Still sprinkling ready-grated Parmesan on your Spag Bog? For shame. This DOP cheese is made with infinite love and care and deserves to be treated as a star part of your cheeseboard. Nick Harman goes to meet the people in Parma who make it so special.
Chief Taster Igino Morini buries his special Parmesan knife into a boulder sized piece of Parmesan Reggiano and it fractures like a cliff fall, tumbling into irregular lumps. ‘You never slice aged parmesan,’ he tells me through an interpreter before breaking a lump into two and jabbing a piece up under each of his nostrils.
His eyes glaze over and he sighs before popping a piece into his mouth. Passion is a word much overused these days, but if anyone has it he has. He lives and literally breathes Parmesan, he has to because the tasting room and indeed the whole dairy smells richly of Parma’s famous product,
‘We work every day,’ he says indistinctly through his cheese mouthful, ‘even Christmas. The cows who graze in local areas, and on carefully monitored pasture, must be milked twice a day and the milk has to be processed quickly.’
A cheese maker’s day starts early as I found out. That morning I’d stumbled bleary eyed into the dairy after an evening of pasta, parmesan and too much local wine in Parma town to see the team fill the ranks of giant copper lined cauldrons to begin the day’s production.
Unpasteurised milk is gently heated and stirred and a carefully judged amount of a starter culture of yesterday’s whey is added by the artisan cheese maker. Together with rennet this will begin the magical transformation of milk into one of the world’s most wonderful foodstuffs, one that’s over 1000 years old.
The heat is increased and the mix is stirred by hand with a giant whisk called a Spino (a thorn bush in Italian) to separate the rapidly forming curds from the whey, some dairies use machines to do the stirring but that won’t do for these makers. ‘You just can’t ‘feel’ the progress,’ says Igino.
Their master cheese maker walks along the rows of vats checking temperatures constantly and dipping in her hand to see how the now granular mix is setting. Only on her exact say so does the heating and stirring stop and the mix get left to form up.
Parmesan is a healthy cheese. Nothing is added, nothing is taken away and because of the way it’s made there is so little lactose that it is officially suitable for the lactose intolerant. It’s the long ageing process that allows the natural fermenting processes to give the cheese its flavour and textures and it’s particularly good for children and the elderly being rich in calcium and easily digestible. It also has one of the lowest cholesterol levels of any cheese.
Making quality Parmigiano-Reggiano needs muscle as well as passion, and after an hour two men, armed with an oversized ice cream tub wooden spoon, dip into the liquid and straining hard bring the giant ball of formed curd to the surface. It looks like the world’s biggest mozzarella, the size of a beach ball and glistening pure white.
This big soft baby is gently flipped into a sheet of muslin and suspended above the cauldron to drain. After a short while it’s cut into two and left for a further 15 minutes. Some of the whey will go to feed pigs for Parma’s other famous export, Parma Ham, but that’s another story.
Each ball is eased into a mould, a ‘fascera’, threatening to catastrophically fracture unless carefully handled. The ball will rest under pressure from a wooden lid, before receiving its ‘branding’ from a plastic wrap-around collar, which impresses an inverted braille version of ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ into what will be the hard rind, along with codes to indicate date and provenance
They go then to a salt bath to wallow in contemplative silence for six weeks before their final resting place in a ‘Cascina’. Here racked up on serried ranks of wooden shelves in constant controlled humidity, they will be cosseted, turned and brushed regularly for a minimum of twelve months. Igino shows me how he expertly checks each cheese at this time, tapping his little hammer on the rind and from the sound divining any problems inside.
Cheeses that fail his test will be ignominiously shaved of their rind, so removing their badge of quality, and as simple Mezzano be used for products such as supermarket grated cheese. The survivors will go on to be 12 month, 24 month red seal Parmigiano-Reggiano and 36 month gold seal Stravecchio cheeses.
‘Parmigiano Reggiano is produced only in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia and parts of Modena and Bologna’ explains Igino back in the tasting room. ‘The Consortia del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano was formed in 1901 and today the EU through its Discover The Origin campaign helps us protect the good name of proper parmesan and its PDO (Protected Designation of Origin )'.
‘The colour of the rind tells you the cheese’s age,’ he says peering along the side of a split Parmesan wheel, ‘the deeper the orange the more mature it is. The paste too varies in yellow with age, the younger the lighter. The grain also tells you the age and at 24 months crystals of what people often mistake for salt, but which are in fact amino acids, appear.’
Young cheeses smell milky with hints of grass, while at 24 months you can detect butter, pineapple and citrus fruits, nuts and meat stock, the ‘umami’. At 30 months or older that nuttiness is more pronounced and spice comes through. The cheese has now become the big daddy of cheeses, packed with flavour.
‘Eat it in chunks with fresh or dried fruit,’ recommends Igino, 'or add to salads with balsamic vinegar. Make anolini with it and cook them in brodo, try it with nuts and of course cook with it - an aubergine alla parmagiana for example. And don't forget to melt the rind into a minestrone. There are so many ways to enjoy it.’
He generously gives me a large hunk of the 36 month aged Parmesan to take away, seriously threatening my baggage weight allowance. No matter, I’ll pay the excess if needed. This big cheese is definitely worth every penny.
Always look for the certification marks to make sure you’re buying the real deal. A red seal ‘Stagionatura Parmigiano-Reggiano means 18 months ageing, silver means 22 months and gold is over 30 months. A big piece will keep in the fridge for months vac-packed and for weeks well-wrapped once opened.