The maestro casaro (master cheesemaker) at the small cooperative in the fields outside of Parma, Italy, had just come back from his vacation. It was only the second one he had been able to take in 35 years of making 200-pound wheels of parmesan cheese. The owners of the cooperative—12 dairy farmers who together own the small cheese factory—are pretty demanding.
“This is a painstaking process, an art,” said Antonio Parentelli, stirring the huge copper kettles with his hands, as students snapped photographs. “Making perfect parmigiano means hands-on work, not punching buttons on a machine.”
Daisy Hackett ’13 was among the students at the cooperative, listening to Parentelli discuss his craft. She was there as a participant in the interdisciplinary Food Studies Program (FSP) at the Umbra Institute, a study-abroad program located in Perugia, a central Italian city known for its chocolate and its 35,000 university students.
In addition to the FSP’s rigorous courses, there are food workshops and field trips, encouraging students to think about the fact that while we eat three times a day, we hardly ever stop to ask the basic questions about how or what we eat. Where does the food come from? Is it important that it be local or organic? What do the labels really mean? Why do we choose the foods we eat?
FSP has a three-course approach that addresses food from three different viewpoints: history (the traditional food course), sociology (“Sustainability and Food Production in Italy”), and global economics (“The Business of Food: Italy and Beyond”). They say the program is all about food—and not about food at all. Each course uses food to answer pressing questions about our modern way of living.
Hackett is in the intensive Italian food-history course. Her visit to the cheese factory was part of a class trip to Parma, during which students also visited a small prosciutto cooperative and a family-run balsamic vinegar shop.
“I really enjoyed how hands-on all of the ‘factories’ were that we visited,” said Hackett. “It was great to see people who were truly invested in the quality, and not the quantity, of their products.”