Cross-posted from Ciao Italia with Mary Ann Esposito
Stop. Stop buying so called “parmesan cheese” in a box in the grocery aisle next to the jarred tomato sauce. If you read the back of the box carefully you will realize that you are eating chemicals. And REAL parmesan cheese, known by its official name of Parmigiano Reggiano has absolutely nothing in common with what is sold pre-grated.
Parmigiano-Reggiano, king of Italian cheeses, is a classic artisan product from the region of Emilia Romagna. Parmigiano-Reggiano is made every day from raw cow’s milk from both an evening and a morning milking. Strict rules surround its production. Only the provinces of Reggio Emilia, Parma, Modena, Bologna (west of the Reno River), and Mantua (east of the Po River) are authorized to make the cheese. Cows must be fed only chemical free grasses that come from these designated areas. The quality of the raw ingredients along with ideal soil and climatic conditions are the conduits for making Parmigiano Reggiano.
The milk is heated in huge cooper cauldrons. Whey from the previous morning’s milking is added along with calf’s rennet. This coagulates the milk in about 12 to 18 minutes and forms the cheese curds. A huge wire whisk is used to break up the curds into pea size pieces. These tiny pieces are allowed to set, and as they do they form a solid mass which is brought up from the base of the cauldron with a large wooden paddle. The curds are cut in half to make two cheeses known as “gemelli” (twins).They are placed in round wooden molds. A stamped plate with pin dots spelling Parmigiano Reggiano, and indicating which cheese house made it, along with the month and year of production, is placed between the cheese and the mold. This will leave an impression of the words on the rind as it ages, and gives the maker and the buyer an historical record of the cheese’s beginning and authenticity. After three days of being in the molds, the cheese is added to a salt brine where it is turned often and aged for 24 days. Next comes the aging process where the large wheels are stacked on wooden shelves and age for an average of two years during which time cheese testers using special hammers tap the entire surface of the cheese to make sure that it makes a uniform sound. Testers also look for uniform color, pleasant smell, and no gaping holes in the interior. As the cheese ages, amino acids form which crystallize into tiny white dots visible when the cheese is cut open. These grainy bits give Parmigiano Reggiano it unique texture. Only when the governing body, the Consorzio del formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano gives its approval that the cheese has passed all the criteria, are the wheels are stamped with the oval seal that signifies that it is worthy to take its place in the world marketplace.
Watching the opening of a wheel being cut is mesmerizing. The cheese tester uses a special almond knife to score the eighty-five pound wheels across their diameter and down both sides. Then other cheese knives are used to pry open the cheese. When the straw colored interior texture is revealed, it is rough with peaks and valleys like the surface of jagged stone mountains.
Parmigiano Reggiano is a near perfect food, low in fat and sodium, high in calcium and full of vitamins and other minerals. No wonder it was chosen as the cheese to send into space with Russian cosmonauts.
Parmigiano Reggiano is expensive but a little goes a long way. To make sure you are getting the real thing always buy this cheese in a wedge, not grated. The wedge will have the authentic words on the rind that say Parmigiano Reggiano. Grated cheese can be anything. Only buy as much as you will need for a given month or so. As the cheese ages, it gets drier. In Italy, Parmgiano Reggiano is a table cheese, not just a grating cheese.
So throw away the box and get real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.