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Forbidden Fromage: Kosher Konundrum Part 2

Welcome to Forbidden Fromage, a series exploring cheesy taboos and prohibitions. Intern Johnisha Levi will look at everything from navigating kosher restrictions and hip hop MCs’ use of cheese and dairy as metaphors for illicit profit and sex to the paleo diet’s dairy prohibition. You’ll get a little history, religion, pop culture, science, and medicine along the way, as we cover thousands of years in the blink of some blog posts.

In continuation of last week’s discussion about what makes a cheese kosher and the particular set of hurdles presented by rennet-set hard cheeses, this week I’m going to look at some current developments that are helping to make kosher hard cheeses more accessible.

Let’s take a look at Parmigiano Reggiano. The Forward’s headline “Rest in Peace, Parmigiano-Reggiano” might sound a little melodramatic, but for five years a kosher version of the so-called “king of cheese” was completely unavailable. That’s because only one firm in Reggio Emilia, called Azienda Agricola Fantacini, was producing kosher Parmigiano Reggiano. Irma Fanticini’s son, a third-generation cheesemaker, had a rabbi who brought calf rennet with him, added it to the milk, and supervised the making of the cheese so that it would meet kashrut requirements. But when Fantacini sold his factory, the purchasing cheesemaker likely did not want to be hampered by the cost and inconvenience of kashering the cheesemaking process. As the article also points out, it may have also been difficult for this cheesemaker to trust an ingredient supplied by an outside party.

So what were the alternatives during these bleak five years for kosher-adherent cheese lovers? Some turned to Grana Pandano, a “cousin” of Parmigiano Reggiano and an aged cheese made from raw, semi-skimmed cow’s milk. Piacenza’s Gran Duca Colla makes a batch of kosher cheese once a month in its factory. The other alternative was not much of one, frankly, and that would be “parmesan,” which is about as close to the real thing as “cheese product” is to cheese.

But lest you weep for the kosher-keeping turophiles, it turns out that this year brought them some exciting news. As Haaretz reported in April, Azienda Agricola Bertinelli and Caseificio Colla both promised to deliver kosher Parmigiano Reggiano by the end of the year. Even though the Italian market for kosher cheese is limited given the tiny Jewish population of Italy (less than 50,000, most of which do not keep kosher), these cheesemakers hope to tap into sizable American and Israeli demand.

Although cheesemaker Nicola Bertinelli, who has degrees in both agriculture and theology, had to invest about $1.7 million in order to bring his farm and equipment up to kosher standards, and kosher Parmigiano-Reggiano costs roughly 30% more for him to make, this is a drop in the bucket in the long run to compete in a very lucrative market. In the US alone, the kosher food market is valued at$12.5 billion, and kosher products account for 58% of food products on American supermarket shelves. Here, kosher foods appeal to wider segments of the population: a whopping 12.4 million people are purchasing kosher foods, including the health-conscious, those concerned with the ethical treatment of animals, consumers who equate kosher with the highest quality, Muslims (halal food is not available everywhere, and given a lot of the common prohibitions regarding species and slaughter, kosher is often the next-best thing), and Seventh Day Adventists. Bertinelli will have a leg up in this market if his plans to become the only maker of Parmigiano-Reggiano certified by two of the Big 5 kosher certification agencies in this country (the OK and the OU) come to fruition.

For a glimpse of what it takes to produce kosher Parmigiano Reggiano, check out this video from Bloomberg Business:

Another influential figure in the artisanal kosher cheese world is Brent Delman. Also known as The Cheese Guy, Delman is of Eastern European heritage, but because he did not grow up kosher, he developed an appreciation and love for many fine cheeses that are off limits to observant Jews. When he turned more religious later in life, he couldn’t forget the taste of the world-class non-kosher cheeses he had consumed. He used his years of experience in the specialty food industry to help bring quality cheese to the observant Jewish community. Before he dove into the kosher cheese business, there was little available for the adherent other than some goat cheeses, feta, generic parmesans, muenster, cheddars, and mozzarella. But now he collaborates with American, Italian, and Argentine dairy farms to produce kosher runs of a wider array of cheeses in accordance with his recipes and exacting standards. In an interview with The Forward, he described some of his favorites:

“My Bastardo del Grappo is made in the mountains of the Grappa region of northeastern Italy. Cow’s milk. Creamy, full flavor, in the family of Normandy Brie. Pecorino Romano is a hard cheese, aged over 2 years—fragrant, sheep’s milk cheese produced in [Sardinia], Italy. It’s good for grating, and for risotto dishes. And my Montaggio is exclusive to the kosher market. It’s a classic Italian table cheese, semi-hard, aged 3-4 months, made from the milk of grass-fed cows in the northeastern corner of Italy—the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. It’s sometimes compared to a young Asiago cheese with a mild, delicate, and somewhat fruity flavor.”

Once the farms produce the young cheeses, they are shipped to Delman, and he acts as an affineur, maturing them in his Yonkers cave before they’re sold to the consumer.

These days crowdfunding is also making kosher artisan cheese a reality. Mark Bodzin caught the bug for artisan kosher cheese when he ate his way across Europe. He began to dream of producing a kosher aged farmstead cheddar. His company Muncle Ark’s Gourmet was born, and Vermont’s Shelburne Farms agreed to partner with him. In order to cover the costs of a single run of kosher cheese, he needed to raise a minimum of $16,000. When 308 backers responded with close to $20,000, he was able to pay for a portion of a second day’s run of the cheese. Bodzin hopes that cheddar is only the beginning.

So as you can see, kosher cheese does present a bit of a conundrum, but where there is a will, there is certainly a whey to bring better cheese to the kosher adherent. Up next week? Ancient medicine and a contemporary diet trend (hint: think CrossFitters) condemn cheese as the source of all (or most) bodily ills.

Johnisha Levi

Johnisha Levi is a Boston-area pastry cook and one of those very rare (think Pegasus) D.C. natives. If ithere's a documentary on food or true crime, chances are that she's seen it (or it's waiting in her Netflix queue). She's a culinary history nerd who is eager to spend her summer at culture learning more about cheese.

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