Parmigiano-Reggiano (called Parmesan in English) is made in northern-central Italy only in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna (left hand side of the river Reno) Modena and Mantova (to the south of the river Po).
Under Italian law, only the cheese produced in these specific areas can be called Parmigiano-Reggiano. There are around four thousand cattle farms in this area, all producing milk for this world famous cheese. Parmigiano-Reggiano is made from raw cow's milk and is a hard, granular cheese that has been cooked but not pressed. It has a distinctive sharp, nutty taste and a slightly gritty texture.
The making of Parmigiano-Reggiano began in the 13th century and it is still produced in pretty much the same way. It starts with the cows that produce the milk for the cheese and they can only be fed on grasses and hay. No silage or any type of feed which is of animal origin is permitted in their diet and the herds are strictly regulated. The cows are milked twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. The milk from the evening is left overnight so that it begins to separate and then in the morning the cream is skimmed off. The remaining skimmed milk is mixed with the whole milk from the next morning's milking.
All of this milk is then pumped into extremely large bell shaped copper lined cauldrons which have excellent thermal conductivity. The milk is then gradually heated up and a starter culture (made from the whey of the previous day) and calf rennet is added. After about 10 minutes a curd begins to form and this is broken down into tiny granules using a traditional tool called a spino. The milk continues to be heated until it reaches 55°C (131°F) at which point the granules sink to the bottom forming a single mass. It is left to rest for about thirty minutes before the cheese maker removes the mass, cuts it into two and wraps each piece in muslin before placing them into their final mould. After resting for a few hours each cheese is marked with the month and year of production and the cheese dairy registration number.
After resting for a further few days the wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano are immersed into a solution of water and salt where they will stay for almost a month before they are set aside to mature.
The maturing process takes place in the aging rooms where the cheeses are laid out in long rows on wooden shelves. They must rest there for a minimum of twelve months when experts from the consortium will check them, one by one, to see if they meet the rigid requirements needed to achieve the final grade. Those that fail will be marked with crosses all the way around in order to inform the consumers that this is not top grade Parmigiano-Reggiano. The ones that pass the test are heat branded on the rind with the official logo. Although mature at twelve months a typical wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano will mature for a further six or twelve months and coloured stickers indicate the maturing time.
During the maturing process, Parmigiano-Reggiano gains its typical granular structure, and when it is sliced it becomes crumbly. It is a totally natural cheese with the only additive being the salt it absorbs during the brining period.
Known as the King of Cheeses and enjoyed all around the world there are some facts about Parmigiano-Reggiano that maybe you don't know: The cheese is commonly grated and sprinkled over pasta or rice dishes but it is also delicious in small chunks on its own. Parmigiano-Reggiano is a totally natural food that is extremely high in nutrients. It is so easily digested that it is recommended by dieticians for children and the elderly. Because it is matured naturally on wooden tables the rind dries slowly and remains edible. If you are not fond of the rind or slightly harder edges they can be cut into small pieces and simmered in soups or roasted to eat as a snack.
This type of cheese should be bought in one solid piece and cut or grated only when needed as once grated it rapidly loses its flavour. Parmigiano-Reggiano is not suitable for vegetarians as it contains calf rennet which is complex mixture of enzymes removed from the fourth stomach of a young, freshly slaughtered cow.