Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is probably one of Italy’s most famous cheese. With a history that dates back 900 years it is still made the same way using the same ingredients as in the Middle Ages.
In early November, Federica, from the Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano, kindly took us on a tour at the dairy “4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia” that is located just on the outskirts of Modena in Italy.
History of Parmigiano Reggiano
The recipe of the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese was created by monks centuries ago. Using raw milk from their dairies and salt they managed to produce a cheese with a long preservation. Today there are 397 dairies where Parmigiano Reggiano is produced and in Modena and its surroundings there are 67 dairies.
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese has a Protected Designation of Origin ( DOP in Italian) meaning that the producers of the cheese have many stricts rules to follow in order to be labeling their cheese as Parmigiano Reggiano. The production of the cheese has to take place in the area of origin, which includes the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua and Bologna. The raw milk that is used to produce this cheese also has to originate from cows in the area that are given a special diet which is vegetable feeds, from the dairy farm and local area. Fermented feed and any kind of additives are strickly forbidden when producing the cheese.
And as mentioned earlier, the ingredients used in Parmigiano Reggiano cheese are exactly the same as it was centuries ago: raw milk, rennet and salt.
4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia is a one of the dairies in Modena. In their cheese factory they have 52 copper kettles and produce 104 Parmegiano Reggiano cheese wheels every day. In one kettle 2 wheels of cheese is produced. The weight of one cheese wheel is approximately 45 kg but after maturing it weights around 39 kg. To make one cheese wheel 1 200 litres of milk is used (1 kg of cheese = 16 liter milk).
The different steps at the Parmigiano Reggiano dairy
Step 1: How the milk is prepared
The fresh and raw milk is delivered twice a day to the dairy, in the afternoon and in the early morning. The milk that arrives in the afternoon will have its cream separated and the skimmed milk will be transferred into copper kettles and mixed together with the whole milk that is delivered in the morning. The cheese maker is deciding how much of the skimmed milk and the whole milk that should be used and this ratio will affect the taste of the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Step 2: Processing of the milk
The milk is then heated to a temperature between 33-45 degrees C, then the rennet is added and the lactic ferments (in the whey from the previous cheesemaking) which helps the milk to coagulate and cheese curds are created. The cheese maker will then use a metal whisk, also called “spino” to break the clumps into smaller pieces. After this phase the temperature is increased for the milk to boil and the clumps will slowly create a big mass in the bottom of the copper kettle. A cloth is used to collect the big mass of cheese and a cheese maker cuts it equal in two pieces and collected in one cloth each and are let to hang on a bar.
Step 3: Shaping a Parmigiano Reggiano wheel
Then the cheese is lifted and put into molds. Every 2-3 hours each mold is turned and they stay here for half a day. The molds are used to remove excess liquid and to create is conic shape.
Step 4: A Matrix mold piercing important data on the wheel
The matrix mold, that was created in 1964, will remain pressed around the cheese. It contains important data such as month, year, European code and the number of the dairy in order to facilitate to trace the cheese.
Step 5: Salt water
The cheese wheels will spend 18-19 days in water with sea salt. The salt creates the cord and the cheese will lose liquid and humidity.
Step 6: Warm room to dry excess humidity
After the time in salt water the cheese wheels are transferred to a warm room with a temperature of approx 30 degrees C for a few hours to dry them from excess humidity.
Step 7: Aging phase
The last step is the aging phase. This is where the cheese wheels are taken to mature and will remain on a wooden shelf for the aging process. Here they are controlled and flipped regularly and will stay until they have reached the various ageing times. If the cheese shows defects all elements are brushed away (matrix) will be labelled as sbiancato and sold as formaggio fresco and cannot be called Parmegiano Reggiano cheese.
The different maturation periods of the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
The minimum maturing time for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is 12 months and to be considered for export it is 18 months. At the minimum maturation the flavor of the cheese is quite delicate and sweet in its taste. It also contains less grains. The more the cheese gets to age the more the flavor will be distinct, the color will be darker and the cheese also becomes harder.
There is no maximum time for the maturation, but the most common aging times are 12 months, 18 months, 24 months but also 36 month and up to 60 months can be found in selected stores.
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese tasting
In the end of the guided tour we got to taste Parmigiano Reggiano cheese with different maturation time. Below you can see a plate with the cheese we got to taste. To the left you’ll see a long slice of cheese, its called Tosone cheese, it’s a byproduct from the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Its when the cheese wheels are trimmed that this Tosone cheese is obtained. As you can see its quite pale in color and has a rubbery texture. Its a perfect substitute of mozzarella on pizza.
The Parmigiano Reggiano chunk in the bottom just under the Tosone slice is a 12 month Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, next to it is 18 months aged cheese and 24 month aged to the right. The 24 month aged Parmigiano Reggiano is the most used Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and is often used grated on pasta for example.
Next to the flag is 36 month aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. As you can see it is darker in its color and the taste was more distinct. This longer aged cheese if perfect to eat for an aperitivo, with some balasamic vinegar or jam. On the bread slice we got to taste a delicious Parmigiano Reggiano cream flavoured with peperoncino, perfect to use for an apero or with pasta. At the dairy ricotta cheese is also produced and thats what you can see in the small pot above the bread slice. Fresh ricotta cheese that tasted much better than the one you find in the supermarket.
Do all Parmigiano Reggiano cheese taste the same?
Even though the same recipe and ingredients are used in all the dairies the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese can taste different from one and each other depending on where the milk is obtained. The flora in the mountains is for example different. What the cows are feeded with is regulated but aroma of the herbs they are eating is ofcourse different and gives the milk different flavours and thats why the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese can taste differently depending on the milk that has been used.
Buy your Parmigiano Reggiano cheese directly at the dairy
If you are traveling in the area of Emilia Romagna I can truly recommend to look for a dairy and buy your cheese directly from their factory shop. Some dairies also offer visits where you can see how the cheese is produced.
The dairy I visited when writing this article was 4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia that is situated just a few minutes from Modena. You can easily reach it by car or taxi from the city. They have a cheese factory shop where you can buy their Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, in different maturations and sizes and also organic alternatives. Here you’ll also find butter and also Parmigiano Reggiano cream cheese and also local products from the area such as balsamic vinegar, different jams, pasta, wine etc.
You can also do a visit to their factory that includes a tasting at the end. Make sure to reserve ahead to be sure to get a spot on the date of your visit.
4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia
Strada Lesignana, 130