by Kim D. McHugh
(Photos courtesy Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, YouTube clip courtesy Walks of Italy)
Overshadowed by Rome, Venice, Milan and Florence, Parma hasn’t found its way to many travel itineraries. As a food enthusiast, I was drawn to this lesser-known destination like paparazzi to a movie star.
Before my journey I wasn’t very adept at distinguishing one grated cheese over another. If I could assign blame for my unsophisticated palate, it would lie on my grandfather who spent the better part of his career working for Kraft Foods in Chicago. My idea of good Parmesan cheese was stuff shaken from a shiny green cylindrical can—and if it was good enough for J.L. Kraft, my grandfather’s boss—it was good enough for our family.
On a tour of a cheese house on the outskirts of Parma, I was about to taste the error of my ways. Traveling the countryside, passing farm after farm, I was reminded of the cornfields of Illinois where I grew up. However, most of these fields were home to hay and grasses that I later learned were fed to the cows that produce the milk that becomes the cheese.
Harvested green and rolled into dozens of wheels around 10 feet in diameter, the grasses were now a golden hue and ready for delivery to the dairies. Not 20 minutes ago I was in a bustling city of 400,000 plus residents and now I was in rural Italy where farmhouses were a half-mile or more apart, separated by huge squares of hayfields as far as the eye could see.
Now inside the cheese house, I study a man who is standing waist high to the edge of one of eight enormous copper cauldrons. He was gently stirring a concoction of whey (a fermenting agent), rennet (a coagulating agent) and two purposely-different batches of cow’s milk.
Collected from the Po Valley, considered Italy’s most fertile farmland region, the milk came from cows whose sole purpose is to produce milk for the creation of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Half the milk had been gathered the day before and, thanks to a natural separation process that occurs overnight, it was absent cream, which was removed to make butter. The other half was fresh, still warm from the morning milking.
Working with a stainless steel whisk resembling a giant eggbeater, the man stirred busily, separating the curds from the whey.
Out of sight below the copper funnel was the gas-fired heat source, which slowly brought the mixture to a temperature of 120 degrees. Up until the 1960s open fires that made the facilities very smoky, and the job of whisking the ingredients quite dangerous, heated the vats.
After 15 minutes a woman wearing a white lab coat appeared next to the vat. Dipping in a ladle, she retrieved a sample of the cheese to be, eyeing it to see if it was fermenting and coagulating properly. It was and the process continued.
Appearing next was a cheese expert from the Consorzio del Formaggio (the Cheese Consortium and the Italian equivalent of our USDA), an organization created for the quality control of cheese.
A second-generation cheese master, the youthful looking man was very knowledgeable about cheese making. He, too, dipped a ladle into the vat. He sniffed the mixture, checked for the proper consistency, and then gave the batch the thumbs up. At that, two men approached the cauldron, gathering a white mass that was on its way to becoming the famed cheese. They separated it into two pieces, each weighing about 80 pounds.
The pieces were placed in cheesecloth tied to a long wooden pole. This action allows the cheese to be suspended in the liquid remaining in the vat and for the next five minutes the cheese continued to ferment.
Once removed the pieces were wedged into round Teflon molds about the size of a Tupperware cake preserver, where they drained for 10 minutes or so. They were then transplanted into metal molds, where they were branded with the number of the cheese making plant, as well as the month and year of production, and the dairy so the cheese can be tracked as it continues to age.
The cheese wheels were placed in a cooling and drying room where they’d remain for two to three days before being submersed in a saline bath. For the next 22 days they’re turned every two to four hours to assure a thorough salt exposure, which helps the rind form properly. At the end of the brining period, the wheels are removed and stacked with thousands of other wheels in a drying room.
To be deserving of the Parmigiano-Reggiano moniker (and to be exported as such), the wheels must age for 24 months. Wheels labeled stravecchiones have been aged four years and are exceptionally good.
With the exception of not having an open fire under the copper cauldron Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is produced much like it was about 800 years ago when Benedictine monks invented the process. Through the centuries, cheese makers have remained loyal to the practice of not using chemicals and automation, instead relying on fresh milk and noble traditions passed along through generations of artisans.
Nibbling bits of cheese, I browse the cooler for the bounty I’ll take home. As I ponder my selection I’m introduced to two men and a boy about 12 years old. I’m told through a translator that they are the grandfather, the father and the son/grandson, cheese makers all, who operate this facility. Today they produced 32 wheels of cheese, which is about average.
Collectively, the 500 plus facilities throughout the region annually produce some three million wheels of which approximately five percent makes it to the United States.
When buying the golden delight, look for the oval firebrand on the rind that reads Parmigiano-Reggiano or the dot pattern bearing the same name, two identifiers that guarantee that consortium experts have certified the cheese as the real McCoy.
To the senses, the relatively low fat, easy-to-digest cheese typically has a sharp, buttery flavor accentuated by the effervescent “fizzing” found in small white spots throughout the wedge. These spots are flavor crystals created by a natural concentration of amino acids and they basically give the cheese a little extra kick when it hits your tongue.
The tour concluded, I head back to Parma, weighed down with about 14 pounds of shrink-wrapped cheese so I can safely get it through Customs. When I get home I’m tossing that shiny green cylindrical can in the trash.
Details: To arrange a tour, log on to http://www.parmesan.com/craftsmanship/touring-a-parmesan-cheese-house/. Tours take around two hours and there typically isn’t a charge. Make a point to contact the provincial office about 30 days in advance so they can assist in arranging your tour.
To buy 100 % Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shop Costco, a specialty food store (e.g. Whole Foods, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s) or go online to places like www.zingermans.com, www.murrayscheese.com and www.igourmet.com.