Over nine centuries ago, Parmigiano-Reggiano began its reign as one of the most iconic cheeses. Legend and substantial historical evidence suggests that between 1200-1300, the cheese we love today had been perfected by cheese masters in the Italian province of Reggio. Not much has changed over the centuries in the production and taste of Parmigiano-Reggiano besides the demand. The production, demand and economic impact that surrounds this cheese truly indicate that it is the “King of Cheeses”.
This hard, granular cheese falls under the generic “parmesan” category of Italian cheese. However, only cheese produced in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna, Modena, and Mantua can bear the name “Parmigiano-Reggiano” under Italian law. But outside of the European Union, the name “Parmesan” can be legally used for any cheese that is similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano. So, when you pick out your Italian cheese, you will want to check the label to make sure you are getting the best cheese possible.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk of a mixture containing whole milk from the morning milking, and a part skim mixture created from the previous evening’s milking. The milk mixture is mixed with starter whey, and the temperature is increased to begin the curdling process. The curds are divided up into molds and weigh about 100lbs each. A stainless-steel form is placed around the mold to help keep its shape while the cheese sets. Once the cheese has partially set, a plastic ring that has been imprinted with the type of cheese, the plant number and month/year of production is placed around the cheese and then clasped with the stainless-steel form again. They soak in a brine bath for 20-25 days and then aged for 12-24 months. During the aging process, a master grader inspects each wheel to determine that it passes for quality and if not, each wheel is clearly marked to indicate an inferior wheel.
The cows are fed only grass or hay, and the only additives are natural whey and salt. The brining tanks contain almost the same salinity as the Mediterranean Sea. Cheese is produced daily to keep up with the global demand and there is often natural variability between wheels but true Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese has a sharp, sophisticated taste with a strong savory flavor and is a bit gritty.
In 1901, the Reggio Emilia Chamber of Commerce decided that it was necessary to establish a trade union between producers and buyers to be able to authenticate the origin and control the quality of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. However, the process of establishing a trade union proved to be slow going but the Provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Mantua did decide to begin marking their cheese to identify origins.
It wasn’t until 1928 when the voluntary Consortium for the protection of the Grana Reggiano (Reggiano Hard Cheese) was established, based on the proposal made by the Association of Entrepreneurs and the Provincial Council for Corporate Economics of Reggio Emilia. The formation of the Consortium was necessary because imitation cheese, Reggianito from Argentina, had begun showing up on the market and began tainting the name, taste, and tradition of true Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
After legal approval in 1964, the Consortium (officially known as “Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano”) was joined by all manufacturers. The tasks of the Consortium are:
- Defense and protection of the Designation of Origin
- Facilitate trade and consumption by promoting the typicality and unique features of the cheese
- Continuing to use the mark of origin of the dotted inscription “Parmigiano-Reggiano” encircling each wheel
On April 8, 2017, Nicola Bertinelli was voted to be the new President of the Consortium. This is great news for the producers of true Parmigiano-Reggiano because Bertinelli is focused on, “strengthening of controls along the supply chain, the fight against counterfeits, the supervision of industrial grating and packaging activities and the growth strategy in foreign markets.” Protecting and promoting the King of Cheese is no small task, and Bertinelli seems to be off to a great start.
One telltale sign of a truly authentic Italian restaurant is that they use real products. Parmesan cheese may taste great, but restaurants that call themselves authentic will use Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Toscana Divino of Miami is one such place where you will find traditionally inspired dishes made from fresh, local ingredients and of course, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Check out their full menu at https://www.toscanadivino.com/italian-menu-miami-fl/.