They’re stacked in vertiginous towers, vast wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano reaching up to the ceiling, all in different stages of the aging process, all branded with the mark of origin that confirms they have been made within the strict set of guidelines governing this prince of cheese. We’re at Caseificio San Lucio, a parmesan-making farm in a hilly area on the outskirts of Parma. We’ve watched the fast-paced art that is the cheese-making process, and Igino Morino has shown me how to tap the cheese and listen for imperfections. Now he’s teaching us how to taste three cheeses – each one a different age. ‘You must use the five senses – touch it, break it, smell it, taste it, look for varying characteristics then try to discern its aftertaste,’ he instructs. There’s butter and milk, but also fruits and some spice and an almost meaty taste to the most mature, which is over 30 months old. Igino smiles. This cheese, he pronounces, is perfect.
Parmesan is the key ingredient at Cocchi, an old-school wood-panelled delight of a place across the river Parma in Oltrotorrente, the studenty part of town, where they serve Tom and Jerry-esque chunks of it with sparkling franciacorta. Swift- footed waiters in ties and long black aprons dart between tables. One brings a flan di zucca con fonduta di parmigiano, a souffle of almost unfathomable depth dotted with candied pumpkin, and there’s a tiny taster of polpettini di vitello (veal meatballs) before the house dish, savarin di riso, is delivered – a buttery risotto thick with parmesan and porcini, wrapped in slices of cooked ham.
I stock the fridge in the small kitchen in my room at the Palazzo Della Rossa Prati hotel with parma ham and parmesan cheese, both rich in flavour but light on my purse. The triumvirate of affordable lambrusco and wonderful cheese and ham make this city known as ‘Yellow Parma’ because of the colour of its historic public buildings – easy to eat in on a budget. Cookery writer Cristina Bottari helps me navigate the culinary backstreets of her city, leading me to a horsemeat butcher who offers a taste of sweet, peppery mince. At Panetteria Rosetta, Cristina tells me the handmade cappelletti (little hat) pasta is award-winning and, in her opinion, the best in the city. Later at La Forchetta, she introduces me to torta fritta – light, puffed-up squares of fried dough draped with petals of parma ham. We wander in and out of delicatessens festooned with prosciutto and salami. At La Prosciutteria on Via Farini – a thoroughfare dotted with great culinary pit stops – I buy sbrisolona, which translates as supercrumbs and is a biscuit made with white and corn flours, almonds, butter and sugar.
Up a tiny alley off of Via Farini, we come to Pepèn (Borgo Sant’ambrogio, 2, 00 39 0521 282 650), a panini shop and a Parma institution. At lunchtime, this little star is toe-crunchingly crowded – orders are being shouted, along with insults, to regulars from the dexterous sandwich makers, and above it all, little glasses of lambrusco and malvasia (a local, slightly fizzy, white wine – malva for short) are being passed over people’s heads. Cristina has been coming here since she was 14, always on a Wednesday, for panino con polpette de melanzane – it’s only made once a week because of the laboriousness of the aubergine meatball making. I try the famous spacca balle (ball breaker); roasted pork and hot salsa on toasted, crustless bread, and we share la carciofa, a slice of hot, salty artichoke pie, baked with ricotta and parmesan. Two sandwiches, artichoke pie, arancini and wine costs just €15.
I return later to Via Farini to hop along the wine bars and sample small calices of lambrusco and find myself astonished by how much I like this ill-reputed plonk of old: plummy but light, dry, has a generous fizz, and is nothing like the stuff I used to steal a sniff of from the bottles my mum drank in the 80s. It’s so delightful that I find it hard to try anything else while in Parma – even my €1.20 calice in buzzy, slightly-down-at-heel Enoteca Fontana (Strada Farini 24, 00 39 0521 286037) is gorgeous. Across the road, Tabarro is slightly less scruffy and I take a tagliarini (wooden plate) of prosciutto and parmesan to a high table on the pavement and watch the locals as they wander by.
The next morning, I am watching through the half-light as a man and woman somberly and silently lard hundreds of prosciutto legs, a tinny radio bringing the only voices to the air. This rub of sugna (lard), salt and rice flour helps shield the meat from external impurities and stops it from drying out. I am shown the ten steps of the year-long process that begins with a raw pig leg and ends with the sweet but salty cured beauty that is fire-branded with the five-point crown ducal logo. Prosciutto di Parma comes from pigs that are fed solely on maize, barley and the whey from the production of parmesan. Under the rules of the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), it can only be produced within a very strict geographical area where the air is fragrant, dry and ideal for curing ham. As I walk from curing room to curing room, the porcine smell becomes denser, yeastier even, as the hams come towards their time of maturation. I am shown how they are tested with a horse-bone needle that is inserted into areas of the ham then sniffed to ensure it has exactly the right sweet but slightly nutty aroma.
Later, at a table outside the grand old Caffé Cavour (Strada Cavour 30, 00 39 0521 206 223), I take one final taglierini of prosciutto and parmesan and toast them with my new pal lambrusco. Parma is a city famous for opera, but for me, it’s a place where the best of its produce sings a beautiful libretto all of its own.