You have to get up early if you want to see Parmigiano-Reggiano being made. Known worldwide for its sharp saltiness and flavour giving properties, it is often called the king of cheese in Italy. We get a sneak peak into what makes this cheese so good.
As the name suggests, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a specialty of the Emilia Romagna Parma region. Shortened to parmesan, it is a strictly controlled and highly protected cheese controlled by a consortium that makes sure the standards of quality are kept. This strong, salty and preservative free cheese has been produced for the last eight centuries.
In Emilia Romagna that are 340 factories that produce Parmigiano-Reggiano, all local to the region. One of the rules for Parmigiano-Reggiano production is that the cows must feed on local food and fodder (hay and grass). They use a mix of local breeds like Rosso Reggiana, Bianca Modenese and Swiss Brown in addition to Frisian cows. All fermented feed is strictly forbidden as it is said to bring about brown bacteria. There is no expiry date for reggiano and it contains no preservative except for salt.
Production occurs seven days a week once a day using raw, unpasteurised milk from morning and afternoon milkings. The morning and evening milks are kept separate as they have a different fat density. Morning milk is higher in fat than evening milk where the cows have been walking around all day. They use a whey starter made of fermented whey and natural rennet.
Each heat conducting copper lined vat carries 1,200 kilos of milk which they heat to 36°C/96.8°F and add a quantity of 3% whey (or thereabouts, it depends on the acidity of milk which can change every day). All of these decisions are down to the cheese master who manages this according to the weather, temperature and air pressure.
After the rennet is added they leave this for 11 minutes before separating the curds. The final temperature is 54°-55°C/130°F and all of these details are recorded by the cheese master.
One copper vat makes just 2 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese called "twins". The factory that we are at is considered a small factory as there are only six cauldrons. An average factory has 12 cauldrons while the largest have 50.
They then soak the wheels in a 33% brine solution in the salt room for 4 weeks. Every day more salt is added to the sieve and the water will dissolve as much as it needs. The wheels are turned upside down every day. The difference in price of Parmigiano-Reggiano vs Grana Padano is that the cows eat fermented fodder and an additive is used during the ageing process which is said to account for the price difference.
The cheese wheels are then aged for a minimum of 12 months up to 24 or 36 months. After 2 years they can lose 20% of the weight. The trend for younger eaters is to eat the younger 12 month cheese as it is more moist. Traditionally it was used as a condiment for grating but nowadays people like to eat it by itself so they prefer it less dry. In the Emilia Romagna region it often gets seasoned with a few drops of traditional balsamic vinegar.
The imprinting stamp
12, 26 and 36 month parmigiano reggiano
Igino Morini from the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium instructs us that to taste Parmigiano-Reggiano you break the piece of cheese and smell it before tasting. The young 12 month cheese smells like milk and yogurt and has elasticity. The second one is drier with dried fruit and meat broth flavours while the 36 months is harder, with a stronger meat broth flavour as well as nutmeg.
Tylosin crystallisation in 36 month cheese
You can also get the presence of tylosin crystallisation in the 36 month cheese that gives it tiny crunchy crystals.
And age is not the only thing to consider. There are 3 levels of quality for Parmigiano-Reggiano all checked by hand with a matello or hammer. 80-90% of all cheese is 1st quality and can be aged for another 2 years.
Lines across the branding indicate a second grade Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
7-8% is 2nd level quality can have little defects - these wheels have lines around the side of the cheese and this is destined to be grated or eaten young. And just 2-3% is rejected third level cheese where the rind is scraped to conceal any trace of the words Parmigiano-Reggiano.
So tell me Dear Reader, do you usually have parmesan in your fridge? How do you use it? And do you prefer it younger or more matured?
NQN visited Emilia Romagna as a guest of The Emilia Romagna Region Tourist Board but all opinions remain her own.