|Story & Photos by Harald Zoschke
Parma, a food lover’s
Those who have been fortunate enough to visit Parma will certainly have fond memories of the wonderful food in the heart of Italy’s Emilia Romagna region.
But Parma is also home of the country’s leading pepper breeding operation, the Azienda Agraria Sperimentale Stuard. In fact, this is one of the very few organizations in Europe devoted to education, research and archiving information related to the Capsicum species. When the Azienda had its annual “Open Door” event in May, we took the opportunity for a visit.
The beautiful chile pepper bouquet pictured above was part of a warm welcome that my wife Renate and I received by Dr. Mario Dadomo, director of the Azienda Agraria Sperimentale Stuard. Although the research facility covers other plants like tomatoes as well, Mario has been working with chiles for more than 20 years.
In the past ten years alone, Mario has grown more than 1200 capsicum varieties from around the world. His focus is on archiving and preserving Italian heirloom varieties, but also on breeding new ones.
Let’s start with walking the Azienda’s chile pepper field.
Dr. Mario Dadomo
Door Sign at the Azienda
The size of the Azienda’s chile field is quite impressive. The institute just started transplanting the first pepper plants a week before, about 3 to 4 inches in size, grown in the greenhouse nearby. Already in place is the drip irrigation system – although it can rain hard in the region, there are also extended dry periods in the summer. Drip irrigation is the watering system of choice here, as it makes good use of the expensive water, it gets right into the soil, and the leaves don’t get wet. Eventually, 20,000 to 30,000 plants will grow here.
Research at the Azienda Agraria Sperimentale Stuard includes techniques of fertilization, crop rotation, integrated pest management, protection and balance of nutrients in the soil as well as organic cultivation.
So where do all those seedlings come from? They come from this giant greenhouse that is just dedicated to starting the seeds and get the plants up to transplant size. Every year, the Azienda Agraria Sperimentale Stuard grows about 400 different varieties.
The greenhouse can be heated in the winter.
Plants don’t go just to the fields, though. Many varieties are grown for sale in pots at yet another greenhouse, and the Azienda’s “Open Doors” are a welcome opportunity for many locals as well as vistors from other Italian regions to buy their annual supply of chile pepper plants. Above that’s Renate and me checking out some varieties we’ve never seen before. Mario and his helpers have done a terrific job of documenting all their varieties and providing the specs, including usage tips and photos, for all plants on display.
Here’s a happy camper who found a dozen plants for his backyard, and this went on all Sunday.
Our personal favorite was this ornamental variety with
The organically grown peppers from the fields are used in many ways to create spiced-up versions of local specialties. Maurizio from Ca’ d’Alfieri, a farm nearby, had set up a table with interesting products they make in small batches. Everything was available to sample.
Renate and I purchased a jar of “Sugo Habanero”, a cooking sauce made from tomatoes, sweet peppers, habaneros, olive oil, basil, garlic and capers. “Passata Contadina Habanero”, your classic pasta tomato sauce, kicked up with fiery chiles. “Peperoncini Giulebbati”, delicious candied sweet hot chiles that are great on cheese – sort of an Italian chilehead’s version of sweet bread & butter pickles.
The Azienda’s greenhouses also house treasures that are not for sale, like the pepper plant to the left that’s now in its sixth year. So who says those “annuums” aren’t perfect perennials!
One secret of getting more than just one year’s life out of a pepper plant is pruning, and Mario is not shy vigorously cutting back his pepper plants. Take a look at the one to the left — the cut of the previous year’s stem is shown in the picture above.
Mario also showed us a table full of young pepper plants that he cut down all at once, using large scissors.
Now check out these Rocoto pods, grown on a potted plant in its second season. To demonstrate the pod size, we’re holding a Euro coin next to it, about the diameter of a quarter coin.
Also interesting is the way Mario gets pure seeds from the plant. As every chile gardener knows, capsicum varieties tend to cross-pollinate vigorously, and a typical way to gain pure seeds is to keep the pepper plants in separate greenhouses or cover entire plants or beds with tight nets. Mario covers just blossoms on single branches.
Mario took this nice picture of Manuela Lavado Sànchez, his partner in life as well as on various aspects of agronomics. She is also a professor, specializing in tomato research. Manuela lives and teaches in Spain, so she travels quite a bit between her country and Italy. For occasions like the Open Doors weekend, Manuela creates beautiful chile pepper bouquets and helps Mario organizing the event. Meeting Manuela was a welcome opportunity for Renate to brush up her Spanish (she had lived there for a couple of years).
Various other plants are bred, grown and researched at the Azienda Agraria Sperimentale Stuard, including tomatoes, onions and grains. For example, a special tomato is just being developed for a large Italian food company that needed special properties for mechanical harvesting for the texture of the fruit, to make it suitable for a new sauce product. But it is easy to tell that Mario Dadomo’s heart belongs to the fascinating world of chile peppers…
Now let’s get a little cheesy
No visit to Parma would be complete without checking out “Parmigiano-Reggiano” cheese, spicy in its own way. Parmigiano-Reggiano is most likely one of the most popular cheeses in the world, although production of milk and processing of this trademarked delicacy is restricted to a rather small region — the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the west of the Reno River and Mantua to the east of the Po River. On our weekend trip to the Azienda, we were fortunate enough to also find open doors on one of those cheese farms nearby, take some pictures, and – even more important – get to taste the Parmigiano cheese in varying maturing stages.
After fermenting with the help of rennet, a natural enzyme and breaking up the curdled milk with stainless steel whisks, the milk gets cooked. The solids sink to the bottom, forming a compact mass that is pressed into the typical loaf forms, using chese cloths and a lot of skill and muscle. Weights squeeze off excess liquid.
Aging takes between 18 and 36 months, i. e., up to three years! The older, the better. And more expensive. We learned that 28 to 30 months is the best compromise between age and price.
Inspections include taking and sniffing samples with a sort of drill probe, and checking the sound of a loaf with a special hammer. Experienced experts can hear if the internal texture isn’t right!
Basically, this cheese is handmade just like it was done eight centuries ago. It starts with milk from just the above areas that is used as is, without any additives. It is processed in copper kettles as shown to the left. Rather than using wood fire, these are now steam-heated, the only real difference to the old days.
Next the cheese loafs are immersed in brine (a solution of water and natural salt) for about 28 days to allow the absorbtion of salt needed to flavor the cheese and to allow for its long aging process.
During aging in climate-controlled rooms, the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese loafs receive constant inspections and brand marks of age and origin.
Especially the 30 to 36 months old cheese goes great with red wine. And for grated cheese to use over pasta dishes, my advice is to always get the real thing and grate it yourself.
There are so many more incredible food specialties in this area to explore. I wont even start raving about “Prosciutto di Parma”, this wonderful air-dried ham, also of world fame. Or the air-dried sausages that taste different in every province here. Or the sparkling red wines from the distinctive Bonarda grapes. You might start drooling on your keyboard.
I hope though that you enjoyed our little trip to Parma.
If you’d like to learn more, check out these sites:
Azienda Agraria Sperimentale Stuard: www.stuard.it
German Azienda Information on Pepperworld
Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese: www.parmigiano-reggiano.it