As far back as the Middle Ages people traveled to Parma to see and sample the big cheeses stored in local dairies. In 1612 the treasurer of the Farnese estates in the area designed the trademark for Parmigiano Reggiano, the "king of cheeses," which is still made in the same traditional manner. When melted, this richly flavored hard cheese seamlessly bonds with any ingredient. When grated on risotto or pasta, it intensifies every flavor in the dish. Italians nibble on raw chunks of this tasty cheese as an appetizer or add shaved slices to a salad (see recipe below).
To win designation as true Parmigiano-Reggiano, the cheese must come from the milk of free-range cows that graze in designated areas of the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua and Bologna. Because of the unique environment, the milk of these cows ferments and ages like no other. Cheese masters follow precise steps for mixing and heating the milk, breaking up the curd (cagliata) into pieces the size of grains of wheat (grana), and separating the whey from the cheese. Once a rind begins to form, the 80-pound wheels of cheese are soaked in brine, dried in the sun and then stored for 18 months or longer.
The highest quality Parmigiano-Reggiano bears the four-digit dairy code 3090 for Caseificio Sociale di Borgotaro, a co-op of 492 small cheese producers who go beyond the mandated production standards. Their herds graze on nutritious, hearty grass in the crisp air of the pre-Appenine mountains. After the cows are milked, the cheese makers, breaking from convention, leave much of the flavorful, high-fat cream in the whey rather than skimming it off and selling it. The higher percentage of this luscious mountain cream gives Parmigiano-Reggiano 3090 a rich milky flavor. Aging the cheese for 28-months, with regular turning and testing, adds a pleasantly acidic touch.
You can buy Parmigiano-Reggiano 3090, which is produced in limited quantities and hard to find in the United States, on line at www.agferrari.com or any of the thirteen A.G. Ferrari Foods stores in northern California. Executive Chef Gianluca Guglielmi of A.G. Ferrari Foods suggests this simple but sensational salad as a way to savor the full flavor of Parmigiano Reggiano 3090.
Insalata di Rucola, Asparagi e Parmigiano-Reggiano
(Salad of arugula, asparagus and Parmigiano-Reggiano)
Preparation: 25 minutes
For 4 persons
Ingredients for the vinaigrette
- 14 ounces of arugula
- 12 green asparagus tips
- 4 radishes, thinly sliced
- 5 ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano, in large shaves
- 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 1.5 tablespoons of traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena
- Sea salt
- Maricha Black pepper from Sarawak, freshly ground
- Prepare the vinaigrette by adding salt and pepper to the balsamic vinegar and then slowly whisking in the extra virgin olive oil.
- Blanch asparagus in boiling salted water for 30 seconds and then chill in iced water for a few minutes. Cut in half lengthwise.
- Rinse, wash and dry the arugula
- In a large bowl combine asparagus, sliced radishes and arugula with the vinaigrette. Toss well.
- Divide salad onto four individual plates and top with Parmigiano-Reggiano shaves.
Piazza della Signoria, Florence
This historic L-shaped square dates back to Roman times, when it was surrounded by a theatre, Roman baths and a workshop for dyeing textiles. An enormous basilica was erected in the fifth century. The Piazza della Signoria began to take its current shape in the 13th century, when the political faction known as the Guelphs defeated the Ghibellines and razed their houses in the center of Florence.
Today the Piazza della Signoria remains a bustling open-air museum, boasting a remarkable number of capolavori (masterpieces), including copies of Michelangelo's David and Donatello's Judith and Holofernes; the bronze equestrian statue of Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, by Giambologna; the Fountain of Neptune by Bartolomeo Ammannati; Hercules and Cacus by Bandinelli; the Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna; and Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Cellini.
Whenever I visit, after looking at the sculptures, I like to take a few minutes to listen to the stories the stones of the Piazza della Signoria could tell. Just to the right of the Neptune fountain, which Florentines derisively called "Biancone" (Big Whitey), is a long, raised platform fronting the Palazzo Vecchio. On this arringheria aggrieved citizens aired their complaints and inveighed against their enemies to whomever would listen, adding to the piazza's legacy to the world the root of the English word "harangue." According to local legend, a political speech given on this spot in the 14th century so incensed the crowd that they tore the speaker apart and ate him.
In the 15th century, il Magnifico, Lorenzo de'Medici, filled the piazza with masquerades, revels, pageants and processions. "If ever history could be happy, it was then," wrote one historian. In 1494, two years after Lorenzo's death, the French king Charles VIII marched into the Piazza della Signoria and demanded an exorbitant bribe not to destroy the city. The Florentines refused. When he threatened to sound his trumpets to call his troops to arms, Piero Capponi, a courageous magistrate, shouted the phrase that became a local proverb: "Se suonerete le vostre trombe, noi suoneremo le nostre campane." "If you sound your trumpets, we will ring our bells!" At the sound of the bells, the king realized, the Piazza della Signoria would fill with the local militia. These citizen soldiers trained in part during a strenuous ball game known as calcio in costume, similar to rugby, which is still played every June in a historical reenactment in the piazza.
In the late 1490s Florence fell under the sway of the fanatic friar Girolamo Savonarola. His followers, derided as piagnoni (snivelers), dragged priceless paintings, fine gowns, furniture, jewelry and musical instruments into the Piazza della Signoria and set them ablaze in the infamous "bonfires of the vanities." In 1498 Savonarola's opponents, known as the arrabbiati (the angry ones), hanged the mad-eyed monk as a heretic and cremated his body in a giant bonfire that burned for hours on the same site (now marked by a plaque) where he had incinerated the works of others.
In the early 1500s Machiavelli crossed the Piazza della Signoria to work in the Palazzo Vecchio. As a boy Vasari ran into the piazza to rescue pieces of the arm of Michelangelo's David, which had been damaged in the fighting between pro-Medici and pro-independent forces. In 1860 the citizens of Florence heard the plebiscite declaring the unification and independence of the Italian state in Piazza della Signoria.
Crowds still gather for special occasions in this ancient square. On a mild summer night my daughter and I listened to Zubin Mehta conduct Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" and watched in awe as fireworks erupted from the roof of the adjacent Loggia della Signoria to light up the sky above us. It was a scene Lorenzo the Magnificent would have loved.