Cover

Come into Parma-nence

Prajwal Parajuly | Updated on June 22, 2018 Published on June 22, 2018

Good food, good life: Parma ham is a bright jewel in northern Italy’s culinary crown   -  ISTOCK.COM

In the company of a baker — a food fanatic who is also his partner — an author discovers a sensory feast in northern Italy

Our reason for choosing Emiglia-Romagna in northern Italy for our vacation was simple. We wanted a serious food destination that wasn’t too far from London.

I didn’t have much choice in the matter. I had spent three glorious days dragging my partner from session to session at the Jaipur Literature Festival in London. I had even inflicted on her a couple of my sessions. “It’s a feast for the mind,” I told her with a perfectly straight face. “Nowhere the same as food for the stomach,” she replied. “You owe me a food trip.”

My partner is a baker — a woman whose idea of a perfect Sunday entails alphabetising spice bottles. I’ve not seen a family that gets as excited about different varieties of bread as hers. The entire clan bestows on supermarkets the kind of reverence my grandparents reserved for temples. I come from a family indifferent to food. My parents have often looked upon food as annoyance. I have no memory of either of them entering the kitchen when I was growing up. The fridge lay empty. The pantry was never fully stocked. My parents shirk from travelling because they find eating out silly. I enjoy restaurants but think that asking for an audience with the chef so you can discuss the origin of the gorgonzola used in a dish is taking it a step too far. Still, I am learning. These days, I do a good job of feigning excitement — a screechy wow followed by three imaginary exclamation points does the trick — when I spot a farmers’ market.

Bottled up: A selection of balsamic vinegar at Acetaia di Giorgio   -  SOHINI BASU

 

 

But I was looking forward to the quietly prosperous region of Emilia-Romagna — we’d visit the cities of Parma and Modena — simply because it figures on few travel itineraries. Far removed from the tourist hotspots of Rome and Florence, these northern towns lend themselves to easy exploration without the need to elbow your way through a crowd. The region doesn’t exactly need tourists to keep its economy going when it has abundant revenue coming from ham, cheese, balsamic vinegar and wine. Half the pasta in Italy is made here. We’d stuff our faces — and suitcases — with all that and more, the baker sang.

****

We’ve checked into a no-frills hotel in the university town of Parma. The baker would possibly have liked a pillow menu, but she’s putting up a brave front. She has already concluded the water pressure isn’t up to the mark. It hasn’t been a good few hours for her. Our flight on EasyJet — that airline beloved of those with a proclivity for wretched travel — had been delayed, which made us late for our food tour. The baker also thinks the air-conditioner in our room hisses too aggressively.

I am easier to please. All I ask for in a hotel is a bidet, and Italian hotels seldom disappoint in that department. Still, we couldn’t be sure. The year before, we had stayed in a Sicilian hotel that — in its eagerness to accommodate its American clientele’s barbarity — had done away with the bidet altogether. It was a charming boutique place that the baker had zeroed in on after three days of meticulous research. It had been the worst stay of my life. The sockets may barely function at the Parma hotel, but the bidet works beautifully.

There’s no time to enjoy the bidet, though. Our surly guide is at the door. We are whisked off to the Latteria S Stefano factory, part of a cooperative that has been making Parmigiano Reggiano, the king of parmesan cheese, since 1922. One of the factory rooms houses 1,200-litre cauldrons of gurgling milk. It’s the first stage of cheese-making. In another room, hundreds of wheels of cheese threaten to fall on me. In the factory store, a mind-boggling variety of cheeses assaults me.

Say cheese: Parmigiano Reggiano platter at Latteria S Stefano factory   -  SOHINI BASU

 

“I am sure the shit you eat in London isn’t Parmigiano Reggiano,” the guide says, proud and still surly.

“How do we know if the cheese is authentic?” I ask.

The guide points to the Parmigiano Reggiano brand that’s burnt on the side of a wheel of cheese. “Any cheese that bears the marking is bound to be superior,” she says.

“How does Parmigiano Reggiano taste different from other parmesan cheeses?” asks the baker. She’s taking notes.

“More perfume, more fragrant, more flavour,” the guide adds with gravitas. I discover later that her eloquence was inspired verbatim by the factory’s brochure.

The milk used for the cheese here comes from cows that graze on the foothills of the Parma and Enza Valleys, where Benedettini and Cistercian monks started making Parmesan cheese 700 years ago. That’s enough to make the baker’s eyes mist in happiness.

“Where has this place been all my life?” she says, asking to taste all varieties of the 12-, 24-, and 36-month-old cheeses. There are chunks of parmesan drizzled with balsamico and chunks topped with mostrada pieces for us to taste. I find one cheese indistinguishable from the other, but words such as “grainy”, “mature”, and “perfectly flaky” are bandied about between the guide and the baker. A hunk of cheese is a kilo. The baker buys two of each of the varieties she likes.

“I hope these will be enough,” she says as she hands me an eight-kilo bag. We are en route to a Parma ham factory.

****

The baker is most chuffed about Modena, a town 30 minutes from Parma by train. Balsamic vinegar apparently has its origins here. I vaguely remember it as Pavarotti’s hometown. The greater world, of course, now knows it as the place where the first two food-heavy episodes of Season 2 of Master of None were filmed.

“Such an overrated show,” I say, but the baker isn’t interested in this digression. She has just discovered, much to her dismay, that Osteria Francescana is located in Modena.

“It’s the Number One restaurant in the world,” she cries. “Three Michelin stars. Number One according to Forbes, Number One on the San Pellegrino list and every rating that matters.”

The restaurant apparently is booked six months in advance.

“Let’s still try,” I say. The year before, we had managed to get into the two-Michelin-starred Signum in Sicily by standing outside the door like beggars with desperation tattooed on our foreheads.

“The restaurant doesn’t accept walk-ins at all,” the baker says as she huffs past pastel-coloured buildings that flank Modena’s labyrinthine streets. “It won’t work.”

She has arranged for a balsamic vinegar tasting at the Acetaia di Giorgio, a well-preserved mansion three kilometres from the historic centre. I like walking. The baker likes food. She bribes me with a walk to the Acetaia. I am happy, but the farther we go from the centre with its mom-and-pop stores and well-appointed boutiques, the uglier it gets. The buildings are modern. Chain stores dominate. The baker’s face furrows when she spots a Burger King.

“This better be an authentic experience,” she says. It’s 43° Celsius.

The mood cools down somewhat when the handsome matriarch at the Acetatia declares that true balsamic vinegar is an artisanal product. Her family has been in the business since 1860. “But it’s not a business,” she says. “Any family that makes balsamico vinegar the traditional way does it as a hobby — out of love — more than a business.”

We soon see why.

We are led to the attic. A signed letter from the Obamas occupies pride of place right by the door. Inside are wood barrels of various sizes. Each barrel has an orifice covered by a delicate white cloth.

“This is where the real balsamico happens,” the matriarch says. Her eyes reprimand me for knocking on a barrel.

“So the cheap stuff we buy in the market?” the baker asks. I know she knows the answer.

“That’s just not the real balsamic vinegar of Modena,” the matriarch says. “It is made in small quantities by only a limited number of people.”

“How do you distinguish one from another?” I ask.

“You’ll soon understand,” the matriarch replies, gesturing at the barrels behind her. “This is real.”

The real deal uses only three ingredients: Time, patience and grape juice. The juice is simmered to a concentrate, which is then fermented and matured in a number of barrels over a minimum of 12 years. The barrels can be only made from wood that comes from a specific region. Traditionally, when a daughter was born, the family would start the process. Over the years, the concentration would mature into balsamic and be given away as part of the daughter’s dowry.

The matriarch hands us plastic spoons with a flourish that only Italians can muster. She dots my spoon with some balsamic. This makes the balsamic I am used to pretty watery and insipid. The stuff in my spoon is syrupy. There’s an explosion of flavours — one moment, there’s chestnut, then there’s cherry, and was that a hint of juniper at the end? — in my mouth. The baker looks blissful.

The cheapest bottle of this liquid gold costs 45 euros. The most expensive can go up to 300 euros. All bottles are 100 ml so air travellers don’t have to check in the stuff they have spent half their retirement savings on. The bottles bear the DOP, the EU-regulated designation that stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta, which means “Protected Designation of Origin.” In layman’s terms, it guarantees quality.

Air apparent: Legs being cured in the airing chamber of a Parma ham factory   -  SOHINI BASU

 

****

Fuelled by copious amounts of Lambrusco — the addictive sparkling purplish-red wine that’s native to the region — the baker ventures into that treacherous territory called Osteria Francescana again. She is happy with her purchases so far: DOP-stamped balsamic vinegar, DOP-stamped Parma ham and DOP-stamped Parmigianno Reggiano. She even managed to drag me to the Mercato Albinelli, the local market at Modena, where she turned her nose up at the balsamic with no DOP stamp. But missing out on a chance to eat at the best restaurant in the world still hurts.

“How could I have overlooked that it was here?” she says.

“Give up, will you?” I reply, licking the last bit of my pistachio gelato. We’ve managed to stick to our quota of six scoops a day. The key is to go for two scoops at three different times.

But the baker isn’t the type to give up. She taps on her phone. A dozen windows open. She makes a startling discovery. A downmarket offshoot of Osteria Francescana exists in town. The reviews are flattering, even rhapsodising. The baker is breathless.

“If we don’t get the real thing, might as well get this,” she says, grabbing her bag.

It’s 8 pm on a Saturday. I question the futility of running across town to a restaurant where we have no reservation. We had planned to go to a silly Blues concert — like everything in this region, food is a bigger attraction than music — but the baker doesn’t care. A moment ago, she had been complaining about aching feet. Now she’s sprinting.

Francescana 58 has a massive I LOVE (heart sign) MODENA sign on its glass walls.

“How touristy,” I say.

“It’s kitsch done right,” the baker snaps. “You won’t understand.”

It is a modern restaurant with mismatched plates, an all-female staff and not one empty table. Still, the hostess smiles at us.

“The name the reservation is under?” the hostess asks.

“We have no reservation,” I venture.

The hostess freezes. I mentally rehearse my “I-told-you-so” speech.

“We do not have a table,” the hostess says. “But we do have this.”

She points to a community area of a long, high table with slim chairs. The last two chairs are empty. Before the couple behind us can get there, the baker makes a dash for the chairs.

“We will try the tasting menu,” she says. She hasn’t even had a glance at the menu.

“And the Lambrusco,” I add.

Of course the DOP-certified bottle the waitress recommends is the most expensive on the menu.

The meal begins with what looks like an ordinary burger. It’s sublime. Next up is a local delicacy — the tortellini with Parmigiano Reggiano sauce. I can’t quite figure out how something so simple can bring me so much joy. The pork belly with morello cherry sauce is the best pork I have eaten.

We both conclude that it was among the top 10 meals of our lives. The service is friendly but rough around the edges. I like that it’s just a four-course meal. I’ve been known to fall asleep at 11-course dinners.

“And it’s a reasonably priced meal,” the baker says. She’s feeling self-congratulatory.

I have no room for dessert. The baker finishes hers. She asks if she can eat mine.

Prajwal Parajuly is the author of Land Where I Flee

Published on June 22, 2018
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor