Sweet Dreams are Made of Cheese

I am basically torn between “educate me and tell me everything about how this is done so I replicate it at home against my better judgement” and “can we please fast forward to the part where I get to put it all in my mouth?”

Alas, we aren’t there yet since raw milk products cannot be consumed before 60 days, so no eating the newly made product. We are at the point where things are taking shape, and so we move along the tour. But seriously, feed me.

As I walk along the hallowed corridors, I still faintly smell the pigs, but do not hear them.  I notice the halls are pristine, and are often decorated with posters and maps that celebrate the local area. Occasionally, I will pass an open window, letting in a gentle breeze. I notice that some rooms don’t have any vents or window units, no air or heat. The dairy really lets the environment do the work, and it is pure magic.

While the cheese is taking shape in the mold for 48 hours, still absent the parmigiana part of the process, all the natural lactic bacteria starts to create an unfriendly environment for competing bacteria. This is just natural protection against any potential invaders. It’s like it creates it’s own immune system. In doing so, the acidity is very high, and then the lactose turns to lactic acid, then it becomes lactose free – rendering it free of allergens. Hypo-allergenic cheese.  Aside from that, true parmigiana has 30% fat content, and it incredibly rich in nutrients because of the highest quality milk. The calcium content is among the highest in the world of any cheese product and it contains lots of protein. You might even call it a perfect food. If you won’t, I certainly will. And then I will enjoy it in large quantities.

It’s so perfect, in fact, that it is the first sold food given to infants in Italy as recommended by pediatricians. Take that, Gerber.

I am reminded that the cheese is just cheese until it meets the salt.  Down another hall and past some offices and behind double doors is where the transformation takes place.

I burst through the doors, and find a huge room with wall to wall vats of cheese wheels, delicately bobbing in salt water pools of maturity. The windows are open here as well, and the smell of the pigs outside wafts in and slaps me in the face. It is briny combined with that of farm animal. After a few minutes, I’ve forgotten all about it.

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The glorious wheels sit in a sea salt brine for 18-20 days, completely saturated, and are rotated on a daily basis. I can say with authority that it is strongly advised you do not poke the wheels in the water to watch them bob up and down in their salty pools of delicious.

This salting is the first agent that forms the rind. The salt hardens the cheese, both inside and out. This process makes the cheese officially parmigiana and no longer a generic cheese. And now,  we wait. It’s going to take one whole year to sit and swim before it is really, truly, officially parmigiana. Fortunately, no one is going to make me wait a year as that would be cruel and unjust.

These pigs that assaulted my nose, by the way, are born and raised on the same dairy land, and they are only allowed to eat the whey left over from the cheese making process. Windows in the facility are all open because the climate is just as crucial in this process as anything else. From local dairy farmers to the cheese makers to the pigs, the whole process is more than local – it’s regulated.  It’s clear that it is personal to everyone involved, and there is great respect in the process. Even the pigs are treated with reverie and fed only the best, most pure food, creating a circle of life type of feeling.

The next part of this process is something that my dreams are made of.  The wheels are shelved in a giant room with open widows where they rest for a year or more and under go quality checks. A massive library of parmigiana. Shelf after shelf, aisle after aisle of beautiful, aging, parmigiana reggiano, from floor to ceiling. file (1).jpg

I separated from my mom and tour guide at this point, and I ran up and down the aisles, running my hands over the wheels, letting the wind catch in between the buttons on my bunny suit. I heard harps play with each step. I paused to take photos with some wheels, others I just caressed with my cheek, leaving me with a shiny, greasy streak across my face. One I tried to wrap my arms around, just to see if I could. I whispered I love you,       I swear I heard it say it loved me, too.

When I was done being one with the wheels, I resumed learning. I heard something about quality testing and perked up. I was disappointed to discover that meant using a tuning fork type of hammer to determine how far along the cheese was in the aging process. There are expert testers who spend their formative years knocking on wheels and listening for the sound of perfection. And that is how they check – knocking on the cheese allows them to listen to hear how compact the inside is. That determines if it is ready to go. So simple.

Possibly my favorite fact: banks will take the wheels as down payment on a loan and have their own maturing facility. Wish those bands were on the tour.

At the end, amidst facts and figures about cheese making and the pigs and cows that are responsible for the glorious treat, I get to taste the finished product. I get the regular every day cheese, aged about a year, and then I get the fancy, holidays and special occasion cheese aged 36 months. I heard the harp again. I did a little dance. I cried out to the heavens that this was so good and ohmygoodnessohmygoodness.

But really, I was so tickled to have been allowed in the halls and processing facility, in the heart of Parma. I saw experts who train their whole lives to ensure the perfect product is created. I smelled pigs that are better cared for than I care for myself. And I tasted the final product. Who is luckier than me?

 

 

 

 

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The Cheese Stands Alone

Finding the hidden gems and local specialties that are tucked in the corners and verandas of Italy are part of why I continue to return. Each corner more beautiful than the next, with flowers and vines climbing the brick walls, woven in the wrought iron balconies. Smelling the baking dough and cheese waft from the pasticceria down the street. Walking under the delicately hung night gowns and other unmentionables that criss cross from window to window to dry. Charms that are inherent to ones imagination when thinking of spending a day lazily wandering the cobblestone streets.

What they are often missing is the history of those smells.

One of my most favorite things is in the world is cheese. Good, old fashioned formaggio. It was more than a pleasant surprise when I learned I could visit the cheese dairy from birth to storage. It was one of the greatest moments of discovery I have ever known.

So I embarked from Milan to Parma via train, early in the morning, to arrive at the dairy to catch the start of the day. As I pulled up in the cab, I watched the sun rise over the fields and could smell the sharp scent of pigs and their muck. I could not see them, but there was no question they were around.

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I was greeted by an extremely knowledgeable guide from the Parmigiana Consortium, which is a group of dairy farmers and cheese producers who work together to protect the identity and authenticity of the parmigiana. The producers, however, are not the cheese makers but the farmers with the milk producing cows. Imagine that this process is so intense and sacred that the people more intimately involved formed a group to protect the integrity of the cheese. Amazing.

I bunny-suited up from head to toe to protect the cheese from me, which, I suppose, makes perfect sense. We enter the dairy and I am in it, among the giant bell shaped copper vats of milk swirling and heating. Milk that was delivered fresh, early in the morning, and immediately put to use. A set of magicians are at the giant bowls, one vat at a time, to mix and add the fermented whey and rennents.10-23-2016-6-38-03-pm

While I contemplated leaving my Jersey life and moving to the Italian countryside to live among the cheese and pigs, I am reminded that each of the cheese magicians are trained and come from long lines of other cheese makers. I can’t just take up residence and start stocking my own wheels. So I am neither trained nor really welcomed in this respect. Which is just as well because they work every day including holidays and that isn’t really my style. Even Jesus took a day off.

I turn my thoughts to making some of this glorious cheese at home, given there are only 3 ingredients inclusive of the milk. I am quickly brought back to reality when I get to see a wheel in the mold with the etching that will give it authenticity and the rind we are all so familiar with as its imprinted with the dotted parmigiano reggiano brand.

Once in the mold, each wheel gets its own ID number, its first mark of origin so there is no question as to the authenticity of the product. It’s hard not to appreciate the thought that goes into this whole scenario. Especially since that ID number is directly related to the farmer producers so when it’s sold, the right people get paid. Tracking from the start of the supply chain all the to the consumer…Incredible! But, it’s still not official parmigiano yet. It’s just kind of wheel of..cheese-like stuff.

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But it is still a wheel of cheese-like stuff I want to take a bite of like an apple. However, I have discerned that this is likely frowned upon so I don’t touch anything.

Yet.

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It’s Still the Desert

So on this day we journey far afield from all that which we know: luxury hotels, a car held together with bubble yum, air conditioning that requires a down parka just to maintain body temperature.

We are going to take a trip into the desert, the Arabian Desert, which is so large, it touches on five countries and is one of the largest deserts in the world. This I learned in the car on the way in; didn’t do any research prior, I like to be surprised. I booked a tour with Platinum Heritage, and I do not regret it one bit.

But first! We are picked up the hotel in a Mercedes G Wagon, which is what we are going to be using for the whole of the safari. Again, not to shabby for my taste. I grab shotgun because I want the best view and to ask questions all day long. I am probably the single worst nightmare of any tour guide. I wouldn’t be surprised if  I was on some underground database of insatiably curious customers. They have categories like: asks too many questions (askholes), doesn’t participate, drunk, annoying, cheap, picky eater, know it all, big dummy, and so on. And you are rated on all of these charming qualities and then there’s a chance for comments from tour leaders. It’s a low down Traveler Yelp (Trelp) for tour guides. Anyway.

I’m the front seat for the hour long ride to the protected desert area for this safari. I am so excited I am almost twitching. My mom is in the backseat; we both watch the city disappear behind us, passing warehouses that give way to camel race tracks.

Upon pulling into the sheikh owned area, I see Indian Jones style Land Rovers and I immediately wish I had a whip and leather jacket. So badass. After some chit chat, we get on our way with another couple. Two lovely men who clearly didn’t want to be there and I couldn’t figure out why they bothered. I know for sure they are in the Trelp because they sucked. They sucked as passengers, they sucked as participants, they just sucked all the way around.

I digress. We cruise over sand dunes, through the desert, endless sand in varying shades of gold. Probably best to wear a seat belt and not be susceptible to motion sickness for this portion of the day. Honestly, I could not get enough of this. Our driver must be respectful of the land so not to damage it. It’s still home to lots of animals, we mustn’t tear it up. No matter how bad I wanted to hit the gas and launch across the dunes.580.JPG

We saw oryx drinking from the watering holes, and lots of animals and bird poop. I feel like nothing is official if you don’t see poop. Like somehow the animals don’t really live where they say they live, they are carted in for the benefit of the tourists. But once you see poop, you  know those animals made themselves at home and really live there. It’s the real deal. Show me the poop and I’ll show you some serious wildlife shit.

We stop, and have the chance to get out and climb some hills, take some photos. I find the skull of an oryx and hold it up over my head, a sacrifice to the sand gods. I now have the power of grayskull, I am Skeletor.

I loved this, though. I had long since kicked off my flip flops, so I was happy to get my bare feet into the warm sugary desert sand.

Few things have made me feel like I was my own Indian Jones, but this did it. Cruising along, hot desert sand kicking up alongside the truck, far from home. I am totally Indiana. See? Same car and everything. 197 (1).JPG

So we do the dunes, and then we see a falcon show. Nothing like a South African teaching me about ancient Middle Eastern falconry methods. Honestly, he left me with more questions than I started with; such is my way. Trelp me, go ahead.

After that, the part I was most excited about – the camel rides. Since I was too chicken to do it in Egypt, I was more than happy to do it here. Momma was excited, too, in so far as she can be excited about mounting an otherwise potentially stinky and temperamental creature. Turns out, she was right to be wary.

The long and short of it is this: when they tell you to lean this way or that, just do it.  My camel, loving, gentle and my spirit camel, did all he could to ensure I had a lovely journey through the desert. My mother’s camel was resentful and angry, as proven by a series of loud grunts and attempts at dissension from the camel crew. At one point, he would have been guilty of all out mutiny. The camel wrangler got him under control, but I could see as I turned around that my mom was struggling a little bit and perhaps wasn’t having as much fun as I was.

No hands! 627.JPG

Upon the dismount, the instructions are relatively simple: lean back, hold on. That’s it. I got off my buddy with ease, and turned around just in time to see the camel jerk ever so slightly as my mother’s head whipped back; she looked like a pez dispenser and I was waiting for the candy to slide out of her throat. She held on with both hands, for dear life. The tour guide and wrangler held onto my mom as she almost had one foot in the sand. I heard another odd noise but I determined that came from my mom and not the camel.

I admit, I stood by while this was happening as camel dismount is not my area of expertise. But in doing so, I was able to take what is perhaps the greatest series of 3 picture I have ever taken. When they say ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, trust me when I say that no explanation is needed to describe exactly what was going on.

After the near soft sand landing by camel, we dined in huts under the starts. It was by far and away one of the best meals I have ever had, cooked outside on brick fire pits. Hummus, chicken, vegetables, all of it. Amazing. I wish I could have taken it home with me. 689.JPG

After dinner, we did a little desert, some hookah and some henna. We wrapped it up late, I don’t even know what time, and drive back off into the dessert to our hotel. Fat and happy and thankfully, in one piece.

Fun fact: when I visited, it was at the stat of 3 days of mourning as sanctioned by the government as 3 men had been from the AUE had been killed fighting terrorists in a neighboring country.  As  such, there was no music on the radio other than classic, and there was no dancing in the safari as was promised on the website. It was ok, thought, I totally understood and respected the decision, not that I could change it. I developed an appreciate for Bach on long drives, too.

My mother – still sweating to death.

 

 

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High tea atop the Burj Khalifa. Reservations required, no jeans, elevator escorts, all of it. We would be dining on floor 122 for the view and the food at At.Mosphere. Not for those who are afraid of heights or $300+ lunches.

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It was superb. The views from 122 are beyond expansive. You can literally see the city limit, the edge of the desert and then for miles beyond that. I can see new buildings, cranes, and the homes that make up the older sections of Dubai. They look like raised thumb prints in the sand compared to the monstrosities being built a few miles away.

You can also get more bang for your buck by getting drunker faster at such an altitude. The champagne hit like a fright train for some reason. But I guess if you are gonna be there, may as well go all the way.

Tea was exceptional, several courses punctuated by champagne. Tea selections from the world over or champagne. Finger samwiches and champagne. So basically, the champagne was really good.

But look! Look at the view! Not bad post sandstorm.

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The afternoon spent here is an afternoon well spent. It is truly something best told in photos. Overall, the  food was good, not amazing. But I didn’t go there for the food, really. I went for the views, the experience. The paradox of an incredibly old city and culture mashed up against what is clearly the present but inarguably the future.

 

 

 

Getting High is Expensive

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Abu Dhabi Do

In the way marketing is supposed to work, my mother watches a certain adventure reality tv show and before you know it, she wants to go to the middle east. Nicely done, UAE tourism board, nicely done.

Like any good daughter does, I found a great ticket price and barreled through the door on Christmas day, not with presents, but a laptop. Before I even said hello, I was sitting at the kitchen table trying to find dates that worked for us both.

And so, we are booked to Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Merry Christmas, indeed.

The plan was to fly into Abu Dhabi and drive to Dubai. No excursion is complete unless I have rented a car and driven untold number of miles. On the agenda: a desert safari with some camel riding, high tea at the Burj Khalifa, some pool time for me, and shopping like I have an OPEC pocketbook even though I am closer to a canola wallet.

When going to one of the richest countries in the world, it’s great fun to drive a 25 year old Ford that looks like it’s been breaded and lightly fried in the dust and sand kicked up by the neighboring desert, has manual window crank things, and an air conditioning struggling for it’s last breath.  It is hard to feel good about yourself, especially when you roll into a parking garage and cruise pass a Bentley parked perpendicular to the spots and is in own inflated tent.Literally, a zip up tent with a blower inflating it like a children’s birthday party is about to break out. In any case, one’s sense of self takes a very humbling turn.

Dubai is the city of the future today. It’s really Orbit City and it’s not done yet. It is ultra modern, with buildings of all shapes and size and no relative theme. The size, the scale, the scope – all virtually impossible to imagine until you see them for yourself. Some parts of the city are testaments to money, excess, improbable stacking of glass and steel. Other parts are up and coming, a tangle of cranes and cement and hardhats. In fact, Dubai is the current home of 25% percent of the world’s cranes. That is insane, utterly insane to think that it’s just one city compared to the rest of the globe – what about the cities undergoing massive growth like those in Asia or India? To contain a quarter of the materials available globally is just wow. Just. Wow. Anyway.

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Dubai is an exceptional place, impossibly huge and riddled with juxtapositions. I started this little road trip down a giant highway in my chicken cutlet car, passing the future. literally, the future Dubailand, future amusement parks, miles and miles of car warehouses, desert, more desert, cars, and cranes.

About an hour and a half later, I pull up to the Grant Hyatt Dubai. Not too bad, thank you very much. It is also 120 degrees and feels like I am visiting the surface of the sun. I love it, my travel partner, not so much. For those who are sensitive to heat and sun and living at the edge of the ozone, perhaps one should pack a shammy for maximum absorbency.

My poor, poor mother. She hates the heat. Why she thought it would be a good idea to visit arguably the hottest place on the planet, I will never know. I revel in it, SPF in my pockets, tank tops, flip flops. My mother, by comparison, is so hot, that she looks like she is truly suffering with each step. I drop her off at the front door of the hotel and I go park the car. I let the car run until the air is cold and pick her up at the door. I try to limit any walking to the evening hours and even then, she is clearly the most uncomfortable and unfortunate looking person in all the land. I feel terrible, but there is little I can do short of hiring cheap labor to travel with us and keep an umbrella over her head and carry a small fan.

The first full day consisted of leisure, breakfast, pool time, general relaxation before the fun starts. Once I had packed my mother in ice and assured her we would be in a place fully air conditioned with the guarantee of no sunlight. So we went to the mall. The Mall of the Emirates. Well.

The parking deck was both the most organized (electronic signs telling you how many spaces are left on each floor) and convoluted (can’t find those spots, however) and clean (several car washers were busy at work cleaning and dusting Bentleys). After driving for what felt like 73 floors, I got a spot. And we entered what can only be described as the most grandiose, outrageous, monument to consumerism I have ever witnessed.

For the record, one of the ‘warnings’ about the mall is that it is recommended visitors remain chaste and respectful of the country’s morals and so on. But whatever. Ladies, bring your booty shorts and braless tank tops and challenge those mall cops at every turn. Unmarried couples, make out in the corner of the candy store like the window glass is not actually clear. Honestly, I was kind of curious and wanted to see if there were any repercussions. As though I expected the religious morality police to burst through the panels in the ceiling and swing down like ninjas to arrest all offending Gap shoppers. It never happened.

But anyway. The mall legitimately has a giant ski slope and penguins, and appropriately, a Kempinski Hotel that empties into the mall and is also adjacent to the skiing. There is nothing like being covered in a fine grit sand from head to toe one minute, and freezing walking through the locker rooms in a ski lodge the next. This place is really, really amazing from the scale and sheer size to the people watching. Oh goodness, the people. What a remix.

My favorite part of the mall was the giant supermarket larger than most Midwest towns. This was one of my favorite places, a true amalgamation of global tastes and flavors. Of course, the Mid East was represented, fresh fruit in a variety of vibrant colors, and some things I could not quite identify and required some assistance from google. We walked up and down the aisles for more than an hour. Maybe two. My mother lingered in frozen foods, refreezing her ice packs that had melted some in the schlepping. She needed to power up for the walk from the car door to the front of the hotel. It’s a good 7 or 8 feet, and at 105 degrees in the dark, it takes it toll.

I didn’t buy anything at the mall lest I mortgage my house, but did pick up a few things at the supermarket and my mother did not burst into flames. Success.

 

 

 

 

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Timing is Everything

So it turns out the ballet is a grand experience. I was legitimately glued to my seat, no doubt in part to the fact that I was afraid I would never find it again. But even still.

As I got back to the hotel, I did marvel that the show started so much later than the ticket indicated. In all my research, I never once read that the performances don’t start on time. Perhaps this was an anomaly I simply was not familiar with.

As I started going through my belongings and emptying out my bag from the show, I noticed that the time of my cell phones were wrong. They were an hour apart, but they must have been since I arrived in Moscow. One phone connected to the GSM, the other only to the hotel wifi. Both of which should have been accurate as they were connected. I relied on the GSM phone since it was live and therefore, correct.

Curious.

I realize the other easy and accurate thing to do is reset my watch to local time. My watch, however, is purely ornamental as I am possibly the oldest functioning pseudo adult who cannot tell time. And my watch has no numbers, so it takes me twice as long to count the hands and lines and calculate the time. I am sure a sun dial would be easier for me to navigate. I digress.

The day after the ballet is the day of departure. I get up for breakfast and the restaurant is again, mostly empty. I eat. Then I pack. I cram everything I bought into my tiny luggage, literally sitting on it to zip it shut.

I go down stairs to check out and get my car to the airport. I learn that I am an hour early for that.

Wait.   What?

I check my phones again, and I learn the GSM phone I have been using all week and relying on to wake up was just plain wrong. I was constantly an hour ahead; not registering the correct time zone.  So everything I did, I did (at a minimum) of an hour early.

What a blow to learn that I had been living in the future. Who DOES this? I ate meals, too early. That would explain why I was the only one at 7am breakfast…at 6am. Or why I waited so long for the museum will call to open. This is why I was both late AND early to the ballet.

Sigh.

I went back upstairs to my hotel room to drop off my bag and go for a walk. I had the time to kill. I think.

 

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So Much Culture

Ah, Moscow…what does a girl do on a Saturday night? A hot date with myself at the ballet, of course! That’s right, I went to the Bolshoi to see Lady of the Camellias and as soon as I define Camellias and find the synopsis in English, I will share. Though not before I figure out exactly what I watched first.

The real take away here is that while I’ve never been to the ballet, or expressed a modicum of interst in it, I felt this was necessary to do. The Bolshoi is a world famous stage and as such, I needed to pay it a visit. Especially since I could throw a rock from my hotel window and hit the building.

The show started at 7pm, and it was recommended I arrive at 630 to enjoy the theater a bit and find my seat. No problem. I was just going to lay my head down for a moment and close my eyes, so I set my alarm for 6pm leaving me time to freshen up and walk one whole half block. I was mid dream when I thought it felt like a long 15 minutes. I opened my eyes to find out it was 715. OH NO! I scrambled to get ready while having visions of my big dumb American body blocking the view of all the stately Russians who simply wanted to enjoy a night at the ballet. I ran over to the theatre and to my relief people were still entering the building. Huh, maybe I wasn’t that late.

I entered and found myself comically unable to communicate with just about everyone. I also sort of loved it. After wandering around the fantastic halls and even grander ballrooms filled with antiques and costumes of black swans past, it was time to start the show. I got to my seat courtesy of the nice lady for whom lip liner was a must but actual lipstick was optional. She tried in vain to point me in the right direction, but instead gave up and sat me which is kind of like, you know, her job. So I sat front row in what can only be described as a chair from a child’s playroom tea table.

The theatre itself is so fantastical, extreme and flat out dreamy, I couldn’t believe such a place existed.  Ornate gold scrolling, a  chandelier the size of a small apartment – it was all quite magical.

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And then it began. I admit I was worried I wouldn’t make it through 3 hours of this ‘dancing.’ But I was so, so wrong.

The dancers truly looked like they were floating.  They bent at impossible angles, convincing me they had no bones, made just of flexible cartilage like in the ear or nose. Three hours passed, I never blinked. And before I knew it, the show was over. I’d now have to unwedge myself from the wee chair I’d become one with.

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And they don’t want you taking pictures during the show. So there’s that.

After I’d successfully separated myself from chair #5, I wandered back down the marble stairway and outside into the cold. It had begun to snow, and I got to experience some Siberian flurries.

I got back to the hotel at 20 past 11, thinking to myself how remarkable that something like the ballet would start a whole hour late. But who I am to judge? I’m just a visitor in Moscow…

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