Adventures in Parmesan Country

by Maria Noël Groves, Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator

I recently had the luxury of taking a two-week vacation in Italy with my husband to visit friends and sight see. It was our first “real” vacation as couple (which means that we didn’t pitch a tent or carry our kayaks along logging roads for any part of it). Once I realized that the food mecca of Parma was located between our destinations of Venice and Cinque Terre, I knew we had to take a detour and sign up for one of the region’s famous food tours.

It was a cold and drizzly morning on March 25 as we deftly maneuvered our rented Fiat 500 along the Autostrada to our first stop on the tour: an authentic Parmesan cheese factory.

Parmesan cheese is serious business in Italy, where it is one of of several traditional foods regulated and marketed as “DOP” (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or Protected Destination of Origin). The DOP sets standards for the creation of a product to ensure that 100% off the ingredients come from a specific region and that they are made in a very specific way with very specific ingredients. Other Italian DOP products include Modena Balsamic Vinegar, Chianti Classico Olive Oil, Gorgonzola Cheese, and Procuitto di Parma. Our guide explained to us that in a divided country, food is one of the few things everyone can agree on and it seemed important to preserve its identity and quality. We were lucky enough to visit prosciutto and balsamic vinegar makers on our tour as well, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll stick to cheese.

The cheese factory we visited works in small batches. Four vats make eight rounds of cheese daily in a relatively small space. It’s truly a family business, with the family living on the premises and just a few workers. Cheesemaking is hard work. The cows don’t stop making milk on weekends, and so the staff have to keep on working! Seven days is a typical workweek with just one day off per year. For this reason, it’s getting harder and harder to find new people to work in the factories as the original owners get older – this is a similar problem our own farmers face in New Hampshire.

Cheesemaking begins with milk from Parma cows that have been fed a grass and alfalfa diet. Parma has the reputation for some of the best dairy because of its terrior and ability to grow nutrient-rich forage, which imparts a special flavor to the cheese. Milk is heated to a certain temperature and rennet is added. The heat and rennet cause the curds to separate from the whey. Each vat makes one large chunk of cheese which is cut in half. Each half is hung to strain off excess liquid. The excess liquid whey is fed to local pigs, which is why Parma is best known for its Parmesan cheese and prosciutto ham. Some whey is left in the vat for the next batch. It naturally contains beneficial bacterial that impart a special quality to the cheese. You might be surprised to know that no salt is added at this stage of the game. That comes later.

At this point the Parmesan is semi-soft. It’s pressed in a variety of containers to create the traditional wheel shape and press in a label that indicates that it is Parmigiano Romano, the DOP label, the date, and a code for the cheese factory.

The wheels then go into vats of refrigerated salt water, which help to preserve the cheese during this step of the aging process and impart a salty flavor to the wheel.

 Finally, the wheels are ready for dry aging. They are laid out on wooden shelves and rotated periodically (they weigh about 80 pounds each!). The cheese reacts with naturally occurring microbes on the wooden shelves to create true Parmesan as it ages.

Cheese must age for 12 months minimum before it can be sold. 

Some cheeses are kept for 24 or 36 months, though it’s possible to age Parmesan wheels for much longer. Older Parmesan is more expensive and harder to come by in the market. It will taste stronger and saltier with a drier, crunchier consistency. It will also keep longer when cut and refrigerated than a younger Parm. As the wheel ages, the colors on the rind deepen. See the difference between the pictures of 2013 and 2011 cheese above and below.

Remember that the rind is pure cheese that has only been changed by the aging process, marked by pressing it and labeling with food-grade ink, and approved with a brand. That’s why it’s ok to use Parmesan cheese rinds in soups and sauces to add great flavor to a recipe.

Then it’s time for the inspectors to come and test the quality of the cheese. They need to do this without opening the wheel and ruining it. They put each wheel on a stool and knock it with a hammer, listening for what should be a uniform sound. If the sound is not uniform, then there might be extra cracks and air pockets in the cheese, which means it’s an inferior grade. If serious quality concerns are at play, they may take a very tiny sample from the wheel to examine. Approved Parmesan gets a stamp and can now be sold. (The quality test for prosciutto ham is to insert a horse bone needle and sniff it. It struck me that in a world of science and regulation that the quality tests remained very traditional and non-scientific. That was very refreshing!)

All this cheese is ready to be sold. See the wheel in the lower left corner in the picture below? The lines marked on the wheel indicate that it is second grade Parmesan – it didn’t pass the tests well enough to be top grade; however, it can still be sold. Our tour guide told us that an inferior grade is not a huge loss to the cheese maker because it is still in good demand. Restaurants like it because it is less expensive but still tastes great and adheres to DOP standards. (On the other hand, if prosciutto doesn’t pass quality tests, it can’t be sold for human consumption.)

 This was technically the end of our cheese tour; however, our guide Davide at Parma Golosa Food Tours (and an international food writer of traditional Italian cuisine) saw our enthusiasm for food and local products and decided to take us on an unexpected detour. We stopped by a small shop to visit and old-time Parmesan cheesemaker that Davide had recently featured in an article. The cheesemaker has since become a broker of fine cheese and food products; however, he is among one of the few people in existence who still knows how to make authentic Parmesan by wood heat. This is an impressive feat when you consider that changing the vat temp by just one degree Celsius during the initial cheesemaking process changes the cheese completely and prevents it from being sold as Parmigiano Romano. This cheese aficionado keeps his own special aging room with cheeses as old as 20 years! See the difference in coloration on the wheels. They’re also a bit smaller than regular wheels because of the moisture that has evaporated in the aging process.

This enthusiastic cheesemonger didn’t share one of the 20-year-old Parms with us, but he did cut us some 5-year-old cheese, which was quite tasty and very different from younger cheeses. We came home with blocks of young, 3-year-old, and 5-year-old cheeses, and the adults tended to prefer the longer-aged cheese while the kids liked the milder flavor and softer texture of the young cheese.

 Parmesan cheese is of course delicious in a variety of dishes, grated over pasta, simmered in tomato sauces, etc. However, we learned on our tour that you can also serve slices of Parmesan with different types of honey, marmalade, or authentic balsamic vinegar (which is thick and sweet and very expensive due to 30 years of aging… but that’s a whole other story) to dip it in. Yum!

The Co-op sells authentic Parmigiano Romano in our cheese department. Although Parmesan does tend to be a bit pricier than other types of cheese, hopefully you’ll now understand how much effort, authenticity, quality control, and years of aging go into each block of cheese. Buon appetito!

Also, if you happen to travel to Italy, my husband and I highly recommend a food tour with Parma Golosa Gourmet Food Tours – and if you can, ask for Davide. We also recommend staying at the lovely Opera 11 R&B conveniently located in the heart of the city and walking around scenic downtown Parma, which is loaded with gorgeous lesser-known Italian architecture and the historic Teatro Regio opera house (a favorite of the composer Verdi – it was unfortunately closed while we were there, otherwise we would’ve tried to catch a show!). Although truth be told, our absolute favorite part of Italy was Manarola, Cinque Terre, land of seafood, olive groves, vineyards, lemon trees, hiking trails, rugged coastline, and some of the most scenic vistas on the planet.