Parmigiano-Reggiano: the king of Italian cheeses, a member of the cheese trinity. If you ask anyone what comes to mind when they think of Italy, one of the first five things they think of is Parmesan.
I recently received a souvenir from Italy: a 40(!) month old piece of genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s over three years of ageing, so it’s the best quality possible, almost worth its weight in gold!
Let’s clarify a few things: what makes this cheese special, why is it good to age it for a long time, what makes a Parmesan original?
The brief history of Parmigiano Reggiano
Parmesan cheese already existed in the 13th and 14th centuries, and according to historical sources, it was already more or less the same as it is today. In Bocaccio’s work there is a mountain of ‘grated Parmesan’, so it is very likely that he also saw a well-grated hard cheese on cooked dishes. If this cheese has been part of Italian gastronomy for around 800 years, it is likely that its production technology began to develop long ago.
According to historians, Parmesan cheese was first made in the province of Reggio-Emilia, around Bibbiano, and from there it spread to Parma and Modena. Today, Parmesan is produced in the whole of Emilia-Romagna and, within Lombardy, in the province of Mantua, and only Parmesan produced in these areas can be awarded the PDO PDO Parmigiano-Reggiano by the Consorzio. Its name is a clear indication of its origins, i.e. its Parma and Reggio Emilia roots.
The Consorzio (m.: Consortium), already mentioned, was founded in 1928 and in 1955 obtained protection for the names Parmigiano-Reggiano and Parmesan. Since 2008, the EU has banned the use of the word Parmesan for any imitation and, accordingly, has granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) protection to the king of Italian cheeses. This organisation strictly controls the work of all producers and only they can certify the cheeses. After 12 months of maturing, the billog is burnt on so that the entire outer surface of the curd is still visible after cutting. Then, every six months/years, another mark is added to indicate the age of the cheese.
Throughout history, Parmesan has often been the subject of interesting stories, from the adventures of Casanova to the London fire to the Camorra mafia. The latter criminal organisation has been responsible for some of the major Parmesan cheese heists, which is no wonder, as it has an extraordinary sentimental value; they even set up a bank with Parmesan money.
Although the production process may seem simple, the long ripening time, strict hygiene standards and precision make life hard not only for the cheese but also for the makers.
The milk used to make Parmesan is from a herd of reddish-brown cows of Friesian origin and Reggiana Rossa, a reddish-brown cow indigenous to the production region. These cattle eat nothing but grass and hay, which means that no other plants can be used to enrich the milk, unless the producers intend to make other cheeses. Cheese-making begins with a ration of skim milk in the evening and milking the next morning.
The starting milk mixture is put into a copper-lined vat, whey and culture are added. The calf rennet is then added and the curdling process begins. The curdled milk is broken up by human force with a special tool like a whisk to a granular consistency the size of rice.
The final stage is ageing, which can last for at least 18 months and up to 3 years. The blocks, weighing between 38 and 40 kg, must be kept in dry, clean air at 18 to 20 °C and turned over every week. Many producers now leave this process to the cheese bank.
The ripened cheeses are checked by the Consorzio’s master cheesemakers and those that pass the rigorous ‘test’ are branded.
But what is the point of this long, years-long ageing process? Because it gives the microbes plenty of time to work, breaking down proteins and fats and creating the flavours and acids that give the cheese its taste. These big blocks, which take more than 550 litres of milk (per block!) to make, take a long time to develop the flavour we love them for.
There are many poor imitations on the market, and the producers, the Consorzio and the EU are trying to combat them effectively. Obviously they are not banned from the market, but we no longer have to worry about getting dry cheese powder called Parmesan – especially if it is supplemented with wood shavings, or a mixture of shavings of several (mostly cheaper) hard cheeses. Anyway, grating is not very strenuous but healthy exercise, so don’t let laziness lead you to buy some grated cheese!
Storage and consumption
The whole block of cheese should be stored in the same way as it was during ripening: in dry air. You’ll probably never find yourself in this situation – who would buy 40 kilos of this expensive cheese at a time?
In the shops, you’ll mostly see it cut into smaller units, vacuum-wrapped and refrigerated. We can safely keep the quantity that is meant to be eaten within a few days or weeks in the fridge, in the worst case, ice-flower-like (but not ice!) white spots will form on the surface, which we can safely scrape off. If you have managed to buy more than you really want to wrap up, and you’re eating it mainly in grated form, it’s worth freezing some of it. When the time comes, you can grate the frozen cheese straight away – it’s not much harder than at room temperature anyway, and the slow ‘thawing’ process won’t do it any good.
The taste of Parmigiano-Reggiano should never be boring or sour – in fact, it should never be! It should be fresh, fruity and sweet, like pineapple, but at the same time strong and rich, but not too salty. It certainly shouldn’t taste bad or bitter, nor should it smell harsh, so if you get a similar sensation, you’ve either stored your cheese badly or the retailer has done it for you. The texture is brittle and crumbly, and the rind is extremely hard. It should not be rubbery or pliable, and do not accept this type of cheese as Parmesan from anyone!
Spring Parmesans are yellowish in colour and have a more succulent flavour; summer Parmesans have a buttery, fatty taste, while autumn Parmesans have a high casein content. Parmesan cheeses are made from the milk of hay-fed cows in winter, and are paler in colour but not in taste.
It probably goes without saying what it can be used for. It is probably best eaten on its own, in 2-3 centimetre slices. It can be the crowning glory of any cheese dish, a great addition to salads with balsamic vinegar, and a must on Italian pasta. It’s a lot of work and a long curing process, so it’s too much to sacrifice it to any kind of frying, so look for a more suitable ingredient for grilling and stir-frying!
Its full-bodied flavour lends itself to being served with white wines, robust reds or even dessert wines.
I can only recommend to everyone to try the original Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses aged for at least 3 years!