Parmigiano Reggiano is one of Italy’s most famous “grana” cheeses (“grana’ means “grainy” in Italian) earning it the moniker, the “King of Cheeses”.
This is a hard, uniformly straw-colored, gratable cheese with a deep, rich flavor and a golden, oily, edible rind. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is traditionally made with fresh cow’s milk from grass-fed cows. Other “grana” cheese include “grana padano”.
Traditionally, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese has been produced in northern Italy, in the areas of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua and Bologna. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese produced in these regions are considered to be the most authentic and under Italian law, only cheese from these regions are legally allowed to be labeled as “Parmigiano Reggiano”. This ancient product is recognized by the European Union as a D.O.P. product (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta” which is Italian for “Protected Destination of Origin”) and only Parmigiano Reggiano produced from producers located in these areas are allowed to carry the D.O.P. seal on their Parmigiano cheese.
Thus, the more widely and cheaply available “Parmesan Cheese” is not the authentic, artisanal “Parmigiano Reggiano”.
The first recorded reference to Parmigiano Reggiano dates back to 1344 and the second oldest reference to the cheese can be found in “The Decameron”, a 1353 collection of novellas written by 14th century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375). In it, he mentions:
…and there was a whole mountain of Parmigiano cheese, all finely grated, on top of which stood people who were doing nothing but making macaroni and ravioli.
Artisan Parmigiano Reggiano cheese made using traditional recipes passed down through the centuries. Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is traditionally made only in specific regions from mid-April to mid-November.
Founded in the 18th century, Valserena is reportedly the oldest Parmigiano dairy in Italy, and one of the few “farmstead” producers (producers who manage the entire cycle of producing cheese from growing the grass to feed the cows, birthing and breeding of cows and the process of making aged cheese).
Managed by the Serra Family, the farm is located in Parma, in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna which is considered to be Italy’s food region, home to famous Italian delicacies such as artisanal Italian traditional balsamic vinegar (known in Italian as “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale”), prosciutto and of course, Parmigiano Regiano cheese.
Valserena, is a member of the Consorzio di Parmigiano Reggiano and is one of the few members of the “Consorzio di Sola Bruna”. Producers who are members of “Consorzio di Sola Bruna” (which literally translates into “Only Italian Brown Consortium”) guarantee that the milk for Parmigiano Reggiano produced by them comes only from a certain registered breed of Italian “Brown Cows” – referred to in Italian as “Solo di Bruna” which means “exclusively (from) brown” (cows). The brown cow was introduced to Italy over a century ago, possibly around 1870. Belonging to the Alpine family, milk from this breed of brown cows is relatively low-yield (compared to for instance the Friesian cow which is known as “Frisona” in Italian), however the milk is particularly rich with a higher protein (particularly casein, which is important for cheese making) and calcium content, and results in a relatively high yield of cheese. Additionally, the richness of the milk imparts a distinctive creaminess, aroma and flavor into the finished wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese which milk from other breeds of cows are not able to match. Its high protein and calcium content further amplifies its value, as apart from a rich flavor, it also offers a rich source of nourishment.
So prized is the milk from this Italian brown cow, that it is known in Italy as “white gold” (“oro bianco” in Italian) and the Parmigian Reggiano cheese produced exclusively using this “white gold” is referred to as “Parmigiano Reggiano D.O.P. di Sola Bruna”.
There are hundreds of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese producers in Italy, however only a handful produce their cheese exclusively using milk from this Italian brown cow.
Authentic, artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese production is regulated by the “Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano” (“Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese”) which was founded in 1934. The consortium is comprised of artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese producers from northern Italy, specifically in the provinces of Parma, Regio Emilia, Modena, Mantova and Bologna.
The consortium works to protect the tradition, history and culture surrounding authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese by stipulating certain requirements.
The milk for Parmegiano Reggiano cheese must be obtained from cows fed only on grass grown on rich, fertile soil, or fed with hay obtained from the same area, produced through a traditional drying process (not fed with fermented fodder, known as “silage” such as “corn silage” which is usually cheaper but creates quality problems in the finished cheese).
Producers have to produce their cheese using artisanal methods that have remained unchanged for seven centuries
The cheese must be aged through natural means.
The ingredients used in producing the cheese must be 100% natural; there is zero-tolerance for artificial additives, such as flavorings, preservatives, coloring agents and other agents to conceal or rectify problems that arise during the cheese-making process.
Strict compliance of these rules are mandatory for members of the consortium and in doing so, they are accepted as producers of the finest and most authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Traditional Production Method of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese in Italy
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese production in Italy has traditionally been an artisanal process (it is not a manufactured product) and it remains so to this day among northern Italy’s artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese producers which use traditional methods and recipes handed over several generations.
It begins with rich milk from cows fed with fodder that may be fresh or dried using a traditional drying process. Fermented fodder is not allowed to be fed. This milk is accepted to be richer, more flavorful and more nutritious compared to milk from cows fed with artificial feed. Italian brown cows produce highly-prized rich, flavorful milk which the more common Holstein-Freisean cow cannot match. Of Italy’s Parmigiano cheese producers, only a handful produce their cheese using milk from Italian brown cows.
The quality of the milk is the foundation of cheese-making and the best quality milk is imperative for a quality cheese. The fresher the milk, the better and thus full-cycle / farmstead cheese producers may have an advantage. If the milk is of substandard quality, problems are likely to arise during the ageing process. Since the Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese bans additives of any kind whatsoever to rectify or conceal such problems (which mass-produced, imitation cheese manufacturers may resort to), ensuring the quality of the milk is of paramount importance. Since only the freshest, raw milk is to be used for authentic Parmigiano cheese, it is usual for artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese-producers in northern Italy to work every single day, including Sundays and holidays, churning out cheese from fresh milk provided by their cows everyday.
The cows are milked in the evening and this unpasteurized milk is left to rest overnight. The next morning, the cream will have risen and the milk is skimmed off. This is a 100% natural method of producing skimmed milk. The cream is used to make butter. The skimmed milk is added to the whole milk from this morning’s milking. The two milks are combined in traditional copper cauldrons.
Natural, fermented whey (usually derived from the previous day’s cheese production) is added to the milk along with natural rennet which triggers the curdling process. The milk is cooked at a temperature of about 30–35 °C or 86 – 95 °F.
The curd is broken down by hand through long movements using a traditional whisk known as a “spino”. This is an enormous balloon whisk which traditionally was made with wood, although now they tend to be made with metal. This whisk helps break down the curds into miniscule granules, giving it a grainy texture.
Next, the temperature of the heat is raised to about 55 °C or 131 °F. This ultimately results a mass of cheese granules separated from the whey. This mass of granules are taken out and wrapped in cheese cloth. The cheesecloth bundle is lifted up and suspended over the cauldron by tying two ends of the cloth to two poles on either side of the cauldron. It is left to drain for a few minutes and then the cheesecloth is hoisted out of the copper cauldron and placed into circular wheel molds. The cheese wheels are left to rest for a few days.
The cheese wheels are then salted, through a wet-salting process where the cheese wheels are immersed in brine (a solution of water and sea salt) for about 20 days. The wheels are inspected and turned every day by an artisan cheesemaker.
After the salting process, the ageing process begins. The cheese wheels are laid on wooden boards, one wooden board over another, in a temperature and humidity-controlled warehouse or ageing room. As it ages, the cheese exterior naturally dries out over time, forming a hard, oily, perfectly edible rind.
Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is aged for a minimum 12 months. The cheaper, non-genuine, imitation products are often aged for less than that, sometimes just a few months. The longer it ages, the richer the flavor, the stronger the aroma, the harder the cheese and the more granular the texture. “Parmigiano Reggiano Fresco” (“fresco” = “fresh” in Italian) is aged for 12 – 14 months. “Parmigiano Reggiano Stagionato” (“Stagionato” = “Seasoned”) is aged for 22-24 months. “Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio” is aged for over 30 months.
During the ageing process, the cheese wheels are constantly under watch by the artisanal cheesemaker, who will inspect, brush and turn them every day.
The cheese is tested for quality by a panel of judges from the “Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano” (“Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese”). The testing process usually sees the judge “tapping” the cheese using a hammer and sometimes inserting a screw-needle into the cheese.
In the hammer test, various points of the cheese are tapped with a hammer (known in Italian as “martelletto”). The resulting sound is carefully listened to, and the crust is observed to see how it takes the blow of the hammer. This gives clues on the quality of the cheese encased within the rind and if there are any defects in the structure of the cheese. This process is akin to a doctor using a stethoscope to aid in diagnosing a patient.
The screw-needle test sees a long thin instrument, similar to a screw, inserted into the cheese and then taken out to obtain a minute sample of the cheese. The resistance of the cheese as the screw needle is inserted gives clues on the consistency of the cheese while the sample gives clues on the aroma, taste and degree of maturation.
If the cheese fails the test, the markings on the cheese rind typical of authentic, artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese will be scraped off. If the cheese passes the test, cheese will be sealed with the “Parmigiano Reggiano DOP” mark with the Consorzio’s logo. The cheese may be left for further ageing or may be taken out to be sold. If the cheese producer is a member of the “Consorzio di Sola Bruna” then their cheese will be sold as “Parmigiano Reggiano DOP di Sola Bruna”.