Considered by some to be the greatest cheese on earth, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a magnificent cheese by any standard.
Easy to digest, highly nourishing and lactose free, Parmigiano Reggiano has the unique flavor of a product made without additives. Its concentration of protein, vitamins, calcium and minerals make it suitable for all ages and all uses. It can be found on the market at different ages: the 18-month cheese is soft and tender with herbal, floral and fruity notes and is excellent in appetizers and snacks. After 22 months, Parmigiano develops a stronger aroma in which a nutty fragrance joins that of fresh fruit. This seasoning is appropriate in more strongly flavored dishes like soups and risottos. A Parmigiano aged for 30 months has an even more pronounced taste and aroma and can be served on its own, with fruit jams, honey or a few drops of traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena.
There are 406 active producers, including many dairies and factories known as caselli. These are regulated by a Consorzio that upholds the PDO (government regulated) standards, grades cheeses and handles the worldwide advertising and marketing.
Unlike food and wine made in the US, Europe has production standards protected by law – location, ingredients (and percentages thereof), manufacturing technique and other standards that maintain the traditional definitions of what makes a certain cheeser wine unique. You won’t find Reggiano made outside the defined zone, Port made in Belgium, or Champagne made in Poland; it’s just not allowed.
The protected name designation states that Parmigiano Reggiano can only be made from milk produced by cows feasting on fresh grass and hay within the PDO zone, according to strict regulations. Although the name controlled version is about 800 years old, the recipe is attributed to Benedictine monks working in the Po Valley in around 1200 CE.
For production of Parmigiano Reggiano, a combination of skimmed evening milk is combined with whole morning milk and heated. The curd is coagulated using animal rennet and after cutting and reheating to expel the whey, the curds are packed into very large molds and a weight is placed on top to ease out more whey. Cheeses are flipped and re-weighted several more times before being allowed to sit overnight.
Prior to finally being unmolded, a plastic matrix, dotted with small blunt needles and a plaque with the identifying number of the cheese producer, is inserted between the cheese and the mold. This matrix spells out the words Parmigiano Reggiano so that when the mold is tightened around the cheese, all the information is gently pressed into the rind.
Wheels are placed in a brine solution for up to one month before being transferred to maturing cellars. Called Parmesan in English after the French name for it, (and Parm here in the shops), Reggiano is a hard, granular cheese, cooked but not pressed. Parm has a minimum aging period of 12 months, but all Parmigiano Reggiano marked export requires a minimum aging period of 18 months (there are several large box and big chains around who pass of 15 month Parm as being the real deal – it’s just not.)
Ours is generally at least two years old – true Export Quality.
Only certain breeds of cow can produce the protein-rich milk that is used to make Parmigano-Reggiano. The Holstein Friesian breed is the most important of the breeds that are approved for Parmigiano-Reggiano milk production. Each Holstein produces around 2,500 gallons of milk each year. Fed on fresh grass during the summer, during the winter months they are commonly fed dehydrated summer grasses. The dehydration retains the grass’ essential nutrients, and maintains a constant flora in the cows’ stomachs, leading to less stressed cows who provide a consistent quality milk year round.
Unlike other cheeses, there are peculiarities in the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano. For example, at around eleven months of aging, a man called the Battore (the Drummer) taps each wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese with a small metal mallet. If he hears a hollow sound, the cheese likely has a structural flaw. This unfortunate occurrence takes place in roughly seven out of every 100 cheeses tested. These wheels lose their Parmigiano-Reggiano emblem from the rind and are sold to the food processing industry.
The Parmigiano-Reggiano wheels that pass the test of the Battore are branded with an identification number, and allowed to continue aging. One month later, each cheese is branded with the logo of the Consorzio. Fresh versions of the cheese can now be legally sold, although most of the product continues to age to at least 18 months. At 24 months, the remaining wheels are once again tested by the Battore, determining those select cheeses that can best survive the longest aging.
Legend has it that Parmigiano-Reggiano was first created during the Middle Ages in Bibbiano, a small town located in the central province of Reggio-Emilia. Nearby Benedictine monks had been searching for a way to preserve their precious milk longer. and in doing so, made cheese. They eventually developed a technique to create an aged cheese, and thus was born Parmigiano Reggiano.
The hard, granular cheese quickly became popular throughout Italy and Europe. Production spread into the Parma and Modena provinces and the cheese was soon traded to surrounding regions and countries. The very first recorded mention of Parmigiano Reggiano was in 1254 A.D. when a noblewoman from Genova actually traded her house in order to have a yearly supply of 53 pounds of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. We don’t blame her!
During the 14thcentury, Parmigiano Reggiano was mentioned once again in Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous Decameron. When describing an imaginary town called Bengodi, he wrote that there was “a mountain of grated parmesan cheese” where “dwell folk that do nothing else but make macaroni and ravioli, and boil them in capon’s broth, and then throw them down the mountain.”
Excellent served on its own as snack or antipasto, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese can be grated over pasta and risotto, shaved atop salads, or stirred into soups, broths, and sauces to add depth of flavor.
Carol makes a great appetizer with a ‘soldier’ of Reggiano stuffed inside a Medjool date and wrapped in a half strip of bacon, held together by a toothpick. Bake in the oven at 425 for 25 minues or so – amazing!!