Parmigiano Reggiano, is one of Italy’s gifts to the world of food and is an essential staple in many kitchens around the globe, including mine. It’s unmistakable aroma, milky taste and versatility lends itself to many dishes. My grandfather, however, preferred his favorite merenda, by the chunk (room temperature of course), with his afternoon glass of red wine.
It takes sixteen quarts of milk to make a little over two pounds of Parmigiano, which explains why it is so rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. There are 36 grams of protein per 100 grams (2.5-ounces) of Parmigiano, which is far more than in an equivalent serving of red or white meat. It is also rich in vitamin-A, B-vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc.
Parmigiano Reggiano features a unique and extraordinary journey that has lasted 1000 years and continues to this day in the same places, with the same passion and the same ingredients (milk, calf rennet and salt). In the Middle Ages, the Benedictine and Cistercian monks (committed to finding a cheese that would be suitable for long preservation), were the first producers: using the salt from Salsomaggiore salt mines and the milk of the cows bred on the farms belonging to the monasteries.
Over the centuries, Parmigiano Reggiano has not changed its production method: today, as in the Middle Ages, the product is made in a natural way without additives or preservatives and is naturally lactose-free. There are natural microbiological conditions for which lactose is absent in this special cheese from the very first days.
Lactose is a sugar that is normally present in milk. In the Parmigiano Reggiano production process, lactose is fermented by the microflora of lactic acid bacteria during the first 48 hours following production. This is the so-called lactose fermentation, during which lactic bacteria, normally present in milk, turn lactose sugar into lactic acid during the first two days following production. Moreover, the Consortium, periodically tests random samples of Parmigiano Reggiano to check for lactose content.
The bond between Parmigiano Reggiano and its area of origin is fundamental. Parmigiano Reggiano is the product of its region and of human know-how. The production of milk, its processing into cheese, minimum maturation and packaging take place exclusively in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the left of the river Reno and Mantua to the right of the river Po: this is the area hosting the farms where the cattle are fed on locally grown fresh forage, never siloed grains, fermented feed or animal flour. These factors come together to produce an inimitable cheese and distinguishes Parmigiano Reggiano from industrial-produced cheeses.
Every cheese maker repeats the same steps every day and yet every cheese is different because the seasons, the milk, the sensitivity of the cheesemaker all very.
When making PR, the cows are milked in the evening and their milk is left to rest overnight. The following day, it is partially skimmed then combined with the morning whole milk and poured into the traditional upturned bell-shaped copper vats.
Next, it is time to add the whey (natural culture of lactic acid bacteria, from the previous day’s processing) to bring about the lactic acid fermentation. The cheesemaker then brings the milk up to the right temperature, and at precisely the right moment adds the calf rennet (a natural coagulant). The cheesemaker can affect the quality of the cheese but, the most important thing for perfect cheese is the milk! No matter how good the cheesemaker is, he/she cannot perform miracles if they do not have good milk.
The curd which forms is then broken down by the master cheese-maker into minuscule granules using a traditional tool called “spino”.
You can feel the cheese drying with your hands. The cheese must be dry and the granules must come apart from one another.
In the cooking process, the temperature reaches 55 degrees centigrade, allowing the granules of curd to dry and expelling the whey. When the time is right, the cooked cheesy granules sink to the bottom of the cauldron forming a single mass.
After about fifty minutes the mass is lifted by the cheese-makers and cut into two parts known as “gemelle” or twins. The twins are left to drip dry and eventually removed from the cauldron and wrapped in the typical linen cloth.
The cheese is then placed in a mold, known as a fascera, which will give it its final shape.
The casein plate, a unique alphanumeric code that identifies each wheel, allowing it to be traced (what day the wheel was born and in what dairy), is applied by the cheese-maker on one of the two flat surfaces of the wheel during its very first hours of life.
Finally, a special marking band engraves the month and year of production onto the cheese, as well as its cheese factory registration number and the unmistakable dotted inscriptions around the complete circumference of the cheese wheel.
After a few days, the wheels are immersed in a saturated solution of water and salt: it is a process of salting by osmosis, (which lasts an average of 20 days) thus, acquiring a rich flavor and a harder rind, releasing moisture in the process. The wheels are now ready to be taken to storage, where they will mature on racks for at least 12 months.
Parmigiano Reggiano is considered young (or new) when matured 12 months, mature when aged between 12 and 18 months, old when matured 18-24 months. At approximately 24 months, Parmigiano-Reggiano reaches a degree of maturation that fully expresses its typical characteristics. It can mature up to 36, 48 months or longer, acquiring unexpected and unparalleled flavors 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. Not surprisingly, it becomes more costly (and more suitable for grating) the longer it is aged.
How to recognize the unmistakable characteristics of Parmigiano Reggiano:
Sight can provide a variety of information, firstly about the color of Parmigiano Reggiano, which can range from light straw yellow to intense straw yellow, with a uniform or non uniform appearance. Maturation makes the color more intense.
Ever wonder what the white spots are and think maybe it’s mold or a defect of some kind? Quite the contrary, as the presence of small white spots, called Tyrosine (an amino acid) crystals, on the surface of the cheese indicates the stage of maturation of the cheese. They develop after 15 months of maturation and increase in size and number as the cheese ages.
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.
The ideal temperature for tasting Parmigiano Reggiano is between 16 and 17 degrees Celsius (60-62 degrees Fahrenheit). 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.
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 cheese can be easily perceived during chewing 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 its solubility, meaning the sensation that emerges when the sliver rapidly melts in your mouth. Absolutely, heavenly! A great example of a well aged Parm! Generally, it can be said that the overall intensity of smell and aroma of Parmigiano Reggiano also increases with ageing.
How to store Parmigiano Reggiano when freshly cut or taken out of the pack
When you buy a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano freshly cut or when you take it out of the vacuum-pack, it must be stored in the refrigerator at a temperature ranging from 4 to 8°Celcius (39-46 degrees Fahrenheit). Parmigiano Reggiano keeps its organoleptic features (qualities of taste, color, aroma etc.) unchanged if stored at an optimal humidity level and far from other food (the fatty part of cheese tends to absorb other smells present in the refrigerator). My grandmother always kept hers in a glass jar, as do I. It can also be wrapped in food-grade plastic film. In this way Parmigiano Reggiano can be kept for a long time, making sure periodically that its conditions do not change. I would advise that you do not freeze it. That being said, I do however, on occasion, freeze the rinds to be tossed into future pots of soup, sauce and stew. My grandmother never threw out the rinds as they contribute enormous flavor!
Duration of storage in refrigerator
Vacuum-packed Parmigiano Reggiano can be stored in the refrigerator for several months. Every packer is in charge of writing on the pack a date called DMD, Date of Minimum Durability, or shelf-life, preceded by the wording “best before…”.
This is different from the expiration date that is final.
After opening the pack or when buying a freshly cut piece of cheese, the instructions and suggestions on how long to keep Parmigiano Reggiano vary depending on its maturation. Parmigiano Reggiano with a maturation of 12-18 months and a higher moisture content can be kept for about a few weeks. Parmigiano Reggiano with a maturation of 24 months or more, properly stored, can be kept for a few months. If some mold develops on the surface, it is possible to remove it using a knife.
The GRADE SELECTION MARK is engraved at the end of the 12 months of maturation, on those wheels that pass the quality inspection to which all the wheels produced are subject.
The inspection is carried out by quality inspectors of the Consortium and following the certification issued by the PDO control body, the mark is hot-iron branded in an indelible way.
It is indeed the Consortium that holds the PDO marks of Parmigiano Reggiano, thereby identifying the cheese in the various categories during the quality control for the compliance with the PDO and supervises the correct use of those marks.
The quality control identifies three cheese categories:
The first category: Parmigiano Reggiano, namely cheese with a compact-textured paste and features compliant with the specifications (first-grade, zero, one), suitable for a long maturation to be enjoyed both in chunks during meals and in food preparations as grated cheese. Therefore the wheels bear the marks of origin (dotted inscription and casein plate) and the oval hot-iron mark.
The second category: “Medium-grade” Parmigiano Reggiano, namely cheese that shows minor or moderate defects in the structure of its paste and/or on the rind, yet that do not alter the typical organoleptic characteristics of the product. It is ideal for direct consumption as a table cheese. These wheels as well bear the hot-iron selection mark “Parmigiano Reggiano”, but they differ from the first-grade ones because of the parallel grooves engraved all around the cheese rind.
The third category: classified as “downgraded”, namely cheese that, showing major defects, is not compliant with the Parmigiano Reggiano specifications. These wheels are downgraded by eliminating the marks of origin through the removal of the rind (a few millimeters). Therefore, this cheese cannot show any reference to the PDO.
A further selection: the “Premium” and “Export” marks
Starting from the 18th month of maturation, dairies may request the Consortium to affix an additional mark on first-grade Parmigiano Reggiano: PREMIUM or EXPORT mark: it gives trading companies and consumers a further indication of the quality of Parmigiano Reggiano. These marks can be affixed also on the packaging of the cheese selected in this way.
The Protected Designation of Origin: In 1996 PR was recognized as a European PDO: key steps towards the Community protection of Parmigiano Reggiano, which is one of the most counterfeited and imitated cheeses in the world.