Parmigiano-Reggiano, erroneously called parmesan in the English language, is a hard granular cheese, cooked but not pressed, named after the producing areas of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Bologna (all in Emilia-Romagna), and Mantova (in Lombardia), Italy. Under Italian law only cheese produced in these provinces may be labeled “Parmigiano-Reggiano,” while European law classifies the name as a protected designation of origin.
Parmigiano is the Italian adjective for Parma. Parmesan is the French-language name for it and also serves as the loose term for the cheese in the English language. The name Parmesan is used for cheeses imitating Parmigiano-Reggiano, with phrases such as Italian hard cheese adopted to skirt legal constraints. Cheeses labelled Parmesan or even Italian Parmesan are not the real thing, indeed they are often very inferior as there is no supervision or guarantee of quality. The closest legitimate Italian cheese to Parmigiano-Reggiano is Grana Padano.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is made from raw cow’s milk. The whole milk of the morning milking is mixed with the naturally skimmed milk (it is left in large shallow tanks to allow the cream to separate) of the previous evening’s milking, resulting in a part skim mixture. The milk is pumped into copper-lined vats (copper heats and cools quickly). Starter whey is added, and the temperature is raised to 33–35 °C. Calf rennet is added, and the mixture is left to curdle for 10–12 minutes. The curd is then broken up mechanically (spinitura in Italian) into small pieces (around the size of rice grains). The temperature is then raised to 55 °C with careful control by the cheese-maker. The curd is left to settle for 45–60 minutes. The compacted curd is collected in a piece of muslin before being divided in two and placed in moulds. There are 1100 L of milk per vat, producing two cheeses each. The curd making up each wheel at this point weighs around 45 kg (100 lb). The remaining whey in the vat was traditionally used to feed the pigs from which “Prosciutto di Parma” (cured Parma ham) was produced. The barns for these animals were usually just a few yards away from the cheese production rooms.
The cheese is put into a stainless steel round form that is pulled tight with a spring powered buckle so the cheese retains its wheel shape. After a day or two, the buckle is released and a plastic belt imprinted numerous times with the Parmigiano-Reggiano name, the plant’s number, and month and year of production is put around the cheese and the metal form is buckled tight again. The imprints take hold on the rind of the cheese in about a day and the wheel is then put into a brine bath to absorb salt for 20–25 days. After brining, the wheels are then transferred to the aging rooms in the plant for 12 months. Each cheese is placed on wooden shelves that can be 24 cheeses high by 90 cheeses long or about 4,000 total wheels per aisle. Each cheese and the shelf underneath it is then cleaned manually or robotically every 7 days. The cheese is also turned at this time.
At 12 months, the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano inspects each and every cheese. The cheese is tested by a master grader whose only instruments are a hammer and his ear. By tapping the wheel at various points, he can identify undesirable cracks and voids within the wheel. Those cheeses that pass the test are then heat branded on the rind with the Consorzio’s logo. Those that don’t pass the test used to have their rinds marked with lines or crosses all the way around to inform consumers that they are not getting top-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano; more recent practices simply have these lesser rinds stripped of all markings.
Gourmets consider Parmigiano-Reggiano a splendid “table cheese” for eating not merely for grating. In Emilia-Romagna it is often paired with pears and walnuts and enjoyed at then end of a meal. Many consider it to be at its best at 24 to 30 months, when it is still soft and crumby, with tiny crunchy spots from the crystalised salt, yet rich and complex in flavor.
Traditionally, cows have to be fed only on grass or hay, producing grass fed milk. Only natural whey culture is allowed as a starter, together with calf rennet.
The only additive allowed is salt, which the cheese absorbs while being submerged for 20 days in brine tanks saturated to near total salinity with Mediterranean sea salt. The product is aged an average of two years. The cheese is produced daily, and it can show a natural variability. True Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese has a sharp, complex fruity/nutty taste with a strong umami flavour and a slightly gritty texture. Inferior versions can impart a bitter taste.
The average Parmigiano-Reggiano wheel is about 18–24 centimetres (7.1–9.4 in) high, 40–45 centimetres (16–18 in) in diameter, and weighs 38 kilograms (84 lb).
Uses of the cheese include being grated with a grater over pasta, stirred into soup and risotto, and eaten in chunks with balsamic vinegar. It is also a key ingredient in alfredo sauce and pesto.
Slivers and chunks of the hardest parts of the crust can also be employed as an ingredient in soups (to which they add a subtler flavour) or even be slowly chewed until soft; Italian mothers have fed parmigiano crusts to their children for generations, trusting in their high calcium content to help them developing stronger teeth and bones.
One traditional use of a whole Parmigiano head is to use it as a serving pot. On special occasions, when one has dozens of guests to serve (culinary fairs, banquets, large parties…) the whole head is used up and thoroughly hollowed out so that the bare crust remains, steaming pasta can then be poured in it and served from therein.