Making pasta in Parma, Italy

Parma, the capital of Italy’s Food Valley, is home to the heavenly trio of Parmesan cheese, prosciutto and pasta — and the Academia Barilla.

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pasta with basil

Watching Lidia Bastianich cook soul-satisfying pasta on PBS inspired me to put Italy on my bucket list. So when Barilla, the world’s largest pasta producer, invited me to tour their hometown of Parma, I didn’t think twice.

We stayed at Hotel Grand de Ville, next door to the Academia Barilla, which houses an archive of over 8,000 books, 3 million recipes and a menu collection dating back to the 1600s. It’s a priceless lifeline for foodies keen on Italian and European culinary trivia. And a perfect fit for the capital of Italy’s Food Valley — home to the heavenly trio of Parmesan cheese, prosciutto and pasta.

Academia Barilla instructor making pasta
Academia Barilla instructor in action

The past and future melded as we entered the huge state-of-the-art teaching kitchen, where instructors speak in Italian while international students listen through a translated feed.

Soon enough, we were divided into four groups, and it was our turn to cook. I donned an apron and a chef’s hat and felt like an Italian mama as I peeled fresh fava beans and diced a small hill of carrots and zucchini for farfalle vegetable and calamari salad.

We cleaned prickly Italian artichokes (which would later be sautéed), and chopped bacon (a stand-in for guanciale, salt-cured pork jowl) to make spaghettoni with amatriciana sauce. When our instructor undercooked the pasta by three minutes, I wondered what he was doing. But he quickly added the drained pasta to a pan and simmered it with the sauce until it was perfectly al dente — I couldn’t believe how much extra flavour it absorbed by finishing it in the sauce!

At long last, all the plated dishes were lined up on an extra-long banquet table covered by possibly the longest white tablecloth ever, and it struck me that native Italians do not over-sauce pasta. Instead, pastas like the rigatoni alla norma, glisten with a light finishing of olive oil, parmesan and fresh ground pepper. Even a simple soup like pasta e fagioli, stripped down to its simple peasant roots, was amazing.

If Lidia B. was in the room, I’m sure she would have dug in, right along with us.

Associate food editor, Carolyn Lim Chua with Academia Barilla instructors
Associate food editor, Carolyn Lim Chua with Academia Barilla instructors