Often referred to as ‘the heart of Italy’s Food Valley,’ the region is world-famous for such fine culinary contributions as Prosciutto di Parma (a.k.a. Parma ham), Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Aceto Balsamico (balsamic vinegar) from nearby Modena, and regional pastas.
On this summer morning, I’m in a cooking class at Academia Barilla’a centre owned by the Barilla Group, a Parma-based company that began in 1877. It is a global pasta producer, and is also dedicated to promoting Italian gastronomy through culinary teaching, chef training and local food tours. (Its gastronomic library has more than 11,000 books on food and culture dating back to the 16th century.)
A dozen of us don chef hats and aprons. As a trained chef and cookbook writer, I am always keen to learn a new trick or two. Armed with chef knives and hand-crank pasta rollers, we are soon busily preparing what will become our lunch. On today’s menu is Caponata’a Sicilian eggplant dish’and freshly baked rolls. A trio of pastas is also underway: tagliatelle (a long, flat noodle) with local extra virgin olive oil and vegetables; tortelli (a regional take on ravioli) filled with fresh ricotta and wilted Swiss chard; and hand-spun trofie (thin twisted pasta spirals) with green beans, potatoes and basil pesto. I volunteer to make the farro salad as I love this ancient grain, and there is also bass with black olives and fresh herbs baked in parchment paper.
A believer in cooking as a therapeutic tool, I find myself marvelling at how the combination of mixing, kneading, chopping and simmering is helping to better focus my thoughts, while also melting away stress and tension. It’s at once meditative and active, nourishing and thoughtful.
At lunch we sit, we savour, we sip , and we share, both food and convivial conversation. It is served family-style’a Mediterranean custom of shared platters of food meaning I can sample smaller portions. Everything for this meal is homemade, either by us or by local producers using fresh ingredients.
There is no rush to eat and get somewhere else; here in Parma, I’ve noticed most shops and businesses close for a leisurely, civilized two- to three-hour lunch break (shop hours are typically from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 3:30 to 7:30 p.m.). After lunch, I feel satiated but not stuffed. Dinner, typically a smaller meal than lunch, will come much later, and in the form of leafy green salads and shared antipasto platters of locally crafted cheeses, fresh seafood and seasonal vegetables. Meanwhile, there is plenty of time in between to explore these breathtaking city streets by foot or bicycle.
Cooking fresh ingredients grown or sourced locally; taking the time to slow down, savour and enjoy food; along with being physically active: These are all basic elements of the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle.
The Mediterranean-style eating pattern is based on an abundance of vegetables and fruit, whole grains and nuts, legumes and rice, olives and olive oil, herbs and spices. To a lesser extent, the moderate consumption of fish and poultry, eggs and cheese, yogurt and milk, pasta and bread is observed and encouraged, while lean red meats are consumed only on occasion. For dessert, a piece of quality cheese with fresh fruit and nuts is customary, while small treats made with honey and fruit usually trump creamy, or refined white flour and sugar-laden, sweets.