The big cheese
- Monday 1 April 2002
Parmigiano-Reggiano is Italy's most loved and versatile cheese. Aged for up to three years or more, its production is an old, revered craft. MICHELE SHAH goes behind the scenes .
Not many cheesemakers can boast of supplying their produce to such celebrities as world-renowned opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti or the cosmonaut, Sergey Zalyotin, commander of the Russian Mir Space Station, Mission EO-28. Parmigiano-Reggiano, which can lay claim to just this, is considered one of the world's most highly prized cheeses by top chefs and foodies alike. Praised by such scholars as Molière and Thomas Mann, its history began in 12th-century northern Italy. Today there are some 580 dairies in the region of Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy that are affiliated to the official growers' association, the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano. This body is responsible for guaranteeing, protecting and regulating the making of fine Parmigiano-Reggiano. Most producers are in the traditional production areas of Bologna, Reggio nell'Emilia, Modena, Parma and Mantova.
Many of these are small to medium-sized, traditional, rural dairy farms, such as the Agricola Poggiocastro, a co-op in Pavullo, which sits at 700m among the Apennine hills and pasture land of Frignano, 50km south of Modena.Poggiocastro has 202ha (hectares) of land, 100 sheep and 520 free-range dairy cows. Organic forage and cereal fodder are grown on part of the land; the remaining is pastureland for grazing. Valerio Minelli, a rugged, middle-aged farmer, is now the manager of Poggiocastro. He started dairy farming at the age of 13 and knows all the tricks of the trade. In this part of the world, a master artisan cheesemaker's ancient skills are passed down from generation to generation. 'It's a tough life being a cheesemaker,' says Minelli, running his fingers through his hair. 'You get up at 5am and don't finish until 8pm.'
Parmigiano is made from partially skimmed milk, cooked and aged over a long period. The milk, usually delivered by local farmers, must come from locally raised cows. The process starts with the evening milk, which is left to rest until morning. It is then skimmed of its natural cream, which is mixed with the whole milk from the morning's milking and poured into a traditional copper cauldron shaped like an inverted bell. Lactic ferments such as natural whey from the previous day's processing are added. The milk is then curdled with the addition of calf rennet. The curds are broken up using a spino, a specially designed curd knife, after which the curds are drained, cooked and occasionally whipped to break up the clotting. 'This is how the grain of the cheese is formed,' explains Minelli. The curd is left to rest for an hour then removed from the cauldron. By this time it is a well-formed mass, which is now placed in special moulds. After two to three days the fresh wheels of cheese are plunged into brine for 20–25 days.
The ripening and natural ageing of parmigiano starts from a minimum of one year and can be extended over two, three or more years. As Minelli opens the storeroom there's a hushed silence – here one can really appreciate the time and patience it takes for a good parmigiano to ripen. 'It's a labour of love,' says Minelli proudly.There are hundreds of wheels of parmigiano, neatly laid out on horizontal planes, reaching up to the roof. Looking up the stack one sees the degree of ageing as the colour of the rind changes from a pale yellow to a golden brown. It takes 16 litres of milk to make 1kg of parmigiano and about 600 litres to make a wheel, weighing an average of 40kg. Poggiocastro is a medium-sized dairy, which makes about 12 wheels per day and 3,600 per year. The total amount of Parmigiano-Reggiano made in a year and approved by the Consorzio is close to 2,700,000 wheels.
The way to distinguish an authentic parmigiano is to look on the outer rind for the fire-marked oval brand of the Consorzio. Each parmigiano authorised by the Consorzio is embossed on the rind with a trademark, which consists of pin-dot writing containing the dairy code, the month and year of production. Parmigiano cheese tasting is serious business, like being put though a thorough medical check-up. A professional cheese-tester from the Consorzio comes equipped with a percussion hammer and a thin sampling auger. He taps the cheese with the hammer at various points and listens carefully to the sound produced by his tappings, which reflect the structure of the cheese. The fine auger is used to pierce the cheese and extract a minute sample, to taste for its aroma and degree of ageing. The 'body' of a well-matured parmigiano is a uniform straw colour, which varies from pale to deep yellow, while its texture is granular, giving the cheese a distinctive crunch. All these qualities are necessary before the Consorzio endorses the cheese with its fire-marked brand.
An important aspect in quality parmigiano is its excellent source of nutrients – protein, calcium, phosphorus and vitamin B – which are easily absorbed, and the amino acids which aid digestion. It's no wonder that world athletes, cosmonauts and opera tenors choose it as a substantial part of their diet. 'Your taste buds change in space,' explains Sergey Zalyotin, the tall 39-year-old commander of MIR Space Station. 'Parmigiano is the second best thing after my wife's cooking, which is occasionally sent up to orbit with the post by shuttle. It was one of the few foods that tasted good even in orbit. Not surprisingly our supply ran out after the first three days.'Minelli, who claims to be Pavarotti's personal supplier of parmigiano since 1990, confides that Pavarotti eats a good 40 to 50 grams before going on stage. 'He never travels without a good kilo wedge of well-matured. Parmigiano-Reggiano in his luggage,' he reveals. Today it's easy to find Parmigiano-Reggiano in most good supermarkets and food shops. Good Parmigiano-Reggiano can be eaten with almost anything. Its rich, tangy flavour blends well and it can be grated and sprinkled on top of tagliatelle, spaghetti, penne, or any pasta dish that takes your fancy. It can be melted into a risotto just before it's ready to serve, adding that extra tang and making its texture extra creamy. Try shaving thin slices over a bresaola carpaccio, garnished with rocket and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. Or thinly sliced on a fresh baby spinach leaf salad with thinly sliced mushroom. One of the simplest and most traditional ways to eat parmigiano is either at the end of a meal or even as an appetiser, cut in chunks and drizzled with balsamic vinegar (the real stuff – the tradizionale). It's superb, especially when accompanied by a good glass of wine. Though many people associate chunky red wines with full-flavoured cheese, try a fruity, sparkling Lambrusco Grasparossa, such as a Corleto, from Villa di Corlo, one of the few estate-produced Lambruscos, from the same region as Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Michèle Shah is a freelance writer, living in Italy.