How They Make Parmigiano in Parma

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parmigiano reggiano

On my recent trip to Parma, Italy — with a wonderful group of food enthusiast travelers — we got to see up close and first-hand how true parmigiano reggiano is made.

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my group at the parmigiano reggiano factory

Parmesan is not parmigiano reggiano. Only the cheese made in the region of Emilia, in Parma, from very special cows, and stamped parmigiano reggiano is the real thing.

We witnessed the new milk, delivered that morning, swirling in huge heated copper vats.

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After rennet is added, just a couple of hours later, the workmen pull a 200-lb. ball of cheese from the whey.

They cut that huge wad of goodness in two. And each of those halves (100 lbs. each) becomes a wheel of parmigiano.

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At first it sits in a plastic form, with a band surrounding it to imprint (like brail) the name parmigiano reggiano, and the number representing this particular facility/manufacturer.

Then it goes into a curved form, gets submerged in brined water for some days. And then left to dry and age for no less than 12 months.

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parmigiano reggiano

At the end of the tour, we tasted the 12-month, 24-month, and 30-month cheese. Of course, we bought some to bring home. Prices from this manufacturer were so modest. After all, we were right there– right there where they made the cheese. In the beautiful countryside of Parma.

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Parma Countryside

Our guide had just recently gained access to this facility. So our tour felt super-exclusive. If you are ever in the area do look up Stefania Bertaccini. She knows all about Parma’s wonderful products, can guide you on tours, and host/teach fabulous cooking classes.

Secret Charming Fountain: Amalfi

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Secret Charming Fountain in Amalfi

Did you say it’s time to go to the Amalfi Coast? Hang on, let me get my hat!

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Amalfi Coast

 

There is NOTHING like the Amalfi Coast. Beautiful towns balancing on dramatic cliffs, food from the sea, abundance of lemons, bougainvillea spilling everywhere, and the welcoming, warm citizens of Campania. NOTHING like it.

The jewel, and title town of the Coast, is Amalfi.

Amalfi street

Amalfi

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Amalfi

It’s a small town, lusciously sprawling down a long, lovely main street, which leads from the beach, past the cathedral, to the teetering white-washed inviting architecture. Every step of the way you find beauty, culture, restaurants, coffee bars, and shops.

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Amalfi

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Amalfi

view from Amalfi Cathedral

Amalfi

Keep walking deep into the town, toward the end of the main street — till you think: “well, I guess that was the last shop” — that’s when you’ll find the secret charming fountain. It’s originally meant to represent a nativity scene, but over the years, there seems to have been many added figures. Hills & cliffs, with tableaux of shepherds, and sweethearts, craftspeople, working people, and beautiful maidens.

It’s also a drinking fountain open to the public for free refreshment. Take a sip. Hang out and make friends with all the little people (and sheep), read the stories they tell & take home an extraordinary experience.

And then (why not?) stop into a cafe for some prosciutto & melon. (Soooo good!)

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prosciutto & melon in Amalfi

Best Cooking Class in Venice

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Piazza San Marco – Venice

Some people shy away from Venice. They say it’s too crowded…too many tourists.

There’s some truth to that.

But there’s more truth here: Venice is like NO OTHER PLACE. It’s a beautiful history captured in space and stopped in time. To go to Venice is to time travel. Back centuries. And centuries-old wonders have all been preserved.

If you want to avoid crowds, it’s easy to steer yourself off the beaten path and feel like the city is all yours. Intriguing and relaxing neighborhoods are everywhere.

 

One of my favorite experiences is cooking with Chef Marika of Acquolina on the Venetian island of Lido. Her cooking classes are hands-on with all local fresh ingredients, and her personality is buoyant and encouraging. If you take the full day class, you start by meeting her in the center of Venice at the famous Rialto market, where dozens of tables and booths are spilling over with produce, seafood, pastas, and spices.

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Chef Marika shopping with students at the Rialto Market

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Here you go shopping with Marika to choose what you will cook. She’ll listen to your requests and also make some knowing suggestions. She knows where to shop, which are the best vendors…her favorite produce, the best fish.

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Chef Marika talking about the artichoke bottoms we’re about to buy

My group from Nashville shopped with her…picking out baby scallops in the shell, small soft-shelled crabs, prawns, and baby squid. We bought fresh whole artichoke hearts (just the bottoms, which we braised and ate like steaks), cherry tomatoes, and fresh peas.

When her rolling shopping cart was completely full, we made a couple of other short stops before boarding a taxi boat to the outer island of Lido. Marika took us to the classic age-old wine bars hidden behind the market. We sipped small glasses of wine and nibbled cichetti — bite-sized appetizers.

 

Then we took the short boat ride to her home on Lido…

 

Marika’s home is just a short walk from the boat stop on Lido.

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Marika’s home on Lido

As soon as we arrived we started cooking!

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Chef Marika showing us how to clean the seafood

We learned to clean baby squid and scallops, how to make a batter for deep-frying small soft-shelled crabs called moleche. We sautéed prawns, and made a fresh tomato sauce for pasta….we prepared all of the wonderful seafood and vegetables.

 

And then sat down to a fabulous feast.

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On our boat ride back to the center of Venice, we were happy, sated, and full of wonderful recipes!

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for info about Chef Marika’s classes, contact:

Chef Marika Contaldo Seguso

Acquolina – Villa Ines
Via Lazzaro Mocenigo 10
30126 Venezia-Lido
Tel/Fax (+39) 041 526 7226
e-mail info@acquolina.com

Can I go back to Italy now?

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our country hotel in Assisi

I just got back from Italy and I want to go back right now.

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Piazza Navona, Roma

Happens every time. It is never enough. Perhaps even living there is never enough (it wasn’t when I DID live there!).

What is it about that country? Okay, I’m second generation Italian-American. So there’s that this-feels-like-home phenomenon. But STILL. The small groups that I lead there are Americans from different descents, and they, TOO, want to stay for extended periods of time.

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my group with the proprietors of our Assisi hotel

Italy is the charming country. It’s the beauty. The food…

ravioli w crispy pancetta

Siena lunch: ravioli w crispy pancetta

…the People…

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Every Italian is thrilled with fresh porcini season…here at Mastro Donato In Testaccio, Roma

…the differences between regions. Differences between cities, towns. The food…

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pizza at Mercato Centrale in Firenze

…Striking mountains. Lush hills…

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hills in Tuscany

…Stunning coastlines. Coffee…

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Siena breakfast

…History. Monuments. Art…

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Venus by Botticelli at Uffizi Galleries in Firenze

…Fountains…

…Food…

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Bistecca Fiorentina in Firenze

…Philosophy of life.

And it’s shaped like a boot. What other country is clever enough to be shaped like something so recognizable?

On this recent trip, my group and I tasted the food of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio. We dove particularly deep into Firenze, Roma, and Chianti country. I brought back many new recipes from these experiences, and am inspired to recreate many more.

One of my favorites is below. We visited a small winery in the Chianti Classico region, where they served us lunch. The star of the menu was pasta cooked in Chianti wine. Delicious! And so simple. See the recipe below and do try it. Enjoy! Ciao for now…

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pasta cooked in Chianti for our wine-tasting at Brogioni Maurizio Montefioralle

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Maurizio, the producer, telling us about the process of wine-making

Pasta Cooked in Chianti Wine (serves 2-3)

1/2 cup chopped pancetta (or bacon)

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 lb. cut pasta, such as fusilli or farfalle

3/4 cup Chianti wine or favorite dry red wine

1/4 cup grated parmigiano or pecorino or combination

4-5 fresh sage leaves, diced, stems discarded

salt & pepper to taste

Place a pasta pot of water on the heat. Bring to a boil. Meanwhile, place the olive oil and chopped pancetta in a small frying pan. Cook until pancetta cooks through and browns a bit. Reserve in pan.

When water has boiled, salt water well, add pasta and cook until almost done, just before al dente or to al dente (softness of your cooked pasta is up to you, but Italians don’t like it too soft…pasta will cook some more in the wine).

Start heating wine while pasta is boiling. Pour wine into a sauté pan with at least 2-inch sides. Bring wine to a simmer. Add a pinch of salt to wine. When pasta is al dente, scoop out with a strainer and add pasta to the wine. Let it cook in wine at a lively simmer, stirring, for about 2 minutes until wine is mostly or all absorbed. Take off the heat, or transfer pasta to a bowl.

Season with salt and pepper. Pour in pancetta with its oil. Sprinkle and stir in cheese. Sprinkle and stir in diced sage leaves. Stir to combine. Serve.

Travel to Italy While Staying Home

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Modica, Sicilia

When I’m not in Italy, I’m in Italy in my dreams, in my imagination, in my thoughts, in my kitchen, and in my paintings. The country is part of my whole being and inspires so much of what I do.

When I am in Italy I snap images, and take video, in an effort to bring home “a little bit of Italy.” Here are two videos I put together with those images. One is a short compilation of the beauty of Venice…

The other is a short tour of Palermo’s Capo Market…and then a peek into the cooking class my group took on a yacht in Palermo’s harbor…

Later this year I’ll be visiting Assisi, Siena, Florence & Rome. I’ll bring back some more Italy for you. (And me.) In the meantime, visit Italy right now from home…and then, if you can, visit Italy.

Sicily = Home

rainbow at hotel in Ragusa Ibla

rainbow at hotel in Ragusa Ibla

My ancestors are from Sicily. My father’s parents from Ragusa. And my mother’s mother from Palermo.

I’ve been to Italy countless times (really countless, because I have no idea how many times) …but last month was my first time to Sicily.

I was in Ragusa. I went to Palermo. I felt the vibes resonating in my soul. I envisioned distant unseen memories. I met people who mirrored my style and spirit. And my palate…it screamed the loudest: “I know this food!!!”

I was a little nervy. I brought a small group of my cooking class students with me. Usually I lead people to places I’ve been. But this was all open exploration. Luckily, my companions were up for the ride and loved every minute as much as I did.

w our hosts of Uncovered Sicily at Santa Tresa Winery in Vittoria

with our hosts of Uncovered Sicily at Santa Tresa Winery in Vittoria

In Ragusa, we cooked with locals in their homes.

making scacce in Marian di Ragusa

making scacce in Marina di Ragusa

making scacce in Marina di Ragusa

making scacce in Marina di Ragusa

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making scacce in Marina di Ragusa

We ate the food (and I’m telling you the taste was the same!) that I grew up with. Scacce, a kind of thin rolled up pizza with tomato sauce and Ragusano caciocavallo cheese.

scaccia

scaccia

more scaccia

more scaccia

...and more scacce!

…and more scacce!

We cooked and dined on pork braised in tomato sauce with ricotta ravioli and “cavati” (a hand-made cut pasta).

Ragusano pasta

Ragusano pasta

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In Palermo we shopped the Capo market with our hosts…

Capo market shopping

Capo market shopping

Capo market, buying fish

Capo market, buying fish

…and then cooked on a boat. We cleaned and stuffed sardines. We fried tiny fish and ate them whole in one bite. We marinated baby shrimp in lemon for bruschetta, and made almond cookies dipped in pistachios and candied cherry.

cooking in the boat's galley

cooking in the boat’s galley

stuffed sardines

stuffed sardines

shrimp bruschetta

shrimp bruschetta

tiny fried fish with pasta and almond pesto

tiny fried fish with pasta and almond pesto

almond cookies

almond cookies

We were wowed by cathedrals in Ragusa, Modica, and Cefalu…

San Giorgio Cathedral in Ragusa Ibla

San Giorgio Cathedral in Ragusa Ibla

San Giorgio interior w portrait of Saint George

San Giorgio interior w portrait of Saint George

San Pietro in Modica

San Pietro in Modica

San Pietro Cathedral interior

San Pietro Cathedral interior

Cefalu Cathedral

Cefalu Cathedral

Cefalu Cathedral interior

Cefalu Cathedral interior

We were delighted with groves (and city dwelling) cactus plants laden with prickly pears (that we ate at one of our dinners).

cactus in piazza in Ragusa Ibla

cactus in piazza in Ragusa Ibla

peeled prickly pears at one of our dinners -- in Giovanni and Agata's home

peeled prickly pears at Giovanni and Agata’s home

The arancina…

arancina w cappuccino

arancina w cappuccino Ragusa

arancina w cappuccino Cefalu

arancina w cappuccino Cefalu

The special chocolate in Modica hand-made in the aztec-style…

making chocolate in Modica

making chocolate in Modica

The gelato…

Modican chocolate and coconut gelato

Modican chocolate and coconut gelato

The cannoli and pastries (and pastries) (and pastries)…

pastries in Cefalu

pastries in Cefalu

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pastries Palermo

pastries Palermo

cannolo Ragusa

cannolo Ragusa

And the wine. The Sicilian wine. Charming and comforting.

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I’m just back now for a couple of weeks and I’m already scheming about returning. There is a spirit in Sicily like nowhere else in Italy. Its heritage, steeped in many cultures (Arab, Spanish, Norman, Greek) all combine to make such a unique world. I know what that is now. And I’m so happy to be made of the same stuff.

at restaurant Quattro Gatti in Ragusa Ibla

at restaurant Quattro Gatti in Ragusa Ibla

Dreaming of Positano

Positano

Positano

Maybe it’s the weather. Spring. That fresh air. Carrying the scents of baby leaves, buds about to burst, the planet’s new tip toward the sun.

But I’ve got Positano on my mind.

Positano

Positano

There is only one place like it. Adjacent towns along the Amalfi Coast are not exactly Positano. They all have their own secret charm. But only in Positano do the buildings pile up so high.

Positano

Positano

Does the beach draw you to the sea. Do the meandering, circling, serpentine streets take you from the top…

Positano

Positano

…to the bottom and back again.

Positano

Positano

And every storefront, hotel, restaurant, cafe along the way is where you want to spend hours–

Positano

Positano

each place — one at a time…

Positano

Positano

— so that you stay in Positano for an unlimited amount of days. Yes, that’s what I want.

Positano

Positano