Real Parmesan Doesn’t Come in a Little Green Tube
I love cheese. Parmesan cheese is no exception. Real Parmesan cheese – Parmigiano-Reggiano.
I worked as a Cheesemonger at Whole Foods Market for several years; it was a great job. One of my favorite tasks was “cracking a parm”. Cracking a Parmigiano-Reggiano wheel is a physically challenging, age-old, traditional process best done with a couple other people. The time and process reminds me of watching my mother and sisters sitting around snapping beans and peas getting ready for canning or of quilting bees. It requires that you focus on the task and work together but can still be a time of bonding and laughing and working through problems and challenges. I’m sure some of the people who’ve done this are rolling their eyes about right now but I always enjoyed and looked forward to it.
A “parm wheel” weighs in at about 85 pounds. Three specialized tools are used to score, split, and separate the cheese. Here’s a quick video to show how the first crack is done:
Let me tell you, the heart of the wheel is absolute heaven. If you ever happen to stroll by a cheese department and see them cracking a parm, stop and watch and ask for a sample of the fresh stuff. After it’s split, it’s sectioned into smaller pieces, the sharp corners are smoothed out, and it’s wrapped, weighed, sealed, and sold. I appreciated using the same process and the same tools that have been used for centuries.
Those little green tubes of so-called parmesan cheese? Those are about as far away from the real thing as you can get. This is serious folks, stop buying that crap. Parmigiano-Reggiano is considered a hard grating cheese in the U.S., that’s what we mostly use it for. Make no mistake, in it’s purest form it is for eating first, grating second. It’s texture is a bit firmer than aged cheddar and has delightful, crunchy crystal that almost feels like effervescence as it blooms in your mouth.
True parmesan, Parmigiano-Reggiano, is called the “King of Cheese”. Once you learn the story behind this cheese from the Gods you’ll understand why. Many delicious, gourmet, specialty foods come from the Parma area. Located in the Emilia Romagna region in northern Italy it’s been known as Italy’s gastronomic capital since ancient Roman times.
The Journey of the King of Cheese
The Sacred Cows (& Milk)
Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced from the milk of cows that graze among sprawling dairy farms in the mountainous Parma area.Rich in local grasses and flowers, by law, these fields can’t be chemically fertilized or planted with any new crops. This ensures the purity and consistency of the milk; the cattle of Parma are watched over and monitored closely; they can only eat the natural growth from spring to fall. In the winter, they’re fed hay from the same fields. All supplements, antibiotics, growth hormones and silage of fermented grasses, grains, cereals, or corn are forbidden. If a cow becomes ill it’s taken out of milk production while it’s treated and untilall medications have cleared from its system.
The flavor and composition of the cows’ milk varies between the first milking of the day and the second. The milk used to make the cheese is always half from the first milking and half from the second.
Very little has changed over the generations Parmigiano-Reggiano has been made in Parma. The cheese makers of Parma are devoted to the endless hard work that goes into this process. Cheese making must begin within two hours of milking. Under EU regulations and Italian laws, Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be made in the area of Parma; it’s been made using the same methods for more than 800 YEARS!
When the fresh milk arrives it’s poured into big copper kettles with a small amount of rennet (a naturally-occurring enzyme found in cow intestines). Rennet causes the proteins in the milk to form a curd and allows the liquid to separate and run off as whey. It’s heated up until curds form; the curds are broken up with a spinning blade until it reaches the desired consistency. The heat and mixing is shut down and a sheet of muslin is slid beneath the big lump of curds. The four corners of the muslin are tied off and hung from a metal rod so the mass can drain.
The mass is cut in half to make two wheels and each is placed in a round stainless steel mold the size of a car tire. The molds give the cheese its disc shape, about ten inches thick and two feet in diameter. The molds serve another very important function, as an anti-counterfeiting measure. The molds are carefully tracked and numbered; they’re only supplied to licensed and inspected dairies. Braille-like needles on each mold create an easily-recognized pattern on the outside of the cheese. The Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano regulates the molds; only wheels with this pattern are considered authentic.
The cheese is then submerged in a tank of brine for three weeks. When the wheels are removed the salt water is rinsed off; a rind has begun to form and the actual cheese-making process is complete. However! the cheese isn’t ready for consumption for at LEAST TWO YEARS.
The wheels are stacked by the thousands on wooden shelve in warehouse aisles hundreds of feet long and up to 25 shelves high. The “ager” not only stores, cools, and guards the cheese; every single wheel must be flipped weekly. Remember the size of these things… around 86 pounds, ten inches thick, and two feet in diameter! Also, moisture accumulates on the wooden shelf must be wiped clean. Workers did this manually for centuries; climbing ladders and flipping and cleaning one by one. Now, robotic mini-forklifts do the rotating.
The cheese must be aged at least 12 months but few are sold that soon. At least 18 months of aging is required for the “vecchio” grade and a minimum of two years, most times three, for the most desirable grade, Stravecchio.
Every wheel must be individually inspected and tested before it can be sold as Parmigiano-Reggiano; in 2016 there were 3,469,865 produced. The testers’ tools of trade are: a metal and rubber percussion hammer, a screw-like auger, and a long steel needle. The wheel is inspected for cracks, holes, or other faults. With the hammer they tap the wheel over and over listening carefully to make sure there is no hollowness which would indicate that proper crystallization has not taken place. If the hammer test proves inconclusive, they insert the thin steel auger to extract a tiny cylindrical cross section of the wheel. The inspector can then visually inspect the entire width of the wheel, smell it and taste it. If it passes it is stamped with a hologram certifying it’s authenticity and quality.
How Do I Know What to Buy?
First, Let’s Talk About the Name
This is where it can get complicated; I’ll try to cut through the many layers and lawsuits and get to the point.
- In the 16th century, the Italians started calling Parmigiano-Reggiano “Parmesano”, from Parma.
- The French shortened it to “Parmesan”.
- “Parmesan” comes to the U.S.
- The U.S. bastardizes the term by introducing everything from lovely Wisconsin cheeses similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano to nasty powders used to make boxed macaroni and cheese and wood pulp (cellulose) sold in green tubes.
- Italy tries to defend and stop the use of Parmesan but U.S. courts overrule their attempts deeming “Parmesan” as a generic term and is now used for just about any kind of cheese or cheese substance – in the U.S.
When you think about all the work and tradition that we’ve just discussed it’s pretty sad that what most Americans think of as Parmesan doesn’t even remotely resemble the original or the quality of the product.
Shopping for Parmesan
The confusion has to do with Parmesan vs. Parmigiano-Reggiano. So, if you see that it’s “Made in Italy” and has a seal of origin, you’re probably getting the real thing. All this being said, there are some brands of “Parmesan” that are of decent quality and are actually cheese. I purchase the real thing for special occasions and dishes; don’t throw out the rind, it’s great for seasoning soups. You can expect to pay up to $20 per pound for Parmigiano-Reggiano.
- If you’re going to buy pre-grated Parmesan, look for American producers with good reputations; when buying pre-grated Sartori and BelGioso are from Wisconsin and are pretty decent quality.
- At the grocery store, shop for Parmesan in the deli department first.
- There are different qualities in each department: the deli or specialty area, the dairy case, and on the shelf in the aisle (last resort!).
I love the stories of food and food producers. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit about one of the staples most of us have in our refrigerators (or heaven forbid cupboards). When you consider the cost of food, I hope you’ll consider where it came from, who and how it was made and most importantly how does that process influence our health and wellness.
I’d love to hear your favorite food stories in the comments below!
In Health & Happiness!