Parma has a love affair with food that seems to have no bounds and it is fair to say that it would be easier to find a hen’s tooth than a visitor who walks away disappointed. If you love Italian food, a stop in the Parma area should be included on your next trip to Italy.
Famously known as the ‘Food Valley,” Parma is home to some of Italy’s most famous food products, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma, as well as fresh, handmade pasta. Yet, these only scratch the surface; other delicacies include Culatello di Zibello, Spalla Cotta di San Secondo, Salame Felino, the Borgotaro mushroom and Tartufo Nero di Fragno.
The Parma area boasts the highest number of certified food products (the prestigious DOP and IGP labels) in Italy. Here, food artisans take pride in their work and pass down their skills from one generation to the next.
Prosciutto di Parma is made without any additives or preservatives. The skills of the maestri salatori during the salting process and the dry and gentle air of the Parma hills combine to give prosciutto di Parma its unmistakable sweetness and delicate taste. Traditionally served with figs or melon, it also transforms bread into a delicacy suited for a king.
Culatello di Zibello DOP is a rare Italian salumi from Parma (only eight towns can produce culatello). Among the region’s pedigreed charcuterie and prized across Italy, Culatello di Zibello is the crowning glory of salumi. Unlike prosciutto, which is aged in the hills, Culatello is aged in damp cantinas to form muffa nobile – noble mold. A slowly-cured boneless ham made from the choicest muscle of the pig’s rump, culatello has such a unique sweet-musky flavor and velvety texture that it is considered the pinnacle of Italy’s artisanal food culture. Cured in old cellars by a method that prohibits artificial climate control, just 30,000 culatello are produced each year. This is in contrast to almost ten million Prosciutto di Parma.
Spalla Cotta di San Secondo is an ancient cold cut that was appreciated by the Romans. It was also a favorite of composer Giuseppe Verdi. It takes its name from the small town of San Secondo, the epicenter of spalla production. Obtained from the front shoulder (spalla) of the pig, after being boned, trimmed and salted, Spalla di San Secondo is left to age for a short period of time. Later, it is cooked for several hours in Fortanina wine and water with the addition of natural spices, giving the final product a soft texture and a scented aroma.
Salame Felino IGP is another renowned salumi. Its name derives from the small town of Felino that is located in the province of Parma. It was here, in the Baganza Valley, where this cold cut was born and where an entire museum inside the Castle of Felino has been devoted to it. This salame, which has been produced here for centuries, has a perfect balance between the fat and the lean parts and is left to age for at least 25 days, resulting in a soft texture, sweet taste and delicate aroma. It should always be sliced at a steep angle of 60 degrees to highlight the grain of the meat.
Fungo di Borgotaro IGP is found around Borgotaro and its valleys. This delicious porcini mushroom grows in the woods and lush forests rich in beech, chestnut, oak, hazel and poplar trees. It has an exceptional softness and a delicate, sweet flavor which is distinctive from other mushrooms. Many consider it to be superior to other porcini mushrooms, due to its aromatic qualities. It can be eaten raw, grilled, sautéed, baked, fresh or dried and finds its way into a multitude of recipes, enhancing each and every dish.
Parma is also known for Tartufo Nero di Fragno – the black truffle of Fragno. Among the more than 100 varieties of truffles, Fragno is among the best known and most delicious. It grows 10 to 12 feet underground on the roots of oak, walnut, birch, wild cherry and beech trees, along the damp, cool slopes of the Baganza and Parma Valleys. It can be stored for months and enhances many recipes, from appetizers to meats and from eggs to risotto, but its favorite partner is Parmigiano Reggiano.
Parmigiano Reggiano DOP is the king of Italian cheeses. Authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be produced in one area of the world, specifically in the provinces of Parma, Reggio-Emilia, Modena and Bologna on the left side of the Reno River and Mantua on the right side of the Po River. Only Parmigiano cheese produced here can obtain the DOP certification, fire-branded on the wheel of the cheese. Slow, careful aging for 24 months on average and the skills of the maestri casari give the cheese its different nuances and distinctive texture. Parmigiano aged for 18 months has a more delicate flavor; at 24 months it will have a soft and crumbly texture, while those aged for 30 months or longer will have a sharper taste.
When it comes to pasta, in Parma it is all about the fresh, handmade varieties. Highly respected are those who know the secrets of the dough and how to use the rolling pin to create masterpieces such as tortelli, anolini and tagliatelle. A classic recipe is that of tortelli d’Erbette, which is even mentioned by the Renaissance cook Bartolomeo Scappi is his seminal “Opera dell’arte del cucinare.” He described it as a veil of egg pasta holding a soft filling of ricotta cheese and herbs, then seasoned with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano.
If reading this article has caused you to become hungry, you are certainly not alone. Now imagine what it must be like to visit Parma. Yes, even with all of the history and culture of the province, it is now rightly considered first and foremost – a foodie’s paradise.