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How to recognise the unmistakeable characteristics of Parmigiano Reggiano

Discovering the appearance, aromas and flavours of Parmigiano Reggiano is an experience that deserves attention. Every degree of maturation gives rise to different emotions and scents that make its versatility unique and suitable for any occasion.

The ideal temperature for tasting Parmigiano Reggiano is between 16° and 17°C. If the cheese is in the refrigerator, it is necessary to take it out at least 1 hour in advance and open the vacuum pack at least 30 minutes before tasting it.

Parmigiano Reggiano is not sliced, but cut into pieces using the traditional almond-shaped knife; the tip of the knife is pressed into the cheese paste and used as a lever to break off little pieces.

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Visual analysis

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Sight can provide a variety of information, firstly about the colour of Parmigiano Reggiano, which can range from light straw yellow to intense straw yellow, with a uniform or non uniform appearance. Maturation makes the colour more intense.

The visual analysis also makes it possible to evaluate other specific features such as: eye formation (which is allowed if the holes are few in number and <2mm in diameter); the presence of tyrosine crystals, the small white dots on the surface of the paste that indicate the stage of maturation of the cheese.

During this phase tasters also make a first evaluation of the texture of the cheese paste, which may appear compact or grainy; the latter aspect must be confirmed by the tactile evaluation in the mouth at the end of the tasting.

Parmigiano Reggiano Academy

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Olfactory analysis

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The smell is evaluated by inhaling deeply for a few seconds right after breaking the cheese. If necessary, one can smell just one more time after 5-10 seconds. The first evaluation considers the overall intensity of the olfactory stimulation perceived while inhaling, which can be weak, medium, or high.

Next, tasters try to identify the smell family to which the perceived stimulation belongs (lactic, plant-based, floral, fruity, toasted, animal, spiced, other), while it is experience that provides the sensitivity/ability to go into further detail and pinpoint the specific descriptors.

After the evaluation of smells, tasters can move on to tasting, taking care to do it slowly, bringing the cheese into contact with every part of the mouth and exhaling from the nose. Many different aromatic sensations, which are often hard to identify or codify, can be perceived in the mouth.

Generally, it can be said that the overall intensity of smell and aroma of Parmigiano Reggiano increases with ageing.

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Taste analysis

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During this phase, tasters evaluate the basic tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter) and the trigeminal sensations (spicy, astringent, cooling, warming, acrid, metallic). Essentially, the tastes that can significantly define Parmigiano Reggiano are: sweet, usually more pronounced in not very matured products; salty, which increases with ageing; bitter, almost always a weak note, often linked to a herbaceous sensation. As regards Parmigiano Reggiano, attention focuses mainly on the spicy trigeminal sensation, which is expected to increase with the maturation of the cheese, but which should not be excessive.

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Tactile analysis

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The last evaluation of the sample checks for its consistency.

This is a very important characteristic, as it allows us to determine almost immediately whether we Parmigiano Reggiano is 12, 24, or 36 months old, namely, “young”, “matured” or “extra old”.

The tactile analysis, already referred to in the visual analysis, is carried out by holding the stick of Parmigiano Reggiano with the fingers, bringing it to the mouth, biting it, deforming through mastication, and finally swallowing. In these stages tasters can assess the elasticity of the sample, namely its ability to resume its initial shape after the pressure of mastication, and its hardness, that is, the resistance of the sample to a very slight opening and shutting of the jaws.

When examining a sliver of Parmigiano Reggiano, the main focus must be on its granularity and crumbliness, characteristics that become more pronounced with ageing. The cheese is grainy when more or less fine rounded grains in the paste can be easily perceived during mastication and at the end of it. A long aged Parmigiano Reggiano has a more granular texture.

Crumbliness is the ability of the sample to break down into numerous small pieces at the start of chewing. Often, when cutting a sliver of very matured Parmigiano Reggiano, one can already notice its characteristic tendency to break down into very small slivers.

Another tactile characteristic of Parmigiano Reggiano is solubility, which, like the previous descriptors, increases with ageing. By solubility is meant the sensation that emerges when the sample melts rapidly in the saliva.

During the tactile evaluation of the sliver or stick in the mouth, one may also feel the tyrosine crystals when chewing - the ones that in the visual evaluation of the paste were noticed as white dots.

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Evolution of the sensory characteristics of Parmigiano Reggiano

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Minimum maturation is 12 months (the longest minimum maturation for any PDO cheese), but Parmigiano-Reggiano reaches a degree of maturation that fully expresses its typical characteristics at approximately 24 months. It can mature up to 36, 48 months or longer, acquiring unexpected and unparalleled flavours and aromas. In maturation, thanks to the action of the enzymes released by lactic bacteria, proteins are broken down into smaller pieces, free peptides and amino acids, the basic bricks of the protein chain. This action of protein breakdown (proteolysis) determines the structure and sensory properties of Parmigiano Reggiano and its digestibility.

The different degrees of maturation give rise to varying aromatic sensations and make it particularly versatile in the kitchen and suitable for several preparations and pairings:

12- 18 months – Parmigiano Reggiano with 12-18 months of maturation has a harmonious and delicate flavour with scents of milk, yoghurt and fresh fruit. It is particularly suitable for aperitifs paired with sparkling white wines, or to enrich salads and cold dishes.

22-24 months – Parmigiano Reggiano with 22-24 months of maturation is soluble, crumbly and grainy with the right balance between mildness and tastiness, with notes of fresh fruit, nuts and meat stock. Perfect with medium body wines and to add flavour to all the dishes of the Italian tradition.

30-36 months – Parmigiano Reggiano with 30-36 months of maturation is particularly crumbly and grainy. The flavour is pronounced with notes of spices, nuts and meat stock. It is an ideal ingredient for filled and baked pastas or to be tasted at the end of meals, paired with fruit and honey.

more than 40 months – Parmigiano Reggiano with 40 months has passed the test of time and releases pleasant scents of spices. It is an exclusive gift and a pleasant companion to be tasted with structured and meditation wines.