For those food geeks (like me), who want to know more about the “The King of Cheese,” Parmigiano-Reggiano, and how it’s made, here are the details that I learned at Nuova Coop Casearia Spilambertese, while on the Food Experiences tour from Times of Italy/Italian Days.
Parmigiano-Reggiano actually has quite a history, being first mentioned in a cookbook in the 1300s. Traditionally, the only milk allowed was that from the local red cow, the Reggiana, or the brown cow, the Bruna Alpina. Unfortunately, their milk production is so low that they’re no longer the only source of milk, but highly-prized cheese is still made from single source milk and labeled “red cow” or “brown cow” Parmigiano-Reggiano. (In fact, a restaurant I went to later in the week had a Parmigiano-Reggiano degustation platter, including the red cow cheese. Listening to the waiter explain it to a non-Italian was hysterical, because she kept saying, “red cows? the milk is from red cows?”)
The cheese is made by combining ingredients that any dairy farmer would have had at hand – skim milk, whole milk, whey and calf rennet. Today, in order to obtain the Protected Designation of Origin (which will be marked DOP on the rind), every ingredient must be from Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna, Modena, or Mantova. This even extends to the grass which is fed to the cows!
The skim milk is made by letting the milk from the previous evening’s milking sit overnight, so the cream rises to the top. They use the bottom portion, the “skimmed” milk, for the cheese-making. (The cream is set aside to make butter.)
The naturally fermented whey is a by-product of the previous day’s cheese-making. (And just so nothing is wasted, the whey that’s not needed for a “starter” for the next day’s cheese is fed to pigs — traditionally those pigs that later become Prosciutto di Parma.)
The calf rennet is extracted from the stomach of slaughtered, unweaned calves, such as those killed for veal. This rennet is the reason that Parmigiano is not a vegetarian or vegan product.
The production begins in the morning, after the skim milk has had time to form, and the dairy farmers deliver the whole milk from that morning’s milking. The part-skim milk mixture is poured into huge copper vats (holding 1100 liters of milk each) and gently heated while being stirred with a giant paddle. The whey is added to begin the acidification of the milk, and the rennet added to begin coagulation.
We came in shortly after the rennet had been added, as the mixture was starting to solidify into “curds and whey” (shades of Little Miss Muffet!). The cheese maker used an enormous balloon whisk to break up the curds into pieces the size of a grain of rice. At this point, the curds don’t stick together when squeezed.
The heat is turned off, and the curds left alone for about 40 minutes to sink to the bottom, where they begin to form a solid cheese mass. This is the point where we trooped off to see the soaking room and the aging rooms to view the rest of the process and the final result.
When we came back to the production floor, the Master Cheesemaker (who is literally “the big cheese”, lives above the factory and only has five days off a year) was using the wooden paddle to shape and lift the cheese mass into a cheesecloth sling, letting it drain for a few minutes.
He then cuts the mass in half, with each half later placed in a mold and destined to be a single wheel of cheese. Thus each vat produces two wheels of cheese a day. The factory itself produces around 32 wheels a day.
Alessandro, owner of the tour company and our very enthusiastic guide for the day, shows how the cheese mass can now be shaped (it looks like fresh mozzarella at this point).
Forming and draining the cheese ball
Cutting the cheese (sorry, couldn’t help it….)
After a day of sitting in the spring-form mold to drain, the cheese is removed briefly while a plastic stenciling band is added to the outside of the cheese, and then returned to the mold. The band impresses the punctures onto the sides of the cheese that provide the unique identification marks that allows any cheese to be tracked to factory and even month and year of production.
(I found out after our visit that there is also an edible “plate” placed on top of the cheese giving each individual cheese its own identification code for further accountability.)
After a few more days of rest for the punctures to impress themselves in what will become the rind, the cheese is then sent to the “cheese spa”, a room where the cheeses soak for 3 weeks in salted water. The salt is the only additive that is allowed in the process.
After the brining, they begin the maturation process where the wheels of cheese sit on wooden shelves in the “cheese library” as the rind changes from white to yellow to almost mahogany, and the odor changes from buttery to, well, a sharp Parmesan smell.
After a year, the inspector from the Consorzio arrives to grade the cheese. If there are no air bubbles or cracks in the cheese (which the inspector determines by sound alone, tapping with a small wooden hammer), the inspector fire-brands the rind with their seal of approval and these are considered Grade 1.
If there are minor flaws, the inspectors mark parallel lines into the rind and stamp the cheese as Grade 2 (or “Mezzano”). With major flaws, the inspectors pare the rind of any identifying marks and the cheeses are sent for use as generic “Parmesan”.
The rind is marked continuously, so any significant portion of the rind will have – or not have – the identifying marks. Thus the advice to only buy Parmigiano-Reggiano with the rind, to ensure the quality.
Once the cheese has been graded, it generally continues to age, although it can be sold. The Mezzano cheeses are generally sold after aging 12-18 months. While aging for two years allows the salt to fully penetrate the wheel, some Parmigiano-Reggianos are aged as much as 36 months (“Stravecchio”), becoming stronger and nuttier in flavor and aroma.
How to tell good Parmesan – First and foremost, look for the DOP mark on the rind, or the Parmigiano-Reggiano “brand” on the label of a vacuum-packed wedge. If you see the parallel lines marking a Mezzano cheese, the flavor will not be impacted, just the texture. “Extra” means the cheese has been aged 18 months and passed an additional quality assessment.
Consider your preference – Younger cheese tastes milder, more like butter; older cheese is sharper, more nutty in flavor. By the way, crystals in the cheese are a sign of aging, not a flaw.
Consider how you’ll use it – If you’re serving it in chunks, as part of an antipasto platter, get the best you can.
Nutrition and health benefits – Surprisingly, Parmigiano-Reggiano has no lactose in it, making it easy to digest. It’s also high in protein but low in fat.
Storage – There’s lots of disagreement about this, but according to Alessandro (our guide), buy the whole wheel, or buy a wedge vacuum sealed. Once opened, use it within a few days.
Uses – Aside from the obvious uses, you can keep the rinds and toss into soups, or grill them and drizzle with Balsamic for a snack. You can also use the rinds as a healthy, natural teething aid for babies. And for a spectacular party presentation, use a hollowed-out wheel as a serving bowl for pasta, soup or salad.