Parmesan Cheese – the real deal

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Mention “Parmesan Cheese” and some may think of the yellow gritty stuff with a notorious odour. Not only does this phoney Parm not need refrigeration, some have even been shown to have been cut with wood chips.

Firstly, true Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be produced and aged within the official areas of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and some parts of Mantua. In Lombardy, the “Grana Padano” cheese is made, which is like the less-superior version often used as a substitute tasty cheese when cooking.

The ingredients for making authentic Parmesan cheese are simply cow’s milk (traditionally from grass-fed cattle), rennet (to solidify the milk) and salt. Some produces add colourant, which is permitted so long as it is listed in the ingredients.

As simple as the ingredients may be, the production methods and regulations for quality Parmigiano-Reggiano are anything but. Here in Italy, and indeed Europe, there are stringent laws that protect the beloved Parmesan cheese – or, Parmigiano-Reggiano as it is known locally. The specific regulation is known as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), a label that authenticates food and beverages as being original and adherent to stringent regulations on their production, labelling and more.

This hard cheese is produced by mixing fresh unpasteurised cow’s milk with skimmed cow’s milk. This takes up around 18% of Italy’s entire annual milk production. The milk goes into 1100-litre vats (with each vat producing just two wheels) along with some natural starter whey and calf rennet, which is all heated to around 35° C and allowed to curdle. The curd is then cut into tiny pieces before being heated even further before it is left to rest. Next comes the straining, after which the curds go into a spring-form mould to shape the wheel. A few days later, a band is placed inside the mould that bears the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano” and the production details, which become imprinted on the cheese rind.

After just under a month left soaking in brine (salted with Mediterranean Sea salt), the wheels are aged for an initial 12 months. The ageing room looks like the most delicious library in the world, with the rounds placed on wooden shelves arranged in aisles, each of which can hold over 2,000 wheels at a time!

Throughout the ageing process, the wheels are regularly wiped down and turned.

On the cheese wheel’s first birthday, a Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano inspector assesses each round, before branding those that pass the stringent tests with the official stamp of approval!

The wheels are then aged for an additional 12 months – or even up to 48 months – before going to market, by which time they weigh around 38 kilograms each.

The result is a grainy-textured savoury cheese, usually with gorgeous little crystals that confer a delightful mouthfeel and charming micro-crunch. The flavour of the cheese is suavely umami.

So valuable is Parmigiano-Reggiano that the Credito Emiliano bank accepts cheese wheels as collateral for loans issued to producers. The bank’s vaults contain some $200 million in cheese and the bank staff includes specialised cheesemakers who lovingly care for their entrusted rounds. Given the long production-to-market times, this system helps tide Parmesan producers over until they can sell their wares, whilst the banks will have no problem selling their diary gold in the case of default.

To underline just how valuable the true Parmesan cheese is, robbers have hit the bank three times, one time even tunneling in to steal 570 wheels. (The were, however, nabbed soon after and no cheese was harmed.)

Indeed, this was not even the first (or last) Parmesan theft, with organised crime syndicates having targeted warehouses and shipment vehicles on various occasions.

When a series of earthquakes struck northern Italy in 2012, racks containing some 12 million kilograms – or over 300,000 wheels – of Parmesan wheels were felled. Representing around 10% of the year’s production, the damage was estimated at around 80 million euro. The cheese salvaged from the damaged wheels was then sold off to raise money for repairs.

Parmigiano-Reggiano has been produced at least since the Middle Ages, but likely even earlier given that records show that the cheese was already much as we know it today by at least the 14th century.

As to the end result, it is broken off in chunks, leaving wedges with a smooth curved crust and rough sides. The reason Parmesan is broken and not sliced so as not to ‘bruise’ the granular nature of the cheese. A typical knife is used, with a short almond-shaped blade that is utilised to first make an incision around the entire rind. These special knives are then gently inserted along the incision on both corners of the round and in the middle before the entire wheel is broken apart with an expert twist of the blade.

It is best not to buy pre-grated cheese generally and Parmigiano-Reggiano is no exception. Indeed, you should buy this golden delight in wedges, rind on. One way to spot the top-quality stuff is by seeing if the sides are ‘broken’ or sliced.

The end product can then be savoured broken into chunks on a starter platter, grated and added to pasta dishes, risottos and soups, or even certain mains – such as beef ‘tagliata’ (thin slices of rare steak) served with rocket and grated or shaved Parmesan. It can also be used in salads – such as rocket, walnut and parmesan dressed with Balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil – or to top pizzas (often shaved directly onto the pizza after it has been removed from the oven).

The rind can either be roasted to create a delicious snack or else boiled in soups to add a delicious favour. Some supermarkets and delicatessens in Italy even sell pieces of Parmesan rind on their own!

As to the etiquette of adding Parmigiano-Reggiano to your dishes in Italy… it is polite to taste the dish first to see if it even needs cheese to be added. Nothing irks a chef like making the perfect meat sauce only to have it drowned in excessive Parmesan cheese. Actually, there is something even worse – adding cheese to seafood dishes, which is generally a big no-no in Italy.

Parmesan cheese can be stored wrapped in wax paper (although parchment will do in a bind) and then covered in foil or stored in an air-tight container. The ideal storage temperate is 4-8° C. If serving the cheese on a platter, allow it to come to room-temperature before serving. If you have leftover Parm that is at risk of going bad before you use it all (even though it lasts a really long time), you could finely grate it and store it frozen, to be added directly to the pot when making soups or pastas, for instance.

But the most important thing is be not be fooled by cheap and smelly imitations when looking for the perfect Parmesan cheese!