Ok, I’m so excited to write this post! I seriously have to pinch myself as we are witnessing raw milk transform into Parmigiano-Reggiano at the 2010 gold medal winning Parmigiano-Reggiano factory, Coop. Agricola Poggio Castro, outside of Pavullo (near Modena, Italy).
This iconic Italian cheese is not only packed with flavor, but with history and tradition. Parmigiano-Reggiano (also known as Parmesan cheese) dates back over nine centuries. In fact, the ingredients and process of making this time-honored cheese remains nearly identical to its past. It is hard, granular, concentrated and unmistakable.
What makes Parmigiano-Reggiano distinct?
• Strictly bound place of origin. Both the production of milk and its transformation into cheese take place only in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna on the left side of the Reno River and Mantua on the right side of the Po River, in Italy
• The geological formation of the soil on which the cows feed
• Microclimate in which the cows live
• Care and quality of the breeding farms
• Way in which the cows are milked
• Process of making the cheese
• Skilled craftsmen required to make the cheese
• All natural ingredients: Raw milk, rennet (enzymes), salt
• Highly concentrated quality: 70% nutrients and 30% water
• Cooked, not processed
• Long maturation process
• Strict regulation by the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium
The Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium was officially established in 1934 to regulate and protect the quality of Parmigiano-Reggiano. For the last 70 years, every single wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano is hand inspected by the consortium—and if approved, branded. When you see the dotted “Parmigiano-Reggiano” inscription encircling a wheel as well as a brand, you know it’s official. By the way, our factory is #1016.
Now for our tour. Charlotte (our host) takes six of us on a private tour through her local Parmigiano-Reggiano factory and farm, Coop. Agricola Poggio Castro. This factory is not open to the public and is about five minutes from where we are staying, Due Papaveri.
Coop. Agricola Poggio Castro is an agro-food farm which tills 300 hectars (750 acres) of pasture to raise 600 cows and 500 sheep to make caciotta, mozzarella, stracchino, ricotta, butter, cream cheese, tosone and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Charlotte sources cheese, butter and cream for her gourmet restaurant from this factory.
We arrive at 8:30am and stay for hours. Troy and I noticed that the Parmigiano-Reggiano making process is very much like a dance. It is an art form that involves rhythmic movements, performed alone and with a partner. It is melodic and soothing to watch.
This particular factory makes nine wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano every morning, seven days per week. One wheel of finished Parmigiano-Reggiano weighs 29-45 kilos (or 64-99 lbs.) and takes about 500 liters (135 gallons) of fresh milk to produce.
I think the easiest way to describe the process of making Parmigiano-Reggiano is to give you a play-by-play.
Parmigiano-Reggiano production steps as we learned them:
1. The previous night, 4500 liters of fresh milk are poured into huge silver trays
This step allows the cream to rise to the top so that it can be skimmed the following morning.
2. Around 6:30am the cream is skimmed off of the milk in the trays
The remaining milk will be used for the Parmigiano-Reggiano and the cream is used to make butter which is sold at the factory.
3. Around 7:00am fresh milk is poured over the skimmed milk (from a second milking of cows)
4. Almost immediately, the fresh and skimmed milk are transferred into five copper vats
The copper vats allow the temperature to be finely controlled. They are warm to the touch.
5. The solo dance—making the cheese
This step is when we enter the factory and join the dance. We all stand around the copper vats to watch two men make the cheese, and listen to Charlotte explain the process.
The milk is heated to 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit) for about 30 minutes. Rennet (natural complex of enzymes) is added from a chilled silver vat where it was stored from yesterday’s batch. These enzymes allow curds to be created.
Now the solo dance begins. One of the cheese craftsmen uses a 10-foot instrument that looks like a wire silver ball on the end of a stick. It is called a spino and it is as sharp as a knife. The craftsman uses the spino to break up the curds. He moves the spino in a figure eight motion through the cheese. It is one continual perfected motion and takes strength and skill. The solo dance occurs in all five vats.
As the cheese forms, it sinks to the bottom of the cone shaped vat. The layer of liquid at the top of the vat is thin, yellow and is eventually used to make ricotta.
One of the craftsmen uses a tool that looks like a cloth attached to two sticks to lift the cheese out of the bottom of the vat so that they can begin working with it.
6. The waltz—gathering and shaping the cheese
The two craftsmen work together to gather and shape the cheese. They don’t speak, and they move in perfect harmony.
They take the corners of the cloth and roll, and tug, and roll the ball of cheese as they dance. It is extremely heavy, but they make this step look effortless. The craftsmen use their hands for an occasional pat of the cheese to ensure that there are no bubbles or holes. They shape the cheese into a smooth round silky ball. Eventually they lift the cheese ball (called a mascaio) with the cloth and tie it to wooden stick on the top of the vat.
7. The waltz continued—cutting and shaping the cheese
Now they cut the mascaio into two pieces (called gemelli) and tie them to the wooden stick. Each gemelli will become one wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano (assuming it is approved by the consortium).
8. The waltz continued—molding the cheese
The craftsmen pack the gemelli wrapped in cloths into white plastic Parmigiano-Reggiano molds. This takes quite a bit of time and care. Again, this step ensures proper shaping, no holes and a smooth texture.
9. Turning the cheese—this first day, the cheese is turned five times for shaping
10. The following day, the cheese is shaped in metal for one day
There are plastic pieces that fit around each wheel of cheese with the Parmigiano-Reggiano dotted marking on it. This piece surrounds the cheese and then a metal piece secures the shape.
11. Salt water bath—bathe the wheels of cheese in 95% salt water for 20 days
As we enter this bath room filled with six long tubs of salt water, we begin to smell the cheese.
This step crystallizes the fats in the cheese. The fats actually become healthy fats and as Charlotte says “dieticians even feed Parmigiano-Reggiano for children and elderly with stomach problems to aid in digestion”. According to the consortium Parmigiano-Reggiano is also exceptionally rich in proteins, lipids, calcium and phosphorus. Cheese helping disgestion? All right.
12. Sauna—sweat the wheels of cheese for one day
The wheels are moved to a small room where the remaining salt is sweated out.
13. Age the cheese for 12, 18, 24, 36, 40+ months, 5 years
Now the wheels are moved to shelves for storage. This room is lined with wheels and wheels of cheese. I would like to camp out here. It smells like a nutty cave. Each wheel of cheese is turned every 14 days; they must stay here at least 12 months before the consortium will even consider approval.
Wheels are aged from 12 months to 5+ years in this room. Charlotte shows us two wheels that she personally made. Fun. We also see wheels of cheese from 2004. Imagine the flavor in that wheel!
14. Approval by the consortium
After the proper aging takes place, the consortium inspects each wheel. The wheel is weighed, tapped with a hammer and thoroughly inspected. If approved, the wheel is branded. If it is not approved, it is scratched all the way around the wheel.
The consortium brands and stamps each wheel. A red seal is used for Parmigiano-Reggiano that has been matured over 18 months, silver seal for over 22 months and gold seal for over 30 months.
In 2010, Coop. Agricola Poggio Castro did not have one wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano rejected. This contributed to their gold medal award given by the consortium. It is safe to say that this particular factory had the best Parmigiano-Reggiano in the world in 2010.
These factories produce Parmigiano-Reggiano for the entire world. If it isn’t Pamigiano-Reggiano, it isn’t Parmesean cheese. And having seen the process—the care, time and love that went into each wheel of cheese, it is a wonder that it is not exceedingly more expensive than it is. Every penny spent on Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is worth it!
Now for the tasting. We taste pieces of Parmigino-Reggiano from just 2 days, 12 months, 24 months, 36 months and 40 months. I’m giddy. As the tasting progresses, the Parmigiano-Reggiano grows in intensity, complexitiy, depth, richness and flavor. The consistency gets harder, more crumbly and contains larger crystals.
The 2 day old version is soft and slightly spongy. It tastes fresh and milky with a tiny sour finish. I can still taste a hint of nuttiness and salt, but it is nearly unrecognizable as Parmigiano-Regiano at this stage.
As each piece is aged longer, it enlivens my toungue further and further back in my mouth—and the finish lingers as the flavors evolve.
The 12 month version is smooth and buttery with a strong milk flavor and a hint of grass. The 24 month version becomes much more intense and almost citrus-like. The 36 month is so aromatic, the crystals are pronounced and the flavor is nutty. The 40 month is heaven (actually they all are if I’m being honest) and the complexity and richness is decadent. Carmel is the word that comes to mind. Salty, crystalized, crumbly, almondy carmel. Ahhh, bliss.
So get funky and experience this perfected art form for yourself. Buy Parmigiano-Reggiano and dance your own waltz.