If we are sent on a mission to buy a flavourful hard cheese we will likely want to buy Parmigiano Reggiano. If we are looking for parmesan cheese its possible we won’t get Parmigiano Reggiano but an inferior cheese with an Italian flag on the packaging. It’s the same issue with balsamic vinegar and even wine, but imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, after all.
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese takes its name from the region where it is produced: the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna (but only the area to the west of the river Reno), Modena, and Mantova in Lombardia (but only the area to the south of the River Po). Only cheese produced in these areas may be labelled “Parmigiano-Reggiano” and have those words imprinted on the rind.
The real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese has been around for 800 years or so and is made, broadly, in the same way in the same region and sometimes by the same families who have been making cheese for generations. During the Great Fire of London of 1666 diarist Samuel Pepys buried his cheese: “I did dig another hole, and put our wine in it; and my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things” to save them from the approaching inferno. The cheeses were used as prestigious gifts: in 1511 a Pope made a gift to Henry VIII of one hundred Parmesan cheeses, and in 1556 another Pope made gifts of “eight great Parmesan cheeses” to Queen Mary of England.
This king of cheeses is made with milk, non-vegetarian rennet, heat and the skill of the maker. There are around 450 small artisan dairies and nine thousand milk producers who have to work 365 days of the year, as cows don’t have holidays. Traditionally, cows have to be fed only on grass or hay to produce the milk for this particular cheese.
The whole unpasteurised milk of the morning milking is mixed with the skimmed milk of the previous evening’s milking. This skimmed milk is made by resting milk in large shallow tanks to allow the cream to separate, resulting in a part-skimmed milk. This milk is pumped into copper-lined conical vats. Starter whey is added, and the temperature is raised to between 33 and 35°C. Rennet is added, and the mixture is left to naturally curdle for 10 minutes or so. The curd is then broken into small pieces. The temperature is raised to 55°C and the curd is left to settle for about an hour. The curd is scooped up in a large piece of muslin and hung to drain for a few minutes before being cut in half and placed in stainless steel moulds to drain still more. At this time each cheese weighs around 45 kg.
After a couple of days a plastic belt embossed with the words Parmigiano Reggiano, the producer’s identification number, and date of production is put around the cheese and buckled tight. After a day the wheel is removed from the embossing mould and is put into a brine bath to absorb salt. It stays there for 3 weeks and is turned frequently. After brining, the cheeses are moved to the aging room and left there to mature for at least a year. Each cheese is turned every week to allow for even maturation.
After one year, an independent assessor evaluates each wheel of cheese. He does this by tapping each one with a special hammer. The assessor listens for the change in sound indicating whether the cheese has aged properly. The cheeses are then branded with the distinctive oval Consorzio Tutela Parmigiano Reggiano certification mark. Those rare cheeses that do not pass the test used to have their rinds marked with lines or crosses all the way around to inform consumers that they are not getting top-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano. These days the rinds are usually removed altogether.
The cheese tester also determines whether further aging is required for a particular wheel. Some are best eaten between 12 and 18 months. Most cheeses are aged to between 18 and 36 months, typically 24 months. Those labelled stravecchio have been aged three years, while stravecchiones are four or more years old. This extra aging allows the cheese to develop its fullest flavour. The younger Parmigiano has a hard texture with a slightly fruity and nutty flavour and a sharp finish. The older cheese has a more crumbly texture with crunchy crystals throughout. These are not flakes of salt but amino acid crystals and a natural and integral part of mature cheeses. The flavour is stronger and more complex than that of the younger cheeses.
The almond-shaped knife and various chisel-type wedges are the traditional tools for cutting a whole wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. In truth it’s not cut but cracked open to show its unique craggy surface. Sometimes it’s opened across the cheese to produce two huge half-moon shapes and on other occasions it’s opened around the edge to produce two identical and impressive discs. Using the tip of the knife, a line is drawn that divides the wheel in half across the diameter, down the sides and across the other side of the cheese; or around its circumference. The rind is cut into by the knife along that line to a depth of one or two centimetres. These knives act as wedges and the wheel splits open into two identical halves, with a bit of work. The half cheese is usually cut in half, and those wedges are cut in half again until manageable wedges are achieved for the buyer.
Parmigiano Reggiano is commonly grated over pasta dishes, stirred into soups and risottos, and eaten on its own with perhaps a little drizzle of real balsamic vinegar. Strips of the rind are sometimes simmered in soup, giving an added richness. The hollowed-out rind of a whole wheel of Parmigiano can be a spectacular serving vessel for large groups of guests, with the remaining cheese melting into hot food.
Parmigiano Reggiano is a classic cheese but it’s important to buy the best, to buy the authentic article. You will taste the difference and never again will you be tempted to use the imposters.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018