The Making of Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese
There are fascinating journeys which take us through places and times, stories and traditions to stir our emotions and feelings.
And sometimes the best part is the return trip.
That is how it is with Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Its unique and inimitable taste is the return from a long journey through nine centuries of history, passing through a fertile countryside stretching from the Apennines to the river Po, through farms and dairies where there is still a passion for things made with care, through the maturation rooms where the best of what man can produce slowly matures presenting us with an unmistakeable gift of nature.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is an extraordinary cheese with amazing aromas and taste and a unique texture.
But, if you are still wondering why Parmigiano-Reggiano has been considered the king of cheeses for nine centuries, let’s go back to the beginning of our journey.
And, at the same time, get ready for the return trip.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced exclusively in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna, on the plains, hills and mountains enclosed between the rivers Po and Reno.
This is the area hosting four thousand farms where the cattle are fed on locally grown forage.
From these deep roots in a protected and respected environment, come the unique qualities, which characterise the “king of cheeses”.
The feeding of cattle complies with the norms of a strict specification that bans the use of silage and fermented feeds.
Regular controls are carried out on the milk used in the process to ensure the high quality and the presence of special characteristics, which allow Parmigiano-Reggiano to continue to be, as it always has been, a purely natural product, completely without additives or preservatives.
Since medieval times, when the Benedictine monks started producing these great cheeses specifically for long maturation, man has joined with nature, leaving it untouched and improving only the areas of man’s intervention.
The cheese makers are the custodians and interpreters of the secrets of the true craft of milk processing, and although, in hundreds of artisan cheese diaries, they all work with their hands in the same way, the result of their work is inextricably linked to their personal experience and sensitivity giving an appreciable diversity of taste and aromas.
Every day, the milk from the evening milking is left to rest until morning in large vats, where the fatty part spontaneously rises to the surface. This is used for the production of butter.
As soon as the whole milk form the morning milking arrives from the farm, the skimmed milk from the night before is poured into the typical bell-shaped copper cauldrons where calf rennet and fermented whey, rich in natural lactic ferments obtained from the processing of the day before, are added.
The milk coagulates in around ten minutes, and the curd which forms is then broken down into minuscule granules using a traditional tool called “spino”.
This is where fire comes into the picture, in a cooking process which reaches 55 degrees centigrade, after which the cheesy granules sink to the bottom of the cauldron forming a single mass.
After resting for around thirty minutes, the cheese mass is removed, with deft movements, by the cheese maker.
Cut into two parts and wrapped in its typical cloth, the cheese is then placed in a mould which will give it its final shape.
Each cheese is given a unique, progressive number using a casein plate and this number remains with it just like an identity card.
After a few hours, a special marking band engraves the month and year of production onto the cheese, as well as its cheese dairy registration number and the unmistakable dotted inscriptions around the complete circumference of the cheese wheel, which is then, after a few days, immersed in a water and salt-saturated solution.
It is a process of salting by absorption which, within less than a month, closes the production cycle and opens the not less fascinating cycle of maturation.
The cheese wheels are laid out in long rows in the silent maturation rooms.
Each cheese has used around 550 litres of milk and the constant care of the farmers and cheese masters.
But the work continues.
The cheese is allowed to rest on wooden tables where the outside of the cheese dries forming a natural crust without being treated in any way and therefore remaining perfectly edible.
The story of Parmigiano-Reggiano is a long one, and also slow, following at the natural rhythm of the seasons.
In fact, the minimum maturation time is twelve months, and only at this point can it be decided if each individual cheese is worthy of the name it was given at its birth.
The experts of the Consortium examine each cheese one by one.
After the Control Body’s inspection, a mark is fire-branded onto the individual cheeses which meet the requirements of the Protected Designation of Origin.
All identifying marks and the dotted inscriptions are removed from any cheeses which do not meet the PDO requirements.
It is one of the most crucial moments for the cheese makers and also one of the most important for the consumers: the moment of selection and the granting of a certificate of absolute guarantee for the product.
The cheeses which are sent for sale to the consumer as fresh (a term which may sound curious for a product which has been maturing for a year) will have parallel lines engraved on them which render them immediately recognisable by the consumer.
This is the second class of Parmigiano-Reggiano called “mezzano”.
When the cheese has matured for 18 months, the mark "Extra" or "Export" can be added. A system of coloured seals help the consumer identify the level of maturation of the pre-packaged products available in retailers.
A red seal identifies the Parmigiano-Reggiano which has been matured for over 18 months. This product has a rather strong milk flavour, with aromatic notes such as herbs, flowers and fruits which make it ideal for snacks and aperitifs.
A silver seal identifies cheese which has been matured for over 22 months, with decidedly stronger aromas. In these cheeses the notes of fresh and citrus fruit can be tasted, along with a hint of nuts.
Finally, a gold seal identifies a cheese which has been matured for over 30 months and has the most distinctive flavour and complex aromas, with a higher nutritional element concentrated over its long maturation.
During maturation, Parmigiano-Reggiano gains its typical granular structure, and when cut it into slivers, it becomes crumbly and soluble.
Delicious, easy to digest and with a host of nutritional benefits, Parmigiano-Reggiano always exceeds expectations.
The unique taste of a product made without additives, with its concentration of proteins, vitamins, calcium and mineral salts make it perfect for all ages and for all situations, a ready source of useful energy for everyone.
Parmigiano-Reggiano has been guaranteed for over seventy years by the Consortium and, above all, has been loved for over nine centuries for its excellent and inimitable flavour.
An unmistakable and unique product for its aroma and taste, the craft of its production, its extraordinary journey through a landscape of rivers, plains and hills, and its unparalleled balance of knowledge, man’s passion and nature’s bounty.
And in journeys like this, the best part is certainly the return trip: encountering a taste which brings back memories of the passion and the marvels encountered along the way.