Aftershocks: The Fate of Parmigiano Reggiano

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As many of you know, the Emilia Romagna region (famous for production of Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano) of Italy was hit bad last month by a series of relentless earthquakes. May 20th and 29th were bad days in the world of cheese producers, as years of careful aging and hard labor toppled to the ground.

According to a letter published by the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, damages include:

  • 37 factories effected in towns of Mantova, Modena, and Reggio Emilia
  • 600,000 wheels were effected in the quake
  • Of those 600,000 wheels, 50% can be saved and continue on in aging for eventual sale as certified DOP Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 300,000 wheels (amounting to roughly 10% of annual production) have been irreparably destroyed.

What does this information say about the market? For those of you who are unaware, the rise and fall of price in Parmigiano Reggiano is monitored as closely as the NYSE. Weekly, a private Italian dairy consulting firm (www.clal.it/en) produces a stock market-esque analysis of the supply/demand chain of prices for all forms of cheese and dairy products in Italy.

To give you an idea of the evolving market: Image

The top line representing Parmigiano Reggiano, you can see that prices in 2011/12 are above 12 Euro per kg (roughly $8/lb) in ITALY! At Whole Foods this dairy gold sells for over $20/lb. While prices are suspected to fall in 2013, based on the simple laws of supply and demand it will take roughly 2 years to replace the destroyed product.

Being a salesman for imported Parmigiano Reggiano, this is not good news for me. Will Parmigiano Reggiano retain it’s standing title as the “King” of cheeses? Most likely… it seems people will always pay to be satisfied…the joys of niche markets!

 

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Salone del Gusto: 4 Days of Gluttonous Determination

Thanks to Salone del Gusto, the Slow Food event of a lifetime, I have to go shopping for a larger pants size and maybe a visit to the doctor to control my liver function.

Arriving at the Lingotto Convention Center in Turin’s city center, I was blown away by the sheer size of the event. Comprised of 5 expansive pavilions, 3 dedicated to Italy’s regional cuisines, and the rest to the international community, there were more than enough foods to taste and people to meet. The sheer size of the event justified the fact that I was there for 4 days, though certain products definitely kept me coming back for more free tasters 😉

Unlike many of the patrons of the event, I went with a mission, to promote Ferrarini’s Italian food community I Sapori Della Nostra Terra by handing out information cards and giving mini presentations to the various producers there. Let’s just say I made a lot of friends, connected with people both professionally and personally, through the free tasters offered at their booths.

In a delirium of wine, artisan beer, cheese, cured meat, and sweets, I lost myself in the labyrinth of Italy’s regions. This past weekend, I ate enough bread dipped in olive oil, Parmigiano Reggiano, Sicilian Cannoli, cured meat, Parmigiano Reggiano, and unidentifiable fried delicacies to induce immediate cardiac arrest. Fortunately however, my body is used to gluttonous abuse from the way that I’ve been eating/drinking for the duration of this past year at the University.

To seem more official, I presented myself to producers as “Michelle Aspis, a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences,” in a desperate effort to find work, and share a moment with the producers I have met over the past year in an effort to evade my quasi-inevitable return to the US.

Salone del Gusto, in a way, was a culmination of my entire gastronomic education. A truly Grassroots Gourmet experience, the Olympic tournament reserved for those with a stomach and a heart for good food and unforgettable people.

I once read a book called that tried to explain why Italians constantly talk about food, but only in experiences such as this can one truly understand the depth and importance of the world of food for a culture that depends so heavily upon cuisine to progress economically, governmentally, and most importantly, emotionally. Being at Salone del Gusto was like sharing a meal with the entire country, a nonverbal understanding between food lovers about what it means to live to eat, to eat to live, and to survive in a world that seems to sometimes spin out of control.

 

Mouth-gasmic Mozzarella di Bufala


Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, white stringy pillows of comestible bliss. This is not your ordinary tasteless zombie mozzarella, but rather a rich, flavorful cheese that can only be produced in designated areas of Italy’s Campania, Lazio, and Puglia regions.

Produced from the milk of a domestic water buffalo, the flavor of Bufala mozzarella cheese is much richer and creamier than its cow milk (Fior di Latte) counterpart. What makes this mozzarella so particularly special however, is its characteristic texture. Heating milk curd in boiling water (temp of curd must reach at least 180F), it melts and is pulled into the stringy recognizable mozzarella consistency. Formed into a large ball, the cheese is then hand pulled and thrown into a pool of cool water by the famous and well respected “Mozzarella Men”. Describing the scene, it was something of an Italian Willy Wonka.

After being formed into various sizes and shapes, the cheese is left to in a bath of salt water for a minimum of 4 hours to acquire its acidic, salty, and creamy taste. Mesmerized by the pulling and plucking of the cheese from its ‘mother ball’, I could barely wait to CONSUME.

Some Bufala Mozzarella Facts for the Ignorant Eater:

  • Never put mozzarella in the fridge, if its the fresh kind thats sold in a plastic bag full of water. In cold temperatures the cheese becomes dry and flavorless. It can last outside the fridge for 4-5 days at a room temp of 60-68F.
  • When cutting into a piece of fresh mozzarella, finding water in the cheese mass is not an indication of high quality.

Though this product has seen a lot of controversy in the past, with tainting and impure milk scandals, it remains nonetheless the pride of Campania. To be honest after a week of eating this stuff I can’t look at it for a while, but oversaturation of the product by no means it isn’t good. Mozzarella di Bufala Campana makes string cheese seem like a white stick of plasticized doom.

Sardegna Update: I am Sheep

Wow folks, sorry for the intense delay in my Sardegna update… due to a technical difficulty I was unable to update before.

Anyway, the trip was great, we ate about every single product that could be conceivably produced by the sheep, as these are indigenous animals of the island…in fact flying in on the plane I saw nothing but rolling green hills, expanding coastline, and large white herds of sheep…

Ah where to begin? Well… first of all I can no longer stomach the thought of Pane Carusau (the traditional Sardinian flat bread which is really more like a cracker than anything else), Pecorino Sardo (traditional sheep-milk cheese) or cured sheep meat…. while these products are delicious I was totally saturated after 5 full days of their consumption.

Contrary to my initial assumptions, we did not eat as much fish as I had hoped… though Sardegna is an island, prized for the production of delicious products including Lobster and Bottarga (cured tuna egg sacks) we were only taken to one fishery to see the ways of traditional fishing that has not been changed since the Medieval times (think wooden boxes and small tin fishing boats).

It was nice to see the pride of these people for the products they produce… refering to mainland Italy as “The Peninsula” I entered the land of Sardegna feeling as if I had escaped the world of Italy almost completely… an entirely different cuisine, culture, and even language in some places..

Strangely enough, I also directly experienced the fears of climate change that are quickly becoming relevant on an international scale. What am I talking about? Well.. aside from the fact that we were in Sardegna in February (off season) our final day on the island we experienced some of the most intense snow storms I have ever seen in my life… More snow than I have ever seen in Parma for sure… In fact, these snow storms made most European news as they were completely abnormal to the regular climate of the island. We almost thought we wouldn’t make it out of there because there was a blizzard that made our enormous tour bus into a mobile vomit facility (about 6 people lost their sheep on the bus and it made for an incredibly unpleasant return to Alghero..where we ultimately caught our plane back to Parma.

Nonetheless, despite the close quarters with my classmates and the over consumption of meat and cheese, I really would love to return to Sardegna under less strained conditions. For example, due to our concentrated meat and cheese consumption, not only did many of us experience less than pleasant digestive issues (use your imaginations) but also, the day we were offered vegetables at a local winery everyone jumped to the plate like we hadn’t seen anything green in months… my mouth felt like it was at Disneyland after that first bite of fennel…and I don’t even particularly like fennel.

Ok let me get to the good stuff.. I’ll add some of my pictures from the trip so you can get an idea of not only the amount of food we consumed, but also the spectacular places in which we dined… absolutely unforgettable.

And now, off to the gym. hahaha

Parmigiano Reggiano: Two Days with the King of Cheese

Another day, another delicious food excursion. The past two days here at UNISG we had the opportunity to study Parmigiano Reggiano in delicious depth, going to not only the production facility, but also specific regulation cow farms, the official Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, a cheese aging warehouse, as well as an international packaging and handling facility.

First of all, I must say that Parmigiano Reggiano is not the same thing as Parmesan ‘cheese’ gratings found in the little green Kraft can. Oh no, real Parmigiano Reggiano is a extremely delicate and well protected product, produced specifially in the towns of Parma, Modena, Reggio Emilia, and small portions of Bologna and Mantova. In fact, there are only 400 licensed producers of the product in all of Italy.

As Parmigiano Cheese buffs like to say, the production of Parmigiano Reggiano starts at the cow. In order for a farm to produce milk for Parmigiano cheese, it must feed it’s cows cereals and hay that is grown only in the region of Emilia Romagna. It is thought that by keeping this production completely localized, it is easier to regulate and maintain its quality standards.

Product Facts:

  • 2.7 Million wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano are produced per year
  • Each wheel weighs around 60 kg (almost 150 lbs)
  • An entire wheel costs about 500 Euros
  • To produce 1 wheel of cheese about 640 litres (169 gallons) of milk are required
  • Minimum aging period: 12 months, though it is usually not sold until 18 months of age.

Health Benefits:

  • Its extremely high in calcium: recommended to women with tendencies for osteoporosis
  • Something about the product’s composition makes it extremely beneficial for gastro-intestinal health.
  • Was the first cheese in space, given to astronauts to aide in bone/organ strength while in orbit

I don’t want t bore you with facts and figures, so I’ll leave you with some photographs of my experience in the past 2 days. To say the least, I have had enough Parmigiano Reggiano to last a lifetime, though luckily I don’t believe I will ever run out of the product, given that I live here in Parma. ohhhh the difficult life I lead.

And here are a couple of videos of my new best friend Parmigiano Reggiano:

Casu Marzu: Italy’s Forbidden Maggot Cheese

Just when I thought I was in a country full of edible delights, delicious pastries, pastas, cheeses, and wines, I come across a cheese that I only imagined to be true in my most vivid nightmares: Casu Marzu.

Casu Marzu

Coming from the beautiful and enchanting island of Sardinia, off the west coast of central Italy, Casu Marzu is considered a traditional delicacy. Let us first deconstruct the cheese’s name…..

Casu Marzu, is Sardinian dialect for rotten cheese (in Italian formaggio marcio). Rotten?! Absolutely. Though the cheese starts as a pleasant and delicious form of Pecorino, it then undergoes various processes of decomposition by being left outside for extended periods in order to reach its final and ‘perfected’ state. When the cheese is in it’s advanced stages of decomposition, the eggs of the Phiophila Casei larva species are implanted into the cheese and allowed to hatch. mmmm worms.

Piophila Casei Larvae Development

The worms are an essential part of the development of the cheese’s texture and taste. It is thought that as these larvae hatch and begin to eat through the cheese, they break down the cheese’s fats giving it an extremely soft and unique texture. The taste of the cheese has been compared to an extremely ripe gorgonzola…only without the blue veins and of course, the sanitary guarantee.

Aside from the disgusting, the cheese has been the topic of much controversy in Italy in the rest of Europe regarding issues of sanitary health and legality. It has been found that mass consumption (or any consumption in my opinion) of Piophila Casei larvae can cause various health concerns, including vomiting, bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, and gastric lesions. This is because this particular breed of larvae is somewhat resistant to human stomach acids, allowing them to live and reproduce for extended periods within the gastric system!!!

Regardless of its legal state, this cheese is continued to be produced in Sardegna, and can be found on the black market for double the cost of normal Pecorino cheese.

If that doesn’t tempt you enough, Casu Marzu might be the world’s only cheese that requires protective eye-wear. Casu Marzu is considered toxic if the larvae inside have died and fermented, therefore it is required that this cheese is eaten while the worms are still alive. It is important to note however, that these worms have the capacity to jump has high as 6 inches. If they make contact with the eye, they may lay eggs immediately and cause further vision concerns. Because of this minor detail, many prefer to place their slice of Casu Marzu in a paper bag in order to suffocate the living worms. Once the popping sounds of the larvae hitting the bag have subsided, the cheese is safe to eat.

Now you AND your dog can have worms!

I don’t know if this cheese concerns anyone else, but there is a distinct possibility that I will have to eat this next week on my field trip to Sardegna… basically if I don’t update in 3 weeks, I am either dead/hospitalized by cause of intestinal worm infestation..

Grassroots Gourmet folks, Grassroots Gourmet.

Culatello and Lambrusco: Story of My Life

For the third and final day of our cured meat stage we were given the pleasure to go to a small-family owned pig farm/bed and breakfast (I promise it was way more appealing than it seems) called Antica Corte Pallavicina in a very small town outside of Parma called Polesine Parmense. At this small family owned farm, they produce about 6,000 culatelli a year.. I guess I should start by saying that Culatello is the prime part of the prosciutto, the fattier part of the leg, and it is extremely work intensive.

In order to prepare a culatello, the fresh meat is soaked in a mixture of wine, garlic, salt, pepper, and sets for a week. After this week this part of the pig butt (culo=butt, its namesake) it is tied up, extremely tight, and allowed to cure for at least a year. The conditions in this particular region are prime for curing culatello because of the humidity and weather patterns.

Culatello is MUCH more expensive than regular prosciutto, selling between 60-110 euro/kg depending on the type of pig that is used. It has a much sweeter taste than regular prosciutto as well.

Then we went to the Lambrusco and Sparkling wines producer “Ceci” to have an exclusive look at how these wines are produced. Lambrusco, to many, is known as the “Coca-Cola” of wines, as it is a young wine, usually only left to ferment for 4-5 months, and has a lower alcohol content than other wines (between 10-11%), it’s price is also an indication as even good bottles don’t sell for more than 5E a bottle.

While all the technical explanations were interesting, the tasting at the end was obviously the most appreciated portion of our tour 😉
Here is a quick video demonstrating the process of tying up a Culatello di Zibello, very work intensive.

After these 3 days of meat, I literally feel like I’m turning into a prosciutto… Salad, salad, salad, this is my new mantra.