First flight out to Bologna Marco and I arrived to be greeted by pouring rain that would stay with us for the whole day. We go through my list (all my notes are on postcards) and decide that we will go to Reggio Emilia first. The following day we will explore Bologna in the morning and then visit our producer and one other.
All I hear about Parmigiano at the moment is ‘mountain’ cheeses, which is not entirely correct. The dairy can be 500m up a hill to qualify in their eyes as ‘mountain.’ I’ve always said that my favoured cheeses are close to the River Po and low number dairies. I like early months —January, February, or March — although ‘mountain’ cheeses are often really good towards the early summer. The feed is so specific from the drying of the grasses to the growing of the legumes and grasses with seeds that you almost feel there is a masonic secrecy to this cheese. One thing is certain as far as I am concerned: I want to work with a cheesemaker who is using milk from local farms; who oversees all the elements of feed; who processes the milk to make enough cheeses (but not too many) in order that he can pride himself on making the best possible cheese; and the Consorzio-listed maturing unit – where wheels are stored alongside other local producers' cheeses in cooled ‘hangars’ and where, these days, robots lift and brush the cheeses day in and day out ensuring the outer crusts are smooth and mould-free – should preferably be close by.
Driving through this region known for its agricultural produce the land is mostly flat until, on the horizon, you see the landscape change; a backdrop of mountains rises up, more like wistful brushstrokes than harsh forbidding craggy rock faces. It always amazes me that the people really don’t know what is going on from one town to the next; they are locked into their own little world and this very Italian mentality is the reason their produce is so unique and special. They are not comparing or competing, they are simply making the best possible product.
For instance, we were invited for lunch by the owner of a maturing unit in the Mantova area. The restaurant had the usual suspects on the menu, like Tortellini in broth, which I duly ordered. “Ah,” said our host, “now I want you to taste it just how we ‘artisans’ like it.” When my bowl arrived he took the bottle of really wonderful crimson Lambrusco and poured some into the bowl. “Now this is what I have at the end of every day when I come home from work starving hungry – my mother said this will revive you!” I have to say it was truly delicious, but only in this part of the region you will find the broth served this way.
So I come back to London with seven different Parmigiano. One is from our usual producer who gave me the last piece of 36-month to enjoy until we start up with him again next year. All the others we have picked up along the way – from the local covered food market in Bologna to cheese shops and grocers to another medium-sized producer; one particular one the number of which I seem to remember, but from where I can’t put my finger on.
They’re all lined up – we’re blind tasting. What fun! The boys can’t wait and actually start without me as I am called away to take a phone call. By the time I come back, they are discussing, assessing and very animated. “I like No. 1 and 3” …. “No, No. 4 is the best and No. 7” …. "They all taste the same to me” (I think that remark was supposed to be ironic).
So I taste. No. 1 is okay – pleasant with some acidity. No. 2 is drier but may work with a glass of Prosecco or that great Lambrusco I remember from the lunch. No. 3 – that’s sweet and light fruity acidity. No. 4 I don’t like at all. No. 5 – bland. No. 6 – too grainy. No. 7 — that’s probably my favourite.
But I keep going back to No. 3. What is it about that cheese that sparks my memory?