Parmigiano-Reggiano is a hard texture cheese, cooked but not pressed. It is made from raw cow's milk, collected immediately after milking and partly skimmed by gravity. Cows have to be fed only on grass or hay. Concentrated feeds have to be prepared with a list of specific ingredients. Only natural whey culture is permitted as starter, together with calf rennet. The only additive permitted is salt. Ageing lasts on average two years. The cheese is made every day, therefore it has a variability which represents the fruit of nature.
A fundamental distinction
It is at this stage that the real difference between Parmigiano-Reggiano and other cheeses appears. The imitations so often lumped together under the generic term "parmesan" are industrial, mass products turned out in vast mechanized plants using technical processes which cut production costs at the expense, as every gourmet knows, of the "heart" and flavour which only the artisan's respectful handling and nature's patient maturing can guarantee.
A first class raw material calls for first class methods. The milk obtained exclusively in the territory of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and part of Bologna and Mantova is a regional speciality to the genesis of which soil, climate, foddervegetation, cattle-rearing traditions, and other factors less easy to categorize, have contributed with happy results.
A masterpiece of cheesemaking can be produced only through the operation of small rural cheese dairies, where the farmers can deliver their product straight after milking and in a homogeneous condition. The producers of Parmigiano-Reggiano are reconciled to the fact that this means that economic considerations must in part be sacrificed to the excellence of the product. The milk is of course subjected to modern hygienic control, but the role of science goes no further. Tested but unspoiled, the milk is used with its natural flora intact. No foreign bodies (i.e. anti-fermentatives, etc.) are added. Parmigiano-Reggiano is a "Whole Food", of a flavour that is unmistakably "old world".
With milk, rennet and fire
The question, "how is Parmigiano-Reggiano made?" begins with "where" because the product is circumscribed by precise territorial limits.
Production is exclusive to the "zona tipica", which includes the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena in their entirety and Mantua on the right bank of the Po river and Bologna on the left bank of the Reno river.
The work is done in a cheese dairy or "casello". This is as a rule a small building, where on average about four to ten cheeses are turned out daily. Although traditional methods are used, the organization and equipment are completely up to date and in line, with the highest standards of modern hygiene. The milk arrives from the neighbouring farms in a constant flow. Its exceptional qualities derive both from environmental factors and from the special milking habits of the factors, which are reared with great care and nourished predominantly with fresh fodder.
Two successive milkings are used in each batch of cheese: the evening milk is poured out into small trays to rest throughout the night; the morning milk is used after it has rested for about one hour.
A proportion of the naturally accumulated cream is skimmed off (this operation makes the cheese light and never fat), the evening and morning milks are then poured together into a copper kettle shaped like an inverted churchbell.
At this stage, the "starter" or fermenting-whey is added. This whey is a residue of the preceding batch in which the lactic flora has developed by fermentation. This practice, which is very ancient, raises the acid content of the milk to bring about the correct degree of fermentation in the cheese.
For this purpose the milk is heated in the kettle to a temperature of 33° centigrade, while stirring slowly. The heat is then turned off and the rennet - a natural extract from the stomach of sucking calves - is added to the milk. Coagulation occurs within 12 to 15 minutes. In the coagulated milk or curd "cagliata" the most nutritive elements are made available in solid form by the action of the rennet: the liquid that remains is known as whey. The curd is turned over and broken up with a sharp-edged tool known as the "spino" (thorn-bush).
This operation reduces the coagulated mass to fragments
the size of wheatgrains, ready for the "cooking". Over a slow heat the
temperature of the curd is raised to 45° centigrade; then the heat is
stepped up sharply until the mass reaches a temperature of 55° centigrade.
It's a long way from milk to cheese
Still wrapped in its cheese-cloth, the "cooked" curd-mass is placed inside a circular wooden mould or "fascera", and lightly pressed down to ease out the remaining whey. This vessel gives the cheese its characteristic shape.
After a few hours the cloth is removed and a special
matrix is inserted between the cheese and the inside of the mould.
The cheese is
then salted by immersion in kitchen-salt brine for a period of 20-25 days
and is taken into the "cascina", the storehouse where the first stage of
maturing takes place. There, the cheeses are placed on massive wooden shelves
where they are regularly brushed, turned over and checked.
The total production of any cheese dairy for one season, or cheesemaking year, is known as "la partita", the "crop of the year", or the "lot". From then onwards, the Parmigiano-Reggiano undergoes a long process of ageing, afterwards continued in adjoining store rooms to which the whole season's production is usually transferred at the end of the year.
The rooms used for maturing Parmigiano-Reggiano are spacious premises, made to accommodate 100 to 200 thousand wheels.
They are fitted out for their purpose and located, as a rule, in the vicinity of the major commercial centers of the production zone.
Generally speaking, the maturing installations are managed by banking houses or cooperative organizations, which ensure all the finishing operations required for the cheese in their care. In addition to this, they provide financial assistance for the dairies storing the cheese.
The Production of Parmigiano-Reggiano