It is still possible to glean understanding of a local product from the agrarian landscape and rural architecture of its place of origin—once your eye is trained to ignore the intrusion from industrial hangars, flyovers and shopping malls.
In Emilia, in the vast succession of geometrically perfect fields that follow each other until they vanish over the horizon, beside long, low farmhouses set around large courtyards, you will still find small, octagonal buildings called caselli. These represent part of the history of the area’s most symbolic product, Parmigiano-Reggiano. Their shape recalls the Renaissance baptisteries that adjoin Italy’s great cathedrals but they hail from the 19th century and their purpose was for cheesemaking. Their characteristic style and functionality conjure up the high levels of technical achievement reached in that period of great expansionism. Since then, the cheesemaking process has remained completely unaltered and exactly the same methods are used by cheesemakers today in the many small dairies spread throughout the area.
The entire agricultural economy of the area is closely tied to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, produced throughout the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena, and across the Oltrepò Mantovano and the western part of the Oltrepò Bolognese. There are as many as 547 dairies in the producers’ consortium and they use milk from 5,900 cattle breeders. Hence, although overall quantities are considerable, production methods remain strictly artisan in approach. In addition, the procedures employed, most importantly the use of unpasteurised milk, mean that Parmigiano-Reggiano cannot be made if the milk does not come up to certain standards, and also that the milk can only be handled in limited quantities. This is why, even in today’s times of industrialization and mass production, this sort of micro-production in small dairies remains so widespread.
The Museum of Parmigiano-Reggiano has recently been launched. It is housed in an early 19th century casello in Soragna, inside the fortifications of Principe Meli Lupi, and its curator is Prof. Mario Zannoni, author of the book Il Parmigiano-Reggiano nella storia (Parmigiano-Reggiano In History). The Museum is organised as a journey through history, from the earliest documentation relating to production of the cheese up to today, and goes through the various stages of making and marketing of what has become the most important agricultural symbol of Italy throughout the world. To assist consumer information and education further, at the end of the visit the organizational bodies involved offer a tasting of cheeses of different degrees of maturity and there is availability for purchase.
The Museum is open at weekends or by appointment. For information contact Parma Turismi on +39 0521 2281/+39 0524 597909, www.museidelcibo.it Tickets cost 5 euros.
The Soragna Museum is the first of three due to appear in the area. It is supported by the Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma consortia, and financed by the Parma Provincial Authority, Agenda 2000, Fondazione Monte di Parma and interested municipalities.
Paola Nano works at the Slow Food Press Office.
Translated by Maureen Ashley