Parmigiano Reggiano: An Introduction
Parmesan, or Parmigiano Reggiano as it is known in Italian, is a variety of Italian cheese with a grainy texture known under the generic term 'Grana.' It is a pressed cooked cow's milk cheese, matured for a minimum of 12 months. It has a fruity and distinctive flavour. Unchanged for seven centuries, Parmigiano Reggiano was praised by Boccacio in his book 'The Decameron,'where he talked about Cocagne in 1348 where there was a mountain made from Parmesan on which was found people who did nothing else other than make macaroni and ravioli. Which confirms that Parmesan has, for a very long time, had pride of place on the Italian table, where it is used to season pasta dishes. Introduced to France by the Duchess of Parma who travelled the frontier of the transalpine to marry a grand-son of Louis XIV, Parmigiano rapidly started to be used in French kitchens. Talleyrand sprinkled Parmesan on his soup, to the astonishment of his relatives.
Choosing and tasting Parmigiano Reggiano.
Origin: Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologne, Mantoue.
Ripening: 1 to 3 years
Pate: grainy, flakes easily, no rind
weight: 20 to 40kg diameter: 35 to 45cm
height: 18 to 25cm
600 litres of milk are necessary for one wheel of cheese.
The people of Parmesan say that you should never cut a wheel of Parmesan, but instead open it, so as not to ruin the grainy structure. They even use a special knife with a short blade, pointed, in the shape of an almond, with one side thinner than the other. The knife cuts a line on each of the two faces, and then a few small incisions one or two centimeters deep open the wheel up.
Parmigiano- Reggiano is a universal cheese, which has been used in cooking since the Antiquity. It can be eaten in many different ways. To summarize, there are three ways of eating Parigiano-Reggiano: eaten in morsels, added as a seasoning to dishes before serving, and used in recipes. When eaten in morsels, the 'golden nuggets' of Parmesan can be eaten simply with bread and accompanied by wine, chutneys or fruits. As a seasoning, the cheese is grated, although sometimes left in chunky flakes, and sprinkled on dishes, where the cheese mixes its flavours and aromas with those of the dish. For example, the cheese can be sprinkled on pasta, salads, vegetables and fruits. Thirdly, Parmesan can be used as an ingredient in a recipe along with other ingredients, for example it can be used as a stuffing for fresh pasta like ravioli, it can be used with meat, to make sauces, in a 'tortini' of vegetables and in many other recipes.
Fabrication of Parmigiano-Reggiano
The milk produced within the area of origin is worked with using artisanal techniques. It is entrusted to the highly skilled master cheese-makers. The fruit of a thousand years of experience and culture, the work of the master cheese-makers are can be seen in the production of Parmigiano Reggiano because it is the artisan technique which gives this cheese it's the distinctive character. The milk is used raw and cannot undergo any heat treatment. Any form of additive is formally forbidden. In this way, the cheese which is obtained is completely natural.
To make Parmigiano-Reggiano, the milk of two traits is used, delivered separately to the dairy, in one delivery is the trait from the evening, and in the other is the trait from the morning. The milk from the evening trait is poured into large basins. It is rested the whole night so that the fat naturally comes to the surface. The next morning, the milk is then separated from the layer of cream, and poured into copper bell-shaped basins, where it is mixed with the whole milk from the morning trait which had just been delivered to the dairy. This mix of skimmed milk and whole milk makes Parmigiano-Reggiano a half-fat cheese. Lactic ferments which had been obtained from the cheese the day before are added to the mix of the two different milks. Once the milk is heated to 33°C, the natural veal rennet is added, which is rich in enzymes. The milk coagulates in 12 to 15 minutes. The curds are then separated manually using a bladed cutting utensil called a 'spino.' This operation reduces the curds to grains, the size of grains of wheat, ready to be cooked. At the final stage, the curds are cooked at 55°C. When the flame goes out, the curds fall to the bottom of the basin to form one mass. This is then rested for around an hour, and then extracted by the expert hands of the cheese-makers, to be divided into two. In effect, each basin makes two wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano, nicknamed as 'twins.' Enveloped in a linen cloth, the mass of the curds is introduced into a mould called a 'fascera' then lightly presses to squeeze out the whey.
When being put into the moulds, the casein badge is applied, which carries a unique and progressive alphanumerical code, identifying the product, like its identity card. The evening of the first day, a specific plastic type mould is placed between the 'fascera' and the cheese, which marks the rind around the circumference of the wheel with other marks of origin: the characteristic marking in dots of 'Parmigiano-Reggiano,' the identification number of the dairy, and the month and year of production. Some days afterwards, the salting begins, when the wheels of cheese are immersed in a brine solution for 20 to 25 days. In this way, only three ingredients are used to make Parmigiano-Reggiano: milk, rennet and salt. Next, the wheels are placed in a cellar to mature, where they are ripened for at least a year.
Thehere are two types of Parmigiano-Reggiano:
The classic ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ (with no other specifications) describes the wheels of cheese which show properties of being able to be matured for a long time, 2 years or more. These are recognisable by the oval mark printed with a hot iron.
‘Parmigiano-Reggiano Mezzano’ is the name given to those cheeses which show the characteristic of being able to be consumed when young, when they have been marked with the hot iron. These wheels of cheese, in addition to the hot iron mark, are identified by parallel grooves engraved on the heel of the rind.
The wheels of cheese which do not present a minimum of the required qualities are separated; the distinctive marks and the dotted letters are removed, by mechanically removing a few millimetres of the rind.
There is also another mark, EXTRA/EXPORT. This can be for the wheels matured for more than 18 months, on the demand of the cheese owner. This is a guarantee that the cheese has been correctly matured. This system, of marking the cheeses means that the buyer has even more guarantee that the product is an authentic Permigiano-Reggiano. The differentiation of the different types of Parmigiano-Reggiano, according to their age, informs the consumer and helps them choose a product that is best adapted to their tastes.
Harmonia Parmigiano (Flavours that marry well with Parmigiano)
Parmigiano-Reggiano as an aperitif
A Parmigiano-Reggiano matured for between 12 and 18 months, can be sprinkled onto morsels of fresh raw vegetables, like celery or tomatoes. To enhance the delicate flavour of the cheese, it can be accompanied with condiments which are slightly tangy, (with a base of kiwi, apricot, sweet/sour melon etc). These combinations marry perfectly with a dry white wine.
Parmigiano-Reggiano as a starter
A Parmigiano-Reggiano matured for around 24 months is perfect in most traditional Italian pasta dishes, grated or in large flakes.
Try flavouring soup (in particular minestrone) with small morsels of the rind of the cheese, it flavours the soup, but is not as strong as the pate.
Parmigiano-Reggiano with meat and fish
A Parmigiano-Reggiano matured for 26 to 30 months can be used in cooking, to enrich main dishes. It can be served in slivers on a Carpaccio of meat or fish, or on roast meat, accompanied with olive oil. This type of Parmigiano-Reggiano is best accompanied with a full-bodies red wine.
Parmigiano-Reggiano and vegetables
Parmigiao-Reggiano marries well with fresh salad and vegetables seasoned with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. It is perfect in vegetable tarts or quiches. It can be used in many different recipes, such as the Italian dish, Parmesan with aubergines.
Parmigiano-Reggiano with fruit
A Parmigiano-Reggiano matured for around 12 to 18 months can be enjoyed with fresh fruits such as pears or apples.
A Parmigiano-Reggiano matured for 24 to 28 months is delicious accompanied with all types of dried fruits such as hazelnuts, walnuts, figs etc. It marries perfectly with prunes.
Parmigiano-Reggiano and traditional Balsamic vinegar
A morsel of matured Parmigiano-Reggiano is sublime when served with a drizzle of traditional Balsamic vinegar from Modena or Reggio Emilia.