Dining Out In And Around Parma

We packed a lot of excellent eating into our short trip to Parma, where we discovered the origin of Parma ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.


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Situated in Pilastro, a small rural village about 15 kilometres from the centre of Parma, is a small trattoria-osteria called Masticabrodo. The village is virtually in the shadow of the impressive Castello di Torrechiara (built in the 15th century by a local noble) and right in the heart of Parma ham country.

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A family business with a warm and personal welcome from Ida, Francis and their staff, the restaurant’s menu is simple and traditional. Daily specials are scribbled onto plates.

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Bread is served in paper bags and local wines are very much in evidence.


To start – what else but some fantastic Parma ham, sweet and satin soft? And bowls of pickled vegetables, a nice sharp contrast.

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Most of us at the table ordered the tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms. The treat was that the mushrooms were plump and fresh (not rehydrated dried ones) and lifted this simple dish to very heady heights. It was one of the best plates of pasta I’ve ever had.


With our meal, the wine drinkers stuck to local tipples and were particularly surprised (in a good way) by a sparkling red Lambrusco from the Marcello winery.

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Out came some aged Parmesan cheese.

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And somehow we still found room for dessert. A plate of local sbrisolona was suggested and duly ordered. I didn’t regret my choice of thick, sweet crema di zabaglione amaretti, incredibly rich but awfully good.

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This is exactly that kind of small, rural family trattoria that you dream about stumbling across and which happy food and travel memories are made of.

Gran Caffè Orientale

Located in Place Garibaldi in the heart of the city, the Gran Caffè Orientale is a Parma institution that has been serving happy customers since 1893.


In the shimmering heat of a July evening, we appreciated our outdoor table, surrounded by the buzz of fellow diners and those traversing the beautiful square itself.

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To start, the ubiquitous but perfect selection of local charcuterie and cheese served on a large chopping board (15 €).


Next, pasta or risotto. I opted for a local speciality of tortelli verdi con spalla di San Secondo burro e salvia (9.5 €). Simple, fresh local ham sausage with a freshly made pasta. I didn’t love the ham sausage as much as I adored Parma ham and Culatello (both in the charcuterie selection) but did enjoy the dish.


I don’t recall which risotto some of my friends chose but I do recall tasting it and thinking it utterly delicious! And isn’t that a gorgeous view?


For my main I was dithering between the horse tartar with salad and a fillet steak with balsamic vinegar (also made in the Emilia-Romagna region).

When two of my friends said they were ordering the horse and I could taste theirs, I went ahead and ordered the filetto di manzo “blonde Aquitane Francese” all’aceto balsamico (21 €) and I certainly wasn’t sorry. It was a beautifully tender steak, cooked medium-rare as requested, and with the most fabulously rich and tasty balsamic sauce giving a wonderful sweet sour balance. Yes, it looked like the Exxon Valdez had run aground on my plate, but I can tell you, every one of us at the table agreed it was a superb dish!

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The tartara di cavallo con insalatina di stagione (10 €) was also really enjoyable. It didn’t have a distinctly horsey taste – not sure what I was expecting really – but was perhaps slightly gamier or just more savoury than beef.

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Desserts were a bit of an after thought though we bravely persevered. I forgot to note down our choices but you can see that we had a (large) fresh fruit salad with ice cream, a rich chocolaty thing (which had decent taste but wasn’t nearly moist enough for my taste) and another cakey patisserie thing which I’ve completely forgotten though I have a feeling it was my own dessert!

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That’s not necessarily a damning indictment of the desserts so much as an indication of how satiated we already were from the charcuterie, primo and secondi courses not to mention tired after our long day getting to Parma.

I often avoid places like this, located in the main tourist drags such as this magical square, convinced they will be over priced and underwhelming, relying on their location for custom.

And of course, the Gran Caffè Orientale proves me completely wrong, as both we and the many happy tables of local customers can attest.

Ristorante Cocchi

Ristorante Cocchi is another Parma institution, having been going strong since 1925. Located in the Hotel Daniel at the intersection of Viale Antonio Gramsci and Strada Abbeveratoia, it’s not quite as attractive a part of town as the Place Garibaldi but once settled inside, we focus instead on walls jam packed with paintings in a very wide range of styles and then on menu, food and friends.

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Out first, once again, were plates of Parma ham and Culatello (13 €) and some parmesan cheese. This time they were served alongside torta fritta (2 €); these squares of fried bread dough are a traditional local accompaniment to charcuterie. We folded thin slips of Parma ham, thick slices of Culatello and chunks of cheese inside the naughty pockets of dough for a delicious shared starter.

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Torn between the Tortelli d’erbetta (pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese, swiss chard and Parmesan cheese), the Tortelli di zucca (pasta stuffed with pumpkin and Parmesan cheese) and the Tortelli di patate ai porcini de Borgotari (pasta stuffed with potatoes and Parmesan cheese, in Porcini sauce) I was delighted to spot the Degustazione di Tortelli (10 €) which gives me a tasting of all three.


The ricotta, herb, swiss chard and Parmesan parcels were pleasant. The filling was subtle but worked nicely with the very fresh pasta and grated Parmesan.


I didn’t love the parcels stuffed with potatoes and Parmesan cheese and served with a Porcini sauce. They were OK, but missing the wow factor of that simple tagliatelle with fresh porcini mushrooms at Masticabrodo.

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The pumpkin and Parmesan parcels were incredible. I think there may also have been mention of Amaretti biscuits included in the filling too, though I may be mistaken. The flavour of the pumpkin was rich and sweet; the Parmesan cut through it just a little. But overall I found them awfully sweet for a savoury dish and would rather have ordered them as a dessert, for which I think they’d be perfect.

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Fairly full after our shared starters and primo dishes, we discussed whether or not to have a main, keen to try more traditional dishes but worried we’d not be able to do them justice.

Luckily, a helpful member of staff came to our rescue and suggested, for the two of us thinking of ordering the stracotto di guanciale di manzo alla parmigiana (13 €) that they plate up half a portion of the dish for each of us. This Parma style pot roast was a rustic dish, the kind of dish I imagine has been cooked in homes across the region for many, many generations. Satisfying, though better suited to a cold winter’s day than the July heat we were experiencing.


We had a good meal at Cocchi and service was attentive and helpful. I’d be happy to dine there again. But for me, the more formal setting didn’t win me over quite as much as the family welcome at Masticabrodo and the beautiful historical setting and especially friendly service at Gran Caffè Orientale.

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Discover the Origin of Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a recent post about Parma ham, I explained about my invitation to learn more about the production of two of Parma’s most famous products – the ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano, parmesan cheese.


You can read a little more about what it means to have a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, in that previous post.

Below are some images from the parmesan cheese producer we visited; a visual walk-through of the production process.


Making Parmesan Cheese

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Fresh raw cow’s milk is delivered to the cheese producers daily. A whopping 600 litres of milk is needed to make a single 38 kilo wheel of cheese!

The PDO regulations cover raw ingredients; the cows that produce milk for Parmigiano-Reggiano must be fed on a regulated diet of fresh grass, hay and grains.

A starter of natural fermenting-whey is added to the milk, which is stirred regularly and slowly heated to 33°C.

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Calf rennet is added to the milk.

The curd that starts to form is broken up into small fragments using a sharp-edged tool known as the spino (thorn-bush), a spherical metal cage on a stick.

The temperature is raised to 55°C.

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I love this cheeky image of the head cheese maker in his shorts. Hygiene is critical to the cheese making process.

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With practised skill that is mesmerising to watch, the curds are enclosed and lifted into a cloth, using a large paddle. Two men then carefully tilt and roll the curds within the cloth to form a rounded mass, which is then tied to poles and left hanging within the vats, which are drained of the remaining liquid.


Even with most of the whey drained away, what I can’t see is the bell shaped bottom of the copper vat which sits below ground level where it is heated and cooled by steam and water.

The whey by-product is used to make ricotta or fed to pigs, with a small batch retained and allowed to ferment, for use as a natural starter for the following day’s production.


At this stage, the warm loosely-packed fresh cheese tastes very bland, just like home-made paneer, actually.

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Using a crane, the individual masses of curd are lifted out of the copper vats and carefully placed in fascera (circular moulds) for pressing, enclosed in fresh white fabric. A plastic forma is slotted in to line the moulds, imprinting the soft curd with all the relevant information about the producer and date, plus the familiar Parmigiano-Reggiano repeated around the circumference of the cheese. The moulds are tied and pressed using wooden blocks and ropes that can easily be tightened.

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Bar code information, printed onto disks made of casein, is pushed against the surface of the cheese and batch information is written by hand onto each wheel.


The cheeses are turned and allowed to set for a few days.

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Next, the cheeses are soaked in salt water for 20-25 days. The salt within the brine penetrates the cheeses very slowly, and continues to work its way to the centre during the next several months.

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Finally, the cheeses are transferred into the cascina (maturing room) for a minimum of 12 months and as long as 30 months.

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Cheeses are checked regularly. An inspector uses a special hammer to tap all over the surface of the cheese. Imperfections reveal themselves by a change in tone, that practised ears can easily detect.

Cheeses which pass inspection can be branded with the official logo of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano (a consortium that authenticates the production and standards of the cheese, represents all the producers, assists with marketing and trade and of course, defends the PDO status).

Those which have not ripened evenly are scored horizontally around their circumference, to mark them as having failed to meet standards. These cannot be sold under the Parmigiano-Reggiano name but there is a strong demand in Italy for the younger, softer cheese which is sold as Mezzano.

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As the specifications for Parmigiano-Reggiano are very rigid, some cheese producers also experiment with variations, which they brand and sell under different names.

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As an ardent cheese-lover, I really enjoyed the opportunity to witness how traditional Parmigiano-Reggiano is made, not to mention the chance to sample top quality cheeses of different ages.

The youngest Parmigiano-Reggiano available to buy has been matured for 12 months. You can also look out for red stamp wheels, which have been matured for 18 months or longer, silver stamp wheels which have been matured for 22 months or longer, and gold stamp Parmigiano-Reggiano which has been matured for a minimum of 30 months.

Longer maturation results in a stronger flavour and a drier, crumblier and grainier texture.

I will be sharing some recipes making use of Parmigiano-Reggiano soon.

Discover the Origin of Prosciutto de Parma

A few weeks ago, I was invited to Parma by Discover the Origin, to learn more about the production of two of Parma’s most famous products – Parma ham and parmesan cheese, known locally as prosciutto de Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Both have PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, which means that only products made in the area, to very strict and specific rules, can be labelled as Parma ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Our small group were invited to take a tour of two producers, where we learned about all the stages of production of these two very traditional and delicious products. Both Parma ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano have been produced for many, many centuries employing methods that have been honed over time and handed down from generation to generation.

The PDO rules not only control methods of production but also the source and quality of ingredients. There are also very strict quality assurance processes that ensure that any products that don’t quite match the standards, even if they’re pretty darn close, are not permitted to be sold under the PDO names.

We discovered, in the two factories we visited, that producers today are carefully combining modern technology with traditional methods. The advantages to modernisation include being able to more carefully control conditions to produce a more consistently excellent product, and being less dependent on the weather – for example modern refrigeration rooms can produce the exact temperature and humidity conditions that were once only possible during winter.

You can find out more about the stages of creating Parma ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano at the Discover the Origin website.

Below are some images from the Parma ham producer, and a walk-through the production process. I’ll post about Parmigiano-Reggiano soon.


Making Parma Ham

The pork, which must be born, raised and slaughtered in authorised farms and slaughterhouses in specified regions, is delivered on a regular basis.

The maestro salatore (master of salt) takes the fresh pork, puts it through a machine that applies a salt wash and massages the meat, and then carefully applies dry salt by hand.


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The hams are then stored (in temperature and humidity controlled rooms) for a about a week. Residual salt is removed, another layer applied and they are stored again for another couple of weeks. The maestro salatore checks and adjusts them daily to ensure that just enough salt is absorbed to cure the meat without making it excessively salty – Parma ham is known for it’s sweet flavour.

The hams are then hung for 70 days, during which the meat darkens. (It returns to a pale pink colour towards the end of the curing process).


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The hams are washed with warm water (in enormous showers that look like car washes), brushed to remove excess salt and then hung in drying rooms.


The next stage is the initial curing, in large ventilated rooms that recreate the conditions in the open-windowed upper floors of local houses, where hams were traditionally hung to cure over winter. This phase lasts about three months, and by the end of it, the exposed surface of the meat has dried and hardened.

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Hams are marked at various stages of the process. There is a mark to show the originating farm where the pork was bred and raised, and one to show the slaughterhouse where it was butchered. The Parma ham producer also marks the ham, buying special metal pins from The Parma Ham Consortium, that are stapled into the hams.

The consortium was set up in 1963, on the initiative of 23 producers who wanted to find a way of safeguarding the genuine product and image of Parma ham. The PDO was awarded in 1996, one of the first agreed by the EU for a meat product. There are now nearly 200 members and the consortium is a marketing as well as quality assurance body.

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Next, the exposed surface is softened and protected with a paste of minced fat, salt and pepper.

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The hams are then hung again for their final curing, which lasts between 12 and 30 months.

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After 12 months curing, an inspector from the Istituto Parma Qualità (an independent quality assurance body) checks every single ham meticulously, to ensure that it meets standards.

We watched an inspector at work, piercing each ham in at least five spots using a special horse bone needle and sniffing the needle after each puncture. The needle itself is quite specialist; horse bone is porous to just the right degree that it takes in the smell from the piercing, holds it long enough for the inspector to smell it, but allows it to dissipate before the next piercing. The speed at which the inspector worked was impressive!

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Working alongside the inspector, others apply additional fat to complete the protection of the hams.

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Only hams which pass the test are then fire-branded with the Parma ham mark.


During my short stay in Parma, I sampled quite a bit of Parma ham and really appreciated being able to learn about how it is created. I hope to share some great Parma ham recipes with you in coming weeks.