From Grass to Cow to Cheese – the Making of Parmigiano-Reggiano

July 21, 2011 at 8:00 am 8 comments

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is a hallmark of great Italian food. The real stuff is salty, fresh, and absolutely amazing on everything – pastas, vegetables, meats, fish, fruit, or even on its own with a bit of Balsamic vinegar. It is not fair to this ingredient at all that we have processed and mass-produced our Americanized version of powdered Parmesan cheese in the grocery store – the two are incomparable! Real Parmigiano cheese has to come from a small region in central Northern Italy, and I was lucky enough to be visiting this region! On my last afternoon in Bologna, I got to see all of the work that goes into making a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, from where the gas is grown to where the cows are milked to where the cheese is aged. Even better, I got to take a kilo of the real deal home with me!

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The process begins with the grass, grown specifically for cows that make the milk for this cheese. All over this region you can see this low growing green grass, which is then dried and fed to cows. It is forbidden to feed cows any corn products, fermented foods, animal products or animal by-products if their milk is going to be used to make the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

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The cows are then milked twice a day, after which the milk is stored in a big cooling vat for the cheese maker to pick up within two hours. Most places are much more industrialized, but I got to visit the one farm in Bazzano that still does it the old-fashioned way. The farmer is up early each morning to milk the cows, and then he transfers the milk by hand to an electric cooling vat. He repeats this process in the early evening as well. This way of life is not poetic, though. Each day is starts early and ends late, and is filled with hard, manual labor. There is also no such thing as a holiday in this farm lifestyle. The cows are milked twice a day every day, and the cheese maker picks up the fresh milk twice a day every day, even Christmas!

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Next, there are 10 steps to the making of a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. I didn’t get to see this part in action, but the cheese maker’s wife gave me a pamphlet on how the cheese is made. According to this booklet, it takes 600 L of milk to make one wheel of cheese (those are some pretty big wheels!) The milk from the evening milking is left to separate naturally overnight, and then is partially skimmed in the morning and mixed with the fresh whole milk. This is then warmed in a copper cauldron with a natural whey starter. Then rennet, an enzyme from a calve’s stomach, is added to curdle the milk. The curds are broken up and delicately and artfully cooked. This is then lifted from the cauldron, placed in a special mold and allowed to rest for 2 to 3 days. The cheese is then immersed in brine for about 20 minutes, which allows the cheese to absorb the salt needed for the flavor and preservation for aging. The cheese is then aged for 24 months or more, after which it is finally inspected and stamped with the trademark pattern. Only cheese that is produced in this exact way from this exact region can be called Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

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The cheese is then exported around the world, and can likely be found at the cheese counter of most good grocery stores. It will be on the pricey side because of the controlled manufacturing and exporting, but it is well worth it! I stocked up on a kilo straight from the source! The cheese maker and his wife have a small shop, which likely represents less than 5% of their cheese business (the rest of their product is exported around Italy and the rest of the world). She takes the giant wheel of cheese, uses a wire cutter to precisely slice off a block of your desired size, and then vacuum seals it for freshness. My cheese, purchased at the beginning of July, will stay fresh through February as long as it is refrigerated. After it is opened, my friend recommends storing the precious cheese in a sealed bag wrapped in a paper towel to help regulate the moisture and maintain its freshness.

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I definitely ate my fair share of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese while staying in Bologna! Whether it was a slice straight off the block of cheese or freshly grated on top of pasta or salad, it was a perfect salty addition to everything. It is also good turned into a spread, for which the recipe is below, over crusty bread or on pizza crust. And did you know that Parmigiano-Reggiano is naturally the lowest in cholesterol of all cheeses? What could be better for a special treat!

Parmigiano-Reggiano Spread

from the booklet on the Production of Parmigiano-Reggiano

125 g ricotta cheese (or creme fraiche)

80 g Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated

salt and pepper

1 tbsp unsweetened heavy cream, whipped

nutmeg

chopped chives

Whisk the fresh cheese until it is a soft and frothy consistency. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and whipped cream with a pinch of salt and pepper. Add nutmeg and chives to taste – adjust seasoning as needed. The creamy mixture can be used as a spread or as a savory filling.

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Entry filed under: Recipes, Roamings. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rufus' Food and Spirits Guide  |  July 21, 2011 at 8:53 am

    Wow, thanks for the tour. What a great place to visit. Looks like you’re having fun!

    Reply
  • 2. Scavenging the Interweb  |  July 27, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    This looked like a lot of fun! Like an episode of Dirty Jobs! What a day that must have been.

    Reply
  • 3. Classic Pesto « homemadeadventure  |  August 12, 2011 at 7:05 am

    […] travels in Italy and a beautiful pot or three of basil growing in my backyard, I present to you, as promised, homemade pesto. It is so incredibly simple with absolutely heavenly results. My sister and I are […]

    Reply
  • 4. trialsinfood  |  August 22, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    what a neat experience! we will be in Italy, and hopefully Bologna, this September. maybe we’ll get a chance to see the process first hand.

    Reply
    • 5. jenlenew  |  August 22, 2011 at 5:16 pm

      We were a little outside of Bologna to get to see this, but definitely go to Bologna if you get the chance! So much good food there! And beautiful things both inside the city and surrounding it to see :)

      Reply
  • 6. Quality Ingredients « homemadeadventure  |  August 23, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    […] Not only are they known for their excellent Bolognese sauce, rich lasagna, and amazing wine and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, but they also have so many great local fruits and veggies! Every field is planted with a different […]

    Reply
  • 7. Life Lessons from Sergio « homemadeadventure  |  August 30, 2011 at 7:08 am

    […] enough to go on this long bike ride, as well as a farming and cheese making tour (story recounted here), but I also got to see Sergio again in Boston. During their month in the states visiting family […]

    Reply
  • 8. Vegan Pesto « homemadeadventure  |  January 9, 2012 at 9:01 am

    […] from my friend’s New Years Bruschetta, and brainstormed how to make a pesto sauce with no Parmigiano. I remembered seeing a vegan pesto made with white beans, and thought chickpeas would make an […]

    Reply

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