Authentic flavor  July 2010

The King of Cheeses

What goes into a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the most famous and widely imitated cheese in the world? A look at how is it made, how is it aged, and how, since the Middle Ages, its unique flavor is directly tied where it is made


Parmigiano-Reggiano has existed for nine centuries, traveled around the world and even made a trip to space yet, through it all, the cheese has remained faithful to its homeland. Produced in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of Mantua and Bologna, among the flatlands, hills and mountains framed between the Po and Reno Rivers, this famous DOP (Protected Domination of Origin) cheese is still made the same way it was made back in the Middle Ages.

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Today, Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced in almost 500 cheese-making facilities just as was in the ancient Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries.
The same ingredients, same techniques and same care go into each wheel. “It is a product that has been made without additives or preservatives for 850 years,” explains Giuseppe Alai, the president of the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium.
“The cheese is made without the use of technology or chemicals.”

Parmigiano-Reggiano production is carefully regulated by the guidelines laid out by the European Community, resulting in an unique cheese with a fine granular texture, rich in protein, vitamins, calcium and minerals. The centuries-old recipe for the cheese calls for milk from cow’s raised within the production zone on “feed from local pastures, made up of alfalfa or concentrated noble grains, meaning corn and barley.”

There are also rules regulating how the cheese is processed. The delicate job of transforming the milk into cheese is entrusted to experienced cheesemakers, capable of making the “king of cheeses.”Every night, the milk from that evenings milking is left to rest in large vats. The cream, which is used to make butter, begins to separate. The naturally skimmed milk from the evening is mixed with the whole milk from the next morning’s milking and is poured into copper-vats shaped like upside down bells. Then starter whey, rich in natural milk enzymes, and animal rennet is added. Nothing else.”

Once the milk has coagulated (16 liters are needed to produce 1 kg of cheese), the curd is broken up into small pieces using an ancient tool called a spino. The milk curds are then heated to 55°C (130°F) and left to settle on the bottom of the vat, forming one large mass.  After about 50 minutes, the mass is lifted out of the liquid by the able cheesemaker and cut into two. Each half is wrapped in a muslin cloth and then placed in a cylindrical mould.


The milk room of a cheese factory in the Parmigiano Reggiano area

“Each round of cheese is given a number that serves as a sort of ID card. The month and year of production, the code of the cheese-making facility and the name Parmigiano-Reggiano, written in characteristic dots, are embossed around the side of the cheese.”

After a couple of days, the wheels are placed in a brine bath of water and salt. “Simple table salt. Nothing else.” The cheese is left to absorb salt for a little less than a month, at which point, the production cycle is finished and the aging cycle begins.

In the silence of the aging rooms, the wheels rest on wooden slats for at least a year. In fact, the minimum aging time is 12 months. At this point, the cheese can officially be called Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The experts from the Consortium come to examine the wheels, one by one, by tapping the cheese with a little hammer and using a needle-like tool, called a goccia, to remove a small amount of cheese from the center of the wheel. The cheese sample undergoes an olfactive analysis. If the wheel passes the test, it is branded with the logo of the Consortium. “For consumers, this last phase is the most important: it is the moment of certification of the product.”

Esame dell'esperto

The expertise moment of the wheel of cheese

Cheese intended to be consumed immediately, called mezzano in Italian, is scored with parallel lines, while wheels that meant to age for longer periods of time are marked with colored stamps. These indications tell the consumer how long the cheese has been aged, a process that can last over 30 months.

This is story of what happens to Parmigiano-Reggiano before it arrives on our tables.

Mariagrazia Villa

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