And then there were seven. At one time, we had 13 of us together. Jo Ellen departed at the wee hour of 3:45 am for her early ride to Rome to fly home. The rest of us – Kim, Karen and Bryan, Shona and David, and Mark and I, left our breathtaking villa in Greve and made our way north to Parma, in the heart of the Emilia Romagna region.
With all the incredible meals we’ve experienced in between sightseeing and experiencing this beautiful country, it sounds so funny to say that the “foodie” portion of our trip is only just beginning.
On our drive, we stopped in Marano (near Modena) to tour Acetaia Sereni, a small, family-run, and highly-rated balsamic vinegar producer. Y’all!!! We had no idea how incredibly complex this process is, and how much time it takes to make a great balsamic. This was by far one of the highlights of our entire trip. Incredible!
Francesco, the great-grandson of the founder (his great-grandmother), was our host for the tour. His passion, pride, and dedication to this business rang through in every word he spoke.
We discovered that balsamic vinegar production is a lot like winemaking, in terms of the care, effort, and time it takes to make one great bottle. Did you know that it takes 100 liters of grape juice to make just 100 milliliters of aged balsamic?
Once the grape juice is cooked in this modern facility, it then moves to barrels to begin its aging process. The barrels are located in the attic, or top floors of the building, in order to take advantage of the natural winds and humidity that sweep through the hills of this area.
The balsamic is aged in a collection of wood barrels of varying sizes called a batteria (battery), and the aging process moves from the biggest barrel to the smallest over a period of years. A fun fact: Acetaia Sereni holds the record for the longest battery (30 barrels) in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The finished product is influenced by the length of the aging process, the type of wood that the barrels are made from, and the portions of liquid extracted from each barrel that are blended together.
Our tour included a balsamic tasting (yes, that’s a thing!) of different ages from one year to 60 years, and from different types of wood barrels. I won’t mention how many bottles were in our combined shipment back to the U.S.!
If you find yourself in this area of Italy, you owe it to yourself to schedule a tour of this incredible facility. Be sure to include lunch at their family restaurant, run by Francesco’s brother Umberto. Balsamic was used in every single dish, including balsamic drizzle on pistachio gelato for dessert. Unbelievable! We also had the best pasta dish to date – tortelloni stuffed with fresh ricotta, covered with culatello and fried leek strings and, of course, drizzled with balsamic!
After checking into our hotel in Parma (not going to lie – a total letdown after the villa), we ventured out for an evening drive through the countryside to Antica Corte Pallavincina, a small culatello producer on the banks of the Po River and housed in a 14th-century castle. Another interesting fact: they are home to a Michelin-star restaurant on the property!
We toured the gardens and learned how they cured this delicate pork product – still in the same way they did 300 years ago. Culatello is the most prized portion of the pig’s hind leg, and they cure it in the dark, musty cellar for at least three years. Kind of creepy and cool at the same time!
We ended our evening with yet another delicious meal in their Osteria that featured cappelletti in brodo and a full platter of cured meats. We rolled our way back to our hotel!
Monday began with a short drive to a mid-sized Parmigiano Reggiano producer. Like everything we have seen, this producer was also part of a Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta (DOP) consortium, which protects the integrity, the rich traditions, and the strict quality standards of a specific product family. More than 130 Italian products belong to a DOP.
We broke out a small bottle of our balsamic from yesterday for our cheese tasting, where we sampled Parmagiano Reggiano aged for 12 months, 24 months, and 36 months. I would have purchased and taken a wheel of this great cheese home with us, except it weighs about 90 pounds and would require its own seat on the plane!
Our trip then took us further out of town and back to the hills of this beautiful countryside to Conti, a Prosciutto Crudo d’ Parma producer. We toured this impressive facility and saw how they cure, salt, and hang three different cuts of pork: the Prosciutto Crudo d’ Parma (prosciutto to you and me), culatta (butt of the pork and the most expensive), and the fiocco (front leg).
We ended at a local open-air osteria, Alvigneto, overlooking the most picturesque rolling hills. The star of lunch was the ravioli stuffed with Parmigiano Reggiano and spinach!
On our drive back to the city, we stopped to take in the views of the Castello di Torrechiara, a 15th-century castle and one of the best preserved in this area overlooking the Parma River.
We had a driver drop us off at the city center of Parma, away from our hotel, for the sole purpose of walking off the richness of food we’ve eaten in the past 24 hours! We are skipping dinner tonight and, instead, resting up for another full day tomorrow! Until then, buonasera!