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Parmigiano Reggiano

The King of Italian Cheeses

Bloomberg has recently reported that, according to the US Food and Drugs Administration, a large amount of what is sold in the country as “grated Parmesam cheese” is, in fact, not even cheese. Through an investigation started in 2012, FDA found out that Castle Cheese Inc. has been doctoring its 100%  parmesan line with lower standard cheeses, as well as non-edible materials such as wood pulp. According to Neil Schuman, leader of Arthur Schuman Inc., the largest seller of hard Italian cheeses in the US, at least 20% of national production is mislabeled, with a large percentage of grated parmesan containing less than 40% cheese.

Some of the information reported by Bloomberg about the FDA investigation was downright frightening: apparently, part of the company grated parmesan cheese brands contained no parmesan at all and was made up mostly of cellulose, swiss, mozzarella and white cheddar. Of course, using the word “parmesan” or “parmigiano” on the label of such a product is misleading at best and illegal in the most serious cases.

Italian cheeses are the most popular among non-national cheeses in the US and, therefore, among the most likely to be tampered with. Hard Italian cheeses are at a greater risk because of the high expenses related to their production or import.

What has been happening in the US stands at the very opposite of that philosophy of genuinity, authenticity and respect of product’s traditions embodied by the D.O.P. denomination and, more specifically in the case of Parmigiano, of the Consorzio del Parmigiano Reggiano, an association born more than 80 years ago to protect and support the excellence of Parmigiano around the world. Parmigiano, as many other products in Italy (and, indeed, the world), represents a cheese making tradition that starts from the type of grass cows are fed with and only ends when Parmigiano Reggiano wheels get fire branded with the worldwide famous logo of the Consorzio.

A product to enjoy and to protect, Parmigiano Reggiano has a history rooted in that of the land it comes from and is synonym of Italian culinary tradition and Made in Italy as it should be. Read on and learn about when it was produced for the first time and how, its characteristics and why it is rightly considered a cultural – and culinary – patrimony of Italy.

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The stamping of Parmigiano Reggiano (Comune di Reggio nell’Emilia/flickr)

Benedectines and Cistercian monasteries of the Middle Ages: the first home of Parmigiano Reggiano

The cheese was, very likely, first produced in Benedectine monasteries in the Emilia Romagna area of modern Italy. Monks, who had easy access to fresh milk from monasteries’ land and to salt, coming largely  from the Salsomaggiore area, begin producing the savory, hard cheese with one thing in mind: preservation. They were after a cheese which could withstand the passing of time without getting moldy and going off. The dry, crumbly texture of Parmigiano Reggiano is the result of their experiments, which were to lead to the creation of a world classic.

A cheese easy to preserve is a cheese that can travel easily and maintain its flavor and freshness unaltered: this made Parmigiano Reggiano’s fortune, as it meant it could be sold very much anywhere.

The first document where Parmigiano is mentioned brings witness to the fact its popularity had passed the boundaries of the villages and towns around the monasteries where it was produced: dated 1254, the notary deed where caesus parmensis (“the cheese of Parma,” in the noble language of our forefathers) is mentioned for the first time was redacted in Genoa, quite a distance from Parma, especially in those years. Fast forward 90 years and Giovanni Boccaccio, father of the Italian language along with Dante and Francesco Petrarca, recounts in the Decameron about “parmigiano grattugiato,” used to season “maccheroni e raviuoli,” in a fashion not at all distant from how we still use it today.

The popularity of Parmigiano rises throughout the Renaissance and the Benedectines begin producing it also in the area around Modena. In the 16th century, Parmigiano becomes international: sources referring to its consume are found in Germany, France and Spain.

Parmigiano Reggiano: closer to us in time

All in all, Parmigiano Reggiano is still produced today as it was all those centuries ago by the monks of Parma and Modena. At the beginning of the 20th century, essential innovations were introduced – namely the use of natural whey and the steam heating of the milk – as well as some changes in the way local producers worked with one another to protect the genuinity of their product: the first cooperatives were created.

In 1928, several dairies of the Reggio Emilia area joined to create the Consorzio Volontario del Grana Reggiano, whereas producers around Parma chose the abbreviation F.P. (formaggio di Parma, cheese of Parma) starting their own cooperative for their own product’s protection. In 1934, Parmigiano Reggiano producers of the whole region and Mantova (in Lombardia) joined forces to create the Consorzio Volontario del Grana Tipico. In 1938, finally, the Consorzio del Parmigiano Reggiano is founded.

In 1996 Parmigiano Reggiano is recognized as a European D.O.P. In 2008 the European Court of Justice sentenced that all terms referring to parmigiano -including “parmesan”- can onyl be used for the authentic Parmigiano D.O.P.

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Parmigiano Reggiano maturing on its shelves (Wonsun/flickr)

Enjoy Parmigiano Reggiano in all the right ways

Parmigiano Reggiano is a nutritious yet light to digest cheese, rich in proteins, vitamins and minerals. From athletes to pregnant women, from children to the elderly, Parmigiano Reggiano can be part of everyone’s diet: it is not only and simply good, it is also good for you.

We all enjoy our Parmigiano Reggiano on pasta, soups, pizzas, shaven on salads, or on top of bresaola and tartare. But did you know you can become an official “assaggiatore”? An “assaggiatore” (we would say taster in English) is the food equivalent of a sommelier and you can “train” as a Parmigiano Reggiano specialist even online. Its official website proposes an “Academy,” (also available in English) that teaches gourmands all over the world how to recognize real Parmigiano Reggiano, how to recognize its level of ageing and, of course, how to enjoy its flavor and aroma to the full. The Academy proposes three video-lessons and one longer, more detailed final video that takes a deeper look at the topics treated. The content of the videos is also available as a PDF, in case you are more of a reading type.

Even if you do not really want to become an “assaggiatore,” have you ever wondered how the procedure takes place?

Well, when speaking of Parmigiano Reggiano, as it is for any other type of cheese or food, it all comes down to one – or rather, five – thing: your senses. All five senses are important to learn about and understand Parmigiano Reggiano: with sight, we learn about the shape, color and appearance of the cheese (when talking about Parmigiano, we speak of “scaglia”). With touch, we learn about its texture and its consistency and with smell we get to enjoy its special smell and aroma, which change depending on the level of maturation. Taste, of course, is king when it comes to cheese: by biting the “scaglia”  and savoring it, we can learn about its taste and by rolling it into our mouth and expiring through our nose, we can recognize all its aromas.

Parmigiano Reggiano on our tables

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Parmigiano Reggiano is excellent on its own, as part of popular recipes and with meat and fruits (Paul Kelly/flickr)

Let us come to business: let us talk more about food. Because if learning about Parmigiano Reggiano is great, eating it is even better. Try it with pears, for an old style example of Italian cucina povera; try it also with apples, grapes and strawberries – rigorously when they are in season. To enjoy it at its best with fruit, make sure your Parmigiano Reggiano has only matured between 15 and 18 months, as its sweetness matches perfectly that of fruit. As a “parmigiano e pere” lover, however, I can guarantee you it is always delicious.

Parmigiano is an essential ingredient in filled pasta, such as ravioli and cappelletti, but also in savory tarts, quiches and soups. When matured for 22 to 30 months, Parmigiano Reggiano is excellent on meat or fish carpaccio.

Of course, it is fantastic on its own, with few drops of D.O.P Modena or Reggio Emilia balsamic vinegar. As an aperitivo, it is great, once again, with fruit, nuts and honey.

In spite of all the imitations around, Parmigiano Reggiano can maintain its cool: nothing can compete with history, tradition and deliciousness.

Francesca Bezzone

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Jerry catsnzariyi
4 years ago

Excellent love this cheese but now have a better understanding of it. I can’t do without it when cooking or just tasting. Bring Italian I always try cooking with the best ingredients now I really know what to look for when purchasing this fabulous cheese

4 years ago

So what brand of cheese would you recommend or which ones should we avoid? Great article!