One of the most distinguished and sought after cheeses that Italy has to offer is Parmigiano Reggiano.
Don’t mistake this with the imitation Parmesan that has a powdery texture and somewhat dull flavor. Parmigiano Reggiano is a force to be reckoned with in the world of cheese, and it bears a monumental backstory.
The history of Parmigiano Reggiano
The history of Parmigiano Reggiano dates way back to the late 1000s with Benedictine and Cistercian monks. They allegedly were in search of a cheese that could be preserved well, so they utilized salt from Salsomaggiore salt mines and the milk from cows in granges (farms belonging to monasteries) to create a paste-like cheese preserved in wheels.
The first official sale of this cheese was in the 1200s as a notary showed Caseus parmensis (Parma cheese) being sold in Genoa, an area outside of where the cheese was produced. The 14th and 15th centuries saw major economic development and the cheese was now being traded in Romagna, Piemonte, Toscania, and even Mediterranean ports.
The increase of production plains in Parma and Reggio led to an increase of the cheese, and inevitably, even further economic development. Parma merchants called “formaggiai” or “lardaroli” were selling cheese and deli meats to traders in Milan and Cremona, which were then exported to other European destinations such as Germany, France, and Spain. In terms of usage, “Parmigiano” was frequently mentioned in recipes at this time, mostly for pasta or even desserts.
An official region to avoid imitations
In the 17th century, the Duke of Parma, Ranuccio I, decided to designate an official region to protect the cheese from being imitated. The provinces decided , which remain the same today, consist of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, and Mantua.
It was no easy feat to establish the meticulous parameters for Parmigiano Reggiano. In the 1900s, the verification of the cheese was of the utmost importance. In 1934, dairy representatives from the five provinces agreed that a mark of origin was needed for their cheese, which was “C.G.T. Parmigiano Reggiano”.
The Parmigiano Reggiano cheese consortium
After World War II, the International Convention for the Use of Appellations D’Origine and Denominations of Cheeses was held to establish that certain European countries maintained the right to create unique branding. A few years later in 1954, the Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Consortium was established as the protection body.
Then, what seemed to be a crucial change in the branding of the cheese occurred in 1964, when a dotted inscription that marks the circumference of the wheel was introduced which reads, unsurprisingly, Parmigiano-Reggiano. A little more than thirty years later and Parmigiano Reggiano became officially recognized as a European PDO (Protected Designation of Origin).
How Parimigiano Reggiano is made
Despite its somewhat complicated journey to becoming the esteemed cheese we know and love today, Parmigiano Reggiano has maintained the same, classic production technique since its creation about a thousand years ago. Primarily, it is necessary to start with milk that came from cattle that is fed with locally grown produce.
The milk collected from the evening prior is left to rest so it skims in a natural way. Then, approximately 550-600 liters are poured into a copper, bell-shaped vat. The milk slowly congeals with rennet (enzymes from the cattle’s stomach) and whey starter (which is rich in starter cultures) and curds begin to form. It is then broken down by a master cheese-maker into tiny granules with a tool called a “spino” which is an ancient wooden or iron tool which is crucial in giving the cheese a grainy texture.
It is kept cooking at 55 degrees celsius for about 50 minutes, which allows the cheese to form into a mass of two twin wheels which are cut in half and placed into separate moulds. The wheels receive an alphanumeric code and a marking brand engraves the date and year as well as the perforated edges. In the final stages of the production cycle, which is after only a few days, the wheels are immersed in salt water and the osmosis process begins.
Tapping the wheel
At the 12 month mark, the most crucial step arrives. Consortium experts carry out a test of the cheese, in which they tap the wheel with a hammer. A trained ear can detect defaults (talk about a dream job), and depending on the grade of the cheese, they are sent on their merry way. First grade Parmigiano Reggiano are perfectly fine wheels, and are branded with a hot iron.
Medium-grade shows minor defects in the rind or paste structure, but they’re not defected severely so they are still marked with the brand but have parallel grooves on the rind to distinguish it. In what I imagine to be cheese exile, “de-rinded” wheels are the worst of the worst and cannot be approved by the PDO. They are sripped of the Parmigiano Reggiano name (quite literally, as the rind is scraped of its engravings) and are downgraded to cheese blends.
Another important step at the 12 month mark is deciding the length of the cheese aging. The minimum is 12 months which allows the young cheese to be soft and more delicate. The next stage is called “Vecchio” and is 18-24 months. This time period allows for a more crumbly, textured cheese that is typically used for pasta fillings and pairs nicely with sparkling wines. “Stravecchio” is 24-36 months and provides an intense flavor, and the saltiness pairs well with honey or aceto di Modena. These are the most common aging periods, yet even lengthier maturation periods are used from 40 months to 100 months.
Not only is Parmigiano Reggiano a delectable treat, but Italians have declared some health benefits it possesses. For example, the cheese is naturally lactose free, so most anyone can indulge in it. Even the youngest fermented cheese is safe for babies. In addition, the high percent of free amino acids aids with muscle regeneration after physical exertion. So, if you’re at the store browsing for something to snack on, don’t opt for the cheap imitation, get the real thing and reap the benefits of this divine creation.