5 things I’ve learned about Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

5 things I’ve learned about Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

When I left my career as a middle school principal, I gained some immediate benefits. I traded in my neckties for t-shirts and long meetings for behind-the-scenes tours. Recently, though, I learned of another great switcheroo that came when I left my job in public education to pursue travel writing full-time: Cafeteria mini-corn dogs have been replaced with delicious Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

The Chef & The Dish

When Jenn Nicken of The Chef & The Dish asked us to take part in the complimentary cooking lesson that Ann wrote about HERE, I was definitely interested. And when she explained that all four of the recipes would feature Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, I did a happy dance.

Steve selects a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese at Whole Foods.

Steve selects a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese at the store.

All my life, I’ve loved parmesan cheese. It tops pizza, spaghetti, lasagna, and even popcorn perfectly. But, as I quickly learned, our cooking experience wouldn’t be with tiny salty pellets of cheese product from a round plastic container. Instead, we’d be working with the real deal, the king of cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano. At the beginning of our cooking class with The Chef & The Dish, our chef, Paola Martinenghi, made sure we knew just how special this ingredient is.

Chef Paola Martinenghi was a phenomenal teacher, but she also made us laugh.

Chef Paola Martinenghi was a phenomenal teacher, but she also made us laugh.

Here are 5 things she taught us about the most delicious cheese.

1. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is NOT parmesan (it’s way better)

The world is full of cheese called parmesan. This name simply means that the cheese was made in the style of Parmigiano Reggiano. What makes Parmigiano Reggiano cheese special is that the cheese maker must follow a very specific set of rules that have been around for generations. A consortium of cheese makers governs these rules which are designed to produce a consistently high-quality product that consumers can trust.

First, the cheese can only be produced in a certain part of Italy. That region has the necessary climate to produce the perfect cheese of this style. Then, a specific process must be followed. At the end, every cheese wheel undergoes an inspection. Those that pass are marked with dots that say Parmigiano Reggiano and are branded with a seal on the rind of the wheel to show it’s authentic.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese grated

A pile of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese grated. Note the rind with the dots showing the cheese is authentic.

If you want to buy real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, make sure any piece you purchase still has the rind on it and that you can see the dots. Otherwise, you might well be buying an imitation. And trust me, after trying the real stuff and the pretend side-by-side, there is a difference you can clearly taste.

2. It takes a huge quantity of the right milk

All cheese starts with milk, and that’s true for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Cows that produce the milk for the cheese must live in a certain area of Italy and be grass-fed. Only. The milk they produce is used unpasteurized.

The cows are milked twice a day. The evening milking is put into copper vats, and the fat is skimmed off. The next morning’s milking is added creating a part skim, part whole milk mixture that then moves on to the cheese making process. By now, each vat has more than 260 gallons of milk, though all that milk will produce only two wheels of cheese.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese twins

Each vat of 260 gallons of milk produces only two wheels of cheese. These are called the “twins.” (Photo courtesy Parmigiano Reggiano)

During the cheese making process, natural ingredients are added to cause the curd of the milk to separate from the whey. This curd is then put in to molds and wrapped in a belt that leaves the distinctive Parmigiano Reggiano dot markings on the rind. The whey of the milk isn’t wasted. Instead, it’s fed to pigs. This may well be part of the reason why prosciutto di Parma is so delicious.

3. The cheese takes a swim

The next step is to put the new cheese wheels in a vat of salt water. It floats around and is turned regularly, so that the wheel can absorb salt. The cheese will spend 20 days in this magic brine.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in salt water

A worker turning wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in a vat of salt water. (Photo courtesy Parmigiano Reggiano)

4. Aging properly is key

Then, the cheese wheels are put on long wooden shelves in a large room to age. Because humidity is different from the front of the shelves to the back, the cheeses are turned regularly. According to Chef Paola, there are enough shelves to go 20 or more cheeses high meaning each row might have more than 1,000 cheese wheels aging in it.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese wheels aging

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese wheels aging on shelves. (Photo courtesy Parmigiano Reggiano)

5. Then, the final exam

After one year of aging, each cheese wheel is inspected to see if it meets the requirements to be called Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Someone from the consortium comes and taps the wheels with a hammer, listening for imperfections. If the inspector is satisfied, the cheese wheel is branded with the seal of the consortium, and that wheel is officially Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. If it does not pass inspection, the dots are removed and the cheese is sold as plain old parmesan cheese.

Inspection of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

An expert inspects the wheel of cheese by tapping it with a hammer while listening for imperfections. (Photo courtesy Parmigiano Reggiano)

After hearing all this, I tasted the cheese and delighted in the explosion of pure deliciousness that filled my mouth. Last summer, when we traveled to Italy, we marveled at the quality and flavor of the food everywhere we went.

Bruschetta with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Fresh bruschetta topped with thin slices of genuine Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

All over Italy, we met with wine makers, bakers, and butchers. As each explained her/his craft, we learned they take no shortcuts. They simply do things the old fashioned-way, even if it takes a little longer or costs a little more. Our experience with The Chef & The Dish reinforced this idea. Sure it might be a complicated process to make Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Yes, it might take longer to produce than other mass-produced cheeses. But in the end, all of the attention to detail creates a product that is of incredibly high quality that adds so much to food. The extra effort is definitely worth it.


While our cooking experience with The Chef & The Dish was complimentary, the opinions and our newfound love for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese are our own.

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Pinter’s Gardens & Pumpkins near Decorah, Iowa

Pinter’s Gardens & Pumpkins near Decorah, Iowa

I remember as a kid the excitement I felt at the start of fall. I loved jumping in huge piles of freshly raked leaves and taking in every moment of outside play I could before the snow of winter blew in. Every year I hunted for the ideal pumpkin to carve. I liked one that was tall and skinny, like me. And, like every other kid in the neighborhood, I wanted to have the biggest pumpkin on the block. Our recent visit to Pinter’s Gardens & Pumpkins near Decorah, Iowa took me back to those days.

Barn at Pinter's Gardens and Pumpkins, Decorah, Iowa

A barn near the petting zoo at Pinter’s.

We had the chance to visit Pinter’s on a crisp, early fall morning. We pulled into the lot and parked next to a lone school bus. Climbing out of the car I inhaled deeply, savoring the fresh Iowa farm air while listening to the joyful sounds of children playing in the distance. The pumpkin patch is open to the public on weekends; we were there for a private tour on a weekday when it was only open by appointment. This meant, of course, that I’d have a chance to play like a kid without embarrassing myself around other adults.

Our tour of Pinter’s Gardens & Pumpkins

When we walked in the front door, owner Elisa Pinter greeted us and offered to take us on a tour of the grounds.

Cupcakes at Pinter's Gardens and Pumpkins, Decorah, Iowa

Owner Elisa Pinter holds a box of their delicious cupcakes. After trying one, we know why these famous cupcakes are a favorite among locals.

We quickly learned that this business is a labor of love for the Pinters and they have worked very hard to grow their dream into reality over the last seven years. Elisa led us outside to a large area filled with fun activities for the whole family while explaining a little more about the business.

The Pinters have a garden center that is open year-round, and the family has done landscaping in northeast Iowa since 1998. In addition, they have a bakery and candy shop that are open year round that offers freshly made treats like homemade fudge, pies, and flavored popcorn.

Fudge at Pinter's Gardens and Pumpkins, Decorah, Iowa

The fresh fudge at Pinter’s is worth a trip by itself.

Popcorn at Pinter's Gardens and Pumpkins, Decorah, Iowa

They pop and bag their own popcorn right on site! Flavors available include buttered, cheese, caramel, green apple, and kettle corn.

Elisa told us the bakery is best known for its cupcakes. One taste of these moist delights and we understood why Pinter’s cupcakes are famous all over the region. Ann loved the pumpkin cupcake, while I enjoyed the monster cookie cupcake. In all honesty, I wanted to eat about 10 of them.

Cupcakes at Pinter's Gardens and Pumpkins, Decorah, Iowa

An up-close look at some of the delicious cupcakes at Pinter’s. On the left are their famous pumpkin cupcakes, while on the right are monster cookie cupcakes. And yes, they taste even better than they look!

On weekends, Pinter’s Gardens & Pumpkins also offers fresh wood-fired pizzas so visitors can easily spend a whole day there and have something hearty along with the sweet treats.

Activities at Pinter’s Gardens & Pumpkins

Starting the last two weekends in September and running every weekend through October, Pinter’s opens their famous pumpkin patch. Whether it’s learning about where food comes from or improving motor skills by playing outside, education is at the heart of everything they do.

Education at Pinter's Gardens and Pumpkins, Decorah, Iowa

Pinter’s not only provides fun for the whole family, they also provide education about their farm and the products available on it.

The Pinters believe in the concept of agri-tainment. The idea is that children can learn about agriculture and the world by actually getting outside, playing, and getting a little messy. At Pinter’s, kids can sit down in a corn box and wiggle around in a huge pile of corn. From there, they can have duck races by pumping water and sending rubber ducks down a trough to the other end. Check out this short video me racing against myself. (I won!)

A number of activities also teach problem solving skills. Children can first try their luck at a tire maze where it’s easy to get un-lost before setting off into a much more complicated corn maze where whole families can try the adventure together.

Tire playground at Pinter's Gardens and Pumpkins, Decorah, Iowa

Steve climbs on top of the tires and declares himself king of the hill at Pinter’s.

Corn maze at Pinter's Gardens and Pumpkins, Decorah, Iowa

The corn maze at Pinter’s looks pretty complicated from here. We can only imagine what it would be like on the inside.

So many fun activities

Kids of all ages can throw passes and pitches in the ball zone, play in a giant sand box, walk through a fun house, or play glow-in-the-dark mini golf.

Mini golf at Pinter's Gardens and Pumpkins, Decorah, Iowa

New in 2018 is indoor, glow-in-the-dark mini golf. It’s a fun challenge, indeed!

In addition, Pinter’s offers a petting zoo with goats, chickens, ducks and turkeys. They also have tetherball, a pumpkin cannon (yes, you read that right), pumpkin bowling, bocce ball, as well as giant checkers and chess.

Chess at Pinter's Gardens and Pumpkins, Decorah, Iowa

A huge chess board is one of the many outdoor activities at Pinter’s.

We really enjoyed our time at Pinter’s Gardens & Pumpkins and can’t thank Elisa and her staff enough for their hospitality. Seeing the wide varieties of freshly picked pumpkins, hearing the laughter of children as they played, and smelling the freshly baked cupcakes as they came out of the oven took me back to a wonderful place in my childhood. It will take you there, too.


Thanks to Charlene Selbee for arranging this tour and to Pinter’s Pumpkins & Gardens for the delicious cupcakes. The opinions expressed are our own. 

Woo-hoo! Our updated travel blog is here!

Woo-hoo! Our updated travel blog is here!

After weeks of editing, cropping, categorizing and designing, our updated travel blog is here! So, what do you think? If you’ve been a reader of our blog, you’ll notice it looks a little different. If you’re new here – welcome to Postcard Jar. 

Why the change?

Over the past few months, we noticed that some functions of our blog weren’t working quite right. Nothing major, but there was a hiccup every now and again. Our “theme” was old and couldn’t be updated anymore. We’d also compiled a growing list of things we couldn’t figure out how to do and we didn’t have a logo. But we do now! What do you think? 

Back in 2014 when we started this blog, we enlisted the help of a good friend who does web design to get us started. We did our best to update the posts and pages ourselves. We were amateurs, and we knew it. That was okay because blogging was simply a hobby we started as something to do between doctor appointments and surgeries when Ann had become ill and was unable to work.

Over time however, our blog and interest in it have grown. In addition to traveling more places and having more social media followers than ever before, we now find ourselves entering into partnerships with destinations and attractions who enlist us to tell their stories. We are super excited about the direction it’s going, and knew we were outgrowing our old site. So we decided to hire someone to help. 

Our newly updated travel blog

After a lot of research and a few interviews, we ultimately hired designer and University of Nebraska graduate Kelly Diekmann of KDesign. She went right to work. Over the course of a several weeks, many phone calls, and countless emails, she designed the updated travel blog website you’re looking at now. We have to say, we think she did a great job! She listened to our ideas, got our vision, and put together what we hope is a site that is easy to navigate and fun to read.

 

Take a few minutes to look around. Check out the tabs at the top of the page and explore the different categories. Then, click on the cool icons Kelly created to immerse yourself in subjects like the Caribbean, food and drink, and travel tips.

You’ll see that while our content has stayed the same, we updated the design of just about everything. We really put thought into your experience and tried to create an attractive, easy-to-use website that will give you ideas and inspire you to travel. 

 

We categorized and displayed stories in a way designed to help you get a quick overview. Hopefully, you can easily find something that tickles your fancy. Also updated are our About Us, Contact Us, and Work With Us pages so you can stay in touch.

In addition, the new layout really showcases our Ann’s photographs. With a rare exception of a few photos others have taken of us, Ann took all the photographs on our new site.

Be sure to leave a comment

One change we really like is that the comment section is easier to find at the bottom of each post. That makes it easier for you to let us know what you think. Finally, we added some counters and are now keeping track of interesting facts like how many postcards we’ve received and the number of times we’ve been bitten by sharks (thankfully, that one is still at 0). At the very bottom of the page, you’ll also find our beautiful Instagram feed. Click on any image, and be sure to follow us there, as well.

Most of all, we hope you’ll enjoy your time here. We hope that no matter where you are, Postcard Jar is place you can go to lift your spirits, fuel your dreams, and be inspired to go someplace new. Click HERE to visit our new homepage and check out the rest of the site and again, thanks for following along on our journeys.


So, what do you think of our updated travel blog? Please let us know in the new, easier to find comments section below.

Tips for your visit to Prosecco Road #3 – Get to know your wine

Tips for your visit to Prosecco Road #3 – Get to know your wine

A slow journey along the Prosecco Road allows you really get to know the wine you are drinking in a way not found in other parts of Italy. Because it doesn’t have the masses of tourists found elsewhere in the country, visitors to the Prosecco region can really immerse themselves and bask in warm Italian hospitality. There are no lines and no crowds, and no one seems to be in a hurry.

Prosecco region, Valdobbiadene, Italy

A view across the beautiful Prosecco region.

OK, now let’s talk about the wine.

What is DOCG?

The Prosecco region has a DOCG denomination. DOCG is short for the fancy Italian words, “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita.” It is part of a labeling and control system that Italy has created to help consumers know the regionally created products they are buying are genuine and of high quality. Because this system is key to understanding wine in Italy, our hosts Deb and Massi of Italy Unfiltered and Massi the Driver made sure to explain it to us right away.

denominacion de origen controlada e garantita

This marker shows that we are in a special agricultural area, “Denominacion de Origen Controlada e Garantita.” This means the grapes for the wine were grown in a specific region and that the wine is guaranteed to meet exacting specifications for quality.

DOCG wines are made from grapes grown only in the specific region known for the wine’s production.

Any bottle bearing a numbered DOCG seal was created following a well-defined set of rules for the blending of grape varietals, and has been tested not only for taste but also at the molecular level to exacting quality standards.

DOCG label

DOCG is not exclusive to Prosecco. Here is a DOCG label on a bottle of Chianti Classico. Because of the label, we know this bottle was crafted to exact standards.

If a wine doesn’t pass any of these tests, it doesn’t get approved for the little numbered paper seal. In other words, if you see a seal with the letters “DOCG” on an Italian wine, you know it was created and checked to meet exacting standards so is a good representative from the region. The Prosecco Road is full of wineries producing DOCG wines.

Bisol Prosecco

A glass of DOCG Prosecco at the Bisol winery.

Visiting the Prosecco region

Along Prosecco Road, it is very easy to visit lots of wineries that produce DOCG wines, as they are extremely close together. I’m talking about sometimes just a few feet away from the next. Because each one offers visitors a unique experience, you really can really learn a great deal about the wine and region. At the Bisol winery, for instance, you can tour the museum in their original cellar and soak up the history of wine making both at that winery and in the region.

Bisol museum

Bisol winery cellar museum.

Bisol museum wines

Historic wines in the Bisol museum.

At another winery, you learn a little bit about the different soils in the region as well as what each soil type brings to the Glara grapes grown in it. You also hear how those grapes are blended to create the different wines offered.

Adami winery display

The Adami winery had a display showing some of the different soil types in which grapes are grown.

Grapes galore

Grapes are everywhere throughout the region, often running right along the road like a hedge. Vines of Glara grapes decorated people’s front yards and were planted right next to buildings as if the grape growers didn’t want to waste one single square foot of this fertile land. Seriously, we could have stuck our hand out the car window and touched a vine if we’d wanted to.

Prosecco region grapes

Glara grapes growing in the Prosecco region

Many of the wineries are small, family-owned operations without a formal tasting room staff. Instead, it is often the wine maker or close family member who pours and explains each wine to you. And what generous pours! In many cases you can get a little tour of the winery, as well. Imagine how much you can learn with so many mini-tutorials during your visit.

Vigne Matte winery

An antique spittoon at the Vigne Matte winery.

Le Colture winery

Steve and Ann pose at the Le Colture winery.

And with so few tourists around, even in the high Italian tourist season, we often had the wineries to ourselves. It was such a wonderful, relaxing way to enjoy sampling some of the world’s best wine.

Deb and Massi

Our hosts, Massi and Deb, at the Vinge Matte winery. We were the only ones there except for the neighbor’s cute puppy who just loved following us around.

Other tips for your visit to Prosecco Road:

#1 Hire a driver and local guide

#2 Stay at an agriturismo


Our tour of the Prosecco Road and transportation were complimentary from Italy Unfiltered and Massi the Driver. The opinions expressed are our own.

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Tips for visiting Prosecco Road in Italy. #3 - Know your wine.

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Tips for your visit to Prosecco Road – #2 Stay at an agriturismo

Tips for your visit to Prosecco Road – #2 Stay at an agriturismo

If you’re wondering what an agriturismo is, don’t worry. You’re in good company. I had no idea the word even existed before our trip to Italy this summer. In fact, it wasn’t until I stayed in one that I gained a good understanding of what they are and how they can take your Italian vacation to the next level.

Agritourismo businesses area everywhere in the Prosecco region near Valdobbiadene, Italy.

Agriturismo businesses are great places to stay in the Prosecco region near Valdobbiadene, Italy.

Simply put, an agriturismo is a small, family-owned tourism business, like a bed and breakfast, attached to a larger agriculture-related business that produces and sells something. Along the Prosecco Road, you won’t find a Hilton Garden Inn, but you will find all kinds of agriturismo businesses catering to the handful of tourists who have discovered this beautiful area.

Our hosts, Deb and Massi of Italy Unfiltered and Massi the Driver, arranged for us to stay at the Roccat winery agriturismo business. Beautiful flowers greeted us outside the front door, a sample of the warm hospitality we were about to experience.

Flowers at Roccat winery

Lovely flowers outside the Roccat winery agriturismo inn.

The family renovated an old barn on their property into a six room bed and breakfast in the year 2000. Each is clean, comfortable and has a private bath with toiletries provided. Breakfast, served in a charming, sunlit room is simply wonderful. They serve locally made jams, as well as meats and dairy products from nearby farms. There are cereals, as well, along with baked goods from a local bakery. My favorite was a wonderful cake. I had two pieces each morning. Don’t judge. If you tried it, you would, too.

Breakfast at Roccat

The breakfast spread at the Roccat winery agriturismo. It is included with the room.

Roccat breakfast cake

This homemade cake at the Roccat Agriturismo was the perfect breakfast food.

The rooms provide a cultural experience you won’t get if you stay in a chain hotel, and we liked that. Be aware, though, that the air conditioning is to Italian standards, meaning it doesn’t cool the room as much as Americans might be accustomed to. Also, like most places in Italy, washcloths are not provided, so if you typically use one you might want to pack one in your bag.

What was great about staying at the agriturismo is that after breakfast, we went out the back door and were in the middle of the winery. The morning of our second day there, we met the wine maker, Clemente, and walked about 20 steps to the area where they produce and bottle the wines.

Roccat winery winemaker

Clemente at Roccat winery.

There, Clemente explained to us the process for creating Prosecco and explained how it is different than Champagne made in France. While both wines undergo a secondary fermentation that puts bubbles in the wine, the method used for that fermentation is different. In Champagne, it happens in the bottle. In Prosecco, it takes place in large vats. At the end of the Prosecco process, the temperature in the vat is dropped below freezing, killing the yeast and stopping the process.

Cold fermentation vat

Huge vats of wine are chilled to below freezing to stop the secondary fermentation. The ice on the door to this vat shows that the process is being stopped.

Once the secondary fermentation is done, the winery seeks permission from the governing authorities to bottle the wine. When they have it, they send it through pipes to the bottling machine.

Roccat winery bottling machine

Clemente explains the bottling process.

To learn a little more about the wine making process, watch this video. Massi does a great job translating what Clemente explained.

After our tour, we walked the 20 or so steps back to the tasting room at the agriturismo, a room they call the tavern, and sat down to sample the wine.

This beautiful great room is ideal for group gatherings as well as wine tastings.

This beautiful great room is ideal for group gatherings as well as wine tastings. Photo Credit: Roccat Winery.

It was a little earlier than normal for drinking wine, so I won’t say the exact time that we started other than to say it rhymes with “hen dirty” in the morning. Again, please don’t judge. We were conducting important research so we could share with you, the readers of our blog.

Roccat winery tasting

Clemente pours a generous sample of Prosecco at Roccat winery. It was delicious!

Our stay at Roccat gave us a glimpse into Italian culture and wine that you don’t get at most hotels. Without this experience, our visit to Italy simply wouldn’t have been the same. That’s why staying in an agriturismo is our number two tip for your visit to the Prosecco Road.

Other tips:

#1 Hire a driver and local guide

#3 Get to know your wine


Our tour of the Prosecco Road and transportation were complimentary from Italy Unfiltered and Massi the Driver. The opinions expressed are our own. If you would like to know more about Roccat winery, click [HERE].

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Tips for your visit to Prosecco Road in Valdobbiadene, Italy. #2 - stay at an agritourismo

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