The final stop on our gustatory tour took us to a small family enterprise that made Parmesan cheese. The Per San Damiani farm was an inspiration to us and a tribute to one family's dedication and amazing hard work.
We were met by a young woman who introduced us to her husband, father and mother-in-law, a nephew and her two little kids. She escorted us into their work area that was abuzz with activity. Several cauldrons were heating up the milk at various stages. As the rennet made its magic happen, the milk would get chunky, and the workers would break up the curds, stirring it carefully until all was well mixed. Each cauldron was carefully watched and the milk was constantly tested for temperature and consistency. When the experts decided a cauldron was ready to be "cheesed", everyone jumped into action.
Cheese cloth was wrapped around some big poles straddling the cauldron, the cheese was divided into two chunks and slung into the cheese cloth to be formed and drained. Each chunk weighed around 50 lbs. The cheese was pulled out using the big poles and were immediately dropped into basket-like forms. In fact, the Italian word "formaggio" comes from the forms that are used to "form" the cheese.
This was a very wet and laborious process...everyone was wearing Wellies and heavy duty aprons, to protect them from the overflow.
This family has been making cheese for over 35 years and has never taken a vacation or had a day off. The cows keep producing milk, so the cheese must be made every day. They take a break between 12 and 2, then go back to work for the afternoon's cheese making.
We were shown their aging rooms where there were hundreds of huge rounds of Parmesan cheese, all smelling incredibly good. We were shown how inspectors come and with a little hammer, test each round before it can be labeled Parmesan. If the inspectors aren't happy with the sound (if they hear minute little holes in the cheese), the rind is marked with striations, indicating that it is 2nd quality. It is perfectly fine to eat, but it isn't perfect so it can't be sold as such. If they find too many flaws, it is labeled as 3rd quality and will be destroyed.
When after our visit we went into the showroom for a taste-test (of course), we were greeted with chunks of aged Parmesan, honey and balsamic vinegar of dipping, and of course some wine. We had a lovely visit with the mother-in-law and enjoyed our samples and shopping. We came away with some great-tasting cheese and a new-found respect for the work that goes in to a product we have come to take for granted.
Over the course of these three tours, we learned that there is still value in the small, family enterprise that takes pride in its products. We learned that not all farming is factory farming and that smaller is often better, even if it may be more expensive. And we became more aware of just how lucky we are to be living in a country where these products are appreciated and treasured. America could learn a lot from these folks. While we are getting back to a more natural way of producing our food, we should support the small family farm instead of the mega-factory farms that get all the subsidies. Archer Daniels Midland doesn't need government subsidies....the local farmer who grows our veggies and who makes artisanal cheeses does!