The city of Parma is that friend of a friend you’ve always been aware of but never bothered to get to know. Then when you finally did, you wondered why it took you so long.
An hour’s drive from Milan, Instagram-friendly Parma is full of elegant surprises, fascinating culture and mind-blowingly good food.
This aristocratic northern Italian region is famous for Parma ham, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, crisp Lambrusco wine and the Barilla pasta company. It’s also home to ALMA, their International School of Italian cuisine, which was funded by Marie Louise, the Duchess of Parma, who happened to be married to Napoleon. More of the fragrant duchess later.
Culturally you will also be well fed. Parma is the birthplace of many of the illustrious names you only ever hear at concerts or gaze upon at art galleries: Renaissance painter Correggio, conductor Arturo Toscanini and composer Giuseppe Verdi, who grew up 20 miles outside of Parma.
I visited during their annual Verdi Festival. Never have I felt more like an extra in a European art-house movie as I strolled across the Palazzo della Pilotta to the Baroque-style Teatro Farnese, to see a performance of Giovanna D’Arco.
While this beautifully frescoed theatre, which was built in 1618, is used sparingly for live performances, this awe-inspiring building also houses their National Gallery and their Archaeological Museum.
I stayed at the modern Grand Hotel de La Ville, which is just ten minutes’ walk from Garibaldi Square and boasts five stars. Within easy reach is Italy’s famous Teatro Regio opera house, Parma Cathedral, the Baptistry and their stylish shopping district. Bicycles are the favoured mode of transport so the city has a peaceful energy.
A congenial afternoon soaking up the atmosphere on foot is a must; my advice would be to hire a guide as there is so much to see. I loved nosing around the quaint shops including a bespoke hat emporium, chocolate shops and many delis.
Fittingly, it’s the food that is the crowning glory. I was able to tour both a Parma ham and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese factory. There are many across the region and some are open to visitors. Those involved in the process take great care to protect their good name; you’ll know if what you are buying comes from here by the official markings (a crown for ham and an oval imprint for the cheese). Without either, it’s not the real deal.
What is overwhelmingly apparent is the love that goes into all food production; at the San Pietro prosciutto factory it was the care taken to preserve the flavours of the ham, while at the cheese factory, the star of the show was Master Cheese Maker, Giorgio.
This avuncular 75-year-old has been making Parmigiano Reggiano for 60 years. “It’s my passion,” he told me. He makes just ten cheeses a day and after that, you may not see those giant wheels of goodness for two years while they mature. It’s worth the wait.
Indulge yourself and pay a visit to Al Vedel at Podere Cadassa; here you can tour their underground “cave” where their charcuterie (Culatello, Fiocchetto, Spalla Cotta, Pancetta and Cotechino) hang from the ceiling like fatted bats. This Bergonzi family business dates back to 1780 when old aunt Cleofe turned her rustic home into a food store and restaurant. I’m glad she did, having enjoyed a sumptuous meal accompanied by local wines; my favourites included Lamoretti’s sparkling Malvasia and a red Nabucco. They also offer a huge range of whisky, which is the spirit of choice for discerning locals.
For a modern twist on Italian cuisine, head to contemporary kitchen Borgo 20 in the middle of town. Chef Roberto Pongolini uses local seasonal ingredients – while I was there pumpkin with everything was the name of the game. But I won’t forget his “Parmesan candy”; cold pressed rolls of Parmesan cheese oozing with a gooey balsamic syrup.
However, if you’re after traditional and epic then Trattoria Ai Due Platani is a must. Hand on heart, you will not feast better anywhere in the world, with mouthwatering raviolis, torta fritta (deep fried pasta), creamy risottos, charcuterie, cheeses and home-made ice cream all stand-outs.
I must also give an honourable mention to Chef Antonio Di Vita at Parma Rotta, who serves the best grilled meats cooked enticingly over wooden embers.
Parma is an absolute treasure. The locals I met were passionate about their food, culture and heritage. I like to think that Marie Louise, Napoleon’s better half and a philanthropic transplant from Austria, would be proud.
She was honoured for her charitable endeavours with her very own scent, the Parma Violet, and frankly a trip to this region of Italy could not be any sweeter. n
For more information go to www.parmalimentare.net