Sunday, April 20, 2014

Venice and Parma

While John and Becky were here in Utah for a visit, John asked if I would please finish my blog post from Italy. It's been almost a year since we went. I know, I'm pathetic.

...and now the continuation of Julie and Christian's trip to Italy 2013

We pick up the tale where we left off. Julie and Christian go their separate ways with Christian traveling to a little town in the Dolomites called Ziano di Femme and Julie going it alone in a boat on the Grand Canal in Venice.

I left Christian near Lake Garda. His bus took him North and mine took me South. Part of the reason for our visit to Italy was for Christian's job. He is a sales representative for La Sportiva which is based out of Italy. He was there to tour the factory and attend sales meetings. We traveled to Italy early to spend some time vacationing before his meetings but when it came time for him to go to his sales meetings, I decided my time would be best spent touring a couple more places in Italy. We planned to meet up again in Milan near the airport for our return trip home.

So there we were at the bus stop. I was on my side of the street and he was on his. We smiled and waved goodbye and he hopped on his bus. To be honest,  the minute the doors on Christian's bus shut I had a little bit of a panic attack. I was suddenly a female traveling alone in a foreign country where I didn't speak the language. I purchased a gelato to calm my nerves and sat waiting for my bus which arrived 20 minutes later. I tried to convey to the driver where I needed to go and he waved for me to sit down. My journey had begun! There are things I take for granted when traveling with Christian. He does a lot of the research when we visit places. He has a great sense of direction and always seems to know how to get where we need to go. It was all my responsibility now to find my way and I was nervous I wouldn't be up to the task. I was surprised to find that Italy is a surprisingly easy place to navigate. My bus took me to the train station in Brescia and I purchased a ticket to Venice. It didn't take long before I eased into the role of sole traveler. My fears faded and I began to enjoy myself as soon as the train passed into Venezia Santa Lucia.

When I got off the train I walked out of the train station to the most beautiful sight. The Grand Canal busy with colorful tourists going every which way. Vaporetti (water busses) were taking off in every direction filled with chatty passengers. Gondolas were floating by and the sun was shining. It was glorious!!

I took my place with the throngs of other tourists and purchased a two day pass on the vaporetti. I was trying to decipher maps of Venice on my phone and compare them to the address of my hotel when the spirit of adventure grabbed hold and I jumped onto a particularly lovely vaporetto just about to disembark. It turned out to be going in the wrong direction but it had open seats in the front of the boat and I sat down to enjoy the view and take in my surroundings. I chatted with some other solo female travelers as we took a ride around Venice and back through the Grand Canal. I watched as the sun was starting to make its way downward in the sky and I finally hopped off my boat to meander through the alleys in search of my hotel the Bel Sito.

Much to my surprise, my silly google screen capture of my hotel location on my phone led me right to it. I checked in and gazed out my window to the church across the piazza. The Santa Maria del Giglio is a beautiful church and it was a delightful view to wake to in the morning.

view of Santa Maria del Giglio from my window

Even better was my hotels location to all the other places I wanted to visit. It was a short walk to St. Marks Bascilica  in one direction and just a bit further walk across the canal to Accademia Gallery. Everything was a short walk when I hopped on a vaporetto though! After checking in and unpacking I was bursting with excitement. I grabbed a scarf and went for a stroll.

There was so much to take in! The excitement, the smells, the sounds!! I walked past a church giving a free orchestral concert, stood on the Rialto bridge watching boats carry passengers, purchased a flaky pastry when my tummy grumbled and ate delicious gelato. Venice was a magical place and I was there, enjoying it all! I had just enough time to squeeze in a visit to the Accademia Gallery before dinner. It was amazing!!

Rialto Bridge

For dinner I decided to eat at Al Giglio which was a cute restaurant in the piazza near my hotel. I wanted to try a local Venice seafood specialty. I shouldn't have. The menu item, Venezia Cuttlefish with grilled polenta, sounded delicious but when my dish arrived I was seriously worried. Apparently Cuttlefish is a type of squid like fish with black ink sacks. The Cuttlefish is cooked in the ink sacs and appears as a black mess on your plate. I'm all for trying new things and I dove in. It was by far my least favorite dish in all of Italy. I gave it a valiant effort but alas I could not finish the dish.

Venezia Cuttelfish

The next morning I woke up early had a wonderfuly large breakfast buffet at the hotel and set off for Saint Marks Bascilica, the Palazzo Ducale, and the Campanile. Visiting these took most of the day because of a surprise Manet exhibit at the Museo di Palazzo Ducale. Huzzah! I still made it to the Peggy Gugenheim Museum where I lunched, before finishing off the day with Ca' Rezzonico, Museo Correr, and many random churches that caught my eye including the I Frari. I looked at so many places that day. My poor little Tom shoes really got a work out! It made eating gelato that much more satisfying though. Here are Pictures!!

Santa Maria del Giglio
Doorway to St. Marks Basilica
St Marks Basilica
The Guggy Museum
Peggy's resting place along side her dogs 
This made me laugh. Gotta love art!!
view from Peggy's window
Grand Canal

Palazzo Ducale

The Bridge of Sighs

view of St. Marks from the top
even Venice needs to ship things. I wonder if Amazon prime works here?
visiting the glass blowers on Murano

Leaving Venice was sad because it was incredibly wonderful but I was excited about a food tour I had booked in Parma so off I went. I caught the train towards Parma and arrived just as everybody was getting off work. I was amazed at how many people were on bikes. Everybody in town had a bike.

The streets were cobbled and adorable and little old ladies had loaves of bread in their bike baskets. There were men in fancy Italian suits riding bikes home from the office. I walked the mile to Hotel Savoy which was another amazing hotel pick and it made my stay extra comfortable. After checking in I joined the hustle and bustle on the town streets and walked in search of gelato.

gelato in the shape of a flower with the cobbled streets underneath my feet
notice the first bite mark... I couldn't wait for the picture

I had read a little about Parma but mostly decided to visit because of the food tour I would be doing the next day. While walking I stumbled across an octagonal pink-marble baptistry and nearby Duomo.

It was so pretty watching the light hit this stunning pink building. I took a few pictures but ended up disturbing a couple making out on the steps. I got a gelato (of course) and then walked to the old Opera house.

I sat in the Palazzo outside the Opera house and read more of Dan Brown's Inferno until the restaurant La Greppia opened up at 8pm. People eat so late in Italy!! It was really really good!! I knew it would be delicious but It topped my list of favorite restaurants in Italy. Yummy!!

I wrote Christian an email that night about how delicious it was:

Dinner started with Asparagus in a Parma ham sauce with saffron sprinkled over it, followed by gnocchi in a butter sauce of sautéed zucchini and zucchini blossoms, and finally what they called Involtino. It was Asparagus and cheese wrapped with Parma prosciutto. It was amaze-balls to the Italian walls! I really wanted to try one if the fifty desserts from the dessert cart but my belly was already protruding from behind the table. I rolled myself home and now I'm resting prostrate on the bed in a food coma. It's totally worth it!! I love you!

The next morning was my food tour. I was so excited about this!! I rented a car and drove through the Parma countryside to one of the most revered Parmigiano Reggiano cheese farms where the Zucchetti family has passed the cheese making craft down for 150 years. My tour guide and I arrived early so we could watch them throughout the cheese making process. The milk from cows that graze only in the Parma valley (the cheese consortium is very specific about what goes into a true Parmesan cheese) is unloaded into bins where the curds and whey are separated and then heated until the cheese curds settle. The curd is cut and then using cheesecloth it drains. 

once the curds and whey have separated a giant cheese disk settles

cutting the giant cheese disk in half

the separated cheese getting bundled up
notice the white molding buckets behind them

the cheese draining
From this stage it goes into the shaping salting room where it gets a seal with the farms number and the date pressed into what will become the rind after it dries and ages. The staglonatura is the aging room. Thousands of wheels of cheese rest on old wooden shelves where they will sit for 12 months before being tested by the Consortium. They use a hammer to tap the cheese, kinda like tapping a watermelon with your thumb. I guess skilled Consortium people know the sound a good wheel of cheese makes. I tried my hand at it but it sounded just like watermelon tapping to me so I'm guessing I don't have the ear for it.  Being in that room was incredible having just seen the effort it takes to make two wheels of cheese and now I was looking at rows and rows of cheese in various stages of the aging process. They only make 6 wheels a day and the 38 kg cheese wheel will age for a minimum of 12 months where only the best Consortium approved wheels will get an official Parma stamp. Some of the wheels that pass the test go on to age for 2 or more years.

from the molding buckets the cheese gets dried and pressed with this plastic label
the label has the farm number and the date

salt baths

drying room
as it dries this machine brushes off the moisture and salt 
tapping the cheese to check for doneness
beautiful delicious cheese with the Consorzio official stamp
now it will age for another year or more

At the conclusion of my tour I got to sample cheese at 24 months, 36 months and 48 months. The varying ages of cheese brought out different flavor profiles and the 48 month cheese was oh so delicious!! I even purchased a wedge of cheese and brought it home to Utah where Christian and I ate it happily.

My next tour was a visit to the curing workshop of Prosciutto di Parma. I walked through the cooling, salting, and resting rooms. Lots of hanging pig haunches. 

All that is needed to make the Parma ham so delicious is salt, air, and time. Or so they say. They believe that the seaborne breezes along the Apennine foothills is what makes the ham so yummy. I think a descent pig probably helps. Turns out all that whey from making cheese in Parma is fed to the Pigs. It makes them extra fat and their meat super creamy and rich. 

My last tour was a drive out to the Reggio Emilia Vineyard in Modena. This 40 acre family Vineyard has been making balsamic for 4 generations. This being a family vineyard, there were barrels of balsamic that were labeled with the name of the child in the family on the day they were born. These barrels are given to the child when they grow up and leave the home. The family has passed the balsamic tradition down and received numerous awards for the deliciousness of their creations. I can attest to the deliciousness because I sampled the 15, 22, and 28 year old balsamic from their antique barrels. The antique barrels contain balsamic that has been aging for over 100 years!! 
Yes, be jealous. It was that good. 

The balsamic is made using quality wine grapes unlike some of the industrial companies where sour grapes are used. They use white Trebbiano grapes which are crushed and the must is slowly boiled over charcoal for 24-30 hours. The must is then aged and decanted in different types of wood barrels because the different wood imparts a different flavor. This decanting in wood barrels takes a minimum of 12 years and it becomes a dark brown amber color.

The balsamic starts in the large barrel and over the years half of it is poured into the next smaller barrel and half from that barrel and so on. The volume lessens as it decants and gets thicker and sweeter. Some of the antique barrels contain balsamic that has been aging for 100 years!

a cloth covers the barrel during the decanting process

the type of wood is listed on the white label along with the family crest and seal on the barrels

so many splendid barrels

My tour finished with lunch on a balcony overlooking a beautiful vineyard...

...where I got to sample more Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and several varieties of delicious meat including Prosciutto di Parma, Culatello, Coppa (my favorite), Pancetta, Felio Salame with freshly made bread. 

The Parma food tour was a really cool thing to do if you truly enjoy food and love learning what makes it so yummy. My drive back through the Parma countryside was peaceful and relaxing. It gave me time to reflect on what an amazing time I'd had in Italy. The following morning I caught the train to Milan grabbed a few more gelatos and another mozzarella basil tomato sandwich before meeting up with Christian at a cute restaurant just around the corner from our hotel near the airport in Malpensa. We talked about our different travels over bowls of pasta and bread and split an affagado for dessert. 

We had a really great time in Italy and still dream about moving here someday. Christian is going to work for La Sportiva exclusively and I'm gonna open a bakery in the beautiful mountains of Ziano di Femme. Haha!! We wish! 

practicing my baking skills