Parmigiano Reggiano DOP is undoubtedly the most consumed by Italians cheese, very famous also abroad, so much so that many foreign companies are trying unsuccessfully to imitate it. The delicate taste, at the same time pungent, and the crumbly texture make it a unique product, adapt to any palate and combination.
History and curiosities
The first evidences of Parmigiano Reggiano date back to the Middle Age, around the Thirteenth century, when monks from Emilia Romagna started to produce the first versions of this cheese in some rudimentary factories. In particular, this tradition seems to date back exactly in two Benedectine monasteries: San Giovanni in Parma and San Prospero in Reggio, as well as in other two Cistercian monasteries in San Martino form Valserena and Fontevivo, both in Parma.
These territories were not selected randomly, but they had some important requirements to produce a great cheese. First of all, the presence of many waterways in the lands in Parma and Reggio made possible to breed animals, while the excellent salt of Salsomaggiore represented a special and inexhaustible ingredient.
According to what reported by Giovanni Boccaccio in its famous Decamerone, he describes the Country of Bengodi, an imaginary land reported in the story of “Calandrino and the heliotrope”, in which he mentions “a mountain made of grated parmisan cheese, on which were people cooking macaroni and ravioli with a capon soup”.
Before the appearance of Parmigiano Reggiano, in the territory of Emilia Romagna were produced two other hard cheeses: Piacentino and Granone Lodigiano.
The artists who honored Parmigiano Reggiano are many, and it is not surprising that some of them are foreigners. For example, the writer Alexandre Dumas, who became very interested about this cheese during a journey to Italy, had the habit to serve to his guests a good dish of macaroni with tomato sauce and grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Even the Emperor Napoleone Bonaparte was a lover of Parmigiano cheese, that probably had known thanks to his wife Maria Luigia, Duchess of Parma.
The multi-talented artist and lover Giacomo Casanova really appreciated this cheese, so much so that, according to what is written in “Casanova’s memories”, he had the habit to donate some pieces of Parmigiano Reggiano to his lovers, saying that they often preferred cheese to a common bouquet of flowers.
Production and Regulation
The production of Parmigiano Reggiano PDO occurs following the indications imposed by the Regulation, which governs all the passages, from the raw materials to the seasoning process, so that the finished product is compliant to the Protected Designation of Origin, which it gains since 2006.
The geographical area of production is Emilia Romagna, between the Provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and part of Bologna, in particular the plain, hilly and mountainous areas between the Po and the Tyrrhenian rivers.
Cows from which will be obtained milk must come from the same areas and they must be fed exclusively with local fodders, severely controlled in quantity and quality. Milk, in fact, acquires different features depending on the type of feeding. For this reason, a high quality fodder will offer an excellent product.
Milk obtained from the evening and the next morning milking must not undergo any kind of treatment, but it must be delivered to the dairy. Here the first working process occurs, by the heating in copper boilers, in which the fat part of milk rises on the top, for being removed manually.
Starting from this process, we obtain semi-skimmed milk, which is added with calf rennet and a local graft, obtained from the product of the day before. It is forbidden, in fact, the use of selected starter bacteria.
After about ten minutes, milk will already completed the coagulation, thanks to which we obtain the curd. This is broken in many little granules, using a traditional tool called “spino”.
Successively, the curs is heated at a temperature not exceeding 55°C, in order to allow the precipitation of the granules on the bottom of the boiler. In this way the curd, from which cheese will be obtained, will separate from the liquid part of milk, whey, facilitating its removal.
After about forty minutes, in fact, the cheesemaker, using some big cotton towels, gather the solid portion on the bottom, leaving dropping the serum through the towel’s tangle. The curd is then cut in two big pieces, which can be placed in the molds.
Inside each mold it is placed a casein wedge, which serves to impress on the cheese surface the basic information about that specific wheel, just as if it is its identity card, which will be checked by traders and consumers in order to verify the authenticity of the product.
After a few days, the curd assumes a more compact texture, for which it can be salted in brine. This process takes about one month, until cheese has not absorbed the entire watery part.
At this point, the wheels are left to mature inside specific rooms, lying on wooden boards, which absorb the excessive humidity, ensuring to the cheese a natural and gradual seasoning. The minimum period expressed by the Regulation is 12 months, but we can find also more mature wheels. More exactly, we can talk about a mature product between 12 and 18 months, old between 18 and 24 months, very old over 24 months, so we are talking about a cheese that can reach even 36 months of seasoning.
Taste and characteristics
Parmigiana Reggiano is a cheese with excellent characteristics, which make it one of the most appreciated and useful cheeses all over the world.
In general, regardless of the seasoning time, the shape is cylindrical, with slightly convex or straight bares and flat faces. The dimensions are quite large, with a diameter between 35 and 45 centimeters. The color of the external rind, instead, is straw-yellow, not too dark, while on the inside it can vary depending on the seasoning period, which gives to the internal part an increasing straw-yellow shade.
The texture is unique, so that the original Parmigiano Reggiano distinguishes for its extreme friability. The pieces of cheese, in fact, can be easily detached by hands or with the tip of a knife, thanks to the long maturation and to the previous breaking of curd into small granules.
The taste of Parmigiano Reggiano is a real discovery. High quality milk and local salt make cheese fragrant, salty and at the same time delicate. As the months pass by, the internal part assumes a more intense saltiness, but it never become spicy.
A very interesting feature of Parmigiano Reggiano, especially in the 36 months old cheese, is that the long seasoning allows a good digestion of milk sugars. For this reason, Parmigiano Reggiano is particularly suggested even for lactose intolerant people that can digest very well the minimum, almost imperceptible content of lactose in this cheese.
The dishes that do not accept the combination with Parmigiano Reggiano are few. This cheese, in fact, is great either alone or with many other ingredients, from the appetizer to the dessert.
For example, we can serve a delicious cutting board of cheeses and cold cuts, combining it with other dairy products with the same saltiness, such as Grana Padano PDO or Caciocavallo Silano PDO, and other sweeter cold cuts, as Prosciutto di San Daniele PDO or Prosciutto di Parma PDO.
For a tasty appetizer, we can realize some cheese cookies, mixing grated Parmigiano Reggiano with flour, butter and some rosemary. Once created some nice molds, in 5 minutes they will be ready for being served.
Parmigiano Reggiano has always been used to flavor first dishes, grating it on pasta or risotto. It is not a case, in fact, that one of the easier recipes, but at the same time snappy, is risotto with Parmesan cheese, made only with rice and cheese.
Especially in Southern Italy, Parmigiano Reggiano is grated on horsemeat and rocket salad. For those who not love meat, instead, this cheese is also great with snails, potatoes, eggs and even fish, for example to realize steamed rolls of sole or plaice.
Parmigiano Reggiano can become also a good idea for a dessert. For example, we can combine it with pears, really perfect with cheese, or with chocolate, to realize a delicious mousse.
For what concerns wines, Parmigiano Reggiano requires a full-bodied red wine, which can support its salty taste, as a good Lambrusco or an intense Primitivo of Manduria. Original is the pairing with Franciacorta DOCG in the Brut version, thanks to its equilibrated sweetness.