This cheese-centered journey to Emilia-Romagna, Italy is a seriously delicious vacation.

By Brad Japhe
July 28, 2020
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Parmesan is so ubiquitous in Italian cuisine that little thought goes into what it actually is. Well, technically any hardened cheese could wear the label. Most of them would be imposters, however. There is but one authentic example of the style: the original Parmigiano-Reggiano. It is as much a place as it is a product. And it’s well-worth seeing for yourself. Any self-respecting gourmand needs to make a pilgrimage to the Parmesan Cheese Trail. If you’re ready to roll, you best come hungry.

Much like champagne must come from a specific region in France, and Port from Portugal, authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano is cultivated exclusively in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. In fact, its title is among the first protected designation of origins (PDOs) ever established in the European Union.

“This strip of land crossed by the Via Emilia, from the river Po to the Apennines has birthed some of the most iconic products of Italian cuisine,” explains Nicola Bertinelli, president of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium — the trade council tasked with protecting the designation. “Parmigiano Reggiano, Parma ham, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, even the fresh egg pasta all come from here. They have their origins in the mists of time. Just think: the first document mentioning a cheese made in Parma dates back to 1254.”

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Today the region is known as the “Italian Food Valley,” holding some 44 PDO products. That’s more than any other region in Europe. The US does its fair share to promote its stature. Each year we consume over 10,000 tons of Parmigiano Reggiano — the second biggest importer of the cheese, behind France.

Any exploration of the region typically begins in Parma, a mid-sized city with a population of 179,000 residents and history reaching back 3,500 years. Getting here requires either an hour drive from Bologna or a two hour excursion out of Milan’s Malpensa Airport.

Once you arrive, park your bags at the Grand Hotel de la Ville, a five-star accommodation within easy walking distance of downtown attractions. This is also the perfect jump-off spot to dozens of dairies in the surrounding countryside — where the cheese is crafted — and to the Michelin-starred outposts where it is worked into elegant cuisine. Take your first meal at Parizzi for an elegant example of how parmesan, aged for up to four years, can influence varied components throughout a three course tasting menu.

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Sleep off some of the jetlag before heading out on the trail. Then start your journey at the Museo del Parmigiano Reggiano. Dedicated to the namesake cheese, the museum is open only on weekends. Nearby, along the eastern outskirts of the city, you can also book a guided experience at Latteria Sociale San Pier Damiani. For 20 euros you’ll receive a two hour tour, showcasing a handmade technique that’s remained largely unchanged for generations. Skilled laborers stretch and sculpt curds, eventually hanging 100 pound wheels from a cloth suspended above copper-lined vats. Afterwards you’ll get to taste through several examples of the finished product.

Further south, stop at Caseificio San Bernardino for a compelling illustration of how integral aging is to premium parmesan. Among the bigger dairies in the region, the operation maintains a vast storage room where wheels are stacked 24 high and 90 long. A guide walks you through the tight rows, with thousands of pounds worth of cheese towering overhead. After a minimum of 12 months, an inspector will tap each and every one of these specimens, testing for uniform density and the absence of fissures.

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The consortium maintains the most rigid standards in all of Italian cheese manufacturing. And it is evident in each bite, particularly when procured from the source. Fresh from the aging warehouse, blocks of Parmigiano-Reggiano own a crystalline grittiness — a signature crunch that is lacking in inferior knockoffs. “It is the perfect umami,” says three-Michelin-starred chef, Massimo Bottura in describing the rich, protein-laced flavors of his native delicacy.

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Sadly, you’re probably not getting into his Osteria Francescana in neighboring Modena; the restaurant books up more than three months in advance. But don’t despair. The smaller town of Reggio Emilia boasts plenty of comparable outposts, attracting far less international fanfare. Ca’ Matilde is a prime example, where the local ingredients are spun into dazzling displays of modern wizardry.

Ristorante Masticabrodo Pilastro is a quaint and cozy family-run affair where housemade pastas such as anolini and tortelli shine under simple preparations of Parmigiano, herbs, and oil. Cooking classes are offered here by appointment, so you can return to the States with an admirable new skillset. Along with a cheese-stuffed suitcase. Just be sure to declare any food items to customs agents upon arrival, as mandated by the USDA.

There’s nothing like a souvenir you can sink your teeth into. And your friends will surely agree. Each year, the US consumes more than 10,000 tons of Parmigiano-Reggiano. But a 25% price increase due to recent tariffs is likely to see more imposter parmesans flooding your local dairy case. “Safeguarding our products is increasingly difficult in a context in which the powerful international lobbies use Italian-sounding names to sell products that are not Italian,” laments Bertinelli. “It’s a practice that damages not only our economy but also the consumers, who are deceived by these terms.” Journey to the source and surely you won’t get fooled again. There’s no whey.