For any chef or turophile witnessing the birth of parmesan is a highlight in one’s culinary education. When Prue Leith Chefs Academy visited our Italian partner school ALMA La Scuola Internazionale di Cucina Italiana outside Parma last year, we followed every step of production of the kitchen’s most versatile cheese.
Parmigiano Reggiano is one of very few products that can claim a medieval origin and thanks to a consortium and DOP status controlling the production and quality we can be quite certain that we still enjoy a cheese very similar to the 100 heads that Pope Julius II gave as a present to Henry VIII.
In John Ford’s 1633 comedy Tis Pity She’s a Whore a young rake is said to love his mistress “almost as well as he loves parmesan”. This unique cheese is still loved all over the world today, but nowhere as much as in its home country where parmigiano-reggiano is apparently the most shoplifted food item!
Parmigiano-Reggiano is strictly bound to its place of origin. Both the production of the milk and the cheese is confined to the Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio-Emilia, Modena, and Bologna to the west of the Reno River and Mantua to the east of the Po River.
01 Milk: Cows are fed according to strict regulation and are allowed only grass grown in the designated area and natural vegetable feed. No silage, fermented food, food of animal origin or any byproduct from the food industry is allowed. The cows are milked twice a day and the milk reaches the cheese house within two hours of milking. The afternoon milk is left overnight in basins (right) to separate the cream from the milk. The cream is used for butter.
02 In the morning the evenings’ skimmed milk is combined with the early morning milk in large 1200l copper cauldrons. After warming the milk (NOTE this is a raw milk cheese, milk is not pasteurized) the natural whey starter (culture of natural lactic ferments) from the previous day’s cheese making process is added. Next the rennet from suckling calves is added and the milk turns into curd and whey.
03 Once the cheese maker checked the coagulated cheese and is happy with the texture a spino (a huge balloon whisk) is used to cut the curds into small granules.
04 The next step is to “cook” the curds. The heat in the cauldron is raised while the mixture is constantly stirred. The master cheese maker controls the heat and once turned off the curds sink to the bottom to form a compact mass.
05 The cheese mass is carefully maneuvered into a large cheese cloth and the mass is carefully divided into two parts. Eventually two cheeses will be made from the 1200l of milk. – Only two cheeses are made per cauldron. (It takes approximately 16l of milk to produce 1kg of Parmigiano-Reggiano) The two curd masses are left draining before they are shaped.
06 The curd is next placed in a mould called a “fascera” and it rests in this mould for two to three days. It is also at this stage that the marks of origin are imprinted. A unique alphanumeric code is also imprinted either with a casein disc or with a food safe marker to identify each individual cheese wheel.
07 A stencil is inserted around the cheese at birth while in the fascera and it includes the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano” repeated in a pin dot pattern, the identifying number of the cheese house, the month and year of production.
08 The cheese wheels are next immersed in a salt bath for about 20 days to allow the absorption of the salt needed to flavour the cheese and allow its long aging.
09 At the end of the process the cheese wheel is aged in temperature controlled rooms on wooden shelves. Although the minimum aging is one year, a good cheese needs to mature for at least two summers. Most cheeses are aged for either over 18, 22 or 30 months and are labeled with different seals to recognize the ageing.
10 During the aging process the cheeses are regularly turned and brushed by a robot to ensure that there is no mould forming.
12 The Parmigiano-Reggiano certification mark is branded only onto cheeses that pass the inspection. It reads “Parmigiano Reggiano Consorzio Tutela” and the year of production.
13 Cheeses that fail the test or are meant to be eaten young – age 12 months are marked with parallel grooves around the cheese.
15 Apart from being a delicatessen the king of cheeses also has some surprising health properties. It has one of the lowest cholesterol levels of all cheeses and is rich in calcium, phosphorus, trace elements and vitamins and is highly digestible. In Italy dieticians recommend is as part of the diet for especially children and the elderly.
Written By: Adele Stiehler