When planning our trip to the area of Parma, I knew that I had to include visiting a cheese factory on the itinerary. I am an avid cheese lover and am always up to try a new cheese.
I had never been to a cheese factory before, so it was such a neat experience to see the cheese going from start to finish. If in Italy, you should totally try to see how cheese is made at Parmigiano-Reggiano factory.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the very best cheeses in the world. It is made only a specific region of Italy and has very specific requirements to be able to call itself “THE Parmigiano-Reggiano.” Since it can only come from a very specific region in Italy, it can be quite expensive to have true Parmigiano-Reggiano abroad (like in the United States).
Parmigiano-Reggiano is essentially the great-great grandfather of what we call parmesan cheese. They’re made in similar fashions, only that the official Parmigiano-Reggiano has strict rules and parmesan has loose rules on how it is made. Due to this, parmesan has a “less good and less rich” taste compared to Parmigiano-Reggiano, but if you know what parmesan tastes like, you get the idea of what Parmigiano-Reggiano tastes like. I will talk later on in this post about some of the rules for Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Parmigianino-Reggiano has been produced since the 1200’s when supposedly monks created the cheese to prolong their milk supplies. Production of the cheese is an art that families take pride in to this day.
For more information on the history of Parmigiano-Reggiano, check out the Parmigiano-Reggiano website.
Our experience touring a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory
We visited the Caseificio Ugolotti (caseificio is the Italian word for cheese factory) which is a family owned cheese factory on the outskirts of Parma. It is not as big as some of the cheese factories which was great because we felt like we got a really up-close and personal experience with the cheese and the people who make it. (They also have an INCREDIBLE restaurant that you can eat at after your tour, but make sure to make a reservation before the tour starts because it will be packed).
How to book a tour at a cheese factory
Some of the cheese factories allow you to book a tour with them. Caseificio Ugolotti is one of the places that will allow you to book a tour personally through them and not through an external tour group. However, most of the cheese factories in the area only offer tours through an externally booked tour group. The cheese factories that allowed directly booking a tour did not have an online reservation option and we had to personally call (in Italian) to book.
Directly Booking with a Cheese Factory
If you book directly with a cheese factory, you are more likely to have a smaller tour group and pay less. However, if you don’t speak Italian, it may be difficult to book over the phone and they may not have accommodations for tours in English.
Thecheese factory we directly booked with: Caseificio Ugolotti
Booking a cheese tour through Group Tour
If you book through a tour, you will likely pay more and have a larger group, but may be more likely to have an English-speaking tour. One positive of booking through a tour group is that they may offer stops at other factories such as prosciutto factories (another popular factory type in the area).
The Parmigiano-Reggiano website has information about all the possible cheese tours you can take.
The Cheese Factory Experience
Meeting Group and Introduction
The first thing you’ll do is meet your tour group, whether it is directly at the cheese factory or in the center of Parma (and they will take you to the cheese factory). At the cheese factory, they will likely give you an introduction of some sort. Each cheese factory has different requirements of things to wear to keep the cheese-making areas clean. Caseificio Ugolotti only had us wear hairnets, but I have seen people touring other cheese factories having to wear full body suits, so it just depends where your cheese tour is.
Every tour will differ, but most will touch on most of the similar elements of making Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The first part of the cheese-making process is getting fresh milk from cows in the specific areas where the cheeses are made. No preservatives are used in the milk and it comes fresh from the source daily. The milk is heated very precisely in giant copper vats and curds form in the heated milk. Eventually the curds are divided and strained to make the cheese. The strained curds are put into molds overnight. When they are ready, they are released from the molds and are the shape of a round of parmigiano.
The fresh rounds of parmigiano come to a salt room where they soak in really salty water for 12 months or more. Note that this room is really stinky, so brace yourself. The cheese sits in the salted water to let the salt soak into it and preserve it. The salt is the reason that parmigiano can last so long. An interesting fact about parmigiano is that it takes at least 10 months for the salt from the water to reach the very middle of the cheese. This is why true Parmigiano-Reggiano is at least 12 months.
Room of 12,000 cheeses
After the cheese soaks for a year in the salt baths, it is taken out and aged in a cool room. The cheese has to be cleaned periodically so that the outside doesn’t get dirty or moldy (if there is any mold on the outside, it has to be thrown away).
The room the cheeses are in was my favorite part. It is a ginormous room with literally thousands of parmigiano rounds.
At this point, our tour guide explained how the cheese is determined if it is Parmigiano-Reggiano or not. Every single cheese is tapped on with a wooden hammer and determined if it is good enough quality to be called by Parmigiano-Reggiano. The way the cheese sounds when tapped determines if it is good enough and a special person listens to it. Apparently, there are only around 20 people in the world that can differentiate the sounds and make the distinction.
The best parmigiano has no holes or gaps within the round, so it has a particular sound. Listening to the whole process of Parmigiano-Reggiano made me appreciate how particular this cheese is.
At the end of our tour, we were allowed to taste three Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses that were of different ages. The older the cheese, the richer the taste and grainier it seemed. We tried one that was 1 year, 2 years, and 3 years. My favorite was the cheese that was 3 years old, but they were all delicious.
Fun Fact about Parmigiano-Reggiano: true Parmigiano-Reggiano is lactose free
Other things to do in the Parma area of Italy
Explore the city of Parma
Parma is an adorable town that has some of the best food in the world. The town is quaint and doesn’t feel too big, but has a lot of things to see. Check out my blog post of Parma for a list of all the things you should see while in Parma 🙂
Visit a meat factory
Prosciutto and culatello are foods that are manufactured around Parma, so you can find some of the best tasting meats in this region. Culatello is another meat made in the area of Parma. It is really similar to prosciutto, but slightly different and made from different parts of the pig. I personally like culatello and find its drier than prosciutto (but Luca and his family prefer the normal prosciutto, so its really just personal preference. There are various factories around Parma where you can watch how they prepare these delicious meats and try them too. Some of the tours listed above that visit a parmigiano factory also visit a meat factory.
Modena is in between Parma and Bologna and is also worth a visit. Modena is known for balsamic vinegar and Ferrari cars. Walk through the historical streets and feel like you have stepped back in time. Modena is worth visiting if you have time on your trip!
Bologna is the largest city close to Parma and has a ton of things to see and do. It is also known for its’ food, like Parma. Bologna is a great place to visit, either before or after your visit to Parma. There are tons of great foods to try, historical places to see, and cute Italian streets to walk on. Check out my blog post about Bologna to see all of the awesome things you can do in Bologna.
Are you visiting Italy? You may be interested in some of my other Italy posts:
I hope that you enjoyed this post and that it is helpful to you! Any questions or comments? Let me know down below!
Thanks for reading!