WORDS GABRIELLE JAFFE
PHOTOGRAPHS LAURA EDWARDS
Emilia-Romagna has been known for its immense agricultural abundance since ancient times. The Roman Empire might have been forged through the sword, but its armies were fed off the fields in this region of northern Italy. The road the Romans built through here, the Via Emilia, still connects a string of places today – Parma, Modena, Bologna – whose very names have come to represent some of the world’s most sought-after foods.
Spend five minutes in Parma and it becomes clear this is a city of the well-heeled. Lamborghinis and Maseratis zip round its outskirts. In the pedestrianised historic centre, men in sharply-tailored suits and women in pearls and stilettos cycle past ducal palaces, Baroque opera houses and the medieval cathedral. Boutiques are plentiful, but some of the most elegant shop windows belong to the delis, where hams and cheeses are displayed as meticulously and stylishly as the contents of an Armani store.
To the south lies the source of much of the city’s wealth: fields packed with pigs and the factories where their hinds are salted, cured and transformed into Parma ham. Among the smaller-scale producers here is Rosa dell’Angelo, which offers guided visits of its farm. Manager Luca Ponzoni shows guests around the pens where his hogs play in the dust under old oak trees, treating themselves to fallen acorns. “When you eat our ham, you’re tasting Parma’s countryside,” says Luca. “It’s not just what the pigs eat – it’s how it’s aged. We leave the windows open to dry the meat. The wind brings in the aroma of beech, oak, chestnut and pine.”
Luca ushers the visitors into his 4WD and ferries them to the Rosa dell’Angelo Prosciutto Bar around the corner, so they can test his claims. Waiters shave paper thin, rose-coloured slices, laced with white ribbons of fat. After the tasting, Luca reveals the cellars where enormous haunches dangle from wooden frames. The air in these smells sweet, because of the sugars in the meat, with a slight, nose-tingling hint of the white pepper used to coat it. Each ham bears the fire-branded outline of a crown, the sign it has passed official inspection and can be sold as Prosciutto di Parma.
As well as rearing white pigs for Parma ham, Rosa dell’Angelo has started selling prosciutto made from an ancient local black breed. These black pigs are a key ingredient of another regional specialty, culatello. Even more highly prized than Parma ham, this cured meat is sold at ` 9,500 a kilo. In the countryside northwest of Parma, at Antica Corte Pallavicina, a Michelin-starred restaurant in a Renaissance mansion, the impeccably moustachioed manager, Giovanni Lucchi, shows off one of the few cellars in the world where culatello is produced.
Hunks of meat the size of boxing gloves hang low from the ceiling and from walls of metal chains. In the half-light, the culatello appears fuzzy. “That’s the mould – we’re closer to the River Po here than the hills where Parma ham is made, so we get more moisture,” says Giovanni, as he ducks to avoid knocking into the suspended meat. He explains that this is all part of the normal ageing process that gives culatello its unique flavour, a bit like some cheeses. Back out in the daylight, the tour continues to the pigpens. “This black breed grows very slowly.Then the meat is aged for at least 18 months,”says Giovanni. “You could say the secret to good Italian food is taking your time.”
Further southeast along the Po Valley, towards the town of Reggio Emilia, a lazy sunrise is in no hurry to burn off the earth’s misty blanket. When the fog finally departs, it reveals a landscape so fecund that even telephone wires are overgrown with vines. At Parmesan dairy farm Fattoria Marchesini, six-foot haystacks, built high like forbidding castle walls, attest to how easy it is to grow animal feed here. And that’s a good thing, since Parmesan can only be produced in a land of plenty – it takes the milk of 100 cows to create just six wheels of the cheese.
Maria-Luisa Marchesini and her brother Andrea are overseeing the morning’s production. Milk heating in a copper vat coats the room with a comforting scent like rice pudding. Soon fragments of curd clump together to form a 100kg mega-wheel, which Andrea cradles into a linen cloth and cuts in two. The twin cheeses are settled into a brine bath for several days, then transferred to a maturation room, where they are watched over by CCTV. Such is their value that, in Emilia-Romagna, banks take Parmesan wheels as security deposits. After a year, they’ll have hardened, gained the amber patina of age and be ready for examination by inspectors, who tap the cheese with acoustic hammers, listening for structural impurities. “Our ears, our eyes, our noses, our hands – we have to use all our senses to check the Parmesan is developing correctly,” explains Maria-Luisa. “Growing up on this farm, these skills are in our DNA.”