Sunday, December 21, 2008
Parmigiano-Reggiano is a hard, fat granular cheese, cooked but not pressed, named after the producing areas of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, in Emilia-Romagna, and Mantova, in Lombardy, Italy.
Parmigiano is simply the Italian adjective for Parma; the French version, Parmesan, is used in the English language. The term Parmesan is also loosely used as a common term for cheeses imitating true Parmesan cheese, especially outside Europe; within Europe, the Parmesan name is classified as a protected designation of origin.
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 33-35C. 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) is 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.
A factory of Parmigiano-Reggiano. There are two storerooms, both with 20 of these shelves.
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 used to have their rinds remarked with lines or crosses all the way around so consumers know they are not getting top-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano but are now simply stripped of all markings.
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 and a slightly gritty texture. Inferior versions can impart a bitter taste.
The average Parmigiano-Reggiano wheel is about 18-24 cm (7 to 9 inches) high, 40-45 cm (16 to 18 inches) in diameter, and weighs an average of 38 kg (80 pounds).
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.
Parmigiano cheese is considerably harder the farther it gets from its center and very hard near the crust; however it's exactly from this harder portions that the best grated cheese is obtained: a fine whiter dust which is more aromatic and tasty than the grating resulting from softer sections.
One traditional use of a whole Parmigiano head is to use it as a serving pot. Once the head is used up and thoroughly hollowed out so that the bare crust remains, steaming pasta is poured in it and served from therein.
Parmesan cheese being taste tested at a festival in Modena with balsamic vinegar drizzled on top.
According to legend, the Parmigiano was created in the course of the Middle Ages in Bibbiano, in the province of Reggio Emilia. Its production soon spread to the Parma and Modena areas. Historical documents show that in the 13th-14th century Parmigiano was already very similar to that produced today; this suggests that its origins can be traced far before.
In the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova, he remarked that the name "Parmesan" was a misnomer in his time (mid-18th century) as the cheese was produced in the town of Lodi, not Parma. This comment originates probably from the fact that a grana cheese very similar to the "Parmigiano", the Grana Padano, is produced in the Lodi area.
It was praised as early as 1348 in the writings of Boccaccio; in the Decameron, he speaks of a mountain made completely of Parmigiano to accompany macaroni and ravioli.
Samuel Pepys is reputed to have buried his Parmigiano during the Great Fire of London of 1666 to preserve it.
 Use of the Name Parmigiano-Reggiano
Parmigiano-Reggiano festival in Modena; each wheel (block of cheese) costs 490 euro.
In the European Union, "Parmesan" is a protected designation of origin; legally, it refers exclusively to the Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP cheese manufactured in a limited area in Northern Italy. Outside Europe, most notably in the United States, similar cheeses may be sold under the name Parmesan, considered generic. When they are sold in Europe, they must use another name, such as Kraft's "pamesello italiano".
The name is trademarked, and in Italy there is a legal exclusive control exercised over its production and sales by the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese Consorzio, which was created by a governmental decree. There are strict criteria each wheel must meet early in the aging process, when the cheese is still soft and creamy, to merit the official seal and be placed in storage for aging. Parmigiano-Reggiano has become an increasingly regulated product; in 1955 it became what is known as a certified name (not a brand name).
Outside Europe, the name "Parmesan" is treated as generic. The European Union campaigns against the use of protected European food labels by producers outside the designated region of origin, which might eventually lead to dropping the word "Parmesan" from cheese products originating outside the designated production region of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Other Cheeses Sold as Parmesan
An American version of pre-grated Parmesan.
The Grana Padano is an Italian cheese very similar to the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Differences are:
* It is produced mainly in Lombardy - the name Padano derives from the Pianura Padana
* Cows can also be fed silage, not grass and hay only
* The milk contains slightly less fat
* Milk of several days can be used
* It is aged for up to 20 months
Commercial Parmesan cheeses common in North America typically differ from Parmigiano-Reggiano in several ways:
* The cheese is aged for a shorter time
* The curds for Parmigiano-Reggiano are cut into fragments the size of wheat grains, which is much finer than the fragments created in the manufacture of the American version of Parmesan. The smaller curds drain more effectively;
* American Parmesan is mechanically pressed in order to expel excess moisture.
* Parmesan wheels in the United States average 11 kg (24 pounds). The size difference can affect their salt saturation during the brining process; Parmigiano-Reggiano on average contains two-thirds less salt than the average Parmesan.
* It is often sold grated.
* There is no outside body regulating or supervising the quality of the raw ingredients or of the production process.
 Parmigiano Aroma and Chemical Components
Parmigiano has many aroma-active compounds, including various aldehydes and butyrates. Butyric acid and isovaleric acid together are sometimes used to imitate the dominant aromas.
Parmigiano is also particularly high in glutamates, containing as much as 1200 mg of glutamate per 100 g of cheese, making it the naturally produced food with the second highest level of glutamate, after Roquefort cheese. The strong presence of glutamates explains the strong umami taste of Parmigiano, and the fact of being present in so many dishes of the Italian cuisine helps explaining why Italian food is so much liked by umami-loving easterners and why so many Italians like Chinese and Japanese dishes heavy in umami flavours