Somehow nearly three weeks have already gone by since returning from our Reggio Emilia focused stage in February, and I’ve been stumbling around in a pork fat coma ever since. The trip had tons of highs and lows (the highs mostly coming in the form of pork fat and raw meats, and the lows mostly coming in the form of freezing-cold abandoned monastery-turned-hostels that served both as home and a terrible breakfast). Ergo, the highlights:
Miracle Grain and the Microfarm
Our first stop was to a tiny old watermill where they are milling grain the old-fashioned (and apparently, unsanctioned and illegal way) – with waterpower! A farmer named Claudio met us there to tell us about an indigenous grain type he discovered in his grandfather’s garbage. The grain is incredibly low in gluten, making it impossible to bake into bread on an industrial level. Fortunately, the baker who was also there with us has developed a three-step rising process to properly handle the gluten and bake off some excellent breads. We sampled these breads at our next stop, El Ramicero – a microfarm up in the hills above Reggio Emilia. The farm is a small, self-sustaining property, where cows, pigs, and donkeys are all raised. We toured the mini-dairy, where the owner, whose name I cannot remember at this time, makes typical cheeses of the region, and his own, delicious, trademarked special – reggionello. After meeting the animals, we grazed through a buffet of his homemade cured meats and cheeses for lunch, along with some of that miracle bread, and a delicious lambrusco.
No trip to Emilia is complete without a tour of a parmigiano producer and meeting with a mad scientist-like fellow from the governing authority body of cheeseproducers. Fortunately, we had time for both and squeezed in a tour of the Notari parmigiano factory on our first day, where our nostrils were overwhelmed by the rather unfortunate scent of cheesemaking. At least it tastes good. Our second day dawned with a visit to the afore-mentioned Parmigiano Consorzio, which inspects and controls Parm makers to keep them up to snuff. We had a brief lesson in production, led by Mario Zannoni, a bona fide, and rather particular parmigiano expert in sensorial analysis (this dude basically developed the system for analyzing parmigiano quality).
Butchering Meat on a Mountaintop
Nothing follows an excellent lunch of Neapolitan pizza topped, variously, with escarole and anchovies, giant slabs of mortadella and melted gorgonzola, and deliciously fried eggplant at the Pizzeria Piccola Piedigrotta in Reggio Emilia, better than a windy trip up a snowy mountain road to Gianni Brancatelli’s Podere Elisa agriturismo. The chef himself was present at the stunning hilltop estate, where he introduced us a butchered cow and taught us pretty much everything there is to know
about Italian beef cuts and cooking methods. All of which we then ate. Deliciously. The most interesting takeaway from this was that every culture butchers its animals differently; so many cuts that we consider to be standard at an American butcher are not available in Italy, as they cut it in a way to best suit their particular needs, tastes, and perceptions of the animal. The other most interesting takeaway was the 3 kilos of incredibly delicious Marchegiano beef in each of our stomachs.
Claudio Ziveri and the Prosciutto Factory
Wednesday morning saw a visit to Emilia’s other excellent multi-syllabic p-product, prosciutto di Parma. Claudio Ziveri is a relatively small producer (his prosciutto factory is quite literally attached to his house), and gave us an excellent overview of the different stages of the prosciutto process – from salting with Sicilian sea salt, to rinsing, to cold aging, to the extended ripening period of 12 months to 3 years.
After making prosciutto with Claudio, we took a quick jaunt down the road to the Medici Estate, producers of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, which is like no balsamic vinegar you have ever tasted. The traditional balsamico from Modena is more well-known, but the Medici product is just as outstanding. This stuff is aged a minimum of 12 years, during which it progresses through a shrinking series of barrels, made of oak, chestnut, cherry, acacia, and mulberry woods. The balsamico’s are never released with a year attached, because every barrel contains a blend of different grape harvest years, giving a consistent and guaranteed deliciousness.
This tiny micro-brewery (and no, that’s not redundant) on the outskirts of Reggio Emilia is the baby of Enrico, a former homebrewer who found a business partner and opened up shop a few years ago. The tiny space only allows him to brew one beer at a time, but they are gooood beers. Enrico’s a fan of strong hops (just like me!), and sources his from all over the world (including the classic Cali Cascade hops), giving each of his beers a unique and interesting character.