Cheese of the Week: Parmigiano-Reggiano
Considered by some to be the greatest cheese on earth, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a magnificent cheese by any standard.
There are 406 active producers, including many dairies and factories known as caselli. These are regulated by a Consorzio that upholds the PDO (government regulated) standards, grades cheeses and handles the worldwide advertising and marketing.
Unlike food and wine made in the US, Europe has production standards protected by law - location, ingredients (and percentages thereof), manufacturing technique and other standards that maintain the traditional definitions of what makes a certain cheese or wine unique. You won't find Reggiano made outside the defined zone, Port made in Belgium, or Champagne made in Poland; it's just not allowed.
The protected name designation states that Parmigiano Reggiano can only be made from milk produced by cows feasting on fresh grass and hay within the PDO zone, according to strict regulations. Although the name controlled version is about 800 years old, the recipe is attributed to Benedictine monks working in the Po Valley in around 1200 CE.
For production of Parmigiano Reggiano, a combination of skimmed evening milk is combined with whole morning milk and heated. The curd is coagulated using animal rennet and after cutting and reheating to expel the whey, the curds are packed into very large molds and a weight is placed on top to ease out more whey. Cheeses are flipped and re-weighted several more times before being allowed to sit overnight.
Prior to finally being unmolded, a plastic matrix, dotted with small blunt needles and a plaque with the identifying number of the cheese producer, is inserted between the cheese and the mold. This matrix spells out the words Parmigiano Reggiano so that when the mold is tightened around the cheese, all the information is gently pressed into the rind.
Wheels are placed in a brine solution for up to one month before being transferred to maturing cellars. Called Parmesan in English after the French name for it, (and Parm here in the shops), Reggiano is a hard, granular cheese, cooked but not pressed. Parm has a minimum aging period of 12 months, but all Parmigiano Reggiano marked export requires a minimum aging period of 18 months (there are several large box and big chains around who pass of 15 month Parm as being the real deal - it's just not.)
Ours is generally at least two years old - true Export Quality.
Only certain breeds of cow can produce the protein-rich milk that is used to make Parmigano-Reggiano. The Holstein Friesian breed is the most important of the breeds that are approved for Parmigiano-Reggiano milk production. Each Holstein produces around 2,500 gallons of milk each year. Fed on fresh grass during the summer, during the winter months they are commonly fed dehydrated summer grasses. The dehydration retains the grass' essential nutrients, and maintains a constant flora in the cows' stomachs, leading to less stressed cows who provide a consistent quality milk year round.
Unlike other cheeses, there are peculiarities in the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano. For example, at around eleven months of aging, a man called the Battore (the Drummer) taps each wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese with a small metal mallet. If he hears a hollow sound, the cheese likely has a structural flaw. This unfortunate occurrence takes place in roughly seven out of every 100 cheeses tested. These wheels lose their Parmigiano-Reggiano emblem from the rind and are sold to the food processing industry.
The Parmigiano-Reggiano wheels that pass the test of the Battore are branded with an identification number, and allowed to continue aging. One month later, each cheese is branded with the logo of the Consorzio. Fresh versions of the cheese can now be legally sold, although most of the product continues to age to at least 18 months. At 24 months, the remaining wheels are once again tested by the Battore, determining those select cheeses that can best survive the longest aging.