We geared up in highly fashionable cloth outfits and hairnets before entering to learn about the makings of cheese. We watched every step of how the cheese was birthed from its milk origin. We were explained that at this stage, it was just 'cheese'. For it to become termed parmigiano reggiano, it has to undertake a lengthy maturation process. Finally, it is graded according to how unhollow it sounds during a druming process.
We of course, tried various pieces of matured parmigiano reggiano. Some samples had iconic crusty salty inclusions that were really delicious.
Throughout the tour, we learnt about the DOP standard of these types of Italian produce. I won't go into detail but basically, for something to be stamped by DOP, it's got to fullfil some rigorous criteria. Whether that be a longer aging process (in the case of cheese), using only a certain type of pig (in the case of parma ham) or aging in a specific type of barrel (in the case of balsamic), the end result is understandably pricier and rarer. In most cases, the effect is a tastier end product but I dare say I wouldn't be able to tell the difference if I was blind tasted.
I'll now move onto the parma ham factory. Once again, we learnt of how the pig legs evolved into delicious parma ham portions. For a DOP standard leg of ham, this process takes 14 months. I bet your supermarket proscuitto only takes a tiny portion of that time to mature.
I loved that this ham was soft and meaty despite being cured with salt. By contrast, the proscuitto I'm used to in Australia seems a lot more dry and tough.
Our next stop was my favourite of the three produce-factories we visited. Actually, the balsamic wasn't exactly made in a factory. It was matured in barrels in someone's attic. According the DOP these were fermented over a minimum of 12 years (wow!) in barrels each made from different wood, with no other ingredient than grapes. If you read the ingredients list of your 'balsamic vinegar' from the supermarket, I garuntee there will be tonnes of other addititves.
Balsamic and fresh ricotta
If you're scoffing a bit and wondering "is there even any difference?" I would say that in the case of the balsamic, there definitely is. We tried a taste of balsamic vinegar and then tried this DOP balsamic dressing. One was actually like vinegar (this would be the stuff you've tried before) and the other is more like a thick, flavoursome syrup. It tastes amazing on vanilla ice-cream. I wouldn't put regular balsamic vinegar on ice-cream, that's for sure.
Balsamic dearer than gold
You can get balsamic dressing that is also made from nothing but grapes but not as strictly matured as the DOP version and I purchased a bottle of that for myself. It was about 12 Euros for the bottle, by a brand called 'Nerone'. For my parents and grandparents, I purchased a couple of special bottles, of 12year DOP balsamic and 25year DOP gold standard (Extra Vecchio, meaning 'extra old'), respectively. The latter was 40 Euros for the tiny bottle. I don't think my parents have consumed any of theirs for fear of wasteage!
One of the three different pastas we had at lunch
We finished off our tour with a memorably delicious and hearty lunch in a gorgeous farmhouse. Our tummies were already lined with constant grazings but there is no way to resist the lunch offerings.
Meat, salad and veg
There was a basket of breads (replenished as they were devoured), salads, pastas and meats. We used the parmigiano on all the pastas and the balsamic was surprisingly good on the meat.
Platter of sweets
The final note was a delicous chocolate brownie and white chocolate panna cotta plate with fruit for the more health conscious.
I could not recommend this tour more for anyone going to Italy. It was highly educational but done so in an entertaining way. We ate more delicious food than we could hope for and picked up some unique souvenirs along the way.