Parmigiano Reggiano, the King of the Cheses
I’m not talking with reference to something called “Parmesan” that you can buy pre-shredded or vacuum-packaged, I’m talking about Parmigiano-Reggiano, the real deal (accept no substitute!). As is typical of so many cheeses, production of Parmigiano can be a tricky business. Even slight alterations in cooking time, acidity level, or any of a hundred other decisions can result in a sub-par end product. When you consider that it takes over 150 gallons of milk to make just one wheel of Parmesan and add in the necessary care and expensive aging time required, you begin to understand why true Parmigiano costs more than any Parmesan.
What’s the difference? It turns out that anyone can make a cheese called “Parmesan,” which is why large-scale food companies can market green cardboard tubes of salted, granulated sawdust under that name. “Parmesan” cheeses are made in a variety of countries. But authentic Parmigiano Reggiano "parmesan" cheese is produced only in the Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantova and Bologna. Only the milk from local cows, whose diet is regulated according to a strict feeding discipline, can be used in the production of the cheese. The cheese is checked by an expert after 12 months; if it passes the test its rind is stamped and it continues aging for an average of 24 month, to develop prime flavors and aromas. In Italy, Parmigiano-Reggiano
"parmesan" is more than a grating cheese for pasta: It is part of a fine antipasto and also enjoyed for dessert, with some balsamic vinegar and a glass of fine wine
In the medieval age (13th century), in some of the bigger Benedictine monasteries in northern Italy, in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Bologna, a long-aged cheese began to be produced. These monasteries were associated with large areas of land, much of it given over to dairy cow grazing. Cow’s milk is heavily influenced by the diet of the animal, and it’s known that the monks cultivated clover and lucerne, which gave a particular flavor to the milk that came through in the cheese. This was Parmigiano-Reggiano, and there are many who claim that neither the cheese nor its production methods have changed substantially since the 1200s.
Unless you’re an importer or a smuggler, it would be difficult to oversee the handling of a Parmigiano wheel in transit from Italy to the U.S. But there are things to look for to improve your chances of getting the full-flavored Parmigiano for which you’re paying handsomely.
Never buy pre-grated Parmigiano. Truthfully, I haven’t seen this offered for sale much, but if you do, pass it up. You have no idea how long ago it was grated, and, like, pre-ground pepper, a lot of flavor and freshness can disappear from pre-grated Parmigiano in just a short time. Grating cheese doesn’t take very long, and you’ll be rewarded with a fresher, better-tasting product.
Don’t buy vacuum-packed or sealed-in-plastic pre-cut wedges of Parmigiano. If you were vacuum-sealed, you’d suffocate, and the same sad Fate can befall these wedges.
Do look for a repeated “Parmigiano-Reggiano” in pin-dots on the cheese rind, and look for uneven edges if you buy pre-cut wedges. This shows that the Parmigiano was cut with a special knife designed for splitting this Italian royalty into pieces more manageable for the home consumer.
Look, too, for marks branded on the side of a wheel reading “EXTRA” or “EXPORT.” Either mark indicates that the dairy asked for an extra inspection of this wheel (aged for at least 18 months), and that the wheel had been found free of any flaws, internal or external.
If possible, taste the Parmigiano before buying it.
Don’t think that the minute crystals often found in Parmigiano are a defect, or salt. They are neither. As the Parmigiano is aged, the proteins in the cheese break down into component amino-acids. Some of these re-form into a crystalline structure through natural processes, and these form the crystals you sometimes bite into. Far from being a flaw, crystals like these are considered one hallmark of a carefully made and well-handled Parmigiano.
Enjoying The Cheese: Serving Suggestions
Presumably, dear reader, you already understand that Parmigiano is used extensively in pasta dishes. But Parmigiano’s uses should not be confined merely to pasta. Parmigiano-Reggiano makes a great table or dessert cheese.
I eat curls or chunks of it all by itself or with good seasonal fruits (apples, pears, grapes and dried fruits are my favorites).
Pour a few drops of a good balsamic vinegar over your Parmigiano for even more enjoyment; some people prefer to drizzle honey over their Parmigiano instead.
You can also sliver Parmigiano into a green salad, grate it into your “mix” for meatloaf.
Use the rind to flavor soup (remove the rind before eating the soup).
For its rich, full flavor, great texture and versatility, all hail the king! Remember when you will come to Italy, say just "Parmigiano Reggiano".
Antonio Amati -
PS.If you are interested to see how Parmigiano reggiano is made, join the official web parmigianoreggiano