On a recent trip to Italy, I had the opportunity to visit a co-op that makes Parmigiano Reggiano. It was a first for me – I have witnessed the cheesemaking process before and have even tried my hand at making chèvre but I had never before observed the making of a hard, aged cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano.
This particular co-op was based close to Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. A small group of nearby farmers bring milk to the co-operative each week and, starting at 5am every day, that milk begins a process that transforms it into a cheese so many of us know and love.
Parmigiano Reggiano is a DOP product. In Italian, DOP stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (Protected Designation of Origin). A DOP item in Italy is like an AOC item in France – champagne is perhaps one of the most familiar examples – to legally be called champagne, it must come from the Champagne region and be made following certain methods of production. The Parmigiano Reggiano name is similar. Cheese bearing the “Parmigiano Reggiano” name must come from a specified geographic area and follow certain guidelines of production. That geographic area includes the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena, as well as parts of Bologna and Mantua.
Parmigiano Reggiano is made using the milk from two separate milkings. When the evening milking comes in, it is placed in long, shallow troughs. Overnight, the cream rises to the top and, in the morning, it is skimmed off. Because they are not using a centrifuge system, the skimming is only partial – some fat does remain in the milk. This partially skimmed milk is then mixed with the morning milk to make the cheese.
Large copper vats are used to make the curds – the vats themselves are pretty amazing. They look large with the milk in them but when empty, you realize that they actually descend a further couple of feet below ground level, making them even larger than they initially appear. Each vat holds roughly 160 gallons of the mixed evening-morning milk and each will yield enough curd for two wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Once the milk is in the vats, whey from the previous day’s cheesemaking (the “mother whey”) is added to provide the necessary cultures. Rennet is also added and the milk is brought to a temperature of roughly 90°F. Coagulation (separation of the curds and whey) takes about 8 minutes. Once this happens, the cheesemaker or “casaro” finely cuts the curd into pieces the size of rice grains. As a general rule, the harder and more aged your cheese is going to be, the finer your curds are cut – it makes it easier to expel the moisture and compact the paste of your cheese.
After the curds have been “riced,” they are cooked. This was the point at which we arrived at the co-op. The “casaro” was working over one of the vats of cheese, using a sieved pan to periodically test the curds to see when they were finished cooking. To me, he looked a bit like a gold miner working a claim. Once he was happy with the feel of the curds, he moved onto the next vat, repeating the process again.
After the curds have cooked, they are allowed to sit for about one hour, giving them time to settle to the bottom of the vats. In the meantime, several things happened. The master casaro used the cream that had been skimmed off the previous evening’s milk, along with some whey, to make fresh ricotta. Another of the cheesemakers went from vat to vat, drawing off whey to supplement the “mother whey” for the next day. After this, he visited each vat again, this time to distribute 100% Italian linen cheese cloth in preparation for the next step in the cheesemaking process. While all of this was going on, another man was washing down the troughs used for the evening milking. Whey from the cheesemaking process is used for cleaning – it means that no industrial cleansers accidentally get into the food and it means that the natural cultures in the environment are preserved.
Once the curds have had time to settle, the cheesemakers use a large wooden paddle to lever the curds off the bottom of the vats. Once levered up, it is a two-man process to tease the curd into a ball shape and string it up into the cheese cloth.
Then, the master casaro uses a large knife to cut the curd in half, dividing it into what will eventually become the two wheels of cheese. Once divided, the two pieces are then strung up separately, dangling down into the remaining whey. None of that remaining whey will go to waste – if not used for the mother whey, cleaning or ricotta making, it will be given to the 2,000 pigs out at the back of the co-op, pigs that one day may become prosciutto.
After the curds have been portioned out, they are put in molds and weighed down with a round that weighs about 20 pounds. Every 2 hours, the cheeses are flipped to allow for even moisture distribution.
After 8 hours, a plastic sheet is wrapped around the outside of each cheese – it is this sheet that gives the exterior of true Parmigiano Reggiano its distinct look – the tiny pin pricks that spell out the name of the cheese, as well as giving other information such as the month and year of production, the letters “DOP” and a code number that identifies the cheesemaker. Also included is the phrase “consorzio tutela” which translates as “consortium protected” and is a quality guarantee indicating the cheese production is supervised. An oval space is left vacant on the cheese – this is where the cheese will receive a stamp of approval once it has been tested and passed by the consortium. In total, the cheeses sit for 24 hours in the plastic molds.
The next step is to apply a metal form and the cheeses go through an additional three days of being flipped every two hours.
After the three days, the young cheeses are moved to the brining room. In long troughs of water mixed with sea salt, the cheeses sit for 20-22 days and they are flipped two times per day, to allow for even brining.
Once the brining process is complete, the cheeses move to the aging facility. When the cheeses are moved, the salt has only had a chance to permeate the paste to about 1 centimeter in depth. Only after 12 months of aging will the salt reach the center of the cheese. While the cheeses mature, they are flipped and cleaned once a week.
After the twelve months are up, the consortium comes in to test the cheeses. These tests are done by tapping the cheese – what the testers (“battitori“) are primarily looking for are air bubbles and they can do this by sound (much like you can knock on a wall and detect hollow spaces).
If the tester detects small air bubbles in the cheese, it is marked as Parmigiano Reggiano but is deemed to be second class (“mezzano“) and it gets lines scraped around the edge that still allow the pin dots to show through.
Cheeses that have larger air pockets or bubbles are not DOP approved and are not allowed to be called Parmigiano Reggiano. As a result, these cheeses receive a through scrape down to remove the Parmigiano Reggiano name from the exterior of the cheese. Due to the size of the air bubbles in these cheeses, they can only be aged 15-16 months.
Cheeses that pass the test with flying colors are DOP approved in the first class (“prima categoria“) and are allowed to continue aging without any rings scraped in the rind of the cheese. At this juncture, it is then up to the cheesemakers to decide how long they plan to hold their Parmigiano Reggiano – to age it further or to sell it as is.
Here at the shop, we directly import our Parmigiano Reggiano from the Cravero family. Giorgio and Barbara Cravero and their son, Giacomo, carry on a tradition that extends back to 1855. They send us parm of two different ages – two years and three years. The Cravero family selects and ages cheeses from small farmers. In our case, they send us cheese from a tiny co-op that makes six wheels of cheese a day. These wonderful wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano often have complex notes of fruitiness (hints of pineapple!) or savory notes (freshly baked bread!).
I love using parm on my pasta but it’s also delicious snacking for an antipasto platter, paired with fresh figs, some prosciutto and a drizzle of sweet-acidic balsamic vinegar. Parm is also the secret ingredient (finely grated and in small quantities) on the delicious roasted fennel that our kitchen does. It is always in Eduardo’s mac and cheese (which, if you’ve had it, you know is scrumptious!) and it is also delicious mixed into mashed potatoes or into burgers or meatballs. And, a little secret – I learned on my visit to the co-op that the Parmigiano Reggiano rind is completely cheese – it’s not rubbed with wax or sealed with anything. This is why the cheese rinds are perfect to flavor soups or sauces. One local resident advised – the rinds are also great thrown on the grill. I will have to ask Eric to give it a whirl next BBQ season!
Mary is a cheesemonger and baker at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.