Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Day 6: Reggio nell'Emilia

The weather has turned nasty...we wake up early today to very heavy thunderstorms and driving rain. We have to leave the hotel around 8 am for our visit to a parmigiano-reggiano cheese factory so we are down to breakfast early. Four other guests at the hotel are also going so we are to follow their taxi to the place....just outside the city limits of Reggio nell'Emilia. The rain has stopped and the sun is breaking through as we set out. The taxi driver is too fast for me and I am not aggressive enough so within 5 minutes we have lost sight of him. But, with several u-turns, one phone call and one stop for directions, we do arrive at the "caseficio" about 10 minutes late.

This is the second time we have visited a parmigiano-reggiano cheese producer and we think that this time we get a lot more information and see the operations in more detail. The guide also explains more about the economic pressures on the producers and the role of the consortium in upholding standards and promoting the cheese. We see the collected milk cooking in large copper kettles, watch as the workers scoop up the solidified pre-cheese and place the big pieces into the shaping mold, observe the young cheeses soaking in the brine vat (20 days) and then being aged in high-ceilinged, humidity controlled rooms. There are machines to rotate the cheese and brush off any mold that forms. We learn about the quality control system--an inspector actually thumps each cheese with a hammer to detect any imperfections--and find out what happens to rejected cheeses--they are sold off either as young parmigiano-reggiano or just as cheese, depending on the defect. Finally we get to taste the final product....delicious (but not quite as good as the cheese we had tasted the day before.)

One thing that I learned in my reading is that the best milk is produced in this area just to the west of Reggio-Emilia--in the Enza Valley--and that Reggio Emilia is just as much the home of the cheese as Parma. In fact, the reason the cheese is known as "parmesan" and not "reggian" is that Moliere--who was addicted to it--used to say he wanted more of that cheese from the Parma cheese seller and the name stuck. And one thing that we learned on the tour is that it takes 16 liters (a liter is a bit more than a quart) to make one kilo (2.2 lbs) of cheese.

Next on our agenda is to do a laundry.....we stuff the dirty laundry in a rolling suitcase and walk to the Onda Blu laundromat (just across the street from the place where we ate lunch yesterday). By now we are old hands at doing laundry in Italian laundromats so the system is not a mystery. While we are waiting, we get sandwiches at a "salumeria" across the street and eat our lunch in the laundromat. After returning to the hotel with clean laundry, Diana has to go to meet her group for her Reggio school visit. I walk with her to the meeting place (in front of the municipal theater) and then start to explore a bit more of the city. My sightseeing is interrupted by a rainstorm so I run back to the hotel to do some work and some writing. When the rain lets up, I resume my sightseeing with a hotel umbrella in hand. However, several of the churches I want to visit are closed and the Duomo is being restored so I quickly give up and go back to the hotel. Luckily, Reggio nell'Emilia's attractions don't depend on the traditional tourist attractions.

I am supposed to meet Diana at 7 pm in front of the theater and we plan a quick dinner at a place closeby before the chamber music concert at 8:30 pm. She has to leave her group early and walk back by herself to the meeting place. (Instead of my usual proof-reading and editing, I will take over from Jim here and add a bit about my afternoon.) The Reggio approach is very well known in the States, and there are 3 schools in DC which have modeled themselves after Reggio. I've visited one of them at Peabody ES, and also heard presentations at conferences, so although I've missed all the lectures, I hope I'll have enough background to make sense of what I see. The infant-toddler center I visit is called Arca (as in the Ark) and it's fantastic. We're met by the "pedagogista (the director) and the "atelierista" (sort of the main art teacher), and with the services of a translator, they tell us about the school. Then we have an hour to walk around and observe, and then another hour for q and a. The space is striking, in accordance with their philosophy of light and transparency and communication. The respect for the children is also apparent, and the materials and supplies are wonderful. Recycled items, things from nature, paper and paints are all displayed in the most appealing way. On the walls are panels with words and photos documenting the children at work, and the art that is everywhere is all the children's. There are commercially made blocks and toys but nothing commercial on the walls. Art is the means by which the children's learning is expressed and it is amazing. I am blown away, and can't wait until tomorrow when I go to a school for 3, 4 and 5 year olds, and where the children will be present.

Our dinner at Boiardo's, a pizzeria-restaurant in one of the arcades near the theater, is fine. We are the first customers and we are out well in time for the concert. Diana has spaghetti Vesuvio (with little tomatoes - the name perhaps implies hotness, but it wasn't) and a veal piccata and I have a Neapolitan fresh pasta with clams and a plate of delicious spinach (cooked with a nice amount of butter). Diana's perfectly ripened pineapple is very refreshing and the house white wine is pleasant. It is a quick walk across the piazza to the theater.

The Teatro Romolo Valli was built in the mid-19th century and is modelled on the traditional theaters in Italy....five tiers of box seats rise straight up from the orchestra floor. The decorations are ample with lots of gilt, an elaborate chandelier hanging from the ceiling and a lavish painted curtain on the stage. We sit in a center box, with 3 others, giving us a good view of the performers. The acoustics are very fine. The music is mixed....the Mozart flute quartet is pleasant, the Dvorak string quintet is slightly boring but the Mendelssohn octet is altogether wonderful. The violinists and the violists play standing up (the cellos get to sit down) and the first violinist and the first violist (both attractive young women) dip and sway and dance along with music--adding another dimension to the experience. We are very glad that we were able to attend.

A couple of notes....since it was raining, lots of people are carrying umbrellas and the theater gives out long plastic sacks to hold the wet umbrellas. And there were a good number of Americans in the audience...many of them from the Reggio study group that is in town for the week.

Tomorrow Diana spends the whole morning at a school and then we leave from southern Tuscany.


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