If there were ever a time where the saying, “No need to reinvent the wheel” was right on the money, it would apply to the experience I had this summer of watching the creation of giant wheels of parmesan cheese.
On vacation in Italy, I had the opportunity to tour the cheese factory that wholly produces and then sells this famous cheese. Named after the local provinces that produce it, primarily Parma and Reggio although there are four other provinces that are within the local producing area, only cheese that is produced within this area can, by Italian law, be called “Parmigiano-Reggiano”. Even European law classifies both the name and the translated “Parmesan”, as a protected designation of origin. Clearly, this is one pampered, proud and protected cheese!
This was obvious to me as I witnessed the process and the pride of ownership, craftsmanship and historical heritage that went into the making of this delicious cheese. This isn’t any old cheese from any old place and that creates a feeling of exclusivity and slightly exotic, if one can call cheese exotic.
As a foodie, I know that to create a quality food product, you have to start with quality ingredients, and that was the beginning of my cheese journey. Although I didn’t get to see the cows who so kindly gave their milk for this incredible food, the milk producing cows for this cheese are grass fed only in order to ensure the purest of ingredients for this exacting cheese. Grazie, cows!
After the cow pasture comes the actual processing plant, and the first thing I immediately noticed was how clean, organized and orderly the entire place was. Perhaps a romantic culinary notion that groups of passionate Italian women would be gathered together, talking, laughing and building cheese with their bare hands was stuck in my head but this was clearly an extremely modern facility that was turning out cheese in bulk for the consumer. But let’s return to the cows and how this cheese is made since it’s a fascinating process.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is made from raw cow’s milk and mixes together the whole milk, as well as the skimmed milk, which is made by holding the milk in tanks overnight to allow the cream to separate. From there, the mixture is pumped into copper lined vats where starter whey is added, and the temperature is raised to 91 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Copper is the container of choice since it heats and cools quickly.
After the initial cooling, calf rennet is added (this is an enzyme that comes from the stomach of calves) and the mixture is left to curdle for ten to twelve minutes, after which it is broken up into pieces the size of rice grains. The temperature is raised again to 131 degrees Fahrenheit to curdle and then settles for another forty-five to sixty minutes. Now it’s time to create the wheel!
The compacted curd is placed into a piece of muslin and then divided in two and placed in molds. Each wheel at this point weighs about one hundred pounds, and I found it overwhelming to be in the presence of cheese this size! It’s important that the cheese retain its wheel or round shape, so it’s placed into a stainless steel holding form and pulled tight with a spring powered buckle. After a couple of days, the buckle is released and the cheese is imprinted via plastic belt, with the Parmigiano-Reggiano name, the plant’s number, and month and year of production. The buckle is once again tightened and after a day, the imprints are firmly on the rind.
The final step in the creation of this marvelous cheese, is to put the entire wheel into a brine bath, where it absorbs salt for twenty to twenty-five days. After brining, the wheels are transferred to aging rooms in the plant for twelve months.
Since all the cheese is placed on wooden shelves that can be twenty four cheeses high by ninety cheeses long (this is about four thousand total wheels per aisle), seeing this makes you feel as if you are in a giant cheese library! Imagine the activity on that kind of library card! To keep things sanitary, each cheese and the shelf underneath it is cleaned every seven days, and the cheese is also turned at this time.
You can probably tell at this point, that a lot of care and precision goes into making this specialty cheese. The last step is the official inspection to ensure that the quality and superior heritage of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese isn’t compromised.
After twelve months of aging, the Consorzio (producer whose job is to regulate production) inspects every cheese and each cheese is tested by a master grader using only a hammer and his ear. This master, by tapping the cheese wheel at different points, is able to identify cracks and voids in the cheese which would make it undesirable and therefore, not be awarded with the Parmigiano-Reggiano branded imprints. If you personally purchase this kind of cheese and notice that the imprints are crossed out or have no imprints on their rinds, you will know you are not getting a top quality Parmigiano cheese so buyer beware!
One of the things I found most fascinating is that this area in Italy is the only place in the world that produces this kind of cheese. You can’t find this anywhere else, and it is solely from this region where the cheese is made, tested, approved and then finally, shipped to grocery stores worldwide for consumption. If you are a cheese lover, you’ll know what I mean when I say, “Now, that’s amore!”
It’s easy to forget, when things are so readily available and at all different kinds of stores in all different places that really good food takes time, skill, dedication and passion to create. The opportunity to experience the “birth” of this cheese reminded me that really good things take time and are worth the wait.
As much as I was tempted to go face down into a hundred pound wheel of cheese, I took the time to savor each small bite of the glorious, unique and official Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. There was definitely something special about standing in the plant, in the provinces of the only country in the world who produces this cheese, which made it taste even better. I hope the next time you eat Parmigiano-Reggiano, you will appreciate that you are eating what’s called “the King of cheeses” and the amazing process it took to bring it to your table.
What’s better than a perfect Parmigiano-Reggiano with a 30 year aged balsamic vinegar?