When in Parma… Eat Parmigiano!
Parma, Italy is a city known for their contributions to what we consider Italian cuisine (although there is no one Italian cuisine). If you’ve never heard of Parma, you have probably heard of the foods they produce, like Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma and a brand of pasta named Barilla. Sound familiar? In a day trip from Florence, I had the opportunity to visit each of these factories and learn about the special and unique production processes of these products.
Our first stop was to a Parmigiano Reggiano producer at 9 am to learn about and watch the production of Parmigiano. The process starts at 5 am when they take the milk from the night before and the morning milk and mix it with rennet while heating. The cheese curds form and then float to the top of large copper containers. At just the right time, they stop the heat and the curd sinks to the bottom to rest while the temperature comes down. After allowing the cheese to rest and the temperature to come down, they release the cheese from the bottom with a large wooden spoon and capture it in a massive cheese cloth to start draining the liquid and condensing the cheese. What was incredible was that the cheese-makers could tell when it was time to shut the heat or that it is ready to drain by feeling the cheese and temperature with their hands. They are so well trained that there is no computer that can do their job, it is an entirely learned skill. When the milk production is large, the cheese can be cut into two, called “twins” or “two females.” If only one wheel of cheese is made from a batch of milk, it is considered “one male.”
After the liquid has drained, they put the cheese into forms and let it shape and continue to drain. In the evening, they transfer the cheese to another wooden form where they also wrap the outside in a matrix (the plastic mold that imbeds the wording you see on the outer portion of the cheese). After one day in the wooden form with the matrix, it gets put into a metal form for the third day. The cheese is then soaked in an Italian sea salt bath for 23 days where the salt flavors the cheese through osmosis. The wheels get rotated daily to flavor them entirely and the salt concentration is so high that the cheese actually floats.
After being salted, the cheese gets put into the vault where it ages for a minimum of one year and a maximum of four years. The Consorzio is a group of producers that upholds the rules and regulations to ensure the quality of the Parmigiano Reggiano. They visit each factory three times per year to test every wheel for quality. They do this by hammering the wheel in 17 specific locations and when further investigation is needed, a very small core sample is taken and the scent is tested. While aging they get washed and rotated weekly to prevent molding. These beautiful pieces of culinary artwork weigh about 45 kg each and cost €300 per wheel.
The fabulous end product is a complex array of umami flavors and smells. Before tasting the cheese, they suggest breaking the piece in half and holding each half to one nostril and smelling. This enables you to fully smell the cheese and allow both sides of your brain to experience the cheese. The rich nutty flavor of freshly opened Parmigiano was a spectacular treat at the end of the tour.
Throughout the tour, we heard references to the “green can” that we have in the United States. They were referring to the grated Parmesan cheese we often see on the supermarket shelves that is often mistakenly associated with Parmigiano Reggiano. In fact, it contains a non-traditional and unrelated “Parmesan” cheese. So I will leave you with a plea from our gracious hosts: know what you are buying. Since Parmigiano Reggiano can only come from this region of Italy, make sure you are buying the right item. Avoid the highly processed foods that attempt to mimic this historical and traditional cheese. Although it is not a “local” food for us in the US, it is still essential to know where it comes from and ensure the best quality. I’ve seen the origin… and it looks good!