Bold flavors from the top of the Parmigiano Reggiano peak

The dairy at Borgotaro is located up in the mountains, about sixty kilometers southwest of the town Parma and about as far from Parma and Reggio-Emilia as you can get and still be in the region. “If you drive fifty kilometers more you will be in Liguria and the coast,” our host Simone Ficarelli, a long-time staffer at the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano, said. The city of Genoa is only 64 kilometers away. Head south and you get to Tuscany. Because of its location on the frontier of all of these regions, Borgotaro has long been a center of regional trade.

The dairy is located in the town of Albareto, at the center of the Borgotaro district. It’s housed in a practical, but beautiful, little squared-off building on a large, clean hand-laid red brick terrace. The energy of the building reflects the cheese that’s made inside. Calm, grounded, confident, vibrant, appealing, high quality. It’s still most definitely Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it’s a whole different world here in the mountains than down in the plains where Valserena and Roncadella are made. Everything from the weather to the air is altered. At Valserena my mind was focused on surviving the summer heat and intense humidity. Here, we turn into the parking lot and see snow plows sitting off to the side. “They have to be ready. The snow comes early here. And,” Simone said, “this is one of the roads that goes from northern Italy to the south, so they have to keep it clear.”

The area is known more formally as Borgo Val di Taro, but the name has been shortened in casual conversation to Borgotaro. The father of the late great actor, James Gandolfini of Sopranos fame, came from the village. It’s a big tourist destination for Italians. Not too far away from bigger cities with plenty of fresh mountain air, a beautiful river and good food. The Borgotaro is a member of the Slow City movement, which encourages support of local food and drink and a generally slower pace of high quality community life. The town is on the upswing. “Many families left the mountains after WWII because it was so poor. Summertime here, people come from all the cities to have vacation here.” It’s important to understand just how much the caseificio is a part of the local culture. If you live in Ann Arbor, think perhaps of a small scale high altitude version of what would happen here if the University were to close. Not just for the jobs, but for the connection. “It’s always a pity when a cheese dairy closes,” Simone explains, “but in the mountains even more, because if that happens, the community comes apart.” The folks at the caseficio understand this. “The whole economy here depends on us,” its president, Stefano Cacchioli, told us.

Borgotaro is a co-op owned by its farmer members. Roughly two thirds of the caseifici that make Parmigiano Reggiano are set up in the same way—cooperatively owned by the farmers whose milk is used to make the cheese. In the mountains, nearly all of the dairies are co-ops. The co-op here is relatively “modern,” founded only in 1967. To give you a sense of how things have developed with the cheese over the years, the co-op originally had 300 members; generally each had only 1 or 2 cows back then. Today they have only 20 producers, plus five small farms from which they buy a bit of milk. Most of the Borgotaro farms now are like 20 or 30 cows.

Stefano, the president of the co-op, has the biggest herd—about 80 cows, roughly half of which he’s milking at any given time. He and his wife do the milking every day, twice a day. He took us to the farm to see it. “Have you ever seen an American president milking cows?” he asks us with a big smile. Located on the side of a mountain, Stefano’s farm is, again, a whole different world from working on the flatlands. “It’s much harder to farm on the hills,” he tells us. “Tractors last only half as long.” The average price of milk is .36 cents a liter. The average milk price of Parmigiano-Reggiano milk is .50 cents a liter. And here it’s probably even higher than that. But the mountains inform the milk, which of course, makes the cheese what it is. The Borgotaro logo shows a farmer milking the cow behind a range of colorful wild flowers. “Our cheese is the expression of the milk of the area,” Stefano says proudly.

The soil here is firmer by far than that of the lowland plains at Valserena. But even in most of the region’s higher altitudes, soil management in the region is a problem. A man-made problem. “Each conqueror took away wood from the Apennines,” Karl-Heinz Berthold explained, “so the area has a huge problem with erosion.” As a result, many mountain farms still keep their cows in the barns year-round. Borgotaro seems an exception (as is La Villa, below)—the cows here are actually out in the fields during the spring, summer and fall. The soil is firmer and not at risk. There are far more trees still intact to anchor the soil, as well. 95 percent of what the cows eat here is grown by the farmers in the co-op, consumed either directly from the fields in the warmer months or as hay in winter. The milk from the farms is still collected here the old-fashioned way—in cans. Cheese is made within two hours of milking. The cheesemaker is Gianpiero Forlini. They have 13 kettles in which they make about 23 cheeses a day, roughly 7000 per year. They don’t add any additional fat back to the cheese production—they’ve stuck to the traditional and typical way of doing it where the partially skimmed evening milk is added to the whole morning milk. For some reason that I’m not quite clear on, their cheeses have slightly straighter sides that most. I’m sure it’s caused by something they do in the making or aging, but I imagine it more romantically, even if less realistically, as straight-shouldered mountain pride.

It’s fascinating to me to compare and contrast the different dairies. While down in the valley at Valserena it was humid and hot, and the days we were there more overcast, the day we went up to Borgotaro it was sunny, bright blue skies overhead, breezy and beautiful, cool but not cold. It’s only a few hour’s drive from one dairy to the other, but as is true in so many places in Italy, a relatively short physical distance can feel like a world away. Located at over 400 meters above sea level with the Taro river running through the center of town, the sun shining on the hill and glistening on the river water, it’s a beautiful spot. The village here seems much more connected to other more famous mountain regions of Northern Italy—in the east in the Alto Adige or in the west in the Val d’Aosta, than Parma or Reggio. It’s big truffle and mushroom country—people come from all over to hunt porcini in the local woods. They actually have a particular variety of it that grows and has a formal denomination of origin. There’s actually a porcini festival in mid-September! It was a big center for the Italian resistance in WWII, which gives you a sense of the independent and forceful spirit of the locals. There’s a sense of pride and autonomy. “People from the mountains, they like to be by themselves,” Simone told us. “They don’t like too many outsiders around.” As an introvert, even though I grew up in the flatter than flat city of Chicago, I realize that maybe this idea makes me more akin to being in mountain spaces like Borgotaro. There’s something peaceful for me up here. The people have a very calm energy about them. They’re not trying too hard to impress; not full of themselves. Happy to see us and super glad to have us there, but not falling all over themselves to sell cheese to us either.

One of the things that makes this cheese so special is that they use almost exclusively natural aging at ambient temperatures throughout the year. Though they have refrigeration in the aging rooms, they use it only on the hottest days to protect the cheese, but 95 percent of the time, the cheese is maturing at the ambient temperatures. That means it’s much colder in the winter, warmer in spring, and even warmer still in summer. Most of the time, they leave the windows open to allow for natural air flow through the aging rooms. The cheeses actually have quite a view—you can see the mountains out the windows. By contrast, many more mechanized and modern dairies don’t even let the temperature swing very much. Higher heat means more sweating, which means more weight loss. If you hold the cheese strictly at colder temperatures, you lose less moisture, which means at two years, you have an extra kilo or so of cheese to sell. For the same work. When you’re selling your cheese off en masse to big distributors who aren’t that focused on the nuance, why not hold the weight?

This is essentially the same process that everyone used in the old days. It’s also the way prosciutto di Parma is aged. And traditional balsamic vinegar. The changing of the temperatures by season is a big piece of what impacts the flavor development of the final products. While you can change temperatures nowadays inside a sealed room, there is still something special about letting fresh natural air do its thing. It’s one of the “secrets” behind the excellence of the Prosciutto di Parma from Pio Tosini (if you haven’t tried their prosciutto, come by and ask for a taste! If you want to read the article I wrote about them last year, email me at Borgotaro’s methods are beautifully old school, but very effective. All the cheeses go through two summer “sweats” to make sure they mature fully and properly.

You can tell the difference from the aging room aromas alone. As soon as we walk in, Simone says, “Wow! This smells like the cheese dairies I remember from when I was a child.” The aging rooms make a big difference. When the co-op was expanding a decade or so ago, they needed to “borrow” maturing space from other dairies to age the cheese. “You could tell the difference,” Stefano said with certainty. “The cheese was not the same.”

If you get up their way, be sure to stop to visit the folks at Borgotaro. The caseficio up here is much more a center of cultural life, than merely an important culinary adjunct. They have a beautiful little shop at the dairy, with a selection of terrific specialty foods from all over the region. They also have a full specialty butcher on site. Most importantly for our immediate purposes, the cheese tastes great. Big round flavor. Sweet, but not at all out of balance. Really nice finish. A nice amount of low notes to go with the high. Good crystal formation from the well-aged amino acids. Nice golden color. Great on pasta or in risotto with porcini or other mushrooms. Fry the porcini first in pancetta fat. Or, of course, you can eat it as is. It’s got a great finish still in my mouth long after we’ve left to drive back to Parma. What my good friend Randolph Hodgson who founded Neals’ Yard Dairy in London calls “a thirty miler.” Thirty miles down the road it still tastes terrific. If you want another opinion, the recently published Slow Food Guida al Parmigiano Reggiano listed Borgotaro as one of their “top” cheeses—“flavors of fresh milk, dried and fresh fruit (pineapple, citrus and apples), walnuts and muscat. In the mouth it’s complex, particularly fruity (pear, banana) with notes of flowers, hay and walnuts.” Well said! As you can tell, I love it! I’m guessing you will, too.