This blog post by Stacie Billis of One Hungry Mama, is part of a series promoting delicious Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Parmigiano Reggiano Night, a virtual global dinner party happening on October 25. For more information, please visit Parmesan.com.
I love cheese: stinky, mild, runny, or sharp, it’s all good with me. In fact, before my older son spent a year off of dairy, I would have been hard pressed to choose a favorite. After being deprived, though, my cheese allegiances became clear. I still love all cheese, but I’d missed some cheeses more than others and Parmesan was number one. Not only did I crave the taste, but I realized just how much I use it. Thankfully, my son can tolerate dairy again – Parmesan, in particular (thanks to a different lactose protein in Italian milk and also that Parmesan is naturally low in the proteins that irritate lactose intolerant tummies) – and just in time for us to tour a Parmesan dairy outside of Bologna, Italy.
Yes, seriously. And it was as amazing as it sounds.
Real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese has a long, fascinating history and is still, to this day, exclusively produced by nearly 400 certified cheese makers in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna. Well, imagine my delight when a family trip early this summer took us to Bologna. How could I be near the only, relatively tiny part of the world that produces Parmesan and not visit a dairy?
Parmesan is one of those cheeses that, like butter, makes nearly everything better. I save Parmesan rinds in my freezer to throw into soup like this Kale, Squash and Farro Soup with Chickpeas. I use Parmesan to make breading on chicken or pork cutlets. I grate Parmesan over roasted veggies and stir it into veggie purees and mashes. When the boys were little, Parmesan was my go-to flavor agent. Pureed squash is good. Pureed squash with Parmesan is better. I’ve even topped my morning oatmeal with Parmesan and honey – it’s delicious.
Once my family trip was planned, I reached out to my friends at Parmesan.com and the Consortium for Parmigiano Reggiano who were kind enough to organize a visit for me near where I was staying in Bologna. An early morning visit. Because making the king of cheese starts at the break of dawn, people.
Then into the dairy where the milk from the previous evening’s milking is left to rest until morning in large vats. In this time, the fatty part of the milk rises to the surface and is skimmed. Then, the morning milk arrives and is mixed with the skimmed milk from the night before in a copper cauldron where rennet and whey from the cheese making process the day before are added.
Then curds form. If you’ve ever made homemade ricotta, it’s a bit like that.
Instead of immediately separating the curds from the whey as you do when making ricotta, the curds are broken down into granules and the whole cauldron is heated. During the heating process, the granules sink to the bottom and form a single mass of cheesy goodness that is artfully coaxed into a massive cheesecloth and lifted out of the cauldron.
The cheesecloth wrapped curd mass is transferred to a form. This is the early makings of a wheel of cheese and where the soon-to-be Parmesan will begin the long process of aging.
Though it happens on its own, the aging process – when the mass of curds wondrously become Parmigiano Reggiano – is quite complicated. It involves marking the cheese with official codes, stamping it with dates, and monitoring different temperatures at different stages through the process.
And then, of course, it sits for a long time stacked with lots and lots of other wheels of Parmesan, all aging to perfection. (This room is as heavenly as you’re imagining.)
When a wheel has aged the minimum number of months to be considered Parmesan, it gets branded. Because Parmesan is bad ass. It can go on the market at that point, but a lot of it sits even longer to get even better.
When the aging period is officially over, you’re left with a beautiful, nourishing, totally delectable cheese.
Which goes great with Prosecco, by the way. Even the cheese maker sipped some with us. It was 9:30 in the morning.
I can’t blame him since the next day, he does it all over again, just so we can have the real deal.
If you’re not already a big fan of Parmesan cheese the way that I am, I hope that you are now. And, please: Nothing in a green bottle that can live on an unrefrigerated shelf for months. That’s not real Parmigiano Reggiano. It’s not even real natural cheese. I know that Parmesan can feel like a splurge, but a little bit goes a long way. And if you invest in a big hunk, it’ll last a long time. Buying it pre-grated will cost more for less.
If you haven’t cooked with Parmesan much before, here are a few recipes to get you started. You can also find tons of inspiration during Parmigiano Reggiano Night, a global virtual dinner party on October 25 that celebrates Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Just sign up for the free app to join the fun, find delicious recipes, invite friends to celebrate with you, and upload mouth-watering photos of your meal.
Here are a few recipes to get you started. Enjoy! xo
If you love Parmigiano (and really, who doesn’t?), be sure to celebrate Parmigiano Reggiano Night on October 25 using the free Parmigiano Reggiano App. This app will allow you to be part of a global dinner party celebrating the king of cheese. Don’t miss out on the fun, sign up for the app right now!