Chef Olivia Hayo of Beautiful Food Inside + Out re-creates her culinary memories of the Mediterranean using inspiration, and local, seasonal ingredients from her home in San Diego's Little Italy. This week she returns to Emilia Romagna, where loads of cheese are part of a well balanced life.

Yellow and orange stucco houses dotted the green hillsides of Italy’s fertile Emilia-Romagna region. The morning fog over the plains was just burning off when we arrived at the dairy, which produces one of the country’s most famous ingredients: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

We shuffled by a flat-roofed barn where a pair of sleepy cows with deep auburn coats chewed peacefully on fresh hay; their unique coloring signified the Red Cow breed which is required to make this special type of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

We entered the bustling interior of the dairy where we were met by our guide, who was dressed in a long white lab coat. His passion for cheese making, combined with his attire and bushy white eyebrows, made me think of him as a mad scientist of cheese.

We paused in a large steamy room filled with massive copper-lined vats used to quickly heat and cool rippling pools of milk. Our guide pointed out a dozen aproned-men as they moved through the area, each stepping up to the vat at precise intervals to stir the mixture first slowly, and then quickly, with long beams topped with wire spheres. Each movement cut the curdled milk into progressively smaller pieces until the desired rice-sized granules were achieved.

We watched as 200 pounds worth of curds were collected in each vat and condensed with a mesh cloth. Another man stepped up to the vat with a large knife and divided its contents in two before each half was set into molds that would imprint the rind and give the cheese its signature wheel shape.

We finished up our tour with the quieter parts of the production process that included bathes of salt water for brining followed by the aging rooms where wheels are left to mature for 24 months.

Standing among the floor to ceiling shelves holding hundreds of these golden wheels, we finally got to taste the result of this complex process. Its flavors transformed from fruity and sharp to nutty and savory with a complexity that is valued in the region and throughout the world.

Back home in San Diego I created a dish of sweet leeks braised in dry Marsala wine and pungent garlic, topped with nutty parmesan and peppery parsley. It is a dish that celebrates both the delicate, local leeks so abundant at our farmers markets, and the flavorful cheese of Emilia-Romagna.

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