Parmesan cheese


So it has happened.  After 2.5 years of living in Italy I am becoming a bit of a food snob.  Last Sunday I was discussing cheese with my friend Giuseppe – specifically Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (or Parmesan cheese as it is commonly known in the USA). Giuseppe’s family has been producing Parmigiano-Reggiano for over 130 years.  In the course of our discussion, Giuseppe told me that there are no protections for his product in the USA. I was shocked.

Then, this morning, my aunt sent me an article about how producers of European cheese are requesting said protections in the American market. The European Union wants to ban the use of European names like Parmesan, Feta and Gruyere on cheese made in the United States. This has American producers in a tizzy. I don’t know about the other cheeses, but I have to say, when you compare Parmigiano-Reggiano to its American counterpart, one is cheese and the other is . . . something else. And as we Have recently learned it may be sawdust.

Unless you have purchased Parmesan cheese from an Italian import specialty shop, I assure you, you haven’t really tasted Parmesan cheese if you are eating Parmesan made in America. The American versions taste nothing like the original.

Parmigiano-Reggiano was created in the Middle Ages in the Northern Italian province of Reggio Emilia. Historical documents show that in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Parmigiano-Reggiano that was made was very similar to the cheese produced today. Ya’ know the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Why mess with something that has an 800+ year proven record of consistently being delicious? This cheese has been around so long that the use of the nickname “Parmesan” predates the existence of the United States by about 250 years.  Originally, Italians from other regions of Italy began calling the cheese Parmesano, which means “of or from Parma.” This nickname was later shortened to Parmesan by the French.

Under Italian law, Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be produced in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantova, Italy.  European law classifies the name, and the nickname “Parmesan”, as a protected designation of origin (PDO), like champagne from France. Thus, in the European Union, “Parmigiano-Reggiano”  refers to cheese manufactured exclusively in limited cities. And, in 2008 a European Union court determined that the name “Parmesan” cannot be used for imitation Parmesan made or imported into Europe. Therefore, if Kraft imports its powdered version into Europe, it must declare that it is imitation Parmesan cheese.  And believe me, the Kraft stuff is an imitation. It tastes nothing like the real stuff.  Authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese has three variations of flavor according to how long it has aged. It can be: mild and smooth; full-flavored, sharp and crumbly; or nutty and spicy with an almost gritty or crystalline texture.  After tasting the real stuff, I don’t think I will ever buy the Kraft version again.

The first distinction between the authentic and imitation versions is the strict method of production. Like Prosciutto di Parma, production of Parmigiano-Reggiano follows strict guidelines and regulatory inspections by the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano. The Consorzio inspects each and every cheese wheel produced. Every. single. one. Typically the region produces over 3 million wheels of cheese annually! Thatsalotta’ cheese.

pr2Further, Parmigiano-Reggiano bears a special seal identifying it as authentic. A stenciled seal indicates which dairy the milk came from, the month and year of production, and a code indicating the length of aging.

Another distinction is that the milk used for Parmesan comes from grass or hay fed cows only. And Italian cows are not subjected to antibiotics, hormones, and chemicals. The result is a creamier, fattier, delicious milk. I tasted some fresh unpasteurized milk from a dairy farm near Lake Como and I have to say I felt like I’d never really tasted milk before.

Also, Parmigiano-Reggiano is all natural and made from raw cow’s milk. The cheese starter is natural whey culture with calf rennet.  The only additive allowed in production is salt. You will never find cellulose powder, potassium sorbate or cheese cultures in Parmigiano-Reggiano – they are illegal in the production. You will find all three ingredients (if you can call them that), however, in most imitation Parmesan cheese sold in the USA.

The whole milk is mixed with naturally skimmed, or separated milk resulting in a part skim mixture. The mixture is then is pumped into copper vats and whey is added.  It is cooked at a temperature of 91–95 °F. Next, calf rennet is added. Rennet is is an enzyme derived from the stomachs of the calves before they consume anything but milk. Rennet causes the proteins in the milk to form a curd.  The curd is broken into small pieces about the size of rice grains. The temperature is raised to 131 °F and is carefully monitored by the cheese-maker. After settling, the curd collected in a piece of muslin and divided in half and placed in molds. The process uses 291 lbs. of milk to produce two cheese wheels. The curd of one cheese wheel weighs around 100 lbs. Interestingly, the left over whey is used to feed the pigs from which “Prosciutto di Parma” is made.

Finally, after production, each wheel is aged for a minimum of 12 months. Then a tester from the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano tests the wheels using only a hammer and his ear. The tester taps each wheel at various points, identifying cracks and voids within the wheel. Cracks and voids in a cheese wheel means that wheel does not pass inspection. If a cheese fails inspection, the rind is marked with lines or crosses all the way around the wheel to indicate to consumers that the cheese is not up to snuff.

Cheese that passes inspection is further identified with one of three stamps to indicate the maturity and variation of flavor for each cheese. As you can see, this is not your green cylinder of powdered cheese-like substance.

pr3The red seal indicates that the cheese has aged for more than 18 months. The Consorzio describes the red seal cheese as having a “distinctive milk base, with vegetable notes such as grass, cooked vegetables and at times flowers and fruit” and they recommend that it is served “with aperitifs, and in particular dry white wines, and as an accompaniment to fresh fruit such as pears and green apples.” Kinda’ sounds like a description of a wine doesn’t it?

pr4The silver seal indicates cheese that has aged for 22 months.  The flavor is “distinctive, with notes of melted butter, fresh fruit and citrus fruits as well as overtones of dried fruit. The cheese has a balanced mild yet full-flavoured taste, with a crumbly, grainy texture. It is an ideal accompaniment to quite firmly structured red wines and excellent when served as Parmesan petals in fruit salad drizzled with Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or di Reggio Emilia. This Parmesan may also be served with any dried fruit and is superb with prunes and dried figs.”
There’s that wine like description again.

pr5The gold seal indicates cheese that has aged for 30 months or more. This cheese, has the highest nutritional value and has a dry, crumbly, at times, grainy texture. It has the strongest flavor.For such a distinctive cheese, full-bodied, firmly structured red wines, white dessert wines from partially dried grapes and sipping wines are ideal.”
Wowza!  I am telling you, this is serious cheese.

I have never seen any Parmigiano-Reggiano sold with the lines or crosses on the rinds. Given the price I wonder if consumers here would buy it with the imperfection of a mere crack?  Particularly since this “king of cheese” is not cheap.  It sells for approximately 15 euros per kilo or 11 dollars per pound. And that is without any import fees.

The way I see it, there is no problem with the US giving the EU their protections and designations for Parmigiano-Reggiano. The American consumer will decide for themselves if the “king of cheese” is worth the price. And the producers of the imitation stuff can keep on producing their products knowing that the American consumer will keep on buying it, out of preference, habit, patriotism and price. My husband is a perfect example. After regaling the wonders of Parmigiano-Reggiano last Sunday, he said that although he loves and appreciates Parmigiano-Reggiano, he still gets nostalgic for the powdered Kraft product. I think Giuseppe threw up a little bit in his mouth when he heard that.

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