Oops, sorry, did I say Reggiano-Parmigiano? My bad… it’s just that THE CHEESE IS OURS!!!
No really, the true birthplace of Parmigiano-Reggiano was, in fact, Bibbiano, a small town in the province of Reggio. My Reggiani family and friends remind me of this on a fairly frequent basis, lest I forget that I have moved one of the epicenters of Italian food culture – Emilia.
Setting aside naming disputes between Parma and Reggio over the true geographic origin of this fantastic cheese, I think we can all agree it is flipping fantastic. I grew up a sad little American, thinking that “parmesan” was that nasty powdered Kraft crap that they serve in pizza restaurants in the US. When I met my husband, and he explained where he was from – the birthplace of Parmigiano-Reggiano – I said to him, “Oh, I don’t like parmesan”.
He almost left me right there.
We were in Australia, and we were poor students, so we could never justify spending the $30 for one tiny little square of cheese to set my record straight. Prior to this, I knew very little about DOC and the fact that in order to use a certain name, a food must actually be from that geographic region.
So it wasn’t until I arrived in Emilia that I was sat down at a table and given a massive hunk of “grana“. (Note: I am permitted by the locals to use the word “grana” here because I am located in the DOC region for Parmigiano-Reggiano, where no one would ever think of using actual grana, and so the word is simply a shortened term for the good stuff. Outside of this region, the word grana is used to describe all other cheese that is a Parmigiano-Reggiano knock-off and doesn’t meet the DOC requirements. Please chose your words carefully and consider your audience. I would never call it grana without an explanation to an outsider.)
Eh hem, where was I? Ah yes, SO… I ate a hunk and fell in love. The rest is history (in the form of 15 kilos).
Fast-forward to yesterday, when I got to partake in the annual Caseifici Aperti event in the province of Reggio Emilia. A caseifico is a cheese factory (case comes from the dialect for cheese; –ificio is from building “edificio”). Aperto means open. So it’s like an Open House event for cheese factories. You can go view their manufacturing process and storage warehouses. It’s pretty amazing. Anyway, I took some pictures and a few notes out of sheer curiosity. These were taken at Caseificio Milanello in Campegine, where their warehouse stock of cheese is valued at about €15 million. If you’re interested, have a gander:
– Collect the milk twice a day: morning evening. Milk from evening gets stored in big flat open tanks so that the cream separates and floats to the top. That cream becomes butter later. In the morning the evening lean milk gets mixed with full milk from morning collection, so that milk is “light”.
– The milk goes into the copper tanks and brought to 37 deg. C. Ratio is 16 L of milk per each kg of cheese that gets produced. They add siero (serum) – liquid left over from production of milk the day before. It fermented overnight and becomes like a yogurt – adds flavor. They also add caglio (a veal stomach enzyme) which contains casein, molecule that mammals have in stomach to turn milk from liquid to solid to digest.
– In the tank you see lumps of baby cheese forming. Uses the spino to break it down into very small particles the size of a grain of wheat. “Spino” comes from when they used to use branches of a Bianco Spino to break it down (thorny).
– Lumps lose liquid content, where remaining siero stays at top. They increase the temperature. Cook for an hour. Then remove the cheese – each tank produces two wheels of cheese
– Sits in white forms to give it its shape. Gets flipped every 2-3 hours. First stamp goes on. Then they apply the stamp – long plastic strip with legal info on it.
– Then it goes into metal forms to shape it more, let it settle and dry out. Offcuts called tosone – shaved pieces from when they put them in the form, historically. Now they produce it. Legally they can’t sell strips.
– Then it gets brined in salt water solution, 25% salt… 18 days underwater. Salt only penetrates first 2 cm of cheese. Takes up to 6 months to reach the center
– Gets stored in shelves for at least 24 months. Machine turns them once a week. After 1 year, someone comes to check each individual wheel with a little hammer. If there were cracks or fermentation, can’t sell. If passes, they stamp the logo on the side.
– The field is important – the cows only eat native plains grass. No corn supplement, etc. Must be within controlled geographic area – Reggio, Parma, Modena, part of Bologna (west of Reno River)), part of Matova (south of Po River). Fields fertilized with cow poo only.