Our “meatcation” in Italy has been fantastic but it also opened our eyes to how North America idolizes Italy when it comes to food. Common misconceptions:
- You can’t eat a bad meal in Italy.
- No one has gluten intolerances because of the quality of flour.
- Salumi/ Cured meat is the best because it’s still made the traditional way.
We hate to burst everyone’s bubble but…
- we’ve had lots of terrible food – some cooked by well meaning nonnas,
- celiac disease and gluten-intolerance is just as common here, and
- the food system here is also kind of messed up.
Our Italian meatcation has been quite an experience of highs and lows, and a very important conversation in Umbria with Leonardo who asked us to think about how Parma ham is produced. Also known as Prosciutto di Parma, it is considered some of the most delicious ham in the world and you can buy it everywhere. But Parma is a very small region in Emilia Romagna with a population of under 200,000 and only 200 producers of parma ham – how is this small region in Italy producing enough pigs to feed the world?
It’s not a secret, but it’s also not widely known. Much of the pork is being raised in other countries in Europe like Russia and then shipped to Parma where they are stamped, slaughtered and being sold as a DOP or Denominazione di Origine Protetta parma ham.
DOP products in Italy protect specialty foods from specific origins but they also warrant a higher price because they are supposed to reflect quality and heritage.
According to locals, rules were changed in Parma because they couldn’t keep up with the demand for parma ham and so now the pigs can be raised elsewhere then slaughtered in Parma and cured in a traditional manner.
This story of the demand for Italian cures has been an ongoing debate throughout Italy, a country that cannot produce enough pork to satisfy the world’s demand.
It’s a constant conversation about how the quality of salumi in Italy is decreasing rapidly because it was becoming industrialized and no more special than anywhere else in the world. But just as we were becoming disheartened things turned around in Modena.
We finished our travels in Modena, a city I adore (check out the 42-page culinary travel guide) and really wanted to share with Dave.
It’s not only home to the #2 restaurant in the world, but also so many great producers of balsamic vinegar, pasta, parmigiano-reggiano cheese. In Modena there are no tourist restaurants, just restaurants. It’s small and it’s one of my very favourite places to visit.
The city tourist board offered to take us out for a day to visit a special producer just outside the city that not many people know about.
At first it seemed like any other farm visit, we traveled out to Montetortore, in the Apennines between Modena and Bologna to meet Emanuele Ferri.
We climbed the hill to visit the Mora Romagnola pigs, an Italian heritage breed that once flourished in the mountains but have recently been abandoned as a choice breed because other races are better suited to industrial breeding.
The Mora Romagnolas are heading toward extinction but here 300 are raised each year. We were taken by how affectionate the animals were toward him and we liked that he didn’t want to expand, just to continue to produce great quality cured meat.
These pigs live a very different life, with an open farm to roam. They can graze on acorns, chestnuts and grass and are also fed, organic barley, fava bean and corn grown on property. Breeding also takes place in the wild and occurs naturally.
It’s a very romantic agricultural story that began to give us hope about the future of Italian food. But what really inspired us was what was happening in the production facility.
Emanuele comes from a family of butchers, beginning with his grandfather. But today he is also frustrated with the declining quality of salumi, both where pigs come from and how it’s produced.
Although he does not English, it’s clear he has strong opinions about the quality and transparency in today’s system.
So he decided to create his own system and it’s all about traceability.
While outside pigs are living a life with a nod to tradition, inside is all about innovation. He worked with others to create a microchip system to trace the entire lifespan of product from piglet to packaged product. There are also cameras everywhere that can be controlled by computer or phone to view the pigs, feeding, veterinary checks and where they live.
The final product also has a QR code so that the end user can find information about the product but also one that Emanuele can use to track the product to ensure no one is falsely trying to sell Ca Lumaco products. If the QR code is not destroyed he follows-up to ensure no one has taken the packaging and has repurposed it to sell inferior product.
Naturally I wondered if he had patented this system and planned to sell it to others but I think my North American capitalist mentality puzzled him. He said it was for his own assurance and so that others could trust his product.
Perhaps the best part touring the facility was the opportunity to eat some of the product – which was by far some of the best we had encountered anywhere.
In North America we cling to this idealism that somehow Europe is trapped in time and haven’t succumbed to mass production like we have but it’s inescapable. Just as we were starting to feel disheartened by mass production in Italy, Emanuele really inspired us. He made such an impression that we have a photo of him in our restaurant as a reminder that some people still care as much as we do.
Via Mazzoni 740
41059 Zocca, Loc. Casa Miro (Modena)
Ca Lumaco isn’t a traditional tourist destination and no one speaks English so if you’re interested in visiting Ca Lumaco your best bet is to contact the Tourism Office of Modena, we can vouch that they are really amazing at helping to explore the region. While Italy isn’t perfect and a lot of parma ham is a scam but, people like Emanuele give hope that through innovation the traditional of quality will continue.
Excellent piece. I think it shows that, when possible, we should be eating the produce of local artisan producers. Here in the Vendée ( in West France near the Atlantic Coast) we have wonderful local jambon cru, very good duck foie gras and wonderful seafood and oysters and I eat and enjoy all of these. I spent some time ( 30 years ago) shooting pictures of the salumerias in Parma for Elle Magazine and ate wonderfully well in that area…..in homes and restaurants. Although I live in France, if I had to choose but one cuisine , it would undoubtedly be Italian…:)
Aawww! That is cute piggy. Now I’m vegetarian! x)
Fascinating piece! Guess I shouldn’t be surprised that shady companies are willing to go to such lengths to maximize revenue, but I do wish there was more regulation on the foods that we eat. I don’t know if I even wanna know if there are similar scams surrounding Ramón Ibérico… I suppose buying local whenever possible is the lesson here.
Our “meatcation” in Italy was all about learning traditional methods and we learned so many things. But the reality is that there are so many great salumi producers in North America, the good ones aren’t cheap but they marry Italian tradition with high quality local ingredients.
Wow, that’s disappointing to learn especially when you are going to be paying premium prices for these DOP product, I’ll just have to try what’s made locally from now on, thank you.
Hi just wanted to say that this is a great piece. Yummy Italy actually runs tours to Cà Lumaco, should anyone be interested 😉
I actually take people to Ca’ Lumaco and similar artisan charcuterie producers – if you don’t know them they are difficult to access primarily because tourism is not their goal. They aim to create the best product possible. There is a wonderful breeding programme being carried out for the Mora Romagnola pigs and the males are very carefully selected. Occasionally there are throwbacks and piglets with sticking up ears are born. When selecting Parma DOP ham, again, this is a case of knowing the right producer who may well be intent on curing ham with strictly Italiand and local pigs – and usually a good indication of quality and of whether the pig is Italian and local is how long it has been cured for. The longer it is cured, the more likely it is to be a local pig.
I am Italian and though Parma ham tends to command the highest prices (and can reach pinnacles of excellence, if produced to the highest standards) your average Parma ham is in my view inferior to ham of other smaller denominated regions. For instance, San Daniele (second most famous region) and even more smaller denominations like Sauris (these two are from my region of Friuli VG, but there are far more). Abroad, these are hard to find but if you are in Italy, go for these! The reason for the generally superior quality is that as smaller regions’ hams command lower prices there is less incentive to mass produce, import pigs, etc.
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