When I think of our last holiday in the north of Italy, the first thing I can think of is the amazing food and its quality that you will meet everywhere in this country. Yes, the Italians are often very chaotic, unpredictable and fleeting, but there is one thing they always care about. This is definitely food and maybe coffee. Although they enjoy a good espresso every time and everywhere, it is not common for them to sit down and enjoy coffee at a table. They like to have a quick shot of espresso on the go. On the contrary, the typical Italian dinner that follows the afternoon siesta is long and consists mostly of two main courses. The first course (primi piatti) is mostly pasta or risotto and the second course (secondi piatti) is roasted meat or fish. All this can be completed by the end of the night with some dessert or coffee affogato (with vanilla ice cream). After all this I would only slowly roll into bed 🙂 Italy is a country where the gastronomic traditions are very important, it is simply a part of their identity. It is therefore not surprising that they have registered 138 (!) products with a protected designation (Denominazione Origine Protetta, D.O.P.), 83 products with a protected designation of origin (Indicazione Geografica Protetta, P.G.I) and 2 traditional specialties, namely mozzarella cheese, and Neapolitan pizza. When I look at these lists, there are still a lot of things to taste! 🙂 Just see for yourself on the next link.
But back into reality. I did not make any statistics from these data, but at a first glance it seems to me that the list is dominated by cheese (well, I could not resist and if you are interested, cheese makes up exactly 18.5% of all protected designations). Dairy products are an integral part of the Italian gastronomic culture in all parts of this huge country (did you know that Italy has up to 60 million inhabitants?). And so we finally get to the heart of our article today. We will talk about cheese, which is an iconic Italian product, and I am sure that together with mozzarella, everyone knows it and associates it with Italy. Thi cheese is parmesan or Parmigiano. But be careful, each parmesan cheese isn’t Parmigiano! Our favorite Italian encounter was a short visit to the Emilia-Romagna area. For centuries, in the provinces of Reggio Emilia, Modena, Parma, Bologna and Mantua, a traditional hard ripening cheese has been produced, which can only be described as Parmigiano Reggiano if it meets several strict conditions. We learned more about the production of this wonderful cheese in a dairy farm situated on the outskirts of Modena, at 4 Madonne Caseificio dell’Emilia.
Production of Parmigiano cheese in the area of Emilia-Romagna
4 Madonne has a tradition since 1967, has a nice and well-structured webpage (even with an e-shop with delivering their products abroad, but get ready for quite expensive transport fees) and in addition to classic Parmigiano they also produce organic Parmigiano, Parmigiano from red cows milk (we will discuss those below) but also various “by-products” such as butter and ricotta whey cheese. Over time, a small group of local farmers has evolved into a modern dairy that produces around 160 wheels of Parmigiano per day at four different subsidiary farms. All production processes must meet strict standards. Everything is supervised by the so-called Consortium for Parmigiano Reggiano (Consorzio del formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano). I’m not making it up, I swear 🙂 They regulate the whole process from where cows can be grazed to how exactly each cheese wheel must be marked and what weight it should meet. So let’s talk a little closer about milk processing and the cheese production itself.
At the beginning of the process is a cow that produces milk. However, it can’t be just any cow, it must be grazed or fed with hay and grains, which come almost exclusively from the above-mentioned provinces of Emilia-Romagna. e.g. in Bologna it can only be until the left bank of the river Reno and in Mantua only on the right bank of the Po river. Quite crazy, right 🙂 In addition to black-and-white cows (the most widespread breed with high milk production), 4 Madonne farms also have red cows (Vacche Rosse). They are the original breed of cows in this area, therefore also called Reggiana. Parmesan cheese has been produced from the milk of these cows for a long time and, in the end, Parmigiano Reggiano also got its name after the cow. Red cows give less milk than black-and-white cows. However, their milk has a higher protein content, it is nutritionally more valuable and it is generally more suitable for cheese production. The flavor and texture of the Parmesan cheese from this milk is more subtle. It is allowed to ripen longer than the cheese from the milk of conventional cows, for at least 24 months. This Parmesan is, therefore, easier to digest and it contains a lot of calcium and phosphorus.
From milk to cheese
An average of 500 liters (!) of cow’s milk is needed to produce one genuine Parmigiano Reggiano wheel. At 4 Madonne, milk from cows is poured directly into large conical reservoirs every morning and evening. First, the milk of the evening is collected and left to stand in the reservoir, leaving it to naturally set overnight. In this process, the skimmed milk is setting down and the fattier part of milk is left in the upper part. This fatty part is collected in the morning from the surface of the milk and is further used for the production of butter. There skimmed milk left at the bottom of the reservoir is mixed with another batch of fresh milk from the morning. At this moment a defined 3-step process is starting:
- Warming up the milk – The milk in the conical reservoirs is slowly heated up to 30 ° C. The whey from the day before and also some rennet (rennet is basically a mix of enzymes which are used for coagulating the milk) is added at this point.
- Processing of the cheese mixture – After the milk is coagulated, the solid parts of cheese are dividing from the liquid part (whey). This mixture of solids is cut into small pieces with a special metal tool called Spino. The small cheese parts will make the final cheese compact in the end.
- Cooking – the whole mixture is slowly heated to 55 ° C and after less than an hour, small lumps of cheese form into a cake at the bottom of the conical reservoir. At this point, a large lump of cheese curd is lifted by a wooden shovel from the whey and it is split into two pieces. From each part one wheel of Parmigiano is formed in the end. The curd is placed in muslin cloths and transferred into plastic shaping molds.
From cheese to Parmigiano Reggiano D.O.P
Each wheel of Parmigiano is loaded with a Teflon weight to shape it in the mold and to release liquid from the curds. The cheese is turned four times during the day and the muslin is exchanged for dry one in this process. The aim is to get rid of as much liquid as possible to obtain the right consistency of Parmigiano. After the third turn, a plastic Teflon ring issued by the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium is used to pierce information into the rim of each Parmigiano wheel. The cheese if then left to rest all night long to get rid of as much moisture as possible.
The next morning, the wheels are transferred into metal molds that allow the typical round shape to be formed. After two days, the Parmigiano wheels are placed into a salt bath and they remain there for 20 days. The resulting cheese has a standard minimum weight of 30 kilograms.
And the Parmigiano Reggiano has been created! Well, almost…
The Parmigiano wheels are pulled out of the salt bath after around 20 days and are moved into the warehouse onto wooden shelves. The Parmigiano cheese is stored there for at least 12 months. The resting period is important as in the beginning only the outer part of the cheese is salted. By maturing and standing on shelves, the salt is taken up into the center of each wheel. Even after months, the middle part remains the finest and sweetest part of the cheese. It is often carved out from the Parmigiano wheel and is sold in Italy as the ‘heart of cheese’ (Cuore di Parmigiano). The cheese is really matured only after a year of storage and care, and it can’t be sold earlier. In the warehouse, there is constant and controlled temperature and humidity. Every tenth day the wheels are dusted and turned around by an automated robotic arm. I call it extreme care 🙂 Further, there are Parmigiano wheels that are kept for longer. Normally, you can get a Parmigiano which has been ripened for 18, 24 and 36 months. The older the cheese the more complex flavor it gets so usually it is worth waiting for it.
Quality control and other fun facts
I hope you can appreciate now that Parmigiano Reggiano production is a very defined and time-consuming process. Therefore, it is clear that only a perfect cheese can be released into the world. This is taken care of by a quality control employee with a small silver hammer. The quality control is a great craftsmanship which has to be learned for 20 years to reach the expected level of expertise to be able to assess Parmigiano quality. By knocking on the Parmesan wheel this person can tell by the sound if there are imperfections, like larger holes with air bubbles, inside of the cheese. All this may affect the final quality of Parmigiano to a great extent. Finally, the Parmesan is divided into three categories. The first is the best and this is to be sold in big chunks, the second category is sold only as grated Parmigiano and the third, worst one, is the one that is good only for feeding to piglets 🙂
So, if you were buying only grated Parmigiano in plastic bags, it is possible that you have never tasted first class Parmigiano.
Visiting the cheese factory is a feast for the eyes, nose, and brain 🙂 We have learned a lot of new information and now we finally appreciate why is the genuine Parmigiano Reggiano relatively expensive. We have to realize that each wheel of cheese has received hundreds of hours of human-hand attention. It is a labor-intensive as well as expertise requiring job. The result is magnificent and the Italians are truly proud of Parmigiano. We can only recommend you to visit this cheese factory – you have to experience it with your own eyes (and nose)!