Reading a Legend: The Rind of Parmigiano Reggiano Tells of History in the Making
The rind of a cheese can tell you a lot. In the case of Parmigiano Reggiano, it can tell you its life story.
Or at least most of it: the wheels that survived the double whammy of two major earthquakes earlier this year will not bear any markings of their travails.
All told, the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano estimates the damages to its producers from the quakes to be upward of $185 million. Thousands of wheels, having cracked in their fall, had to be sent directly to grating facilities; other damaged wheels were broken up and sold in special sales in an effort to recoup some of the enormous loss. An 80-pound wheel of certified Parmigiano Reggiano can sell for as much as $1,000; the same cheese without the certification goes for a fraction of the cost.
As for the remainder of the wheels, the Consorzio has been busy examining them, ensuring that they remain up to the standards of Parmigiano Reggiano.
So how do you know when you’re holding a chunk of the real thing? And how can you tell if the wheel from which you’re buying weathered the earthquakes of May 2012? I asked Simone Ficarelli, the head of international activities for the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, to explain the myriad codes firebranded into their rinds. Here’s a guide, should you be fortunate enough to view the wheel from which your piece originated.
On top of the wheel: The tops of wheels are left mostly blank by the Consorzio so the producer may brand its cheese if desired. The one exception is a small, scannable bar-code-like box. This code includes all the traceability information, from the origin of the milk to the storage facility for aging. Older wheels will have a small plaque with engraved codes holding the same information.
“Vacche rosso”: This denotes a cheese made entirely from the milk of the vacche rosso, a now rare cow whose milk has a higher degree of fat and casein than that of more typical white cows. There are only three dairies of red cows; of the three million wheels of Parmigiano made each year, only about 20,000 are vacche rosso Parmigiano. Rarer still are Parmigiano wheels made from the milk of the vacche bianco, denoted by a “vacche bianco” firebrand on the top of the wheel
The four-digit number in a square above the stamp: This is the number of the farm or cooperative responsible for the cheese. There are 380 producers that belong to the Consorzio.
The large stamp on one side of the wheel that says “PARMIGIANO” on top and “REGGIANO” on bottom: This is the stamp of the Parmigiano - Reggiano Consorzio, firebranded on the wheel after the Consorzio has deemed it a true and fine wheel of Parmigiano.
“SET 06” or whatever the date is under the stamp: This designates the month and year in which the cheese was produced. SET 06 means September 2006.
“D.O.P.”: This stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (Protected Designation of Origin), a promise this cheese was made within a certain geographical region according to specific methods.
The words “PARMIGIANO REGGIANO” stenciled in small dots all over the sides of the wheel: This is a guarantee that this is the real thing. The words are etched into the molds, which are owned by the Consorzio; they are duly scrubbed off any cheeses that fail to meet the Consorzio’s standards. About 8 percent of a given year’s wheels are scrubbed of their letters and sent to a grating company.
The small blue stamp with “IT” and “08” on it: This certifies it has passed the EU’s hygienic requirements. IT stands for “Italy,” and 08 is the code for Emilia-Romagna.
Tara Q. Thomas is a New York-based writer and the author of the second edition of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine Basics.