From the most famous Parmigiano to the most secluded pecorino, get ready to tour through the mondo magnifico of Italian cheese. We’ll talk about the history, production, and trivia for each cheese, and then tell you what to pair with it at your next festa. So grab a class of vino and mangiare!
The Italian capital might be in Rome, but the king of Italian cheese sits proudly on his throne in Parma. Meet Parmigiano Reggiano, first of his name, crown of Italy’s culinary expertise. This versatile cheese achieved fame in the United States with dishes such as chicken parmigiana and as a topping on your run-of-the-mill spaghetti and meatballs, but its rise to prominence is anything but average. There’s a reason why this formaggio magnifico is revered so highly in Italy.
In The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio, famed poet of the fourteenth century, dreams of “a mountain, all of grated Parmesan cheese, [where] dwell folk that do nought else but make macaroni and ravioli.” Of course, Parmigiano’s fame extends much further back, but throughout the history of Italian culture, the cheese has come to play an important role in artistic expression and culture. It is estimated that Parmigiano reached its state of perfection around 1200 C.E., originating in the province of Reggio Emilia (thus, Reggiano). Production spread across Lombardy to the neighboring regions of Parma (Parmigiano), Bologna, Modena, and Mantova, and since 1996, the Denominazione Origine Protetta (DOP) has recognized those regions as the sole producers. Under European Law, only these regions may use the name “Parmigiano Reggiano” as well as the French name “Parmesan;” although, interestingly enough, the United States uses “parmesan” for cheeses of the same style, something which Italian trade authorities have been trying to fight.
Most producers in Lombardy make Parmigiano Reggiano daily, although cheese can age anywhere from twelve months (regular) to three years (stravecchio, which is harder and saltier because of the longer aging process). The process is highly regulated—everything from the animal feed, which can only be hay, to the packaging is prescribed by law. Cows are milked in both the morning and evening, and the milk from both times is combined to create a mixture that is part whole and part naturally skimmed. When the milk is loaded into copper vats, leftover whey is used to start the curdling process along with rennet from calves. The curds that form are cut small into little granules, and then a cooking process sinks them to the bottom of the vat, where they’re strained out and drained. The whey is used to feed local pigs—the origin of Prosciutto di Parma—and instead of being packed, the cheese mass is simply cut and rounded in a mold. Every wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano receives a casein plate with a unique identification number, and as the maturation process happens, additional markings are added onto the exterior that help distinguish the quality of the final product.
Prior to aging, the wheels are bathed in a high-salinity solution of Mediterranean sea salts, which rockets the acidity higher than most other Italian cheeses. Then the boring part begins. For the next year or more, the wheels will sit on wooden shelves in an absolutely dead-silent room, forming Parmigiano’s trademark “crust” (rinds are not regal). It is absolutely essential that everything remain undisturbed; for the cheese to achieve its trademark sharpness and dry, granular consistency, it must remain perfectly still on the wood so that the moisture can be sucked out. Quality control is governed by The Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium, and only after 12 months will an expert from the Control Body enter the aging room, armed with nothing but a hammer and his ear. As weird as it seems, sound is the only way to ensure this cheese is ripe and ready; it guarantees that there are no cracks or imperfections that would ruin the integrity. If the sound is just a bunch of dull thuds all ’round, the wheel passes, and it is stamped with a load of designations: pins identifying the maker, a hot-iron brand signifying quality control approval, and a dot matrix stamp from the Consortium that says, finally, that this cheese is a proud Parmigiano.
All around Lombardy, Parmigiano Reggiano is greeted with much fanfare. Tastings are a staple of many festivals across the region, and the Consortium holds an annual festival each year in Modena highlighting the best makers and products. Italians enjoy the cheese on its own with a little balsamic vinegar; the saltiness and crystalline crunch (from tyrosine, an amino acid that forms into little crystals) pair well with the tangy bite of old red wine. Cracking into a wheel takes some effort; aside from the wheel being immense, five different knives are required to pierce the crust. Many choose to wire-cut the cheese due to its tendency to flake, but there’s something to be said for the mouthfeel left behind by a blade’s rough cut.
It goes without saying that the king of Italian cheese gets around his own country. But sometimes international diplomacy is required as well, and Parmigiano Reggiano has made quite a good impression over here in the States. The cheese melts rather well, giving us our favorite melted parmigiana dishes – which are actually more prevalent on this side of the Atlantic. However, besides being a topping, new age cuisine has experimented with the cheese as a broth, creating a satisfying salty base for many soups and veggie appetizers. They also help make a phenomenal breading, as you can try in our Americanized Parmesan-and Fennel Seed-Encrusted Chicken Fritters. We Italians might not like sharing our king’s name with the world, but we’re happy to share his dominating taste.
So there you have it—the awesome might of king Parmesan. Next time you’re out at the store, see if you can find any of these imported brands (or, if you must, their American counterparts):
- Consorzio Vacche Rosse Parmigiano-Reggiano: They take their milk from the ancient breed of cow that’s been used for Parmigiano for centuries.
- Grassi Parmigiano-Reggiano: A high quality, low imperfection cheese aged between 18 and 24 months.
- Zanetti Stravecchio Parmigiano-Reggiano: Perfect and flawless in every way, this cheese is aged for a minimum of three years. It’s just about as fine as you can get.
- Bel Gioioso American Grana: If any American variation were to come close to the original, it would be this one. There’s a reason why it won its class in the World Championship Cheese Contest!
Photo Credit: Featured Image by Dèsirèe Tonus via Compfight cc