Travelling to the birthplace of Parmigiano-Reggiano and the land of parma ham, was hot. Not Paris Hilton ‘That’s-so-hot-right-now’ hot, it was sticky, sweltering, gelato-melting-in-minutes heat. The hottest day on record for some years. No one about, locals at home, windows shut, doors barred, not a nun, priest or picture-postcard peasant strolling around with a pushbike full of pasta in their baskets, nothing. No one.
So there we were − Mum, Dad and three kids − hot from a long air-conditionless train ride from the other side of the world (at least it felt that way) dropped, as though we had fallen from the sky, into a typical Italian city. Parma is quaint, once we got over the heat – and that took showers for us all and a spell in our air-conditioned apartment, and to be honest, a good night’s sleep.
The next day it’s as though the theatre curtains had been pulled back and the stage was set for us to explore a world we hadn’t seen before. There are many excellent food shops to browse and sample, and you will not be disappointed. Even locals on pushbikes. You will not see lines of tourists following a guide holding an umbrella leading the way to the next tourist destination. Parma is more laidback, kinda the uncool cousin you always thought could be cool, behind the glasses.
The origins of the city are extremely old and there is evidence of man dating back to the Lower Paleolithic age discovered in the hills of Traversetolo and in the mountain basin of the Taro river. After the enormous damage caused during World War II the city was reconstructed, and economic development after the war helped Parma regain its original splendor. The city started to prove itself in the food industry and resumed its position in the cultural and artistic world. Parma has been home to the European Food Safety Authority since 2003.
Parmesan gastronomy includes a variety of typical delicacies, though its cheeses and meats stand out. Among the cheeses, the most renowned is without a doubt Parmigiano-Reggiano, a hard cheese, made from partly skimmed milk, which has a long ageing process (18-24 months) and it is sold in the shape of a wheel weighing around 24-43kg.
Parma’s famous ham, and let’s just say I sampled enough to last me my entire life, ‘prosciutto’ comes from the Latin prae exuctus, which means drained. In the 14th century the people from Parma began to use salt from nearby Salsomaggiore which, thanks to the presence of sodium, bromine and sulfur, prevented the growth of bacteria, allowing the meat to keep longer.
The specialty of the mountain area is porcini mushrooms, fried, steamed or used as a topping for pasta, tortelli or polenta. Black truffle, indigenous to Fragno, also comes from the region and is used within typical Parma cooking. Every restaurant in Parma serves traditional dishes that use all these local ingredients, so the tastes are rich and the food hasn’t been played around with too much.
The pastry shops offer cakes of rice, chocolate and almonds, ring-shaped cakes and puddings, but the most celebrated sweets are the scarpette di Sant’llario, little shoe-shaped pieces of pastry topped with icing or sprinkles, and candied Parma violets − iced candies that resemble small wild violets.
At the foot of the Apennine hills separating Tuscany and Emilia, lies the first Comfort Zone destination day spa in Italy. Comfort Zone is the cosmetic spa brand belonging to the Bollati family of Parma. Today Comfort Zone is a well-established brand on the international professional spa market, and is present in more than 45 countries. Over the past six months Comfort Zone has been introduced to spas in Australia and New Zealand. An holistic approach and commitment to sustainability sets this company apart, starting with the formulations and the 100 per cent recyclable safe raw materials.
As I walked through the laboratories and head office there are messages of sustainability and ethical practice everywhere. The company has developed an ethical charter and is the topic of constant discussion to make the workplace a pleasant and stimulating environment. They invest in tree planting in parks in Italy and Costa Rica, restoring an amount of oxygen back into the environment equal to the CO2 released during the production of the line.
I need an interpreter as I head into the research and development department, which is small, but busy. My Italian is not so good, but through an interpreter I understand they are always researching natural active ingredients, which have proven efficacy tests, and for synthetic raw materials that can improve the preservation of products and their ability to be absorbed. The challenge is creating a single formulation that is accepted by the legislations of all countries, and gives consumers the maximum safety.
The formulations themselves draw from scientific innovation and the endless potential that nature offers as active ingredients within the range of products. All packaging is 100 per cent recyclable and the company adheres to the Lifegate Energy project, so its entire production process only uses energy from renewable sources.
The world of ‘natural’ can be applied to many different realities and can have numerous interpretations, and when considering the industry of cosmetics where many products claim to be natural, there are many differences between them. The result is extreme confusion; consumers look towards natural cosmetics as being products that should be the most safe as well as ethical for the ecosystem without realising that many products may have even just one extract that is predominantly rich in synthetic substances and produced in a way that is not eco-compatible. Comfort Zone’s choice to use energy and renewable resources sets it apart; 95 per cent of the product must be natural, at least 10 per cent must be organic and a maximum of 5 per cent can be synthetic.
When I reach the Terme di Monticelli to sample the products and experience a Comfort Zone massage experience I am not disappointed. The formulations are easily absorbed into the skin, and aromas of ylang ylang, sandalwood, patchouli, rose, and jasmine enhance the relaxation.
The ritual itself is quite different, combining the inspiration of Asian technique with a Mediterranean flavour. This special ritual has been created to ensure a feeling of reassurance and protection, with movements to promote oxygenation and energy.
Parma, although known for its ham and cheese is also the birthplace of what I’m sure will become one the world’s best spa treatments.
THE BAPTISTERY AND CATHEDRAL
The rare and beautiful octagonal baptistery, alongside the cathedral, is made of Verona marble and was commissioned in 1196. It is an outstanding example of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic art in Italy. The interior, a 16-sided polygon, houses notable sculptures by Benedetto Antelami depicting the months, seasons and signs of the zodiac, dating back to the first and second decade of the 13th century. The centrepiece baptismal font, also made of marble, draws you into the building. The cathedral, built between 1060 and 1073, is a wonderful example of Romanesque architecture in Italy. The bell tower, topped by a gilt copper angel, was added between 1284 and 1294. The dome, depicting the Assumption of the Virgin, was created by Correggio. Behind the cathedral is the best gelato shop in town. A must visit also.
Antica Corte Pallavicina is worth the drive out of town for a visit. The old castle, situated on the banks of the Po river, was built in the 1400s and converted into a farm in 1700. They are famous for culatello (a cured meat made from the rear legs of a pig and left to mature for at least 12 months), shoulder ham, salami and salted lard produced from the black pigs and prepared according to old traditions. Housed in ancient cellars, hundreds of culatelli hang to mature and the meat is delicious. The newly opened restaurant with glass walls and contemporary furnishings is excellent and there is accommodation of six rooms if you don’t fancy driving back into town after a long lunch or dinner. Prepare to embrace slow food and life; you will not be disappointed.
Antica Corte Pallavicina
Strada del Palazzo Due Torri, 3
Polesine Parmense (Parma)
Tel. +39 0524 936 539
With a rustic elegance and service outside on the veranda in summer, Trattoria di Cafragna is located 17km from Parma on a hillside on the edge of a park and wooded area and is a must-visit. It is beautiful, green, lush and only the locals seem to know about this well-kept secret. Here you can experience traditional regional food in this roadside family-run restaurant, which has been in the family since the 1930s. The menu thrives on local and seasonal produce. The truffle oil pasta and blocks of cheese to start the dinner washed down with local wines made this one of the best meals I have had in Italy.
Trattoria di Cafragna
di Adele Camorali Padovani
43030 Cafragna di Talignano
Tel. +39 0525 2363