Sweet elegance from the mountains

We “discovered” the Ravarano cheese, unexpectedly, not at a village dairy, but in the center of Parma, at a restaurant set back on a small street named after Antonio Gramsci, the intellectually powerful, 19th century left-wing politician. (One of his best quotes was, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.”) It was last spring, the first night of our second trip to the region. We’d arrived in Parma mid-afternoon, and, after going for a quick run, we headed out to meet my friend, food writer Elizabeth Minchilli, at Ristorante Cocchi. Elizabeth excels at finding the best places to eat in any Italian town and Cocchi continued her run of really good recommendations. Around since 1925 and still family run, it’s a big favorite of the locals. Shortly after sitting down, a plate of local salumi arrived at the table, along with another small plate with golden nuggets of newly “broken” Parmigiano Reggiano. Thinking back, I don’t even know that we ordered either of them—I think the plates just showed up as apertivi while we were figuring out what to order. They’re kind of “required eating” in the region—I don’t think you can call it a real meal in Parma without them.

Tired, hungry, and a bit disoriented in that way that even the best travelers are when you’ve only been in an unfamiliar place for a few hours and in on the wrong time zone, we tasted. Always on the lookout for excellence, we were happily surprised with how good everything tasted.Doubting our jet-lagged palates, we tasted everything again a second time.
We looked at each other for confirmation? One of us—I can’t remember quite who it was—said, “That cheese is pretty good.” A pause, another piece got eaten. “Yeah, it is good.” It was sweet. Delicate. Clean aftertaste, like I like.No off flavors. Another pause, another hand reaching in for a taste. “Yeah, it really is good.”Other dishes started arriving but we kept nibbling at the cheese til it was gone. My friend Randolph Hodgson, founder of Neals’ Yard Dairy in London, taught me years ago not to get too caught up in what people say when they first taste a cheese, but rather to watch their actions. If they keep going back for more, it’s probably a very good piece of cheese. In this case, we asked for more while salads and plates of pasta arrived. Tired as we were we still had the presence of mind to ask the waiter which cheese it was, unsure whether he’d reveal the restaurant’s source. “Ravarano” he answered matter of factly.

Old time, high end restaurants in Italy are, almost always, likely to serve very good examples of the local specialties. In Parma that means great cheese, great cured ham and great salumi. After all, they have access to every producer in the region, and if they’ve been at it as the folks at Cocchi (fyi, in Italian it’s pronounced “Co’-KEY”) for nearly a century, they’ve had plenty of time to source and secure top-notch offerings. And while the politics of the region lean to the left (hence the naming of the street after Gramsci), its culinary preferences are stubbornly conservative. For a young local chef, I can see where that would seem to confine; but for me–someone who studies, sells and serves solely traditional food–it’s a beautiful thing.

Two days later, we were in the car with one of our other hosts, the Consorzio’s marketing director, Maria Chiara Passani, heading to the southern end of the Parma district to visit the dairy from whence the cheese had come. We kept climbing in the mountains, winding roads, through the tiny town of Calestano (about 2000 people) til we pulled up next a small white walled caseificio. This was the even tinier village of Ravarano. The opposite of working in an industrial park—this was a small dairy with an incredible view from almost 400 meters (roughly the same as Borgotaro). If you look to the south you can see Tuscany. The dairy itself is small, rather unassuming.Nothing as historically significant as the elegant Valserena or as mountain majestic as the newly renovated space at Borgotaro.The star here is the cheesemaker. The milk which comes from cows eating feed grown in the mountains. And, of course, the cheese.

The casaro is Damiano Delfante. Third generation as a master cheesemaker, following in the footsteps of his father, Giovanni, and grandfather, Armando. They though worked at a different dairy. He grew up playing in it as a kid so he’s known cheese since childhood. As a young man though Damiano opted out. Decided to pursue his profession as an engineer. He was recruited though to this dairy to take over their cheese. He made the decision to return to his roots. He took over the dairy; his mother and his wife committed to helping him. He dedicated himself to bringing the cheese back to excellence. The turnaround work was terrifically difficult, he tells us. “I lost fifteen years of my life in three years” he tells us. But in under a decade, he’s done it. No small thing when you realize you have to wait two or three years to see how your initial efforts worked out. The Ravarano Parmigiano Reggiano has won multiple awards in the last few years. And, as we know from our visit at Cocchi, it’s served and sold in some of the region’s best culinary establishments.

The dairy is a co-op. There were 11 farms, but one closed. Damiano ended up buying that farm so he’s now both producer and cheesemaker. Part of what makes the cheese so delicious is that he uses a special method of making whey that he learned from his father and grandfather. Damiano is driven to produce quality. “I grew up in the dairy. If a cheese wasn’t right and we couldn’t sell it, was a tragedy for the family.” He has great passion for Parmigiano in general, and for his own cheese in particular.

“If you’re going to work every day like I do, you have to understand why!” he told us. Every day? “Yes, every day. The first vacation I take, I’m probably not coming back,” he said with a smile. If the cheeses we’ve put together for this project were a classical ensemble, then maybe Valserena would be the violin, Roncadella the viola, Borgotaro the cello. La Villa, a bit on the edge, could be the clarinet. Ravarano would be the flute, its high notes flitting elegantly and lightly above the others. Each is playing from the same seven-hundred-year-old musical score, but each, in turn, has its own unique take on the notes. The Ravarano cheese, as it was at Ristorante Cocchi, is remarkably subtle and sweet. It would be great after dinner, or as an aperetivo with some sparkling wine. Great shaved onto a salad of delicate fresh lettuces. Or, of course, served as it was at the restaurant, broken into beautiful, rough-edged, golden bits to be nibbled on along with thin slices of equally sweet Prosciutto di Parma from Pio Tosini. An excellent, elegant addition to our list!