Food Tour Review: Italian Days Food Experience
Nothing speaks to the heart of a culture as much as the local food. So taking a dedicated food tour in Bologna can be the highlight of any vacation whether you’re a hardcore foodie or not. On our recent travels through Italy, we took a tour with Italian Days Food Experience through Emilia Romagna, a region known even amongst Italians for its amazing food. It was like a food tour on steroids, in the best possible way.
The van arrived at our Airbnb right on time at 7:00am to take us on our “experience”, and four fellow foodies were already inside. By 8:00am, we arrived at our first stop and met fifteen others for a tour of the parmigiano reggiano cheese plant. Alessandro, our host and guide for the day, met us there. He’s also the creator and owner of the company, and I was impressed that he himself was giving the tour. His upbeat demeanor was fun and infectious and immediately set the tone for the day.
The King of Cheese
Consortium #1384 produces the finest (and pricey) parmigiano reggiano, also referred to as the “King of Cheese”. The tour was well-organized and led us through the plant demonstrating the processes involved step by step – the mixing, resting, rinsing, storing, moulding in metal rings, and finally after all is said and done – aging for 12 months and longer. After strict final inspec-tions, there is the birth of the King – beautiful, golden, and delicious parmigiano reggiano.
From the start of the tour, the mantra of “DOP” was emphasized to the nth degree so we un-derstood the full measure of its importance. Food consortiums in Italy operate under DOP (Pro-tected Designation of Origin), a strict set of government regulations established to ensure the highest quality and total traceability from farm to table. Those numbers you see on full wheels of parmigiano in the gourmet stores reveal the details of its production – where and when it was made.
We began to make the connection between labor and price, and appreciate its real value. Par-migiano reggiano cheese takes time, care, and oversight to produce. Top quality equals higher price. Alessandro’s DOP evangelism was working on us, and I was beginning to see the importance of strict regulation, and what the Emilia Romagna buzz was all about.
The first leg of the tour wrapped up two hours later, and we were ready to taste. Outside in the warm morning sun, we feasted on the cheese – bold and nutty but not too sharp or soapy. Then came an Italian-style breakfast – platters of cheese, prosciutto, crostini, salami, pizza, and small pastries, all washed down with espresso and a local Lambrusco. I could really get used to this.
Balsamic of Modena
Next stop was the home of one of 310 families in Modena that produce Traditional Balsamic Vi-negar of Modena, DOP. Like the cheese production, all 310 producers are under the control of one consortium. Each family’s balsamic production takes place in their attic with the extreme hot and cold temperatures it needs to age.
Balsamic is made from cooking grape juice rather than fermenting it, then allowing it to age over time. Lots of time. Several grades of balsamic are typically produced: the lesser grade IGP (Pro-tected Geographic Identification) Balsamic Vinegar of Modena ages 60 days to 3 years. DOP, again regulated by strict government guidelines, requires aging a minimum of 12 years. And fi-nally, the most impressive of all, the DOP 25-year-old with it’s own unique label and bottle.
The process goes like this: in the small attic there are rows of 5-7 barrels, each decreasing in size from the largest to the smallest and containing progressively older balsamic. Every winter, about 25% of the vinegar in the smallest barrel is removed and bottled, and younger vinegar from the barrel next in line replaces it. This “topping up” siphoning cascade continues on up the line, with young vinegar replacing the older vinegar that has moved on down the line. The largest barrel is then replenished with the cooked grape concentrate. All the barrels are then left to do nothing more than mature and age.
Given the decades long waiting game, the label of Balsamic of Modena, DOP can not be given until five inspectors agree on taste, smell, and viscosity – while blindfolded – and finally, eyes open, on color. Then and only then can the consortium begin to bottle. By now you can see what was dawning on me. The good stuff is understandably rare and therefore expensive, but I wondered if the taste really justified the insanely high price of quality balsamic.
Downstairs in the tasting room we sampled a variety of the balsamic products over small cups of ricotta cheese and vanilla gelato, savoring the full flavor and intensity of each product. Then drop by drop, we sampled the balsamic on its own starting with the lesser grade of vinegar and working our way up to the best. At the end, a large drop of the 25-year-old told the tale – smooth and silky without a trace of acidity. Aging elevated this to a higher level far beyond vinegar – it was sublime.
Rounding out the food trifecta, the third tour stop was to Prosciuttificio Nini Gianfranco, producers of fine Prosciutto di Modena DOP since 1910. The actual production of Prosciutto takes 14 months, 11 of which are for ageing alone. Through several stages of salting, washing at precisely timed increments, and moving the legs from one humidity and temperature controlled room to the next, the quality is finally inspected after 14 months. If the meat has matured properly it can be labeled as Proscuitto di Modena DOP, and the quality was evident in just one bite – the meat was delicate and delicious, with just a hint of salty goodness.
The Food Coma
The four hours we spent touring, sampling, and learning flew by, and I was surprised by the new appreciation I had for the food. It was the perfect time to enjoy a relaxed lunch at a local restau-rant overlooking the hills of Emilia Romagna. It all began with appetizers of cheese and cured meats, followed by different breads and an endless parade of Bolognese style pastas served family-style. As the food kept coming, Alessandro explained the dishes and how they were pre-pared. In between, bottles of locally produced red and white wines paired well with each course. Next was roast chicken, grilled beef with rosemary, and roasted potatoes. Then finally, dessert. The food was rustic, plentiful, and really delicious. My Italian grandparents would have approved.
I also enjoyed chatting and relaxing with folks who also appreciated the good food and wine. After two hours with our appetites more than satisfied we all began to slip into the food coma Alessandro promised.
What We Liked
The service team at Italian Days did a very good job managing expectations in a friendly and enthusiastic way. They reached out several times via email from initial booking to the day before our tour, with details and pick-up times.
Small Group Size
Acoustics are an important component of a successful tour. If you can’t hear the guide or ask questions, you may as well guide yourself and go it alone. Factory tours can be especially noisy with machines running and noise bouncing off hard surfaces. Small group tours are always a good idea in my book, and this tour did it well. Alessandro made sure everyone around him could see, hear, and experience the tour.
The Personal Touch
Truth be told, I initially expected the tour to be over-hyped given its name of “food experience”. But it didn’t take long for Alessandro and everyone on his team to deliver that very promise. From beginning to end, the enthusiasm for their Italian foods, traditions, and values spread to everyone.
It takes a lot for a tour to become an “experience” – for an emotional connection to be made to whatever it is you’re learning about – and Italian Days far exceeded my expectations. Each ex-perience on the tour invited us to see why strict DOP regulations yield a higher quality food product and was reinforced with a generous taste to prove it. We left with a greater appreciation for the production process and the overall value of good food, one that speaks directly to a core Italian value: excellent quality, regardless of the time it takes to achieve.
To Italians, food is love. It’s a source of great pride, to be shared with loved ones and savored. If you think savoring quintessential Italian foods like parmigiano reggiano, balsamic, and prosciutto is a good idea, then enjoying them in Italy on an Italian Days Food Experience is worthy of a spot on your bucket list.