PARMA A CITY OF INTELLECTUAL CITIZENS, HAM AND CHEESE
By Wendy Hughes
Parma is an aristocratic city where the word ‘culture’ is spoken frequently. Every day Parma prints enough newspapers to supply almost one to every five inhabitants – double the reading average for the rest of Italy. It supports the Gazzetta Di Parma, one of the oldest newspapers in the country, and also has links with the most famous club of gallery opera-goers, the Loggionisti of La Scala. The loggione is considered by many to be real soul of the opera house. The standing-room-only space, near the stage, has for centuries housed the most competent and merciless opera enthusiasts. Be they account clerks, bankers or music professors, they live and breathe every note. The loggionisti, pays a token entrance fee of L10,000 (around £3), for the right to either make or break a singer’s career and will queue for hours in front of the Teatro Regio to determine the success or failure of a performance. They have been known to humiliate famous singers and reduce nervous debutantes to jittering wrecks. Pavarotti will never forget the wolf whistles after his false note in Don Carlos in 1992.
The region of Emila-Romagna is also world famous for its Prosciutto ham, cheese, architecture, music and surroundings and is the birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi. It is also home to the University of Parma, one of the oldest in the world. It was founded in the 12th century and is organised into eighteen departments comprising of the Department of Arts and Literature, History and Social Studies, Department of Biomedical, Biotechnological and translational Sciences, Department of Chemistry Department of Civil, Environmental, Land Management, Engineering and Architecture, Department of Classics, Modern Languages, Education and Philosophy, Department of Clinical and experimental Medicine, Department of Economics, Department of Food Science, Department of Industrial Engineering and Information Engineering, Department of Law, Department of Life Sciences, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Department of Neuroscience, Department of Pharmacy, Department of Physics and earth sciences and the Department of Surgery. At the end of 2013 the university had around 32,000 students.
The city has an International flavour which all began with Luisa Elibetta, daughter of Louis XV, who in 1739 at the tender age of 12 married Fillippo di Borbone, Duke of Parma. With her she brought and transplanted the customs and rituals of the French courts. Her son Filippo Don Ferdinando had French tutors, and most of the dressmakers, musicians, painters and architects of the day were also French.
In the 19th century, Napoleon’s widow, the Austrian Maria Luise was awarded the duchy of Parma by the Congress of Vienna, and with her she brought the intelligence and background of the two leading European courts of Vienna and Paris.
In Praise of Verdi
Every Friday in the heart of the city, in a dimly lit basement dominated by the bust of Giuseppe Verdi ( 10 October 1813- 27 January 1901), the Club Dei 27 meet to honour the great maestro. Each member of the club is known by the name of one of Verdi’s 27 operas; there is a Mr Rigoletto, a Mr Falstaff and even a Mr Aida, as no women are admitted to the club. In the cosy elite atmosphere the members listen exclusively to Verdi’s music and praise his creativity. Membership to the club is restricted and a Mr Traviata or a Mr Falstaff has to die before a new can be admitted.
Iintermingled with the city’s academic and cultural traditions, stand around 450 dairies churning out 26,500 tons of Parmesan cheese, 250 pork factories producing some two million Parma hams, and encircling all, is the fragrance of Parma violets, They first appeared in Italy in the 16th century, and have lavender flowers of varying sizes.
The history of Parmesan dates back some 900 years to a time when the manual production of this cheese was widespread amongst Benedictine and Cistercian monks in the areas of Parma and Reggio Emilia. It takes 600 litres of milk chosen from specific breeds of cows, fed on a special diet to produce a wheel of Parmesan cheese. Each wheel, so called because of its shape, weighs between 20 and 40 kilograms. It takes up to two years for it to mature, and this takes place in silent dimly lit chambers in which the wheels are placed on wooden boards until they form the typical yellowish rind. A special knife is used to prise open the wheel and to cut the cheese, called an almond knife, because the blade is almond shaped. It is much shorter than a normal knife and has to be gripped by its short stubby wooden handle.
The cost of production is very high and the procedures are constantly in need of bank loans to finance the manufacture. The security they offer the banks is the cheese itself. The production can borrow up to 60% to 70% of the cheese’s value and the banks will actually take the cheese and store it in their own vaults. For the cheese-makers the arrangement is perfect, for not only can they finance their production, but they are saved the cost and maintenance of storage. I would imagine that the bank’s security arrangements are focused less at the robber and more at the mouse. In 2012, an earthquake hit the region of Emilia and thousands of Parmesan wheels were destroyed, but thanks to the Internet word spread rapidly and the dairies managed to sell the cheese, albeit at a much lower price, but it did save one of Italy’s most successful food industries from bankruptcy.
The Parmesan cheese is made in huge copper vats and when it is removed, a liquid remains which is used as a main feed for Parma’s pigs. In fact the piggeries are usually attached to the dairies. When the pigs have been fattened sufficiently they are taken to the local slaughter house, where select hind legs are chosen for Parma’s famous Prosciutto ham. A second grade, considered to be greatly inferior is made from shoulder cuts. The ham is first cleaned, rubbed in sea salt and left for about two months. During this time the ham is pressed, gradually and care taken not to break the bone. Then it is washed several times to remove the salt and sent to curing houses where the hams are hung in a dark well ventilated location to dry. The processing time varies depending on the local climate and the size of the ham. When it is completely dry it is hung to air, either at room temperature or in a controlled atmosphere for up to 18 months. The distinctive flavour of Parma ham originates from nature. The air must be dry and sweet, and there’s no better air than that which floats over the Apennines, gently rolling down towards the River Po and along the Parma valleys. Once the air reaches the hills near Parma, it swirls around the thousands of suspended hams. Inspectors from the Parma Ham Consortium inspect the joints and those that are passed receive the official stamp, allowing it to be called Parma Prosciutto. Some of the joints will be left longer for curing.
During the process, a 30lb joint will shrink to about 21 lbs and with the final trimming and deboning it will end up in the retail market at approximately half its original weight. Italy is the main consumer of Prosciutto, with France being the largest importer. Importing into the USA is prohibited which makes the ham a very special treat for the American visitor to Europe.