Parmigiano-Reggiano: The “King of Cheeses”

Parmigiano-Reggiano of 4 Madonne dell’Emilia

The authentic version of what is commonly referred to by non-Italians the world over as “Parmesan cheese” may only be made in a designated area of northern Italy, where the cheese is typically referred to on a first-name basis as “Parmigiano,” and is officially named, packaged, labeled, and marketed as “Parmigiano-Reggiano.” And because “Parmesan” is the ever-popular English translation of the Italian word “Parmigiano,” European law classifies the cheese’s official name, as well as its English translation, as “protected.” So in essence, much of the cheese made and purchased outside Italy and labeled “Parmesan” is not authentic—the way a sparkling wine made outside the Champagne region of France is not authentic “champagne” [except for the “champagnes” made by the few manufacturers outside France that were grandfathered into the law when the “champagne” protected designation was established], or why a prosciutto made in Panama could never be an authentic “Parma” ham, even if made in the same manner.

Within the European Union, only cheese made per specification within the the Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna (in Bologna, only the area west of the river Reno), Modena (all the foregoing provinces located within the region of Emilia-Romagna), and the area of Mantua south of the river Po (the province of Mantua being situated in the region of Lombardy), are allowed to label and market cheese as “Parmigiano-Reggiano” or “Parmesan.” But much to the dismay of Italian producers, outside the European Union, in places such as the United States, the now-generic term “Parmesan” may legally be used—and typically is used—to describe any cheese made in a manner similar to the authentic “Parmigiano-Reggiano” cheese of Italy, even though within such outside-Italy regions, cheese bearing the full name “Parmigiano-Reggiano” must have been made in the designated protected areas of Italy.

To taste the authentic, northern Italy-made “Parmigiano-Reggiano” is to immediately know why it is called the “King of Cheeses.” Unlike many cheeses, which tend to be supple, Parmesan is a grana cheese: a hard, flaky-brittle, somewhat gritty cheese (so much so that rather being than sliced, it is grated with a cheese grater, or broken-off by hand, or chiseled-off with a coltello del grana or tagliagrana [a knob-handled cheese knife with a blunt blade the shape of an arrowhead]) with a complex, strong, savory flavor and hints of fruit and nuts. The cheese is typically grated onto pasta dishes and salads, and is grated and then stirred into soups and risottos. Slivers and chunks of the cheese are drizzled with aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena and eaten as an appetizer or a cheese course.

Historical documents indicate that by the 13th and 14th centuries, Parmigiano was already being made in a manners similar to how it is produced today, suggesting that its origins can be traced to significantly earlier. According to legend, the cheese originated during the Middle Ages in Bibbiano, in the province of Reggio Emilia, thereafter quickly spreading to Parma and Modena. In as early as 1348, in one of the one hundred novellas in Boccaccio’s masterpiece Decamerone, described is a “mountain, all of grated Parmesan cheese.” And the folk who dwell upon the mountain are said to do “nought else but make macaroni and ravioli, and boil them in capon’s broth, and then throw them down to be scrambled for….” During the Great Fire of London (1666), English naval administrator and Member of Parliament Samuel Pepys, as recorded in his famous diary, buried his Parmesan cheese, his wine, and certain other things in order to protect them from the conflagration. And from as early as the mid-18th century, the debates were already raging as to the rightful birthplace of Parmesan: Famed Italian paramour Giacomo Casanova insists in his memoirs that the rightful birthplace of the cheese is Lodi, Lombardy, not Parma. But cheese historians would years later determine that Casanova was mistakenly referring to a very similar cheese, Grana Padano, produced in the Lodi area.

Parmigiano” is the Italian adjective used to describe things of or from the province of Parma; and “Reggiano” is the Italian adjective used to describe things of or from the province of Reggio Emilia. “Parmigiano-Reggiano,” then, would qualify as a case-study in gastronomical diplomacy.

The cows from which the milk used in the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano are fed according to strict rules established by the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium: on grass (or hay produced therefrom) grown only in the designated cheese-production regions, and flour meal. The unpasteurized milk used to produce the cheese is delivered twice per day: The fresh milk of the evening delivery is left to stand overnight in large, shallow tanks, thereby allowing its cream to rise to the top and be skimmed off for use in the making of other products such as butter; and the remaining milk, called “skimmed milk,” is combined with whole milk delivered the following morning. The proportion of skimmed milk to whole milk is determined by the cheese-maker. The whole milk/skimmed milk mixture is transferred to cone-shaped, copper-lined vats. [Copper heats and cools quickly, properties ideal for the cheese-making process. And the cone shape facilitates the compacting and collecting of the curd]. To the milk mixture is added starter-whey, which contains certain lactic acid bacteria, and calf rennet, which causes the milk mixture to curdle. [Rennet is an enzyme produced in the stomachs of calves and other ruminant mammals that causes milk to naturally curdle, thereby facilitating digestion]. The curd is then broken up mechanically into small pieces, about the size of rice grains, and allowed to settle at the bottom of the copper vats. The settled curd is then compacted by hand and collected up—using a cloth of white linen—as one, supple-solid mass of white, mozzarella-looking cheese. The large mass of fresh cheese is then halved, each half, wrapped in linen, placed into circular mold made of wood or plastic. (1,100 liters of milk, the equivalent of 291 US gallons, are used to produce the curd required to make two “wheels” of Parmigiano-Reggiano, each wheel weighing about 100 pounds [45 kilograms]). [The remaining whey is traditionally used to feed pigs—oftentimes the very pigs that are used to make the world-famous Parma ham].

Contained in its wooden or plastic hinge-lock mold, the cheese is placed into the first pre-salting room, where the cheese loses excess moisture, compacts, and begins taking its shape. At the end of the first day, during the first night, the mold is loosened, the final of four changes of absorbent linen is removed, and a plastic data-belt containing raised-letter/-number information and dot-codes pertaining to the manufacturer, place and date of manufacture, DOP designation, etc., and long and broad enough to wrap the entire circumference of the cheese, is inserted between the cheese and the mold, the mold thereafter being re-tightened so that the data-belt can imprint its information into the still-soft rind of the cheese. Then, at the beginning of the second day, the data-imprinted cheese is placed into a stainless steel, hinge-lock, wheel-shaped mold and transferred to a second pre-salting room, where, over a period of two days, the cheese further takes on its characteristic wheel-like shape, becomes more compact, and loses additional moisture. Thereafter, the stainless steel belt-mold is removed, and the “wheel of cheese,” now with a sufficiently sturdy rind, is submerged in a brine consisting of water and Mediterranean sea salt for a period of 20 days. In the brine the cheese absorbs flavor-enhancing salt.

After brining, the wheel of cheese is transported to the aging room, where it is placed flat onto a wooden shelf. Each cheese and the space of shelving it occupies is cleaned manually or mechanically every 10 days, and with each cleaning, the cheese is turned onto its opposite side. The aging process lasts a minimum of 12 months.

At the 12-month juncture, each wheel of cheese is inspected by a master grader of the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano, who taps each cheese with a small hammer-like instrument to verify, by sound, sight, and touch, that the cheese possesses the appropriate density and is devoid of cracks on the rind and voids within the wheel. Approved wheels are then heat-stamped on the rind with the Consorzio’s logo.

Once certified as “Parmigiano-Reggiano” by the Consorzio, the cheese may either be packaged as 12-month-old cheese or left for additional aging such that the texture may become harder and the flavors and aromas more pronounced. Cheese aged for 24 months is widely regarded as at its optimum. But cheese aged for 18, 36, 45, or even 75 months is also commercially available to suit the individual tastes and particular needs of customers.

The Parmigiano-Reggiano manufactured by the firm 4 Madonne dell’Emilia, ,is regarded by many cheese experts as the world’s finest. The name of the company derives from a nearby shrine in Lesignana, Italy that depicts a Madonna on each of its four sides. When the original factory was constructed in 1967, it was state-of-the-art for its day. And after a devastating earthquake in May of 2012 claimed that factory, a new, cutting-edge factory was constructed, introducing 21st -century technology to the age-old process of making Parmigiano-Reggiano. Today, the company boasts four production sites—three in the province of Modena, and one in the province of Reggio Emilia—and at 75,000 wheels per year, accounts for two percent of the world’s production of the great cheese. Each year, 4 Madonne dell’Emilia also presents a special offering of 400 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano made of milk from a local “red” cow.

But to fully appreciate the qualities of the “King of Cheese,” one should see how it is made; enter one of the church ceiling-tall aging rooms and inhale the perfume of cheeses in their various stages of maturation; witness the artful manner in which a wheel of cheese is opened; and taste cheese from a wheel opened before one’s very eyes. Then, and only then, can one fully appreciate why Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the great gastronomical luxuries of the world.

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