The Emilia Romagna region of Italy is known throughout the world for its fabulous produce. Be it cheese, prosciutto or balsamic vinegar the region has an amazing array of top producers. I joined Italian Days Food Experience tour for a behind the scenes look at the production of these products to find out why they are the world’s best.
What is D.O.P?
Before we started the food tour tour, our wonderful guide Ariana explained the meaning of three little letters that are important to food production in Emilia Romagna and especially to our three products….D.O.P.
D.O.P is short for Denominazione di Origine Protetta which means protected designation of Origin. This is your guarantee that the locally produced, artisanal product is of a high quality and has passed all the rules and regulations set out by their consortiums. These vary with each product and, as you will see, are very strict. Everything from production to packaging is strictly regulated.
Our first stop was at the factory of makers of parmigiano reggiano cheese in the countryside between Bologna and Modena.
One of the first tests for D.O.P certification for parmigiano reggiano is that the cheese must come from one of five regions in Emilia Romagna. These are Parma, Reggio, Modena, Bologna, left of the river Reno and Mantova- the area on the right side of the Po River: the south. These are the only areas allowed by law to make DOP parmigiano reggiano. The milk for the cheese must also come from certain types of cows…Fresian cows, red cows, white cows of Modena and the alpine brown cows.
The making of parmigiano reggiano really has come a long way since originally being made by the Benedictine Monks. In 1934, private consortiums took over everything to do with the cheese production and there are now three hundred and fifty cheese factories in this area which last year made 3,650,000 wheels.
We thought we had an early start but when we arrived, the factory was in full swing.
It wasn’t a big factory. Thirty six shiny stainless steel vats, the chief cheese maker and two workers were hard at work.
Milk is delivered twice a day to the factory. From the time half of the mornings milk is mixed with half of the evenings milk and rennet is added it takes one and a half hours of heating and stirring until the large ball of cheese that has formed is divided into two. With thirty six vats this meant that seventy two wheels of cheese are made a day!
The balls of cheese are then put into a container the shape of the Parmesan wheel to be left to drain. Inside this container is a belt that is printed with the date, the D.O.P consortium number, the batch number and a blank space for the D.O.P stamp. The QR code on the outside tells where the cows were from and what type they are!
Interestingly, when I was later buying parmigiano in the market, the sales person pointed on the map exactly where my particular cheese came from…all from these details!
The process is finished with a salt bath lasting eighteen days after which they finally head to the storage room, their home for at least the next twelve months.
After twelve months, the cheese is inspected by representatives of the consortium and either given the D.O.P stamp of approval or not. Some of the wheels are sold whilst others are left to age for longer. This could be for twenty four months or even thirty six months. The longer the cheese ages, the darker it becomes and the more intense the flavour is.
Now for the best part…the tasting! The paler, softer 12 month old cheese was delicious but the older and darker 24 month cheese was a lot sharper and had a more intense flavour. An interesting point was that the younger cheese is harder to grate.
Much to our surprise a generous breakfast followed together with a delicious D.O.P Lambrusco, a sparkling wine that is from the Modena Region.
It’s never to early for wine!
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Di Modena DOP could easily be translated as pure gold instead of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Of Modena. There really is no vinegar is this small bottle of deliciousness!
The making of traditional balsamic, unlike the IGP balsamic that is made by industrial methods, is a passion. To meet DOP standards, traditional balsamic is made only in Modena by one consortium of which there are one hundred and fifty members. The grapes must be from the area. The balsamic is aged in barrels for at least twelve years for the red label and twenty five years for the gold label. This is then inspected and bottled in a specially designed bottle that is the only one allowed by the consortium.
Our producer had three hectares of trebbiano grapes growing, seventy percent of which would be used in the making of balsamic vinegar. The trebbiano grapes are pressed, and then boiled for fifteen to twenty hours before the must is used. The other thirty percent were Lambrusco grapes used for wine production and vinegar for the cheaper IGP balsamic.
Important to the making of Aceto Balsamico is the batteria, a line of five to seven barrels of diminishing size and made of different types of wood, that allow a certain amount of the grape must to be passed from one to the other each year.
These barrels are stored in attics or rooms that are hot in summer and cold in winter….perfect conditions that allow the air to pass around and for evaporation to take place in summer.
Each barrel is filled to ninety percent capacity and left open, allowing air to pass over it. The five percent that evaporates each summer is replaced by must from the barrel behind it. This continues up the line until the new must is placed is the youngest barrel.
After twelve years, one litre can be taken from the smallest barrel and sent to the Consortium for testing, analysis and tasting. If it passes this test, D.O.P approval is given and the consortium will bottle it in the approved copyrighted bottle.
Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP
The traditional balsamico consortium produces about ten thousand litres a year. Compare this to the ninety eight million litres that are made by industrial methods that produce a balsamic known as Aceto Balsamio Di Modena IGP. IGP stands for Indicazione Geografica Protetta (Indication of geographical protection) a production that does not have the strict rules of DOP. Here only one part of the production needs to relate to the geographical area.
This is the type of balsamic that most people are used to.
A percentage of cooked grape must is mixed with wine vinegar and left for 60 days. It is then bottled…..usually in a dark bottle to hide it’s lack of colour though often colouring and caramel are used to darken it.
Some IGP products are not as runny as others, they have more grape must in them than wine vinegar and are often left to age for a lot longer. In this case the bottle is often clear so you can see the colour and thickness. Even though time is not allowed to be mentioned on these bottles, some producers age the IGP balsamic for at least seven years, giving it a natural thickness and colour because of time! The IGP balsamic that I bought for salads has been aged for over seven years and is made of seventy percent must and thirty percent vinegar.
A good clue to what your balsamic is made of is to read the label and see what ingredient is mentioned first! If wine vinegar is mentioned first you will find that it is runnier than one with more grape must!
The acetaia (balsamic production) that we visited was started in 1860.
One of the highlights of the tour was seeing the original batteries that are still going strong. One of the wooden casks developed a leak so a new wooden cask was put around it to retain the originality of it. One litre of this incredibly old balsamic is taken each year!
Today new batteries are often started and named for the children. They will be given to them when they leave home just like a dowry!
Once again we all looked forward to tasting this very special aceto balsamico.
The difference between the two is amazing but so it is the cost!
Proscuitto Di Modena
Images of fabulous salt cured proscuitto hanging in Italian Delis or in dark cellar like conditions is what we usually see but I had not realised what went on behind the scenes. It was an eye opener!
Again those three letters of recognition of the traditional artisanal product are important…D.O.P
Modena’s Proscuitto may not be as well known as the Proscuitto Di Parma or the San Daniele Proscuitto but to the untrained person, the difference between them is so very hard to tell.
The same process is used, infact Modena’s proscuitto is aged 2 years longer than its rival. However Parma sells about nine million legs while Modena’s six producers sell between seventy and eighty thousand legs.
Both producers use the back legs of white skinned pigs with the femur and the hip bones intact. These pigs, that come from eleven different regions in Italy, mainly the north and the central areas, are raised for nine months on corn, barley and left over whey from cheese production. This helps increase the sweetness of the meat. Land raised, single ladies and castrated males need only apply!
The pigs are not allowed to be slaughtered and processed at the same place so, twice a week, a delivery of legs arrive at the production facility and a process of massaging, salting and washing takes place for the first four days. After this they are salted again and left for another ten days. This expels the water in the meat. They are then left to hang for four and a half months.
Once they are washed and dried again the pre aging process starts for two months after which, with the application of a paste of pork fat, salt and pepper brushed on them to help retain their moisture, they mature for another seven months
Finally after fourteen months they are ready to be tested to see if they pass the strict D.O.P rules. Using the tibia bone of a horse, they are tested in three places. If the smell is good, D.O.P accreditation is given.
A generous tasting of the different meats followed. The Modena proscuitto was sweet and delicious though it was hard to tell the difference between this and the Parma ham. The Modena proscuitto certainly held its own. They factory also produced other different types of ham including a version of my favourite, culatello which we had travelled to Zibello to taste.
Our tastings had been extremely generous so we were not expecting the lavish lunch that was waiting for us at a gorgeous little agriturismo not far away.
We were welcomed with glasses of the local DO.P Lambrusco wine while lunch was served.
Plates of local delicacies included Bologna’s famous tagliatelle ragu, stuffed zucchini, a delicious chicken dish and Gramigna alla salsiccia….short, squiggly tubes of egg and spinach pasta with a pork sausage sauce…Delizioso!
Emilia Romagna is also the home of pignoletto wine, a local sparkling wine that is similar to prosecco. We tasted this with a fabulous pistachio desert. What a way to finish a fabulous day!
Italian Days offers many different tours through out Italy.
Our Italian Days Food Experience is one of their most popular tours and I can now see why. It opens doors that we, as dependant travellers, would take a lot of organising. They pick you up from Bologna and take you to these fabulous places, offer amazing tastings at each and finish the day with an delicious lunch. It’s definitely a tour I can thoroughly recommend.
Thank you Italian Days.
You can find more information on Italian Days tours on the web site at
Our tour was complimentary but as you all know, I would never recommend a tour if I hadn’t enjoyed it and more importantly learnt from it!