We are spoilt for choice as to where to eat and drink in Parma (We’ve also got a guide to Parma on a budget). The city was recently named a UNESCO Creative City for Gastronomy and, at the city’s Borgo 20 restaurant, beneath prosciutto hung like silky delicates over a washing line, I discovered why. Parma ham must be air-dried for a minimum of 10-12 months to meet its PDO status. That’s the stuff you’ll find in UK supermarkets. But, after a couple more years the flavour and texture of the ham changes dramatically. Eating this sweet, mature, ham with my hands, body heat almost started to melt its buttery fat. The three-year-old ham is sweet, matured in flavour, and soft, the five-year-old, earthier and drier.
Next came organic salad leaves weighed down with shavings of black truffle – and later I spot piles of the treasured black rubble in the many greengrocers around the main square, I can’t resist buying one for only 20€. Then, risotto with punchy 30-month-aged parmesan, a slick of onyx balsamic and Parma’s other great fungi, sautéed porcinis. If you don’t get drunk on that heady smell, or the Malvasia they serve here (a gently sparkling white made in the Parma hills) a shot, or two, of Emilia-Romagna’s nocino, a bittersweet liqueur, made with young walnuts, should do it.
Sweet tooth not quite satisfied I took a post-lunch stroll, going hot at Cantarelli Caffe with a cup of pure molten chocolate, and cold at Le Gelateria where mountains of creamy, sticky gelato change with the seasons. I ordered a double scoop of sweet, earthy chestnut and carried on to two of the city’s best delis – La Prosciutteria and Salumeria Grisenti – to stock up on the spoils of northern Italy: cheese, bread, vinegar (Modena is close by), dried mushrooms, and, of course, salumi – coppa, lardo, pancetta and more. Felino, the so-called ‘prince of salumi’ is made on the outskirts of the city, in a small town of the same name, and marbled like an Italian road network.
There are farmers’ markets every Wednesday morning on Piazzale Lubiana and Saturday morning on Strada Imbriani, too. Even the vending machines are impressive. One I spot, outside the gelateria is stocked with creamy milk, granular, salty wedges of parmesan, pots of delicate burrata, and sweet little biscotti by Latte di Campagna.
Down another street and I find Parma Color Viola with hundreds of edible incarnations of the 19th-century Duchess of Parma’s favourite flower. I notice something different about the butcher shops that seem to be every other building – a closer inspection reveals that many of them specialise in horsemeat. It’s considered a delicacy here and when I start chatting to one butcher they tell me to look out for horse tartare on local menus.
For a Michelin-starred dinner Parma is home to Al Tramezzo, but I was after the more rustic food the region is famous for so I headed 15km north of the city, to restaurant Al Vedel, for anolini (stuffed pasta parcels, traditionally eaten at Christmas time) in a capon broth.
Next door, at sister business Podere Cadassa, the smell of hanging hams hits you as soon as you walk into this family-run salumeria. Various parts of the pig are put to use but it’s the culatello di zibello that’s worth heading out of the city for. Pigs’ rumps, fattened in the valleys of Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia, are seasoned with Lambrusco and salt, bound into a pear shape with incredible speed by butchers Riccardo and Luciana and matured for 11-30 months (each bundle is knocked by hand to test for unusual sounds, like cheese). Creative gastronomy in action.