Parma, Italy—The whole place is permeated with the faint, mingled aromas of fresh milk and aging cheese. Even the anteroom, where we put on disposable plastic lab coats, caps, and little blue footies over our shoes, smells pleasantly of a freshly cut wedge of Parmigiano.
Those with romantic notions of ancient copper cauldrons, weathered stucco and milk-stained terra cotta are inevitably disappointed: the dairies that create Parmigiano Reggiano, one of the world’s oldest and best cheeses, are thoroughly modern. The cauldrons are copper-lined in the traditional way, but everything else, from the thermostatically controlled cooking system to the stainless steel milk trays and gleaming white tiled walls, is state-of-the-art.
But there’s plenty of romance still to be had: This venerable cheese is still made the old-fashioned way. While thermometers and gauges measure cooking temperatures, milk density and the like, the cheese master’s hands and eyes are the ultimate measures. He scoops up a handful of curd, rubs it between his fingers, squeezes gently. What he’s looking for is a complex mixture of experience, instinct, and plain out artistry. Modern equipment and traditional skill are nothing, however, without good raw material: The quality of the dairy’s product will only be as good as the milk that goes into it. The cow that produced that milk, the farmer who has nurtured and fed it, the very grass and hay that the cow has eaten are all as important as the master cheese maker. This ancient food is the culmination of much more than mere process: it’s a part of the land, the air, the very soul of the people.
A Cheese Is Born: The Process For Making Parmigiano Reggiano
The art of making a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano is complex, with many subtleties. Once you’ve seen the process from beginning to end, you have some idea of why this cheese is not cheap. Actually, you will probably begin to wonder why it doesn’t cost more.
- The cows that produce the raw material for Parmigiano are milked only twice a day, morning and evening. Both batches are used. It takes about 312 gallons of milk to fill a cauldron, making two 81-pound wheels of cheese.
- The night before the cheese is made, the fresh evening milk is delivered to the dairy and poured into wide, shallow stainless-steel trays, where it sits overnight to allow the cream to rise and separate.
- The next morning, the milk is drained from the bottom of the tray into a copper-lined cauldron, leaving the cream behind (it’s reserved to make butter). The morning milk is delivered and mixed whole with the skimmed night milk.
- The starter (leftover whey from the previous day’s cheese) and rennet are mixed in, and the milk is gradually heated to 33 to 34 degrees C.
- The curds are broken up by hand, using a giant whisk-like tool called a spino, tested by the cheese master, and gradually heated to 55 to 60 degrees C. During the cooking, the curd settles to the bottom of the cauldron in a single ball.
- The ball of curd is raised with a paddle, gathered into a cloth and cut in half. Each half is gathered into a separate cloth and drained. A little of the whey is reserved as starter; the rest will feed the pigs from which Parma’s famous hams are made.
- In the molding room, each mass of curd is marked, packed into round molds, weighted, and drained, for two days. The cheese is then transferred to stainless-steel molds lined with the stencil that makes the characteristic “Parmigiano Reggiano” rind markings, again weighted, and left for two more days.
- When the cheese is removed from the molds, it’s then transferred to the salting room, where the rounds will be submerged in brine 20 to 30 days. Originally, the cheeses were dry-salted by hand, a process that took twice as long. * At the end of the brining, the cheese is lifted out from the vats, drained and transferred to the aging room, where it ages for a minimum of 18 months and for as long as four years.
- A young cheese will mold in its first year, and the mold is periodically buffed away, but mature cheeses do not mold.
- Throughout the aging, cheese quality is carefully monitored. Internal quality and density is checked by tapping the wheel all over with a hammer. The sounds will alert the cheese master to possible defects within the wheel.
- Cheeses that fail to meet the consortium standards are stripped of the stenciling on the rind and, though the cheese may still be palatable and saleable, it can’t be sold as Parmigiano Reggiano.
What’s in a Name?
Parmigiano Reggiano is carefully protected by a consortium of its makers: only cheeses made within the region around Parma, under the strict supervision of the consortium, can be called “Parmigiano Reggiano” and bear the characteristic stenciled rind. Both are strictly controlled, vigilantly protected trademarks. Why “Parmigiano” and not “Parmesan,” the English word for it? It’s not an affectation: unfortunately, the name “Parmesan” isn’t controlled in America, and like “champagne” on a sparkling wine label, has become virtually meaningless. Imitators of Parmigiano frequently try to market their product as “a milder, gentler Parmesan,” but what’s the point to that? Once you get a taste of the real thing, the imitations taste “milder” all right—as in bland, flat, and dully salty.
Parmigiano authority Eduardo Turchetto remarked that he knew this cheese was good food because it was made well with wholesome, high-quality ingredients, but food scientists are learning that his instinct was right on the mark. There’s a lot more to this cheese than just good taste.
- Lactose Intolerant? No problem: Thanks to the method of making Parmigiano and the long curing process, there is no lactic acid left in the finished product, so lactose intolerant folks can eat it with gusto.
- Calcium worth nibbling: Parmigiano not only has a high concentration of calcium (a mere 100 grams provides more than 100 percent of the daily requirement for adults), it’s more easily assimilated than in any other food, including fresh milk. Russian cosmonauts have long packed Parmigiano on their space flights to combat bone loss in space. Which would you rather chew on: calcium tablets that sort of taste like bad candy or the best cheese in the world?
- Parmigiano is also an efficient and highly digestible source of protein, being rich in essential and nonessential amino acids.
- Rich in short-chain fats and low in cholesterol, Parmigiano is a highly efficient energy food. Parmigiano Goes Solo The closest most Americans come to eating this cheese uncooked is grated over a plate of pasta. But, while it’s unsurpassed in cooking, Parmigiano is one terrific eating cheese—complexly flavored with surprisingly sweet undertones, satisfyingly toothsome, and highly digestible. Here’s how to enjoy it “in the raw.”
- Buy it in a thick wedge if possible, with plenty of rind attached. The rind is all-natural and is traditionally used in cooking the way we use slabs of salt pork.
- For optimum flavor and texture, let the cheese come to cool room temperature before serving it.
- Properly served, Parmigiano is not cut, but broken into bite-sized chunks with a specially made wide-bladed knife, widely available at kitchenware stores.
- Nix the bread and crackers: this cheese is substantial enough to pick up without a carrier and is dense and satisfying without the need for fillers.
- It’s also superb as an appetizer and after-dinner savory served with walnuts or pecans (see Parmigiano with Pecans, below).
- Parmigiano pairs well with apples, pears and figs in an after-dinner fruit and cheese course. In Parma, it is served after dinner both alone and with walnuts.
- Parmigiano will stand up to cocktails (it will stand up to just about anything), but what a shame to waste it on them. Wine is by far the better choice: try a rich Sangiovese di Romagna or a light Prosecco, the delicate Italian sparkling wine.
By Damon Fowler, a food writer in Savannah, Ga.