July 17, 2010

Italian Food Extravaganza! (Day 9)

Wednesday dawned rainy and dreary... and insanely early. The amazing interwebz had put me in contact with Alessandro from Italian Days Food Tours, and we had created a custom itinerary for us that included a hodgepodge of all the 'greats' of Emilia-Romagna. I'm always slightly nervous about tours, even when they come highly recommended, but let me say this right now- Alessandro was amazing and you get WAY more than you pay for when you take one of his tours. It was the 6 of us, Alessandro and our own personal driver (and van) wandering all day, from 7:15 until probably 6 or 7 pm, and we loved the entire thing, including the abbiaco (food coma) that we were put into during the tour. If you are in the area and you love food {why else go to this region??}, do yourself a favor and contact him- he is friendly and will work with you to make the exact tour you want. Enough unpaid advertising- on to the description!

As I said, we set out at 7:15 in the morning because Alessandro wanted us to catch the cheese makers at work (they start early and get done early). That said, our first stop was Coop Casearia Castelnovese, where we learned all we could ever want to know about making Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus we got to taste some amazing cheeses at the end. This is one of the biggest producers in the area, producing up to 58 wheels of Parm each day. While we were there the people who test (by sound, strangely enough) Parm for quality were there, and we got to watch them in action.

Then it was off to sample Balsamic vinegars at the Villa San Donnino, plus a short tour of the awesome villa of the owner. Who would have thought that making fancy vinegar was so much work? They start with 360 liters of Lambrusco or Trebbiano grapes, and TWELVE years later they get 1 liter of balsamic vinegar. Then they have to send it off each year to be certified by the ones in power so it can actually be called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. The long process of fermentation and evaporation occurs in a batteria {a series of at least 5 barrels in gradually decreasing sizes}, which is placed in the acetaia, a fancy word for a clean attic space (the juice needs the extra heat to become drizzly deliciousness). We got to try a couple ages of balsamic, as well as a jam made with the vinegar and a blisteringly alcoholic walnut liquor also made on site- it was all delicious! After the tasting we spent a few minutes in the owner's amazing home, which was furnished in the Art Deco style.

By this time, my stomach was making it known that I needed foods of some sort. Preferably of the good and ample sort. Alessandro was WAY ahead of me! We spent 20 minutes driving through some gorgeous countryside and ended up at an amazing Agritourismo (Italian for B&B farm), Corte d'Aibo, that made organic wine which I drank too much of enjoyed immensely. We arrived as they finished giving a cooking class that involved traditional dishes made with locally grown ingredients. The rest of the group crowded into the kitchen to watch the cooking, but I spent most of my time petting the adorably round puppy.

Her name was something generic {Daisy?}, but Alessandro called her Mortadella- her proportions made it hard to argue with the name:). She was a sweetie and we got along quite well! Once the food was complete, we sat down to an amazing meal with meat and cheese plates, veggie salad, bread, tortellini, tagliatelli with ragu and lasagna, with tiramisu to finish is all off. No, wait... the espresso and some shots of grappa actually finished off the meal. If we faltered during the meal, Alessandro was standing at the ready with another helping of deliciousness and the stern conviction that we could eat just a little bit more. His belief in us helped us forge on, and by the end I was stuffed, slightly tipsy, and entirely pleased with our 'lunch', which had lasted at least 1.5 hours and didn't start until after 2pm. Italians have NO concept of time:).

Somehow Alessandro stuffed us back into the van and we made our way to a factory in Modena that made prosciutto in the same style as Parma, just not in Parma (saving us some driving). I like prosciutto, but only in an 'oh, that is tasty' kind of way. Mr. Pony LOVES prosciutto, and I had to verbally beat him to prevent a whole pig leg from being jammed into my camera bag. He contented himself with learning about the entire process and taking full advantage of the tasting we were offered.

Obviously, Mr. Pony was in hog heaven. *snort*

After that, we headed back to our hotel. The day was, in short, fabulous. Alessandro structured our day to be everything we wanted for an amazing price. The tours were completely private and Alessandro knew SO much about all the processes that Mr. P was scrambling to take notes {he is a food geek}. Even after we got back to the U.S., if anyone had a question, a quick email to Alessandro supplied the answers and he even went so far as to purchase and mail some items TO THE U.S. for one of our group members. Leaps and bounds above and beyond your typical tour. If you head to this region, do yourself a favor and support Alessandro and his company {Italian Days, in case you missed my first plug:)}.

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