Thursday, March 19, 2009

Parmigiano Reggiano

If you put me on a desert isle and told me I could eat only one cheese for the rest of my life, (The cheese fairies would deliver it, in case you're wondering) the answer would be a no-brainer: parmigiano reggiano.

I never get tired of the intense flavor, the little crunchy grains of an aged parmigiano between your teeth and the versatility that it offers. You can enjoy a chunk of parmigiano alongside a glass of wine; you can grate it over pasta or vegetables; you can melt it into casseroles or other dishes; you can add the rind to soup to lend more flavor, etc., etc., etc.

In short, it's not called "The King of Cheeses" for nothing. On our recent trip to Italy, we were tootling along in the car one day, hoping to see a few castles in the countryside between Piacenza and Parma. Unfortunately it was a Monday, a day when castles and museums are closed. But lucky for us, I spotted the following building along a road near the town of Soragna:

"Make a U-turn. Quick," I said to my husband. So he did - and we made a beeline back to the Caseificio Sociale Pongennaro, one of the approximately 450 dairies where the king of cheeses is made. And I do mean made. The consortium of parmigiano makers has adopted a slogan of "Non si fabbrica, si fa," meaning that "Parmigiano is not manufactured, it's made," and this implies the use of time-honored methods and no preservatives or additives.

It can only be called parmigiano reggiano if the cows are raised and the cheese is made in any of four provinces in the region of Emilia Romagna: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna.
If you're eating Grana Padano, its sister-cheese, you're also eating a delicious cheese but one made under entirely different standards and from cows that are permitted a broader range of food and that are raised in an area that's twice the size of the area where parmigiano is made.

For a cheese to be called parmigiano reggiano, the cows are permitted to eat forage, mainly hay, grown only in the designated region and the forage must not have been treated with additives nor heated by fermentation. The cows are not allowed to eat any animal by-products or food of animal origin.

Cheese made according to the long list of rules is branded with a variety of marks including the acronym D.O.P. which stands for the Protected Designation of Origin. The dairy is also identified,as well as the production month and year.
In the photo above, the cheese was made in February 2007, hence it was 24 months old when I took the photo.

The cheese is made every day, year round. By 4 a.m. cheesemakers start boiling the milk in huge copper cauldrons.

Unfortunately, we arrived too late to watch the cheesemakers stirring the mixture and draining the curds from the cauldron into molds, but were able to see the huge rounds of cheese as they sat immersed in large vats of salted water. Cheesemakers at the Caseificio Pongennaro make 36 forms a day, each weighing about 40 kilos, or 88 pounds, according to Mara Marenzoni, the wife of Raffaelo Rainieri, one of the 15 partners of the caseificio.

The large rounds of cheese sit for 20 days in the salted water before the aging begins. "You can't call it parmigiano if it has less than one year of aging," Mara said.

The longer the aging, the more complex the taste, although if it has aged much longer than 36 months, the cheese generally takes on a less desirable flavor. The 24-month aged cheese at Caseficio Pongennaro's shop sells for 10.60 euros a kilo (about $14.00 for 2.2 pounds) while the 36-month aged parmigiano sells for 12.40 euros a kilo (about $16.00 for 2.2 pounds).

Now if you want to bring back a whole round of a 36-month aged parmigiano, it'll set you back around $645.00. In Italy, it's not uncommon to find them at weddings or banquets, split in half and served in chunks. However, it might be a little heavy to fit that much into your carry-on luggage. But you can always find room for a kilo or two.

I can leave it to other visitors to Italy to buy the Prada purses, the Armani suits and the Gucci shoes, but I never come back without a supply of Parmigiano cheese. There's no prohibition against bringing back hard cheeses through U.S. customs and the quality is incomparable, especially if you've bought your cheese right at the dairy. The hard part is not eating it all in the first few days of your return. Buon appetito.

18 comments:

Amber~ Care and Feeding of Wild Things said...

I love it! I love Parmigiano, and use it all the time. I attribute my strong fingernails to it's awesome calcium powers!

casalba said...

That first photo! But then, what's not to like here? (See you've got the right knife too.)

Stacey Snacks said...

Ciao Chow, how odd.
Yesterday, I bought 2 large wedges of Parmigiano Reggiano at the cheese shop in town. One for snacking, one for cooking.
At $19.99 per lb. I went broke!

It was so nutty and delicious.
I can't live without it.

Foodie with Little Thyme! said...

Now that's a treat.
Have you read "playing for Pizza" by John Grisham? The whole book centers around Parma. Quick fun read. If you have not and would like too e-mail me and I'll drop it in the mail to you.

Maryann said...

What a great post!

lisetta said...

Couldn't agree more with you! Parmigiano is the only item that holds a permanent spot in my refrigerator. Love your photographs.

Ciao Chow Linda said...

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that two photos (the top one and the bottom one) are from the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium. The rest are mine.

Proud Italian Cook said...

The smell and the flavor of that cheese is out of this world! Loved this post Linda!

M.Kate said...

wow..how interesting, we dont make cheese here, its all imported.

Bunny said...

I discovered fresh parmigiano several months ago and love it. Before that i used that cheese in the shaker...you know the one. I'll never go back!

Kevin said...

Parmigiano reggiano is one of my favorite cheeses. I always like to pick some up freshly cut from the source at the cheesemonger. It would be really nice to visit where it is made in Italy.

anjelikuh said...

wowww, 20 days for salting? sheeesh, no wonder the prices are sky hiiiigh. Totally worth it though. great post!

noble pig said...

Wow, what a fun place to stop. I didn't think of the cows having such regulation. Great post.

Alex said...

We used to refer to it as 'sick' cheese at home in the UK when I was young, on account of the smell. But we only really bought funny little plastic pots of the stuff - which is nothing like the real thing.

Parmigiano is wonderful cheese! The more mature versions are even better.

It is a little on the pricey side - this is true - but then the good things in life a are rarely cheap.

Lovely write up Linda.

Best,

Alex

PS Good to hear that you like Turin! ;-)

joe@italyville said...

I agree... and by the way it DOES taste better if you use a cheese dart instead of slicing it. Great post Linda! Great pictures.

Nicole said...

Oh I miss Italy! Your pictures are great. And who doesn't love parmigiano!

Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese was a big focus in the lasagne of Emilia Romagna that I have on my blog March 27 th, and it's easy to see why after reading your post, Linda!

How incredible it is! I love cheese and I'd be just like you and would pick parmigiano as one of my favorites.

All my husbands relatves bring cheese when they visit the states from Italy. :-)

Maris said...

I love parmigiano reggiano and I didn't know all of these great tidbits about it! I love putting a little on omelets or in sandwiches because it's so flavorful!