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Parmigiano Reggiano PDO

Parmigiano Reggiano PDO

by Nancy Anne Harbord 26 November 2015

We speak to farmers and cheesemakers to learn about the history and people behind this handmade, artisan cheese – how the region shapes it, exactly what goes in and what makes Parmigiano Reggiano so uniquely special.


Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Parmigiano Reggiano is made using a very small number of natural ingredients – only milk, whey from the previous day's cheesemaking, calf rennet and sea salt. It is a unique cheese, one whose manufacturing processes have no real parallels internationally. Each year, 1.8 million tonnes of milk are curdled into cheese, a number that would typically indicate industrial production, and yet Parmigiano Reggiano is resolutely a handmade cheese, made in only 363 small dairies. Parmigiano Reggiano is an extremely labour-intensive cheese to make. Were this quantity of cheese produced industrially, it would typically require 8000 people – Parmigiano Reggiano employs 50,000.

It has been made in the region for nine centuries, in the beginning by Benedictine monks, with the craft and its resulting cheese remaining essentially unchanged over that incredible length of time. The ritual gestures used to ‘cross’ the milk (pictured below) have their roots in the cheese's religious origins, even the temperature scale used to regulate the milk stems from the monks. These practices have been refined over the centuries and more recently limited technologies have mitigated some (but certainly not all) of the back-breaking labour, but Parmigiano Reggiano remains an artisan product, made with love, passion and total dedication by the casari, the cheesemakers who gently shape the milk into cheese.

The cheesemaker checking the curd
The cheesemaker checking the curd
The cheesemaker’s assistant ‘crossing’ the curd
The cheesemaker’s assistant ‘crossing’ the curd

These experts make a range of tiny adjustments, throughout the day, each day, depending on the quality of the milk at that time. Using knowledge that cannot be studied, but must be learned incrementally, their expertise is handed down from one committed artisan to another over many years. The cheesemaker I visited, Damiano Delfante, was the fourth generation of Parmigiano Reggiano producers in his family. He works all day, every day, with no holidays. He lives with his milk and cheese, and has always lived the life of the dairy. Interestingly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to persuade the younger generation of Italians to take up this work, and workers from outside Europe now form the backbone of the Parmigiano Reggiano labour force. In Delfante’s small factory, his assistants – aspiring casari themselves – hailed from Senegal and India.

 
 
Pulling the curd into shape with muslin
Pulling the curd into shape with muslin
Recently made wheels with code
Recently made wheels with code

This long-established local knowledge is key to the unique properties of Parmigiano Reggiano, but just as important is the milk. Parmigiano Reggiano is made with unpasteurised milk, a method which requires more care and attention, but one which preserves the individual microbiological properties of the milk, all the way through to the moment you eat the cheese. The cheesemaker I visited told me this was the secret of the milk: ‘the ones who live inside’ and that everything he does is dedicated to nurturing these bacteria.

 
 
Alfalfa flowers
Alfalfa flowers
The dairy farmer explaining the feed
The dairy farmer explaining the feed

The feed Parmigiano Reggiano cows are given is strictly regulated, and they must be fed an all-natural diet of local grasses, herbs and other forage. At least 75% must be sourced from the region, with a minimum of 50% coming from the dairy farm itself – the farm I visited produced more than 80% of its own feed. This is sourced from natural meadows, pastureland and crop fields such as clover, ryegrass, oat, barley, wheat, maize, sorghum, millet and honeysuckle. Alfalfa (pictured) is a particularly important food as it suits the dry summers of the area.

 
 
A dairy barn in the mountains
A dairy barn in the mountains
The dried feed the farmer produces
The dried feed the farmer produces

The soil characteristics of this land, which covers the plains, hills and mountains between the River Po in the north and the River Reno to the south and east of Emilia-Romagna, strongly influences the flora and the fermentation characteristics that result. Local climatic conditions are also important, notably for the maturation stages of Parmigiano Reggiano production, which rely on certain enzyme processes that are linked to the region's weather. Biochemical research has repeatedly demonstrated significant differences between Parmigiano Reggiano and its many imitators. The skill of the local artisan is a strong factor, but so too is the region, its climate and the plants that the animals are fed.

The Parmigiano Reggiano consortium, the body which enforces these very particular processes, has operated for the past eighty years to ensure the exceptional quality of this cheese in a world of industrialised imitation. When a cheese is made, it is not yet Parmigiano Reggiano, it only aspires to be so. After twelve months of maturation, each wheel of cheese is checked individually by a battitore (drummer), who knocks all over the rind of the cheese with a small hammer, checking for defects. On average 2000–3000 cheeses are checked daily by each battitori team, with around 2–3% of the wheels not making the grade and becoming generic hard cheese. Another 7–8% will become second choice graded cheese.

 
 
The cheese-testing hammer
The cheese-testing hammer
Aging Parmigiano Reggiano wheels
Aging Parmigiano Reggiano wheels

These inferior cheeses can only be sold as 'Italian hard cheese', and any markings indicating they are Parmigiano Reggiano are removed. So each wheel can be identified and traced, unique alphanumeric codes made of natural casein are applied to each wheel during production. The loss or damage of one of these labels must be reported immediately to the consortium. When a whole box of these labels went missing in Damiano Delfante’s factory it meant a speedy trip to the police station. If a lost label that has not been reported is found on a fake cheese, the cheesemaker is legally responsible.

The historical significance of Parmigiano Reggiano to the local economy and culture cannot be underestimated. It is very hard to profit from the production of this cheese, with a sense of loyalty and commitment to the systems of making this cheese the primary motivating factor for those involved in the industry. The people of this region find unity in making and sharing their local products, and it is this feeling of belonging, of sharing a common culture, that makes the cheese what it is. The strict regulations which govern how this cheese is made are essential for maintaining the very highest quality standards, which set Parmigiano Reggiano apart from its competitors and ensures the continuation of this culinary and cultural treasure.

Image copyright

All images courtesy of John Holdship unless otherwise credited.

 
 
 

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