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October 13, 2011

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese comes from the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy. More specifically, it comes from the area around Parma and Reggio Emilia, hence the name Parmigiano-Reggiano. At Anna’s farm just outside of Reggio Emilia, Parmigiano-Reggiano is the cheese on hand and it’s present at almost every meal. There’s always freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on the table for your primi (usually a plate of pasta). But please, don’t put it on your primi if it has any seafood in it. That’s frowned upon – putting cheese on something with fish in it. I wouldn’t even say it’s frowned upon. It’s more like a frown plus a quasi-hostile stare that implies “are you seriously doing that.”  It’s unfathomable. And Parmigiano-Reggiano does not go on your secondo (usually a meat dish).  Why would you do such a thing? Those are the rules of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Anna and Maurizio’s farm has only a handful of cows now but before when they had more they were part of their town’s Parmigiano-Reggiano collective.  Their milk was picked up and delivered to their area’s Parmigiano-Reggiano factory, along with milk from their neighboring farmers who were also in the collective.  The profits from the cheese were then distributed to all in the collective. Even though Anna and Maurizio aren’t part of the collective anymore, Anna still knows folks there and can just walk into the factory when she wants. And what’s even better is that she can take me with her and show me all about how it’s made. So one morning, instead of heading into the vineyard for some grape harvesting, Anna proposed a Parmigiano-Reggiano field trip. The Parmigiano-Reggiano factory is about a five-minute drive from her farm. We pull up, she parks the car, we walk around the building to where the Parmigiano-Reggiano milk trucks are parked and head in through a back door.

The first things I see are the Parmigiano-Reggiano trucks. The trucks pull trailers equipped with milk vats. They travel from farm to farm, picking up the milk from the farmers who are in the collective. I saw these trucks a lot cruising around the “neighborhood.”  The trucks have the official logo of Parmigiano-Reggiano and signage that says Raccolta Latte on them, which roughly means Milk Collection in English.  The milk is raw, never pasteurized. The idea of making cheese from pasteurized milk is unfathomable. It’s as unfathomable as putting Parmigiano-Reggiano on seafood. Again, why would you do such a thing?

Anna, of course, knew the whole process of making Parmigiano-Reggiano and was so familiar at this factory that no one blinked when she walked in through the back door with a visitor in tow, showing her around the whole place. Here’s the process. It’s simple and there’s really not much that goes into it. But like all things Italian and food, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The milk first gets poured into wide, shallow metal basins and is left to settle until the cream rises to the top. The cream gets skimmed off and is used for making butter (not sure where the butter making happens) and then just the milk is left for cheese making. The milk then gets poured into giant copper vats. Whey and rennet are added to the milk and then the milk is left to curdle. And then this guy uses a giant whisk to break up the curdled milk.

The curdled bits then settle and are compacted into a giant disc. I think Anna mentioned that each disc weighs 100 kilos. It’s heavy.  It takes two hefty guys to maneuver that giant disc of compacted curds into a muslin sheet, pull it out of the liquid, and tie it to the plank. The work is physical. The giant discs are then cut in half and placed into round molds. When the worker was halving the giant pieces, he sliced off a piece of the ‘cheese’ for me to try. It tasted of nothing. Amazing what 2 years will do to the stuff!

After the unripened cheese has its round shape from being in a mold, a wrapper with all the official Parmigiano-Reggiano insignias is pressed around the wheel of the cheese and placed back into the mold. Anna pulled one of the wrappers off a shelf and showed us all the markings. It says Parmigiano-Reggiano all the way down the wrapper. This is the insignia you look for on the rind of the cheese to make sure you’re buying the real stuff. The wrapper also has the year and month marked on it when it was made so you know you’re getting the aged stuff and the individual factory also has its identifying number on here so you can trace the origin of the cheese to the very specific place it was made.

There isn’t jut one Parmigiano-Reggiano factory in this region of Italy. Each little area has its own factory with its neighboring farmers in the collective contributing their milk. Driving around the region with Anna, I noticed unassuming, humble buildings with the Parmigiano-Reggiano logo on them.  Those unassuming buildings are where this amazing cheese is made. All of the individual factories follow the standardized method for making Parmigiano-Reggiano but each factory’s cheese has a very subtle difference in taste. The milk from its locality might be just a bit different and the whey that individual factory uses is its own. Parmigiano-Reggiano to me always tastes the same (amazing, but the same); I’ve never noticed the subtle differences between the one I bought here or there. But Anna would. She’s been buying her Parmigiano-Reggiano from the collective in her town for who knows how long. She knows the specific taste of that collective’s Parmigiano-Reggiano. I can’t imagine having that kind of extremely specific honed-in sensor that she does.

After the unripened disc of cheese is encased in its wrapper and put back into a mold, it is left to dry. It then goes into a salt bath for 3 to 4 weeks. The salt bath seasons the cheese.  Out of the salt bath, the mold is taken off and the disc gets a dunk in water to rinse off.  The cheese then goes into the aging room. This is the ‘whoa!’ room.  Look at all that cheese!  It’s someone’s job at the factory to dust all that cheese.

Before we leave, we go into the front shop where you can purchase the cheese made in the factory. Anna buys a huge (to me) but normal (to her) HUNK of cheese. If it’s part of almost every meal (yes, on the table along with salt and pepper but please remember the rules!) then you don’t scrimp by buying the tiniest piece available. Which is really what I do, hoping to find one for under $10.  Just do it – get the big one. When I’m back home, I’m going to splurge on a proper piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Oh, and another thing I’m going to do, is call the cheese respectfully by its full name, Parmigiano-Reggiano. That’s what Anna always does. After all, it is the King of Cheeses and deserves your respect.

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