A big part of travelling in Italy is the food experiences you gather on the way because, for Italians, there’s no fooling around when it comes to food. In addition to all the stunning places we visited in Rome, Naples, Florence and Milan, our 12 days in Italy were filled with delicious local food, wine and lots of local cheese. Italy truly turned out to be a food lover’s paradise!
But of all our culinary adventures in Italy, one distinctly stands out in our mind – our food tour in Parma with TastyBus. The aptly-named TastyBus tour is essentially a full day tour of the Parma region that takes you around to visit the production facilities of 3 key products of the region – Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Parma ham and Balsamic Vinegar. The TastyBus tour was the perfect introduction to the products of Parma and by the end of the day, we left with not only our stomachs but our hearts full!
Food tours are extremely popular in Italy, and for good reason. Italians love to eat and drink, and there are lots of opportunities for travellers to taste authentic Italian food through food trails across the country. While scouting for a suitable tour, we came across the TastyBus food tour in Parma that takes visitors to experience the production process of Parma’s local produce. We were immediately hooked on to the idea of hopping factories on a food tour instead of just hopping restaurants. Of course, there would also be tasting sessions at each factory, we were told. The best of both worlds, we thought, and immediately signed up for a full day tour.
But you may be wondering, why Parma of all places? Located in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, Parma is the official home of the authentic Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) Cheese and Parma Ham. It is also one of the only two cities in the world to produce authentic Balsamic Vinegar. If produced anywhere else outside this region, these products are no more certified to be authentic and are not labelled D.O.P (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, literally translating to “Protected Designation of Origin”). Although not commonly visited by tourists, it is easy to see why Parma holds so much significance in Italy’s culinary landscape and we couldn’t pass on a chance to experience that ourselves.
If visiting Parma was not on your Italy bucket list or you never even thought of taking a Parmesan cheese factory tour, we highly recommend you read on to find out more because this is an experience you’ll find nowhere else in the world!
Parma food tour – Parmigiano Reggiano cheese factory visit
So once our 12-day Italy itinerary was finalised, we picked a date and booked a full day tour from Maestro Travel Experience (the company that runs the TastyBus tours) on their website. The tour included visits to all 3 factories mentioned earlier. They also have an option for a half day tour, in which case you will just skip the visit to the Balsamic Vinegar factory.
On the day of our tour, we were advised to reach the designated starting point in Parma at 9.30 am. We were based in Milan at that time, so it took us a short train ride to reach Parma station and then an even shorter bus ride to get to the town centre, where we met our guide, Elisa. And as luck would have it, Neil and I happened to be the only two people on the tour that day (thank you, low season!) which meant that we had Elisa all to ourselves for the entire day, almost giving us a private tour experience!
In just a few minutes, we hopped into our ride for the day (the TastyBus!) and started driving towards our first factory of the day – Caseificio Basilicanova. A caseificio, in Italian, technically refers to a cheese factory. As we drove there, Elisa told us about the Parma region and its contribution to Italy’s food scene. She also briefly told us what to expect during the Parmesan Cheese factory visit and little tidbits about what goes on behind the scenes to create one of the most famous (and delicious) cheese in the world! For example, we got to know from her that even today, the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese-making process is largely manual and involves a lot of physical effort on the part of the cheese-maker. Hence, the quality of the cheese depends on the skills of the cheese-maker to a large extent.
Breezing past the Italian countryside, we soon reached our first pitstop. Before we could step inside the factory, Elisa handed us plastic covers for our hair and shoes and a mask to cover the face in case the smell gets overpowering. Just as we entered the main factory floor, we found the factory’s head cheese-maker, Paulo, and one of his associates in action. We figured we really couldn’t have made an entry at a better time!
As we walked through the factory floor, Elisa accompanied us, explaining the entire Parmesan cheese-making process at the same time. The air inside the room smelled of fresh milk. Not the overpowering kind, but the kind that lingers on in your mind for a long time to come, bringing back memories of an adorable little cheese factory in the Italian countryside.
We stopped for a while to watch Paulo swiftly strain the huge blocks of freshly churned cheese curds from massive metal containers to muslin-lined plastic moulds to drain off excess water and start giving it some shape. We could see what Elisa meant by the cheese-making process being labour-intensive. She told us that each block of cheese at this point weighs around 45 Kgs and it clearly takes 2 people to move it from one container to another!
From the actual production room, Elisa then took us to the next room in the factory where the fresh cheese blocks are transferred into metallic moulds that ultimately give them the iconic shape of a Parmigiano Reggiano cheese wheel that we know of. After a day or so, the cheese block is covered with a dotted template to engrave the words, Parmigiano Reggiano, along with other details like date of production, factory code etc. This is a vital step since only authentic Parmesan cheese produced in Parma, and meeting the strict quality standards set by the D.O.P, is allowed to have this kind of labelling on its outer crust.
Once we were outside the production space, it was time to visit what is known as the Cheese Bank! Every factory has one and this is where all the cheese blocks are stored as they mature over the years. The minimum amount of time needed for a Parmigiano Reggiano cheese wheel to mature is 12 months, but many cheese blocks are left to mature for 24 or 36 months. The Cheese Bank is literally a room full of cheese, stacked high up in wooden shelves and arranged in a symmetrical manner. For cheese-lovers like us, this view was nothing short of love at first sight!
We walked around the room for a while and couldn’t stop gaping at the sheer volume of cheese stored there. To add to our delight, Paulo said he’s going to crack open a brand new cheese block from his stock for us to see how it’s done and also get a taste of the cheese. He carefully chose a 12-month-old cheese block and cut it open with the use of special knives. We almost gasped at the sight of the pale yellow Parmigiano Reggiano wide open in front of us! Sensing our eagerness to taste the cheese, Paulo quickly scooped out a few chunks of the fresh, soft cheese, which was our cue to dig right in.
Our first experience of fresh Parmigiano Reggiano cheese was sublime, to say the least! The stuff that we get in grocery stores doesn’t even compare to what we tasted right out of a freshly cracked cheese wheel. It was soft, sweet, nutty, savoury, all at the same time!
But that’s not all. Elisa had already prepared another cheese platter for us to taste Parmigiano Reggiano with different levels of maturity since that affects the taste and texture of the cheese. Paired with local wine, we got a chance to taste and compare cheese that had been aged for 12, 24 and 36 months. And before we could get over all that cheese, Paulo also served us fresh butter and ricotta made at the factory from the by-products of the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese-making process. If you ask us, they were the most delicious bites of butter and ricotta we had ever tasted!
With one factory visit down and two more to go, we were ready to get back on the road with our TastyBus. But not before buying some Parmigiano Reggiano from the small shop at the factory, to bring back home with us.
Food tour in Parma – Parma Ham factory visit
Onwards from the cheese factory, our next stop was a Parma Ham factory, La Perla Salumificio, a family-run business in the hills of a small village called Langhirano. Walking towards the production facility, Elisa warned us that some people find the smell inside the ham factory a little too overpowering for their liking. Parma Ham has a distinctive smell that’s hard to ignore when you are anywhere near a factory, but there was no stopping us!
Parma Ham, also known as Prosciutto di Parma, is a unique product from this region of Italy. Just like Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Parma Ham’s production is also dictated by strict guidelines from the Parma Ham Consortium that is responsible for quality control. No piece of ham can be officially labelled as Parma Ham unless certified by the agency.
As we were getting ready to enter the factory and covering ourselves up, Elisa told us how each piece of ham is selected before it can be processed in the factory. Not only does the pig have to be bred and raised in Italy, but they also have to be fed a specific diet to get the resultant taste in the ham. We also got to know that only the back legs of the pig are used to produce Parma Ham, giving the end product its signature shape.
The first thing that struck us as we walked into the factory was how many more machines there were as opposed to the previous factory. The reason is obvious. Processing meat needs more equipment and although several steps in the production process are still done by hand, many of the steps also need machinery. The first one we saw was a machine that compresses and salts the meat, getting it ready for the next stages.
During our Parma ham factory tour, we noticed several chambers containing ham legs at different stages of maturation. Elisa explained to us how the ham goes through several stages of salting and drying in controlled temperatures to achieve the right texture and taste. We found it extremely fascinating that the entire process uses only sea salt and the right temperature and no other preservatives or additives to get the final product! That’s one of the factors that distinguish Parma ham from other kinds of cured meats.
As the ham ages and loses its moisture content, it keeps losing weight. At the final stage of the ageing process, each ham leg is individually tested by an expert to ensure they meet the standards. Elisa showed us what the final product looks like with the authorized seal of the D.O.P stamped on the ham leg, ready to be dispatched. As much as we were enjoying the tour, we couldn’t wait to get to the tasting session, which we were told would happen in the restaurant located within the farm itself.
The restaurant was nothing like we had expected! Specially designed for tasting sessions, the dining hall had a separate section to display the local produce – Parma Ham, olive oil, wine and other kinds of processed meats. As we sat down to get a taste of what we had seen earlier, the owner’s daughter came over to serve us a platter of thinly sliced, blush pink prosciutto produced right there at the farm.
Elisa told us that the mark of good prosciutto is a thin layer of fat at the edge which enhances the taste. And boy, was she right! We tasted a slice each and it felt like a burst of flavours in our mouth! The ham was sweet, salty, creamy and smooth all at the same time, and it melted away in our mouth before we realized! A few slices of Parma ham with some local wine, and we were two happy campers! (Elisa wasn’t drinking any wine with us since she was driving). Before we got tempted any further to eat more ham, we decided to make a move onto our lunch stop for the day.
Authentic Italian lunch in Parma
After completing two factory visits, it was time for lunch. We were definitely not starving since morning thanks to the tasting sessions, but Elisa told us this lunch would be special – an authentic Italian lunch in the hinterland, with rolling hills and the Parma river for company. She drove us to a small family-run restaurant, overlooking beautiful lush green valleys. But once we entered the restaurant, it transported us to an entirely different world. With brick walls, vintage decor, dim lighting and small dining tables across the floor, the restaurant felt cosy and homely. The owner’s daughter quickly came over to welcome us and even invited us to take a look at the kitchen, where even today, her octogenarian father enthusiastically prepares meals for guests. As we curiously looked around, he graciously offered us a taste of one of his homemade sauces, enough for us to figure out what awaited us at lunch.
As we waited at our table and glugged more wine, the owner’s daughter served us a simple, hearty salad made from fresh ingredients sourced locally – lettuce, apples, olives, capers and generous helpings of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. After all, we were eating a meal in the heart of Parma! This was followed by two homemade pasta dishes – Gnocchi with a rich, meat sauce and Ravioli with some more Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. The dishes were simple but hearty and reflected the core essence of what food means to Italians.
The meal was extremely filling and just when we thought we were done, the owner served us a plate of local almond cake called Sbrisolona along with an Italian-style custard called Zabaione. If we were full with the main course earlier, this dessert was the final nail in the coffin! But the cake and the custard were so delicious and different from what we typically have, we couldn’t resist wiping the plate clean. That only meant one thing – snooze time as soon as we hit the road again on Elisa’s car!
Food tour in Parma – Balsamic Vinegar factory visit
I couldn’t tell how long I had been sleeping until I finally got woken up when Elisa stopped her car. I have to say I was a tad bit embarrassed to have fallen asleep in the middle of our tour. But thanks to all the wine and cheese we’ve had since morning, I slept like a baby, so I wasn’t complaining either! Once the car was parked, Elisa told us we have reached our final stop for the day – a Balsamic Vinegar production facility in Parma run by the Picci family.
Acetaia Picci was located within the beautiful 17th-century estate of the Picci family. We have to admit, it looked very different from what we would imagine a production facility or a so-called factory to be. It was charming and had a beautiful vintage vibe to it, unlike both the factories we visited earlier that day. Just before starting our tour, Elisa told us how different the traditional Balsamic Vinegar is from what is usually sold in the market. We may know of balsamic vinegar as a black-coloured liquid used as salad dressing, but for Italians, it is no less than liquid gold. This is because the production of traditional Balsamic is a labour and time-intensive process. The only way to verify the end product’s authenticity is by checking for a seal from the D.O.P. For laymen like us, the massive difference in price is also an indicator – the market price of authentic balsamic vinegar is much higher than the commercially produced stuff.
Balsamic Vinegar is traditionally produced from the juice of a particular kind of grapes grown in this part of Italy – the Trebbiano and Spergola variety. The hand-pressed grapes are then slow-cooked at a low temperature for a duration of 50 hours. What did we say about the process being time-intensive? The liquid is then transferred into wooden barrels that do the hard work of ageing the balsamic vinegar and imparting that beautiful flavour and aroma to it. But the process isn’t that straightforward and has multiples crucial steps that need to be followed for the perfect end product.
Elisa walked us through the attic of the Picci production facility where rows of barrels filled with cooked grape juice at different ages were lined up. The wooden casks of different sizes and made out of different varieties of wood laid out all across the floor were a sight to behold. And the musty air in the attic pierced by the sweet aroma of the fermenting grape juices lent the space a sense of mystery. We saw barrels made from Juniper, Mulberry and Chestnut woods, which are used at different stages of the fermentation process. Elisa also got us to taste some of the liquids straight from the cask, and we could immediately tell they were all different either in viscosity or in their taste.
The older the balsamic vinegar, the thicker it is in consistency and the more flavour it develops over time. We were almost shocked to hear that the minimum amount of time it takes for authentic balsamic vinegar to reach the stage where it can be bottled and sold, is 12 years! This is what a labour of love probably looks like. But 12 years of ageing produces the most low-end traditional balsamic. If you want to take the product a few notches higher where it truly reaches its maximum flavour and intensity, you have to wait for 20 or 25 years! Rich, thick, aromatic and sweet, the 25 years old balsamic vinegar is considered to be a delicacy and is primarily used by the top chefs of the world. But who knew we were in for a surprise right after our tour?
As we were inching towards the end of our Balsamic Vinegar factory tour, Elisa introduced us to Mr. Picci, who now owns and runs the business once started by his father. A warm, knowledgable man, Mr. Picci told us he was here to take us through the tasting session. Now, we’ve had balsamic vinegar elsewhere with our salads, but this was a big deal! Getting to taste the original stuff right where it’s manufactured with so much caution and care, was definitely an opportunity of a lifetime!
Mr. Picci took us to an ornate dining hall that almost looked like an underground cellar. There, he showed us what all the three final bottled products from his production line look like and gave us samples to taste. We tried the 12, 20 and 25 years old balsamic vinegar and it was easy to tell the difference from the commercial products we are used to. Mr. Picci also told us how delicately the products are to be used – when it comes to the good stuff, we learnt that only a few drops are enough to create magic on the palate.
In addition to handing us samples of the balsamic vinegar, he also served us a vanilla custard topped with a few drops of the divine 25-year-old vinegar. You know that sensation when you taste something you’ve never tasted before and really like it despite the flavour combination not conventionally making sense? That’s exactly how we felt, as we wiped our bowls clean!
Before the tour ended, we decided to purchase a small bottle of the 12-year-old Balsamic to bring back home – an attempt to recreate our Parma food tour experience once the trip is over!
Why take the
TastyBus Tour in Parma
The balsamic vinegar factory visit brought us to the end of our eventful and exciting food tour in Parma. But Elisa graciously offered to drop us back at the train station from where we had to take a train back to Milan. As we drove back to the city, watching the sun set over the beautiful Italian countryside, we couldn’t help but look back at the day and feel grateful for the experiences.
Food is undoubtedly one of the best ways to get up close and personal with the local people and their culture, and this TastyBus tour just reinforced our belief. If we have to pick one experience in Italy that left an indelible mark on our mind, this would be it! The Parma region itself has contributed so much to the Italian culinary landscape, it is a shame so few people know about it and visit this part of the country. So if you are planning a trip to Italy, we highly recommend keeping a day aside to immerse yourself in the magic of Parma!
But apart from the destination itself blowing us off our feet, it was Elisa and the TastyBus team that truly made our day memorable. A thoughtfully organised and well-executed tour, we thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience of visiting local Parmesan cheese, Parma ham and Balsamic Vinegar factories in Parma. By choosing the right producers to visit, sharing local stories and by allowing us to explore at our own pace, Elisa did a fabulous job of presenting Parma to us, because it’s always the little details that make the difference!
How to reach Parma
A visit to Parma makes for a great day trip from several nearby Italian cities like Milan, Florence and Bologna. If based out of the latter, here are a bunch of other day trips from Bologna you should explore. The best way to reach Parma is by taking a train to its central train station irrespective of where your base location in Italy is. With a very well connected rail network, we found trains to be the most convenient mode of transport to navigate through the country. So whether you are based out of Milan, Florence, Rome or Venice, you can easily find a train to Parma. Once you reach Parma station, there are public buses to take you around the city, making it really easy to travel around.
If you are basing yourself out of Rome, here are some essential travel tips for Rome to help you find your way around the city!
Our day trip to Parma from Milan was a breeze, thanks to the excellent train connectivity and the well-organized TastyBus tour. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this trip to Parma was one of our most memorable experiences in Italy! If you are looking for an offbeat, unique food tour in Italy, we highly recommend you give the TastyBus tour in Parma a shot. If you do go for this tour, definitely let us know how you liked it!