Crumbly yet firm in texture, salty but somewhat sweet, golden yellow Parmigiano Reggiano became a staple of my diet in Italy. Peckish before dinner? Parmigiano. Fancy a mid-afternoon snack? Parmigiano. Risotto? Pasta? All (more or less) can be improved by a dusting of the famous cheese.
I have been called disgusting by my British friends for my unusual cheese snacking habit, yet nothing fills a gap like a roughly-cut chunk of my favourite type of cheese. It’s not just the flavour that does it for me. Chipping off a hunk conjures up memories of my Italian flat; my Italian landlady busy snacking on the stuff, a friend arriving with a huge wedge, received as a gift. I’ve even been known to carry pieces of Parmigiano-Reggiano back to the UK from Emilia Romagna, stowed in between my t-shirts in my suitcase such is the appeal.
Parmigiano Reggiano can often be confused with parmesan, since they both look similar and (some say) taste almost the same. However, parmesan is a general, English/American name, used to describe Italian-style hard cheeses, made from cow’s milk. These cheeses do not come from a specific area and are often exported or even made abroad. Parmigiano Reggiano, on the other hand, is thought to be the original parmesan cheese and has to conform to a strict set of requirements to be able to call itself by that name.
Parmigiano Reggiano has Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) status meaning that it must be made in a certain way in order to bear its name. Indeed, the whole process, from milk production, making the cheese and maturing and packing it, must take place in a specific area of northern Italy. According to the Consorsio del formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano it can be made, matured and packed in “the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna to the left of the river Reno and Mantu to the right of the river Po.”
Huge wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano are fairly easily recognised since they usually bear several heavy stamps on their rind, alerting customers to their origins and classifying them as the real-deal. Delicious as the cheese may be, it does not come cheap, with some wheels of cheese selling for almost 1000€. They are also rather exclusive, indeed in 2019 a total of 3,754,192 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano were produced in only 321 dairies across the region.
Just before leaving the region and returning home and having feasted off the cheese in its various forms for months, I found myself on a tour of a caseificio (cheese factory) where they make Parmigiano Reggiano. It was a sweltering late June day and the cool of the entrance to the caseficio made a welcome change from the non-airconditioned apartment I had been living in. We were shown the various different stages in the process of cheese-manufacturing. The huge copper vats full of milk being gently heated, generously sized wheels of cheese being wrapped in muslin, bathed in salt baths, tapped and checked to see how they were coming along. Having been on a few cheese factory tours in my time, it was interesting yet nothing particularly remarkable. This was until we reached the final stage of our visit, arriving in a vast, warehouse-like room, filled with row upon row of Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses, stretching what seemed to be almost the length of a football pitch, as far as the eye could see.
It was the smell that hit you first, a rich, homely aroma that rushed over us. It was in fact not overtly cheesy, somewhat pleasant and addictive. The sheer scale of the operation was the thing that made it particularly memorable, the height of the shelves of Parmigiano, the fact that when you had reached the middle of one of the rows, there was a bizarre sensation of being overwhelmed by wheels and wheels of extremely valuable cheese. The shelves are made of wood and store cheeses for a minimum of 12 months, in order for them to mature, taking on their creamy yet somewhat crunchy and crumbly taste and texture. That said, the average maturation period, according to the Consorsio, is 24 months but the cheese can be left to mature for much, much longer, sometimes up to 30 months and beyond. Cheeses are tested with a small hammer at 12 months by the Consorsio during a quality inspection. This is performed on every single golden wheel of Parmigiano produced, to see if they are up to standard and ready to be eaten.
To find out more, I spoke to Andrea Nascimbeni who is the president of Parmigiano Reggiano factory 4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia, based just outside the city of Modena.
How long have you been making Parmigiano Reggiano for?
I’ve been making it for years, I’ve been president of the 4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia since 2008. I’ve never doubted that I wanted to make Parmigiano Reggiano, especially since I’m very fortunate to be living in the region where the cheese is produced.
How is a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano made?
The evening milk is left to settle in huge vats overnight and is left there from about 8pm to 6am to rest. The milk separates with the fat rising to the top. This can be used to make cream and butter. The rest of the milk that’s left over is siphoned off via a tap at the bottom of the vat and used to make the Parmigiano Reggiano. This is used together with the milk from the morning milking. Both types of milk are put into a copper heating vat where they are mixed together and heated up gradually for about three hours. At this point rennet is added to turn the milk into cheese. No preservatives are used, only the whey and the rennet which are all produced in-house. At around 10:30am the mixture is then put into linen-lined moulds with a weight above them. Then every two hours, until about 8pm, any liquid which has appeared is removed and by the evening the cheese is branded with the characteristic Parmigiano Reggiano logo using a teflon strip. The next morning, the cheeses are put into a different curved mould for two more days which gives them their classic, rounded shape. The next day the cheeses are submerged in a brine bath where they stay for around 18 days. After this they are moved to a storeroom for a minimum one year when they are ready to be eaten.
How does the length of maturation affect the cheese?
Evaporation changes the taste of cheeses, making them slightly more salty as well as affecting how granular they are as well as their colour. The drier the cheeses (this happens as they get older), the more granular they become. Tiny white dots become visible as the cheese ages, but only appear once they have been maturing for 20 months.
How old is your oldest cheese?
We’ve still got a few cheeses from 2014. We did have a couple from 2010 but ate them at Christmas.
Do they taste any different?
Yes, they have a much stronger and more intense taste. They also smell stronger and are harder. They were really excellent! We did have older cheeses but unfortunately lost many of them in the 2012 earthquake.
How much would you pay for a wheel of cheese?
It depends on how long the cheese has been maturing. Parmigiano Reggiano which has matured for 12 months costs around 400€, a cheese that has matured for 24 months costs about 600€ while a cheese matured for 36 months comes to around 800€.
What is the best way to eat Parmigiano Reggiano?
You can eat it in many ways, it depends on how old the cheese is. If it’s been matured for 12 or 13 months you can eat it as a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack. If it’s been matured for 24 months it’s good on top of pasta. You can also eat it together with Aceto Balsamico but really it depends on the person. I even have several friends who take it on bike rides as a snack to keep them going and give them energy