HOW LONG HAS PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO CHEESE BEEN AROUND?
When it is said that Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese has been “a great cheese for at least nine centuries”, it is not only highlighting its ancient origin but also pointing out that this cheese is still identical to how it was made eight centuries ago, having the same appearance, the same extraordinary taste, made in the same way, in the same places, and with the same expertise.
The cheese was prized during the Roman Empire and Roman authors, Columella, Varrone and Marziale, wrote about the production and fame of a cheese from Parma with characteristics similar to the Parmigiano-Reggiano we know today. In the mid-14th century, Giovanni Boccaccio mentions Parmigiano in his description of the Paese di Bengodi, or the mythical land of plenty. He suggests tossing the cheese with macaroni and ravioli, guaranteeing the cheese’s fame for centuries to come.
Like so many of the authentic treasures of Italian cuisine, the history of this cheese goes back almost a thousand years, beginning with the laborious drainage of the vast marshy and woody areas of the central Po River valley, which had not been cultivated for centuries. This massive undertaking was implemented by the local rural populations of Lombardy and Emilia, with the help and supervision of the Cistercian and Benedictine monks. The impressive feat was accomplished in a few decades, and soon the fields became fertile. As hay and grass became available in larger quantities, cattle farming improved and spread throughout the region. Soon, there was an overabundance of milk, and the need to find ways to avoid wasting it. Cheese might seem obvious today, but that great food was yet to be invented. It required a sort of miraculous coalescing of different factors for the first cheese to originate.
Milk in ancient times was often transported in leather pouches called otri, made from the stomachs of goats and cows, which were hung from the saddles of horses and donkeys. The inner lining of these bags naturally contained residual rennet (an important enzyme in making cheese), which combined with the movement and the heat of the animals is believed to have provided the conditions that led to the discovery of cheese. It wasn’t long, before people wanted to find a way to make a harder cheese—one that could keep for longer periods without perishing.
The first cow cheese that was aged for many months was called caseus vetus, literally “old cheese.” The ultimate recipe for this was most likely the result of a great deal of labor, trial and error, and the cumulative experience and creativity of many. Eventually, the “perfect” recipe evolved. Major improvements came with the mastering of various techniques in heating, brining and drying, as well as the expert usage of whey and calf rennet in the cheese production. Except for the addition of some simple mechanization and the refinement of various instruments, in the more than 800 years since its invention little has changed in the way this cheese is made.
WHAT IS THE CONSORTIUM OF PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO?
The Consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano, was founded in 1934, and is comprised of Parmigiano cheese producers from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantova and Bologna. The quality of their cheese is based on a balance of many factors, including the quality of the pastures and of the milk, the artisanal production methods that have remained unchanged for seven centuries, the natural aging process, the complete absence of preservatives, additives or coloring agents, and strict control by the Consortium.
The Consortium defends and protects the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano. They also oversee where it is being produced. They work to educate consumers about where and how Parmigiano is traditionally made. The Consortium is a non-profit organization and, according to a decree made on June 17, 1957, is responsible for building the brand and monitoring the standards of production. Parmigiano-Reggiano has been recognized by the European Union as a DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) product.
HOW IS PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO CHEESE MADE?
If you have ever seen a whole wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano—an impressive 18 inches in diameter, about 8 inches high and weighing about 85 pounds—it’s hard to imagine how such an unwieldy creation could have been made. It all starts with the morning’s fresh raw cow’s milk combined with skimmed milk from the previous evening poured into huge copper cauldrons.
Each copper cauldron contains 290 gallons of milk, which yields two large wheels of cheese. The milk mixture is slightly warmed and then a “starter” whey, derived from the previous day’s cheese production—is added to the cauldrons. The starter is an essential aspect of the art of the master cheese maker, because the quantity used must be sensitively adjusted according to the acidity of the milk and other factors.
Next, calf rennet, which contains a coagulant enzyme, is added to the milk mixture. After about ten minutes, when the curds start to form at the bottom of the vat, the cheesemaker begins to break them up with a long instrument called an aspino, a thick wooden stick with a sort of huge kitchen whisk at the end. Then the temperature of the mixture is raised to 130 degrees—a very delicate moment because the mixing and breaking of the curds requires the expert skill and physical strength of a master cheese maker.
After this step, the cheese is left to rest in the vats—for about one hour—until it is sufficiently compacted and has attained the required consistency. Then, the heavy mass of cheese is pulled out with a large muslin cloth and cut into two parts, which are each placed in circular molds, wrapped in muslin with a numbered label. A few hours later, each cheese wheel is branded with distinctive marks around the circumference of each whee ( the famous dotted name), as well as, the month and year of production, are embossed and each will have their own distinctive branding.
There are three main varieties of grana cheese—Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano and Grana Trentino. Grana means “grainy” and refers to the flaky and granular texture of all these cheeses. The aging process varies for the three types of grana according to each cheese’s method, but for Parmigiano-Reggiano, the regulations are the most demanding.
After a few days, the wheels are immersed for about four weeks in large baths of salt and water, in which they are repeatedly turned. Then, they are laid to rest on wooden shelves in huge rooms with a constant humidity of 85 to 90% and carefully controlled temperatures. They are periodically inspected and turned, and the natural outer rind brushed manually or mechanically. After 12 months, each wheel is inspected with special tools—such as a tiny hammer for testing the sound of each wheel to reveal any faults in consistency, and a long needle to check its aroma. If a wheel doesn’t meet the DPO standards, part of the rind will be scraped in a particular way that signals to vendors and consumers that it must be sold as a mezzano, which is a good second-tier Parmigiano. Only the top-quality cheeses that pass the tests will be fire branded with the consortium logo and left to age 18 months; these are called “extra” or “export” and will carry a red seal. Parmigiano-Reggiano that carries a silver seal has matured for 24 months; the gold seal is reserved for the very best, called stravecchio, which is aged 30 months or more.
HOW TO USE PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO CHEESE.
The use of this cheese in the kitchen and on the table is vast. In Italy, Parmigiano is mainly grated over pasta, soups and risotto. When to use Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano is obvious to most Italians because the choice is based on long-standing recipes and traditions—but for the rest of us, a good rule of thumb, is use Parmigiano for more delicate flavors. Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano and Grana Trentino are important ingredients in countless recipes—from filled pastas and crepes to gnocchi or meatloaf. Balsamic vinegar is the perfect complement for a grana cheese, as a simple dipping glaze or in salads. As a dessert, it can be enjoyed with various fruits, particularly with pears. Parmigiano is also eaten just as it is, at the end of a meal or during the day as a snack.
HOW TO STORE IT
When Parmigiano Reggiano is vacuum-sealed it can be stored for long periods of time in a 32-40°F refrigerator. If you purchase a slice of Parmigiano-Reggiano or if you open the vacuum-sealed package, the cheese should be stored in the refrigerator in special glass or plastic containers. The cheese can also be wrapped in plastic wrap, placed in a sealable plastic bag and put in a cheese drawer or a fitting compartment of the refrigerator. The cheese is best consumed at room temperature. Do not store cheese in the freezer.
Remove and discard the plastic wrap when you want to use the cheese again. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, you can cut off any mold on the cheese and continue to use Parmigiano Reggiano. Cover the Parmigiano Reggiano wedge with new plastic wrap each time cheese is used. Place the rind, the light brown waxy top portion of wedge, into a plastic storage bag and keep in the freezer once the rest of the Parmigiano Reggiano wedge is gone. Use the leftover rind to add flavor to soups by letting it cook with other ingredients and removing it before serving.
Prosciutto & Parmigiano Stuffed Mushrooms
- 24 large white button mushrooms
- 3 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
- 8 thin slices Applegate Farms Prosciutto or other nitrate free proscuitto, chopped
- 1/4 cup Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
- 3 tablespoons minced Italian flat-leaf parsley
- 3/4 cup finely grated imported Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 1 large egg, beaten or 1/4 cup egg substiute
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 400˚F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Remove stems from mushrooms. Discard tips of stems, then chop remaining stems.
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add chopped mushroom stems, garlic and onion. Stirring often, sauté until the mushroom stems are tender, about 7 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Add prosciutto, bread crumbs, parsley, 1/2 cup Parmigiano, egg, salt and pepper to the cooked mushrooms. Mix well to combine.
Divide filling among mushroom caps, heaping slightly. Arrange mushrooms in one layer on baking sheet. Sprinkle stuffed mushrooms with remaining cheese and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Bake until tender, about 20 to 25 minutes.
Makes 2 dozen
First Course (Primo)
Risotto with Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 cups Arborio Rice
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 8 cups chicken (or vegetable) broth
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
Place chicken broth in a saucepan and heat to a simmer.
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until hot. Add the onion and cook until translucent and softened, about 8 minutes. Make sure not to brown the onions. Add the rice and stir to coat each grain. Cook until they are opaque, about 4 minutes.
Add the white wine and cook for 3 minutes, or until the liquid has absorbed. Add 1/2 cup of simmering broth and stir until almost completely absorbed. Continue cooking the rice by adding the broth one ladle at a time, stirring constantly and allowing each addition of broth to be absorbed before adding the next.
Continue this process until the rice is tender and creamy, yet still firm to the bite (al dente), about 22 minutes total.
Remove from the heat. Stir in the grated Parmigiano and the butter. This last touch of butter gives extra shine and creaminess to the dish.
Ladle into flat soup bowls. Serve with additional Parmigiano.
Second Course (Secondi)
Serve with a salad of fresh spinach.
- 4 chicken breasts, about 6 oz. each trimmed & pounded evenly
- 3 egg whites, lightly beaten
- 2 cups finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Preheat the oven to 400˚ F.
Place the chicken breasts between pieces of plastic wrap and pound to about 1/2-inch thickness. Do not pound too thin, just even out the thickness.
In a shallow bowl, coat chicken with egg whites. In another shallow dish, press chicken breasts into Parmesan cheese. Arrange chicken on a greased baking sheet.
Bake until crisp and golden, about 20 minutes.
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