Parmigiano Reggiano is like an Italian cheese celebrity. Everyone “knows” Parmigiano Reggiano. How much they know varies. Maybe you know Parm as well as you do Rocky Balboa, quoting all of the movie lines and running up the art museum steps or through the Italian Market like a champ. Or maybe you know him about as well as you know the real Sylvester Stallone—you might know his name, and the way he looks, but probably not all of the intimate details, like his birthday or what he eats for breakfast. (We bet that Stallone eats a lot of Parm.)
Here’s a handy Parm-primer to get to know this special cheese, being featured for just $14.99/lb. through the remainder of 2016 at all Di Bruno Bros. locations. You can also click here to order it online by the half pound wedge. Mangia!
Parm is so important that it’s got its own consortium.
The government puts a lot of time and money into making sure that the quality of this cheese is spot-on. We’re abridging them for you below, and you can check out all of the rules in more detail by clicking here.
Where Parm Comes From
DOP Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from the province of Emilia-Romagna, where it’s produced in the towns of Parma, Reggio, and Modena. Emilia-Romagna is a powerhouse for classic Italian cuisine, such as Prosciutto di Parma (hailing, as the name suggests, from Parma) and balsamic vinegar from Modena.
The official DOP name is Parmigiano-Reggiano, meaning that if you buy something called as such, it’s followed an intense set of age-old rules throughout the production process. Outside of Italy, you’ll see it referred to as Parmesan. Notably in the US, anything can be labeled as Parmesan, and the methods of production are not monitored in the same way as the DOP original. You may have seen articles going around the Internet these days about efforts to change that, but that’s a story for a different blog post.
There are hundreds of farms in Emilia-Romagna raising cattle to use their milk for Parm-Regg production. These cows are eating a carefully-monitored diet of locally-grown forage, which translates into the unique milk of the region, eventually becoming the trademark “King of Cheese.”
How Parm is made. We told you that it’s technical….
The name-controlled version is roughly 800 years old, but the actual recipe is attributed to Benedictine monks working in the Po Valley in the 1200s. These predate the famous Bavarian Beer Purity rules, often called the world’s first food purity law, as well as the rules for making Champagne.
Whole milk from the morning milking is mixed with skimmed milk from the previous evening, which was left out to allow the cream to separate naturally. Yes, it takes a whole day of milkings to make this big ol’ cheese. Whey from the production of previous wheels is used to spark the acidification, aka the first step of the cheesemaking process. The fresh curds are coagulated with traditional animal-based rennet before being heated, drained and pressed into traditional wooden molds. Different heavy things are placed on top of the mols to coax as much moisture out as possible.
Hold on! What happens to all of that glorious excess parm whey that gets pushed out of the cheese?! Isn’t that like liquid gold?
Waste not, want not. The local pigs butchered to make Prosciutto di Parma are traditionally fed the leftover whey from the making of Parmigiano-Reggiano; this is one of the reasons that Prosciutto di Parma has its signature taste (and signature price tag).
Delicious. Back to the process.
When the wheel is deemed dry enough, a plastic matrix with the identifying information 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 of the information is pressed into the rind. It’s the name tag that you couldn’t peel off if you tried. Not that you’d want to…
The labeled wheels are put into a salt brine for just shy of a month. Why the salt bath? This draws a ton of moisture out of the cheese and results in a very hard rind, perfect for being tossed into soup or sauces of the future. Post bath, the cheeses are moved into an aging facility, where they can be left to age for as few as 18 months, or upwards of 3 years. Parmigiano’s different stages of maturity are recognized by aging seals given out specifically at 18 months, 24 months and 30 months. When the affineur (person who ages the cheese) decides that it’s ready for sale, a certified cheese grader uses a hammer and his ear to determine if there are any cracks or unwanted distributions in the cheese before it can legally be sold as Parmigiano-Reggiano. Dream job, anyone?
Confession: I’ve only ever had shaker parm. What does the real thing taste like?
Parmigiano-Reggiano is all of sweet, savory, piquant and acidic at the same time. There are cooked milk and nutty flavors, melding with bright bursts of salt and savor. And we can’t neglect to mention the fruity flavors—there’s a famous tropical/pineapple flavor associated with aged versions of this cheese. Good to know—always allow this cheese to come to room temperature before using, to ensure optimal flavor.
While we’re on the topic, why is Parm flavor so intense?
This cheese is aged for an exceptionally long time—the longer it’s aged, the drier and more crumbly it gets. By the time that it’s sold, this highly-concentrated cheese contains only 30% water and 70% nutrients. Talk about packing in the flavor. That intense age and lack of moisture are why a small sprinkle is powerful enough to season as it does. A little bit goes a long way, but we suggest using it in abundance anyway.
That’s the technical stuff for now. Check back in the coming weeks on tips for cooking with Parmigiano-Reggiano, how to dress it up for the holidays, what to drink it with, and more.
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