I had the great privilege of spending time recently in Calestano, a village south-west of Parma, in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy – Parmesan country. I was there to meet some of the great chefs of the region: the women who had dedicated their whole lives to crafting the most delicious dishes, from the best of the region's produce, for their family, friends and the odd very lucky stranger.
Calestano is a tranquil cluster of lovely homes and shops, with narrow, winding streets, all tiny cobbles and matching stonework. This is a mountainous area with difficult terrain. Flash floods sweep through the gorge, rockfalls and erosion regularly make roads and bridges impassable and winter snow cuts off the shops and homes at high altitudes. The people who live here are resourceful, practical and creative, used to working together and helping each other out. The culture of volunteering here is strong.
The regionality of Italy remains incredibly strong, even today. Regions, even villages, show distinct cultural, linguistic and culinary differences; even the limited area I visited had several separate local languages. The people of Calestano don't just use the products of their region, they live and breathe them. Maria Chiara Passani, an energetic young woman who grew up in the area told me: ‘The curing and tending of foods is almost innate here, you start listening and learning when you're a child.' These people celebrate their local specialities, taking great pleasure in enjoying them together and thus are bonded by certain foods and culinary traditions. The most important of which is Parmigiano Reggiano.