Always up for tasting new foods, I say yes to the horsemeat platter at Osteria Lo Zingaro, a tiny restaurant in Parma, Italy. Actually, they’re all tiny restaurants in Parma. The meat is presented in three versions: cooked à la roast beef, pesto-seasoned tartar and traditional tartar. I eat the first two quite happily; though rich, they are flavoursome, but the plain tartar tastes just a bit too raw for me. I place my napkin on the plate to signify I am done with the meal, but it seems that the restaurant’s owner noticed what I hadn’t eaten—two companions next to me were in the same situation. He comes to the table with a small plate of finely chopped raw onion, grabs my fork and lifts the napkin off my plate with such haste I barely have enough time to feel embarrassed, sprinkles the onion on the meat, drizzles olive oil on top, then mashes it all together. He hands back my fork with a sort of “ta-dah!” movement and motions for me to eat. Suddenly, flavour! My friends follow suit, and we all dig back in to the dish. Of course, we didn’t like what we were eating at first—we weren’t adhering to tradition.
There are 20 regions in Italy, each with its own culinary traditions, but the ones that come from Parma are among the country’s most famous—delicate proscuitto, textured parmesan, sweet balsamic and, yes, even horse meat thanks to Napoleon who deserted his soldiers and left them only with their trusty steeds. The capital of Italy’s food valley, Parma is a gourmand’s dream and a calorie counter’s place of reckoning. It is also an extremely charming city that’s easy to navigate on foot, and if you’re a local, you don’t think twice of traipsing across cobblestone squares in stacked heels or by bicycle— nonnas and bambinos ride in equal numbers. I suspect much of the cycling is done to counteract the consumption of ham, and so I raise a glass of Lambrusco in respect.
Food is very much part of the nature of the city. Low-rise buildings painted in a rainbow of pastel colours line the streets of the city centre; at street level, many house restaurants and cafés, and seating spills out onto cobblestone lanes. Small homes and high electricity bills (meaning minimal air conditioning) lead people to live outdoors, and so they eat outdoors, too.
“Tradition is a matter of continuity,” says Melanie Schoonhoven, a Brit transplanted to Italy 40 years ago after falling in love with an Italian. Schoonhoven is my gastronomic guide during a week in the region, and she explains that Parma has been a centre for food since the medieval times. As pilgrims made their way between Canterbury, England and Rome, they would stop in Parma for nourishment—plates on the façade of the Bishop’s Palace signified to all passing through that it was a food hall. Today, its culinary history makes it a destination all its own, though it also makes a nice stop when travelling between Milan and Venice.
Giving the grandeur of the Bishop’s Palace a run for its money is the “cheese cathedral” at Caseificio La Traversetolese, one of 240 local Parmigiano Reggiano producers. The cathedral holds about 8-million euros worth of cheese and rows of wheels stacked to the ceiling cover the room almost wall to wall. I admire two workers in the factory one morning who, moving from kettle to kettle, using sheer strength and a long wooden tool, almost like a peeler, raise the virgin cheese from the bottom and separate it into two wheels—“giving birth to twins,” as Schoonhoven says. This is day one of the anywhere from 12 to 36 months required for Parmigiano to be ready for consumption.
Patience is a recurring theme in the production of Parma’s culinary specialties. The lengthy winemaking process isn’t news to our group, but we linger at the vineyards of Lamoretti and Paltrinieri listening to the intricacies of their production cycles and appreciating glasses of frothy, fizzy Lambrusco. At Acetia San Donnino, in nearby Modena, we learn that true, traditional Balsamic vinegar takes, at minimum, 12 years to make. During the fermentation process, pure grape juice passes through five French oak barrels ranging in size from 5 litres to 50 litres, which contribute to the flavour, colour and density. On a hot summer day in the vinegar loft, when sun is at full force and activity in the barrels is jumping, the aroma can be suffocating. The real liquid is expensive (a 100 ml bottle costs approximately $60) and meant to be drizzled on meats or fruit, Parmigiano or gelato, not salads.
And then there’s the pig bottom—specifically, Proscuitto and Culatello. At family-owned Salumificio Vescovi, situated in the small town of Lagrimone, the ham capital of the world, they transform 450 hams per week into Parma Proscuitto. It takes roughly 24 months for the curing process to reach optimal taste—hams are massaged by machine when they first arrive, then salted by hand then again in a wash. Paolo, the owner’s son, monitors the 20,000 hams in their cellar and tastes Proscuitto daily for quality control purposes. Culatello, made from a similar part of the pig, but aged in dried pig’s bladder for one to three years for leaner meat, is king at Antica Corte Pallavicina. The Culatello cellars here date from the 1300s; they are home to hundreds and hundreds of Culatello, including those belonging to some of the world’s most famous chefs including Anthony Bourdain, Alain Ducasse and René Redzepi, as well as some royalty, like Prince Charles, too.
To bring this all together, I don a chef’s hat and apron at Academia Barilla, the school run by Parma-originated pasta company Barilla, which makes enough pasta each year to plate three billion dishes. The academy teaches “food as culture, not food as calories,” says its director Gianluigi Zenti, and it also shows students just how much there is to learn. Of the more than 150 pasta shapes made in Italy, the average Canadian household uses just four. In my half-day class (the academy offers courses ranging in length from one day to two weeks), we hand-make several kinds of pasta, some using just flour and water. My favourite, of course, was the dish I helped roll by hand—trofie, cooked, like all good Italian pasta, al dente and topped with pesto.
The only thing missing from this gluttony? A healthy scoop of mint chocolate-chip gelato, which I found around the corner from the academy at La Gelateria, and a Barilla employee tells me it’s the best in the city. Two bites later, I’m inclined to agree.