As it is the rest of Italy, it goes without saying that the food in Parma is wonderful and abundant, but thanks to the producers of Parmeggiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma and Balsamic vinegar in nearby Modena, this northern Italian region is also known to many as the true culinary breadbasket of the Italian nation.
I'd been to Parma once before, more than a decade ago, just as my professional passion for food and food stories was setting in. All I remember is sitting on a cobblestone street eating the most astonishing plate of cantaloupe and prosciutto I'd ever had, watching the passeggiata (nightly social stroll), and drinking so much local sparkling Malvasia wine that we bought a case from the restaurant to schlep home.
This trip was different. This time I traveled with two other journalists as a guest of Prosciutto di Parma, and hit the ground running. We had an on-the-go and on-our-feet education of the history, production and distribution of Parma ham, with bonus lessons in Parmesan cheese and traditional balsamic vinegar. In between we attended class at a culinary school, walked the old city streets, and of course we ate. I even snuck in tours of two local Parma residents' kitchens (full tours to come soon.)
First, I visited one of the official Prosciutto di Parma processors. The beginning of the Prosciutto di Parma production line when the legs come in, get salted, and are tied up in twine. This area is completely tiled in white and brightly lit.
The hams hang in their final resting room where they can stay until a tester decides they are ready for market. Some are aged for more than three years. This room was eerily chilly, quiet, and serene with wooden racks and dim lighting.
The beginning of the Parmigiano process where the milk is cooked and the curds are separated from the whey using giant stretched of hemp cheesecloth.
Like the Prosciutto, the Parmigiano rests in a simple, quiet room for many months. Some cheese are aged for up to five years. The cheesemaker knows the wheel is ready with a simple sound test using a small hammer.
Here are three cheeses I tried; from left to right a sixty month, a thirty month, and a twelve month.
Our group of journalists spent an evening at the Alma, The International School of Italian Cuisine
. Intense concentration. We sat through a lecture and then received our assignment. Unlike my experience in culinary school, this lesson involved cooking a course alone, without a partner. Here I am making some crazy veal and foie gras creation. There was a lot of laughing. The chef yelled at us a lot. My toque was too tight. I'll never forget this night.
This is the kitchen of Lina, a 76-year-old woman who lives in the center of Parma in a tall skinny house that used to house an osteria and wine shop. She wears a tie every single day and keeps her kitchen spotless.
Here is a scene from the second tour, a kitchen in an apartment building where 50 people once lived and now one family occupies the entire place. On the third floor is Gloria, one of the adult daughters. She is an archaeologist with many collections. In her kitchen there is a collection of sugar packets, old stone cookware, and the number 17.
Gelato scooped like a flower.
These two ladies were taking a walk through one of Parma's parks as a Senegalese hip hop concert was happening just a few hundred feet away.
This violinist played in the same spot every single day.
Discussing important matters in the piazza.
Eating on the go is not a typical Italian scene, but walking casually between a bus and a Vespa is.
Moving through the piazza at the Duomo di Parma.
Related: Ingredient Spotlight: Prosciutto
(images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan except cooking school portrait: Amy Cao)