Hosting dinner parties in a foreign country provides abundant opportunities for pitfalls, pratfalls, and faux pas. I often recall with a shudder one particular night, shortly after we moved to Seville, when I passed around a cheese platter only to have my Spanish guests throw back their heads and howl with laughter. I stared at the platter, which contained an apparently innocent collection of Manchego and cheddar, crackers, and one of the cheese knives that came with the cutting board I’d bought the day before. The farmer next to me was among the first to recover his equanimity, and as he sat wiping his eyes with a cocktail napkin, I asked what the fuss was all about.
“This,” he said, holding up my new cheese knife, “is what we use for castrating the pigs.” And off he went into even greater paroxysms of merriment.
I offered to fetch another knife, but my guests wouldn’t hear of it, chortling softly and exchanging amused glances every time they passed the platter. Needless to say, that knife was retired to the back of the drawer, never to be seen again. Until last Wednesday evening, when its twin showed up in the hand of my hostess at a dinner in Parma, Italy. This, I soon learned, was a tagliagrana, whose drop-shaped blade is perfectly designed to break hard cheeses into shards — ideal for serving the region’s most famous product, Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Having grown up shaking pre-grated parmesan out of a green tube, I had never seen anyone use a tagliagrana. As an adult I’ve had plenty of genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in stuff and on stuff, but I’d never thought of it as a stand-alone appetizer. So it wasn’t until Wednesday’s dinner — when my hostess, Stefania, cut off small chunks and drizzled them with her homemade balsamic vinegar — that I realized what I’d been missing.
Parmigiano-Reggiano, “the king of cheeses,” is the pride of Parma, the neighboring city of Reggio Emilia, and the surrounding region of northern Italy. European law protects the name and strictly defines the region where it can legitimately be produced. Other areas of the world (yes, USA, I’m thinking of you) aren’t bound by these laws, and they can — and do —call just about anything “parmesan.” Production and quality vary wildly, and cheap cheddar, Swiss, or mozzarella are often added for bulk. A scandal erupted a few years ago when authorities finally noticed that Castle Cheese and others major producers were adding hefty amounts of cellulose — that’s powdered wood pulp, in plain English — to their so-called parmesan. That’s not the way to add fiber to your diet!
Over dinner, Stefania described how true Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced, a process that has remained essentially unchanged for more than 800 years. There are only three ingredients: milk from cows raised in the designated region on local fodder, salt, and calf rennet (a natural bovine enzyme that helps curds form). The milk must be used fresh, within hours of milking. Cheese is produced in 37-kilo (81.5-pound) wheels that are soaked in a salt bath to aid preservation, then stacked in aging rooms for one to three years.
“But you and Rich should see this for yourselves,” Stefania said. As it happened she was taking house guests to a local cheese producer called Consorzio Produttori Latte the very next morning. It didn’t take much persuasion to get us to join the party.
After the tour, we stopped in a small village to see Stefania’s country home and sample more of her homemade balsamic vinegar, which is aging gracefully in the airy attic in the customary manner. Italian law protects the most famous labels such as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena), enforcing such restrictions as age (at least 12 years) and additives (none). You probably won’t be surprised to learn that American brands labeled “balsamic vinegar,” even those specifying “barrel aged in Modena, Italy,” are often juvenile liquids containing corn syrup, guar gum, and/or worse. Stefania’s nine-year-old vinegar-in-training was an explosion of brash flavor in the mouth, where the 21-year-old vintage was nearly as thick, dark, and tangy-sweet as molasses.
The real highlight of our time with Stefania was dinner in her Parma home. After the Parmigiano-Reggiano, we enjoyed the famous Prosciutto di Parma, cured ham sliced so thin you could see through it, with flavor slightly sweeter and less salty than prosciutto from other regions. Dinner included local tomatoes, eggplant, and borettana onions, a squat, sweet variety that’s been grown in the nearby town of Boretto since the 15th century. There was creamy veal scallopini in lemon sauce. But the absolute star of the show was the succulent Coniglio alla Cacciatora (Hunter-style Rabbit).
[See recipe for Coniglio alla Cacciatora (Hunter-style Rabbit).]
Rabbit is popular on dinner tables in Seville, too. When I first moved there, I was horrified to see the furry bodies of lifeless bunnies hanging by their paws in the local butcher shops. When I asked a friend why they didn’t prepare them for sale in the ordinary way, skinned and trimmed, she explained the custom dated back to the Hunger, the lean years after the Spanish Civil War when nobody had enough to eat. “It’s so you know it’s not cat,” she told me. Enough said.
I’ve vowed to learn to cook rabbit someday, and now that I have Stefania’s recipe, I’m ready to give it a try. Those of you who can’t warm to the idea of rabbit for supper will be happy to hear the recipe works just as well with chicken. (Or you can make it with rabbit and tell the kids it’s chicken.) Whatever you bring to the table, be sure to preface the meal with a few chunks of genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano, chopped with a tagliagrana — which with any luck at all, your friends and family won’t associate with anything but the pleasures of perfectly delicious cheese at a homemade Italian dinner.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I never accept free goods or services in return for promoting anything on this blog. Everything I write about is included solely because I believe you might find it interesting and useful for planning your own adventures.
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8/27/2019 05:05:06 pm
Yet another "drool" feast. Love the rabbit - a grossly underrated meat. My mother couldn't bear it because she ate so much in the war on grandfather's farm. (No wonder my sister and I were good at setting snares at an early age). So interesting to learn about the balsamic vinegar - we are fortunate to get the real deal in the UK.
8/27/2019 06:21:07 pm
You're so right, Carolyn; rabbit is underrated; you don't see it much on American menus, that's for sure. But the minute this post went live, people began writing to me about their families hunting or trapping rabbits for the dinner table, and speaking fondly of the culinary memories. And nutritionists tell us it's low in fat and high in proteins, vitamins, and minerals. So let's hope it makes a comeback.
8/27/2019 08:44:49 pm
I really love that map! And as my nickname has been "Mouse" for almost 60 years, I doubly appreciate this chapter in your journey, so let me say buon apetito to you and Rich.
8/28/2019 07:25:38 am
Grazie, Mouse! I love the map too. Every week when I update it, I am astonished at all the ground we've covered since April. Thanks for joining us on the journey.
8/27/2019 10:51:25 pm
Love this! Your trip is amazing!
8/28/2019 07:36:30 am
So glad you're enjoying the stories of our journey, Andrea. Some of the earlier food adventures were more exotic, but now that we're in Italy, it's fun seeing familiar comfort foods in a fresh new way. And that goes double for my cheese knife; who knew it was really a tagliagrana?
8/28/2019 06:30:23 pm
Love that area: for me, the best food in Italy. Did you try culatello, deemed by some "the king of cured meats," made near the Po River which helps to give its funky, complex taste. I did an article sometime back on it after food treks in Bologna, Modena, and Parma
8/29/2019 07:33:48 am
Your post "Quest for Culatello" is delightful, Dawn. (For those of my readers who haven't seen it, you can find it here; https://starrtreks.com/2013/10/09/quest-for-culatello/) I can just picture you smuggling the illicit "king of charcuterie" on the plane. Many of my friends in Seville have done the same with illicit jamon Iberio. Are these cold cuts really worth turning to a life of crime? You bet!
8/30/2019 12:25:04 am
I love rabbit but probably prefer it with a mustard cream sauce. However, at our favorite Dive Bar, The Casino in Bodega they do serve Rabbit Tenders every now and then. You always make me so hungry. I have to go get a snack now. Cheers, Kitty
8/30/2019 06:15:24 pm
Rabbit with mustard cream sauce? That's a new one to me, Kitty. I'll have to give it a try. Thanks for that tip! Do you have a recipe or do you know a place that serves it? I'd love to track down the details.
8/30/2019 08:58:43 pm
When we were at our French's cousin home outside Paris a very long time ago she made us rabbit; quite strange because she also had pet rabbits. I think of French rabbit as being a mustard cream sauce and I can't say for sure that is what she made but I think so. Then anytime I see rabbit on a French menu with that combo, I order it. However, I can't remember the last time I found it. I think there was a place in Palo Alto but it is gone. I do think I have had it in France again. Looking online for places that serve rabbit; most come up as a course that changes but Farmhouse Inn does have this https://2486634c787a971a3554-d983ce57e4c84901daded0f67d5a004f.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com/farmhouse-inn-and-restaurant/media/restaurant-menu-5cd99b526fbcb.pdf Selling and serving rabbit in CA seems to be iffy; save the rabbits!
8/31/2019 08:18:58 am
8/31/2019 12:34:33 pm
Stefania, thanks again for all the great food, family recipes, and wonderful experiences in Parma. You were so kind and hospitable to us, and taught us so much about the culture of the region! I'd love to come to a "vinegar party"; I will keep in touch and we'll see if it can be arranged. A presto!
9/1/2019 04:58:24 am
Ah, there you are in what may be the culinary center of the universe-Italia!--with all its variations and regional delights! (And yes, rabbit is quite delicious; I remember eating it decades ago in Berkeley in a little restaurant called The Yellow House, though I can't say I remember the sauce. I've never cooked it, but my mother--whose assets were not really culinary--used to serve something she called "Rarebit," which consisted, if I remember properly, of some sort of cheese and tomato sauce on crackers. Perhaps when I was young enough, I thought it was rabbit.) I love the map, too.
9/1/2019 01:30:41 pm
Italia may be the center of the food universe, but lots of other great dishes come from elsewhere, including the one your mother made, Tobey. It hails from 18th century Britain and was originally called "Welsh Rabbit" then the name somehow morphed into Welsh Rarebit. It's never contained rabbit, just toast, cheese, and various condiments. History seems a bit vague about the rabbit part of the nomenclature, but I did discover that the version your mom made, with tomato, is also referred to as "Blushing Bunny." What a wonderful name history!
9/1/2019 04:08:21 pm
Hi Karen, We really enjoyed joining you on your journey for a morning in Parma. Love the site and I will be following all your adventures. Best Wishes, Tanya
9/6/2019 06:52:23 pm
Tanya, it was great meeting you two and sharing the adventures of the cheese production, Stefania's country house, the bakery, and the village café. So glad you like the site and thanks for joining us on the journey!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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