Saturday, June 23, 2012

Italy on 5 Pounds a Day: Day 2

No, this isn't about how I managed to survive four days in Italy with only £20 in my wallet.  But by the end of the trip, I was fully expecting to find that I had gained a significant amount of weight from all the food we ate!

Since we were instructed to be on the bus by 8:30 am, my roommate Erin and I woke up bright and early on Tuesday morning and were the first people to hit the breakfast buffet at 7 am.  What a spread!  Fruit, cakes, pastries, meats, cheeses, cereal, bread, yogurt, bacon and eggs, and cappuccinos made to order.  Our day of gluttony was off to a good start!
We'd come to the right place for our culinary tour.  Bologna is in the Emilia Romagna region of northeastern Italy, which is considered the food capital of Italy, and is particularly known for its Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Parma ham (prosciutto), and balsamic vinegar as well as a certain variety of cherries.  After breakfast we piled into our little bus and headed out to the country to find out for ourselves.
Our cute little air-conditioned bus
Our first stop of the day was an agricultural cooperative where they make Parmesan and ricotta cheese.  (I believe it's pronounced "lah-MAY")
The cheese factory
 It was a relatively small operation, and I suspect they don't normally do a lot of public tours...
The copper vats where they mix and cook the milk
Ricotta cheese
Freshly-made Parmesan cheese wheels
... based on the number of, um, pin-up calendars adorning the walls.  This was one of the more tasteful examples.
Most of the employees are male...
Our guide seemed oblivious to this until one of the women in our group asked Mara to ask him if we would look like the ladies in the calendars if we ate their cheese.  The poor guy turned bright red and was at a complete loss for words, but was clearly relieved that we seemed more amused than offended.

After squeezing our way through the factory floor, we were surprised to emerge into a huge room filled floor to ceiling with shelves of giant wheels of cheese.  Each one weighs 45 kilos, or about 100 pounds!  They use a special spiked plastic mat that fits around the wheel to mark it with the date.  The cheese is aged a minimum of 12 months.
Each wheel of cheese is stamped with the date and batch number
Say "cheese"!
After our tour, we visited the small shop in the front where we were offered samples of Parmesan cheese of varying ages and some of the other cheeses they make.  Mara surprised us by giving us each a one-pound wedge of Parmesan as a gift from the tour company.  That's a big chunk of cheese!  While we were there, the owner of the restaurant we were going to later stopped by to pick up some ingredients for our dinner.   A promising development...

Someone asked where they got the milk from, so our cheese guide offered to take us to meet the cows.  This seemed like a great idea until our bus pulled up in front of a concrete bunker.  These were not the "Happy Cows" you see in those ads for California cheese.  These poor cows were kept penned up inside.  I'm sure they were treated well, but it wasn't quite what we were expecting.  Still, we listened politely as the owner's teenage granddaughters explained the milking process (in Italian) and showed us the machinery.
Pam makes friends
We piled back into the bus and drove on to our next destination, the restaurant Rifugio DiVino.  It is owned by a friend of Mara's aunt, who lives nearby.
The sign hangs from a cherry tree!
The restaurant
Italy is beautiful!
While we sat outside and enjoyed the beautiful weather and surroundings, Mara's aunt showed up with a huge basket of gorgeous duroni cherries from her uncle's farm.
Mara and her aunt Franca.  Life is just a basket of cherries
We were served a light lunch of cold cuts, Parmesan and ricotta cheese, two kinds of bread, marinated peppers, a green salad, and cherries for dessert.  The round bread is a regional specialty and is made in a special grill that creates the floral design.
Our waiters were the owners grandsons, who spoke English fluently.  It turned out that their father is American.  Small world!  After lunch, we donned aprons and went into the kitchen for an informal cooking class/demonstration with the restaurant's owner, Giovanna, and her daughter, Sabrina, who translated everything for us.  They showed us how to make tortelloni with cheese filling and veal cutlet rolls with parma ham and fontina cheese.  (Tortelloni is bigger than tortellini and usually has a cheese or veggie filling rather than meat.)
Giovanna mixes fresh eggs with flour to make pasta
Marianna and Charene give it a try
Ricotta & Parmesan cheese filling goes in a pastry bag
Rolling out the pasta requires a loooong rolling pin
Piping the filling into squares of pasta
Sabrina shows us how to fold the tortelloni
Veal rolls
Then we were shooed out of the kitchen while the staff finished up prepping the food for our dinner.  We joked that they were probably feeding our amateurish pasta to the chickens and dogs and making a new batch with their industrial-size mixer and pasta machine.  In the meantime, Mara's aunt invited us over to her house to try a special cake she had made for us. 
Aunt Franca's house
The cake was delicious!  It was sweet and buttery with a crunchy texture from almonds and thin pasta noodles. 
Tagliatelle Cake
After polishing off most of the cake and heartily thanking Mara's aunt and uncle for their hospitality, we took a quick field trip to a nearby town to do a little sightseeing.  We just had time to walk up the hill to a castle ruin and then back down to our bus in order to get back to the restaurant in time for dinner.

Castle tower
Here's a picture of me with my roommate for the trip, Erin.  Apparently some AWC ladies get us mixed up because we have similar coloring and are the "same age."  Considering Erin is taller and seven years younger than me, I'd say she got the raw end of that deal.
Erin and I enjoy the view from the castle
Back at the restaurant, we helped put the finishing touches on a cherry cake using the cherries Mara's aunt had brought us.
Pretty cake with cherries on top!
Taking a breather in my apron
And finally, the moment of truth -- we sat down and ate all the food we made, or at least helped make.  Along with several bottles of the local sparkling wine, of course.
Buon Appetito!
Tortelloni with sage & butter sauce and Gorgonzola cheese sauce
Salad and meat rolls
Cherry cake
Oh. My. God.  Everything was delicious!  The tortelloni was probably the best pasta I've ever tasted.  We thanked Giovanna for a fun afternoon and an incredible meal and waddled back to bus.

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