We’re headed back to Italy in this post, folks. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited to delve into cheese #7. Known as “the king of cheeses,” Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the most famous cheeses in the world. There’s a lot to cover so let’s jump right in.
Legend has it that Parm can be traced all the way back to the Middle Ages when it originated in northern Italy. Back then, the cheese was produced following the same procedure and in the same place as today. It is unusual that Parm has retained its recipe for this many centuries, as cheesemakers often tweak their methods over time (see Stilton) before nailing the final one down. Some food historians hold that former recipes for Parm can actually be traced back to the Roman Empire.
Parm is a cow’s milk cheese. But not just any old cow is worthy enough to milk for the purposes of making Parmigiano-Reggiano. The name “Parmigiano-Reggiano” is covered by PDO (in case you don’t remember that acronym, it stands for Protection Designation of Origin) and is regulated by Consorzio del Fromagio Parmigiano-Reggiano. Only cows from the region of Emilia-Romagna in the north of Italy, fed on Emilia-Romagnian fodder are suitable to produce the milk used for any product that goes by the name of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Forget Rome, Florence and Venice. When I visit Italy for the first time, I want to go to Emilia-Romagna. This region is the gastronomical capitol of Italy (and arguably the globe). Because of its rich, healthy soil the provinces within the region produce the world’s best vegetation, used to make pastas and balsamic vinegar and to feed livestock used for dry-cured meats and of course, cheese. Parm originated in the province of Reggio. There is a neighboring province named Parma which is where Parmigiano-Reggiano got its name.
The PDO (or DOP in Italian) afforded to Parm requires that the cheese be produced, in its entirety, in the provinces within Emilia-Romagna. It can only be made with raw milk. It can also only be made between the months of April and November to ensure that the cattle are eating fresh grass. It must be aged at least 14 months. The cheese must weigh somewhere between 66-88 lbs and must be molded into large wheels with the name Parmigiano-Reggiano written across the rind. The list of requirements goes on, but I will spare both of us because they’re not that interesting.
Cheesemongers must break down this gigantic (but by no means the largest there is) wheel to be fit to sell to customers. The classic Italian way of cutting Parm involves three different knives. The first knife has a hooked-shape blade designed to score the tough rind of the cheese. The second knife is tear-shaped and is used to deepen the cut from the previous knife. Finally, the third knife is the longest of the three and is used to pry apart the wheel. You want to let gravity take control of the prying as much as possible and use the third knife minimally for aesthetic reasons. Freshly torn apart, the paste of Parm is a truly beautiful sight, featuring peaks and valleys that mimic a terrestrial landscape.
Procuring and Tasting:
You can find Parmigiano-Reggiano at any self-respecting cheese shop in America and probably at most grocery stores with a decent cheese section. There are different ages of PDO Parm out there which impact the flavor and texture. The older the Parm, the deeper the taste and more granular the consistency, generally. You can find the date of production written on the rind of the cheese.
I bought a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano Cravero from Lucy’s Whey. G. Cravero is a family-owned business which has been handcrafting Parm since the mid 1800s. They age their rendition for a minimum of 24 months to ensure its rich taste. The taste of Parm is subtle, but unique. Steven Jenkins describes it perfectly, I think, in Cheese Primer: “it will melt in your mouth, lozenge-like, creating a thick, delicious, piquant paste.” It is oh so savory, butterscotchy and imparts a mouth-tingling flavor and feel. I’m sure you’ve all tried a cheese by the name of Parmesan before but if you haven’t tried the original Parmigiano-Reggiano, do yourself a favor and feed yourself some.
Cooking with Parmigiano-Reggiano:
I couldn’t resist grating my Parm over some pasta with marinara sauce and broccoli. It melts so beautifully! Similar to Montasio. I found that larger gratings work better than finer gratings over hot food. Parm has a distinctive taste, but with the pasta and the sauce and the high temperature going on, bigger is better.
If you’re looking for a good marinara sauce, I HIGHLY recommend the brand “Rao’s” which often goes on sale at local chain grocery stores and Whole Foods.
I also paired my Parmigiano with some Prosciutto from Iowa. I’m not normally crazy about Prosciutto when it stands on its own because it reminds me of dog food, but the Parm cut the meaty aroma and met its caramel-flavor flawlessly.
Did you know you can use Parmigiano rinds to flavor soup broths? I’ve never done it, but we sell the rinds in containers at Lucy’s Whey for that very purpose. There are a million other ways you can cook with Parm. You can find a list of recipes on the Consortium’s website or if you feel like being creative, experiment with it yourself. Remember the rule of thumb: foods and wines from the same geographical region pair best.