Parmesan is one of the most famous cheeses in the world and is an ubiquitous presence on the table of any Italian restaurant. What is less known is that anything labeled “Parmesan” is not in fact Parmesan. In fact the name “Parmesan” is no longer permitted to be used within the European Union. What was true Parmesan is now called Parmigiano-Reggiano and can only be made in the area spanning from Parma to Mantova under strict conditions regulated by the Parmigiano-Reggiano consortium. It is a product protected by the EU (PDO – Protected Designation of Origin).
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is rich in calcium (232 mg in 20 gms!), phosphorous and vitamins. It is also rich in protein (6.6 gms in 20 gms), low in cholesterol and is easily digestible. Doctors in Italy often recommend it for children, the elderly, athletes and new mothers. In Italy it is served on its own, drizzled with traditional balsamic vinegar, as an accompaniment to vegetables, nuts or fruit or is shaved onto pastas, soups (or just the rind added while cooking for an extra depth of flavour), salads or main dishes.
Today there are about 200 producers of Parmigiano-Reggiano ranging in size from producing 4 cheeses a day to 100 wheels a day. They are limited by the number of cauldrons (each cauldron can produce 2 cheeses and they are only issued enough official stamps for the number of wheels they can produce in one day).
We entered a silent, dark room filled with long tubs. This is where the cheese is then soaked in a salt-water brine (using Mediterranean salt) for 20 days in order to salt the cheese to flavour and preserve it. The size of the wheels of cheese have increased over the past 100 years as with the larger size the cheese attains the correct texture and salinity. The salt sits in a perforated tub, the water adjusting the salinity itself to ensure equilibrium. The cheese is turned every day using a stick.
Finally we walked into a huge warehouse which was filled with several solid walls 10 meters tall of cheese. This is where the cheese is matured for up to 24 months or more to develop texture and flavour. A robot was moving up and down the walls of cheese, removing a wheel, brushing it and placing it back. The cheese is continually brushed to keep it clean.
After 12 months, an expert cheese tester arrives, places the cheese on a heavy stool and knocks on the cheese with a mallet, listening intently for the correct uniformity of sound. Only once he has approved the cheese with a green marking can it become “Parmigiano-Reggiano” and be branded with the oval mark reading, “Parmigiano Reggiano Consorzio Tutela” with the year of production.
The cheeses are categorised by their age with “Parmigiano Reggiano Mezzano” indicating the cheese is young, not much more than 12 months old indicated by grooves around the circumference of the wheel. Imperfect Parmigiano-Reggiano are also marked with grooves and sold before 18 months at a discount.
More mature “Parmigiano Reggiano” can be inspected again at 18 or 24 months or more. If they meet the higher standard, they can be stamped with “Export” or “Extra”. The most prized is between 24 to 30 months when it is soft yet has pockets of crystals.