Gulf Today’s guide to Parma in Italy, the birthplace of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese - GulfToday

Gulf Today’s guide to Parma in Italy, the birthplace of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Main-street

Via della Repubblica, the main street in the city centre of Parma.

Mitchelle D’Souza, Sub-Editor/Reporter

With a distinction of being the home of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, or more commonly referred to as Parmesan in the rest of the world, you can trust Parma to be serious about food.

It is little wonder then that the tiny city in Italy’s northern Emilia-Romagna region was chosen as the Italian Creative UNESCO City for Gastronomy.

This partly hinges on the fact that the area boasts a staggering 43 European PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) products, the highest number in Italy, with Parma being a major contributor.

The province located in Italy’s fertile Food Valley was founded by the Romans 2,200 years ago. A good place to start your exploration of the gastronomic city is Via della Repubblica, the main street in the city centre.

A dramatic fountain at the mouth of the street now stands in place of a former important gate of the Roman Empire and marks the beginning of the arterial road.

It is and has been an important road since historical ages, which at present is the heart and soul of Parma teeming with fancy boutiques, bakeries, coffee houses, dog-walking pedestrians and mom and pop shops.

The atmospheric Garibaldi Square lies along the same stretch and is akin to piazzas you will find across Italy, together with its ornate buildings, cafes and people ambling around.

Garibaldi-square
Piazza Garibaldi is the main square in Parma.

The main street has changed quite a bit from its former antiquated Roman past.

Save for one Romanesque church with its imposing bell tower looking eastwards (towards the birthplace of Jesus), most other churches and structures lining the street changed their orientation in the 1500s by 180 degrees in order for their facades to face the road.

As of today, the Roman city, which fell into ruins with the fall of the Roman Empire, lies beneath the present city.

For a town of roughly 200,000 residents encompassing an area of 260km, Parma and its surrounding regions (Modena, Bologna and Ferrara among others) boast many honours.

Perhaps the most prominent is Parma’s cheese industry, which holds a PDO certification for the ‘king of cheeses’ — Parmigiano Reggiano. This essentially means that the cheese can only be produced in Parma and a few other provinces in the Emilia-Romagna region.

The history of this hard, aged cheese dates back to the Benedettini monks in the Middle Ages, whose craftsmanship, traditional style and process of cheese-making has been followed to this day.

The famed cheese is produced in large copper cauldrons with utmost care and almost clockwork precision by skilled artisans and involves a series of intricate steps.

The attention to detail goes down to the fodder of the cows from whom the milk for the cheese is derived (strictly local forage consisting of herbs is consumed by cows).

Hence, it comes as no surprise that it enjoys a cult status among gourmands across the world, with one wheel of the product costing up to €600.

Cheese-room
The ‘sleeping room’ where Parmigiano Reggiano is aged.

Characterised by a sharp, pronounced taste and granular texture, the simple ingredients that go into the cheese — fresh milk, skimmed milk, natural enzyme of rennet, whey and sea salt — almost belie the rich and robust taste of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Each wheel of Parma’s pride is aged for a minimum of 12 months and can go up to 36 months, after which it is examined for authentication by an expert through a unique test that involves knocking all sides of the wheel with a small hammer.

For the wheel to pass the test, each knock must sound exactly the same for it to make it to the highest echelon — Parmigiano Reggiano. Once a cheese is declared 100 per cent Parmigiano Reggiano, it gets a seal of approval in the form of an indelible fire-branded logo.

However, there exists some consolation for wheels that don’t make the cut — they are sold as second grade Parmigiano Reggiano called Mezzano.

An interesting titbit about the cheese is that since it is rich in calcium, it’s given to astronauts in space and patients of osteoporosis who suffer from deficiency of the mineral.

With such a rich history of cheese-making, Parmigiano Reggiano is sacrosanct for the people of this region and finding the cheese in almost every dish is commonplace in households and restaurants.

Two types of filled pastas from the region in particular, tortelli and anolini (restaurant Croce di Malta off Garibaldi piazza does one filled with cheese and beef mince, swimming in an umami-laden beef broth), come with Parmigiano Reggiano stuffing.

If your love for cheese knows no bounds or you happen to be in the mood to get adventurous, you can even find Parmigiano Reggiano ice cream in local restaurants (Antica Moka in the Modena countryside makes a sublime one).

For something local that is devoid of cheese, a must-try would be the salty, deep fried-to-crispiness flat bread torta fritta, which comes traditionally served with local cold cuts.

If the indulgence gets a bit much, Michelin-starred restaurant Inkiostro with its modernistic fare is quiet a departure from the cheese and butter heavy traditional repertoire of dishes. Their nifty use of Parmigiano Reggiano in every dish without it being overwhelming yet nuanced is impressive.

If you’re wondering how Parmigiano Reggiano pairs up with dishes from other countries, the beautiful Les Caves located in a fortress does a good impression of Italian and French fusion food.

Another popular local dish, or rather dessert, is the duchessa cake (you can get your hands on it at bakeries in the city centre, such as Cocconi and Pasticceria Pagani). It is named after Lady Maria Lugia, ruler from Austria’s Habsburg dynasty and second wife to Napoleon, who became the duchess of Parma in the 1800s.

A rich cake laden with hazelnut dough, vanilla custard, zabaione and chocolate, it comes with a generous dusting of powdered sugar, crumbs of hazelnut and candied cherries — definitely fit for royalty.

If we are talking about cheese and fine food, balsamic vinegar cannot be left far behind and the Food Valley of Italy possesses one more feat — it is the legit home of the kitchen staple. The Giusti family from Modena are the original creators of this ubiquitous product and have been making it since 1605.

They have two varieties of the product, one is the PDO certified Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and the other is the PGI labelled Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, the commercial variety.

The traditional balsamic with it’s intense, smoky undertones is aged for a minimum of 12 years in a variety of wooden casks (think oak, mulberry, cherry, chestnut, berry and juniper) while the comparatively younger and crisp commercial one can be aged for a minimum of 60 days after which it is bottled.

Vinegar-museum
The Giusti Museum traces the origins of balsamic vinegar which was invented in the province of Modena in Emilia-Romagna.

The south of Parma with its verdant hills and cool climes also makes for a ripe place to harvest local grapes such as lambrusco and barbera in the sweeping vineyards at the foothills of the mountain studded with the magnificent Torrechiara Castle.

Besides all the nosh and drink that Parma and its neighbours have to offer, given the fact that it was a Roman city, one will find numerous beautiful churches and buildings if you walk along the many cobbled alleyways fringing Via della Repubblica street.

Of special importance is the Parma Cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A quintessential Romanesque structure, it has awe-inspiring illusionist (Trompe-l'œil) frescoes by acclaimed renaissance painter Antonio da Correggio and 3D Verona marble paintings.

Adjoining the cathedral is the octagonal Baptistery which is considered to be an important medieval monument.

The city centre also houses an opera which was commissioned by the Duchess of Parma, thereby promoting a thriving theatre culture in the region.

The Verdi Festival, which celebrates music and culture, is another important annual feature in the city and is held in the months of September and October. It was eponymously named after the great artist Giuseppe Verdi who was born in Parma.

Steeped in centuries old food and cultural traditions, Parma and its sister provinces in the Emilia-Romagna region have admittedly been overlooked for long, but the time seems right for them to be in the limelight.

The holy grail of cheese and dolce vita has now opened its doors wide open for epicureans to come witness what it is like to worship food and life in general.

Just like the aftertaste of Parmigiano Reggiano, the many flavours, sights, sounds and smells of Parma and its neighbouring provinces stay with you long after you have indulged in them.