So, why Parmigiano-Reggiano is so special? Because it is born from its territory and the wisdom of man. We Italians love Parmigiano Reggiano also because we know, more or less, that the ingredients (milk, salt, rennet), the care and passion, the area of origin have been the same for centuries. Milk production and processing into cheese take place in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna (left of the river Reno) and Mantua (to the right of the river Po). Here, farms produce the high-quality milk and dairies turn it into cheese every day and season it for a minimum of 12 months, controlling all forms, until the ripeness.
The origins of Parmigiano-Reggiano date back to the Middle Ages, around the XII century. At the Benedictine monasteries, following the rule of St. Benedict, "Ora et Labora", the monks developed agricultural activities and breeding of cows for the work in the fields and for the production of meat and milk. Production of milk was abundant, as precious as highly perishable, so monks needed to devise a way to produce a cheese that would last in time.
Thanks to the abundance of rivers, large pastures and dairy products from beef used in the work of the fields, in this limited area of Emilia the first cheese factories started the production of a hard, large cheese (at that time about 16-20 kilograms). From the beginning this cheese had an important characteristic: it could last a long time, indeed, and the more it matured, the more it improved its organoleptic features. Numerous historical records show that already in the XIII century the cheese called "Caseus Parmensis", the first name of "Parmigiano-Reggiano ", had reached a circulation and also a reputation outside the boundaries of the area of origin.
Whenever I travel to Emilia on tour, I always stop at a diary for a visit. Every time I see cheesemakers at work in the diary, I stare at those movements in silence and awe: it’s masters at work, and masters should not be disturbed.
We usually get into the processing area of the diary in the morning, and here we can see the milk from the evening milking left to rest in large tanks, where the fat part, used for the production of butter, comes to surface. Along with the whole milk from the morning milking, skimmed milk just arrived in the evening from farms is poured in typical copper boilers in the form of an inverted bell, with the addition of whey, rich in natural milk ferments obtained from the process of the day before, and natural calf rennet. Milk coagulates in about ten minutes.
When the curd is formed, it is fragmented into tiny granules with an ancient tool called “spino”. After cooking at a temperature up to 55°C Celsius, caseous granules sink to the bottom of the boiler and aggregate in a single mass. After about fifty minutes the dairyman extracts the cheese mass with skilful movements. Cut in half and wrapped in canvas, the cheese is placed in the mold which will give it a cylindrical shape (at this moment, somebody in the group always says: ah, that’s how they shape it!!). Then, a few hours later, the month and year of production, the number distinguishing the dairy and the unmistakable dotted inscription on the whole circumference are engraved on the form. After a few days the forms are dipped into a saturated solution of water and salt for 20 days, to absorbe salt.
Production cycle is over, now it’s the time for another fascinating step, seasoning. In the silence of the warehouses, we walk among forms stored in long lines. Each of them approximately needed 550 liters of milk. Resting on wood boards, the cheese dries slowly and the crust formed during the salting takes a straw color more and more intense with the passage of time.
Parmigiano-Reggiano has a long, slow story, flowing with the natural rhythm of the seasons. The minimum aging is 12 months, and only at that time you may say if any single form can keep the name that was imprinted earlier. Experts of the Consortium examine them one by one. After the verification of the body of control, the stamp is applied on the forms that have the requirements of the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO); all the marks and dotted inscription are removed from the forms that do not qualify for PDO. This is one of the most delicate moments for master cheesemakers: their work is tested every time, to ensure that all forms comply with regulations but also with the taste that is appreciated by consumers all over the world.
At the end of the visit, tasting is always the ultimate experience. 12 months, 24 months, 36 months of aging turn the same cheese in different ones, with intense flavours arising from the cheese as you cut it down from the form, and spicy notes delighting your palate as granules break under the teeth. My favourite part of the visit but also the saddest, because it’s time to leave. Good bye, I’ll see you at home, grated on a pasta dish with tomato and basil, or simply as a snack with a slice of bread and a glass of Lambrusco (way better than Pringles and coke).
Parmigiano-Reggiano: my “national” cheese, for sure!